Global Britain?

If the Conservatives’ 2021 Budget demonstrates the limits of their domestic ‘levelling up’ agenda – a modest rise in public spending that fails to repair ten years of austerity – what of the party’s foreign policy? Two years into his tenure, how does Boris Johnson’s promise of a ‘Global Britain’ align with the reality?

To answer, we should first recap the past decades of UK geopolitics. Britain’s international role has long been defined by subservience to Washington, acting as lead attack-dog where regime change has been decreed. This has always been a bipartisan project, but New Labour’s ‘hyper-subalternity’ towards America constituted an extreme, in contrast to the sovereigntist reflexes that sometimes animate the Tory benches. After the abortive militarism of the Blair years, Cameron’s overseas strategy involved a semi-coherent attempt to build a ‘smarter empire’. His government pledged to streamline and modernize the armed forces, with greater emphasis on soft power, trade policy and propaganda – treading a more cautious line than Blair had done in following US diktats. Spending cuts slashed thousands of defence jobs. Troop numbers were depleted and weapons purchases slimmed down – though work went ahead on the pocket-sized aircraft carrier beloved of Blair and Brown as a great-power status symbol.

Contra jingoistic criticisms from the Labour frontbench, this cost-cutting entailed no pull-back in Britain’s ‘global reach’. In 2011, with Obama famously ‘leading from behind’, Cameron joined Sarkozy in pushing for regime change in Libya, unleashing six months of NATO airstrikes that left an estimated 6,000 dead and catalysed a decade of factional violence. He intensified the civil war in Syria, working with Hollande to lift the EU embargo on arming anti-government forces, and established the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund to bankroll Assad’s opponents with at least £350 million, foregoing multiple opportunities to support a negotiated settlement that could have prevented the country’s interminable conflict.

Between 2010 and 2016, Cameron deployed troops to Somalia to support lethal US drone attacks; enabled the Saudi cluster bombing of Yemen; redoubled his commitment to the occupation of Afghanistan; launched a bloody ‘counterterrorism’ offensive against a scattered group of Malian dissidents; and applauded Israel’s strikes on Gazan civilians. Many of the UK’s interventions were joint enterprises with France, whose campaign for a more integrated European security policy was largely backed by Downing Street.

Cameron’s minimal display of independence in cutting the defence budget predictably angered the Obama White House, which continually reminded its Atlantic partner of NATO’s spending requirements. To save face, the PM switched tack shortly after the 2015 election and agreed to dedicate 2% of GDP to defence – though he instructed his advisers to find a way of meeting the target without actually burning through more money (for instance, by expanding the definition of security expenditure). Above all, Washington was incensed by Cameron’s refusal to toe the line on relations with the PRC. As the US geared up for a Great Power rivalry, the UK conversely signed onto Xi’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and expanded China’s access to British markets, with George Osborne declaring that ‘No economy in the west is as open to Chinese investment as the UK’. When it came to sabre-rattling against Russia, transatlantic unity seemed superficially to be restored: the US and UK both backed punitive sanctions in response to Putin’s annexation of Crimea. But the Obama Administration still had cause to distrust their ally’s resolve, given the Tories’ roster of Kremlin donors. 

After Brexit, the partnership with France unravelled, as Barnier and Macron pushed to inflict maximal damage on Britain to deter future experiments in popular sovereignty. That, along with the imperative to court a Trump-approved trade deal, helped to revitalize the special relationship. As Theresa May replaced Cameron in Downing Street, with Johnson her bumbling Foreign Minister, the UK doubled the size of its SAS force in Afghanistan and facilitated US drone strikes on Pakistan. But the two sides remained at odds over China. Trump’s tariff wall made a sharp contrast with May’s initial campaign to strengthen commercial ties and embrace the Belt and Road Initiative. While Washington pivoted from the Middle East toward Asia, London sharpened its focus on the Gulf monarchies, whose function in financing the UK’s deficit through weapons purchases would become increasingly vital to the post-Brexit economy – allowing Britain to ‘spread its wings across the world’, as Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the DSEI arms fair in 2017. 

