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Why foreign affairs will define the Starmer era

At the Nato summit, the threat posed by China, Russia and Trump will be impossible to ignore.

By Katie Stallard

Viewed from the US side of the Atlantic, in recent years British politics has been a bewildering blur. First, there was the confounding decision in 2016 to pull out of the EU without a plan for how to do so. Then there was the rotating cast of characters who shuffled in and out of Downing Street, with five British prime ministers in seven years. There was Boris Johnson with his air of how-did-I-get-here dishevelment. And who could forget Liz Truss, forever remembered in Washington as the head of state who failed to outlast a lettuce, but not before she had managed to tank the pound and threaten the stability of the entire British financial system. In short, it has looked as though the Brits – who once prided themselves 0n being the sensible ones in global politics – have needed to get their act together.

By projecting a sense of stability and competence at the Nato leaders’ summit in Washington on 9-11 July, the new British Prime Minister, Keir Starmer, and Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, will have hoped to restore some of that lost credibility. Lammy has already been working on this, publishing a well-received essay in Foreign Affairs this spring, which argued for a new approach to foreign policy grounded in “progressive realism”, as well as Uber-ing his way around Washington, sometimes accompanied by the New Statesman’s Jason Cowley, to make his pitch. He has earned a reputation here as a committed transatlanticist, invoking his personal history as the first black Briton to attend Harvard Law School and now the first British foreign secretary descended from the slave trade.

Lammy has also made a point of building bridges beyond the Democratic foreign policy establishment, meeting key lieutenants from Trumpworld, such as JD Vance, Lindsey Graham and Mike Pompeo, in preparation for the former president’s increasingly probable election victory in November. This includes making clear that he is ready to work with the man he once called a “woman-hating, neo-Nazi-sympathising sociopath”.

But there is only so much that fine words and a return to functional government can achieve when faced with the Trump-shaped wrecking ball that now hangs over US democracy and its allies. If Trump returns to the White House, he can be expected to pick up where he left off, which included repeatedly threatening to pull out of the transatlantic alliance during his last term, telling his national security adviser, John Bolton, “I don’t give a s**t about Nato.” In February this year, Trump said that he will encourage Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to Nato countries that do not spend as much as he desires on defence. He has also vowed to settle the war in Ukraine before his inauguration, presumably by pressuring Kyiv to hand over territory to Russia, which will reward Putin’s aggression and further imperil European security. Then, of course, there is the trade war he reportedly plans to unleash, with a 60 per cent tariff expected on all Chinese goods, and ten per cent on all other imports.

These policies no longer look like a mere hypothetical problem. Trump consistently leads Biden in the national polls and battleground states. Short of a dramatic turnaround, the aggrieved former president will be back in the White House in January.

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Beyond the impending crisis that will accompany Trump’s return, the Starmer government inherits an extraordinarily volatile world. There are wars raging in Europe, the Middle East and East Africa. A new era of great-power rivalry is underway, with an increasingly assertive China and a revanchist Russia challenging the US-led international order. The climate crisis is intensifying; the threat of nuclear war has returned.

“If you look at the history of Labour premierships, they are dominated by foreign affairs, and there’s no reason to think it’s going to be any different this time,” said David Muir, who served as director of strategy to Gordon Brown and is now based in New York at a strategic advisory firm. He was particularly struck by the parallels with Clement Attlee, the first Labour leader to win an outright majority, who took power at a pivotal moment.

After winning the general election in July 1945, Attlee travelled to Potsdam, Germany, to replace the defeated Winston Churchill at the head of the British delegation in the final Allied conference of the Second World War. Among the bombed-out ruins of the Berlin suburbs, the new British prime minister and his foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, were thrust into negotiations with the US president Harry Truman and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin on the terms that would end the conflict and set the borders of postwar Europe.

These were momentous times. The US had tested its first atomic bomb on the eve of the conference and the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were days away. Meanwhile, the common cause that had united the Soviet Union and its Western allies was giving way to the mutual suspicion and outright hostility that would define the looming Cold War. The UK was then on the verge of bankruptcy. But as well as embarking on its own project of national renewal, the Attlee government had to reckon with the urgent question of how to secure the commitment of a sceptical America to Europe’s long-term defence.

Lammy has cited Bevin – the former trade unionist born into poverty in Somerset, who led the push for a transatlantic security alliance, culminating in the creation of Nato in 1949 – as an influence. Labour won re-election in 1950, but then came the Korean War, and with it, a sobering lesson in how a foreign policy crisis can derail domestic plans. “By August 1950, [the British] are at war in Korea, and it effectively splits the Labour Party,” said Muir. “They have to curtail spending to pay for the war – it was a case of guns or butter for Attlee and he chose guns – and within a year they are out of power. A big global event blows a very gifted prime minister out of the water.”

