Britain’s Hardest Choices After Brexit Revolve Around China

In the devastation of World War II, a handful of British politicians and civil servants proved skilled in a now dying art: grand strategy. They thought deeply about global risks and long-term interests. They collaborated with the U.S. to create postwar institutions for preserving peace, protecting human rights and allowing global trade to flourish.

The U.K. is now at another consequential juncture, where it needs to define what a Global Britain will look like post-Brexit. To understand the current challenge, I turned to Peter Ricketts, who has been at the heart of the country’s foreign policy establishment for four decades, serving as Britain’s permanent representative to NATO and ambassador to France, among other roles.

His just-published book — “Hard Choices, What Britain Does Next” (Atlantic Books) — revisits how strategy was done in the mid-20th century. It challenges British policy makers to set priorities, work closely with allies and level with the British people about what lies ahead. What follows are lightly edited excerpts of our conversation.

Therese Raphael: As the U.K.’s first National Security Advisor, you identified a pandemic as a top threat to the country back in 2010. There’s going to be an inquiry into the handling of the Covid pandemic next year. What is your take on why the U.K. wasn’t ready for it?

Peter Ricketts: Democratic politicians live in the immediate, and they are constantly drawn into crisis management. Preparing properly for something that might happen is not something that is in the culture. It’s not in the culture of finance ministries either to spend money on a potential threat years ahead, rather than on an immediate crisis.

The pandemic is a classic case. Yes, it was signaled as a top-tier priority and the ministry produced plans; but no, they were not then followed up with serious funding. I hope one of the lessons of this pandemic is to think again about that, because we now have the potential of very disruptive climate events. We have potential attacks on our grids and on the Internet. And all of that needs spending upfront to prevent.

TR: What are the principle “hard choices” that a post-Brexit Britain faces?

PR: All democracies are having to cope with not just the retreat of the U.S. from leadership, but also the rise of China, the rebalancing of global geopolitical power. On top of that, Britain chose to leave the European Union and to therefore be an independent operator in this world where confrontation between the major powers is growing. That’s not an easy double hit to take in one’s national strategy — hence the need for a serious rethink.

Policymakers have both got to relearn what I call the art of strategy, of really focusing on the country’s longer-term interests, and also to be more realistic about Britain’s real weight and power in the world. We are still dogged by our history and by the endless attraction of 1940 and standing alone — “Rule Britannia” and the glorious past.

TR: What’s your advice for addressing the challenges Britain faces?

PR: I would recommend, first of all, more serious, longer-term thinking about priorities. And second, really understanding that we have to work with partners and allies as a middle-order player in reforming the international system. Unless we do that, we risk trying to cut a dash, but not really having serious influence.

On influence: Good foreign policy starts with government at home. And some of what’s happened recently — the prorogation of parliament, the threats to break international law, the sudden cuts in the foreign aid program — don’t do anything positive for Britain’s influence in the world.

TR: How does Britain get its China policy right?

PR: That is the dilemma. America can be a pretty tough ally when the chips are down, and they can be very, very determined to have their way, even with the closest of allies like the U.K. So yes, we have to somehow achieve a policy on China where, on security terms, we’re very vigilant and we are lined up with America, while [at the same time we] maintain access to China’s big commercial market. We have more need of that than America does because of our size and now because we are outside the EU.

Britain has been quite bold in standing up for human rights on Hong Kong, quite rightly, and for the Uighurs. But we don’t have the protective cover of being in the EU. China can pick us off as they’ve picked Australia off with targeted sanctions and so on. So there are real limits for Britain to combine its commercial interests with its wish to stand up for human rights. These are the sort of choices that each government over the next decade or two is going to struggle with.

TR: You say that Britain’s international reputation for competence and reliability has been tarnished by the Brexit saga. How do you see U.K.-EU relations evolving now?

PR: Britain spent three years in a general state of chaotic uncertainty before going for the very hard, pure break. We’ve chosen a very distant relationship. The EU is settling down for probably quite a long period of adversarial relations on the economic front with Britain, more as a competitor and a difficult partner. That’s not true in every area. The area I’ve focused most on has been internal security cooperation where both sides want to make that work within the limits.

TR: In the book you talk about the diminished public appetite for intervention after the Iraq war. You write that Biden for all his internationalism, is probably destined to continue Barack Obama’s path of reducing U.S. contributions to European security. What will the consequences of this be?

PR: You’re right; I do not think that Biden is going to increase the priority level for European security. We’ve already seen the decision to complete that withdrawal from Afghanistan on very short notice. There’s been relatively little U.S. effort to intervene so far in the current very serious dispute in Gaza and Israel.

This era of large-scale interventions is over, and that may well be a good thing. They were not exactly a great success. But some of our adversaries in the world, particularly Russia, are not at all shy of using military force to achieve political goals. We lack a concept of how we use our military powers to achieve political effect.

If we’re not going to use our army for interventions, but only for training missions and so on, then are we leaving the door open to more assertive powers like Russia, who are prepared to use their armed forces to dominate international crisis?

TR: And what do we do with the postwar institutions that were designed when we had more appetite for interventionism? How do you see NATO evolving?

PR: The problem with NATO is that there is no agreement on what its strategic purpose is. If you ask countries in Eastern Europe, they’ll say it’s clearly Russia. If you ask countries from the south, they’ll be worried about migration across the Mediterranean.

What has been a secret of its success is that it’s not just a military alliance; it has been a political alliance as well. And the secret to breathing new life into it is to get back to its political purpose, where the closest allies talk about their most important security issues. Following that logic, if we’re going to get NATO back to being at the core of Western security, then it needs to discuss Asian issues. It needs to discuss China.

TR: My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Max Hastings recently described the sanctions placed on a group of Chinese officials as “a flea bite.” How should we rate the foreign policy tool of placing sanctions on individuals?

PR: You’re putting your finger on the dilemma we were talking about, that Britain both wants to promote its values and at the same time preserve its economic and commercial links with economically powerful countries. You can see it exactly in the implementation of this act.

It’s a good thing to have this [Magnitsky] act on the statute book clearly, and it’s right that egregious violations of human rights should attract sanctions. But sanctioning a few officials isn’t going to make any difference. On China, you can see that Britain imposed these sanctions on a few officials directly concerned with Uighur repression but not at all on the senior leadership of the Chinese system, which would have certainly drawn massive retaliation against British economic interests.

The most powerful sanctions come from financial centers such as London and New York, which have a lot of leverage over countries where oligarchs or leaders like to stash money away. Britain has unexplained wealth orders (UWOs) and so on. Now, there’ve been some steps taken, but I don’t think that they go far enough to really make the elites in these countries feel any pressure. 

TR: Does leaving Europe make it harder for Britain to exercise its moral authority in the world?

PR: It leaves us more exposed and puts up the price potentially of exercising our moral authority and sharpens the dilemma between that and protecting our commercial interests. You can’t lay down in black-and-white a general rule one way or the other. It’s going to be fought out issue by issue, country by country, problem by problem.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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