A Union Without Faith or Law: Part Two
Global Britain or Vanishing Kingdom?
24th February 2022
David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Smith
In the second of two essays exploring the state of the United Kingdom post-Brexit, David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Smith argue that a woke foreign policy establishment and its academic apologists undermine rather than promote the UK’s national interest.
As we showed in Part 1 of our exploration of the post-Brexit world, the Conservative government has failed to make the domestic case for the union since its beginnings in 1707 or for its future as a coherent and stable framework for a sovereign parliamentary democracy. By 2022, Johnson’s chaotic optimism and his inability to exercise control over his office and advisory staff, undermined his authority and divided his party. The divisions in government and its civil service reflected a wider anxiety concerning the economic prospects and future stability of the realm. The incoherence at the heart of the government’s domestic agenda served to expose the constitutive dissonances in its post-Brexit foreign policy.
Since 2016, proponents of Brexit had envisaged Britain once more playing a global role promoting free trade and a liberal, rules based, multilateral, international order. In an early attempt at appraising Britain’s options in a paper entitled, Making Sense of British Foreign Policy After Brexit, the historian John Bew, now a key figure in the Downing Street Policy Unit, observed that the ‘the greatest challenge to the new government was to identify some guiding principles for a new global strategy’ and take measures ‘to transform current uncertainty into opportunity’.
Taking Bew’s paper as its cue, in December 2020, the Johnson government advertised its intention to undertake the ‘largest review of Britain’s security, defence and foreign policy since the end of the Cold War’. It would evaluate ‘Global Britain’s foreign policy, British alliances and diplomacy, shifts of power and wealth to Asia, how to use the UK’s huge expenditure on international development, and the role of technology’. The fruits of this strategic review were eventually published in March 2021.
Whilst Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy clarified important aspects of Britain’s future military posture, it left several hostages to fortune: in relation to Europe; the liberal international order it seeks to promote: the rising totalitarian power of China; and the decaying authoritarianism of Russia. Events since the instauration of the new American President, who showed little inclination to pursue a free trade agreement or facilitate closer ties with the UK, merely added to a list of unresolved policy issues.
The European dilemma
The guiding principles for a new global strategy not only remain unfinished business, they also now seem both over-ambitious and worryingly unrealistic. The review envisaged that ‘future prosperity will be enhanced by deepening our economic connections with dynamic parts of the world such as the Indo-Pacific, Africa and the Gulf, as well as trade with Europe’. One of the issues to be confronted is that while the UK may be out of the EU, it remains crucial to the maintenance of Europe’s security architecture, ironically, perhaps, more than almost any other state in the EU.
Because of the continuing commitment to European stability, collaborative alliances in terms of security and economic partnerships need to be maintained. This applies most notably in the strengthening of the UK’s ties with the Baltic and the Central European states and its bilateral relations with those countries that empathised with Britain’s decision to leave the EU.
Thus, paradoxically, whilst Europe remained of enduring relevance, the UK’s relationship with the European Union, particularly with its leading players, Germany and France, has become increasingly contentious. Given the uncertainties of current treaty arrangements with the EU, the government’s Integrated Review foresaw that ‘in the decade ahead’, the UK would deepen its ‘engagement in the Indo-Pacific, establishing a greater and more persistent presence than any other European country’. Consequently, the UK rapidly ratified trade agreements with several Indo-Pacific states and applied to join the multilateral Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
The China paradox
At the same time, the Integrated Review was notably ambivalent about the rising power of China. China is central to the UK’s economic security, the Review stated, but also an ‘increasingly important partner’ in tackling global challenges. Yet, China’s growing global reach means that ‘Easternisation’ not only has implications for investment and development in the UK, it also raises issues of national and international security.
As a maritime power committed to maintaining the freedom of navigation and the status quo in the Indo-Pacific, the UK was drawn not only into closer trading ties with Japan and Australia but security ties as well. In September the AUKUS agreement evinced this direction with the UK bolstering cooperation with Australia and the US in maintaining the maritime freedom of the Asia-Pacific. It is also in the process of concluding a reciprocal access agreement with Japan.
Yet, whilst the UK reconfigures its foreign policy increasingly towards the Indo-Pacific, it still maintains its commitment to NATO and its post-1996 expansion into Eastern Europe. Russia, as the successor state to the Soviet Union, has always interpreted this eastward expansion, at a time of political and economic weakness, as both gratuitously humiliating and a strategic threat to its traditional sphere of influence.
