DEfficacy reviews and foreign policy resets come and go in British politics. Some of his conclusions struggle to survive sustained contact with the real world. Most are remembered only by defense specialists and any armed service that does well, or poorly, outside of the rearranged spending that is the central purpose of each review.
Occasionally, there is a substantial exception, a defense review that embodies a real strategic decision that resonates throughout the years, both in the rest of the world and at home. The 1968 “East of Suez” Labor Withdrawal White Paper was a notable example. It marked an important step in dismantling Britain’s post-imperial role. Coming in the wake of Brexit, Boris Johnson’s integrated foreign and defense policy review this week had the potential to be another.
The new review, titled Global Britain in a competitive era, proves to be such a thing. This does not imply that it is worthless. Otherwise. The review is a really interesting read, with things to teach, especially about cybernetics and artificial intelligence. A Conservative MP ironically praised him for striving for consistency. That consistency, if only a few notable omissions were filled in, would provide a good starting point for an incoming Labor government, if there ever is one. The review will undoubtedly be important to the industries and armed services that benefit from its findings.
But there remains a fundamental disjunction between the magazine’s often serious ambition and its more deserving political uses, particularly in Johnson’s hands. This disjunction was always inherent in the exercise itself. The purpose of the revision was to provide new coherence to Britain’s foreign, defense and aid policies in the wake of its self-expulsion from the European Union. The need for such an exercise was obvious. Since 1945, Britain had seen itself as the European stone on which the transatlantic alliance with the United States rested. But Brexit has ruined Britain’s credibility in Europe. Hence the government’s resort to the presumption of “global Britain,” a simplistic post-imperial phrase that lacks the content the magazine was tasked with providing.
This was never going to be easy. Despite Brexit, Britain remains a European nation. Its trade, culture, security and prosperity will always be linked to Europe. However, the underlying purpose of the review was to justify turning our back on the continent we share. There is, therefore, a hole in the middle where Europe should be. The continent is treated as a security compromise, largely for NATO-related reasons, but it is not treated as important in any other context. The policy towards Europe is one of total denial.
In the nooks and crannies of the review, it is true that there are some short sections on parts of Europe: a paragraph on France, another on Germany, a third on Ireland. But in more than 100 pages, there are only a handful of references to the EU, without which these bilateral relations cannot be easily understood and developed. Spain is mentioned once. Belgium, for whom Britain went to war a century ago, not at all.
Where Europe is absent from the review, Asia is suddenly present. The continent has been created to correct the self-inflicted imbalance in Europe. Britain’s so-called “tilt” towards Asia is absorbing much learned attention. You can spend the whole week attending webinars on different aspects of it. But the incline is gentle and does not equate to a grand strategy. All economically developed nations and all business alliances are already in the same game. The United States, which at least borders the Pacific, has been doing this for at least 20 years. All Britain is doing is trying to get some deals, which will never replace lost trade at our doorstep.
In reality, the much-talked-about Indo-Pacific region doesn’t even exist as such. The Indo-Pacific is little more than a speculative movement of the prime minister’s hand across a world map hung on a wall in the Foreign Ministry. In reality, Britain is not about to become a great power in the Pacific. China is unwilling to change its ways because Johnson has compromised the UK’s expensive new fleet of aircraft carriers. to the South China Sea, pretending to be involved in 21st century gunboat diplomacy.
The review has also failed to clarify many of the more acute and difficult current issues it was intended to cover. Policy towards China is no clearer than before. Is China a hostile state or just a “systemic challenge”? Many conservatives believe the former; the review says the latter. If Britain stands up for both values and interests, as the review says, how does that square with continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf states? If allies like the United States see the purpose of nuclear weapons as deterrence, why does Britain now think that they could be used against cyber threats or other technological threats? That hardly fits with Britain’s role in trying to prevent Iranian proliferation.
Johnson’s Brief Speech of the commons The release of the review gave a clear indication of the extremely limited and opportunistic political purpose of the exercise, as he sees it. It was a terrible and terribly cynical speech. It did not contain any details or any attempt to establish a strategy. The EU was not the only one not mentioned. He said nothing about Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia or the Middle East. And Donald Trump and Joe Biden may well not have existed, so the analysis of America’s role in the world did not change.
Johnson had little to say about global strategy because, in truth, he doesn’t have that strategy. Or rather, because his strategy is to play the domestic gallery. The deeper object of the exercise was no further than the one Johnson presumably commissioned Professor John Bew and his review team to provide. We have left the EU. Russia is a problem. China too. We have nuclear weapons and new aircraft carriers. Please provide me with a defense and foreign strategy speech that fits these disconnected facts.
However, what matters with Johnson is always the performance, not the substance. Any passing attempt to explain what global UK really means was, as usual, just gas in a balloon. You soon felt the feeling, a sketch writer observed this week, which Johnson’s college tutoring peers must have become familiar with when he read an essay by a student, who just hadn’t done the reading.
But this is the Johnson way. Always has been. In an important sense, it is also your ability. The global UK, like Brexit, is an idea, not a policy. What matters to Johnson is pleasing his fans. It does so by disdaining Europe and, perhaps, implying that Britannia rules the waves. Both are historical and peculiarly conservative emotions. You don’t have to look far back into modern British political history to see what is working for you. The bigger question is whether it will work for the entire next decade, especially once Johnson decides to quit and spend more time on his money.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism