10 July 2018

How Jeremy Hunt can breathe life into Britain’s global aspirations


At home we are consumed by Brexit — and the World Cup — for as long as both last, but in the world outside, change is happening. The rules-based international system looks weaker now than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Our alliances are not failing, but they are in trouble. They need attention and leadership.

First and foremost, the new Foreign Secretary, my Conservative colleague Jeremy Hunt needs to learn the lessons from Brexit: we need to plan better. Stumbling into “Global Britain” is not good enough. We’ve launched the post-Brexit vision of the UK and the world without giving much thought to what it means. We need to re-learn the art of strategy and strategic thinking.

Here are a few issues in the Foreign Secretary’s in-tray.

We are in the early stages of a trade war between the US and China, Canada and the European Union. Authoritarian states such as China and Russia are becoming more powerful, filing the space left by a US less engaged with the world. Our electoral systems are under threat from manipulation. Proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East threaten our interests and may yet threaten our energy supplies. NATO is verbally attacked by the US President, whose graceful presence we’re hosting this week and who sees the alliance as yet another dodgy deal ripping off the US taxpayer.

Bizarrely, with NATO as with other areas, the US administration seems to have parallel policies; what the administration does, and what President Trump says. This may be good for entertainment and Twitter’s share price, but it’s bad for policy-making. First, the trade war is hitting US manufacturers and worsening the manufacturing slowdown in the eurozone. The EU is preparing tariffs against a range of US products, as is Mexico, Canada and China. Just at a time when the UK needs to be aggressively finding new markets, we are facing world when global free trade, in both concept and practice, is under threat.

There is a natural role for the UK as a global champion for trade. Out of the five permanent UN Security Powers and the major half dozen economies in the world, we are currently the only nation to unreservedly champion free trade. The UK should be leading a coalition of nations and setting examples by actively signing new trade deals with Canada, Australia and emerging great powers such as India and Brazil – and securing new visa frameworks too so that we become the world’s global nation – whilst still controlling our borders.

Next, NATO; even this week, Trump has been trash-talking the alliance. He is right to demand that European states do more. They spend precious little on their defence, and carp at the US whilst enjoying its remarkable protection. NATO is critical to our collective leadership. It needs purpose and leadership, not verbal abuse.

Despite the PR triumph of the World Cup, we’re facing a worsening Russian threat. The Kremlin seeks to discredit NATO and liberal democracy. It is developing conventional military dominance over its eastern European neighbours, missile dominance and tactical nuclear weapon dominance in Europe and superiority in its subversive, political operations. The Baltic states fear the Russian threat, both in conventional (tanks and soldiers) and non-conventional terms (political warfare, information warfare and corruption of politicians, etc). Yet other NATO states don’t see Vladimir Putin in the same light.

These include Italy, where the Northern League is aligned to Putin’s United Russia Party, and Turkey, where Russia is seeking to sell advanced air defence kit, something causing near consternation in the US. Here again there is a natural role for the UK, to offset Trump’s rhetoric and work professionally with the US administration, NATO structures and NATO partners old and new to ensure the alliance is fit for the future.

More broadly, the threat to freedom for our generation is not primarily through conventional war, but the continual undermining of the international, rules-based system from the rise of authoritarian states; this is pursued aggressively by Russia and more subtly by China. It is an issue which unites the UK with the Anglosphere. The US, New Zealand and Australia have all been particularly affected by Chinese influence. Indeed there are questions over whether New Zealand should still be a member of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing community.

How open societies respond to the threat of authoritarian states ,which use the former’s freedoms to undermine them, spreading fake news, damaging confidence in our electoral systems and our institutions, will in part dictate the strength of democracies in the decades ahead. We need to be champions of this interconnected, open world, both through the actions of our state, but just as importantly as a nation of 65 million people entwined with so many parts of the world on so many levels.

In the Middle East, we have been engaged in more or less continual wars for two decades. Our reputation is damaged, and yet we have a new naval base in Bahrain and allies, especially in the Gulf, that want us to engage, both as a respected power in its own right, but also to bolster the US.

The trade war aside, the problems above have not been caused by President Trump, but he is making them worse. He undermines the institutions of the US when he verbally attacks his own intelligence agencies, or calls former FBI director James Comey “scum”. He is deeply compromised by his relationship with Putin. His partial success in Korea has yet to amount to tangible change. He is kicking the international order that has given the US a world with which to trade, without suggesting anything better.

Amongst all this, Brexit is happening. We are a country involved in many alliances; we are treaty members of some 80 organisations around the world. We are leaving two; the EU and Euratom, the EU nuclear agency. We remain a nation that needs the international system to work. As colleagues such as Tom Tugendhat and Johnny Mercer have pointed out, the world is becoming more dangerous. Our spending needs to reflect that.

Arguably we have become lazy, intellectually and practically. We have relied on the EU for our diplomacy and the US for our strength. Both these relationships are changing. To ensure our allies and potential enemies take us seriously, we need to deliver more value in our overseas spending. This includes reassessing our balance of soft and hard power, ranging from the BBC World Service to the size and capability of the armed services, to how we spend aid money.

We need to use smart power, delivering more influence in both international institutions and bilateral relationships. This involves understanding how to get the most out of the five government departments involved in foreign affairs; the FCO, Defence, DIT, DfID, and No 10. Should a thousand flowers bloom, to misquote Mao, or should they — minus No 10 — be absorbed into a turbo-charged Foreign Office which coordinates and directs our overseas ambitions?

A few think tanks are doing good work on the future of UK foreign policy, but Government itself is so fixated on the present that it is not looking to the medium and long term. In terms of thought leadership, not enough is coming out of Whitehall. Jeremy Hunt, if he is to make a difference, needs to have the freedom to shape Britain’s global aspirations and engage in some sustained thinking. I am sure that the Foreign Affairs Committee, on which I sit, would be delighted to support him in that task.

Bob Seely is the Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight and sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee.