Starmer with U.S. Ambassador to UK Woody Johnson and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Dear Keir, get real

Instead of announcing grand new doctrines, it’s time for a very British realism

This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

With a crushing election victory in sight, here’s some advice about running British foreign policy. As a newly elected Labour Prime Minister, you will want to focus on domestic problems. After all, they are pressing. You vowed to tackle them. You’ll want to win the next election. Labour governments are infrequent, so a vital task is to stay there. But even a new Jerusalem must look beyond the city walls.

International crises wrecked some of your predecessors, from Suez to Iraq to Brexit. And, domestically, your position is not particularly strong and this affects your ability to have a foreign policy. Room for investment is limited, given the strained national finances. Depressed budgets and depleted resources are not your fault. It’s what you inherited. But your ability to do things is constrained, your political capital limited.

You may be headed for a landslide. But it will be the most unenthusiastic landslide in history. Many people, including your own voters, are already sick of you, bluntly. And in your own ranks, the compromises and betrayals of government mean it won’t take long for the knives to sharpen.

With the knives out, the coffers low and international dangers around every corner, it is important that you think about foreign policy now. When crises erupt, as surely they will, you won’t have time to do much thinking. I advise you rule as a realist. That is, accept the world as it is, as far as we can discern it. It is a harsh place that rewards only jealous self-help.

The days when the United States puts up with European allies underarming are ending

There isn’t an international community. The world is populated mainly by self-regarding, calculating states. There is no benign Leviathan to come to the rescue or keep the peace. The moralist wings of Labour — and the opposition — won’t accept this. They speak of a “rules-based” world organised around human rights, cooperation and human solidarity, under Western leadership. So too does a certain type of Whitehall mind, with foreign policy attitudes both apologetic and narcissistic.

Other countries — including in what some dub “the Global South” — are not primarily aggrieved former colonies that crave British atonement yet ache to be led by our enlightened leadership. They are for the most part ruthlessly self-serving states. Recall that the likes of South Africa, Brazil, India and China hedged after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, putting their energy and trading interests ahead of denouncing Moscow’s brutal colonial project. Likewise, note that Gulf powers are not sacrificing their interests for the Palestinians, whom they pretend to care about. They hedge with Israel, have not recalled their ambassadors or repudiated the Abraham Accords, even as Israel retaliates to a pogrom with a massacre. Like most states, their principles and loyalties are selective.

Advice: when bargaining with the “Rest”, don’t allow discussion about past crimes and historic grievances to dominate. Neither brag nor grovel over Britain’s historical record. That’s part of their repertoire and an instrument of their statecraft. Deal with them around cold interests in the here and now and you’ll get more business done.

Locals will have to lead NATO more: The days where our main security provider, the United States, picks up the tab, reliably does the heavy lifting and puts up with European allies under-arming are coming to an end. To cut a long story short, the superpower across the pond faces the largest, wealthiest adversary in its history. That adversary is bidding for dominance in the most important centre of power and wealth, centred in north-east Asia.

It will be a crooked road with tremendous struggle to come, but Asia’s “pull” on America’s resources, attention and increasingly scarce resources will be near-gravitational. Something will have to “give”, and that thing will be America’s willingness to shoulder the main burden “over here”. It probably won’t abandon the neighbourhood outright. But we, and the main military states of Europe, from Poland to Finland, are due for a shock, the shock of being expected to do most of the lifting ourselves.

This is primarily a structural thing. Even if Democrat Europhiles win every election for the next 20 years, this shock is in the post. As things stand even now, America demonstrably can barely handle simultaneous crises in Ukraine, Gaza, energy transition, climate crisis or its southern border. When they met with China recently, their officials admitted that they needed to cool the Asian front, lest their bandwidth become overwhelmed. They cannot “bear any burden” or “pay any price”.

