Clothes maketh not an Iron Lady

Liz Truss’s naive doctrine of “geo-liberalism” will not survive contact with the frictions and compromises of a messy, complex world


This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

What will be the guiding world view of Liz Truss, Britain’s new Prime Minister? At the time of writing, her time as Foreign Secretary notwithstanding, we don’t know. Aides have, though, briefed that her approach to foreign policy will be “geo-liberalism”. “She divides the world into friends and enemies of liberty,” is the early report. The Truss doctrine, then, echoes the Bush doctrine. If tried, it will likely to suffer a similar fate.

Various specific parts have been sketched out: a “Network of Liberty” of democratic nations; more AUKUS deals; a hawkish line against China and Russia; sanctions and weapons for Ukraine; and a UK-US Free Trade Agreement. Each raises far-reaching questions. A network of liberty at the price of what valued things? More AUKUS deals, but with what industrial policy (a necessity at odds with Truss’s history of laissez-faire economic views)? A hawkish line against Moscow and Beijing, but to what end? With what division of labour with allies? Will it be a two-hemisphere strategy with a one-hemisphere navy? 

Will there be sanctions and weapons for Ukraine in the service of any goals Kyiv lays down, or are there conditions and limits, and with what rationale? A US-UK trade agreement would be welcome, but given the imbalance of power between the parties, what trade-offs will be needed? How will Truss react to US agricultural protectionism, a practice that gives trade liberalism a day at the races? 

It is not clear how far Liz Truss has worked through these issues. Her inattention to detail as foreign secretary on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — mistaking the Black Sea for the Baltic — is not encouraging. The architects of the Bush Doctrine had an enthusiasm for a world project that came at the expense of curiosity about the actual world. 

And the overarching doctrine in its bare outline is incoherent, to put it politely. The word “geo-liberalism” builds in two contradictory concepts, given the notion of liberalism is universal, defying geographical limitation. Indeed, it is not clear what the prefix “geo” adds at all, beyond a frisson of toughness. “Geo” at minimum refers to time and space, and the frictions, limitations and constraints of geography. 

But Truss is the veteran of a government that proclaimed a vision of “global Britain”, that boasted the opposite message, of Britain unleashed from its region, unbounded in its ambition and projecting power everywhere. Like “global Britain”, “geo-liberalism” is a strategically illiterate slogan conjured up from above, and only then thrown to the mandarins of Whitehall to make sense of.

Hard choices postponed

Like Truss’s proclivity for dressing up as Margaret Thatcher, the suspicion must be that her emerging doctrine is primarily a performance that pays little attention to complexities. If it is a placeholder for more rigorous thought, then it harms foreign policy by postponing a necessary reckoning with hard choices. If it is real, the doctrine is bound to meet disappointment. It is a harsh reality of history that excited visions of spreading global liberalism, or worldwide democratic revolution, are incongruous with the messy, compromised world.

Historically, Britain has not defined its interests in such stark ideological terms 

Historically, Britain has not defined its interests in such stark ideological terms because a serious country’s interests are not reducible to a single virtuous commodity such as “liberty”. NATO, the security alliance Britain helped found, worked as an anti-Soviet bulwark, but was not a democratic club. It included dictatorships from Greece to Portugal, and had Franco’s Spain as a de facto partner. Indeed, Britain’s partner Ukraine is today only able to resume exports in fragile agreement with Russia through the brokerage of Turkey, a NATO ally ruled by an increasingly sinister authoritarian regime. 

In many of its conflicts, even when clashing with authoritarian regimes, Britain has prevailed by making bargains with authoritarian regimes. Britain fought the Falklands war against the brownshirts of Argentina with covert radar intelligence supplied by Chile’s bloodstained ruler, Augusto Pinochet. In coercing the genocidal Slobodan Miloševic´ of Serbia, it made common cause with other ethnic cleansers of the Balkans. This pattern stretches back. To defeat Germany’s bids for hegemony on the continent, the Entente included the tsarist tyranny of Russia and the Big Three numbered the murderous totalitarian Joseph Stalin, whom Britain appeased throughout the war. Britain has not and could not rely so heavily on “regime type” to determine what its interests were, and how to defend them. 

Interests are not reducible to “liberty”, then. Neither do pan-democratic fidelities determine the choice of partners. If Truss demarcates international life into friends and enemies of freedom, does she now oppose arms sales to Britain’s Gulf clients, who sponsor jihadis, torture political opponents and jail feminists? If Ukraine or Taiwan became a pro-western dictatorship tomorrow (as Taiwan once was), would they lose their salience in London? Does Truss regret the West’s intervention in the Gulf conflict of 1990-1, where Britain joined Washington’s posse along with “friends of liberty” Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to liberate an absolutist, gender-segregating Kuwait? 

Truss’s back-of-an-envelope agenda begs such questions. And if a foreign policy doctrine can’t even accommodate these awkward facts at first contact, especially in the moments when it becomes most intense, it’s of little use. 

But we then learn that, beneath the headlines, “Truss thinks it is better to keep the likes of Indonesia and Saudi Arabia onside, rather than allowing them to be wooed by aggressors such as China and Russia.” Keeping them onside will not come free. It will likely involve downplaying criticism of their human rights record, and distancing Britain from their victims. A slight contact with reality, and liberal solidarity yields to geopolitical compromise.

Cold War lessons

Such a doctrine could also be self-sabotaging. It might rob the West of actual geopolitical opportunities to weaken adversaries and strengthen our coalitions. It would make practical cooperation harder with one-party states that oppose China’s bid for hegemony in Asia, such as Vietnam. And an open-endedly hawkish line on both Russia and China is dangerously self-fulfilling. China at present is turning Russia into a vassal, ever more dependent on its senior ally as a source of patronage, export markets and a quiet land front in Asia. 

In future, traditional frictions between these neighbours are likely to return. Given its form, Beijing is likely to overplay its hand. Would the Truss doctrine help or hinder Western efforts to nudge these adversaries apart? 

If dual containment is organised around an ideological goal of regime change in Moscow, Beijing, or both, that will make
it harder for Russia and China to revert to their default setting
of mutual suspicion along a vulnerable frontier. As Truss and her fellow travellers would have it, Britain would join the United States, the European Union and Asian allies not only to thwart Russia in Ukraine, but to maintain the pressure until Putinism collapses.

 “The last book she read,” according to Katy Balls, “was Winter is Coming by Garry Kasparov, the exiled Russian grandmaster who wants world leaders to “throw Russia back into the stone age”. If that is the logic, Russia’s ecomic resilience thus far, even in its calamitous Ukraine war, suggests we are in for a long, grinding and dangerous struggle. But unlike the Cold War, the Truss posture has little sense of an endgame, and no prospect of helping wedge one adversary from the other. The very thing the West has strived to prevent taking root will take root: a Eurasian enemy mixing Russia’s raw materials, weapons and nuclear arsenal, with China’s population, capital and technology. At their best, Cold War strategists were not rigidly hawkish or dovish, but adroitly exploited shifting circumstances to move the balance in their favour. Consider the contrast.

As for a “network of liberty” of democratic nations, this innocently assumes that democracies define their interests around advancing the cause of democracy everywhere. Has not the experience of the Ukraine war demonstrated otherwise? The democracies outside the Euro-Atlantic orbit have not rallied to the banner of pan-democratic solidarity. South Africa, Israel and India have hedged. They have other compelling interests to weigh. These countries do not inhabit an abstract space where ideologies clash in some grand historical dialectic. They are located in real places and must tread carefully. 

Precisely because Russia, though depleted, is not a negligible state, and is still an armourer and purveyer of energy, they have refused to harken. We, the West, are not the world. It is not in our gift to rally the world. And large parts of the world do not wish to be “led” on our terms. 

In Asia, too, America’s democratic treaty allies view the world through a lens of hard experience. Behind the scenes, most expressed nervousness about Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan as a needlessly escalatory measure. They value stability as well as liberty, and seek a balance between checking China’s ambitions and going to the brink. 

It is above all India, and its alignment, that lies at the centre of geopolitical visions about global struggle. British proponents of the “Indo-Pacific tilt” hope their cause will attract the support of the largest democracy on earth, increasingly wealthy, nuclear-armed and located in the centre of the power struggle in Asia. 

This is not a bad thing to hope for. But it is naive to expect that India will weigh in on our side as a counterweight to China when and where it suits us, just because it takes part in the non-committal Quad grouping, allegedly shares common political values and a common language, or because we rebrand the region the “Indo-Pacific”. 

A great country, India is also an increasingly illiberal democracy that persecutes Muslims. This in itself should caution against attempts to promote partnership around ideological sameness. And its recent diplomatic behaviour suggests it will be ruthlessly selective about when and where it confronts Beijing — robust in the Himalayas or the Indian Ocean, quieter over Ukraine or the Western Pacific. Some who try to sing a grand democratic Anglosphere into existence endlessly repeat words such as “geostrategy” and “Indo-Pacific” as though they have great creative power. But as the Australian defence intellectual Hugh White notes, “changing the way we look at the map does not change realities on the ground.” 

Dumbed-down Thatcherism

President Joe Biden’s recent dalliance with global democratic rallying should be warning enough. Its “summit for democracy” of December 2021 needlessly antagonised valuable potential allies, by excluding Asian countries such as Sri Lanka being courted by China, countries walking a careful line like Singapore, while including the Democratic Republic of Congo, an institutionally weak country plagued by wars and predatory militias. Bangladesh failed to make the cut, despite being ranked more democratic than Pakistan, which did, but the “geo” prevailed over the “liberalism”.

Neither has the convenor of that summit, the United States, allowed the democratic affinities of a “special” relationship to cloud its relations with Britain, from recognising Sinn Fein against Britain’s objections to warning of trade consequences for invoking the Northern Ireland protocol. Having been foreign secretary, Truss should know this. The proposition that we can organise the globe, and our statecraft, as a drama about democracies versus dictatorships is surreal, ahistorical and immature. London has indulged it for too long.

Truss affects to summon the spirit of Margaret Thatcher

Truss affects to summon the spirit of Margaret Thatcher. But she propagates a dumbed-down, received version of Thatcherism, of robust, ideologically charged, militarised confrontation abroad and rolling back the state at home. Rather than donning her costume, it may profit her more to study Thatcher’s history. 

In practice, Thatcher wrestled with the agonies of foreign policy in the world as she found it. In the domestic sphere, she was not simply a tax-cutting ideologue but also a believer in “sound money” who raised some taxes and targeted the money supply to curb inflation. In foreign policy, she did not simply divide the world into friends and enemies of liberty, or reflexively support military power projection. 

She bargained with Mikhail Gorbachev when hawks vigorously opposed it as appeasement, opposed German reunification on balance-of-power principles, sympathised with President George H.W. Bush’s support for decentralisation over independence for Ukraine, and cautioned against liberal military crusades. 

Right or wrong, Thatcher abroad tempered her appetite for revolutionary confrontation with a regard for stability and a wariness of messianic doctrines. When geo-liberalism collides with the realities of international life, Truss too may then give conservatism a try. 

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