After NATO’s 70-year anniversary gathering last week, the world media once again focused on Europe last Monday (December 9). This time is about the prospect of relations between Russia and Ukraine, two sovereign states with a long history of the union. Though much uncertain ahead, there is still a good chance now, as Russian President Putin hailed the four-parties summit involving Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France in Paris on seeking to end the war in the east of Ukraine as an “important step” toward a de-escalation of the conflict. In terms of the multi-issues involved, the key question seems to be if the Paris summit would be able to usher in a peaceful phase for Russia and Ukraine and beyond.
As we all know, the disputes and the conflicts between the two sides occurred in the wake of the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1992. Since then, NATO and EU have tried to enlarge their memberships in the name of peace and democracy but with no considering Russia’s core interests, as George Kennan warned then. As Russia and Ukraine are two sovereign states with the disputed territories and legitimate rights, their relations have been uncertain. It is true that Russia has inherited substantial power from the former Soviet Union. Yet, in light of the territory with so diverse natural resources and highly skilled labor forces, not mention of the comprehensive industrial system inherited from the Soviet Union, Ukraine is also of all the criteria to be a great power in Europe. But after 20 years since then, it is still struggling for national survival and international identity. Who should be blamed?
Due to the complicated historical, geopolitical and external involvement into Ukraine, its relation with Russia eventually collapsed following Crimea’s incorporation into Russia in 2014, which prompted Western sanctions against Moscow. It is estimated that over the past five-year conflict, more than 13,000 people have been killed in east Ukraine between pro-Russian forces and Ukrainian government troops. Yet in 2014, Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) launched the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine and the “Normandy Format” seen as peaceful mechanisms to mitigate the conflict in Ukraine. With the conclusion of the “Minsk Protocol” as a comprehensive agreement in 2015, Moscow and Kiev agreed to suspend their military confrontation in Donbass. However, during the two weeks after signing the Minsk truce, the two parties had repeatedly violated it, and thereby, the conflict escalated again, while no progress was made in negotiations.
No doubt since 2015, Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE and other related parties have carried out multiple rounds of negotiations to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and supervised the implementation of the agreement. But none of these proved efficient due to the complicated reasons, either ideological or geopolitical. As the rivalry between the U.S. and Russia escalates, the abolition of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty patently affects the strategic stability in Europe, and the turbulent situation in eastern Ukraine poses a threat to its security as well.
Even though all the uncertainties, the Europeans have not given up the hope for peace and their legacy in diplomacy. Two key member states of NATO—France and Germany—have proposed to talk to Russia rather than contain it like the United States did. It seems to be a new chance for peace when new President of Ukraine Zelenskiy won a landslide election victory in April promising to end the conflict. France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine agreed to hold a summit in Paris on December 9 with a view to advancing a peaceful resolution to the conflict in east Ukraine. To that end, Russian President Putin stated his firm support to the four-way summit in Paris.
On the one hand, it is the first talk among the four parties since the Berlin summit in 2016, and also marks the first talks between Putin and Zelensky since he took office. It is true that President Zelensky has prioritized the ending the conflicts with the pro-Russian groups in the east, and promised to a ceasefire between government forces and Russia-backed armed men. This position was supported by France and Germany. On the other hand, since the Ukraine crisis, the U.S. and the European Union have imposed multiple rounds of economic sanctions on Russia, which not only caused damage to the Russian economy but also severely damaged the economic interests of France and Germany. They have been facing an increase of economic risks caused by sluggish trade and manufacturing, slowing economic growth in Europe. In addition, a chaotic Brexit has coupled with trade tensions and weakened Eurozone activity as well.
It is undeniable that the U.S. hostile policy to Russia has impaired the strategic stability between EU and Russia, and exacerbate the deterrent confrontation between NATO and Russia as well. Due to this, if Russia and Ukraine can resolve the conflict peacefully, there will be a breakthrough for easing the tensions among the major powers, and contribute to the economics and security in Europe. Due to this, French and German leaders are actively engaged in diplomacy; and the Paris summit is expected as new progress in accordance with the Normandy format.
Yet internationally, it is self-evident that the vital obstacle comes from the United States with the cold war mentality. Even though it is excluded from the Normandy format, the U.S. remains a major role in multilateral diplomacy with Ukraine. In effect, what’s behind the Russia-Ukraine conflict is the gambling between Russia and the U.S. Although Trump is being caught in a political scandal with Ukraine, America’s domestic consensus on supporting Ukraine has not been questioned, such as providing military and economic aid to Kiev and making efforts to resist Russia is the U.S.’ fundamental stance toward Ukraine. Considering the backdrop of the political game among great powers, the prospect for resolving the major issues between Russia and Ukraine should not be overestimated.
Domestically, there are also some grave concerns. First, the President of Ukraine Zelensky, an actor-turned politician on the world stage, has to deal with a seasoned statesman of Russia like Putin and is also under the hidden pressure and coaxing from the United States. Although Putin and Zelensky are ready for peace talks, they are sure to have each own agenda. Moreover, although he has the support of more than half of Ukrainians who want to see an end to conflicts in the east, there are still huge groups financed by the external shadows furiously demanding any concessions by Ukrainians as a capitulation to Russia. Finally, this new president of Ukraine is a sincere person but never be a strongman like his European mentors Metternich, Bismarck or his Russian counterpart. In light of this, while France and Germany have been eager to see the deal through, many of the Ukrainians have expressed fears that the move might be legitimizing Russian presence in the Donbas. Actually, Putin too would be wary of being perceived as too rigid in his stance by the international community and the liberal groups in his homeland. As a result, Russia hailed the Paris summit as a diplomatic victory. France and Germany welcomed this new step.
As it turns out, in all likelihood, the Paris summit can only lead to some sort of understanding between the stakeholders to carry the fledgling peace process forward. Yet, since France and Germany are attempting a rapprochement with Putin, the Paris summit indicated that there is goodwill to resolve difficult questions. And this goodwill is always needed if Europe wants to solve political problems. The core of the classic diplomacy is that peace comes through talks rather than fight.
Serbia’s EU accession: Pipe Dream or Possible Reality?
Until recently, Serbia was considered as one of the main candidates for European Union (EU) accession and as a role model for the other Balkan states in the region who aspire to EU membership. It regularly received praise from Western leaders, including Angela Merkel (DW 2015) with whom Aleksander Vucic, Serbia’s President, has a particularly strong relationship (Mitrovic 2018). However, over the last 2 years, Serbia’s commitments to EU accession have been stagnating, and recently, political backsliding has been noted in the country with increasingly more power being in the hands of the executive. Serbia’s hopes of becoming an EU member state by 2025 are slowly slipping away. Thus, the following questions arise: Is Serbia still set upon its European path? And, if not the EU, where does modern Serbia’s interests lie in terms of international cooperation and assistance?
The current political situation
State capture in Serbia is a term that has recently entered the current discourse, and there is much evidence to suggest that the level of democracy in Serbia is decreasing. Since ascending to the presidency, Aleksandr Vucic has managed to establish a regime which resembles that of an autocracy, establishing a small network of close allies who control key institutions (Richter, S. Wunsch, N. 2020). Despite the fact that executive power in Serbia is vested in the government and not in the president, his position as leader of The Serbian Progressive Party, the majority party in the Serbian government, gives him control of the parliamentary majority and thus the government (Russell 2019). The democratic accountability of the executive is also very weak with laws often passed in urgent procedure and without debate. In the period from March 2018 to March 2019, urgent parliamentary procedures were used for 44% of legislative procedures, often under the excuse of EU membership (European Commission 2020). Furthermore, as the opposition continue to boycott the legislative procedures, the government has been given free rein of the executive. Media freedom is another area where Serbia seems to be backtracking. According to the V-Dem institute (2020), it is among the top ten countries that have become more autocratic over the last ten years, while a majority of media outlets promote government policy with few media outlets offering alternative views (European Commission 2020). The President of the European Federation of Journalists stated himself that “Serbia is [the] country with the worst violations of media freedoms in the Western Balkan region” (Fabijančić 2019). A case in point which should be raised is the assassination of the prominent Kosovo-Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic, a prominent Kosovo-Serb politician for, what many believe, not taking a stronger pro Serb stance in relation to the ongoing dispute with Kosovo. Despite the fact that the country has recently adopted a new media strategy which seeks to improve media freedoms, the strategy has so not been implemented so far and nothing has been done to improve the overall environment of freedom of expression (European Commission 2020).
As in many other autocratic regimes, corruption is another problem with which Serbia struggles. Although the country should be given some credit as it has actively implemented a few laws that aim to curtail corruption (European Commission 2020), the legal framework for the fight against corruption in Serbia is weak. The position of The Serbian Anti-Corruption Agency is weakened by an unclear division of mandates for implementing the anticorruption strategy as well as by the executive, which regularly comments on arrests and detentions in the media possibly bringing about a drastic effect on the final outcome (Transparency International 2016).
One only needs to look at the results of the recent ‘Nations in transit’ report released by Freedom House, a US non-governmental organisation which conducts research on democracy and political freedom, to grasp Serbia’s current dilemma. Over the last 5 years, democratic institutions in Serbia have been gradually eroding, and where it was considered as “Free” in 2017 with a score of 76 out of 100, it is now considered as “Partly Free” with a score of 66 out of 100 (Freedom House 2020).
The country continues to declare that accession into the EU is its long-term goal; However, this backsliding is making the goal harder to accomplish. Furthermore, integration into Western structures seems to have lost much of its zeal in the country. 80% of the citizens do not support NATO membership (European Western Balkans 2020) and in a recent poll conducted in 2020 only 50% of the population would be in favour of joining the EU (Center for insights in Survey Research 2020).
Relations with Russia
The Russo-Serbian relationship is strong, characterised by a deep cultural and historical connection. In the near future, it does not seem like this relationship will change both in terms of politics and in society at large something which is also bolstered by the fact that President Vladimir Putin and President Aleksandr Vucic have a good personal relationship, with Vucic recently being presented with The Order of Alexander Nevsky (Walker 2019). Recent opinion polls also show that President Putin is the most popular foreign leader in the country. In terms of economics, the Russo-Serbian connection is also very strong. In 2019, Serbia signed a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEAU), contrary to EU recommendations (Vuc 2019), and a new Russian gas pipeline running through Serbia was recently opened, which increases the country’s dependence on Russian gas. Besides, Serbia also imports a significant number of weaponries from Russia, including MiG-29 fighter jets, helicopters and tanks (Phillips 2020).
However, the Russo-Serbian relationship is also maintained by another geopolitical marker, namely the independence and recognition of Kosovo. Aleksandr Vucic’s government has made it clear that it would outright reject EU membership if it required Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo and its inclusion into international institutions without Belgrade receiving anything in return (EURACTIV 2020). Serbia’s accession into the EU is subject to Chapter 35 of EU accession, which relates to the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo (European Union 2015), and despite the fact that Serbia has shown engagement in the dialogue, it still has restraints in many areas, such as customs tariffs (EU report). In addition, it is still unknown if Serbia will ever be ready to officially recognize Kosovo. Its disputes with other countries that have recently changed their recognition of the country, such as Israel (The Times of Israel 2021), seem to point to the fact that Serbia is taking a tougher stance in this regard. Serbia relies on Russia’s veto as a permanent member of the UN Security Council in order to receive a more satisfactory resolution to the Kosovo dispute and to avoid being side-lined by the international community. Furthermore, President Vucic has publicly stated that no resolution of Serbia’s future with its former province would be possible without Moscow’s consent. Thus, via Kosovo, Russia has an ace up its sleeve which it can use to bargain with the EU, and while this remains the case, Serbia’s accession into the block is littered with question marks.
The influence of China
Russia is not the only foreign actor which has influence in Serbia. China has recently taken a large interest, something very much to chagrin of the EU and Russia. It is rapidly increasing its Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Serbia, rising from €2.5 million in 2010 to €318 million in 2019. The thaw in Sino-Serbian relations is certainly nothing new, as they have been gradually improving since the creation of a strategic partnership in 2009, becoming further cemented in 2013 (Dimitrijević 2019). Serbia’s increasing relations with China have prompted to push the EU and Russia out of the limelight, and although the EU by far remains Serbia’s largest trading partner and provider of aid, the people of Serbia think otherwise. According to the Institute for European Affairs, 40% of the country thinks that China is the largest donor of aid and investor while only 17.6% was registered for the EU. The handling of the pandemic is a case in point. As China managed to act quickly and swiftly, they were easily able to win over the hearts and minds of the Serbs, while the Serbian media portrayed the EU and the US as bigoted and unable to control the pandemic. President Vucic even went as far as saying that European solidarity was a “fairy tale” while praising the President of China Xi Jingping and kissing the Chinese flag (Milić 2020). Furthermore, the country became the first in Europe to start using a Chinese Covd-19 vaccine, being left out of the EU’s December rollout and still not receiving a dose under the EU’s COVAX scheme.
