AUKUS: Britain's foreign policy vibes
The prime minister met President Biden and Anthony Albanese of Australia in San Diego, hinting at the direction of UK foreign policy
On the face of it, yesterday’s meeting of the leaders of the US, the UK and Australia in San Diego, California, was the opportunity to announce a tripartite deal to build nuclear-powered but conventionally armed submarines. The so-called AUKUS agreement will see America supply Australia with at least three Virginia-class attack boats in the early 2030s, after which all three countries will cooperate to design and build a new class of submarine, dubbed SSN-AUKUS. The new vessels will be built in the United Kingdom and Australia to a British design, using technology from all three powers.
This all sounds relatively technical: in some ways it is. But it is a substantial financial commitment. The US is planning to spent $4.6 billion to improve its construction and maintenance capabilities, the UK has announced an increase in defence spending of nearly £5 billion and the Australian government will spend A$368 billion over the next 30 years. Submarines are not cheap, nor are they swiftly built. All three governments are locking themselves into commitments which will last for decades (though, as we know from experience, these commitments are never unbreakable).
From the UK’s point of view, however, this is about more than just spending commitments and engineering agreements. I wrote recently of the sheer quantum of money which the Ministry of Defence needs simply to stand still, let alone procure new equipment or begin to plug the holes in its budget and capabilities, and the broader picture, terrifyingly enough, makes £5 billion look like a modest sum. But there is more going on here. As Rishi Sunak was bathing in the Californian sunshine, his foreign secretary, James Cleverly, gave a statement in the House of Commons on the “refresh” of 2021’s Integrated Review. It may seem absurd to be updating a document which is barely two years old, but the world changes quickly: the original review was published in the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic, under a different prime minister with a very different style and different priorities, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and before inflation became a serious economic factor—in March 2021, it stood at 0.7 per cent, while the latest figure is around 10 per cent—and energy supplies became more fragile.
Cleverly, who is emerging as a convincing figure in his new role, was relatively bullish yesterday.
We have maintained our position as a global leader on international development by pursuing patient, long-term partnerships tailored to the needs of our partner countries, and we succeed because those partnerships draw on the full range of UK strengths and expertise.
This is, after all, the very foundation of the Integrated Review: it was designed as never before to take in the UK’s whole approach to external events, not merely a defence review or a blueprint for diplomacy. The foreign secretary admitted that, while the review had foreseen the kind of instability we have witnessed in the global strategic picture, it had not predicted their unfolding so quickly.
As I wrote last summer, we have entered an age of “the politics of feelings, of ‘vibes’.” I went on to note that “these may not adhere to strict logic but their power should not be underestimated”, and, although I was referring particularly to the Conservative Party leadership on one hand and the “Enough is Enough” campaign (remember them?) on the other, there is a wider applicability. And what Sunak is doing in California is contributing to the “vibes” of our foreign policy.
Since the UK began the process of leaving the European Union after the referendum of June 2016, there have been many attempts to articulate a new purpose and place in the world. The most tantalising beginning was articulated by none other than Boris Johnson when, giving his first major policy speech as foreign secretary at Chatham House in December 2016, coined the phrase “Global Britain”. In a typically Johnsonian fashion, however, this was a façade, a mere slogan. Some five years later, in December 2021, a brief by the European Council on Foreign Relations could still describe Global Britain as “a title in search of a plot”, and there has been an ongoing frustration in all parts of the foreign policy community that there has not been a more fleshed-out notion of a revised mission. The Integrated Review has filled some of the gaps, and is, as these things go, a reasonable document. But it is a rather dry and technical foreign and security policy paper and has limitations.
(A broader, more conceptual attempt to address this challenge was published two months after the Integrated Review: Greater: Britain after the Storm by current cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt and communications guru Chris Lewis tries to capture our national genius and assess how we can apply it to the challenges of the future.)
A strategic vision, or plan, or mission, or whatever word one prefers, has to rest on some sense of values or common purpose. Foreign policy always demands a difficult high-wire act of pursuing our own national interest while persuading foreign countries that we are acting for the collective good. This has traditionally been played out in part through the particular bonds and multiple self-deceptions of the “special relationship” with the US. I will write about that alliance in more detail in the coming weeks, but we can, in broad terms, say that it exists—that is, there is something unique about the UK’s relations with the US and vice-versa—but also that we invest it with many qualities which it lacks. One thing which is now, I think generally accepted, is that there are hardly any circumstances now in which the UK would commit to major military operations alone, and that we will almost always be acting as an ally of the US. This brings opportunity and pitfall at the same time: we can, by positioning ourselves as reliable, credible and on the same wavelength (though not quite, in Harold Macmillan’s vision, Greeks to their Romans), but we must guard against simply abandoning our own judgement and autonomy and becoming essentially an extension of US foreign policy and missionary capability.
