UK drifts toward its destiny with the Anglosphere
While the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic will doubtless prove to be the global headline of the decade, beneath its all-encompassing reach a number of highly significant political risk stories are playing out in relative obscurity. One of the most important of these is the UK’s decided drift away from its European strategic moorings, as seemingly unrelated events move it closer and closer to the Anglosphere.
The basic reasons for this seismic geopolitical shift are becoming ever more set in stone. First, the EU’s understandable preoccupation with the COVID-19 crisis — which has cruelly exposed its inability to act quickly or even coherently — has raised existential doubts as to whether such a cumbersome political structure can compete in a post-virus world with continental powers the US, China, India or even Russia. Given these overwhelming challenges, as the EU struggles to have its “Hamiltonian moment” of federation (or even a more politically and organically appropriate “Jeffersonian moment” of confederation), such concerns have lessened Brussels’ patience with the endless Brexit process.
It is not that a Canada-style free trade agreement would not be in the EU’s interests (as well as London’s). Rather, given everything else going on, there is simply not the political bandwidth for the EU to focus on this dispiriting process, making the necessary sacrifices to enable such a deal to happen. Instead, the trade talks have well and truly bogged down. Given the lack of time to make such a deal possible, and the Johnson government’s firm intention not to extend the Brexit timetable yet again, “no deal” between London and Brussels is very much back on the cards. The strategic doors between the UK and EU are clanging shut.
The same holds true for Sino-British ties. The dominant Conservative Party, particularly its backbenchers, have adopted an increasingly anti-Beijing slant as China’s willful cover-up of the origins of the coronavirus have become plainly recognizable. This damning reality, combined with China’s brutal jailing of up to 1 million Uighurs in its western Xinjiang province and determined moves to definitively crack down on semi-autonomous Hong Kong, have badly hurt China’s image in London.
Gone are the halcyon days of David Cameron’s premiership, when a new golden age of trade and closer ties between Beijing and London seemed within reach. Instead, pressed internally by Tory backbenchers and externally by an increasingly exasperated US, the Johnson administration has backtracked and now wants to entirely curtail Chinese company Huawei’s involvement in the construction of Britain’s 5G network by 2023.
This company, which was founded by a former member of the People’s Liberation Army and is close to the Communist Party leadership, has long been deemed by both backbenchers and the US to be a grave national security risk. Given Beijing’s culpability for the spread of COVID-19, its brutal subjugation of Xinjiang, and its incipient crackdown in Hong Kong, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had little choice but to reconsider his earlier, ill-advised decision to allow Huawei to have a stake in Britain’s 5G plans. It is symbolic of the strategic dead end that Sino-British relations have come to.
Geostrategic policy, much like water, tends to follow the path of least resistance. Johnson came to power to sort out Brexit. Instead, his premiership has come to be entirely dominated by the COVID-19 crisis. Both of these herculean initiatives are primarily domestic in nature. Johnson was not put in power primarily to reconfigure British foreign policy, of which he has a passing (if not passionate) interest, but history does not care what people’s earlier interests are — it decides, far more than individual leaders, what comes to pass.
Johnson may come to be remembered as the prime minister who definitively steered the UK into a more committed alliance with the Anglosphere.
Dr. John C. Hulsman
Given the strategic dead ends being reached with the EU and China at precisely the same time, Johnson may come to be remembered as the prime minister who definitively steered the UK away from other geopolitical options and into a more committed alliance with the Anglosphere — English-speaking former dominions such as the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India. Indeed, Johnson’s overall Brexit plans will be judged to be a historical success or failure depending precisely on whether, in the course of his five-year term, he can nail down free trade deals with this list of countries; for the Anglosphere now clearly amounts to the strategic path of least resistance as the UK reconfigures its foreign policy. It is economically successful in terms of healthy growth rates, at least pre-virus, in a way sclerotic Europe simply no longer is. At the same time, the Anglosphere — along with the EU and the UK — broadly shares values in a manner that China’s recent actions prove that it simply does not. For these practical, policy reasons the Anglosphere is the UK’s logical strategic destination.
But, as I well know from my decade in Washington, sadly logic does not always win the day. Here the Johnson government has been inordinately lucky. For, with EU trade talks in the doldrums and with the Chinese government’s mask slipping to reveal its true authoritarian tendencies, events on the ground are pushing London ever closer to its Anglosphere destiny.
- Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via www.chartwellspeakers.com.