Serbia is at a crossroads, and finds itself trying to juggle its interests between three geopolitical powers. The country will continue to push for EU accession as this, as President Vucic stated himself, is Serbia’s long-term strategic goal. However, the extent to which the country wants to join the bloc is under increasing consideration. Six years since membership talks began, Serbia has only managed to complete 2 chapters for EU accession and many of the commission’s recommendations stated in the EU’s annual report on the country are not implemented. It could be said that enthusiasm to join the Union is waning, but, if this is the case, Serbia is not entirely to blame. As Aleks Eror notes in Foreign Policy (2020), the EU has over the last decade had to face many internal problems and, as a result, increasingly less attention has been given to the Western Balkans. In addition, a key part of the EU’s transformative power in accession countries is the so-called ‘carrot and stick’ model where in order to reach the ‘carrot’ of EU membership, an accession country must fulfil the requirements set down by the EU. However, in the case of Serbia, the carrot seems to be losing its lure as it is increasingly looking towards its Eastern neighbours. The fact that China is willing to act as a rival economic power to the EU in Serbia and invest in the country without the strings of EU regulation attached, makes the prospects of EU accession look rather dim. In addition, at the moment, Serbia is able to live the best of both worlds. As Serbia still plays with the idea that it is committed to EU accession, it will continue to receive subsidies from Brussels, but, at the same time, the country can play to the tune of Russia and China and extract the much-needed investment from them as well as their support when Serbia does not get its way regarding the resolution of the situation in Kosovo. As long as the Kosovo issue remains open and can be exploited by outside powers, Serbia’s hopes to join the EU in 2025 look doubtful.
From our partner RIAC
The Idea of Global Britain: A Neo-Victorian Attempt to Define the Place of the English in the World
As the UK is yet again able to take its future into its own hands, the ‘Global Britain’ narrative appears to be emerging as the leading framework set to define the country’s future engagement with the rest of the world.
Although the phrase has recently become more pervasively used in the public domain, it still remains stubbornly ambiguous to many observers on the both sides of the Atlantic.
In order to fully grasp the post-Brexit narrative of Britain—which is crucial to make conscious strategic decisions in an increasingly complex and interconnected world—we should turn to its inception by the British government and its subsequent conceptualization by a number of high government officials as well as through the government’s policies concerning the ‘Global Britain’ narrative, alongside the historical and intellectual origins of Britain’s ‘Global’ thinking.
Setting the governmental agenda for ‘Global Britain’
The phrase ‘Global Britain’ was coined shortly after the historic Brexit referendum, when Prime Minister Theresa May first outlined her vision for the country in her speech to the Conservative Party Conference on 2 October 2016 and called for “truly global Britain.”
May concluded that “Brexit should not just prompt us to think about our new relationship with the European Union,” but also “make us think of Global Britain, a country with the self-confidence and the freedom to look beyond the continent of Europe and to the economic and diplomatic opportunities of the wider world.” She believed that Brexit “was a vote for Britain to stand tall, to believe in ourselves, to forge an ambitious and optimistic new role in the world.”
Interestingly, in the same year on 2 December, PM Boris Johnson, then Foreign Secretary, gave his first major speech at Chatham House tellingly titled Global Britain: UK Foreign Policy in the Era of Brexit, in which he affirmed the government’s intention to pursue a “truly global foreign policy.”
Ever since that time Theresa May has been referring to ‘Global Britain’ in a similar manner in her major speeches, including the January 2017 Lancaster House speech and her speech to the US Republican Party Conference in Philadelphia the same month. May also referred to ‘Global Britain’ in her addresses to the World Economic Forum in Davos and at the UN General Assembly 2017 in New York.
A month later, in a speech at the Conservative Party Conference in 2017, Boris Johnson restated his belief in the ‘Global Britain’ brand by expressing the following words:
“We are big enough to do amazing things. We have the ability to project force 7,000 miles, to use our permanent membership of the UN security council to mobilise a collective response to the crisis in North Korea. We contribute 25 % of European aid spending and yet no one seriously complains that we have a sinister national agenda and that is why the phrase global Britain makes sense because if you said Global China or Global Russia or even alas Global America it would not have quite the same flavour.”
Crucially, it is important to mention that at the centre of the ‘Global Britain’ narrative, free trade is its core element—something clearly visible both in Theresa May’s October 2016 speech to the Conservative Party Conference and at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, where she expressed the hope that the UK “will step up to a new leadership role as the strongest and most forceful advocate for business, free markets and free trade anywhere in the world.”
Furthermore, Boris Johnson described the UK’s role of an advocate for global free trade as the country’s “historic post-Brexit function” in his Chatham House speech in 2016. Yet, by that time many, like Professor Richard G. Whitman from the University of Kent, have argued that “we know little more than Global Britain means Global Britain.”
PM Boris Johnson’s announcement in 2020 to increase defence spending by £16.5 billion ($23 billion) over the next four years—dubbed as “the biggest spending boost since the Cold War” and said to be aiming at catching President Joe Biden’s attention—was a strong message in the direction the ‘Global Britain’ policy narrative has been turning towards.
