“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” So said Barack Obama to Mitt Romney during the 2012 race for the US presidency when Romney suggested that Russia was America’s “number-one geopolitical foe”. Like many of Obama’s putdowns, such as his memorable roasting of Donald Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, it was delivered deftly but sounds more hollow with the passage of time. Today, after Russia’s incursion into Crimea, intervention in Syria, sabre-rattling across Nato’s eastern frontier and manipulation of America’s presidential election, Romney’s warning sounds more prescient.
Now those troublesome 1980s have reared their head again in a diplomatic storm in a teacup over Gibraltar. The dispute followed the release of guidelines by the European Council that offered Spain a de facto veto over any settlement on the future of Gibraltar (thereby throwing a territorial disagreement into the Brexit divorce proceedings). The former Conservative leader Michael Howard responded crankily to the EU’s intervention by recalling the willingness of our last female prime minister “to defend another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country” – noting pointedly that we are approaching the 35th anniversary of the Falklands War.
So, there we have it: not five days had passed since the invocation of Article 50 and the prospect of war with another European state had been raised. Notwithstanding the Sun’s nostalgic headline (“Up yours señors!”) the truth is more mundane. Both the British and Spanish governments moved swiftly to lower the temperature. The Prime Minister laughed the matter off when she landed in Jordan on her tour of the Middle East, conveying the impression that she had more grown-up matters to deal with.
No ships of state will crash on the Rock of Gibraltar. Nor is this the beginning of a new era of gunboat diplomacy between plucky Britain and its former friends. Nevertheless, the dynamics of European security are changing in a way that is likely to play an important role in Brexit negotiations, beyond severance payments, trade, commerce and citizenship rights.
The great achievement of the postwar settlement in Europe – out of which the EU was born – was to dilute the power element in European affairs that had been the scourge of the continent. The mistake was to assume this could be eradicated for ever by some sort of federalist salve.
The foundation stone of stability has been the benign (if not entirely altruistic) hegemony of the United States, which rebuilt western Europe with money but also protected it with arms, throughout the Cold War. From 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union created the circumstances for the “golden age” of EU expansion and engendered the belief that the European project could be more autonomous from the US. A third historical anomaly of the past quarter-century has been the unwillingness of a united Germany, by far the wealthiest European power, to assert its power in conventional ways.
The provision of security was never intended to be a quid pro quo. The premise of Nato was that every member of the Western alliance – including the United States – had a shared stake in creating the conditions for stability and prosperity. However, these circumstances were based on an unusual imbalance in global politics that was never going to last. As the US fumbles towards its Asia “pivot”, the resurgence of Russian power, the collapse of various Middle Eastern states and the flow of refugees coming out of North Africa have coalesced to disrupt the status quo, and feed into a growing crisis of European security.
As such, Gibraltar is a distraction to the emerging story, which is that Europe’s three foremost security providers – the US, the UK and France – are becoming more conscious of the value of their role. To present a bill for services, as President Trump is reported to have done in his meeting with Chancellor Merkel, is to violate the original spirit of the contract. Likewise, there are only so many times that the UK can play this card without creating the damaging perception that it is an unreliable ally. Yet we kid ourselves if we think that such inconvenient truths can be kept from the negotiating table indefinitely. After a moratorium on speaking about such matters, the age-old notion of a “balance of power” is rearing its ugly head once more in European affairs.
Beyond Europe, too, the existing order is being disrupted in a way that has given the naked rudiments of force heightened value in international currency. In place of the fuzzier notions of multilateralism, globalism, soft power and digital diplomacy, the new metrics du jour are trade deficits, shipping tonnage, industrial production, standing armies, aircraft carriers and nuclear warheads.
What is most surprising about the new tone of international politics is that it is not simply the revisionist powers that are seeking to change the system, but the former hegemon itself. It was because of the protectionist rhetoric emanating from the Trump White House that President Xi Jinping of China was elevated to the unlikely status of champion of global economic co-operation at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos.
Yet Xi’s stated ambition to usher in a “new model of great-power relations” between the two great powers suggests that China sees an opportunity, too, in this moment. In principle at least, both Trump and Xi believe that the real business of international affairs is done between behemoths.
The 19th century is on the phone, and it wants its foreign policy back.
John Bew is an NS contributing writer
This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue