Stephen Booth: AUKUS has been an encouraging test for post-Brexit Britain

23 Sep

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

The landmark security partnership recently announced by Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States reflects the new geopolitics of great power competition, prompted by the rise of China.

The new alliance, dubbed “AUKUS”, will see deeper integration of security and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases and supply chains, ranging from artificial intelligence to cybersecurity and quantum computing.

The first initiative will be a collaboration on future nuclear-powered submarines, providing the Australian fleet with the US and UK technology for the first time. Canberra’s mounting concern at China’s growing naval capacities encouraged it to cancel an order for French diesel-electric submarines, prompting fury in Paris, and seek the higher spec US and UK nuclear-powered technology instead.

The new trilateral alliance is the latest pillar in US-led efforts to ensure a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and balance China’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the region. The US President has highlighted that this new phase of security cooperation will take place alongside a network of other relationships in the Indo-Pacific, such as the Quad, comprised of the US, Australia, India and Japan, whose leaders will meet in-person for the first time in Washington tomorrow.

New polling commissioned by Policy Exchange illustrates that the British public strongly welcomes a continuing US leadership role supported by allies. 54 per cent of Britons believe that when the US has strong cooperation from allies like the UK, the UK is more safe, as opposed to just eight per cent who believed it was less safe.

It is notable that Toshimitsu Motegi, the Japanese Foreign Minister, was quick to welcome the AUKUS announcement. Predictably, China has responded negatively to AUKUS, criticising its “cold-war mentality” and describing it as “extremely irresponsible”.

Ultimately, security is only one dimension of the changing strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific. Chinese growth has been central to Asia’s rising global economic importance.

But China has also sought to use economic levers to exercise its power in the region. Following Canberra’s public calls for an independent investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, Australia has had to weather formal and informal Chinese trade restrictions on several of its export industries.

It may or may not have been a coincidence but, the day after AUKUS was announced, China formally applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – the most advanced trade agreement in the region.

The forerunner to the 11-member CPTPP, known simply as the TPP, was not originally conceived as a grouping of geopolitical importance. However, when the US became involved and took a leading role in developing it, the Obama Administration was keen to highlight the strategic dimension. “With the TPP, we can rewrite the rules of trade to benefit America’s middle class. Because if we don’t, competitors who don’t share our values, like China, will step in to fill that void,” a White House factsheet said.

Ultimately, President Trump pulled the US out of the deal and it is Japan, as its largest economy, that has taken an increasingly important role within the CPTPP, including encouraging the UK to join it.

China’s application is unlikely to progress for the foreseeable future, since it will struggle to demonstrate adherence to some of the key elements of the deal, particularly the disciplines on state-owned enterprises, intellectual property, the free flow of data and labour standards.

Moreover, accession requires the unanimous approval of the existing members, including Australia and Japan, which would need some convincing given the current political climate. However, China’s application may be designed to throw a cat amongst the pigeons, forcing the wider CPTPP membership to debate the pact’s geopolitical role in relation to Beijing.

The UK is ahead of China in the queue to join the CPTPP, after all the existing members recently agreed to commence the formal accession process. If the UK’s membership bid is successful, it could work with others to facilitate US reengagement with the pact.

Biden’s team has suggested that trade agreements (not simply with the UK) are not a short-term US priority. However, China’s application might act as the catalyst for a reassessment of the CPTPP in Washington, which would greatly increase the economic and strategic benefits of membership to the UK.

Taken together, AUKUS and the UK’s CPTPP membership bid provide long-term substance to the UK’s “Indo-Pacific” tilt outlined in the Integrated Review. Policy Exchange’s Indo-Pacific Commission, which presaged the tilt, stressed the need for a mutually reinforcing “twin-track” UK approach. One focused on trade, economics and technology issues, and another on security. Both aspects of Global Britain are now very much in action in the region.

Meanwhile, French anger at the loss of a lucrative submarine contract has been compounded by its exclusion from a new strategic alliance. In the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Paris sees further evidence of the need for European “strategic autonomy” to reduce dependence on Washington. However, the same formidable hurdles to realising this ambition remain.

AUKUS was announced on the eve of the publication of EU’s own Indo-Pacific strategy and caught Brussels somewhat on the hop. Interestingly, Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, was in London in the days immediately after the AUKUS announcement.

Rutte was reportedly laying the ground to invite the UK to take part in discussions about greater European security cooperation. Whether or not the current Government is open to exploring such an offer, the overture demonstrates that many smaller and Atlanticist EU member states are wary of a greater European role in defence and security, if no role can be found for the UK.

Ultimately, the UK might have entered the AUKUS were it still a member of the EU. But one of the major question marks against Brexit was whether it would see the UK lose its influence over global affairs as an independent nation state.

Recent events demonstrate that economic and security interests are becoming increasingly intertwined and adaptable alliances are becoming increasingly important. A flexible and nimble Global Britain has much to offer in such a world.

Sarah Ingham: With our closest NATO ally leaving us high and dry, it’s time to re-assess the pieties about Britain’s role in the world

3 Sep

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

“America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home”.

In June 2011, announcing a cut in troop numbers of 10,000 personnel, President Barack Obama anticipated Joe Biden’s speech in Pittsburgh which marked the end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

A decade ago, the 44th President’s enthusiasm for a continuing military presence in Afghanistan was lukewarm at best. Back then, a mere $1 trillion had been spent. Given America’s crumbling infrastructure and rising social problems in the wake of the global financial crash, Obama wanted more homeland bangs for his huge number of bucks.

Another $1 trillion later, on Tuesday the 46th President gave the speech that Obama probably wishes he had made back in 2011. Alluding to the country’s “corruption and malfeasance”, Biden was clear: “We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries. We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it.”

For a man allegedly in his dotage, Sleepy Joe delivered an admirably clear-sighted statement of future American national security policy based on vital national interest. As well as ending the forever war, the President pulled the trigger on 20 years of meddling in the affairs of other sovereign states – also known as nation-building.

If American policy is now also about “ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries”, exactly where does this leave Britain and our Armed Forces? After all, ever since the end of the Cold War, successive governments have sent Britain’s Service personnel overseas on all manner of Operations Other Than War, as our people in khaki with the SA80 A3s like to call them.

The impulse to save lives was used to justify a number of military interventions since the beginning of the 1990s, including policing Iraq’s safe havens and in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya. The Rwandan genocide – about which the outside world did too little far too late – is a permanent reproach to those who consider state sovereignty paramount.

The successful humanitarian-based military operations in Kosovo and Sierra Leone appeared to vindicate the Blair government’s much-mocked pursuit of an “ethical” foreign policy, together with the Prime Minister’s Doctrine for the International Community.

Set out in Chicago in April 1999, it suggested five guidelines for intervention. They chimed with the Strategic Defence Review of the previous year which had declared that Britain would not stand idly by and watch humanitarian disasters or the aggression of dictators go unchecked. “We want to give a lead; we want to be a force for good.”

Ever since, subsequent Defence Reviews have all been the heirs to the Blairite sentiment that the British military are an instrument for global wellbeing, just as Britain should get stuck in and tackle the world’s problems.

As the Coalition’s 2010 Review stated, “Our country has always had global responsibilities and global ambitions.” Similarly, in 2015, Britain was “strong, influential, global”. In setting out his vision for Britain in 2030 in the recent Integrated Review, Boris Johnson foresaw “a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation with a global perspective”.

The unforeseen American withdrawal pulled the rug out from under not only Afghanistan but also from assumptions about Britain’s defence and security posture that were made in the Integrated Review less than six months ago.

With our closest NATO ally leaving us high and dry, it is now time to re-assess the pieties about Britain’s place and role in the world that, mantra-like, are repeated and have gone unchallenged in all of 21st century Reviews of the country’s defence and security.

The Blairite approach to foreign policy – “which should reflect our values” according to the 1998 Review – should have been shattered in Iraq. A war of questionable legality and zero legitimacy made a nonsense about ethical lodestars.

Equally, Labour’s view of the role of British soldiers in Afghanistan as globe-trotting, nation-building do-gooders – armed Mrs Jellybys – has surely had its day. The Coalition’s disastrous intervention in Libya in 2011 was nothing if not Blair-lite. Thankfully, the same itch to intervene was thwarted when it came to Syria.

For all policymakers’ non-stop talking up of Britain’s continuing interventionist global role, the public might well be sceptical. Over the past decade we have become ever-more culturally heterogenous and less happy with the concept of “white saviours” parachuting themselves into the world’s benighted regions and bossing the locals about.

In 2001, the UK’s Muslim population was 1.6 million; by 2018 it had reached 3.4 million: do these voters back Britain’s instinct for involvement in the problems of, say, the Middle East? Equally, the issue of this country’s colonial past is surely the most toxic on any syllabus – and very much at odds with any present-day neo-colonial nation-building.

Almost 30 years ago, another Foreign Secretary was in hot water. Sceptical about intervention in the civil war in former Yugoslavia, Douglas Hurd dubbed those who demanded action after the media spotlight fell on any particular trouble-spot as members of the “Something Must Be Done Club”. He could have observed that Pen Farthing’s dogs would bark, but before too long the media would move on.

Like its predecessors, the Integrated Review invokes the values of liberal democracy. After almost 18 months of government by ministerial fiat in the name of public health, with Parliament side-lined, the media suborned and Police over-reach, we should perhaps be focusing on renewing those values here at home. The defence of the West begins in Britain.

David Lidington: There’s no alternative to our American alliance. But we also need a new strategic relationship with our European allies.

27 Aug

David Lidington is a former Cabinet Minister and Europe Minister. He is Chair of the Royal United Services Institution (RUSI), and of the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE).

This week at Kabul airport we have seen human nature both at its most heroic, in the risks taken by our servicemen and women to help thousands of Afghans fleeing persecution, and at its most depraved, in the merciless slaughter of innocents by suicide bombers.

Those appalling scenes ram home the cruel truth that we, the West, have suffered a major defeat. The return of the Taliban is a humiliation for the United States and its NATO allies, including our own country. Jihadist networks, not only Isis-K but their counterparts in Africa, South-East Asia, the Middle East and in our own cities will take fresh heart. Russia, China and Iran will interpret the debacle in Kabul as further evidence of Western decadence and decline and see opportunities to expand their influence in the world.

Unsurprisingly, defeat in Afghanistan has sent a wave of shock and anger through the British political and media worlds. In particular, recriminations over Joe Biden’s decision to act unilaterally and his scant consultation with coalition allies have gone way beyond the normal language of diplomatic relations. One or two Ministers, who under the cloak of anonymity have bandied around not just vituperative language about the United States but personal insults at Biden, need to be reminded that the burdens of high office include sometimes having to bite your tongue when matters involving the national interest are at stake.

While it is right that this strategic reverse should prompt a hard look at its lessons for our foreign and security policy, it would be a mistake to think that every assumption about the UK’s place in the world has been overthrown.

The fundamental conclusions of the Government’s Integrated Review seem to me still to hold good. Russia is a potent threat to the security of this country and the continent of which we are part. China is both a strategic rival to the West and in some respects an unavoidable partner. Our military strength and our resilience to security threats depends on us being able to renew our capacity for technological innovation. The United Kingdom is a European power with a global outlook and global interests. The alliance with the United States is essential to our own national security.

Policy should include a measured tilt to the Indo-Pacific, doing more with countries like Japan, Australia and South Korea, while continuing to direct the great majority of our security resources and attention to the Euro-Atlantic, working with our allies in Europe and North America. Soft and hard power complement one another and both are important in defending and advancing our interests.

The missing element is a clear strategic plan to act on those conclusions. In this short space, I want to make just two points.

First, that plan should start with a clear-eyed view of our relationship with the United States.

Walk down Bond Street in the West End and you come across a remarkable pair of statues: Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt sitting on a wooden bench. The two men are presented as if in the middle of a relaxed, jovial conversation, the sculptor’s art conveying an impression of mutual trust, friendship and goodwill. The work is entitled “Allies”.

Far too often, British politicians and journalists have fallen for the beguiling romance that this work of art represents, and overlooked the reality that there have been freqtuent clashes of interest and opinion. FDR drove a hard bargain over lend-lease. Truman refused to do Attlee any favours over Britain’s war debts. Eisenhower humiliated Britain and France over Suez. Harold Wilson refused to send troops to Vietnam. Ronald Reagan sent US forces into Grenada without even telling Margaret Thatcher.