Simultaneously, in 2020 the UK’s foreign aid budget was announced to be cut by £2.9 billion ($3.7 billion), so that in 2021 the UK will not meet the UN-recommended target of spending 0.7 % (decreased to 0.5 %) of its Gross National Income (GNI) on Official Development Assistance (ODA) for the first time since 2013—steps said to be taken in line with the government’s attempt to grapple with the economic fallout of the pandemic.
With the commitment to retain the target enshrined in law by the Coalition Government in 2015 and the Conservative Party’s manifesto of 2019, the cut—which was met with strong condemnation both by David Cameron and Tony Blair, who warned the decision would jeopardise Britain’s ‘soft power’ status—resulted in Foreign Office minister James Cleverly’s pledge at the March 2021 UN virtual conference to donate £87 million ($120 million) to Yemen relief efforts in the coming year, which is less than half of the £196.6 million donated in 2020 and around 40 % of the £214 million total donations made in 2020-2021.
Mark Lowcock, head of the UN’s Office for Humanitarian Affairs, described the UK government’s decision as an attempt to “balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen” and warned of a long-term damage to the country’s reputation—bearing in mind that British MPs were prevented from having a vote on PM Johnson’s controversial move, which is why he is said to be running the risk of setting an illegal budget.
At the same time the UK government continues to be deeply involved in the Yemen conflict by remaining the leading arms supplier to Saudi Arabia. Once the ban on weapons sales to the Gulf country was lifted London authorised the export of £1.4 billion-worth ($1.9 billion) weaponry to the Saudis between July and September last year, refusing to follow the U.S. moral lead in this regard.
Taking this into consideration it is difficult to imagine how to quote Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, “Global Britain is leading the world as a force for good”—the very slogan repeated by Raab in January last year as part of his three pillars defining the “truly global Britain.”
The organisation argued that in order to be “taken seriously as a future partner, the UK must tread carefully and intentionally remedy the historic power imbalances institutionalised in the UN and Bretton Woods institutions” in its contacts with the Commonwealth and the Global South, warning that “‘Global Britain’ could too easily be (mis)interpreted as ‘Empire 2.0’” if it fails to carry out deliberate action.
September that year, Tradecraft Exchange published a research paper which argued that in prioritising trade negotiations with richer nations, Britain risks falling short on its commitments to tackle global poverty and climate change. Moreover, with the UK engaging in striking trade deals with poorer nations like in the recent case of Kenya, it is evidently doing this to their detriment.
That same month, the UK government decided to merge the Department for International Development (DFID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and establish the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). The newly published policy paper is said to be the blueprint for the work of this new department.
The document states that “the UK is one of the world’s leading development actors, committed to the global fight against poverty, to achieving the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] by 2030 and to maintaining the highest standards of evidence and transparency for all our investments… where we can have the greatest life-changing impact in the long term.”
It goes on to state that Britain will “maintain our commitment to Africa,” particularly emphasizing importance of its partners in East Africa and Nigeria, “while increasing development efforts in the Indo-Pacific.” Sadly, the very pledge stands in stark contrast to the recent government leaks concerning plans to cut aid to Nigeria by 59 %, South Sudan by 59%, Somalia by 60%, not to mention the DRC (60%), Syria (67%), and Libya (63%).
While the UK’s International Development Committee chair, Sarah Champion MP, commented that “the Integrated Review appears to be more centred towards rubbing shoulders with trading partners than creating a level playing field for the global community to prosper”.
On that note, it is fair to say that the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy puts much less emphasis on development than it does on the other parts constituting its title, while revealing “the government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade and the action we will take to 2025.”
Integrated Review: The Unfortunate Triumph of Form over Strategic Substance
The review published in early March this year, dubbed as “the most radical reassessment of our place in the world since the end of the Cold War”, is said to be “an attempt to put meat on the bones of the ‘Global Britain’ concept,” as Raffaello Pantucci, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), argues.
“This was something the Tories banged on about a lot, this was something that Brexit was supposed to be all about, but no one has any idea what it means,” Pantucci added.
The 100-page document—visibly inspired by the Policy Exchange’s Making Global Britain Work (July 24, 2019) and A Very British Tilt (November 22, 2020)—sets a vision for “Global Britain”, in which the country is “tilting” towards the Indo-Pacific region to become a bigger player there, as the world’s “geopolitical and economic centre of gravity” moves eastwards towards countries such as China, India and Japan.
“The Indo-Pacific is this incredible hub and so is somewhere the UK is looking to have a larger say in […] Where navies go, trade goes, and where trade goes, navies go,” Adm. Tony Radakin, explained.
It is important to note that a similar narrative was seen in the past. The former First Sea Lord, Adm. Sir Philip Jones, argued in his speech delivered at the 2017 DSEI Maritime Conference that “the Asia-Pacific region contains two of the three largest economies in the world and five of the largest 16. If the U.K. does wish to forge new global trading partnerships, this is somewhere we need to be.”
