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The return of realism

There is a new tone to foreign policy debate

Artillery Row

This month’s General Assembly of every country in the world fuelled dismay in some corridors of power. The leaders of four of the five permanent members of the UN’s high table, the Security Council, chose to miss the annual talkfest at the UN in New York. Rishi Sunak may have been the first to announce he was giving it a miss, but then China’s Xi Jinping and French President Macron followed suit. Don’t even think about Vladimir Putin.

The rather sad tone of proceedings left the unmistakable sense of a conclave whose time has passed. A two-day summit on the UN’s ambitious plan to boost global development — with targets on everything from safe sanitation to gender equality — had the likes of Ireland’s Leo Varadkar lamenting. “We’ve been nowhere near strong enough, on getting stuff done,” he said, noting that just 15 per cent of those targets had been met.

To which the President of the General Assembly, the Caribbean’s Dennis Francis, added loudly: “Our eight billion constituents are looking to us to keep our promises, it’s that simple.” Enough said. Hard to ignore the take-away: diplomacy, deal-making especially, had moved elsewhere.

Some each country for itself, rather than some grand, multinational design

Away from that global arena and the cameras, you could hear what’s now at work — pragmatism and realpolitik. It suggests a foreign policy shift away from such multinational attempts to address the many crises in our world. “Enough of business as usual,” to quote one European Foreign Minister, speaking not so diplomatically, off the record. “Cut the crap, most of us have to face the abyss in front of us and do whatever it takes to come through this period.” In other words, some are starting to say: each country for itself, rather than some grand, multinational design.

Consider, for example, Poland’s apparent decision to stop supplying weapons to Ukraine, a watershed moment breaking the much-vaunted unity of NATO and the European Union on Putin’s war. Domestic politics is clearly a factor — Poland has a tight election coming up — but this also a signal of a government putting its own survival ahead of all else. “We say we don’t like what Poland is doing,” to quote that Euroland Minister again, “but for sure we understand.”

Then ponder what’s happening in Washington D.C., where the Biden administration is running a little scared of Donald Trump’s renaissance. Trump, for all his criminal indictments, is a serious challenger for the White House in 2024, if the polls are to be believed. Factor in the party’s extreme right, capable of shutting the government down and seeking Biden’s impeachment, and you have domestic turmoil.

The hunt is on for foreign policy credit — not just to bolster Biden’s worrying poll numbers, but to deprive Trump of electoral talking points — ranging from a focus on the rising price of oil to the threat posed by Xi Jinping’s China. The reapolitik is visible, as a quiet conversation starts with the likes of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro — once viewed as a pariah, now a way to guarantee oil imports and keep prices in check.

Intriguingly, the same pragmatism lies at the heart of ongoing negotiations with Saudi Arabia and Israel. Despite the murderous behaviour of Saudi Prince-cum-leader Mohamed bin Salman (recall that MBS, as he’s known, was identified by the CIA as author of the savage killing of US journalist Jamal Khashoggi), Washington is now courting him heavily, seeking help again on oil supplies and prices at the pump, whilst guaranteeing weapons galore.“You hold your nose and take care of business,” acknowledges one Biden insider.

The silver lining is Biden’s dream of an historic Middle Eastern breakthrough: persuading the Saudis to formally accept Israel. It would create a new landscape over the Holy Land — once unthinkable, but maybe not in the age of diplomats taking care of business. Many obstacles remain, not least Saudi Arabia’s insistence that Israel make a Palestinian state a reality, but in the words of one Biden negotiator: “Chances are 50-50, of making this happen before the election takes over, and Trump starts shouting ‘No!’”

Then there’s China, and Xi Jinping’s evident wish to build an alliance to call his own and challenge the primacy of the United States. Listen closely, and you hear the Biden team thinking pragmatically, toning down the rhetoric and actively seeking a conversation. Earlier this year Biden called Xi a “dictator”, triggering volleys of abuse between Washington and Beijing.

Now the American President has his foreign policy mavens, Secretary of State Tony Blinken and National Security adviser Jake Sullivan, working overtime to arrange a face-to-face session with Xi in November. “I’m going to get to see him,” said Biden early in September, a message he repeated at the UN Assembly. Significantly, we’re told, the Biden agenda is less about China’s threat to Taiwan and more about convincing Xi Jinping to step up on the climate crisis, after a year that has seen the United States hit hard by everything from wildfires and hurricanes to floods.

Early days yet, but the tell-tale signs are growing of a foreign policy transition: less business as usual, more each looking after himself. Rishi Sunak may, for once, have been ahead of the curve, with his absence from that UN General Assembly and his U-turn on green policy and climate issues — however blatant it looked as an election ploy.

No surprise, under the circumstances, that Ukraine’s President Zelensky left that global conclave in New York a worried man. In this foreign policy terrain, the chances of his country retaining the united, carefully orchestrated support of the West look highly uncertain. There’s a downside to these shifting sands. They must please Vladimir Putin, the tyrant who has always predicted that his enemies would wither in time.

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