James Cleverly scales back plan for Global Britain’s network of liberty | Foreign policy

Britain has moved to dump the baggage of a Global Britain creating a network of liberty, in favour of building long partnerships with a modest number of countries, many of which will not share Britain’s democratic values.

James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, unveiled the outcome of an internal geostrategic review that is trying to provide a 30-year foreign policy horizon for his department after Brexit.

Diplomats present at a speech on Monday at the Foreign Office welcomed the less hectoring tone, but questioned whether even this more focused foreign policy would be matched by the necessary resources. One pointed out that the bulk of the UK’s overseas aid budget was currently being spent on housing refugees in hotels.

Cleverly argued that British diplomacy needed to move beyond long-established alliances, saying the Foreign Office had not caught up with the way “the geopolitical centre of gravity was moving south and east. We cannot hang on to the comfort blanket of our pre-existing friends and alliances and we need to grow and we need to make sure that we are having conversations in diverse countries that are moved by different philosophies.”

He said the countries the UK would be targeting “often describe themselves as non-aligned and are wary of committing themselves in any direction just because other countries want them to”, adding that “this is exactly as it should be”. The task was to offer relationships “based on patient diplomacy, respect, solidarity and a willingness to listen”.

He said the attempt might not produce swift dividends, or even any visible impressions. But he warned: “The reality is that if we are not good friends you can bet others will try to fill the void and seize any opportunity that we might be mistaken enough to give them.”

Cleverly declined to name the target countries – believed to be about 20 – with which the UK would seek partnerships, but in his speech mentioned countries with young populations including India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa, Ethiopia and Vietnam.

By saying partnerships would be sought with countries that honoured the international rule of law, free trade and national sovereignty, Cleverly implicitly accepted that the human rights regime of these countries would not be a precondition for creating a long-term relationship.

The previous foreign secretary, Liz Truss, had promised Britain would lead in building a global network of liberty, while Boris Johnson as foreign secretary coined the term Global Britain, a phrase that lacked meaning but was seen as echoing Britain’s imperial past. Neither term featured in Cleverly’s speech.

One senior source acknowledged: “The lack of support for Ukraine in some parts of the world shows how power is shifting across the world, and we cannot ignore this. We will be seeking relationships with countries that are not close to us politically or physically.”

The partnerships would cover trade development, defence, cyber-security, technology, climate change and environmental protection. China, the subject of a separate speech before the publication of an updated integrated defence and foreign policy review in the new year, was mentioned in passing. It was clear that Britain, by emphasising the rule of law and national sovereignty, was offering itself as a potential shield against Chinese aggression.

Pressed on how Britain could match the better-funded, no-strings-attached infrastructure offers made by China in Africa, Cleverly said countries would be wise to be very cautious of no-strings deals that emerged to be too good to be true.

Cleverly turned down a chance to say that the UK would not strike a nuclear deal with Iran if it continued to supply arms to Russia, saying it was a priority for the UK to stop Iran securing nuclear weapons.

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