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Great Britain or Little England?: UK in World Politics

BY SHASHI MALLA
With the United Kingdom leaving the European Union (EU) in less than a year, the future role of the UK in world politics has become a major concern to observers and scholars. Britain’s new foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt [foreign minister/successor to the maverick Boris Johnson] highlighted some aspects of this new role in a speech at the “US Institute of Peace”, a non-partisan organization based in Washington, D.C.
To underline the importance of the Anglo-American partnership in the future constellation of international relations, Hunt first visited the United States in an official capacity and it was, therefore, a no-brainer that he had to make his first speech as Britain’s foreign minister in the US capital.
The reason is very clear. Since the UK is preparing to leave the European Union, with or without an agreement, and needs friends and trading partners outside Europe desperately, it is to the US that Britain now must look, even more ardently than before, as first among allies. It was, therefore, not unusual that he fully endorsed American President Trump in a BBC interview just ahead of delivering his speech. At the same time he conceded that he was “controversial” and had also clashed with him when he was the health minister over his criticism of the National Health Service. There were also many things over which there was disagreement, including the Iran nuclear deal and the US trade sanctions against Europe, of which the UK was [still] a part. However, it should not be forgotten that “in the fog of all the things we disagree with him about . . . that on 90-95 percent of issues we are on exactly the same page as the United States. They are our allies. They are our friends.”
This does not detract from the fact that the other two major powers of Europe, Germany and France are also security allies of the United States in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), even if Trump has done his level best to weaken it. His vendetta against Turkey is only one example.
In his speech, the British foreign minister “identified Russia as the principal malign threat to an international order based on the application of law rather than might” (BBC). He said pointedly: “Those who do not share our values need to know that there will always be a serious price to pay if red lines are crossed, whether territorial incursions, the use of banned weapons or increasingly cyber attacks.”
Hunt also used the speech to exhort the EU to follow the lead of the US and increase sanctions against Russia following the Novichok chemical nerve weapon attack on Sergei [the double agent] and daughter Yulia Skripal in English Salisbury which subsequently killed another innocent woman. Hunt and the British government are presumably of the opinion that the EU should match up to American leadership on this question at least. The Trump administration had clamped economic sanctions on Russia for violating the global ban on chemical weapons.
Hunt should be aware that in this regard the EU will not follow America’s lead [as with Iran sanctions] because there are too many diverse economic and political interests involved. The EU will definitely not go any further than the already imposed sanctions to penalize Russia for its annexation of Crimea and destabilizing Ukraine by supporting separatists in the eastern part of the country, not forgetting the alleged involvement in the shooting down of a civilian Malaysian Airlines plane. It was only due to heavy British pressure that the EU — above all France and Germany — went so far. When Britain exits the EU, there will not be any other powerful member state that will be an ardent supporter of Russia sanctions.
In fact, some European governments, most publicly the Italian and Austrian, are of the view that the time is now ripe to wipe the slate clean with regard to Russian foreign policy actions and to relax, not increase the pressure of sanctions. It is expected that the EU without the UK would not take a tough stance on Putin’s Russia, and at the same time, the UK after Brexit and acting alone could not, of course, push through the range and spectrum of EU-wide sanctions. Thus in this context, Brexit is a lose-lose scenario for both the UK and EU.
The British foreign minister is arguing for the strengthening of the Anglo-American alliance which can stand up for an unraveling international order based on rules. However, there is a double contradiction in this process. Donald Trump himself is the great disrupter and Britain itself is withdrawing from another alliance, in fact a very well-functioning one. Hunt himself was previously in favor of remaining in the EU (like PM Theresa May), but now is a supporter of Brexit. Hunt is seriously fooling himself by thinking that after Brexit a diminished UK can punch above its weight or by that account will be an attractive partner for the US. The coming negotiations for a UK-US free trade agreement could show the way forward [or even backward if Trump’s behavior is any indication].
The fact is that the post-World War II Anglo-American order has become increasingly wobbly, particularly because of the current weak leadership in both the US and UK. NATO, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the “Five Eyes” intelligence community [intelligence sharing among US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand] all emanate from the Atlantic Charter signed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in August 1941 [during a meeting at sea]. It also provided the ideological base for the United Nations Organization (UNO). The liberalized free trade system that prospered after he Second World War was usually referred to as the “Anglo-Saxon model”. The global world order with its diplomatic, political, economic and financial components was largely an English-speaking system. This world global architecture is now in the process of decaying. There is a deep sense of uncertainty in London, and a situation of near chaos in Washington. The governments in both world capitals are neither strong nor stable — and unfortunately not an inspiration to the world at large. The notion of an Anglo-American alliance/world leadership, therefore, appears quite ludicrous.
The writer can be reached at: shashipbmalla@hotmail.com

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