What President Biden’s recent decisions have shown is that “America First” has outlived Donald Trump. It’s not isolationism, but rather a rigorous and ruthless focus on what the White House considers to be the key national interests of the United States and a readiness to dispense with other commitments. We’ve seen it in the shift of American priorities towards the Indo-Pacific under both Democrat and Republican presidents, when Barack Obama insisted that France and the UK take political responsibility for the action in Libya in 2011 and now in Kandahar and Kabul.

The lesson for policymakers in London is not that we should look for an alternative to the US alliance. There isn’t one. No other country or grouping in the democratic world has the concentration of economic and military power of Washington. But Britain, like the rest of Europe, is going to have to work harder to prove to US politicians and the voters they represent that they should see the security of our region as part of the essential national interest of the American people.

Britain’s military and security relationships with the US functioned even during the worst turbulence of the Trump years. The Americans recognise that the UK brings things to the table that they value: our intelligence agencies, special forces, nuclear submarines and not just armed forces but a willingness to deploy them. We need to keep those relationships in the best possible state of repair and at the same time redouble diplomatic efforts to show how important American interests depend on the security of Europe.

Second, we need to establish a new strategic partnership with our European neighbours. We can and should work with like-minded nations around the world, but that should be additional to and not a substitute for an effective alliance with the democracies next door. This is important for two reasons.

The first is that it is greater capability and a greater willingness to act on the part of the European pillar of the Atlantic alliance that could give us the choice of taking an initiative when the United States does not want to be involved. And second, Washington not only wants its European allies to spend more on defence and security, but for them to show greater leadership in parts of the world: Africa, the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe, which America now treats as at most secondary to its strategic rivalry with China.

A lot can be done through NATO structures like the Northern Group that brings together the NATO members and partner countries that border the Baltic and the North Sea, and through bilateral partnerships like the E3 grouping of France, Germany and the UK. Britain is party too to the European Intervention Initiative that brings together EU and non-EU countries.

But as governments in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere keep saying, there also needs to be a new, constructive strategic relationship between the UK and the European Union. In part, that’s because even the big member states think and work in the EU context, seeking to influence and being influenced by EU discussions on foreign and security policy, and also because many of the key levers of soft power: development aid, state capacity building, military and police training, peacekeeping missions lie at EU level.

To make a reality of the slogan “Global Britain” requires us to accept that we need to work with allies, and that we need strong, strategic relationships on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ben Roback: Biden’s Afghan pull-out represents the rash decision making we had expected from Trump

25 Aug

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Who has failed the people of Afghanistan more spectacular, the United States or the G7? Both have made a compelling case of late.

When the G7 nations met in June under Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership, the group issued a customary Communiqué. The urgent priorities were clear and indeed perfectly logical – the Covid recovery, vaccinations, and “building back better”.

The middle priorities of the lengthy to do list were at times perplexing. Cyber space and outer space, a “values-driven digital ecosystem for the common good that enhances prosperity in a way that is sustainable, inclusive, transparent and human-centric”, and open societies.

Eventually, at point 57, the G7 remembered Afghanistan:

“We call on all Afghan parties to reduce violence and agree on steps that enable the successful implementation of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire and to engage fully with the peace process. In Afghanistan, a sustainable, inclusive political settlement is the only way to achieve a just and durable peace that benefits all Afghans. We are determined to maintain our support for the Afghan government to address the country’s urgent security and humanitarian needs, and to help the people of Afghanistan, including women, young people and minority groups, as they seek to preserve hard-won rights and freedoms.”

With the benefit of political hindsight, was the Communiqué a clear sign that, just 10 weeks ago, the international community had such a miserly grasp of what was about to unfold despite the known deadline imposed by the United States?

Or being critical and almost certainly more honest, did it prove that the G7 countries were too caught up with their own agendas and so forgot about a weak, propped up government that was inevitably going to fall the moment the US initiated its withdrawal?

The chaotic scenes that have followed are a demonstrable failure of diplomacy and military intervention. In the first instance, it is the Afghan people and those who served in uniform and alongside them who will suffer the most.

The case for the White House: Putting an end to the ‘forever war’

There is no equivocation or discussion whatsoever about President Biden’s motivation for withdrawal. He wants to pull out American boots on the ground in advance of the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.

He does not want to become the fourth president to phone the grieving parent of a soldier lost in Kabul, Kunduz or Kandahar. In that respect, he aims to “succeed where others have failed” given President Bush started the Afghan war and it dogged the Obama and Trump administrations subsequently.

The human and financial costs illustrate the domestic rationale. Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates that since 9/11, 7,057 US service members have been killed in war operations, whilst 30,1777 US service members have committed suicide.

The cost of caring for post-9/11 American war veterans will reach between $2.2 and $2.5 trillion by 2050. The only way to stop that tide of misery, the White House argues, is to get out of Afghanistan. But at what cost to Afghans and the United States’ reputation abroad?

The White House might also argue that, whilst the eyes of the world are on the Middle East, the Vice President is in the Far East. Kamala Harris completed a three-day trip to Singapore where she fired warning shots about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

Did anyone notice? The international community remains entirely focused on the more pressing problems in Afghanistan. At home, Parliament was recalled from its summer recess to discuss saving lives, not the Spratley Islands.

The case against the White House: Biden out-Trumps Trump and hangs the world out to dry

Could we have expected such a gargantuan gaffe from President Biden? After all, this was supposed to be the president who returned America to a state of relative normalcy after four years of Trumpian volatility in the pursuit of “America First”. On the world stage, Biden’s message to historic allies has been clear: “America is back”. Is it?

Biden cannot reasonably claim a lack of foreign policy experience. 36 years in the Senate having been elected before his 30th birthday. 12 years as Ranking Member or Chairman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Eight years as Vice President, in which his White House bio now even boasts that “Biden played a pivotal role in shaping U.S. foreign policy and describes how he was point person for US diplomacy throughout the Western Hemisphere and led the effort to bring 150,000 troops home from Iraq.

The Afghan pull-out represents the kind of rash decision making devoid of any consultation with military allies that we had perhaps expected from President Trump. But for all of Trump’s bluster and wildly unpredictable rhetoric, he did not deliver the hammer blow to US foreign policy that many had expected.

