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LONDON — Britain has spent years seeking its place in the world after Brexit. Now it seems to have found a role … as a global conference center, where the great powers gather to talk.
Without a seat at the European table in Brussels, and also excluded from power-play summits between the EU and Washington, Britain hopes to wield its own “convening power” as it reboots its foreign policy ambitions.
Indeed almost every time a major global issue has raised its head of late — climate change; war in Ukraine, the rise of AI; the energy crisis — Britain’s answer has been to host another world summit.
Hot on the heels of this summer’s Ukraine Recovery Conference in London, U.K. government officials are now busy prepping for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s “major global summit on AI safety,” due to be held later this year.
That event will be followed next spring by a global energy security conference, timed to mark the second anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And all this less than two years after Britain played host to COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Glasgow.
This “summit frenzy”, as one EU diplomat laughingly describes it, has not gone unnoticed in foreign capitals. But as more and more powers try a similar middleman strategy, the U.K. may have a fight on its hands to stand out.
“This is really our bread and butter,” said Alicia Kearns, Conservative chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee. “One of our strongest diplomatic offers to the world is our ability to convene people. I think it’s a really important aspect of our diplomacy.”
“UK-hosted forums and conferences deliver real-world results, and position us as a leading voice on a range of important issues,” a U.K. government spokesperson told POLITICO, in response to questions about its summit strategy.
They are a “vital part of the diplomatic toolkit, giving us the opportunity to bring together governments and experts … and yield commitments which translate into real and lasting change for the better.”
Leading or following?
Hosting international conferences is hardly a new venture for the U.K. — but its efforts to act as global broker have been given fresh prominence in the wake of Brexit.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron’s Syria donor conference in early 2016 raised more than $10 billion to help pay for food, medical care and shelter in the war-torn country. Two years earlier, Cameron’s Foreign Secretary William Hague had gathered global ministers — and a Hollywood megastar — in London to combat the use of rape as a weapon of war. A follow-up was held in Westminster last year.
Britain’s big post-Brexit foreign policy reset, known as the “Integrated Review” and published in March 2021, made the national mission explicit. “Shaping the open international order of the future: we will use our convening power and work with partners to reinvigorate the international system,” the plan promised.
Its author, the academic John Bew, continues to advise Sunak on foreign policy today. And multiple current and former advisers and diplomats agree that playing the role of eager host makes sense for the U.K. these days.
“People can pretty much rely that if they come to London for an international summit it will be well-organized,” Peter Ricketts, a former head of the U.K. diplomatic service, said. He cited Britain’s strong diplomatic reputation for drafting sound communiqués and brokering compromises.
But Ricketts noted Britain should not confuse a convening role with that of actual leadership. “The U.K. is not big enough to provide global leadership on any of these huge issues,” he said, referencing energy, climate change and artificial intelligence.
“Inevitably the Americans are going to be in the lead on setting governance for AI norms and so on,” he added.” The other players will be the Chinese, for their huge market power, and in third place — perhaps a long way behind — is the EU.”
Hosting a major global conference is one thing — making it count is another matter.
A former adviser to the U.K.’s foreign office, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said the hosting of conferences “in and of themselves doesn’t hold massive value.” More critical is the follow-up work to ensure they “catalyze change or investment and serve a purpose.”
“It’s how you leverage it that matters, and its legacy,” the ex-adviser cautioned. “They take an awful lot of work, and done badly are just talking shops.”
Some believe there are lessons for the U.K. to learn from the aftermath of COP26, when the eyes of the world were on Glasgow for two weeks of high-stakes climate summitry.
Nick Mabey, who advised the U.K. government on COP26 and founded the E3G climate think tank, said the British played a “good game” in their organization of the event — but then appeared to drop “its own ball in the follow-up” as initiatives got delayed while the Conservative Party burned through three prime ministers.
“That did damage the U.K.’s reputation quite strongly among core allies, and other countries. It was seen not to have followed up as strongly across all of the things that it launched at COP26,” he said.
Mabey cited the forest declaration, an agreement which aims to halt and reverse forest loss by 2030, as an example of an initiative he thinks has fallen in priority.
But the U.K. government spokesperson quoted above insisted its “track record” on delivery “speaks for itself.”
“In the last two years alone, 190 countries agreed to phase down coal power at COP26, $60 billion was raised at the Ukraine Recovery Conference and an international declaration on ending Sexual Violence in Conflict was signed by over 50 countries.”
Unlike summits hosted by bigger powers — or meetings like COP that are part of an established United Nations process — Britain will, Mabey warned, really need to “hustle” to get a turnout at its own events.
“The international calendar is going to become a lot more crowded, as other countries will be doing the ‘middle power strategy’ to get their place in the sun too, whether that is the South Africas or Brazils,” he said.
Testing the waters
The European diplomat quoted at the top of the story, granted anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, agreed there is now a “little bit of summit competition” among the larger capitals.
Many leaders, he said, see the benefits of playing host: they find it easier to bag coveted bilateral meetings with important counterparts on the sidelines — especially useful for U.K. prime ministers who no longer have bi-monthly meetings with the EU27 in the calendar.
Italy has spied its own conference opportunity through the Rome Med — an annual gathering of Mediterranean leaders which began in 2015. In June, French President Emmanuel Macron convened a global finance conference in an effort to unlock trillions of dollars for the fight against climate change.
But not everyone wants to be the first mover, the diplomat added, citing risks for the U.K. in taking ownership of hot-button issues like AI.
“You have capitals that don’t necessarily want to be the first to host a summit on a specific topic,” he said. “Maybe they want to host the second or the third, or further down the line, so that they can test the waters and see if that thing flies or it doesn’t fly.”
He added: “If a summit is a failure, it doesn’t look very good for the host.”
For Britain, still seeking its new place in the world three-and-a-half years after Brexit, it seems to be a risk worth taking.