The Russian impasse
Significantly, the government’s Integrated Review assumed a far less nuanced tone towards the revisionist, but economically declining, power of Russia than it adopted towards a rising and more internationally powerful China. The UK would, the Review announced, ‘actively deter and defend against the full spectrum of threats emanating from Russia’. Moreover, through NATO, the UK would ‘ensure a united Western response, combining our military, diplomatic and intelligence assets in support of collective security’.
Consequently, when Russia built up its military force and conducted manoeuvres on its contested border with Ukraine in January 2022, demanding that NATO never allow Ukraine to become a member, the British Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, along with the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, dismissed Russian demands. In this they differed markedly from the far more ambivalent French and German diplomatic posture. The new German coalition government prevented Estonia shipping weaponry across German territory to aid Ukraine. As the former Inspector General of the German Navy, Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach observed, the Russian President Vladimir ‘Putin really wants respect. Giving someone respect is low cost, even no cost’. The Admiral also observed that Russia was an old, important, and a Christian state.
Tom Tugenhadt MP, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee noted that the EU has maintained ‘a deafening silence’ towards Russia’s provocative behaviour. Europe and its most powerful state Germany have proved incapable of deciding a response to Putin and have tried to keep the Ukraine problem on the diplomatic back burner since the last time Russian forces moved into the largely Russian populated area of Eastern Ukraine and seized the Crimea in 2014. Whilst the US and the UK offered military support and threatened economic sanctions against any further Russian aggression, French President Emmanuel Macron and the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz looked to de-escalate tensions and refused to sanction Russian energy exports or the Nordstream 2 pipeline upon which Germany’s energy future depends.
The end of the liberal international order
Whatever else Putin’s manoeuvring achieves, it has already exposed the fragmentation of the West and altered the US perception of the European Union as an arrangement to be supported as a necessary democratic bulwark. At the same time, it is unclear what exactly the UK gains from its special relationship with the United States except being treated as a reliable but somewhat servile dependent that, unlike Australia, does not even deserve the benefit of a free trade agreement.
Despite the Anglo-American clamour for the defence of a liberal rules-based order demanding ‘a strong, united response’ to defend Ukraine’s freedom, there is evidently little appetite for conflict in Berlin, Paris or Brussels. More sceptical Europeans, unlike their British and American counterparts, recognise that Russia is reasserting its geopolitical presence in its traditional sphere of influence. It is reviving a role that it has played since the eighteenth century, when Catherine the Great along with Prussia and Austria-Hungary embarked on the partition of the kingdom of Poland (the southern borderland of which was known as ‘Ukraine’ or the borderland).
The Ukraine problem ultimately reflects the hubris of US liberal end of history foreign policy thinking. The impotent posturing of Blinken and Truss represent its last hurrah. Realist conservative observers of the implosion of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, like Robert Conquest and Owen Harries, warned against the expansion of NATO eastward at a time of Russian weakness. The 1994 expansion now looks like post-Cold War liberal overstretch or as Michael Clarke and Michael MccGwire observed in 2008 ‘a historical error of the first importance’.
A Prime Minister and his key foreign policy adviser familiar with the nineteenth century struggle for political mastery in Europe should perhaps be more sympathetic to the recent outbreak of appeasement in the major European capitals. They should recognise, as realists from Thucydides to Bismarck would, that Putin is merely doing what great powers, with an historic grievance of NATO’s own devising, do when confronting a weak state propped up by indecisive and divided opponents.
In this context, the idea that the UK would send troops to the Ukraine when it cannot police its own borders, prevent boatloads of illegal migrants crossing the English Channel, or reverse a protocol dividing Northern Ireland from the mainland, would strike any nineteenth century practitioner of realpolitik from Lord Palmerston to Benjamin Disraeli as either idealist delusion or insanity. Moreover, given that the UK, like the US, is riven by guilt about the racism and slavery that disfigures its past and disturbs its present view of itself and the world, it is somewhat odd that these troubled democracies want to export such an ethnically and religiously divisive model to Eastern Europe and across the Indo-Pacific.
Asleep at the wheel
The cumulative effects of the uncertainty and loss of faith in its own democratic identity also leads to further unnecessary diplomatic gaffes. The progressive propensity to excoriate the UK for its past misdeeds has justified foreign policy indifference to reviving a potentially fruitful relationship with its former colonies. Driven by the woke assumption that the Commonwealth countries must abhor their colonial legacy, (as the Director of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies avers), the Foreign Office has given little credence to the scale and potential power of Britain’s Anglosphere and the Commonwealth assets that might be mobilized. Instead, the Foreign Secretary makes grandiose statements about issues peripheral to the national interest like defending the integrity of the Ukraine or sending aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Straits, whilst overlooking a historic resource of enduring strategic value. Significantly, it is the Indian and Australian Prime Ministers who show more enthusiasm for reinvigorating the Commonwealth than any recent British Prime Minister.
