A former head of the Foreign Office argues that the US won't save usby Peter Ricketts / May 6, 2018 / Leave a comment
The system of international security, on which Britain’s foreign policy has been based since the post-war years, is under unprecedented stress. Russia and China are pursuing assertive nationalist policies, often with scant regard for the norms of the United Nations Charter. Russia has moved into the gap left by western inaction over the Syria crisis. China is building up its military power and bankrolling vast infrastructure projects in pursuit of its ambition to be the dominant power in Asia. In response, Defense Secretary James Mattis has said that great power competition is now the top national security priority for the United States. President Trump seems sceptical about NATO, as with America’s multilateral commitments generally.
Britain once again faces Dean Acheson’s question about finding a role. Jacob Rees-Mogg and other Tory Brexiteers have a simple answer. They dream of a return to an imagined golden age when Britain was at the heart of the Anglosphere; in the short-term they advocate putting all our energies into becoming President Trump’s best friend.
They should get out more. The world has moved on, and Britain’s role in it has diminished since the days of Roosevelt and Churchill. For a start we cannot check out of Europe, as if we could decide that our geographic location no longer suited us. After Brexit, Britain will continue to share vital interests with its European neighbours. They will continue to be our main trading partners, whatever the outcome of the current wrangles about our future customs relationship. They will be essential partners in the fight against terrorism and organised crime. Europe will still be the destination of choice for millions of British people for holidays, study and (post-Brexit conditions permitting) work. The smooth flow of this immense volume of people and goods across the channel is only possible because of the cooperation of our French partners in allowing British border controls on the French side, preventing thousands of illegal migrants getting across to British ports.
“To make the most of our unrivalled international networks, Britain will need a Foreign Secretary respected around the world”
Britain will still be a European power, looking out at the world from the same vantage point as the continental Europeans. On many of the key international issues, from free trade, to climate change and how to prevent Iran becoming a nuclear weapons power, British interests are served by the European approach (which we were instrumental in shaping) rather than that of the current US Administration.
That is not to underplay the importance of our alliance with Washington. For example, we have a closer partnership with the Americans in the areas of defence and intelligence cooperation than any other country, and it is vital to Britain’s national security. But the time is now past, if it ever existed, when Britain was the interpreter of Europe to America.
The US has other special relationships in Europe, as was very evident during President Macron’s celebratory state visit to Washington. The Americans have a good instinct for where power lies, and they see that France’s young President is now the leading European statesman, with a solid domestic position and the ambition and drive to pursue an activist foreign policy.
The uncomfortable truth is that Brexit is diminishing Britain’s weight in the world, and therefore our value to Washington. That is demonstrably true at present, with the infighting over the details of Brexit taking up all the bandwidth in the government, leaving no time or energy for foreign policy beyond responding to events (which, to be fair, the prime minister did effectively in the aftermath of the poisoning of the Skripals).
Once Britain is outside the European Union, we will no longer be at the table to leverage European support for our foreign policy priorities, as we have done many times in the past, most recently over sanctions on Russia following the annexation of Crimea. The EU itself has major choices to make, between continuing integration or accepting greater diversity, and between a focus on its region or taking on a wider foreign policy role. We will play no part in those choices, but will be affected by them.
In short, Britain will have influence in proportion to our capacity to develop useful foreign policy initiatives, and to take the risks and put in the political energy to make them happen. It will mean making the most of our unrivalled international networks, for which we will need for starters a properly-funded Foreign Office, and a Foreign Secretary respected around the world. Outside the EU, we will have to work harder to have global impact. We do not have a freehold on our seat at the top table.