Britain is heading for a hard Brexit. That will compound the economic uncertainty of the pandemic-induced recession. Why is the Johnson government finding it so difficult to articulate what Global Britain will look like, post-Brexit? Victor Hill is asking.
The Middle East transformed
Sometimes the tectonic plates of geopolitics shift perceptibly, causing tremors far and wide. In the week of 18 August, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Israel in a deal (probably better termed a peace treaty) brokered by the Trump administration. Under the terms of the deal, Israel pledged not to annex land in the West Bank and Abu Dhabi recognised Tel Aviv. I doubt if Mr Trump will be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for this transformative development (even though Mr Obama was afforded one just for being elected) – but this is hugely significant.
Fundamentally, the Arab-Israel conflict is morphing into a potentially more inflammatory confrontation between the Islamic Republic of Iran on the one hand and the major states of the region (including Israel) which oppose its nefarious methods, which include systemic state-sponsored terrorism. Even the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia whose king holds the title of Defender of the Shrines has adopted a much more nuanced attitude towards Israel, a state which it once considered a pariah.
But the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), together with the foreign ministries of France and Germany, still view middle eastern politics through the prism of the Israel-Palestine “problem” – even though the Americans and their allies in the region have a very different perspective. The Europeans (and the FCO) believe that the only answer to the Israel-Palestine issue is a two-state solution.
If only life could be so simple. There is, in fact, more than one Palestine: there are two. There is the West Bank, run by Fatah, the movement principally founded by Yasser Arafat (1929-2004); and then there is Gaza, run by the extremist hard-line Hamas which is closely allied to (and funded by) Iran. Incidentally, West Bank Palestinians are often Christians – whose diaspora has now extended throughout the Gulf – while Hamas is a hard-line Islamist organisation which has undoubtedly perpetrated terrorist acts throughout the region (not least in Lebanon). Hamas called this week for all regional (i.e. Arab) leaders to reject ties with Israel. Palestine does not constitute one homogenous people –and both Palestines are mired in corruption.
The USA, under Mr Trump, has consigned the two-state solution to oblivion and has proposed the deal of the century peace plan which would give the West Bank extensive autonomy, although Israel would have the right to build settlements for Jewish residents in specific areas. This was roundly rejected by the Palestinians. Mr Trump has relocated the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (the historic location of the Jewish Temple) and he has rescinded President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
He has also used his own extended family as a force for diplomacy beyond the State Department. Mr Trump’s son-in-law, Mr Kushner, has established cordial relations with the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed bin Salman (“MBS”) – and other Gulf princes. This may not be to everyone’s taste; but in the Arab world family diplomacy counts for a lot.
MBS is rightly regarded with suspicion in European foreign ministries – especially since the bizarre murder of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, which I tried to contextualise in these pages at the time. But the realpolitik is that he is a key player in the alliance against Iran – which has both the power and inclination to damage our own interests. Iran is a nation ruled by men in turbans and those wearing military boots. It is dedicated to, amongst other millenarian nightmares, the destruction of Israel.
This is why recent diplomacy by the UK government at the United Nations is so perplexing. Earlier this month, the US triggered a process at the UN whereby sanctions on Iran would be reinstated. By way of background, the original embargo was imposed in 2007 but was phased out after President Obama’s generous deal of 2015. But there was always a provision for the re-imposition of sanctions if Iran was in violation (as in building nuclear weapons aimed at Israel). And that is what the Americans have invoked.
France, Germany and the UK, however, all abstained. (Russia and China, of course, opposed.). The UK then lobbied the USA to reconsider the Obama deal with Iran and offered only faint praise for the UAE-Israel deal. At least it could have celebrated the commercial opportunities offered by the deal, since Israel is already established as a regional technology hub, and the UAE is emerging as an important regional financial centre.
It seems that the UK, about to break out of its EU shackles, just cannot bring itself to gainsay the Franco-German diplomatic machine: even though France-Germany recently voted against the UK at the UN in a motion to de-colonise the British Indian Ocean Territory (aka the Chagos Islands).
This week, Mr Raab, the UK Foreign Secretary, has been in Jerusalem. Supposedly, his mission was to mediate between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Well, good luck with that. Israel regards Iran as a real and present danger; the Palestinians are losing allies by the day. The FCO’s position is still that Israel should hand the (annexed) Golan Heights (which have been under Israel for 53 years) back to Bashar al-Assad’s blighted, war-torn Syria. Israeli Foreign Minister Ashkenazi expressed disappointment with Britain for failing to back new sanctions on Iran.
One fear in Whitehall is that Mr Johnson’s initiative to merge the Department for International Development (DfID) with the FCO may have unforeseen consequences. The left-leaning aid mongers who think that Britain should pay for its despicable past by dispensing largesse to the developing world (and even, for Heavens’ sake, China and India) will shortly swell the ranks of our embassies.
The friendship with the Big Guy: Trump or Biden?
Naturally, Prime Minister Johnson must remain studiously neutral in the incipient US presidential election campaign; but within the higher echelons of the Tory Party there is some ambivalence about the outcome.
On the one hand, Mr Trump is an Anglophile who admires The Queen; he is a Brexiteer; and he wants a beautiful trade deal with the UK. He backed us over the Salisbury chemical weapons attack and over Hong Kong. On the other hand, he is not a great champion of NATO (though he has a point about Europe’s riding on America’s military coattails). And he is not big on promoting democracy: rather he seems comfortable in the company of monsters like Kim Jung-Un. Mr Trump has had a chequered record on keeping a first-rate foreign policy team on board – though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is widely respected this side of the Pond. Most importantly, under Mr Trump, American leadership, moral and political, on some of the biggest global issues of our time – climate change to the fore – has been absent.
