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.

Neil O’Brien: The plans we must make now to ensure that our ship doesn’t hit the rocks

16 Nov

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

I’ve been thinking about endurance. HMS Endurance specifically. It was a little ship the Royal Navy used to send down to the South Atlantic.

A friend used to serve on it, and I’m haunted by his description of life out on a tiny ship in some of the world’s roughest seas: the vast winds that endlessly circle Antarctica, with no land anywhere to slow them; the huge waves down in Drake Passage, with the green water coming over the bow and even hitting the bridge; and of wondering whether the ship would be broken by the sheer power of the ocean.

A bit after he was on it, the ship nearly sank following an accident. It filled up with freezing water, and with all power lost, amid a gathering storm, it started drifting towards the rocks. The crew spent 24 hours fighting for their lives: bailing out the ship by hand, and eventually escaped from a gathering hurricane in the nick of time. While the story of how they survived is an inspiring one – the account of the mistakes that were made that led to the accident in the first place is an informative one.

As so often with disasters, the warnings were all there: the wrong sort of ship; no proper maintenance; too many key staff absent; major problems with the culture…

As with so many disasters, in retrospect the warning signs were all there.

One of the great arts in politics is to see the problems and the big choices coming, so that you can solve them before the ship starts sinking. 2021 is shaping up to be a year where we make some very big choices that will define the coming years.

And I what I really want is readers’ views on what the big choices are. But let me start with my own mental list for later next year.

Let’s assume for a moment that we have come out of the other side of Coronavirus and Brexit. It’s 2021, the vaccine is rolling out, the virus is dying out, the economy is recovering. Still a long way to go, I know. But what will happen then? I think there are four really big choices:

First, the big fiscal choice. At present the focus is rightly on helping support the economy until we get into sustained recovery. But it seems likely there will be some kind of structural deficit afterwards, because the economy will be behind where we hoped it would be. We won’t know how big or small the deficit will be for quite a while. It may be small enough that we can take some time. Or so big that we can’t. So we may face some big choices on (a) how fast to try to close any gap, and (b) what mix of tax and spending decisions to use to fix it.

The second choice is our plan for growth. Western countries have had a rough decade, and some economists worry about “secular stagnation”. How do we get the economy moving faster? How can the tax system better support investment and innovation? How can we change the composition of government spending on research to better support business growth? How attract more inward investment in higher skill, higher tech, higher wage industries?

Third, we face big choices about the future of the UK. The Scottish Parliament elections on 6 May may herald a dramatic new phase in the debate. The bookies (though they’ve been wrong before) give the SNP a 95 per cent chance of being the largest party and a 66 per cent chance of an outright majority, either of which they would use to rev up their demands for another referendum. The breakup of Britain would lead to a decade or more of catastrophic paralysis. Years of arguments over currencies, pensions, debts, mortgages and state assets. Officials working to unpick hundreds of years worth of stitching. All parts of the UK would suffer economically, and it would make the Brexit rows of 2016-2019 look like a walk in the park. Yet even with the virus raging, the SNP are preparing to go into overdrive to force a second referendum. An equally strong campaign will be needed to fight back. How do we fight it?

The fourth big choice is about the levelling up agenda: and how far and how fast we can go. The lead times on getting things done can be daunting. For example: in 2014/15 we decided to phase out rubbish “pacer” trains in the north. But last won’t leave service in the north until next month. We need policies which will genuinely help poorer places catch up, but also need to show significant progress by 2024.

Then there’s all the other things.

Decisions to take about the future of devolution and local government in England, with a White Paper out in the spring.

There’s a second year of tough decisions to take on school exams. The Welsh government has already cancelled next year’s exams. Assuming we can still hold them in England, there are unavoidable choices on how to mark them. Given the disruption to schooling, mock results will likely be worse, but not evenly so across different types of schools – for example, the crisis has affected state and private schools very differently. So how do universities assess potential? And should we measure pupils against each other with the same distribution of grades as earlier years? Or maintain comparison with previous years, which would likely see grades drop across the board?

There’s a long-expected decision to take on universities. Do we keep the current system? Or build up technical education, and try to reduce the number of students on low value university courses which lead to low earnings while consuming lots of taxpayer subsidy?

At the start of November next year, the UK will host the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. There are big choices to make about how and how fast to pursue decarbonisation at home, and lots of questions about what the UK should be pushing for at the conference.