Boris Johnson and Donald Trump at the NATO heads of government summit, 2019

Advice: There are two broad options. We can prepare for this evil hour, building an informal coalition within NATO to coordinate our military planning, industrial base and nuclear deterrent posture. This comes with risks. It will encourage the tendency we fear and ruffle American feathers. But this is manageable. Alternatively, we can hope it never happens, assume continued integration under an American banner, hope that our “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific makes Washington feel it owes us something back and wish Americans wouldn’t vote for Trump. Muddling through is overrated. I recommend Door Number One.

America is an ally, not a friend: This simple point is hard for many in Whitehall to grasp. The idea that America thinks we are “special”, or that we play Greece to its Rome, makes us feel important. Wanting to feel important is a natural instinct, but needs to be kept in check.

The most benign leading state in history is outwardly sentimental but also ruthless, with varying efficiency, and often ambivalent or worse about our country. After all, it rose to international eminence partly by weakening our economic strength and making our world position unaffordable.

By night, American leaders and officials wax fantastic about Winston Churchill, the Atlantic Charter, our common language and plucky Britain being there when the shooting starts. But in the cold daylight of the Oval Office, they do what they like. They’ve got 300 million people to look after.

Remember Lend Lease and atomic cooperation ending, or Sinn Féin, Grenada, the ICC, Palestine, the Paris agreements and steel tariffs. Note that we barely influenced how George W. Bush ran his Iraq adventure and recall France’s rapid reconciliation with America after the Iraq war “split”.

Advice: don’t assume America will do us favours or risk its interests for us, as a friend might. Don’t join in military campaigns because you hope it will garner Britain leverage in Washington. Don’t assume this or that concession or policy will win us future credit. This is not personal. It’s about how major powers tend to behave. As Al Pacino’s gangster says in Carlito’s Way, “There ain’t no friends in this shit business.”

Prepare for war, but don’t be a fatalist: There is much loose talk at present about how we have moved from a “pre-war” to a “war” era. This is only half true. A significant war grinds on in Europe, and from Ukraine to Taiwan the world is moving into another age of iron. All that’s true, and Britain must reaffirm its commitment to nuclear deterrence and look to its own capabilities and infrastructure to survive such a world.

But we are not yet “at war”, nor are we bound to be. To assume war is coming is dangerous fatalism. It encourages imprudent, escalatory risk-taking, like No Fly Zones against adversaries with greater stakes in a fight or attempts to sponsor “regime change”. We arm ourselves not primarily to fight but to deter.

If the emergency is already here, it is probably irreversible

Anyone who attacks us has hell to pay. But deterrence needs prudent diplomacy as well as the ability to strike. And prudent diplomacy requires a mix of hard-headedness and restraint. Our nuclear deterrent system, like our conventional deterrence, is not automatic. It depends on reciprocity: our rivals need to be confident that we will retaliate if attacked, but won’t try to destroy them if they don’t. Beware, too, of “domino” thinking. We helped create NATO for a reason, not to defend everything but to defend the North Atlantic area. We can bolster its deterrence. To prevent war, we need to take war more seriously.

Advice: Speak softly whilst carrying our big stick.

Mitigate climate extremes. Don’t try to overhaul them: We aren’t going to persuade the awakened giants of Asia, India and China to give up their industrial revolutions. You are inheriting, at least, profound climate disruption. You must decide how Britain responds with its scarce resources. If the emergency is already here, it is probably irreversible. The best we can do is slow down the rise, whilst helping ourselves and others armour themselves against it.

Advice: rather than a ruinous “net zero” attempt at overhaul, we should do things that reduce disruption and help the vulnerable. Think flood defences, hardened infrastructure and nuclear power stations, not low traffic networks, punishing driving or flying, bans on meat-eating or over-reliance on renewables, which won’t fulfil our energy needs. We should prioritise what is achievable; for instance, helping vulnerable island populations relocate, rather than falsely vowing to lower the tides.

Instead of announcing grand new doctrines designed to make British people feel important, it’s time for some quiet but steely determination, bringing our power and commitments into balance. This follows the best Labour tradition of Attlee and Bevan. It would be a very British realism, indeed.

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