It had started to look like death by a thousand paper cuts, but the capacity to do further incremental damage was limited by being a one-term president.

It is Biden, not Trump, who has shocked US allies. “Sleepy Joe” has sleep-walked the United States into its biggest foreign policy debacle for a generation.

From “mission accomplished” to “mission impossible”

Where does this leave Joe Biden and his administration’s relationship with the very same allies it sought to reassure after the Trump presidency? Johnson and Emanuel Macron led the call for President Biden to extend his self-imposed deadline of August 31 for the complete and total withdrawal of US forces.

At present, that has fallen on deaf ears trained solely on a domestic audience. News outlets report the president will not extend the deadline, agreeing with the Pentagon’s assessment. An imminent detailed report by Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State. could yet reshape the decision.

The president has acknowledged that a completed withdrawal by the end of the month will be dependent upon the Taliban’s continued cooperation. The very same terror force the US entered Afghanistan to drive out is now needed to get Americans out of the country.

The administration has hinted at some flexibility. But each time Biden has spoken at the presidential podium since the fall of Kabul, he has doubled down on the decision with even greater tenacity. To alter course now would be political humiliation. From “mission accomplished” to “mission impossible”.

Perhaps the most striking remark the president has made since the Taliban takeover was when he said: “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building”. Really? Twenty years training and serving alongside the Afghan military. Two decades propping up a western-style government.

It begs the question: on what basis will the US intervene abroad now, if not to nationbuild? Just under 30,000 US troops remain stationed in South Korea, as the threat of war on the Korean peninsula looms perpetually.

But there is no nation building to be done in Seoul; will those troops be brough home next? Over 35,000 US troops are stationed in Germany; Chancellor Merkel needs no help maintaining her own democracy.

The Biden administration has rolled the international dice to take a domestic political gamble

The President, Defence Secretary, Secretary of State and National Security Adviser all clearly believe that most Americans do not care about the fate of Afghanistan or its people. According to YouGov America, at any one time only 0.5 per cent of Americans have ever though that the war in Afghanistan is a top issue facing the country.

They care more about a seemingly endless war in which too much American blood has been spilled. That is understandable with a domestic hat on, but deeply depressing when thinking globally.

Maybe Biden will be proven right. But at what expense? The fall of a nation into the hands of terrorists. It would be the most pyrrhic of all political victories.

Sarah Ingham: The success of Taliban 2.0 has left Britain, and its semi-detached MPs, bereft of answers

20 Aug

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

“General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead.”

Reviewing Barack Obama’s first term in office, Joe Biden, then Vice President, provided a pithy summary in 2012.

Almost a decade after al-Qaeda’s world-changing 9/11 attack on America, in May 2011 US Special Forces finally got their man. He had been hiding out in Abbottabad, which could be twinned with Aldershot, on the other side of Afghanistan’s often conveniently porous border with Pakistan.

Up there with other great political comebacks are now the Taliban. Ten years after the unlamented passing of bin Laden, history’s most troublesome paying guest, 20 years after being ousted by NATO forces and the local Northern Alliance, the regime is now in power. Or, as the lawyer for ISIS-groupie Shamima Begum tweeted to accompany the image of gun-carrying fighters with their feet under the Presidential desk in Kabul, “The boys are back in town”.

The success of Taliban 2.0 in the past two weeks has made us question the worth of Britain’s mission in Afghanistan over the past two decades. Or should that be missions?

In his memoirs Tony Blair reflects on his choices after the first Taliban regime was overthrown: “Like it or not, from then on, we were in the business of nation-building.” A Journey was published in 2010 with the benefit of hindsight. Britain joined American military action in Afghanistan in late 2001 under our Article 5 NATO treaty obligations. Back then, there was no plan to set up a liberal democracy or to educate girls.

Keen to keep busy after the end of the Cold War – “Go out of area or go out of business” – in June 2004 NATO members committed to an expanded operation in Afghanistan. Like a bust Monopoly player’s properties, the country’s provinces were divvied up. Outlining the scope of the British military mission in Helmand, in January 2006, John Reid, the Defence Secretary, talked the talk about “a fully integrated package addressing governance, security and political and social change” and “finding real alternatives to the harvesting of opium”. He added “waging war is not our aim”.

With British forces under heavy fire from the Taliban almost as soon as their boots were on the ground, the current doubts about the quality of Afghan-related intelligence are hardly new. After all, Secretary Reid stated “we would be perfectly happy to leave in three years’ time without firing one shot”.

Stabilisation? Protecting reconstruction? Nation-building? Counter-terrorism? Counter-insurgency? Counter-poppy? Combat? With the Blair-Brown government unsure of its objective in Afghanistan, it is unsurprising the public was baffled about the British role. In October 2006, 64 per cent reported there was no clear strategy. Three years later, 42 per cent did not understand the purpose of the British mission and more than 60 per cent believed the war was unwinnable and all troops should be withdrawn.

Conversely, Service personnel had never been held in higher esteem, approval ratings which continue today. Soldiers’ service and sacrifice – including the preparedness to make the ultimate sacrifice – became especially apparent on the final melancholy journeys through Wootton Bassett. The changes in Afghanistan in the last 20 years have come about not least because of the professionalism and commitment of Britain’s Servicemen and women.

Combat operations ended in 2015. To paraphrase Keir Starmer, in the context of Afghanistan most of us in Britain seem to have been on the beach ever since. How many were aware of Operation Toral, the UK’s mission to train local Afghan Forces, not least at Sandhurst-in-the-Sand? Who raised concerns about the Trump-Taliban deal in Doha?

MPs’ semi-detached attitude towards Afghanistan was underlined by the almost complete absence of statesmanship in Wednesday’s Emergency Debate. Of course, given that most of our representatives have not actually bothered to show up for work for 15 months, they are out of practice, but that is no excuse for sanctimony at levels rivalling the peaks of the Hindu Kush. Apart from Tom Tugendhat, Dan Jarvis and a handful of others, most MPs should have stayed at home.

Regime change, which many MPs were in favour of in Iraq, usually involves chaos, bloodshed and a humanitarian crisis. Has the Stop the War movement become Continue the Military Intervention?