Enter Johnson as PM two years later, repurposing the ‘Global Britain’ bombast of the Brexit campaign as ultra-servility to Washington. Johnson and Cummings hired John Bew, a hard-core Labour-Atlanticist in the Bevin mould, to draft their ‘Integrated  Review’ of the UK’s international role. Bew is the author of an admiring account of Attlee’s Cold War record and fathering of the British Bomb, as well as a former holder of the Henry Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy at the Library of Congress, who has consistently praised the special relationship and attacked the notion that ‘non-interference in other nations would leave us secure.’ According to his Review, in the more ‘interconnected, multipolar and contested environment’ of the 2020s, Great Power competition will heighten the significance of ‘middle powers’ which stand between the American and Chinese blocs. In this context, Britain’s task is to foster ‘liberal democracy and free markets’, being ‘more active in shaping the open international order of the future’ – where necessary, by force. It must ‘create armed forces that are both prepared for warfighting and more persistently engaged worldwide’, aiming for an increasingly visible military presence on the international stage.

Hence provocations in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, where Johnson sent an aircraft carrier strike group and the warship HMS Richmond in August and September 2021, eliciting a furious response from the Chinese Defence Ministry. Hence too the HMS Defender’s stage-managed confrontation with the Russian military in the Black Sea last June. Such actions are no less dangerous for being purely symbolic: a ‘theatrical exercise without serious British strategic purpose or rationale’, as Anatol Lieven has argued. The UK does not have enough aircraft or escort vessels to make the HMS Queen Elizabeth fully operational, and – as in Afghanistan – remains utterly reliant on the US for support. These deployments are PR stunts to boast of London’s unquestioning loyalty to the Anglo-American compact. Yet as Lieven stresses, the folly of strutting into a war with China would easily overshadow Britain’s disastrous collaboration in the invasion of Iraq. At the very least, these naval missions will further poison Anglo-Chinese relations, while the cause of those fighting for greater equality, freedom and democracy in China is only set back by ramped-up mutual chauvinisms.

If Johnson is susceptible to the charge – articulated by an Atlanticist stalwart in the FT – that performative gestures have become a stand-in for coherent foreign policy, much as culture-war posturing has become a substitute for ‘levelling-up’, he is nonetheless planning to put the taxpayer’s money where his mouth is. Inverting Cameron’s approach, Johnson has approved a £16.5bn rise in defence spending over four years. The RAF reports that this funding will be used for a ‘more regular drumbeat of deployments’ to the so-called Indo-Pacific, aiming to make Britain one of the most prominent actors in the region. The UK has also upgraded its cybersecurity capacities and passed a raft of legislation to facilitate its covert operations. Johnson’s Covert Human Intelligence Sources Act gives undercover British agents the ability to murder, rape and torture without fear of legal sanction; his Overseas Operations Bill grants British soldiers a free pass to commit war crimes; and his amendments to the Official Secrets Act recast critical journalists and whistleblowers as enemy spies. All this points to neo-imperial ambitions which, as under Blair, are more than merely gestural.

For Wolfgang Münchau, Britain’s manoeuvres against China signal a larger fracturing of ‘the West’. France and Germany are unlikely to pull their weight in any New Cold War, given their need to protect large export surpluses and push through the EU-China comprehensive agreement. The UK, by contrast, has remade itself as ‘the only European country the US can trust in the pursuit of its strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific’. With NATO too internally fragmented to confront America’s chief rival, the organization is likely to play ‘a more peripheral role in the future’, as the UK will ‘gradually cut off from European security policy’ and line up behind the White House.

The AUKUS nuclear pact, designed to escalate the arms race with China while casually marginalizing France, signals this intention. As does Britain’s ambition to expand the G7 into a new ‘D10’: a coalition of anti-China powers that would include India, Australia and South Korea. Johnson and Modi have agreed to work towards an India-UK Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with a provisional deadline set for 2030, which would strike economic deals and combat ‘shared security threats’. In the meantime, Britain has sided with Indian forces in their sporadic border clashes with the Chinese. Next year, the UK hopes to ratchet up its influence by joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade accord comprising eleven nations in the Pacific Rim. If its application is successful, London will attempt to block China’s parallel bid for entry.

