Once again a battle-scarred Britain must find a new role in the world | Politics

Once again a battle-scarred Britain must find a new role in the world | Politics


In making his landmark post-Brexit speech in February under Sir James Thornhill’s baroque painted ceiling in the Royal Hospital, Greenwich, Boris Johnson believed he had found the perfect setting to paint his own picture of Britain charting a new course as a free-trading, independent, open and liberal nation.

Like the painting above him, eulogising the triumph of William and Mary over the popish and tyrannical French, Johnson’s speech was an optimistic and patriotic piece of work. It offered a distinctive vision of British prosperity and diplomatic superiority.

The speech had no hint that the world he described, and Britain’s place in it, was under any existential threat. But the past three months have left UK foreign policy thinkers suddenly searching in the fog for Britain’s future role in this changed world.

Indeed, as the UK prepares to celebrate VE Day, the institutional order created by the west following the defeat of Germany, and on which Johnson’s vision rested, seems after 75 years finally to be coming apart. Those institutions, in which the UK thrived, are either paralysed, or a battleground.

Covid-19, an invisible enemy, but deadlier than the blitz, has exacerbated and accelerated trends recalibrating risk, revealing new Great Powers and placing all UK diplomatic alliances under scrutiny. Sir Simon McDonald, the foreign office senior mandarin, says it is a “watershed moment for humanity”, and a chance for “a world reset”.

Ministers have postponed the foreign and security policy review, due to have been published this autumn, to devote time to fighting the virus. Yet the UK’s most senior diplomats, including at foreign office executive committee level, are already examining Britain’s strategic posture.

The question of the UK’s greatest ally, the US, currently, in the words of the former foreign secretary David Miliband, “a flagship for dysfunction” can be set aside until the US elections.

For most British analysts, the most pressing foreign policy question for the UK will be its relations with China. Will the divisions between the US and China deepen so much that, regardless of the outcome of the US election, all nations, including the UK, are sucked into its vortex, requiring Britain to choose? If so, multilateral solutions become harder.

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has spoken of the need for “a deep dive” into the role of China, adding vaguely: “We cannot have business as usual.” The defence secretary, Ben Wallace, has backed an inquiry.

The mood towards Beijing on the Tory benches, already sceptical, is turning ugly and suggests at minimum that the Huawei deal will not survive in its current form, placing other Chinese infrastructure projects in the UK at question.

“We are all paying the price for Beijing’s decision to ignore the science, prioritise trade – and put the rest of the world’s health at risk,” says Tom Tugendhat, the liberal internationalist chair of the foreign affairs select committee. His committee is relentlessly pressing the foreign office for clear strategy on China. It’s clear that his committee will at minimum demand the UK adopt takeover rules that sees Chinese investment as a security risk.

Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former special adviser and a long-term China sceptic, has lambasted “David Cameron’s Operation Kowtow” and identified the chief culprit as George Osborne and the Treasury. He says: “Just as Harold Macmillan had perceived that, as British power declined, we should play Athens to America’s Rome, Mr Osborne thought he could pull off a geopolitical pivot that would strengthen Britain for decades to come.”

Echoing the US State Department, Timothy adds: “It is surely now obvious that China is also a strategic rival to the west as a whole. It is an autocratic and oppressive state, with wildly different values and interests to our own. Its policy towards Asia, Africa and elsewhere is inevitably imperialistic. And its modus operandi – setting debt traps for countries to gain leverage over them and engaging in mass industrial espionage – is a danger to our interests and those of our allies.”

Soldiers help to carry out Covid-19 testing in Plymouth.

Soldiers help to carry out Covid-19 testing in Plymouth. In a post-coronavirus world, the case for traditional defence spending is weakened. Photograph: MoD/Reuters

In this context, British alliances with Japan and South Korea, rivals to China, will be at a premium.

But a faultline on China is emerging in the Tory party. The Foreign Office is urging caution, making the case for keeping a few bridges unburnt. The former foreign secretary Lord Hague told Policy Exchange: “We can’t solve global problems without China. And global problems are some of our most pressing and obviously most existential. The Covid-19 crisis is an example of such a dramatic world crisis. So we can’t be dependent on China, but we can’t be without a framework of cooperation with China.”

McDonald agrees: “There is no problem that the world faces today that can be addressed, still less solved, without the active participation of China.”

Miliband also argues that a balance needs striking. He says he has no illusions about China. “It is obvious that the Chinese state is being very confident in its response to Covid-19, describing it both as a success and the product of its one-party system. Their message is being effectively delivered – through aid supplies and diplomatic outreach around the world. It is much harsher than before, with crackdowns at home and favour-buying abroad.”

But that does not mean cooperation with China should be seen as appeasement, Miliband argues. “We need to worry about a democratic recession, and the debate about whether democracies or autocracies coped best in this crisis is materially relevant to lives around the world, but it is really important this debate does end up excluding the need for institutions that encompass both democratic and autocratic regimes.”
China is not just a seminar discussion for the UK. Britain needs China on board if its chairmanship of the UN climate change conference, set for Glasgow in November but now delayed until the middle of next year, is to be a success.

Even now the best UK diplomats are pressing China to adopt bolder carbon emission targets for 2030. McDonald has said he hopes the coronavirus crisis will lead to greater Chinese ambition. “Build back better” has long been part of UK disaster relief thinking, and has now become the slogan of those preparing green post-coronavirus stimulation packages.

