4 January 2023

2023 will be a year of tightrope diplomacy


There is a quote often attributed to the leader of the Russian Revolution Vladimir Ilyich Lenin which goes. ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.’ Following that logic, 2022 feels as though it lasted a century – as the UK contended with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, political instability at home, and a fragile economy made worse by geopolitical volatility. 

Sadly, it already looks as though 2023 will be wrought with yet more turmoil. The global economy looks set to dip into recession, disruptive powers continue to try and undermine the international rules-based system, and the West continues to look weak and divided.

Indeed, if 2022 was defined by the war in Ukraine, and the West’s efforts to support its survival as a free and independent nation, 2023 will be defined by how the West rebuilds cohesion and recognises that the conflict in Ukraine is part of a much larger trend of disruptive behaviour by our adversaries.

As it stands, any one of China, Russia, Iran or their proxies could set off another major crisis and the West would struggle to contain it. As all three disruptive powers face challenges to their authority at home, it becomes increasingly in their interest to create problems abroad. 

Whilst Brits were at home over Christmas and New Year recovering from the annual festivities, the Serbian government was busy sabre rattling in the Western Balkans – with threats of sending troops into Northern Kosovo to ‘restore order’. In scenes that resembled those of the start of the war in Ukraine, the Serbian President claimed that the rights of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo were being violated. Serbia has long acted as a regional proxy of Russia – and in recent months has reinforced its relationship. 

Over the same period, China, now struggling with the fall out of their failed ‘Zero-Covid’ policy, sent its largest ever wave of planes into Taiwanese airspace; 43 fighter jets and drones belonging to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force flew close to Taiwan as a thinly veiled threat. The Communist Party has long used tension with Taiwan as a distraction from internal political problems, and as political tensions mount on the mainland, China will look across the sea for a way out. 

In the Middle East at the same time, the regime in Iran began executing protestors, as demonstrations continue across the country following the death of Mahsa Amini as a result of police brutality. The fragility of the Iranian regime makes it dangerous – already it has closed ranks with Russia and begun supporting their war in Ukraine, on top of their proxy wars in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq.

By all accounts, there are now more flashpoints for a clash between the West and the disruptive forces than first imagined. 

What is required to navigate this dangerous new geopolitical reality, in which our values are threatened, is a degree of ‘tightrope diplomacy’. That is to say that the British government and allies must walk a fine line towards reinforcing our existing partners and bringing in new ones – all without providing an excuse for escalation by temperamental adversaries.

This is not to say, as some notable realists have suggested, that the UK and West do nothing – quite the opposite – our foreign policy must become more resilient and adaptable. We must begin flexing our soft power muscles once again – and that includes reversing cuts to the BBC World Service and the British Council, two old reliable institutions that have become trusted sources of alternative narratives in a number of fragile regions. Quite often their success can be measured against the fact that all they have achieved has been at relatively low cost when compared to the glut of wasteful spending elsewhere in Whitehall. 

Indeed, soft power extends beyond simply state activity – academia and culture play important parts in spreading our message. 2023 should be the year that British Universities look beyond Erasmus, and start providing places at their institutions for scholars from across the global south, and from those countries trying to escape the grasp of authoritarian pressure. Expanding academic cooperation beyond Europe to the rest of the world. 

Perhaps more ambitiously, British Universities should consider taking their world class educations to other capitals. A British University in Tbilisi, Nur-Sultan, or Colombo would be welcomed not just by the host countries as an opportunity to provide their own students with a chance for internationally recognised degrees, but also serve as a means to teach the fundamentals of a free society. 

Equally, British culture remains held in high regard, in particular its catalogue of TV shows and movies. Rolling out ‘Britbox’ or an equivalent streaming service, to more countries around the world would not only bring in revenue for the BBC and ITV, it would showcase the best of British.

Diplomatically speaking, special attention should be paid to those countries that are most at risk from the advances of Chinese, Russian, and Iranian influence. Offering competitive trade deals with Sub-Saharan Africa, or investment in infrastructure projects in Central Asia would help to draw those countries away from our enemies.

Finally, the roles of the Commonwealth and NATO must both be elevated in British Foreign Policy. In the case of support to Commonwealth countries, the UK must be more ambitious in including them in high level engagements – building stronger regional alliances in places like the Indo-Pacific and West Africa. 

Equally in the case of Europe, before Christmas, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was in Estonia for the relaunch of the ‘UK Joint Expeditionary Force’ in the Baltic – bringing together the three Baltic States, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and the Netherlands. Such a mission projects the UK as a reliable partner ready to defend its allies. Similar endeavours should be extended to countries at risk of Russian aggression such as Moldova and Georgia. And of course the flow of arms to Ukraine must continue. 

The UK has an opportunity in 2023 to reassert itself as a global leader in the struggle for a freer world, it must just be willing to walk the diplomatic tightrope and lend its support where needed. Such actions will help to create a more stable global order, and help calm a war-weary and anxious market.

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Robert Tyler is the Senior Policy Advisor at New Direction Foundation for European Reform based in Brussels.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.