While the UK’s liberal-democratic values are trumpeted in the Taiwan Strait, they take a back seat in other parts of the world. Johnson’s government enthusiastically supported the 2019 right-wing coup in Bolivia – using it as an opportunity to gain access to the country’s lithium deposits. It helped fund the campaign to oust Venezuela’s Maduro, and assisted the Columbian police as they led a lethal crackdown on anti-government protests earlier this year. At the same time, Britain continues to consolidate its friendships with despots in the Gulf. The RAF has established a second joint fighter squadron with Qatar as part of a £6bn arms deal, despite the regime’s support for UK-designated terror groups – including al-Qaeda’s outfit in Yemen. Johnson has provided the Omani security services with training and equipment, allowing them to violently disband large-scale protests. And British soldiers have been dispatched to Mahra province in Yemen, where they are assisting Saudi forces implicated in the torture and disappearance of detainees.

The UK sells billions worth of telecommunications interception equipment to each of these dictatorships, as well as aiding them through an opaque ‘Gulf Strategy Fund’ launched in April 2020. Such financial ties are set to deepen. Having spent months cosying up to the Bahraini Crown Prince – who oversees the systematic torture of pro-democracy activists in his country – Johnson is now on the cusp of signing a trade deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council (comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) which would grant City financiers and British pharmaceutical giants greater access to their markets. He has already secured an equivalent agreement with Sisi’s Egypt, giving tacit approval for the scores of extrajudicial killings carried out by its Interior Ministry. Israel – Britain’s other major trading partner – has also received unparalleled support from Johnson’s cabinet, which has helped security forces repress dissent in the West Bank and opposed an ICC investigation into war crimes in the occupied territories.

Reckless warmongering and arms for the worst Gulf dictators: surely Johnson’s record is an open goal for the Labour opposition? Not under Keir Starmer. If the Labour leader’s domestic goal is to pose – unavailingly – as a more competent Johnson, on China Starmer has positioned himself as more aggressive still. Calling for ‘an end to the naivety of the golden era’, Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy has urged the Tories to ban CCP officials from Britain, marginalise China at the UN, step up coordination with the US, and escalate the sanctions regime. Stephen Kinnock, Labour’s foreign policy spokesman on China, has asserted that ‘managing the rise of China is the number one geopolitical challenge the world is facing’, lambasting the Tories for their lack of success in ‘exerting or projecting our influence’ over the PRC. Nandy and Kinnock have also established close ties with the Tories’ foremost Sinophobe, the former Territorial Army officer Tom Tugendhat, who quipped that ‘Stephen Kinnock and I could give each other’s speeches on this subject’. Tugendhat’s ‘China Research Group’ – established to promote such policies as expelling Chinese students from British universities and sabotaging Belt and Road – was once seen as an association of hard-right Tory jingoists; but under Starmer, Labour MPs have been encouraged to join it.

The same pattern holds for other foreign policy decisions. Starmer claimed that the government had ‘badly underestimated the Russian threat and the response it required’; hinted at his support for an indefinite occupation of Afghanistan; and cheered the Tories’ attempt to immunize soldiers and spies from prosecution – while suggesting that the Overseas Operations Bill did not go far enough in this endeavour. The party welcomed Johnson’s historic expansion of the military budget and called for investment in extra nuclear submarines, expressing its ‘non-negotiable’ support for atomic weapons. 

Such reassurances to the security establishment have, of course, run alongside Labour’s dogged attempts to eradicate any trace of anti-Zionism from its ranks. So far, Starmer has launched a purge against even the most moderate critics of Israeli ethnic cleansing. He has given a green light to Labour Friends of Israel as it lobbies the government to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and implicitly blamed Hamas ‘rocket attacks’ for the Israeli government’s aerial onslaught against a trapped Palestinian population. The government Starmer hopes to lead would continue to supply Israel with the arms needed to maintain its illegal occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. Since Corbyn’s departure as leader and suspension from the PLP, both parliamentary blocs have reverted to the unabashed Altanticism of the new millennium. But whereas Blairism was met with a prominent anti-war movement, its latest variant – Global Britain – is yet to encounter such resistance.

Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘Toryism After Blair’, NLR 36.