Rishi Sunak will pledge an “evolutionary approach” to British foreign policy, arguing that states like Russia and China plan for the long term and the UK needs to follow suit as he attempts to set out his vision for the country’s place on the global stage.
In his first major foreign policy speech since becoming prime minister, he will draw on his years running the Treasury to say that the UK’s strength abroad must be underpinned by a strong economy at home as it stands up to competitors with “robust pragmatism”.
Sunak, who has met international partners including the US president, Joe Biden, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, during his first month in office, as well as travelling to Ukraine, is generally regarded at home as lacking a vision on foreign policy.
Both of his immediate predecessors, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, held the role of foreign secretary before taking over at Downing Street so had some experience of global affairs. Sunak, meanwhile, was chancellor during the pandemic and the early months of the cost of living crisis.
Addressing business leaders and diplomats at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet at Guildhall in London on Monday night, he is expected to say: “Our adversaries and competitors plan for the long term. In the face of these challenges, short termism or wishful thinking will not suffice … So we will make an evolutionary leap in our approach.
“This means being stronger in defending our values and the openness on which our prosperity depends. It means delivering a stronger economy at home – because it is the foundation of our strength abroad. And it means standing up to our competitors, not with grand rhetoric but with robust pragmatism.”
Watch: Rishi Sunak meets Zelensky during first visit to Ukraine
China, in particular, represents a challenge for Sunak, as his instincts are softer than those of many Tory MPs and, as chancellor, he sought significantly closer economic ties with Beijing. Talks with the Chinese leader, Xi Jingping, at the G20 summit in Indonesia were cancelled at the last minute after a missile explosion on the Polish border.
The government is currently revising its 2021 integrated review of security and foreign policy to take account of geopolitical shifts since it was first published. It will set out the importance of building strong ties in Europe after the UK’s departure from the EU, a view expected to be reflected in Sunak’s speech.
The prime minister will also talk about deepening partnerships in other parts of the world, such as the Indo-Pacific region, and preparing for the sharpening of inter-state competition due to the actions of countries like Russia, China and Iran.
“Freedom and openness have always been the most powerful forces for progress. But they have never been achieved by standing still,” Sunak is expected to say. “Under my leadership we won’t choose the status quo. We will do things differently.
“We will evolve, anchored always by our enduring belief in freedom, openness and the rule of law and confident that, in this moment of challenge and competition, our interests will be protected and our values will prevail.”
Sunak, who visited Kyiv to meet Volodymyr Zelenskiy last week, will underline Britain’s continued commitment to Ukraine despite changes in leadership in the UK. While Britain has been at the forefront of the western response to Russian aggression there have been questions domestically over whether Sunak could maintain the commitment to defence spending.
However, he is expected to say: “Be in no doubt. We will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes. We will maintain or increase our military aid next year. And we will provide new support for air defence, to protect the Ukrainian people and the critical infrastructure that they rely on. By protecting Ukraine, we protect ourselves.”