During the course of this General Election campaign, the tectonic plates of international relations have slipped, dramatically. The G7, the borderline disastrous NATO summit, and Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change, add up to most dramatic rift in the Western Alliance for decades – all in the space of a week. Yet serious debate on foreign policy has been strangely absent from the campaign, not only among the politicians and the pundits, but even from the erudite columnists of The Economist and The FT.
There has been plenty of talk about Brexit, mostly limited to shouting about who would be ‘strong’ in negotiations; and some talk about the Middle East, mostly about whether British intervention has encouraged terrorism or if even saying that encourages terrorism. There has been nothing of substance beyond that, even as the old order is listing badly.
At the NATO summit, Trump’s demurral from affirming the Article 5 mutual defence provision, especially in front of a memorial to the only occasion on which it was invoked, by the United States after 9/11, is a signal that NATO really could dissolve as a meaningful entity during his presidency.
As a result, a German Chancellor, and in Angela Merkel one not known for excitability, gave a speech stating that “We Europeans must take our destiny into our own hands.”
A major point of both NATO and the EU was to ensure that Germany never again felt the need to become a major military power. We’re not at that point yet, but Germany is saying pointedly that it no longer feels it can rely on the US – or, for that matter, the UK – to guarantee its security. In fact, the President of the USA effectively told Germany, ‘Man up and arms yourselves you goddam feeloading pussies’, in words not much more subtle than that.
What is even more extraordinary is that this is passing without the merest comment from parts of the British press and establishment that usually have a reflex Germanophobia. Of course, this is not the 1930s and any German military build-up will almost certainly come within the framework of a European army. Yet, it has also been a settled British position to resist such an army – “a rival to NATO”. On the way out of the EU, it no longer has the capacity to do so, especially as continental countries might find they have to create a replacement rather than a rival.
The UK is drifting, quite quickly, into the most diplomatically isolated position it has been in at any point since the Act of Union – that is not hyberbole. The diplomats are distrusted by their political masters, who in turn are living in denial.
Despite the PM’s unseemly haste in visiting Washington to prove herself a loyal satrap after Trump’s inauguration, it has been made clear time and time again that he really doesn’t care; most seriously and deplorably in the leaking of shared intelligence after the murders in Manchester, but that was simply the latest of many examples.
In that context, what was striking about his Paris exit speech was that it wasn’t about the science of climate change. He never once claimed it wasn’t real. Instead, he said Paris was an unfair deal for America – indeed shouted it, in angry, nationalistic, phrases. In his own words, he is a President for Pittsburgh and not for Paris. He is not one for Peterborough either. America First means America First.
Britain’s recovery since the post-imperial nadir of the 1970s has been largely based on being an open trading economy in an ever more open global trade environment. That era is passing, quickly. The USA, its keystone, is abandoning support for free trade. President Trump also means President Trump. In the 11 months since the Referendum, there is not the mistiest hint of a British strategy for surviving in the brave new world, economically or otherwise.
At the NATO and G7 summits, the UK was consistently on the same side as the rest of Europe and against Trump. Yet, the cackhandedness of the handling of Brexit seems set to alienate the UK’s natural allies – not just in the rest of Europe, but countries like Canada, Japan and Australia as well.
In terms of emerging powers, who are alleged to be gagging for a favourable relationship with post-Brexit Britain, it is notable that both India’s President Modi and China’s PM Li are in Europe this week and pointedly not visiting the UK. On the UK side, also, Theresa May hardly rolled out the red carpet for an open and warm special relationship on her visit to India in November.
So, we come back to the General Election jousting over Brexit. The only question either May or Corbyn seems to face is whether or not they are sufficiently ‘strong’. That in itself is a tacit acceptance of a Trumpean view of the world where displays of force are supposedly the most effective negotiating tactic.
Subtlety, flexibility and creative ambiguity will be necessary for the UK to achieve a deal with the EU where it doesn’t end up being a big loser, still more to secure its national security in a context where the USA is going rogue and aggressive nationalism is resurgent worldwide. There is little sign of them.