Show caption Boris Johnson with Joe Biden at the G7 summit in June. ‘The display of beach bonhomie looks all the more phoney after the US president’s brutal refusal to consult Britain over Afghanistan.’ Photograph: Leon Neal/PA Opinion With the US becoming a less reliable ally, Britain needs to make friends in Europe Andrew Rawnsley Britain urgently needs to repair its relations with its neighbours but Boris Johnson’s government is singularly ill-equipped to do so Sun 5 Sep 2021 09.00 BST Share on Facebook
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After the rout, the recriminations. British fingers furiously jab at the Americans for a shaming scuttle from Kabul that will embolden the west’s adversaries. Sir John Major yesterday called the withdrawal of western forces a “strategically very stupid” decision. Tony Blair, the prime minister who sent British forces into Afghanistan 20 years ago, goes so far as to call the precipitous exit “imbecilic”. Number 10 has been forced to deny that Boris Johnson refers to the US president as “Sleepy Joe”, the insult minted by Donald Trump. Supporters of Joe Biden counter-accuse the British and other European countries of expecting the US to continue to expend its blood and treasure in Afghanistan when most Nato members had wound down their commitments long ago.
In Whitehall, an ugly three-way blame game rages between the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office about why the government didn’t anticipate the swiftness of the fall of Kabul or make timely preparations to help vulnerable people to whom Britain owes obligations. We’d be in a better place if they’d devoted as much energy to planning for the evacuation as they are expending on excoriating each other. There will be more finger pointing when the Commons returns tomorrow. Yet it is not buck-passing between politicians desperate to save their careers that this country needs if anything useful is to be learned from this debacle. What is required is a cool reassessment of where this leaves Britain in a perilous and unpredictable world.
Mark Sedwill was certain the return of Taliban rule would have an ‘inspirational’ effect on jihadists
This humiliating episode has shattered assumptions that have been central to elite thinking about foreign policy. That was very evident when the Policy Exchange thinktank convened a panel of speakers who were notable for their credentials and their anxieties about the future. Sir Mark Sedwill, the former cabinet secretary who also served as national security adviser, was certain that the return of Taliban rule would have an “inspirational” effect on jihadists that will fuel terrorism worldwide. Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative MP who served in Afghanistan and chairs the foreign affairs select committee, worried that we have moved closer to a hot conflict between America and China because Beijing will read the west’s defeat as an encouragement to flex its muscles more aggressively. I was also struck by a contribution from George Robertson, who was defence secretary during New Labour’s first term and Nato general secretary at the time of 9/11. He has always been staunchly in the Labour Atlanticist tradition established by Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin after the Second World War. It was arresting to hear such a vigorous champion of the alliance with America as Lord Robertson suggest that Britain and other Europeans would have to do more for themselves “to keep our people safe” because “we cannot any longer rely on the American umbrella being there in all situations at all times”.
This is also – or certainly ought to be – an illusion-smashing moment for a government of Brexiters who sold their enterprise with the promise that Britain would be liberated to forge a new global identity. When it came to the world arena, there were three central pillars to the Brexit prospectus. One was that British foreign policy could be more oriented towards serving the country’s economic interests by striking independent trade deals. Some have been negotiated, though they are often no more than cut and pastes of agreements the UK already had as a member of the EU. The chances of there being a deal with the US, which was held aloft as a glittering prize of Brexit, now look vanishingly slim. At the same time, there is a growing awareness that a follow-the-money foreign policy can be a recklessly shortsighted one. Not that long ago, senior Conservatives gushed about a “golden era” of enriching economic relations with China. Now they are possessed by the geostrategic menace posed to western values and interests by the world’s most powerful one-party state.
The second assumption of the Brexiters was that the UK had the diplomatic capacity to make a success of flying solo. There’s no evidence to support that contention from the dismal performance in Afghanistan. In a querulous appearance before MPs last week, the foreign secretary confirmed that he did not call his counterparts in Afghanistan or Pakistan in the six months leading up to the chaotic exit.
When challenged to say how Brexit Britain would exert global influence, the government has often argued that it will exploit “convening power”. Membership of other international organisations would enable Britain to secure desirable results for itself while shepherding other powers to the resolution of global challenges. We entered this year with Number 10 claiming that chairmanship of the G7 would demonstrate Britain’s continuing relevance on the world stage. Yet there was no evident extra product to come out of the G7 summit in June. The display in Cornwall of beach bonhomie by Mr Johnson and Mr Biden looks all the more phoney after the US president’s brutal refusal to consult Britain over Afghanistan. After the fall of Kabul, the prime minister convened an emergency online meeting of the G7 that singularly failed to persuade Mr Biden to change course.
The next test of the fabled “convening power” is the Cop26 summit in Glasgow in November. There is a lot of anxiety that this critical gathering will be a failure unless the richer nations can be persuaded to make good on undelivered pledges to help poorer countries address the climate crisis. Successful exploitation of “convening power” requires hard work and high competence along with a capacity to build fruitful relationships with global counterparts and a talent for forging a consensus. None of these is a quality associated with Mr Johnson, Mr Raab or anyone else in the band of Brexiters.
American public opinion is wearying of entanglements abroad and increasingly resentful of sending forces to protect others
Their third assumption was of an enduringly close relationship with Washington. Britain would never walk alone so long as it was arm in arm with the US. For those who championed the concept of the “Anglosphere”, much of the point of Brexit was a tighter transatlantic embrace. This failed to recognise that American public opinion was wearying of entanglements abroad and increasingly resentful of sending forces and spending tax dollars to protect others. When Mr Trump fulminated against free-riding allies, he gave rude expression to what many American voters and politicians felt.
It will probably turn out to be an exaggeration to say we are entering a period akin to the 1920s when the United States retreats behind the great moats provided by the Atlantic and Pacific. The US will still be a global actor when it suits its perceived self-interest. But it is hard not to conclude that we are witnesses to a world-changing reorientation of Washington’s priorities that threatens to leave Britain very marginalised. Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia was followed by the Trump rampage through international norms that has now been succeeded by Joe Biden’s version of America First.
This doesn’t feel like a blip. It looks like an inflection point. Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, is more thoughtful about this than most of his cabinet colleagues. He argues that “taking America for granted” has been a mistake and suggests Britain should be working on other alliances, mentioning France as a partner in supporting African countries besieged by extremists. Mr Tugendhat agrees that Britain has to wean itself off dependency on a single ally: “Like the Suez fiasco, the crisis in Afghanistan is going to change our foreign policy completely… Our options cannot solely be determined by the White House.”
At least some Tories are doing some thinking. This is coinciding with a revived debate in continental Europe about becoming less reliant on the US. A common European effort to do more to protect our continent’s security would be greatly enhanced by the involvement of the UK. If the UK does not want to be so dependent on the US, then the obvious place to look for other friends is among the liberal democracies in our neighbourhood.
A mutually beneficial partnership on defence and foreign policy makes sense, but you will have already spotted the snag. That would require respect and trust, not relations poisoned by years of Boris Johnson and other senior Tories depicting Europe as this country’s deadliest enemy and festering disputes about the terms of the exit from the EU. One day Britain will have a government that recognises that it is in the national interest for the UK to rebuild the Brexit-burnt bridges with its neighbours, but it will first have to change its prime minister.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer