Post-imperial British influence rested on the dual pillars of its leading role in Europe and its unique partnership with the US. Brexit will inevitably weaken the former; the Darroch leaks make plain the volatility of the latter, writes James Dunne (Central European University).
As the fallout from the leaking of Sir Kim Darroch’s telegrams continues – with the British ambassador to Washington’s resignation following days of undiplomatic tweets from the White House – the incident’s broader implications, as an indication of Britain’s altered strategic position in a post-Brexit world, may take longer to sink in.
For British politicians and policy-makers, the episode poses more urgent challenges. The immediate priority will be the identification of the leak’s source, given the access this individual had to encrypted and sensitive diplomatic communications spanning a period of several years.
This incident has, thus far, been primarily interpreted in Westminster as a serious breach of protocol, with potentially far-reaching consequences for the willingness and ability of British diplomats to provide unvarnished briefings to London, without fearing that they could shorten their careers by doing so. The reluctance last night of Boris Johnson, a former Foreign Secretary, to unambiguously back the British ambassador, caused further concern and prompted widespread criticism from members of all major political parties.
The next priority, in the short term, will be the need to overcome President Trump’s current hostility to the British government. Given that the on-off relationship between Theresa May and Trump appears now to be terminally damaged as well as time-limited, that job will fall to Johnson, almost certain to become Prime Minister later this month, and who this week spoke again of his “very good relationship with the White House”. Once in Downing Street, however, Johnson may find the Trump administration as “dysfunctional”, “unpredictable” and “clumsy” as Darroch reported.
As the dust settles, there will inevitably be a reflection on what we can learn from this episode about Britain’s strategic position, and the basis of its foreign policy in the post-Brexit environment it is moving towards. When it comes to Britain’s future role in the world, assuming that a Johnson government is able to make good on his pledge to leave the EU at the end of October, the past few days have not been reassuring.
The UK’s foreign policy in the post-war period was traditionally based on three pillars: the Atlantic alliance, engagement in Europe, and the historic relationships with the countries of the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth has long since fallen away as a significant factor in British strategic thinking. The May government promoted a vision of a “Global Britain” after Brexit, able to strike trade deals with fast-growing economies across the globe, many of them in the Commonwealth. However, the reality of British influence among Commonwealth nations is better grasped by the Kenyan president’s critique of Theresa May, during her visit to the country last year, expressing his pleasure that she had “found time” to come and see how much the country and continent had changed in the nearly four decades since a British premier last visited. A putative free trade deal with India will also involve complex and politically-sensitive negotiations, not least because the current Indian government, recently returned with a substantial majority, will likely insist on visa liberalisation as a precondition of any deal and has made its trade negotiations with the EU a higher priority.
The remaining pillars, however – the Atlantic alliance, with the “special relationship” at its core, and the UK’s role, since the 1970s, at the heart of the developing European Union – came to be mutually-reinforcing, and provided Britain with a role in the world after the end of empire. Dean Acheson, then US Secretary of State, spoke uncontroversially in 1962, when he declared that “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role”. However, a decade later, with accession to the European Economic Community, it began to build that role.
Britain’s leadership in Europe has undoubtedly made it a more valuable ally, not least to successive US administrations. On the European pillar, despite a widespread narrative that portrays the UK as a consistently awkward member state, characterised above all by the tensions between the Thatcher administration and its European counterparts, successive British governments, right up until June 2016, remained fully engaged in Brussels.
Thatcher’s 1988 Bruges speech is often cited as a watershed moment in the development of Euroscepticism. A closer reading recalls a Thatcher who, while not always at ease in the Community, was unambiguous about the importance of British involvement: “Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the community”. That engagement was crucial in steering the European project towards UK priorities, whether in pushing the creation of the single market, or sponsoring the accession of the post-Communist countries after the end of the Cold War, in both cases against significant resistance from other member states.
The Darroch leaks offer the clearest demonstration yet of Britain’s potential vulnerability, in a scenario where it seeks to abandon one of these pillars. A former German chancellor once characterised dealing with Thatcher in Europe as a matter of waiting “for better weather”. In normal times, the UK could regard the Trump administration with the same equanimity. The security of intimate political and economic ties with Britain’s European neighbours would offer a safe harbour from which to exert influence further afield, and long-term objectives such as a free trade deal with the US could remain on ice, pending an administration better disposed towards multilateralism and a rules-based order.
Instead, absent from the Council table in Brussels, British diplomacy is compelled to lean all the more strongly on the other of its traditional pillars: the Atlantic alliance. Any government which leads the UK out of the Union will be under significant pressure to conclude a trade deal with the US, while relying on US commitment to NATO as the bedrock of its security arrangements. The incumbent US administration has thus far demonstrated an instinct for protectionism, and an uncertain commitment to the North Atlantic alliance. As Darroch’s leaked telegrams made clear, “This is still the land of America First”.
A generous observer might conclude that it is the bad fortune of pro-Brexit politicians in the UK to find themselves partnered with a Trump White House at the moment of departure from the EU. The Obama administration, while it made its own controversial intervention in the referendum debate with the remark that a post-Brexit Britain would be “back of the queue” for US trade deals, would doubtless have made for a more constant ally at a difficult moment.
This week’s diplomatic spat, coming a little over a hundred days before the UK’s next deadline for leaving the EU, may actually offer a glimpse of the UK’s underlying vulnerability in a post-Brexit world. Unloosed from one its established strategic anchors, the other is failing to provide the anticipated stability. The experience of the leak has reportedly “shaken” the UK’s diplomats. It might also give those who envision a bold new “Global Britain”, to be founded on 31 October, an additional reason to revisit the words of Thatcher in Bruges: “Utopia never comes, because we know we should not like it if it did”.
James Dunne is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the Central European University. He has previously worked as a UK civil servant and a strategy consultant, focused on defence, security and foreign policy.