This month sees the most concrete demonstration yet of what the UK’s post-Brexit foreign relations will look like. In the coming days, HMS Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s newest aircraft carrier, will set sail for the Pacific at the head of a strike group comprising two Type 45 destroyers, two Type 43 frigates, and an Astute-class submarine. A squadron of F35 jets from the US Marine Corps are also along for the ride, in a joint Anglo-American display of lavish destructive power.
Imagine what the British response would be if a comparable Chinese fleet, with Russian support, was to appear in the English Channel, accompanied by claims from Beijing and Moscow that the whole exercise was simply a defensive one; part of their commitment to upholding the ‘rules-based international order’. Would we shrug it off? Applaud their commitment to enlightened values? Or would we see it as a gratuitous act of machismo, and a dangerous escalation of geopolitical tensions?
Welcome to what Boris Johnson calls “Global Britain”. A second-tier world power diminished economically and diplomatically by Brexit, desperate to overcompensate in the military sphere, and now turning its attention to the geopolitics of East Asia. The government’s recent so-called Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy has spelled out the agenda for British foreign relations in the 2020s and beyond. It’s going to make us and the rest of the world a lot less safe. But then, it’s not really about us.
In foreign policy as in domestic policy, it pays to recognise that there is no such thing as the ‘national interest’. State policy is designed primarily to serve state power and the interests of British capital, not to defend or protect the interests of the British public. In that important sense, there is much continuity with the days of the British empire.
Another element of continuity is the pious, self-satisfied rhetoric that shrouds the pursuit of state and capitalist interests. The 114-page Integrated Review document describes Britain as a “force for good” on twelve occasions. Yemen, where Whitehall has helped to create the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, thus exposing itself to war crimes charges, receives a single fleeting mention.
There is much talk in the document and accompanying ministerial speeches of an emerging clash between democracies and authoritarian regimes, as if arming dictatorships were not a consistent, central feature of UK foreign policy. And as if the very empire upon which modern British power was built was not itself an authoritarian regime, sustained by centuries of state terror. There is also much talk of sustaining a rules-based “international order”, as if Britain did not have a consistent record of egregious international law violations, from Iraq to Yemen.
Beyond the rhetoric, two concrete policy developments stand out from the Integrated Review: a more aggressive nuclear posture, and a more confrontational stance toward China. Neither serve the interests of the British public. Both will make Britain and the world less safe.
The new, expansionary nuclear policy contributes to a twenty-first century arms race at a time when the danger of nuclear conflict is at its most acute since the height of the Cold War. The cap on the number of warheads in Britain’s stockpile is to be raised by 40%. Each carries 100 kilotons of explosive power, compared to the 15 kilotons of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the US in 1945.
There is also a new policy of refusing to say how many of these warheads are in deployment at any given time. Worse still, the UK now threatens to use Trident to counter major cyber-attacks, as well as attacks from weapons of mass destruction. London still refuses to rule out being the first party to use nuclear weapons in a conflict situation.
The fallacy is that such policies act as a so-called deterrent. The reality is that the more expansive a given country’s nuclear posture, the greater the risk perceived by other states, feeding an escalatory dynamic that heightens the danger of an unplanned nuclear exchange. This risk, however, is considered acceptable in pursuit of the real goal: enhancing the intimidatory power of the British state in international affairs.
The dangers here are linked to the other major outcome of the Integrated Review, namely the shift in geostrategic focus to the Indo-Pacific region. Ministers have said that they don’t seek a new Cold War with China, but the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group to China’s neighbourhood, the dramatic expansion of the UK’s nuclear posture, and the talk of “systemic competition […] between democratic and authoritarian values and systems of government” sends a radically different message.
The Indo-Pacific tilt involves deepening military, diplomatic and economic ties with India, Japan, South Korea and Australia; all states with at best an uncomfortable relationship with Beijing. There are also aspirations to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement of Pacific Rim nations conceived to act as a counterweight to China. There are economic gains to be had here (albeit for British capital, not for the British working class) – but nothing to substitute for the loss of preferential access to European markets. The primary motivation here is geopolitics.
Britain’s key strategic goal since the loss of empire has been to maximise its power and status within a world system led by the US, and to help Washington entrench and extend that system as far as possible. The challenge from a rising China is different from that formerly posed by the USSR, which had attempted to construct a separate and distinct international system. China is deeply enmeshed in globalised capitalism, and is as committed to that system as Britain and the US. The perceived danger is that China will establish itself as an independent pole within the system, undermining the hitherto dominant position of the Western states. A key post-Brexit priority for London is to prove its worth to Washington in countering this challenge. It is this which is driving a new Cold War which refuses to speak its name.
Suppose we had a government whose focus really was the security and interests of the British public, within a broader commitment to genuine internationalism and the wellbeing of humanity. Naturally, our foreign relations would look radically different. The two major security threats we would be focusing on would be Covid-19 – which in the UK has killed double the civilian death toll of WW2 – and global warming, which threatens the future of human civilisation itself. You can’t combat a virus with an aircraft carrier, or tackle carbon emissions with a nuclear warhead. Nor can you tackle these global threats effectively while undermining relations with key states you need to cooperate with.
Nuclear de-escalation could play a vital role in defusing geopolitical tensions, as well as cultivating the sort of wider cooperative relations between major states that are required to tackle pandemics and the threat of climate catastrophe. Britain could take the lead here, either through unilateral disarmament, or through the immediate announcement of a ‘no first strike’ policy, the abandonment of Trident renewal, and a call to the other nuclear states to engage in urgent talks on multilateral disarmament.
British power may be sharply diminished from the days of empire, or even from the pre-Brexit era. But Britain remains a powerful state with considerable capacity to threaten human security at home and abroad. With the Labour party now irrelevant as a progressive political force, real resistance to the current dangerous turn in UK foreign relations will need to come from the wider left.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.