Perhaps Washington’s critics should tell us just how much they would like to take from the NHS budget to pay for an increase in defence to cover a unilateral British mission to Afghanistan. For the past half century this country has chosen welfare over warfare, sheltering under an American defence umbrella. US taxpayers have spent $2 trillion; more than 20,000 US Service personnel have been injured and 2,400 killed. With so much American blood and treasure spent in Afghanistan, evincing some gratitude toward our chief NATO ally would have been fitting.

What of the bigger strategic picture? The silence from MPs on this was deafening. The Prime Minister was correct to point out that deploying tens of thousands of British troops to fight the Taliban is not an option.

In the rush to judgment over the past week, few have stopped to ask why the Taliban could seize power so easily. So far, the handover has been comparatively orderly. Just as London is not Britain, cosmopolitan Kabul might not be Afghanistan.

And who are the Taliban 2.0? How do they fit into this tribal multi-ethnic country, where mobile phone ownership has gone from about 30,000 to 22.5 million in the past 20 years. Supposing they are less medieval executioners-in-football-stadia and more 21st century smartphone-savvy operators, mindful of optics seen globally and instantly?

If Britain has a problem doing business with an Islamic regime with dubious attitudes towards women and civil rights, there goes most of the Middle East. As yet there are no evacuation helicopters hovering over the embassies of China and Russia in Kabul: perhaps staff are too busy drawing up deals over mineral rights and infrastructure.

This week President Biden declared that “we” could not provide “them” with the will to fight. A young British Army officer might well have disagreed. The Malakand Field Force describes a short military campaign in 1897 in a tribal area near the Durand Line, the newly-drawn border between British India and Afghanistan, specifically designed to protect Britain’s imperial interests.

The author, Second Lieutenant Winston Churchill, admired the enemy Pashtu tribesmen: “To the ferocity of the Zulu are added the craft of the Redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer… Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.”

Afghanistan and America 1) Why British security policy is dangerously exposed

16 Aug

Air Force One is a period fantasy of U.S idealism and supremacy.  The Soviet Union has collapsed.  American hegemony is unchallenged.  At a dinner in Russia, James Marshall, the President, explains why the two countries have jointly apprehended the leader of a rogue state.

“The truth is…we acted too late. Only when our own national security was threatened did we act.  Tonight I come to you with a pledge to change America’s policy. Never again will I allow our political self-interest to deter us from doing what we know to be morally right.”

The film was released in 1997, during the decade or so between the fall of the Berlin Wall and Al Qaeda’s attack on 9/11.  And some ten years before Chinese communism began to fill the gap that Russian communism had left.

This is the world that most of us have lived the longest in: the one that came into being after the United States got out of Vietnam and before it got into Iraq – and Afghanistan.

America is still the most powerful country in the world, at least if one turns to one of those indices that try to measure economic strength, military muscle, diplomatic reach and international influence.

It remains the lynchpin of NATO, which has helped to keep the peace in Europe since 1945, and maintains an armed presence in Germany, Kosovo, South Korea, Iraq, Djibouti and elsewhere.

Furthermore, it isn’t inevitable that China will wax while the United States wanes.  The collapse of communism, Khomeine’s rise to power in Iran, the so-called “Arab Spring”: none of these were foreseen by western governments.

Perhaps China will somehow crumple again into the “celestial chaos” of the early years of the last century.  Who knows?  But as we gaze appalled at barbarism rampant, innocents dying and the West humiliated in Afghanistan, we can only weigh likelihoods.

When Joe Biden proclaimed “America’s back!”, he wasn’t telling a lie – even if its frantic retreat from Kabul, captured in the most mortifying  footage for the U.S since the fall of Saigon, suggests otherwise.

The President has returned America to the communal fold on Iran, climate change, and engagement, ending the use of Twitter as a tool of presidential statecraft, if that’s quite the right word for it.

But it is crucial to grasp, as so much of our reflexively anti-Trump media didn’t, that America is back on Biden’s terms, and while these may be multinational diplomatically they are unilateral militarily, or at least have that flavour.

Indeed, Trump’s Afghanistan policy begat Biden’s, because the latter inherited the Doha Agreement, pledging the withdrawal of U.S troops from Afghanistan, signed last year.

And Trump was successful at Doha where Obama had previously failed.  The former President’s administration tried at least three times to hold negotiations with the Taliban.

Such has been the direction of travel since George W.Bush – a kind of President Marshall on steroids – responded to Islamist terrorism with neo-conservative doctrine, attempting to build western, liberal, democratic states in Asia backed by American firepower.

Biden would presumably honour America’s NATO obligations were Vladminir Putin to open a new front in the Baltic States, though he has taken Russia’s part over the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipline.

Perhaps he can cobble together an international alliance against China that re-establishes U.S. leadership – though how he will to do so after his grotesque miscalculation in Afghanistan, goodness knows.

Nonetheless, British policy-makers would be wise to look at the trends in America over the last decade or so.  And not merely the ones in security.

The Obama-Trump-Biden withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq (the President wants U.S troops out of the latter by the end of the year) haven’t taken place in a social, economic and cultural vaccuum.

The United States is becoming less united, more extreme (within both the main parties), more woke, more spendthrift, less religious, more druggy, more violent, more porous, less prosperous (at least compared to its main rival).

The British state shows no sign of coming to terms with the speed and scale of the change, and reviewing assumptions that have more or less held since the Second World War and the Marshall Plan.

And were America no longer to be there for us, for better or worse, we would be uniquely exposed – at least as our security policy is concerned.

Perhaps ConservativeHome is taking a rosy-tinted view of British security policy, but it seems to us that, in the balance between realpolitik and justice, the latter weighs more heavily here than among our European neighbours.

Consider Russia – the perpetrator of an outrage on our soil three years ago.  Germany wants Nord Stream 2 and a pacific policy to go with it.  Emmanuel Macron is pivoting towards Putin.

Poland and other Eastern European states are fighting back, and Britain, Brexit or no Brexit, remains their most committed military ally, with our troops exposed in Estonia in what Lord Ashcroft reported as “Operation Tethered Goat”.

London may be awash with Putin money, but it is our Government, alert to human pressures in Parliament and outside it, that has imposed “Magnitsky sanctions” on 25 Russians (and others).

Turn then to China, towards which British policy, echoing Biden’s, is more ambiguous – describing it in the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy as a “systemic competitor” rather than, like Russia, as an “acute and direct threat”.

