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18 August 2021

The fall of Kabul has exposed the intellectual void at the heart of British foreign policy

The UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was ultimately decided by Washington, and the government was powerless to stop it. 

By Stephen Bush

The Foreign Office has never quite known what to make of Dominic Raab. On the one hand, his entire career has been a long apprenticeship for the role of foreign secretary: he spent time as a lawyer at the Hague, and was a back-room official, advising the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) on the Middle East. On the other hand, he is a committed Brexiteer at a department where the Leave vote is still seen as a double trauma, first because the UK voted to reject the EU, and second because the Cabinet Office, not the Foreign Office, was put in charge of the exit talks.

Opinion was divided when, shortly after his arrival in July 2019, Raab made it known that officials should strive to keep his foreign trips short in order to allow him to see his young family. Some civil servants saw it as the act of a progressive minister. Others saw it as evidence that the new Foreign Secretary was unenthusiastic about the role.

[See also: Afghanistan Diary: The fall of Kabul was predictable – if you were there]

The confusion continues in office. Raab has achieved the long-held dream of some FCO officials in restoring control of the aid budget and bringing the Department for International Development back into its orbit. But he also acquiesced to the reduction in the international development budget to 0.5 per cent of GDP from 0.7 per cent, at exactly the point the FCO hoped to use it to set British foreign policy priorities (and restore some of the FCO’s clout in Whitehall). Some compare him disparagingly to Thérèse Coffey, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who in contrast is believed to be fighting hard to prevent the cut to Universal Credit from going ahead.

Raab is the cabinet minister who, more than any other, takes personal credit for the UK’s generous offer to refugees fleeing Hong Kong following the Chinese government’s crackdown on life and liberty there. But he is also the Foreign Secretary who reportedly headed abroad for his holidays while UK and US forces were withdrawing from Afghanistan and leaving the field clear for the Taliban to retake the country.

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There’s no question that Raab’s holiday (which coincided with the Prime Minister’s) was a bad look politically, not least because it starkly compares with the heroism of the UK’s ambassador in Afghanistan, Laurie Bristow, who has remained in Kabul to assist the exit of others from the country. Embarrassment over the two politicians’ holidays meant that the recall of parliament on 18 August looked like a government covering its back. But the difficult truth is that both Raab and Johnson may as well have stayed on the beach for all the influence that they, or any British minister, wield over events in Afghanistan.

The UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, similar to that of Germany and Australia, was ultimately decided not in London but in Washington. Donald Trump negotiated an exit deal with the Taliban, and Joe Biden opted to go ahead with it. Ben Wallace, the UK Defence Secretary, argued for the British to continue regardless, but the reality, as another cabinet minister put it, is that “without the Americans, there’s no show”.

[See also: Joe Biden passes the buck over the Afghanistan crisis]

This has revealed another unpalatable fact for the UK government: it lacks the capacity to act alone in foreign affairs, and even if it could, its foreign policy strategy is not clear. Political choices made over the past 11 years have reduced British strength abroad: the Conservatives’ spending cuts have shrunk the armed forces to their smallest size since the beginning of the 20th century.

In the past year, decade-long reductions in “hard power” have been paired with new cuts to the UK’s “soft power” in the shape of its foreign aid budget. The problem could be partially addressed simply with spending, but the intellectual void in British foreign policy goes deeper.

Since the Conservatives returned to office, the party has been clearer on what it is against than what it is for, and even then, it has not been particularly consistent. In 2008, as Conservative Party leader, David Cameron said that “we should accept that we cannot impose democracy at the barrel of a gun; that we cannot drop democracy from 10,000 feet and we shouldn’t try”. This was before Cameron, as prime minister, launched missile strikes on Libya in 2011 and tried to intervene in Syria in 2013.

Under Johnson (himself a former, not particularly distinguished, foreign secretary), the Conservative government has superficially abandoned the close relationship that Cameron sought with China, but the government’s newfound Sino-scepticism is absent when the question of foreign aid cuts comes into view. (Reduced UK spending will give China greater freedom to use its “Belt and Road” initiative to expand its influence in less developed countries.)

Johnson wants to work with France, Italy and Germany as part of the new D10 group of major democratic nations, but to remain at odds with them as far as the European Union and the Northern Ireland protocol are concerned. Similarly, the British government is committed to action on climate change – but not so much as to protect foreign aid or cooperate with the EU.

Lacking overall direction from Downing Street, individual foreign secretaries have operated more like junior ministers, adopting worthy projects such as William Hague’s efforts to reduce violence against women and girls in conflict zones and Raab’s championing of Hong Kong citizens. The job of providing a strategy has instead been left to the prime minister. But neither Cameron nor Theresa May was willing or able to provide it, and there is not much prospect of Johnson doing so either.

The most embarrassing aspect of Johnson and Raab’s holidays is that it is unclear what they have accomplished by ending them early – and it’s even less clear what they intend to achieve when they return for the new parliamentary term in September. 

[See also: The fall of Afghanistan: all the New Statesman’s coverage]

This article appears in the 18 August 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Betrayal

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