However, post-Brexit, we are looking for a new circle of friends. We remain, of course, a leading player in NATO, one of the most potent European member states and one of the few to reach or exceed the agreed target of spending two per cent of gross domestic product on defence. That notwithstanding, it is logical that we have also looked again at the Commonwealth as another sphere of influence. The Integrated Review describes the Commonwealth as “a voluntary international association that values democratic sovereignty and encompasses 2.4 billion people—60% of whom are under the age of thirty” and stresses its importance in promoting:
An open and resilient international order, bringing together states with a national interest in promoting democracy, sustaining individual freedoms, driving sustainable development and enabling cross-border trade in goods and services that supports economic growth.
Within the Commonwealth, the review emphasises what used to be the Dominions, that is, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, with which our relationship is “based on shared history, values and people-to-people connections”. They are also, of course, fellow members (with the US) of the vital Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group.
I think Sunak “gets” this aspect of where our new foreign policy stance might take us. The AUKUS deal (which was achieved, remember, under the noses and to the fury of the French) binds us more tightly still to the United States and Australia, two countries with whom we have huge amounts in common. The prime minister may have hit the nail on the head yesterday when he tweeted: “Protecting our people. Defending our values. Guaranteeing our long-term security. #AUKUS”
We mustn’t overestimate the Commonwealth. It is in part an exercise in nostalgia: many of the nations which gained independence from the British Empire remained in the Commonwealth for reasons of economic necessity, or political convenience, or—one should not underestimate this factor—because their leaders, while champions of freedom, were also products of the imperial world. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, had been educated at Harrow, Trinity College, Cambridge and the Inner Temple; his Pakistani counterpart, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had been called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn. In Africa, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya had studied at the LSE, Julius Nyerere (Tanzania) and Hastings Banda (Malawi) were alumni of the University of Edinburgh, and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana for a while attended the LSE and was then supervised at University College, London, by A.J. Ayer.
As those links have fallen away, we must continue to show current and aspirant Commonwealth member states why they should want to be in the organisation. It can amplify the voices of its members on the world stage, as well as providing a forum within which members can talk among themselves and resolve disputes internally. It has a charter, adopted in 2013, which contains high principles of human rights, justice and democracy (though it is also true that member states sometimes fail to meet those standards and it has been poor at enforcing them). And we must understand why Mozambique and Rwanda, which had never been British possessions, sought to join the Commonwealth (in 1995 and 2009 respectively). Above all, we must seek to show what we have in common, and what we can achieve through shared values and shared purpose.
The head of the Commonwealth is not automatically the sovereign of the United Kingdom. The title was created by the London Declaration of April 1949 when India wished to become a republic but stay in the Commonwealth (all other members at that time shared King George VI as their head of state): India discarded the monarch in 1950 but recognised the king as head of the Commonwealth. Elizabeth II was recognised with little demur on her accession in 1952, but she exerted considerable influence to have the then-Prince of Wales named as her successor at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting London in April 2018.
A truly comprehensive vision of “Global Britain” will need more than treaties and international agreements, valuable though they are. At the risk of exhibiting my time spent in public relations, it needs a narrative, a unifying purpose, a sense of beliefs and attitudes which make sense and underpin our alliances. But I think yesterday’s AUKUS gathering may be symbolic. It showed us shoulder-to-shoulder with the US, our closest ally with whom we may squabble and occasionally diverge, but with whose destiny we know we are inextricably intertwined. And it reinforced our sometimes-fractious relationship with Australia, with which we share less than we once did but still fundamental ideas of identity and outlook.
This will be a demanding and often-frustrating process. But it is absolutely essential. If we are to achieve anything from Brexit (for which I voted and which I had supported since my teenage years), we must find a coherent story to tell. We will have to embrace multilateralism and understand that we have interlinked circles of alliances and friendships. But that can be an opportunity. We can have many identities and faces, and interact with different parts of the world, so long as they are underpinned by core values and expectations. AUKUS is a good start. But the work is only beginning.