UK marks out geopolitics of the future
After a relatively quiet 2020, tied down by the pandemic and the mechanics of finally leaving the EU, the UK government and Prime Minister Boris Johnson have hit 2021 with some force. Johnson’s virtual appearance and speech at last month’s Munich Security Conference was an answer to the widespread criticism of a lack of senior representation last year. Following that, the prime minister personally chaired a meeting of the UN Security Council (UNSC) during the UK’s February presidency — the first time since 1992 a British PM had done so.
The UK did not merely grind out a full month of worthy but predictable matters, but rather sought to turn a corner to a new phase in geopolitics. This does not deny the old realities of the difficult confrontations facing the world at every turn, but it also emphasizes there are new realities coming along that may make the resolution of problems more difficult or, worse, irrelevant.
That Johnson chose to instigate and chair a UNSC session on the impact of climate change on global security was significant. It was, astonishingly, the first time the climate had been the subject of a leader-led debate at the Security Council. It was not primarily engaged with the science, but rather the impact — meaning the impact on the most vulnerable. And, as the Middle East and North Africa knows well, the most vulnerable are inextricably linked to man-made conflict in the first place. Of the 20 countries termed most vulnerable to climate change, 12 are already in conflict.
To try to bring the issue to life, the UK enlisted the help of natural historian and environmentalist Sir David Attenborough, whose word and reputation on this subject have made him a worldwide figure. He was stark. Climate change risked “the collapse of everything that gives us security — food, fresh water and clean food chains.” It is “the biggest risk to security.” He said we have left the stable period that saw the birth of our civilizations and it was “already too late to avert climate change,” adding that the poorest and most vulnerable were “certain to suffer.” His words were meant to shock.
The UK coupled this initiative with a focus on the pandemic as, of course, it is certain there will be another. It echoed UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call for a global cease-fire to allow aid workers to carry out vaccinations in conflict areas, making the point again that the world’s safety depends not on what proportion of the population in the UK, the EU or North America is inoculated, but how many in Africa are protected. The UK has continued to pledge heavily to Covax, the global coronavirus disease vaccination program, providing more than £500 million ($698 million), and it will also use its spare vaccine doses to aid the rest of the world. Such a gesture is only possible because the UK government bet big, and heavily, on vaccines at an early stage. On this issue at least, the UK’s voice deserves a hearing.
But who is listening?
Munich, New York and November’s COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, together with its leadership of the G7 this year, gives the UK an exceptional platform. Next month, it will unveil the conclusions of its review into an integrated foreign, defense, security and development policy. It would be good if it followed the bold start to the year in terms of addressing contemporary foreign affairs and issues through the lens of the geopolitics to come, and pulled friendly and allied states with it.
Middle Eastern and North African states might welcome the growing realization that conflicts can no longer be won in the conventional sense, and that existential threats beyond conventional politics provide a way out of old rivalries. The drive to alternative energy sources and new renewables fits the narrative of a number of states in the region. The conviction that science has to be believed also provides a sense of hope that, even if climate change cannot be stopped, it can be mitigated if we act now. Rising seas care not for Sunni, Shiite or Christian around the Gulf. Diplomats have long sought an environmental excuse to bring parties together over one issue and to skillfully use that opportunity to lead onto other fields of dispute to see what might be salvaged. Now is the time for that approach.
That Johnson chose to instigate and chair a UNSC session on the impact of climate change on global security was significant.
I don’t think the UK government believes that states do not also have to stop threatening each other, sponsoring or supporting terror, or keeping endless conflicts going for their own vested interests — or that the solutions to such things are not complex. But its UNSC agenda explicitly made clear that, in the not too distant future, such things may be the least of our problems.
- Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK