Britain appears to be falling by the wayside as one of the leading countries of the world. However, while the dis-United Kingdom continues to come apart at the seams over Covid and leaving the European Union, compared to the US, France, and Germany—and the rest of the West—at this juncture it seems only the UK can be trusted to deal with Russia and China.
However, the above is only barely a true statement, as Great Britain came perilously close under Prime Minister Boris Johnson to becoming too acquiescent to both Russia and China. Just like his two Tory predecessors, David Cameron and Theresa May, Johnson not only played tennis with an actual Russia agent, he opened the Conservative Party coffers to tens of millions of pounds of Russian money. Moreover despite finally jettisoning Huawei, by sticking with it as long as he did, he helped persuade other European leaders to drag their feet as well.
Yet, amid all the political turmoil and fallout from the ongoing battles in Westminster and Brussels, an intriguing element of the UK’s seemingly waning leadership involves how Britain adroitly manages to conduct a functional foreign policy beyond the predominant “in or out” issue. In fact, Brexit aside, among western allies it has become clear that only the UK can be relied on in its dealings with the Russian nemesis. The same cannot be said for the US, France, or Germany.
This may sound particularly ironic in light of Johnson’s having prevented a key report on Russian interference from a Parliamentary committee from becoming public, apparently to hide its contents from scrutiny until after his election – including details on the closeness of dubious Russian figures with himself and other Tory Prime Ministers, warnings of a successful Russian intel network, massive Russia money laundering via UK real estate, and a largesse of Conservative Party funding from Russians.
Nonetheless, when it has really counted, Johnson, along with May, and Cameron have all taken a appropriately hard lines on Russia and China, from Britain’s contributions to forward placements of western troops and equipment in Central Europe, to actions taken on behalf of the attempted assassinations of former Russian spies by current ones on multiple occasions. UK foreign policy can also be favorably contrasted with the policies of its closest allies.
Germany should be commended for its E3 proposal and at long last committing to eventually spend 2% of GDP on defense, as well as modest participation in western operations in Syria, Iraq, Mali, and Afghanistan. Moreover, German strategic thinking has undergone a welcome overhaul of its overly enduring commitment to pacifism, at the behest of former President Gauck who taught German leaders that responsibility does indeed come with power.
But Germany has been far too cozy with Russia, from shady business ties like that of former Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, to the wholly reprehensible Russian natural gas pipeline Nord Stream II. Of all countries to willingly to submit to greater Russian influence over itself, Germany, in light of its history, should cancel this notorious infrastructure project that will do acute harm to a Ukraine that at the moment needs all the help it can get from the West. We will soon know if Merkel is really holding Russia to account for the attempted poisoning of Alexi Navalny.
France under de Gaulle scion Emmanuel Macron is rightfully being roundly criticized across the board, apparently none the wiser for his failed attempt to draw Donald Trump in close. Macron is guilty of a long list of geopolitical sins of late, including embarking on a quixotic suck up to Vladimir Putin, being excessively harsh to the UK over its need for a longer Brexit delay, intervening on the wrong side of the war in Libya along with Russia (that of General Haftar, currently trying to oust the legitimate UN-NATO-EU backed government), verbally bashing both NATO and the EU in Trumpian fashion, and even vetoing opening EU membership negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, each of whom deserve a stronger signal in light of their costly efforts to stand up to Russia.
And where does one even begin on Donald Trump, without a single sustained foreign policy move displeasing to Putin, now guilty of pursuing Russian interests over American interests: from his affronts of all kinds to western allies and alliances, to coddling dictators, to harmful trade wars, to betraying the Kurds/handing Syria to Russia, to causing further difficulty for Ukraine in its attempt to stand up to the Russian military occupying its territory.
Assessing the UK
Yet in one key respect, the UK may be doing even less well than the US. In terms of confronting the likelihood that Russian interference tilted the Brexit referendum vote, similarly former Director of National Intelligence General James Clapper concluded in his book that Russia decisively interfered in the 2016 election, without which the US would have President Hillary Clinton—and the UK would not likely be on the cusp of a mortal Russia-assisted self-inflicted wound. The Intelligence Select Committee found that the Johnson Government has chosen not even to fully investigate the impact of Russia’s UK interference.
But the UK has gotten very tough on China, compared to the May and Cameron years. The UK in recent months has banned Huawei from the UK’s 5G grid, imposed new sanctions on China over Hong Kong along with allies, offered refugee status to 3 million Hong Kong residents, proposed a new organisation of democracies (the D-10), and introduced new sanctions against human rights abusers, including 25 Russians, 20 Saudis, two North Korean organisations, and two Myanmar military generals.
If only Britain had not been torn asunder primarily by hardcore Brexiteers in Parliament, and harmed by the vanity of Jeremy Corbyn, Jo Swinson, and Nicola Sturgeon. Each should have known that with a polarised pubic’s allegiances split among so many major parties that the UK’s antiquated electoral system would manufacture an artificially large Tory majority government. A wiser course would have been to deny Johnson his vote and instead pass a vote of no confidence in him, install a caretaker PM, and move rapidly to a vote on a second referendum. Would it were so.
Dr. Jeffrey A. Stacey is a former State Department official in the Obama Administration. Author of “Integrating Europe” by Oxford University Press, Stacey ghost wrote the chapters on Britain’s negotiated entry into the EU in Sir Edward Heath’s memoirs, for whom he was research assistant in Westminster.