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Keeping up with the Putins

The British Foreign Secretary laid out her vision for the UK’s foreign policy in an age of global conflict on 27 April. Fred Carver argues that her speech ignored the compromised nature of both Russian and British power and failed to envision any long-term basis for sustainable peace between the West, Russia and China.

Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss has a vision for British foreign policy; she told us so herself in a keynote speech at London’s Mansion House last week.

For that, at least, we should be grateful. The UK’s foreign policy has lacked vision for too long. The 2015 National Security Strategy eschewed hard choices in favour of platitudes about it being possible for the UK to be all things to all people. It remained in place for an extraordinary six years, despite all its core assumptions being rendered flawed within months by the Brexit vote and the election of President Trump.

In 2016 then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was due to outline UK foreign policy in three keynote speeches: the first popularised the term “Global Britain” while articulating little beyond the romance he finds in heroic failure; the second and third never took place. In 2021, while Dominic Raab was Foreign Secretary, we had the much vaunted Integrated Review – the “most comprehensive” rethink of the UK’s foreign policy “since the cold war”. While the paper prompted much debate, it didn’t really add up to a coherent agenda.

A network of liberty?

So now there is finally a vision, what is it? Essentially it is one of perpetual conflict, albeit a conflict of ideas that the UK hopes to fight and win while limiting war to indirect proxy and – for now – defensive operations. The world is divided into three camps: a Russian camp, a Chinese camp and a NATO camp that the UK aspires to lead. The other two camps must be defeated, by providing support for their enemies, by waging a war of prosperity (the G7 to be weaponised as a “NATO of prosperity”), and by diplomatic outreach to undecided states in the global south.

The last of these points is new, and it is refreshing to see the UK – emboldened by Ukraine’s victories in the UN General Assembly – comprehend the value of diplomatic outreach. Its part abandonment of its longstanding defence of the historic privileges of permanent members of the UN Security Council can be understood in this light.

The idea of the UK as a bastion against Russia and China is not new. Then Foreign Secretary Jeremey Hunt was much mocked in 2018 for coining the term “invisible chain” linking democracies for that idea; Prime Minister Johnson has spoken of turning the G7 into a “Democratic 10”. What differs in Truss’s vision is that while Johnson and Hunt tried to articulate the UK as a leader of a community of values, Truss is more transactional. Truss’s “Network of Liberty” doesn’t yet appear to stand for anything, just against Russia and China.

Tactically, this is probably wise. Truss’s still undefined Network of Liberty presumably consists of the UK’s strongest allies and partners, and thus contains – admittedly alongside many well-functioning democracies – absolute dictatorships like Rwanda, far-right demagogues like India’s Prime Minister Modi, and in Saudi Arabia one of the world’s most blood soaked, totalitarian, misogynistic, and destabilising forces. It is a geopolitical alliance of convenience, not a world view, and to pretend otherwise just leaves one open to ridicule and charges of hypocrisy.

A logic of domination?

As for Truss’s agenda: seen through the particular lens of this particular moment in this particular crisis, I find it hard to argue against many of the specific steps the Foreign Secretary calls for. Ukrainians, through no fault of their own, find themselves locked in an existential struggle with those who would impose tyranny upon them. It would be a failure of solidarity not to give the Ukrainian people almost any support they request – the only limitation being on those forms of support (such as a no fly zone) that would do more harm than good.

But a foreign policy vision cannot just consider a specific moment and specific situation. It needs to accomplish broader aims than that. And Truss’s vision leaves much to be desired in a number of areas.

First and foremost, it is the exact same vision as Putin’s.

Putin too sees the world as defined by an irreconcilable clash of civilisations. His desire is to split the world into competing spheres of influence within which a regional hegemon can act as a neo-imperial power. Accepting this logic therefore plays into his hands. Granted, rejecting it is difficult in the current circumstances – détente takes two or it becomes enablement – but the UK must not lose sight of the fact that its long-term goal is, and should always be, friendly relations with a Russia worth befriending.

As for China, while it is right that China’s unconscionable actions in, for example, Xinjiang, be opposed, it is surely counterproductive to refuse on principle to cooperate where cooperation would be mutually and universally beneficial – such as on climate change.

Truss’s is also a very global north-centric view which will, at best, bemuse the global south with its proud tradition of non-alignment. While the vast majority of the world’s nations condemned Russia’s aggression (only four sided with Russia) pushing these states to categorically choose one side or the other might push some of them towards Russia and would certainly be resented and opposed by others.

Truss’s is further a very state-centric view which neglects the fact that power neither is, nor should be, exclusively held at the state level, and that the strongest allies in a confrontation with any autocracy are always civil society groups within that autocracy.

Delusions of virtue

Additionally, while Truss’s speech just about toed the line between confidence and arrogance, this idea of the UK leading the free world can blow over into hubris so easily, particularly given this nation’s deep delusions about the extent of its continued global relevance.