MPs voted for net zero, but massive questions about how to do it remain open. Are we aiming for heat for people’s homes to come from electricity in future, or by pumping hydrogen through the current gas grid? If more and more vehicles will be electric, what mix of (and how much) electricity production are we aiming for?

Then there’s big questions in foreign and security policy. The Integrated Review is due out, which (sensibly) combines the questions of our future defence and security spending with questions of economic security – given a world where we face ruthless technology competition, not least from China.

But there are other big security questions: France is suffering a wave of brutal Islamist terror attacks – is there more we need to do to pre-empt such atrocities here? The Prime Minister and President-Elect Joe Biden have both floated new ways to get the world’s democracies working together, including those like India and Japan that are outside NATO. Can something new be brought together?

These are just my starters for ten – so readers, it’s over to you. What are the biggest choices? What are the problems that we have to get ahead of to keep this ship afloat?

If you back CANZUK, you should also support the D10 – an alliance of democracies

28 Aug

If by CANZUK you mean new trade deals, four of the five eyes, and stronger cultural links with some of what Churchill called “the English-speaking peoples”, we’re all for it.

If by CANZUK you mean free movement, a NATO-type defence union and a single Joe Chamberlain-style economic bloc, our advice is to lie down until the feeling goes away.

The subject is topical because Erin O’Toole, the new Conservative Party leader in Canada, sees CANZUK as “a top priority”.  His version is somewhere between the two sketched above.

The first would sit comfortably with another idea whose time has come – the D10, about which James Rogers of the Henry Jackson Society wrote recently on this site, and which Boris Johnson’s Downing Street is rather keen on.  Expect it to feature in the Defence and Security Review.

Where NATO is a hard power alliance, the orientation of which is still to confront Russia by military means if necessary, the D10 would be a soft power one, aimed at countering the influence of China.

“You might say that, we couldn’t comment,” a Government insider told ConHome, adding that “the idea is being picked up by a broad listenership, which includes Canada and Australia.”

“There’s some interest in Bidenland.  And for the medium-sized powers, there’s security in numbers.  The idea’s in the ether, but it could materialise.”

The UK chairs the G7 next year, so the stage is set for the idea to get a push then, after the Defence and Security Review sets the scene.

So: who would be in the D10?  CANZUK enthusiasts should note that three of the four potential members would be in it: Canada, Australia and the UK.  New Zealand leans towards a different foreign policy orientation.

Then turn to the G7, of which the UK and Canada are already members.  Add Australia and South Korea to the United States, Japan, and the three EU country members – France, Germany and Italy – and you have a total of nine.

Finally, there’s India.  That’s ten major democracies with different military orientations and economies – but shared democratic values.

One could seek to draw other countries in – such as Spain, for example.  But what is being looked for here is a group big enough to work, but not so big as to be unwieldy.

During the Cold War, America and western Europe tended to speak with one voice.  Post-war progress, wealth and stability was built on this alliance – expressed in its security dimension by NATO.

That organisation is still adjusting to the collapse of communism – with two members, Greece and Turkey, at loggerheads, and others, such as Turkey and Hungary, moving closer to Russia.

Which imperils NATO’s integrity – but even were it functioning seamlessly, the organisation isn’t shaped to deal with China, not only because of where it sits but because of what it does.

A soft power D10 wouldn’t be a rival to a military alliance.  It would differ in purpose to the G20, which contains not just China but Russia too, plus the entire EU.  It would take in most of CANZUK, as noted.

At a time when China is expanding its interests through the Belt and Road Initiative, the D10 would offer a counterweight, in terms of investment, capacity-building, aid and the promotion of democratic values.

It could also begin to speak with a common voice at the United Nations, and there would be an obvious crossover with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the UK is keen to join, as our columnist Stephen Booth has reported.

Downsides?  The EU countries are not on the same page as America on China – or, to strike a very topical note, on Iran, over which Britain is sticking with the EU position rather than moving towards the American one, having voted recently the former at the UN.

Doubtless part of the diplomatic thinking is the calcuation that Donald Trump may not be in place after November – which may be wrong.

Elsewhere, Narendra Modi is taking India in a different direction from its secular heritage. And it is hard to see how this alliance could conjure up a quick alternative provider to Huawei.

But if you believe that the great post-war alliance between America and western Europe was of value, you will smile on a new means of creating a modern version for a different purpose.

James Rogers: We’re in the G7 and are members of NATO. But we need a new alliance of democracies – the D10.

8 Jul

James Rogers is Director of the Global Britain Programme at the Henry Jackson Society.