On Tuesday (25 August) the Daily Telegraph published a piece by former Tory leader Lord Hague entitled It’s in the UK’s national interest that Joe Biden wins the presidential race. Lord Hague argues that the coronavirus pandemic should have been an opportunity for international cooperation to halt the spread of the disease and to develop vaccines and treatments. But this could not have been achieved without US leadership – which was not forthcoming. Next year, the UK will host the Cop26 Climate Change Conference, the most important gathering on the issue since the Paris conference of 2015. If Mr Trump wins, then Lord Hague believes the conference will amount to no more than bluster.
There is another reason why some senior Tories are hoping for a Biden victory. Early on in his presidency Mr Trump abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership – though it went ahead anyway in 2018 with eleven member states as the CPTPP or TPP11. Meanwhile, Mr Trump focused on bilateral trade deals and his trade war with China. Some Tories think that a President Biden would back the USA into the CPTPP (President Obama’s policy) and that American membership would open the way for the UK to join as well. That would obviate the need for a bilateral US-UK free trade agreement with all the attendant risks for UK farming and consumers. (Chlorinated chickens and steroid enhanced beef etc.). Moreover, it would bring the UK into trading harmony with the three other great commonwealth democracies.
Whoever wins the US presidential election, the new cold war between the US and China will not go away. The Johnson government is only grudgingly getting behind America after the U-turn on Huawei – and the issue of TikTok’s HQ in London could be another litmus test soon. Let’s recall that the FCO still harbours the same people who advised the Cameron-Osborne pantomime horse on the new Golden Age of Sino-British relations.
Any attempt by Mr Johnson to invite three million Hong Kongers to settle in the UK will be vigorously opposed by China (and by millions of UK citizens). Once again, the UK has been making foreign policy on the hoof with no medium-term game-plan. The decoupling of the American economy from China will be a central US policy goal, whomsoever the president. The UK will just have to choose which side it’s on.
If Mr Biden is elected, he will most likely be a one-term president, given his age and mental infirmity. The energetic American far left within the Democratic party will exploit that mercilessly. It will be interesting to see what Lord Hague makes of it all in four years’ time.
The CANZUK option
CANZUK is the idea that the four English-speaking democracies which share HMTQ as their head of state and which enjoy fundamentally similar legal and commercial systems, should form a close commercial and political alliance. That would entail, medium-term, tariff-free trade and freedom of movement (subject to restrictions – the New Zealanders don’t want millions of British retirees swamping their healthcare system, for a start). It might develop into shared intelligence services and military assets – and that, in turn, could lead to a common foreign policy. Such a level of integration would require shared political institutions (though that may be a long way down the road).
Is this really feasible – or desirable? For this writer, this is what should have happened after World War II. On the other hand, the three former colonies of the UK may not have been ready. They had to go through a process of political maturation. In that they have succeeded. Canada, Australia and New Zealand are prosperous, respected nations which have forged their own identities in the world – and that is precisely why they are ready to experiment with new forms of collaboration in geopolitically uncertain times.
So the CANZUK project would not be Empire II – as it has been dubbed by those woke globalists at The Guardian. It would be a union of equals and would not have a distinctly British character, even though the British monarchy would be a symbol of unity – as it is already.
But does anybody want it? Curiously, the British are the most lukewarm, partly, in my view, because of the protracted period of Brexit stasis followed by the coronavirus coma. You might expect the in-your-face Aussies, who have a reputation for being rude about the “Mother Country” (aka the Poms), to be entirely opposed. But not a bit of it. Ex-Australian PM Tony Abbott has spoken out forcefully for CANZUK and has now been recruited by the UK government. And the new leader of the Canadian Conservative Party elected this week, Erin O’Toole, is a strong proponent.
Within the Johnson government only Secretary of State for Trade Liz Truss has spoken up for CANZUK. It is high time that the Johnson government bit the bullet.
A fork in the road
Through Brexit, Britain has sought to become independent and has re-asserted its place as a sovereign nation amongst others. Britain will soon become, in terms of its fisheries, an independent coastal state – and just wait for the Cod War of 2021 which will further undermine relations with the Europeans.
But Britain has not yet articulated an independent British foreign policy and still tends to follow the Franco-German line which guides EU foreign policy. Could that be, perchance, because the famous Withdrawal Agreement offers Britain the chance to participate in EU defence structures in return for contracts for the UK defence industry? More on that soon.
At the same time there is a tendency towards paralysis. What is the UK’s policy concerning Libya? Libya’s corrosive civil war has created a lawless state where terrorists, gangsters and people traffickers flourish. Many of the people arriving in dinghies in Kent began their journeys in Libya – so Britain has a direct stake in this. Various factions are backed by France and by Turkey – but Britain remains aloof. And what is the UK’s position in the Eastern Mediterranean where a dispute over oil and gas rights threatens conflict between Greece and Turkey? The French have sent an aircraft carrier; the British have done nothing. President Macron even condemned President Erdoğan’s decision to turn the Hagia Sophia World Heritage Site into a mosque. The British kept mum.
Pope John-Paul II, who spent much of his life under Nazi occupation and then Soviet-imposed communism, once asked a congregation: What did you do with your freedom?
It is time for Britain to begin to answer to that question. The world is watching.