Russia and the US: friends at last?

The former rivals form a politically symbolic alliance over a shared problem: Afghanistan.

The ancient Chinese proverb "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" has been a cornerstone of realist statecraft since the dawn of, well, realist statecraft. For example, Britain formed an alliance with its long-standing enemy, France, in order to counteract the Germans during the First World War. Responding to criticism of his Second World War allegiance to Stalin's Soviet Union, Winston Churchill claimed that "if Hitler invaded hell, I would at least make positive reference to the devil in the House of Commons".

Comparatively, during the cold war, liberal-democratic states often formed alliances with non-communist dictators, such as Mobutu of Zaire. The Soviet Union provided financial assistance to a handful of anti-communist states to strengthen their cold war sphere of influence. The US supported the Afghan mujahedin during the ten-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

However, the principle alone may serve as a weak basis for alliance: after the break-up of the Soviet Union some of the mujahedin spawned the Taliban and turned against the United States.

Now, in a twist of fate, a partnership between Russia and the United States is materialising, based on this timeless principle.

Last week, Mikhail Gorbachev declared that, like the Soviet Union 21 years earlier, Nato would not be able to beat the Taliban. The 79-year-old former president claimed that no feasible increase in troop numbers could ever improve the situation for the US, and that Afghanistan is at risk of turning into "another Vietnam".

It seems that the Russians, thus far passive observers of the war raging in their backyard, have decided to contribute their topographical expertise in the area. Ironically, both countries are said to be articulating the definition of the alliance at Nato's Lisbon Summit on 19 November. This has been received with speculative cries in the field of international relations, Foreign Policy dubbing it "Nato 3.0".

Despite the cessation of the cold war, Russia has not extended its hand to the US in this way before. Nonetheless, Russia has not necessarily offered a hand of friendship, and there is speculation that Moscow's concerns are solely interest-fuelled.

It has been widely reported that the Russians agreed to assist the Americans with their operations in Afghanistan because Russia has one of the worst heroin addiction rates in the world. Its two million heroin addicts consume 21 per cent of the world's supply, and Russia blames the severity of the problem on the US's failure to spray poppy fields in Afghanistan.

Last Friday, Moscow announced that a joint narcotics raid with US forces had destroyed four drug laboratories and one tonne of heroin.

This sudden change on the international playing field invites a host of fresh and important questions for foreign policy experts. If Russia and the US achieve their common goal, will the alliance between them survive? Do these former rivals share enough common ground to be considered friends? And what is the true nature of this politically significant alliance?

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.