Brexit aside, James Landale, diplomatic correspondent for BBC News, considers the broader foreign policy issues facing the new PM
Whoever the Conservative Party chooses as Britain’s next prime minister, they face a bulging diplomatic in-tray on their desk in Downing Street. Brexit, of course, is chief among the pending crises and has a tray all to itself. But anything I write now about that will be out of date by time this magazine is published. So, I shall focus instead on some of the broader, longer term issues facing the new PM on the foreign policy front.
The first task will be a diplomatic repair job in Europe. However the Brexit negotiations pan out, there will be relationships across the continent that need to be patched up. The Foreign Office is already shifting resources from Asia and elsewhere to shore up its missions across the continent, including an extra 50 new posts. And British diplomats are well aware that there will have to be a renewed focus on bilateral relations when the UK can no longer rely on the EU umbrella. But the new prime minister will also have to address the reputational damage that the UK has suffered in recent months. And this is more than just the bemusement of allies at what they see as the loss of British pragmatism. For in some European capitals there is now outright hostility. A German diplomat once explained to me why Boris Johnson – to choose one leading Brexiteer at random – was so roundly loathed across the EU. “It is because he compared the EU to Nazi Germany,” he said. “Now I am not being sensitive about this because I am German. It is because what we see as European values are the antithesis of Nazi values, in the same way they are the antithesis of the values of the East German Stasi, the Greek colonels, the Portuguese junta, Vichy France. I know you Brits don’t do European values, you see it all as transactional and economic. But this is why remarks like this is so offensive.” It will take time and diplomatic effort to turn the tide against these kinds of views.
The second issue the new prime minister will have to address is the foreign policy structure he inherits. More and more voices can be heard in London asking whether it really makes sense to divide the UK’s international diplomatic effort between the Foreign Office, the three Departments for International Development, International Trade and Exiting the European Union and the National Security Council structure in the Cabinet Office. Whom should the prime minister consult? His foreign secretary on policy? His international development secretary who has the aid money? His national security adviser who is plugged into intelligence? Mr Johnson, for example, has in the past hinted he would support merging DFID back into the FCO – in February this year he wrote a foreword to a Henry Jackson Society report calling for such a merger which he described “a fantastic paper” that was “full of good ideas.” Prime ministers can be reluctant to re-arrange the Whitehall architecture – it rarely delivers the change they want and always upsets the ministers whose chairs are being moved. But this might be one change that the new PM might find hard to resist.
The third task before the new incumbent at Downing Street is a revamp of the government’s beleaguered ‘Global Britain’ strategy. This was a slogan designed to convince people that Brexit did not mean a retreat from the world. But no one has ever quite explained the policy behind the headline. At best, it was seen as wishy-washy internationalism: at worst, post-imperial nostalgia. So, this is a policy ripe for a fresh approach. The central question before the prime minister will be to calculate how honest he must be about Britain’s current status in the world before he can go on to expound the real difference that it can make diplomatically. In the past, British politicians could talk with some justification of the UK ‘punching above its weight’ by dint of its membership of the European Union and its relationship with the United States. Well, that is harder these days and a canny prime minister may want to find a new strategy that allows the UK to leverage its military and economic heft alongside the soft power of its language, legal system, universities, bio-tech and so on.
The fourth, and broader task for the new PM is to once again go out to bat on behalf of what is described as the international rules-based order, the post-war institutions and values that placed multilateral cooperation ahead of the crude nationalism that wrought so much damage to the twentieth century. These bodies and ideas are being challenged by the populist, power politics of leaders such as Donald Trump who see international relations as bilateral and zero sum. A British prime minister might sense an opportunity here to place themselves at the head of a campaign to push back against the culture of strongmen politics that places order and economic growth automatically ahead of democracy and liberty. That campaign could be rhetorical and exhortatory, but it could also be practical, deploying political and diplomatic capital to ensure that Britons are elected to key positions on international bodies.
Finally, there are a number of critical foreign policy issues that cannot be avoided. First up, Iran. Much may happen between now and when this article is published, but the avoidance of conflict in the Gulf will almost certainly be at the top of the new PM’s to-do-list. With the UK firmly in the European camp still backing the Iran nuclear deal, the attitude of the new prime minister to the US will be crucial. If, for example, Mr Johnson is in Downing Street and his warm relations with Donald Trump continue, might he be more easily tempted to adopt a more American and hostile approach to Iran? At the time of writing, the tensions seem to be rising rather than falling and the risk of escalation is present. The avoidance of war will require some deft diplomacy and Britain should play its part.
The other pressing issue is China. The new PM will inherit a tough decision over what to do about Huawei, the telecoms giant that the US and others fear is too close to the Chinese state. The UK has to decide whether to allow the Chinese firm to play any role in providing Britain’s future 5G mobile phone network. Thus far there is talk of a compromise that splits the difference, allowing Huawei to make what are called ‘non-core’ parts of the network. This decision matters not just for technical and security reasons, but because it has become symbolic of whether governments around the world see China as a threat or an opportunity. The UK wants to see it as both, but the new PM will have to draw the line somewhere and that will require some nifty diplomacy.
So, the new prime minister has his diplomatic work cut out. That is, if he can find some time when he is not trying to sort out Brexit.