Sir Jones also stated that the new aircraft-carriers, including HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will enable the country to resume its old role in Asia and the Pacific, which was abandoned in 1971 after the UK’s withdrawal of forces from Singapore.
As Richard Reeve already observed in his article, “Global Britain’s post-Brexit identity is a return to neo-mercantilist maritime control,” which is driven by the need to secure new trade and arms deals by establishing a strong ‘Global Britain’ brand through the Royal Navy and aligning the country’s objectives and alliances with those of the U.S.
Reeve warned that such a strategy risks the UK’s involvement “in a potentially very hot Korea-US conflict” and even more dangerous “creeping cold war” between the U.S. and China. Both are burdened with the high risk of escalation to a nuclear exchange.
Furthermore, he reminded his readers of “the UK’s doomed inter-war Singapore Strategy and of the Imperial Russian Navy in 1905,” notably after the Commons Defence Committee was presented that month with evidence that new carriers are unlikely to be able to operate within range of China.
At the time, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s pledge made at the Lowy Institute’s lecture in July 2017 outlined that one of the first tasks of the new carriers will be to conduct freedom of navigation operations around Chinese-built islands in the South China Sea.
Most recently, Prime Minister Boris Johnsons planned dispatch of an aircraft carrier group to the Indo-Pacific in order to face-off China, is viewed by some as a defeatist delusion suggesting “that the best thing we can do is ingratiate ourselves with the Americans,” as senior policy fellow Nick Witney (ECFR) suggests.
Mr Witney, like Professor Anatol Lieven, believes that such strategic theatrics could result in the same disastrous outcome as the invasion of Iraq.
Without the ability to bring substantive change to the table as far as the Indo-Pacific is concerned, the UK is said to be “risking of reminding the Chinese of how we treated them in the nineteenth-century Opium Wars,” as argued by Professor Lieven in his recent article.
As far as the British public’s opinion is concerned in their perception of deploying security resources to contain China in the Indo-Pacific, the British Foreign Policy Group’s recent report suggests that only 18% of respondents would be comfortable with this move, while 45 % of them do not want the UK to be drawn into conflicts. Another 35 % believe that the country’s track record of involvement abroad is bad.
Unfortunately, the government’s Integrated Review call to increase the number of nuclear warheads from 180 to 260, which some perceive as violating international law and breaching Article 60 of the NPT, risks the possibility of creating another conflict according to Professor Serhii Plokhy of Harvard University.
“At the NPT Review Conference this August, HMG will have to explain its reversal on nuclear warhead numbers not just to Russia or China but to a sceptical international community,” Sir Adam Thomson, director of the ELN and former diplomat who served as Permanent Representative to NATO between 2014 and 2016, rightly observed, also wondering how this corresponds with the UK’s commitment to the world without nuclear weapons.
Dominic Raab recently announced that he will “rally NATO allies to face down the threat from Russia and ensure it faces real world consequences for hostile activity”–potentially go to the detrimental to U.S. efforts in attempting to “chart a new course” for Moscow, as discussed by David Keene and Dan Negre–despite being more nuanced with respect to China.
As Jo Johnson, the former universities minister and the prime minister’s brother argues, the reason for this ambiguous approach to the Middle Kingdom by the Johnson government is the Conservative Party’s problem with Sinophobia, which is said to be the new Euroscepticism.
“It’s the new political machismo, but it would be economic madness to decouple from China and incredibly destructive of this idea of Global Britain, because there are many countries […] across the Global South who are increasingly interdependent with China. There won’t be a global Britain if we are not engaging with China, and all the other countries enmeshed with it,” Johnson believes.
“The reality is that if we follow a hard Brexit with Chexit [decoupling with China], then Global Britain is going to be an aeroplane that has dropped both engines,” he added.
In fact, it is really difficult to imagine the government succeeding in accomplishing all of these competing goals in a situation where the national debt has already exceeded £2 trillion (and growing), with the pandemic adding an extra burden to the country’s economic condition, which is said to be ‘heading for a new era of austerity.’
Interestingly, ahead of the review last year, security experts giving evidence to the UK lawmakers warned there was often a gap between the ambitions of a wide-ranging policy review and the resources allocated to meet them.
‘Global Britain’: Old Wine in a New Bottle
The mentioned analysis of ‘Global Britain,’ however, would not be full without paying attention to historical and intellectual influences related to the term and associated topics.