The recent decision by Barbados to remove the Queen as its head of state and declare itself a republic without a referendum in November 2021 vividly demonstrates how a woke foreign policy establishment and its academic apologists undermines rather than promotes the UK’s national interest. Attending the Bajan independence celebrations, the Prince of Wales felt constrained to apologise for the ‘darkest days of our past and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history’. He, like his Foreign Office handlers, failed to observe that it was in fact, the People’s Republic of China that had actively encouraged the BLM movement in Barbados to campaign to remove the monarchy and helped foster its membership of China’s Belt and Road initiative. Facilitated by Chinese soft power aid and investment, Bajan independence could set off a domino effect across the West Indies of far more geopolitical consequence to UK and US interests than events in Eastern Ukraine or the Taiwan Straits.
In its current condition of disunion, the United Kingdom looks more like a failed state rather than global Britain. Brexit and the Covid 19-pandemic did not cause this situation. Rather, these two events have exposed the fault lines within the British state, which have been exacerbated by elite mismanagement since the end of the Cold War. If there is a positive outlook to be gained, it is that facing uncomfortable truths might be the beginning of wisdom.
There are benefits that can legitimately be expected to be reaped from regaining national sovereignty after forty years of unhappy engagement with pan-Europeanism. To accomplish this, however, all realist political thinking should begin with an appreciation of the national interest and the importance of parliamentary sovereignty to British constitutional self-understanding. Before a UK polity can think globally it must reassert the integrity of the union and roll back devolution. Scotland and Wales now look and act like quasi-states that undermine the prospects of a coherent presence on the international stage.
National integrity requires national resilience. A prudent administration must develop policies to reverse the self-harm inflicted by identity politics, and the Maoist assault on the nation’s history, heritage and institutions. The economic impoverishment that green utopianism imposes through unsustainably expensive energy further undermines any potential to revitalise the UK’s manufacturing base or exploit its offshore resources. Zero Carbon like Zero Covid is a recipe for economic disaster.
As the European Union fragments, a realistic UK foreign policy should recognise and prudently adapt to the evolving balance of power that is reshaping Central and Southern Europe. This would suggest that Britain should recognise that Brussels is more of a threat than a partner and instead promote bilateral relations with those states, most notably in Eastern Europe with which it is most aligned and shares common values. In an economic climate of great post-pandemic uncertainty, the idea of the UK punching above its weight in either Europe or the Indo-Pacific looks increasingly fanciful. When global Britain cannot even secure its own borders or exercise sovereignty throughout the union, the view that it must defend the integrity of Ukraine or Taiwan seems, and indeed, is preposterous.
The UK’s relationships with both the EU and the US must be recalibrated along more pragmatic lines. The Royal Navy should not be dragged into an East Asian conflict at the behest of a United States that exploits, rather than values, its special relationship. The UK should be in the Indo-Pacific for one purpose only: mutually beneficial free-trade. Trade deals with Japan and Australia and the CPTPP offer clear benefits. Collaborating with like-minded states to ensure maritime freedom also makes economic as well as strategic sense. The defence of Taiwan or South Korea does not. Equally, Britain has no interest in conflict with Russia, which is a declining economic power but one that deserves respect. Russia may not be a friend, but it does not have to be an enemy.
The UK should instead devote more attention to the Anglosphere, cultivating the Commonwealth rather than ridding itself of what an elite view as an inconvenient past. Absent close ties with Australia and potentially India, the Commonwealth faces the prospect of imminent dissolution. Worryingly, the Foreign Office is either asleep at the wheel, or actively undermining the prospect of a rebooted United Kingdom project. It requires root and branch reform.
Ultimately, a prudentially realist foreign policy has no permanent friends, only permanent interests. The UK should avoid, as it did under Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in the nineteenth century, all sanctimonious and costly liberal interventions in pursuit of norms that are demonstrably no longer universal.
David Martin Jones is Visiting Professor in War Studies, King’s College, London. M.L.R. Smith is Professor of Strategic Theory at King’s College London. Their latest book is Terror in the Western Mind: Cultural Responses to 9/11, published by Academica Press.