But while Boris Johnson wants to keep its options open on the Chinese communist state, an entire House of Parliament, plus a significant slice of the Conservative Party, does not.

The political push to hold China’s government accountable for crimes against humanity has found spectacular expression among peers and MPs over the past year.

Three times the Lords sent an amendment to the Trade Bill down to the Commons which would, if passed, have seen China’s leaders pursued through British institutions over the most heinous crime on the charge sheet: genocide.

On the last occasion, the Government squeaked through by 18 votes, and 29 MPs voted against the Party line – including a former Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith.

He and four other Tory MPs, including the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Tom Tugendhat, and our former columnist Neil O’Brien, now Chairman of the Party’s Policy Board, have now been sanctioned by China.

Is this site alone in pondering the possibility that the trend to isolationism in America gathers speed, returning us to the kind of world that we haven’t seen since the 1930s, in the vanished days when Britain still had an empire?

If so, can we be so noisy about Russia and China at once? Furthermore, what about Islamist extremism and, with an eye to Plymouth, home-grown terror?

Might we not have to choose – in a Europe in which Russia is the nearest and biggest threat to our national security?  Can a Britain with smaller forces really afford a “tilt to Asia“?

Air Force One ends with the vigorous President Marshall, played by Harrison Ford, despatching a terrorist with the cry of “get off my plane”.  Biden is shut up in the presidential jet, metaphorically speaking, and heading for home.

Bim Afolami: Five books to read over the summer recess

9 Aug

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

For this piece over summer recess, I thought that I might take you through some books and articles that I have recently read. It might tempt you away from reading newspapers over the silly season of August which is now upon us.

First up is The Aristocracy of Talent by Adrian Wooldridge, political editor of The Economist. I am rather a fan of his books, and believe this is his best. In my last column for ConservativeHome, I referenced the core arguments of the book, which attempts to revive the very principle of meritocracy – which is currently under attack from elements of both right and left.

It charts the history of meritocracy around the world well – the chapter on imperial China is fascinating – and sets out how far we have come in making government and economies and societies better, in large part because of a commitment to this principle, and abandoning it would be deeply unwise.

Second is a recent article in Foreign Affairs by one of the best-informed China analysts, called Dan Wang. It concisely demonstrates how the USA’s recent actions in seeking to attack the global interests of Chinese tech companies may be good in the short term, but over the longer term may lead to a faster development of domestic Chinese technology, rather than relying on American technology to supply its businesses.

That will have huge implications for the US, the UK, and the world. Grappling with how to approach a newly swaggering China, on issues as diverse as tech investment, human rights, and climate change is going to be one of the huge strategic challenges of the British Government for the foreseeable future. Moreover, I would urge everyone to subscribe to the newsletter on Dan Wang’s website. His memos on what is happening in China’s government and Chinese technology is far superior to anything I have read in the Western press.

Third up is a rare book. It is short. It informs you about a subject in an informal, entertaining way so that you remember what is written. And it leads you to investigate further. It is called Rare Metals War, and is written by a French journalist, Guillaume Pitron. It explores the dark side of our quest to go green to net zero, as it exposes the mining practices in various parts of the world, such as the Congo, where the rare metals (i.e: Cobalt) required in everything from solar panels to mobile phones to electric vehicles are extracted.

Spoiler alert: the conditions can be terrible, and the process not very green at all. In addition, the book clearly shows how the strategic importance to the UK of having a reliable and relatively cheap supply of these critical metals will only grow and grow. Unsurprisingly, China is already much further ahead of the game than most (if not all) Western countries, and it has secured supplies in most of the critical mining regions of the world. If our green reindustrialisation is going to be achievable (and we need it to be), we need to think hard about our supply of these metals, and not just hope for the best, as their prices continue to rise steeply in the years to come.

Fourth is English Pastoral by James Rebanks. If you like the countryside, I urge you to read this book. Rebanks is a farmer who manages his own land – the same that his family has managed for generations. He brutally illustrates how hard it is for farming to remain a profitable activity, and the damage that modern farming methods have wrought in order for agriculture to remain economically viable.

It also offers us hope for how we can better manage our green and pleasant land in the future. I really can’t do this book justice in a short time. Do read it: as a politician with a rural constituency (and I work closely with our farming community) it certainly got me thinking about how things need to change.

Finally, a list of book recommendations would not be complete without a political biography. I must recommend Barack Obama’s The Promised Land. It is a masterpiece. Obama is the first US President in a long time who can really write. He really can. If he wasn’t a politician, he could have made it as a first rate author. This book not only offers a good account of his presidency, but it is very moving (and candid) on how to manage trying to be a good father with a very demanding political career.

As a black politician myself, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by how he managed as the first black President. He did it with grace and courage. Regardless of your view of his politics (I personally think he had many failings in both domestic and foreign policy, and his style could be somewhat arrogant and condescending at times), there is little doubt that he is an extremely good analyst not just of US politics but also US culture.

The final section is the account of how the US military took out Bin Laden, and despite the fact that you know the ending, it is a very gripping read. Can’t wait for the second volume and the arrival of Donald Trump….

Politicians need to reflect and read. I find it really helps me get a perspective on what is going on, whether in my own constituency or in the country more broadly. You will notice that I haven’t mentioned even one novel – a real failing of mine that I am trying to rectify. When I attempting to navigate the crowded beaches of Daymer Bay, I shall be re-reading a book that I haven’t read since studying German at school – Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann: a wonderful story about family, wealth, decline, and culture.

Ben Roback: When the southern border opens, trouble will brew for Biden and Harris

14 Jul

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

President Biden knows, just like his Democratic predecessors, that the immigration problem on the southern border is hard to solve. It almost certainly explains why he put Kamala Harris, the Vice President, in direct charge of the border, with one eye on re-election in 2024 and the possibility that his main Democratic challenger could be Harris herself. It is the most poisoned of chalices.

On this site before, I have written about whether controlling the influx at the border really matters to this administration. We are about to find out. The southern border is expected to reopen in a phased manner in the coming weeks.

While the thousands of miles that separate the USA and Mexico are often thought of as route to freedom for immigrants, it is also a critical trade artery linking two interconnected economies. The economic need to reopen the border has to be counterbalanced with concerns about security.