“Global Britain,” writes Oliver Turner in his 2019 peer-reviewed article stresses that it “is more than a notion, an idea, or a vision for UK international engagement, and more than the foreign policy blueprint it purports to provide. It is an autobiographical narrative about what Britain is and what it envisions the world and its actors to be.”
Turner informs that the significance of this distinction lies in the fact that narratives seldom stand alone and are often “written to construct particular realities and shape policy choice.”
The academic argues that “Global Britain is principally authored as a ‘painkiller’ in anticipation of domestic trauma following the loss of EU membership, just as the British Commonwealth once was to assuage the loss of empire.” In order to be marketable, Turner believes, it requires “pre-existing knowledges of past imperial ‘successes’ and accepting images of empire among the British public.”
The said narrative has significant consequences, as the ‘Global Britain’ advocates tend to selectively exploit the past to imagine the future and effectively turn history into a “proxy for ideology,” as Robert Saunders from Queen Mary University of London argues.
He further mentions, one of the most famous figures of the British right, Enoch Powell, who argued that “all history is myth” in a sense that “the stories told about the past carried political meanings.”
Saunders continues, believing that the post-war Britain suffered from a special kind of myth known as “the myth of empire,” which caused “grave psychological damage” to the British people.
This manifested itself in a dual way: first, as “a pervasive sense of decline that had sapped the British of self-confidence” and second, “as a longing for empire-substitutes, such as the Commonwealth or the European Community.”
Professor Paul Gilroy (UCL) made similar observation in his book arguing that after the end of World War II, British life has been “dominated by an inability even to face, never mind actually mourn, […] the end of the empire and consequent loss of imperial prestige.”
This constant fear of reconciling with the past has managed to produce an extremely unbalanced identity of the nation burdened with a distorted vision of its country, called by Sathnam Sanghera in his latest book titled Empireland, which “recast a coercive military empire as a champion of “free trade”; and, in so doing, established entrepreneurialism, rather than empire, as the golden thread connecting past and present,” as Dr Saunder’s put it.
What is noticeable about the ‘Global Britain’ narrative, in the mentioned sense, is that it takes out the empire—one whose reach stretched from Africa and the Americas to Asia and Australasia, and also Europe if we count the colonisation of Ireland—from the equation leading to its status of “the world’s largest and most powerful trading nation,” as former international trade secretary Dr Liam Fox put it during his Free Trade speech in 2016.
Hence, when advocates of ‘Global Britain’ romanticize the vision of Britain trading across the Commonwealth—which they tend to describe as an association of “some of the world’s oldest and most resilient friendships”—they tend to forget to tell the complete story in what particular circumstances those very “friendships” were established and further sustained through “imperialism of free trade,” as John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson explained in their peer-reviewed article of the same title published in The Economic History Review 1953.
To illustrate this in greater detail, it is best to turn to Shashi Tharoor’s insights provided in his book, where he says the following:
“Free trade was, of course, suited to the British as a slogan, since they were the best equipped to profit from it in the nineteenth century, and their guns and laws could always stifle what little competition the indigenes could attempt to mount. A globalization of equals could well have been worth celebrating, but the globalization of Empire was conducted by and above all for the colonizers, and not in the interests of the colonized.”
In other words, what ‘Global Britain’ advocates are doing is “use ‘trade’ as a euphemism for ‘empire’,” as Dr Robert Saunders argues.
What is also significant about the group is the attachment to the idea of ‘Anglosphere,’ which has its intellectual roots in the late 19th century’s Victorian discourses about “Greater Britain.”
Resurrected after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the mythology of the “English-speaking peoples’” union served as a counter, and culturally more “natural,” narrative to the one embracing UK’s membership in the EU, as well as the British very own attempt to make sense of the post-Cold War moment.
Furthermore, as Professor Duncan Bell from University of Cambridge argues in his excellent article published in 2017 in the Prospect magazine, “dreams of deep Anglosphere integration, and of political unification, are symptomatic expressions of colonial nostalgia, underwritten by fears about Britain’s declining status.”
Importantly, it was British historian Robert Conquest who most comprehensively articulated—and inspired politicians like Margaret Thatcher, who referred to his idea of the broader alliance between the “English-speaking peoples” in her speech to the English-Speaking Union in December 1999 in New York—the idea of Anglosphere.
What is interesting about Conquest’s “bold charge that existing international bodies had failed,” as Professor Bell mentioned, is its similarity to the current language used by Brexiteers (and Trump supporters).
Echoing the famous historian’s concern, Theresa May told the audience at the Conservative Party conference in October 2016 that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere—you don’t understand what citizenship means.”
