Jon Moynihan was the CEO and Chairman of PA Consulting Group, as well as a member of the board of Vote Leave. Christopher Howarth is a former accountant, lawyer and TA soldier.
The promotion of Liz Truss to Foreign Secretary has the potential to mark a watershed in British foreign policy. Creative, iconoclastic, and bullet resistant, Truss has, as Trade Secretary, made multiple trade breakthroughs by combining pragmatism and optimism.
Recognising as she does the great geopolitical changes around the world during just this past decade, she has the opportunity to make her mark on our history by formulating, with the Prime Minister, a new foreign policy approach for the UK, one that cashes the Brexit Dividend while recognising the dramatic changes in the world that have occurred over the past decade.
There has never been a golden age of global peace and prosperity, but the world has definitely worsened recently. The EU, not yet reconciled to UK departure and torn between an anxiety to contain Russia and a desire for Russia’s energy, is an always unreliable partner, with the France/AUKUS row showing that the EU and its member countries often act in opposite directions.
The botched withdrawal from Afghanistan threatens to recreate a safe haven for arms and terrorism exports. Biden’s fumbles and abandonment of Trump’s Middle East gains give Iran a renewed chance to further its nuclear and regional ambitions within the Shiite Arc and beyond, destabilising states from Yemen to Iraq and threatening Israel.
In Africa, South Africa’s continued implosion has accelerated. Further north, the arena around east Congo contains Hieronymus Bosch-like scenes of civil and interregional war, rape, slavery, and economic exploitation. Across Africa, an old tradition, the military coup, has re-emerged; both military and civil autocrats bolster themselves with Russian mercenaries.
The Indian subcontinent is now a more dangerous place because of Afghanistan’s implosion. Myanmar has taken a huge step backward. Thailand is repressive. South and Central America are the least concerning areas, but only by comparison; democratisations that followed the Falkland Islands war in the 1980s have steadily drifted leftwards, with Venezuela a stark yet apparently unheeded warning.
This brings us, finally, to the two greatest problems: Russia and China. Russia, even in its position of weakness, creates instability, threatens invasion, in its near abroad – Ukraine and Baltics in particular. In further-away countries, the Wagner Group spearheads a new colonialism.
The group of thugs and oligarchs around Putin maintain a steely extractive grip on their own country. Russia has a formidable cyber hacking arm which makes money (through ransomware) and disrupts the West.
Russia opportunistically allies itself with the far stronger China, whose intelligent and to date successful long-term policy, starting with the Belt-and-Road initiative, is quite clearly that of world domination.
In its near abroad, China extends its reach bit by bit, building roads into Pakistan and Afghanistan and railways toward Europe; building illegal villages in Bhutan and pushing Indian soldiers off Himalayan precipices. It refuses to bring North Korea to heel even as that country becomes an ever-greater nuclear and cyber menace (even as large numbers of North Koreans starve to death).
Despite the West’s long-held concern, that led to Obama’s “pivot to Asia”, China continues with its long-term maritime strategy, building piece-by-piece what is eventually likely to become the most formidable Navy in the world.
It builds ports in Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Gwadar and on; it fortifies islands and atolls across the vast expanses of China’s 9-dash-line claim; it threatens Taiwan. In the meantime, China extracts every last ounce of the West’s technological capability via legal and illegal routes; buying, spying, hacking, sending its students in waves to the west so as to learn and return.
The spectacle of China building a F-35 clone 10 years before expected was a wakeup. It highlighted that the role of science – in weapons development, cyber defence and offence, intelligence, and industry – is key, yet in the UK, as in most of the West, we are falling behind and are increasingly unable to protect even what IP we have.
These are some of the strategic challenges facing the UK. What should the UK response be?
In short, our new foreign policy doctrine should first, realise the Brexit dividend, and second, respond to the new bifurcated hegemonic structure: The US (no longer the global hegemon) with its allies, versus China and Russia with their satrapies.
The Brexit Dividend: The UK has not been a super-power for 100 years, but it is a significant power, one with a unique ability to be at the centre of alliances addressing current and future threats. Now we’re a fully sovereign power, we can forge our own policy based on our own interests, with full control of defence, trade and development.
The EU, built around a single market and customs union, always lacked a coherent foreign policy. The UK as a member was saddled with a trade policy serving the interests of others, not us, and a foreign policy unaligned even with the EU’s own trade agreements – the German or Cypriot veto, for example, preventing any serious criticism of Russia or China.
The Bifurcated Hegemony: things are going to get tougher. We will have to tighten our uses of trade and subordinate it and Aid to new geopolitical imperatives; anticorruption and cementing new treaties will have to take precedence over softer fashionable favourites.
Our new ability to focus on our own (and global) security came good in the recent AUKUS negotiations. The UK played to its strengths; a trading partner, trusted and with unique technology (more Brexit dividend: as an EU member the UK could not have discussed trade policy; would have had to support French interests; and would have been pressured to be more accommodating to China).
Promoting specific UK interests becomes central; no more need to outsource our development money (and trade deficit) to Brussels. A sovereign UK can use its aid and trade policy as twin tools to improve stability and growth in Africa, helping countries trade their way out of poverty –win-win for the UK in prosperity and influence.
In the Middle East we can work better with historic partners on security and trade. Joining CPTPP (the pacific trade partnership), and the hinted deemphasis of Canada and NZ from the 5eyes network, points to a more complex future, awash with interlocking networks and relationships of different strength.
We can also now push our objectives in global councils – protecting intellectual property, combating cyber espionage and theft, resisting authoritarian states seeking to subvert international organisations and our values. The UK now has the opportunity to work flexibly with different models to meet differing and emerging threats and opportunities. It’s an exciting new chapter in UK foreign policy.
Such an approach has the makings of a distinctly Conservative foreign policy; pragmatic but optimistic, believing in Britain, British values and a global role; with loyalty to old allies and friends and an instinctive belief that global engagement is good for both us and the world.
As Margaret Thatcher always clearly said: a decrease in British (and American) global influence would be very bad for the world. Fortunately, Truss, being a Thatcherite, recognises the opportunities the UK has. She brings to the Foreign Office unique insights into how to further UK interests and global stability. A new Johnson/Truss doctrine can put them into action.