There’s no recognition of, or reckoning with, how compromised the UK is as an international actor. The UK’s total inability to come to terms with its own imperial past is an open wound in its dealings with the rest of the world, as is the total absence of any kind of accountability following the Ukraine-scale crime against peace that it committed in Iraq. Salt is rubbed into this wound by the denial that pervades the UK’s complicity in war crimes and atrocities from the murder of Agnes Wanjiru in Kenya to active complicity in the war in Yemen, or its significant domestic shortcomings on human rights. While one can credibly argue that such abuses, while appalling, are not on the same order of magnitude as Russian atrocities, the difference is that Russia does not adopt a holier-than-thou attitude while lecturing the rest of the world.

The compromised nature of the UK is also structural: the UK is the weak point in the global Russian sanctions regime due to successive governments’ refusal to regulate the City. The UK is so conflicted on trade that it tried to court China even as government backbenchers were pushing to amend the trade bill to embargo it. And the UK is so beholden to the arms industry that it continued to sell riot gear to the Venezuelan regime many months after a domestic political scandal around an alleged failure of the opposition to condemn that same regime. Such disconnect between word and deed makes it hard to take the UK seriously.

Delusions of relevance

Truss’s framing also frankly flatters Russia and bolsters Putin by perpetuating the myth of his and Russia’s continued global relevance. Like the other fallen empires it sits alongside at the UN, Russia clings on to the idea that it still deserves its historic place at the top table by two fingernails: its permanent membership of the Security Council and its oversized military.

Repeatedly overplaying its hand at the UN Security Council may have struck the death knell to that body’s relevance as global peace and security debates shift markedly into the General Assembly, and Russia’s military humiliation in Ukraine should cause the world to revise its estimates of the conventional military threat Russia poses dramatically downwards.

What this exposes is that Russia is by any other measure barely even a top ten global power. Its economy was the 11th largest in the world, significantly smaller than Italy’s, before sanctions even hit. It barely scrapes in to the soft power 30 in last place; Hungarian culture has greater global influence despite occurring in a non-Indo-European language. When it comes to Official Development Assistance, a metric which pretty directly correlates with diplomatic clout in the global south, Russia is perhaps 23rd, with half the impact of Qatar. If you look at total financial contributions to the UN, another clear indicator of global clout, Russia is 17th, below Denmark.

Russia still possesses the nuclear capability to take the planet with it in an act of self-destruction, but such a histrionic claim to continued global relevance neither speaks of strength nor, frankly, is something that should be humoured.

Talking up the risk Russia poses to the world suits the interest of securocrats and the military industrial complex in both Russia and the UK, but it does not reflect reality and is not in the interests of anyone who actually wants to overcome Putinism rather than merely perpetuate their own grifts while grinding against it.

Admitting it is complicated, accepting choices are not always ours to make

What would a more sophisticated approach to Russia, and indeed to the tensions of the mid-21st century, look like? It would need to reject as harmful this idea of dividing the world into “us” and “them” in favour of a willingness to work with everyone sometimes (and no one all the time) when interests, and the interests of the planet, coincide. It means recognising, and carefully navigating as best one can, the messiness and contradictions of politics in an imperfect world

For Russia and Ukraine specifically this means not losing sight of the fact that the long-term objective should be a return to peaceful normalised relations. This is something both Russia hawks and doves appear to lose sight of.

Doves fail to recognise that Putin is unlikely to seek a non-military solution in Ukraine until military options are exhausted, and so pursuing peace at the current moment means giving Ukraine maximal support and applying maximal pressure to Russia to compel Putin to seek peace. The idea that Putin needs to be allowed a face saving “win” before he can seek peace seems flawed – no win will ever be enough for this purpose. And besides, if Putin can gaslight his people as to why the war started, he can certainly do it again to explain to them why it stopped.

Hawks meanwhile seem to forget that peace is the ultimate objective of pressure, and fail to offer Russia pathways towards de-escalation and normalisation. They have also started toying with the language of regime change, seemingly already having forgotten the harsh lessons of Libya that as soon as one crosses the line from fervent support for an endangered community (and apathy as to whether that support leads to the toppling of their tyrant or not) and into regime change as a stated aim of that support, then one’s credibility and legitimacy immediately evaporate.

Doves can lose sight of the fact that it is not for them, but for Ukrainians, to determine on what terms peace should be sought. Hawks can lose sight of the fact that it is not for them, but for Russians, to determine who should lead their nation. And all of us can lose sight of the fact that Ukraine isn’t just an abstract security dilemma, or disputed ideological borderland, but a place where real people live and are dying.

Prior foreign policy debates tragically failed to treat the victims of conflict as real people, or centre them in the conversation about their own countries. The least all of us can do is attempt to avoid doing the same to Ukrainians.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street via Flickr: Liz Truss looks out onto the Kremlin from the British Residence in Moscow, 08 Feb 2022.

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