Britain woke this morning to the news that leading Iranian military commander, General Qasem Soleimani, had been killed by an American airstrike in Iraq, with US sources reportedly claiming he was planning an attack on the country’s personnel in the region.
While we have become accustomed to President Trump’s unorthodox approach to global affairs, watching at arm’s length with a mixture of bemusement and consternation, these airstrikes are not simply an American concern. Britain is heavily involved in the region, with the second-largest military and diplomatic presence behind our American allies.
The strikes may not have been a complete surprise to our personnel in the joint taskforce on the ground, but they certainly appear to have come as an alarming surprise to Whitehall – forcing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s unfinished “Global Britain” machine into action. That is not least of all because Britain has been an active advocate for the de-escalation of tensions in the region – emphasised strongly in the statement released this morning by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who described conflict as “in none of our interests”.
Confirming the raid, President Donald Trump tweeted a picture of the American flag – clearly hoping for a patriotic bounce going into an election year. Across the pond, it quickly became clear that Johnson would not seek to tap into the same national fervour – mindful that British public opinion about military action is complex and has proved difficult to win over to foreign intervention.
There have been many turning points in British foreign policy, but in terms of its implications for British governance, and the fusing of the domestic and international spheres, the long-term influence of the war in Iraq cannot be overstated. Analysis of public opinion towards military interventionism makes clear that it precipitated a dramatic decline in support for proactive defence activities.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, 54 per cent of Britons supported military action in Iraq to address the threat of Al-Qaeda and Islamist terrorism. A decade later, 58 per cent felt the decision had been wrong. A YouGov survey in 2017 showed a majority of Britons now believe that our military presence in the Middle East has actively encouraged terrorism at home.
While foreign policy has often been considered the preserve of lofty diplomats in the corridors of King Charles Street, leaders are having to become more attuned to public opinion about our role in the world. With Britons demanding a greater influence in their government’s decision-making, prime ministers contemplating military action now also have to persuade an increasingly sceptical public. Having run a populist campaign to victory, Johnson must show particular sensitivity to the nation’s mood – balancing the broad antipathy towards President Trump and the risks of combat, against any decisions about national security and responsibilities to our allies.
Although the past two decades have seen a significant downward trend in support for interventionism, the one exception was a spike in support for airstrikes towards ISIS, following the spate of horrific terror attacks across Europe in the middle of the last decade. But the resurgent willingness to condone British military action abroad was unique to these circumstances, likely stemming from the perception of a “direct threat” to British civilians on home soil. Without this sense of proximity, the Government will find it hard to convince citizens of the necessity of British international military activities – particularly the need for “boots on the ground”.
Britons are also increasingly attuned to the impact of global conflicts on the long-term peace and security of developing nations, and uncomfortable about the role that we may play in undermining them. Bearing the weary knowledge of the potential for conflicts to become messy and extended, the desire to send our young men and women into such hostile situations without an exit route is simply too weak. In short, until the Government can convince the public of our capacity to not just “win the war” but also “keep the peace”, it is likely there will be pressure to maintain a lighter touch military footprint in international disputes.
This first major test for Johnson’s Global Britain strategy highlights two core challenges for British foreign policy: how best to negotiate our relationship with a highly unpredictable and unpopular American president, and how to sell international activities to a sceptical and polarised public. With the two in competition, hard choices will have to be made.
Sophia Gaston is Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.