Writing in the New Statesman – “The Afghan crisis has exposed Global Britain’s delusions of grandeur” (24 August) – Peter Ricketts seeks to weaponise the Afghan debacle against the government’s recent Integrated Review, and to replace the UK’s new foreign policy with something more communautaire. Ricketts reckons that the Biden administration’s recent unilateralism in Afghanistan shows how the Integrated Review put too many eggs in the US basket; he believes that the UK’s true interests will now, more than ever, lie with our former EU partners.
For Ricketts, almost every crisis seems to come back to the original sin of Brexit – even when, as in the case of Afghanistan, the efficacy of the UK response had very little to do with the rights and wrongs of British membership of the EU. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have been roundly criticised, but it is not uniquely a crisis for them: most EU foreign ministers have been decried in their own parliaments for their alleged failures of policy in Kabul.
Rather, it is the continental Atlanticists – such as Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg – who are the real losers here. By contrast, it was UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace who recently and controversially articulated an almost Gaullist trajectory for future British policy, scarcely a sign of a British government with too many eggs in the US basket.
For an amiable and engaging companion, Ricketts, the former national security adviser, is surprisingly ad hominem. Viewing the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary’s reaction to events in Kabul, he concludes not merely that both men were “bewildered”, but that “their response was yet further indication that neither Johnson nor Raab has the slightest affinity with the military world and the values that underpin it”.
Is this fair? On the basis of his performance in office, it could easily be argued that Boris Johnson has at least as great an affinity for the military world as Ricketts: after all, he leads a government that has increased defence spending by £16.5bn in the middle of a pandemic and one of the greatest economic crises since the Second World War.
By contrast, as national security adviser, Ricketts played an important part in the policy of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, which announced an 8 per cent cut in defence spending over the life of the parliament in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review.
A personal note here: back in 2013, when he was mayor of London and still penning his Daily Telegraph column, Johnson was one of the first journalists to support Policy Exchange’s groundbreaking Fog of Law series. These diagnosed the problem of lawfare against British troops who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq – and proposed policy solutions to help those veterans. Commitments to do something about this had already found their way into the Conservative Party manifestos of 2015 and 2017; but it was Johnson who pushed the issue in the 2019 manifesto and delivered legislative time in this parliament to actually do something about it. Ricketts is certainly aware of the importance of the issue of lawfare – as illustrated in his recent book Hard Choices: What Britain Does Next. But he gives Johnson little credit for his part in putting this on the national agenda.
Ricketts believes that the central thesis of the Integrated Review is that the UK’s recovered sovereignty and close links with Washington would enable it to turn the dial on international issues of consequence – and that these fond hopes have not survived contact with reality in the form of Biden’s “Come home, America” fiat. He further quotes Theresa May’s scornful line, “Where is Global Britain on the streets of Kabul?” But as Bruno Maçães has noted, Global Britain was there – and, it should be added, in the form of one of the biggest international rescue missions since the Berlin Airlift of 1948–49. Not enough, but surely rather better than this swipe would lead one to believe.
All this makes for a one-dimensional view of the Integrated Review: far from being an exercise in “exceptionalism”, much of the Integrated Review is taken up with a breathless, hyperactive multilateralism – with twice as many pages being devoted to science and technology as to the much-derided “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific (after the Afghan debacle, the emerging pressures on friends such as India might actually make such a “tilt” more, rather than less necessary – and in any case, this hardly ranks as “exceptionalist” nostalgia, for both France and Germany articulated Indo-Pacific strategies well before the UK). The tone of the Integrated Review is, if anything, reminiscent of a young Tony Benn during the Harold Wilson government of the 1960s, evangelising on behalf of the “white heat” of new technology. But it is scarcely GA Henty terrain.
[See also: Why a China-centred future is still uncertain]
As for America, what the Integrated Review unsentimentally says is that “the US will remain our most important bilateral relationship, essential to key alliances and groups such as Nato and the Five Eyes, and our largest bilateral trading partner and inward investor”. Biden has inflicted a grievous, highly personalised blow – but are those hard-nosed words any less true today than when published by the government in March? For example, will we need US intelligence any the less to stop terror attacks in the UK? And will we really have more in common going forward with EU nations on commerce with China than we do with the US, as Ricketts asserts? After all, the debate over the UK’s interests in China has only just begun – and UK interests there are not static.
Consider the counterfactual: would a UK government that had remained in the EU, headed by the likes of Nick Clegg, done any better with the Biden administration? As Justin Webb has brilliantly observed, the collective intelligence failure here was not the assessment of how long the old Afghan army could resist the Taliban for, but rather the failure to see that the Biden team would be as good as its word on completing this unilateral withdrawal in its own time frame. As the official MI5 historian Christopher Andrew has long observed: “The world’s best kept secrets are in Hansard.”
Ricketts is part of that collective failure to read Biden correctly: as he notes in Hard Choices, “President Biden understands the value of allies to the US” (page 77). This volume is an authoritative statement of the permanent state’s view of these matters. There will no doubt be much time to debate the rights and wrongs of Afghanistan policy, but it was 20 years in the making, with the past 11 years of strategy being superintended by a National Security Council that Ricketts helped to set up. If his burgeoning oeuvre between hard covers and on social media is anything to go by, don’t expect to find too many mea culpas for the past two decades, which included not just Afghanistan but also the “golden era” of relations with China, Libya or Syria. It’s easier to blame Johnson.