White House allies are worried that neither Biden nor Harris are ready for the logistical and humanitarian impact of opening the border. Politically, the real concern is the impact and optics of tens of thousands of migrants surging towards the border and claiming a right to live and work in the United States.

Currently and until restrictions change, the United States is limiting land border crossings from Mexico and Canada to “essential travel”. The list of what constitutes “essential” is not short, but what is clear is a shared desire to limit border crossings as much as possible over ongoing Covid concerns.

Restrictions are slated to remain in effect until 23:59 on July 21. Without an extension, legal land crossing for work and recreation will resume. Like night follows day, what will also resume is the attempted illegal border crossings that take place every year.

It is hardly a shock that the Biden administration will take a softer approach to immigration on the southern border compared to Donald Trump. Law and order, immigration control and border enforcement has been a Republican talking point and policy platform for decades. Democrats have tried harder to strike a balance between border control and creating a path to citizenship for children of immigrants.

The Obama administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. Since that date, DACA has allowed more than 800,000 immigrant youth who came to the United States as children to temporarily remain in the USA, get an education and pursue gainful employment.

On June 15 this year – “DACA Day” – Biden gave a speech continuing his support for deferred citizenship. The House of Representatives passed the American Dream and Promise Act in March, and a draft U.S. Citizenship Act creates a pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals in the USA, including Dreamers.

Are Democrats walking into a Republican trap?

Democrats want to create a legal pathway to citizenship for child immigrants. The progressive left is especially passionate about this cause and wants Biden and Harris to soften their tone on migrant caravans travelling through central America and arriving at the border.

Republicans wants to solidify the southern border and protect existing communities. Building new and enforcing existing border fencing was a top priority of Trump on the campaign trail and when president. It remains a central issue for the GOP.

With the mid-term elections next year and a presidential election in 2024, Republicans sense White House weakness and a political opportunity.

At this weekend’s Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference, Trump gave a vintage Trump speech. Among a long list of familiar gripes – stolen election, big tech, cancel culture – and some unfamiliar talking points – magnets, steam engines, toothbrushes – were repeated mentions of the “border”. Twenty three of them to be precise.

This matters because of how structurally central Trump is to the Republican Party. Trump comfortably outpolled the field in a straw poll at CPAC, with 70 per cent favouring him to run for the presidency in 2024. Trump’s approval rating amongst CPAC attendees was 98 per cent. Where he goes, others will follow.

Use the 45th president’s CPAC speech to better understand the themes on which Republicans want to fight the midterms and 2024 presidential election:

With the help of everyone here today, we will defeat the radical left, the socialists, Marxists, and the critical race theorists. Whoever thought would be even using that term. We will secure our borders. We will stop left wing cancel culture. We will restore free speech and fair elections, and we will make America great again. It’s very simple. Very simple.

Even if this White House take a gradual and phased approach to the border, the thorniest issues will persist. The ultimate dilemma is whether to hold immigrants in detention centres or release them as they await their court proceedings. The former results in a policy that progressives consider unacceptably inhumane and positively Trumpian. The latter can create a backlog which can take years to clear.

The Biden administration would do well to listen to voters, as well as its members

Biden is working hard to keep his Congressmen and Senators on side. With the Senate split 50-50, history dictates that the Democrats will lose their de facto majority in next year’s midterms. With that, the White House will lose the ability to get legislation approved in a simple up-and-down vote. So, keeping the caucus happy matters now more than ever.

A new poll by the National Republican Senate Committee and the Republican Governors Association showed 53 per cent of voters say they are less likely to support Democrats for Congress because of the increase in migrants at the border.

Can Biden keep his party happy while ensuring he does not gift political mileage on a favourite issue of his likely opponent in 2024, Trump? We will find out soon.

Ben Roback: Does controlling migration really matter to Biden and Harris? If not, what follows?

5 May

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

There are intractable problems that seem to always dominate governments – no matter the party, Prime Minister or President in office. The age-old problem of what to do about older people and social care has evaded a hat-trick of British Prime Ministers since Andrew Dilnot’s commission published its recommendations in 2011. The United States has its fair share of such difficulties – from guns and gangs all the way to climate change and carbon emissions.

Joe Biden is seeking to take on the vast challenge of immigration and the crisis on the southern border. Sensing how problematic the predicament is, Biden has delegated the task to his Vice President, Kamala Harris.

It is set to be her most important litmus test ahead of an almost inevitable future run at the White House. Succeed, and she can claim to have fixed one of America’s most dogged political, social and humanitarian problems. Fail, and her record will be tarnished forever. The scale of the challenge means that the President has handed Harris a poisoned chalice. What better way to dampen expectations of Biden retiring in 2024 in order to gift her the presidential nomination?

If the barometer for success is reducing illegal crossings, Harris might find that the only solution is being veritably Trumpian – increased deportations, harsher rhetoric, expanded powers for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE).

In political terms, that is unconscionable for a Democratic Vice President, in the shadow of Donald Trump. Harris must deter illegal border crossings without being too harsh on the genuine immigrants and helpless children lumped together with economic opportunists.

The White House and Harris must aim high in order to succeed where their predecessors have failed

Most presidents try deportation. According to analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, more than 12 million people were deported during the Clinton administration. More than 10 million were then removed or returned during the Bush administration.

Barack Obama struck a softer tone on immigration, but nevertheless removed or returned more than five million people, including an estimated 1.7 million people who had no criminal record. With hindsight, Biden the presidential candidate called it a “big mistake” to have deported hundreds of thousands of them.

Trump tried a wall – campaigning on the premise that a physical barrier would stem the tide through Central America. The wall’s construction was mired in funding and contractual complications, but the 45th president left office having reduced the number of refugees admitted to the United States to its lowest level in 40 years.

How much responsibility the “big, beautiful wall” bears for that is mixed. The wall unquestionably embodied the United States’ new attitude to immigration, acting as a physical deterrent to attempted entry, alongside a raft of executive orders such as the Muslim ban and a reduction in the quote of people admitted to the US as refugees each year.

Progressives have cheered Biden…so far

The numbers of people arriving on the US border have grown since Biden took office, seemingly in part owing to a softer immigration policy compared to the Trump era. The President and his team are long enough in the tooth to recognise a political crisis unfolding before their eyes, and so doing nothing on immigration is not an option. So the White House has made a series of interventions so far.

Since January, the Biden administration has reversed a policy of turning away unaccompanied children, instead choosing to process them and place them with sponsoring families in the US. More recently, the White House announced it will raise the cap on refugees to 62,500 this fiscal year.

It followed outrage amongst immigration reform advocates and progressive Democrats after the President’s initial decision to keep the Trump-era ceiling of 15,000 admissions in place. So the move allows the White House to create clear daylight between Biden and Trump. But as the President himself says, “the sad truth is that we will not achieve 62,500 admissions this year”.

Most importantly, in March, he handed his vice president a political grenade by putting her in charge of the southern border. It’s a bit like asking Priti Patel to launch her Conservative Party leadership bid after being tasked with reducing illegal boat crossings at Dover and Newhaven.

Is immigration really a priority for the White House?

The problem for Biden, and perhaps more significantly for Harris, is that while immigration is approaching crisis levels, it does not seem to be a major concern in Washington.

The Covid relief plan was an urgent necessity – an essential, albeit expensive, piece of big government legislation designed to stop the country falling to its knees

Next, the American Jobs Plan and the American Family Plan are hugely ambitious legislative packages that are a throwback to the days of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society. In legislative terms on Capitol Hill and as the vaccine rollout continues, the full power of the US government is being felt.

John Kerry wants to lead the world on climate change. Anthony Blinken wants to reinvigorate old allegiances in order to combat the rise of China. Janet Yellen wants a global approach to corporate taxation to lower the playing field. Pete Buttigieg wants to make it easier to travel from Washington DC to Washington State.

The White House is firing on all cylinders. Is there any political or legislative oxygen left for anything else? That long and by no mean exhaustive list of political and policy priorities leaves little room for the kind of investment, attention and political capital required to deliver seismic immigration reform.

Washington will descend closer into a Congressional mid-term election overdrive soon. Democrats fear losing their razor-thin Senate majority in 2022, meaning serious policy upheaval needs to be completed sooner rather than later. With Covid relief done and infrastructure next, immigration does not appear to be anywhere near the top of the list for this administration. Time is running out.

Ben Roback: China. Under Trump, a threat. Under Biden, a competitor. The President’s speech at the Munich Security Conference.

24 Feb

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Joe Biden’s speech for this year’s Munich Security Conference (MSC) was probably an easy one to write.

“Don’t be like the previous guy” will have been the simple steer given in advance. And in just his third paragraph, the president delivered that message: “Two years ago, as you pointed out, when I last spoke at Munich, I was a private citizen; I was a professor, not an elected official. But I said at that time, “We will be back.” And I’m a man of my word. America is back.”

Turning the page on Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ philosophy in rhetorical terms was hardly a surprise. Joe Biden has been an internationalist and a multilateralist throughout his political career, and so the recent brief chapter in which the White House was sympathetic to autocratic strongmen was slammed shut.

An immediate return to the Paris Climate accord and a U-turn on the US approach to the European Union – once again a key strategic ally – mark further divergence, although it is reasonable to expect Biden to retain the pressure applied by Trump on European countries to spend more on defence.

Biden also marks a difference on Iran. He retains a hawkish view, like his predecessor – although in this speech he reinforced his “willingness to re-engage in negotiations with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program” while addressin “destabilising activities across the Middle East”. Concurrently at the MSC, Boris Johnson referred to Iran as one of “the most pressing security issues”.

“I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship”

The MSC is hardly a lynchpin in the political calendar in the same way as the presidential inauguration or a State of the Union address. On that basis, with domestic America hardly tuned it, the President spoke to European allies to whom he felt the Trump administration had given the cold shoulder.

There was a reminder of a recent order to halt the withdrawal of American troops from Germany, and a lifting of the cap imposed by the previous administration on the number of U.S. forces that can be based there.

For the United Kingdom, there was perhaps a curious absence. Biden quickly cantered through a reference about the importance of democracy and the need to “fight for it, strengthen it, renew it”, but did not mention the Government’s proposal to create a “D-10”.

In Boris Johnson’s speech, the Prime Minister confirmed he has invited South Korea, and Australia and India to attend the next G7 summit as guests. This chimes perfectly with Biden’s proposal to host a ‘Summit of Democracy’, which is likely to include the three nations mentioned above.

Making the case for democracies around the world is expected to be a core pillar of US-UK foreign policy, alongside a shared approach to China and increased military spending. As proof of the latter, UK carriers will be deployed to the Indo-Pacific and will be fully integrated with the US Marines.

A pivot away from the pivot to Asia?

Whilst Biden is a known internationalist, the world has changed around him. Trump left the Oval Office with Sino-scepticism seemingly a part of the White House furniture. And yet, the 46th president struck a softer tone that would have been unconscionable for the 45th, referring in his speech to building democratic allegiances in order to “prepare together for a long-term strategic competition with China”.

As well as seeking to lower the political temperature at home, this was a speech by Joe Biden that perhaps looked to do the same in the Asia Pacific area. Biden spoke about the need to “push back against the Chinese government’s economic abuses and coercion that undercut the foundations of the international economic system.” The politics of economics, not conflict.

Barack Obama initiated the ‘Pivot to Asia’ – a political and diplomatic shift towards the Asia Pacific.  Biden’s first foreign policy foray may have indicated a pivot back – three mentions of China, compared to seven of Russia. Time will tell whether that was accidental or by design. Perhaps it was a mere reminder to the world that America would revert to a much firmer stance on Russia than we had become used to with Trump in the White House.

The tonality was stark. Whilst China was a mere “competitor”, Russia was described as a “threat”. Here, no punches were pulled. “The Kremlin attacks our democracies and weaponises corruption to try to undermine our system of governance…Putin seeks to weaken European — the European project and our NATO Alliance.” Even more words that it was impossible to think Trump would ever have deployed.

Republicans have tried to label Biden as a “radical” in every respect – immigration policy, climate change, Cabinet nominees, the pricey Covid relief package. But on foreign policy, Biden’s first major intervention appeared anything but radical. Russia was painted a familiar threat, but Johnson went much further in explicitly calling out the attempted murder of Alexei Navalny. China was reframed from a direct threat (Trump) to a mere strategic competitor (Biden). President Biden’s MSC speech was far from radical. If anything risked being disappointingly tame.