The statement with a clear aim to rejuvenate patriotism after the Brexit referendum, which should be understood in the broader context of growing tendency among the Conservative Party voters to lean towards anti-globalism (as it was confirmed in the already mentioned BFPG’s survey published this year), has its roots in the Victorian era, namely in the ‘civic imperialism.’
As Duncan Bell argues in his book, civic imperialism “placed duty, individual and communal virtue, patriotism, disdain of luxury, and the privileging of the common good, at the centre of the political universe.” Bell also continues that “empire and liberty, it was argued, were intimately connected.”
What is visible here is that “the image of 19th century Britain has so far appeared to play an outsized role” in ‘Global Britain’ narrative, as Harvard University’s research paper published this year and titled Finding ‘Global Britain’: political slogan to hard economic policy choices observes.
Since the “conditions which allowed the UK to dominate global industrial production, such as a large lead in industrial productivity and the coercive power of the British Empire, no longer apply,” as the paper concludes, it is still safe to argue, repeating Dean Acheson, that Britain had “lost an empire and not yet found a role.”
Trapped in hubris, the ‘Global Britain’ narrative seems to be missing the true security challenges while pursuing its “quest for a unique role” in the world, which, like Christopher Hill wrote, is “like the pursuit of the Holy Grail” and can be “a fatal distraction to politicians with responsibilities,” who may find the levelling-up agenda more vital than the search for the long-lost imperial grandeur.
With a clear collapse in trust in the government in terms of its willingness to act in the British public’s interest when foreign policy decisions are concerned, the possible overload of ‘Global Britain’s’ often competing agendas run the high risk of not only turning into nemesis for Britain itself, but the U.S. and the very ‘special relationship’ which London is so desperately trying to preserve.
From our partner RIAC
The billion-dollars closer to disaster: China’s influence in Montenegro
Montenegro is building its first-ever motorway. Due to a huge loan scandal, it’s now become the country’s highway to hell. 40 bridges and 90 tunnels are expected to be built and financed by the Chinese. However, the project has been hit by corruption allegations, construction delays and environmental tragedies. Today, out of the planned 170 kilometers, just 40 have been completed.
The motorway is one of the most expensive in the world. It’s financed by a loan from China loan. Paying back this money is creating problems. The story starts with Montenegro’s former Prime Minister and current President, Milo Dukanović. He conceived the motorway to boost trade in the small Balkan country.
However, lacking funds to start construction, he accepted a billion-dollar loan from China in 2014. Other investors didn’t want to get involved. Prior to this, French and American feasibility studies highlighted the risks of such an oversized project. The European Investment Bank and the IMF also announced that it was a bad idea.
Now, with the pandemic crushing Montenegro’s tourism-dependent economy, the country is struggling to find a way to finance the missing stretches of road.
The motorway should link Bar Harbor in the south to the border with Serbia in the north. The first section was scheduled to be finished in 2020, but it still isn’t.
Politicians promised that the motorway contraction will boost employment in Montenegro. However, the Chinese contractor brought in its own workers, with no contracts or social security contributions.
An NGO backed by the EU is investigating corruption allegations involving subcontractors. Out of the huge loan from China, 400 million Euros were given to subcontractors, which some of them are linked with President.
In Montenegro people are hoping that there will be justice and someone should pay for this ambitious constructions plan. However, some fear that China has its eyes on Bar’s deep-water harbor. When signing the billion-dollar-loan with China, Montenegro agreed to some strange terms, like giving up sovereignty of certain parts of the land in the case of financial problems. Arbitration in this scenario would take place in China using Chinese laws.
A long-term harbor concession would fit nicely into China’s “Belt-and-Road-Initiative”, a global infrastructure project to access markets. Harbor authorities in Bar are already hoping for an economic upturn and have plans for two new terminals.
The Chinese-managed motorway isn’t just mired in cronyism allegations; it’s also accused of damaging the protected Tara river valley. The ecology group ‘Green Home’, after several monitoring of Tara River, has concluded that impact of incompetent construction on river is disastrous. Sediment from the construction site is trickling into the water, preventing the fish from spawning.
Chinese managers have been accused of ignoring basic EU standards and Montenegro is criticized for failing to supervise construction correctly. Rubble has changed the Tara riverbed, perhaps irreparably.
Environmental experts proposed alternative layouts of the motorway that would have avoided the Tara valley, but they were ignored.
The river Tara is UNESCO protected and it should be forbidden to gravel the soil and sand, but this is happening there because of the construction work.
All over the Western Balkans, Chinese investment has slowed down EU compatible reforms. China’s silk road ambitions are not always in line with EU standards of good governance, environmental protection, rule of law and transparency. Their influence is creating a wedge between the EU and the Balkan states.
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