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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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories