UK ponders on post-Ukraine, foreign policy

Russia aside, a proper strategy is needed across all of the UK's key relationships from China to the EU-27 and the US.

RUSSIA'S invasion of Ukraine has sent Boris Johnson into a frenzy of foreign policy activity as he seeks to recover his political authority after a series of domestic challenges in late 2021 and earlier this year that still may imperil his prime ministership.

Several prominent critics who called for Johnson to resign over Downing Street lockdown parties during the pandemic, including the Conservative leader in Scotland Douglas Ross, have U-turned. Many of these same people now warn that the only beneficiary of the prime minister quitting would be Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On Tuesday (Mar 15), Johnson meets with counterparts from Nordic and Baltic states for talks on the crisis and how to rebuild Ukraine. He is also reportedly going to visit Saudi Arabia this month to discuss how that Middle Eastern country might help enhance the UK's energy security and indeed that of Europe at large.

Beyond deflecting his recent political travails, the prime minister is - rightly - hugely concerned by the crisis.

United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Liz Truss highlighted this point last Thursday, warning in a major speech in Washington that the Ukraine invasion is as serious for the world as 9/11, asserting that the West is paying the price for years of inaction against Moscow.

She argued further that "how we respond today will set the pattern for this new era. If we let expansionism go unchallenged it would send a dangerous message to would-be aggressors and authoritarians around the world. We must start with the principle that the only thing aggressors understand is strength, and we must start by working together to stop the offensive in Ukraine. We must rise to this moment. We must pledge that never again will we allow such aggression to grow unchecked".

The one practical action she flagged was that all countries now need to go further on financing their defence capabilities. She argued that spending 2 per cent of GDP should now be a minimum target, and highlighted that during the Cold War many countries were spending upwards of 5 per cent.

While Truss' speech was aimed internationally, her primary influence to shape this agenda will now be to seek to stamp her mark as foreign secretary on UK foreign policy. This will build from the post-Brexit, 'Global Britain' strategic review last year.

It is now some 6 decades, around the time of London's first application to join the then-European Community in 1962, that former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously said that the United Kingdom had lost an empire but not yet found a new world role.

In the more than half century that followed, the nation did find that role, with a strong, influential international voice, powered through twin alliances with Europe and the United States.

However, some 60 years on, UK foreign policy is in flux again, and the issue of UK grand strategy is a pressing, important one in 2022. And this is not just because of Russia's Ukraine invasion.

Firstly, the UK's relations with another great power, China, are also in flux following the coronavirus pandemic outbreak; Beijing's security clampdown in Hong Kong; plus wider developments including London's decision to exclude Huawei from its 5G network rollout.

At the same time, the UK has completed its departure from the EU's institutions, including the Single Market and Customs Union, and a new constructive partnership is gradually being formed that may be expedited by the Ukraine crisis.

Meanwhile, following the 'America first'-focused Donald Trump US presidency, Atlanticist Joe Biden is in office looking to reunify the western alliance post-Trump, and post-Brexit.

The chief challenge is that 'Global Britain' is more of a slogan rather than a meaningful strategy for the UK's future.

Since at least the 1998 strategic defence review, multiple UK governments have failed to articulate a grand strategy, offering instead policies, plans and political direction with budget the driver of strategy not the other way round. This is despite the creation in 2010 of the UK's National Security Council.

In the last decade, in particular, this is widely seen to have resulted in foreign policy 'drift'. Post-Brexit and Ukraine, there is urgent need for greater strategic clarity with several key areas of focus.

As Truss indicated, a top priority should be what Global Britain means for the UK posture towards China and Russia. Both are key nations and UK engagement will be needed with both.

On the Russia dimension, 1 of the key questions going forward is how productive the UK's post-Brexit relationship will now be with Brussels and the EU-27. While the UK's 2019 EU withdrawal deal, and the 2020 UK-EU Trade and Cooperation agreement, have given some definition to future ties, there is still much to be decided.

This is not least as the latter deal did not include defence and security collaboration, as had been originally foreseen, which will now be key, post-Ukraine.

Also vital is the UK's future relationship with the US. While Biden has long been a friend of the UK, including early support for London in the 1983 Falklands War after initial diffidence from the Reagan administration, he was opposed to Brexit.

Amid speculation over how strong the personal bond will be between Biden and Boris Johnson, some UK policymakers harbour concerns about the UK's enduring value to Washington now that it can no longer play as effectively the role of what Tony Blair has called the "bridge" between Europe and the US.

Then there is also the UK stance on urgent non-state challenges from the environment, climate change and the transition away from fossil fuels to cleaner energies that Ukraine has made even more important - plus what has been called the 'new' security agenda, including terrorism and cyber threats to infrastructure and data.

This underlines the massive agenda that lies ahead for London in re-orientating foreign policy, post-Ukraine. While the immediate focus may be Russia, a proper strategy is needed across all of the UK's key relationships from China to the EU-27 and United States.

The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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