The challenges, opportunities and responsibilities of Theresa May’s first global summit

On the 4th September in Hangzhou China, Theresa May will stand on the podium for the first time as Prime Minister at a G20 summit.

The obligatory group photo will undoubtedly imply a sense of unity between the key players in the global community. Beneath this façade however lies many divisive and unsettling concerns about the precarious nature of 2016.

Chinese ‘Island building’ in the South-China Sea, Russian Troop movements on the Ukrainian border, the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Syria, the continued impact of mass refugee migration into Europe, and the increase in terror attacks in Europe have all alarmed world leaders. This is before we even consider the prospect of a Donald Trump Presidency, and of course arguably the biggest upset to global financial equilibrium this year, Brexit.

May might well be in a relatively comfortable position at home, having enjoyed her ‘honeymoon’ period, and facing few credible opponents at present. Abroad though she has a number of pressing and significant engagements. Three areas will most likely dominate proceedings for May at the two-day summit.

Top of the agenda will be processing the international fallout of Brexit. Prophecies of a post Brexit international financial meltdown have thus far gone unproven, nonetheless, the ongoing uncertainly around Brexit is still disconcerting to many. May will want to ease these concerns by projecting an image of a Government with a confident and clear minded approach (even if internally she knows there are still divisions to be worked out amongst her cabinet). The summit also provides an opportunity to start making new ties with international partners, and May has a chance to lay some of the groundwork for Liam Fox’s newly created Department for International Trade in Hangzhou.

Secondly, there will be much interest about May’s stance on the key issues currently occupying the international stage. She will be meeting individually with the heads of the other permanent UN Security Council members as well as Indian PM Narendra Modi. At a time when she needs international friends, it seems unlikely that she will be too provocative in these meetings. This raises the question of how she will approach issues such as Russian Sanctions, Hinkley point, the future of Indian students in the UK, and the location of the French-British border: tip-toe around them, tackle them straight on, or side step them altogether.

Finally, May has an enormous responsibility in shaping Britain’s future position in world politics. Brexiteers vehemently argued that a Britain, unshackled by the collective nature of the EU could be a serious global player. At the very least May has already committed to Britain’s nuclear deterrence programme, continuing a minimum of 2% defence spending, and 0.7% spending on International aid. This alone however does not suggest Britain will become a global superpower. Sceptics view Brexit as an abdication from international politics, preferring the bliss of the island state to the pressures of globalised political obligation.

Whether this summit will be seen as the launching of the ‘New British Empire’ (as some Brexiteers may hope for), the reshaping of Britain’s position in a fast changing world, or further evidence of Britain’s declining global significance will ultimately be a question for the history books.


Sara Torpy

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