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What now for Global Britain after Afghanistan crisis?

7 min read

The government’s 'Integrated Review of foreign policy' foretold 2021 would be a year of British leadership, stating that with the UK chairing the G7 and COP26 it would demonstrate their global commitment and “interoperability with allies”.

However, the unfolding chaos in Afghanistan has highlighted concerns held by foreign policy experts and parliamentarians that the US is only interested in operating unilaterally, and the UK, by pinning its post-Brexit ambitions to the special relationship, has been left isolated on the world stage. At an emergency meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair Tom Tugendhat stressed this point, telling the foreign secretary that the Afghan crisis “has exposed a weakness in our alliances."

Chair of the powerful Defence Select Committee, Tobias Ellwood MP, tells The House that “Britain needs to step up”, warning that there isn’t the option to make this an individual event in Afghanistan: “We are in this transition phase where what we choose to do now will be fundamental to where the next decades go.”

He stresses that the US decision to unilaterally withdraw has shone the light on just how currently weak the special relationship is and how fragile the UK’s relationship is with European allies: “The G7 summit seemed to be a reset, a post Trump-post Brexit recognition that we have to do more…. And yet only months later, at the next G7 meeting, where they debated the single issue of keeping an airport open, they weren’t able to gain a consensus”.

Speaking to The House, Martin Binder, Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Reading, agrees that Afghanistan “reflects a more general crisis of multilateralism”. There is a “disintegration” of relations between western powers, he argues, which can be evidenced by the US not even “picking up the phone” to coordinate on the withdrawal.

Global Britain’ is an empty slogan and looks evermore hollow

This breakdown in relations, Binder argues, is a “big problem for the UK government,” which – having left the EU and therefore with “less influence among the European powers” – has tried to “get closer to the US but it turns out that the special relationship is not that special”.

What the UK can choose to do now is constrained by who its core allies are, with some experts arguing the UK government was misguided to look to the US for global moral leadership, highlighting that Washington has always had the tendency to act unilaterally. Instead, they argue, the UK should turn its attention to improving relations with the EU.

Former Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Dominic Grieve, tells The House that there is a “really serious gap between the aspiration and the reality” in the government’s foreign policy agenda. He is clear that the UK should rebuild relations with the EU in order to restore stability on the world stage, suggesting the UK ought to “turn itself into the indispensable outer partner of the EU, not just of individual EU states”

Member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Neil Coyle MP, tells The House that outside of the EU “we are less important to the US. ‘Global Britain’ is an empty slogan and looks evermore hollow in the face of the US ignoring Johnson and Raab’s pleas for more time in Kabul. The exceptionalism ministers claim for the UK is being rewarded with isolation”.

However, Dominic Grieve highlights that there has been a “really serious breakdown” in relations between the UK and EU partners. The chilliness of their foreign policy relationship can be evidenced by the row over the diplomatic status of the EU ambassador to the UK and the EU’s refusal to mention the UK once in its communique following the G7 videoconference on Afghanistan, despite the UK being host and chair.

Professor Richard Whitman, Associate Fellow of the Europe Programme at Chatham House, believes the UK is significantly more aligned with the EU on matters of foreign policy than the US, but lacks any formal structure or institutionalisation to the alignment.

The reason for this lack of structure, Whitman tells The House, is “theological” with the UK refusing to negotiate this level of cooperation in 2019 and the EU struggling to move past the “template kind of relationship” it is used to and instead pursuing their own agenda of strategic autonomy.

If the UK is to move away from dependence on the United States, then Whitman states they could engage more deeply with the E3 -  a partnership of UK, France and Germany – which “can help manage transatlantic diplomacy” and has previously presented a united front, against the US decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

According to Professor Whitman, the EU could also invite the UK foreign secretary along to its informal monthly foreign minister meetings - ‘Gymnich’ – to send a signal that the Europeans can work together on foreign policy.

Concern around the UK being left without any serious allies and the potential disintegration of relations more generally between western countries is the “totemic question,” Tobias Ellwood argues. The concern being that there are other, non-liberal, non-democratic countries, looking to fill any vacuum. “The reality is evidenced all around us: the rise of China; Russia’s aggression and advance in Syria; and trade rules unable to keep up with the changing face of trade with the movement of data.”

However, at a recent briefing, the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson rejected the suggestion that the chaotic end to the West’s mission in Afghanistan had shown up any inherent flaws in the “Global Britain” agenda.

He said: "You've seen the Prime Minister leading the work with our EU and our NATO partners, and other partners on the future of Afghanistan.”

“Obviously there was a timetable, set out by the former US president, in terms of leaving, which dictated the timetable. We had to adhere to that.”

Trade is now a driving factor in deciding much of the UK’s foreign policy direction post-Brexit. The UK government has been clear about its desire to become “deeply engaged” in the Indo-Pacific region by 2030 in order to provide new trade opportunities; and £491m of UK Aid money has been allocated to support new trade opportunities.

Our reputation for doing the right thing is in tatters and with it the influence that status afforded us

Dominic Grieve cautions that the Indo-Pacific tilt “is clearly trade related and it is very difficult to see how it can be significant in UK foreign policy strategic thinking”.

Grieve is clear that a trading advantage in the region may result in further contradictions in the “Global Britain” agenda as it would see the UK doing trade with countries who may be hostile to human rights.

Speaking to The House, Labour MP Afzal Khan, suggests a trade driven foreign policy often leads to a disjoint between strategic objectives: “Working closely on the Uyghur crisis for many years, it is apparent that this government has always prioritised trade over human rights” he argues.

In response to these concerns, a government spokesperson told The House that it had been “very clear that increased global trade will not come at the expense of human rights”, arguing that “by having stronger economic relationships with partners, we can have more open discussions on a range of issues, including human rights.”

Chair of the International Development Committee, Sarah Champion is also concerned that the UK government is not being transparent on the trade-offs and conflicting agendas inherent within its foreign policy strategy. Speaking to The House Champion said the Integrated Review failed to address “how to deal with a powerful but belligerent China, how to strengthen multilateral institutions in the face of Covid, and how to leave the EU while retaining security and economic partnerships with our closest neighbours.”

The government, Champion argues, has failed to live up to its global commitments by cutting its aid budget, which has in turn damaged the UK’s credibility: Our reputation for doing the right thing is in tatters and with it the influence that status afforded us.”

When Parliament returns on 6 September parliamentarians will be wanting answers from the government on what their long term strategic foreign policy aims are in the wake of Afghanistan, with both the foreign affairs and defence committees announcing they will be holding inquiries.

“If we want to return to a player on the world stage as the Integrated Review directs us to, then we do need to have more strategic thinkers and more of a determination” Ellwood urges.

Laura Hutchinson is Head of UK Political Intelligence for Dods Monitoring

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