When the UK voted to leave the European Union was it also voting to leave the world stage? It’s certainly what many Remainers have always feared and this week’s inept attempt by the government to revisit the EU Withdrawal Agreement will only reinforce the suspicion that Britain might no longer be a rule-abiding international partner.
While it’s undeniable that the Ukip end of the Brexit coalition veers towards isolationism, a drawbridge mentality has never been central to the politics of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab or other leading members of this government. It’s true that each of them support greater control of immigration but they’ve always talked the language of “Global Britain”. Is there any evidence that they’ve lived up to this rhetoric?
There are some areas in which they clearly have: the UK remains the only major power to fulfil both the Nato target of committing 2 per cent of GDP to defence and the UN target of spending 0.7 per cent on international aid. The latter will be vulnerable as Rishi Sunak seeks to restore the public finances to health but Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, has so far successfully resisted the Treasury’s advances. An aid-sceptical public may tell focus groups that “charity should begin at home”, but with 99.3 of GDP excluded from international development, the government is hardly neglecting the home front.
The battle to protect the aid budget hasn’t been conclusively won yet but the major advantage of the recent merger of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development is that Raab – the government’s second-in-command – has a better chance of prevailing than a more junior DFID counterpart would have done.
Meanwhile, the new pathway to work, study, and possible British citizenship, for three million residents of Hong Kong is probably the most significant sign that fears of “Fortress Britain” are ill-founded. While the initiative by Raab and the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has angered China, it corrected an omission by the previous Conservative government, which handed over Hong Kong to Beijing’s communist regime in 1997.
At that time there was still widespread hope in foreign policy circles that China’s transition from lightweight to heavyweight economic status would lead it to embrace liberal democracy. That hope proved delusional and the need to belatedly stand up to China is the motivation behind the Foreign Secretary’s recent advocacy of a new “D10” alliance of the world’s ten largest democracies (with South Korea, India, and Australia joining the existing G7 group as its putative members).
The goal of ending Western dependence on essential medical supplies that are largely or wholly manufactured in China – the potential danger of which has been revealed by the Covid-19 crisis – could provide an immediate impetus for the D10 grouping. But that would only be the beginning of what Tory advocates envisage for the alliance. The hope of MPs such as Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, is that the D10 could perform the role that bodies such as the World Trade Organisation no longer do and act as a counterweight to China
Whether it’s Western dependence on manufactured Chinese goods, Beijing’s persecution of Uighur Muslims or president Xi Jinping’s bullying of Australia for daring to suggest an independent investigation into Covid-19’s origins in China, there are ever more reasons not to treat China as a trustworthy ally.
The same applies to Russia. Germany’s dependence on Russian gas appears increasingly at odds with Angela Merkel’s willingness to punish Moscow for its latest poisoning of an opponent. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny may have emerged from a coma after being treated in a Berlin hospital but Vladimir Putin’s aggression risks merely confirming the West’s powerlessness against authoritarian states.
The mood to end the “project kowtow” of the Cameron-Osborne years is so strong inside the new parliamentary Conservative Party that the government’s U-turn on Huawei might prove insufficient if the Chinese company is not removed from the UK’s 5G networks long before 2027.
Inside the Tory family there is also an enthusiasm for constructing a new global architecture that reflects some of the reasons why the UK left the EU. There is, for example, no expectation inside Downing Street or the Foreign Office that D10 members would demand unanimity on all issues. The alliance would be a relatively loose “maxilteral”, rather than “supranational”, entity. Though unanimity of action would be ideal, the priority would be to ensure that at least some D10 states are able to agree sanctions against Russia, or to assist a nation on the verge of becoming another client state of China.
No D10 member would possess the kind of veto that rendered an institution such as the UN Security Council futile when the people of Darfur and Rwanda turned to the international community. Such a flexible approach could allow states such as Spain, Poland, the Netherlands and New Zealand to participate without making the new alliance unmanageable.
The D10, or D15, will never emerge if the winner of the US presidential election doesn’t sign their country up as D1. An acrimonious end to the Brexit negotiations, meanwhile, would endanger the willingness of France, Germany and Italy to participate.
But should the UK government succeed in pioneering the D10, it will prove that post-Brexit Britain has not retreated from the world. More importantly, it will demonstrate that it understands how dangerous the world could become if democracies do so little to stop freedom’s opponents winning the 21st-century race for technological and military superiority.