Covid-19 is like a flash of lightning that uncovers a darkened landscape at night. It is, of course, first and foremost a public health emergency; but more deeply, it is a reflection of deep geopolitical change.

It has reconfirmed the Indo-Pacific zone’s growing centrality. It has revealed the authoritarian nature and untrustworthy character of China’s government. It has shown why we cannot afford to be so dependent on China – or any other country – for critical goods. And it has demonstrated why we need to work more with like-minded countries to uphold our principles and secure our objectives and interests.

Although it has been clear for some while that the so-called rules-based international system is increasingly dysfunctional, Covid-19 has confirmed the extent to which authoritarian powers have gained influence in such bodies last the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Human Rights Commission – stuffed as it often is with autocracies and systematic human rights abusers.

The reason for this is that the authoritarian revisionists – such as Russia and China – have grown in power over the past two decades. They want to make the world safe for autocracy; as they gain further in power, and unless they are resisted, they will continue to dismantle or hijack the international order that Britain and its allies have done so much to put in place and undergird.

This is why it makes sense, as Boris Johnson’s government restarts the Integrated Strategic Review, to thoroughly reappraise Britain’s membership of existing alliances and international organisations.

The problem is that most of these were born of a different age; they have grown difficult to reform; many allies fail to pull their weight; and it is proving ever-harder for the United Kingdom, like other democracies – even the United States – to secure its interests through them. It is vital to remember that multilateralism is not important for its own sake; multilateralism is important only if it helps Britain project its principles and secure its interests.

This does not mean, however, that the United Kingdom should descend into a clumsy transactional foreign policy, or facile isolationism.  What it does mean is that the government needs to be more selective about the alliances and international organisations it chooses to buttress and work with. It also means that Britain should be prepared to expand the functions of existing groups or, even, create new frameworks, to reflect new realities.

It is for this reason that reports that Johnson’s government is proposing to form a new coalition of democracies – potentially out of the G7 – should be particularly welcomed.

Notwithstanding Japan’s membership, the G7 is primarily Euro-Atlantic in orientation. It lost much of its rationale during the 2000s, as the centre of economic gravity shifted towards East and South-East Asia. The formalisation of the G20 after the financial crisis of 2007-2008 only confirmed its obsolescence.

Likewise, other organisations, even the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, have been rendered less relevant today than in the past as geopolitical competition has followed the previous economic shift towards China and the Indo-Pacific.

This is why a new coalition of democracies makes sense, particularly one that reflects new economic and geopolitical realities. Britain is said to be keen to build such a coalition – known as the Democratic 10, or ‘D10’ for short – to include the existing G7 members, alongside India, South Korea and Australia.

Ostensibly as a first step, Donald Trump suggested inviting the three countries to the upcoming G7 summit this autumn, perhaps alongside Russia – a proposal too far, which the British and Canadians, even the Russians themselves, quickly rejected.

It should come as no surprise that the concept of a community of democracies, even the D10, has been mooted in various guises for some time. That Britain is now prepared to push the idea – there will be ample opportunity during the British presidency of the G7 in 2021 – shows not only the fresh thinking Boris Johnson’s government is capable of, but also how much a new democratic coalition is needed.

An organisation like the D10 could help the democracies organise their efforts to resist the authoritarian revisionism of countries like Russia and China. It could provide a forum for technological cooperation at the strategic level, to ensure that an authoritarian power never again becomes the market or technological leader in the way that China has in relation to 5G telecommunications systems.

The D10 could also provide a platform for the democracies to coordinate the reversal of environmental degradation and their broader international development efforts, particularly as China accelerates and expands its vast £770 billion Belt and Road Initiative.

It could gradually expand to include additional democracies – such as Chile – that are able and willing to preserve an international order based on rules.  And, in time, the D10 could even facilitate greater military cooperation between its members, particularly if growing international tensions start to boil over.

Covid-19 has merely reconfirmed the fact that the democracies cannot take their security for granted. Britain’s proposal for the D10 shows that it is capable of putting the concept of ‘Global Britain’ into practice. It throws down the gauntlet to the Europeans, in an attempt to coax them out of their introspectiveness, while showing America, Japan, India and Australia that London takes their concerns seriously, particularly in relation to China. If implemented, it would rev-up multilateralism for a new age by preparing the world’s democracies for the challenges of the twenty-first century. And it proves that Britain is still at the crux of the international order – not a power shuffling away from it.