November 06, 2020

A New Humility

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had banked on a second term for Donald Trump. A Biden presidency and loose ties, at best, with the EU will make the task for the United Kingdom winning back credibility a long-haul undertaking.

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
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Hold the image in your head: the plucky island as a rowing boat battling against the high sea as it drifts perilously in the Mid-Atlantic. As Joe Biden inches his way to the White House, that is the fate that beckons for the United Kingdom. Having all but severed its links with its European partners and erstwhile friends, the UK placed an all-in bet on the United States and Donald Trump. How will that now play out as a furious Trump cries foul and refuses to accept the democratic will?

Biden disdains Boris Johnson. His demeanor toward him is reminiscent of Angela Merkel’s: hold your nose, get on with it, do the business, then leave. The prospect of a Biden victory sent Number 10 Downing Street into high anxiety in recent weeks. The Democratic candidate made clear his fury at Johnson’s cavalier disregard for international law, denouncing him for putting the stability of Ireland as a bargaining chip in Brexit departure negotiations. He recognizes in Johnson a similar quixotic right-wing populism to the one he so disparages in Trump.

Much of British public life is paralyzed by history and delusions of grandeur. Its perennial identity crisis can be summarized in one recent episode—the singing of an imperial ditty about ruling the waves and never being slaves. Even in the midst of the pandemic, the question of whether the lyrics of “Rule Britannia!” should be included in the last night celebrations of The Proms, the UK’s annual classical music festival, became front-page news in September. This row provided fertile territory for yet another culture-war skirmish. That Johnson weighed in tells the world everything it needs to know about contemporary Britain. Yet it tells the UK nothing about what it needs to know about the contemporary world. Therein lies the problem.

Adjusting to a New Life

As Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley recently asked: “How does a nation with an outsized ego adjust to life as a midsized power?” Post-Brexit, the UK has withdrawn from most of the strategic decision-making mechanisms affecting Europe. As Germany’s justice minister at the time, Katarina Barley, put it at a British-German forum in 2019: “Even if we agree with you in the future, we will always be more distant, because family comes first, and you are no longer family.”

Studied indifference is the term most used now to describe Germany’s approach to Brexit. When it came to the response to the poisoning of Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, it was Germany that took the lead, working closely with France and Sweden. On Ukraine, it was the Germans, French, and Poles. On Belarus, it is Germany and the Baltics. Previously Britain would have had a role of sorts.

As for the so-called “special relationship,” that has been on the wane for years. It has been kept alive by successive US administrations, largely in name only and for the benefit of the British. It has heavily influenced British behavior. Tony Blair was shocked when the newly-elected US President George W. Bush invited his Mexican counterpart rather than him to be the first to visit. Blair was even more disappointed when Bush gave London no notice of his “axis of evil” State of the Union speech, presaging military action against Iraq. Blair made it clear to his officials that he would do whatever it took to be by the president’s side. We know what happened next.

One-Sided Relationships

Relations have been frosty on a number of occasions. Bill Clinton was incensed when told that the British had searched passport records at the behest of the Republicans ahead of the 1992 presidential elections, to find out if the Democrat candidate ever applied for one to dodge the Vietnam War draft. Clinton repeatedly snubbed John Major after he was elected. Trump didn’t think much of Theresa May (he has history with female leaders as Merkel will attest).

Yet, reinforced by a very close intelligence and security relationship, US presidents and British prime ministers have usually made it work. They will do so again, but the relationship is embarrassingly one-sided. Johnson was banking on Trump to win a second time. He needed him as his lodestar and guarantor of a “world beating” trade deal. Biden will be in no hurry to help him secure that.

With the UK’s two central pillars to foreign policy considerably weakened, Johnson will make a virtue of necessity. Downing Street and the Foreign Office are already talking of “ad hoc cooperation” and “understandings” between “sovereign equals” rather than formal ties. So, what can the British salvage? Perhaps being pushed out of the family, two families, might turn out to be a liberating experience? That, at least, is the hope.

Making Up a Strategy

The UK has no shortage of international institutions to work with—as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, in NATO, the G7, and the Commonwealth. Next year will be propitious for the UK’s status. It will chair the Security Council from February and take over the rotating presidency of the G7. The year will culminate with the COP 26 conference on climate change taking place in Glasgow, after a COVID-19-delay, in November 2021.

Britain is also working well as part of the more informal E3 group, alongside France and Germany, particularly on Iran. All three countries have repeatedly rebuffed the Trump administration on the Iranian nuclear agreement, notably when it tried a “snap back” of sanctions on Iran in the UN Security Council. Across Europe there was considerable (and justifiable) relief that London did not peel off on Iran. Cyber is another area where British cooperation is respected.

Britain is following the lead from France and then Germany in developing an Indo-Pacific strategy, a prism through which to forge policy on everything from climate to trade to security, but whose context is to manage the rise of China. This was supposed to have formed a major part of a new integrated security and foreign policy review that was postponed alongside the accompanying comprehensive spending review—all delayed, understandably, because of the pandemic. The Foreign Office has put effort into courting a number of South East Asian nations such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore, seeing them as both strategic and trade allies.

A “Loadbearing Partner”

One phrase doing the rounds is to describe Britain as the “loadbearing partner,” looking at areas where it can lead and where others will be happy for it to do so, such as Libya. Individual “wins” such as this, even if they occur, do not, however, make up a strategy.

There is perhaps nothing ignoble in a foreign policy that looks for diplomatic and commercial benefit through strong bilateral relationships. This is what many medium-sized countries do.

The mismatch lies between this tactic and the over-arching strategy. Britain still wants to be a big player. Can it do that in its present predicament? Mutual interest usually enables difficult relationships to recover. The Americans will work with Boris Johnson; the Germans and French likewise. But for Britain to recover its wider credibility, an entire new body of work needs to be done.

Biden will not be reaching out first to Johnson. That should, if wise heads in Downing Street prevail, mark the start of a long haul back, one that requires doggedness, inventiveness—and new-found humility.

John Kampfner is a columnist for The Times of London. His new book Why The Germans Do It Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country is published by Atlantic; it will be published in German by Rowohlt in April 2021.

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