Sunak’s global quest for friends and influence
The author is an FT editor
Britain is looking for a new foreign policy. Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit fantasy of a second Elizabethan age has departed with its author. Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has required a rewrite of the government’s security and defense policies. However, Rishi Sunak’s first task is to restore international respect. The Prime Minister has made some progress in his first few months at Downing Street. Nothing will count unless he makes the UK’s peace with the EU.
The reality of Johnson’s “Global Britain” was a nation deeply distrusted in Berlin, Paris, Brussels and beyond. Johnson’s row with Brussels over trade deals for Northern Ireland led to Joe Biden closing the White House door. Liz Truss, his short-lived successor at No. 10, seemed uninterested in gaining either friends or influence, struggling to decide whether French President Emmanuel Macron was friend or foe.
With Sunak, boastful exceptionalism has given way to quiet mildness. The message from Downing Street is that the country once again has a sober, honest leader. He wants to refresh broken friendships. And the early signs are promising. The Prime Minister has started talks to end the ongoing post-Brexit row with Brussels and found a relationship with Macron. Next month, the President will host a Franco-British summit, the first since January 2018. A state visit by King Charles is to follow.
Scratch beneath the surface of the age-old Franco-British rivalry and these best foes have a common interest in drawing closer. As nuclear powers with permanent seats on the UN Security Council, they see themselves as superior to their European partners. They are ready to deploy their armed forces – but they struggle to pay the military bills in tough economic times.
The 2010 Lancaster House agreement, signed before Brexit cast its dark shadow, paved the way for joint work to modernize both nations’ nuclear deterrents. There is much additional scope for conventional armed forces to work together. Elsewhere, diplomats are calling for joint action to be taken against climate change. Additional undersea power interconnectors would underpin mutual energy security. For his part, Sunak is relying on the goodwill of France to reduce the flow of undocumented migrants crossing the Channel in small boats.
Putin’s aggression has given the prime minister a useful avenue back into European diplomacy. The heartfelt thanks of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during his visit to London this week underscored the government’s role in supporting Kiev from the start of the conflict. Sunak’s offering of Challenger tanks helped break the deadlock in western heavy arms shipments. Along with France and Germany, Britain is part of the US-led quad that controls the West’s response to the war.
Tone and personal connections matter in foreign policy. As unspectacular as Sunak may seem at home, his sobriety is a welcome change abroad. Biden has scheduled a visit to London and Belfast to mark the 25th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Peace Agreement in April. An invitation to the White House could follow. So far so encouraging. But shaking hands is not enough. Britain will not win back a voice in the world as long as it alienates itself from the EU. Biden, Macron and the rest want Sunak to end the raging standoff with the EU provoked by Johnson’s threat to pull out of the trade deal. American diplomats have signaled that Biden’s trip is conditional on an agreement. There is also a thaw at Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Johnson is now rejecting a deal he once described as a triumph, but Sunak has suspended Johnson’s threat of unilateral action. The provisions of the Northern Ireland Protocol – needed to maintain Ireland’s open north-south border envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement – are the subject of intense negotiations with Brussels. Officials say a bargain could result in the EU minimizing controls on trade across the Irish Sea in exchange for a UK commitment to comply with EU internal market rules in Northern Ireland.
What is needed is political courage on Sunak’s part. If he is to reach agreement, he must oppose any compromise made by the Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland and his own uncompromising MPs. Brexit fundamentalists are poised to tear up the UK’s treaty commitments.
The messages from Downing Street are mixed. In one breath, Sunak stresses the need to normalize relations with Britain’s main economic partner. In the next, he slips into his party’s ideological comfort zone by promising to light a bonfire of whatever traces of EU regulation remain in Britain’s statute book. His European partners are forgiven for the confusion.
The Brexiters’ false promise was that leaving the EU would free the nation to reclaim a lofty role in global affairs. The reality was economic stagnation and a diminished international role. Big pushes “east of Suez” look downright delusional as the army struggles to meet its core NATO obligations to defend Europe.
The economic output and global reputation lost as a result of Brexit will never be fully regained. Britain still has considerable strengths, but a sustainable national recovery depends on regaining cooperation from European partners and US confidence. The essential first step for Sunak is to show that Britain can once again be a reliable ally.
https://www.ft.com/content/94509f40-5580-4a2f-9480-174318242f7e Sunak’s global quest for friends and influence