The new Labour government will face questions about how to balance the domestic imperative to deliver growth with national security concerns. Regardless of who wins the American election, London can expect pressure from Washington and multiple European capitals to join US and EU tariffs on imports of electric vehicles from China. This would deliver a signal of unity among Western allies, but it would also delay the UK’s promised green transition. The government also urgently needs a coherent China policy. Lammy has bought time by promising to conduct a review in his first 100 days in office. But then comes the hard part as Labour confronts the same conundrum that has bedevilled its predecessors: how to stand up to China – which has already broken the terms of its treaty with the UK over the return of Hong Kong – without incurring the wrath of the world’s second-largest economy and the UK’s sixth-largest export market. The White House will hope to see a little more backbone from the new British government.

That is not to suggest that the US spends more time thinking about the UK than it does. The uncomfortable truth for Brits to absorb is that the country has become less central to global politics since its departure from the EU. “Brexit has had a really corrosive effect on how the US sees the UK, because it has become less relevant,” said Max Bergmann, who served at the US State Department from 2011 to 2017 and now directs the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington. “The US used to really rely on the UK for guidance on how to navigate European issues, and now we don’t.”

As well as becoming less relevant, the UK has also become less able – and less willing – to project force. While some might view this as a positive after the misadventures of the “war on terror” under Tony Blair and David Cameron, it is reasonable to ask whether the British military is now equipped to respond to the challenges of an ever more dangerous world. As Lammy has acknowledged, the British Army now has “fewer soldiers than at any point since the Napoleonic era”. But whereas Rishi Sunak’s government had committed to increase defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2030, Starmer has only pledged to do so “as soon as resources allow”.

Mention you are British in foreign policy conversations in Washington (and further afield), and you can reliably expect to hear a quip about the UK’s lack of aircraft to fill its new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. The well-circulated images of Britain’s “jet-less aircraft carriers” serve as an all too vivid illustration of a nation that still views itself as a great global power but has yet to come to terms with its reality.

Britain may be down in terms of our global standing, but it is not yet out. The UK is widely viewed as having played a leading role in Western efforts to bolster Ukraine, for example, immediately recognising the magnitude of what was at stake and responding accordingly. The British decision to supply increasingly advanced weaponry, such as Storm Shadow missiles and Challenger 2 tanks, emboldened other nations to do the same at a time when Germany and the US were still stalling over the possible consequences.

There is praise in Washington, too, for British involvement in Aukus, the trilateral security alliance between Australia, the UK and the US, which includes sharing technology to build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. The Aukus pact is a good example of how the UK can function as a middle power by leveraging its distinctive expertise (in this case, in cutting edge submarine design). Likewise, the UK is seen as having a sophisticated foreign policy apparatus and respected intelligence-gathering capabilities that play a crucial role in the Five Eyes alliance with the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

The Starmer government can expect a genial if cautious welcome for its professed desire to reset relations with Europe and work towards a new EU-UK security pact. They will have an early chance to showcase this new entente cordiale when Starmer hosts the European Political Community meeting at Blenheim Palace on 18 July. “With Russia on the attack, an assertive China, and an uncertain ally in the US, it seems clear that the UK and continental Europe need each other more than ever,” Constanze Stelzenmüller, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution think tank, told me. But she warned that the continent’s political landscape was also increasingly fraught: “Finding partners for London in a Europe where the hard right and left are on the rise will require flexibility and pragmatism.”

There are other lessons to be heeded from Labour’s history in power. As he weighed how to convince Washington to commit to a transatlantic security alliance after the Second World War, Bevin reasoned that the most powerful argument would be to demonstrate that the Europeans were prepared to put more into the defence of the continent themselves. This meant forming a union of western European countries that preceded the creation of Nato. (Of course, it also helped that the Truman administration was increasingly focused on the Soviet threat.) The Starmer government could learn from this approach, by taking similar action now to pre-empt attacks from Washington.

The other crucial moral lesson to take from Attlee’s administration is the importance of levelling with the public about the scale of the challenges ahead. “You have to frame a narrative that this is going to be a very, very difficult decade because of the age of upheaval we live in,” Muir said. “We will get through it, but there is going to be sacrifice, and that includes at a household level.” This will be true both in terms of paying for the green transition and increasing spending on defence when the public finances are already stretched. “The minute you’re not honest with people about that, then the stage is set for populism.” Take it from your friends in America: that doesn’t end well.

[See also: Vladimir Putin’s enablers are complicit in this war]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change