But there are countervailing forces. Many of the building blocks for Glasgow have been removed. An EU-China meet-up scheduled for September and seen as a moment for China to float new targets has been cancelled. A Chinese-hosted conference on biodiversity, a chance to discuss carbon sinks and nature based solutions, has also been postponed, while governments are under pressure to save industries such as aviation.

Above all, even under a Democrat presidency, relations between China and the US will be on a downward curve, making a climate change agreement more difficult. Tim Benton, head of the Chatham House energy and environment programme, foresees an uphill task for Britain’s diplomats. He argues that: “Any tension that undermines the existing international architecture – whether it is WTO, WHO, UNFCCC [the UN framework convention on climate change] – anything that creates stress is going to get in the way of reaching climate change targets.

“You can imagine there is so much to-ing and fro-ing between major powers vying for their own nationalistic interest that climate change just gets pushed further down the agenda because economic reconstruction is seen as so much more important.”

Economic reconstruction leads to the Brexit question. For many diplomats, the thought of piling a no-deal Brexit on to a £300bn coronavirus hit to the UK economy looks less like an act of self-harm, and more like a death wish. McDonald, speaking to the foreign affairs select committee, held out the faint hope that it was still an open question whether the PM might yet revisit the timetable.

Robin Niblett, Chatham House director, senses Johnson will not delay, but instead look for a short-form agreement. “If you think that by the summer, the politics may get nastier with inquests about how we got into quite such a mess, and the money for what was called levelling up has been diverted to survival – the survival of businesses and the economy – then Johnson may feel politically he has to follow through on Brexit. Once you delay, you lose your agency and Brexit is about agency, as much as it is about control.”

Miliband predicts the UK and the EU might settle for an outline deal that leaves details to be negotiated.

Either way, the integrated review will have to work with changed assumptions about both resources and security. “The budget for global Britain promises to be brutal,” Niblett says.

In the UK, growth is due to fall 7% this year. The World Trade Organization sees world trade declining by between 13% and 34%. Covid’s lasting legacy may be a switch away from just-in-time imports towards shorter supply chains and national sourcing.

In this deglobalising world, Johnson’s promise in Greenwich to be “a superhero champion” of free trade looks incongruous. The US – with which the UK seeks to sign a signature free-trade deal – is in free fall.

Yet Johnson fervently believes that the coronavirus only strengthens the case for a free-trade deal. Any scrap of extra growth becomes important.

At the same time, definitions of security are in flux. In the view of Professor Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director of the defence thinktank the Royal United Services Institute, the virus ranks alongside the cold war or 9/11 in terms of its security implications. The original concept of the walled state as protector has been reasserted, but the case for traditional defence spending has weakened.

The army has had its role in the UK crisis, but the aircraft carrier has proved irrelevant, acting as much as an incubator as a shield from the virus. If the new stealth bomber is a pathogen, vaccines are the new missile defence system.

In a post-coronavirus comprehensive spending review it will be health and not defence that will be first in the queue for the distribution of dwindling resources, Chalmers suggests.

Beatrice Heuser, professor of international relations at Glasgow University, predicts defence officials “will have to cook their books like hell to reach the Nato target of spending at 2% of GDP”.

There is a final issue for Britain: relevance. Many analysts also fear that the UK’s credibility as a leading convening power on the whole nexus of issues of the climate crisis, global health and development has taken a hit by its performance over coronavirus.

Bill Gates may right to say that no country is likely to get an A grade for its pandemic preparedness, but judging by the European press the UK is currently near the bottom of the class, labelled, rightly or wrongly, as leading on “herd immunity” and then abandoning the policy.

Niblett argues that “Brexit was such a shock to people that thought Britain was pragmatic and had a sense of its national interest. Now the almost wilful lack of preparation over coronavirus makes it feel like Britain just assumed it was separate, an island off the coast of Europe, and it has discovered it is not. It does play into a lethal combination of incompetence and hubris that has been used against Britain for a while now.

Boris Johnson Visits a laboratory in Bedford in early March

Boris Johnson visits a laboratory in Bedford in early March. The UK’s strong medical research base gives him a platform from which to engage. Photograph: WPA/Getty

“On global health we will have taken a knock. Even though our scientific and university calling card remains unparalleled, the NHS was held up to a mirror and it has been shown at best to be underfunded. We could be put into an Anglo–US box of just-in-time living, and that seems less worthy of imitation. Soft power is all about attraction and people wishing to imitate you.”

Miliband also issues a warning that Britain will need to be “brutally honest about its mistakes or risk irrelevance”.

He sees one cause of optimism. “This may be the first global crisis where it is British universities seeking a vaccine, British companies developing contact tracing apps, British NGOs framing global connections. It is these institutions that may lead government rather than government provide the lead.”

The Foreign Office is also urging Johnson to recognise there is a hard-won reputation on which he can draw. As far back as 2008, the UK government published a cross-government white paper entitled “health is global”. The paper argued that health should be seen as “an agent for good in foreign policy” so the UK was in at the birth of health diplomacy.

The UK may have been trounced in the election to head the WHO in 2017, but there are influential Brits all around the international health set-up. UK’s strong medical research base, large aid budget and an interventionist mindset gives Johnson the platform from which to engage. The natural instinct within Whitehall is to be a player, but it will require leadership that only a prime minister can provide.

Greenwich, according to Nicholas Hawksmoor, writing in 1728, was chosen as the site of Royal Hospital because it was located on the bend in the river “in the View of all the World and in the Sight of the Grand Emporium London”.

The nation’s wealth and global outlook were seen as interdependent. It will be up to Johnson to decide if and how he honours that tradition.


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