Why Truss favors foreign policy radicalism
Liz Truss has served as UK foreign secretary for almost a year, yet if she is selected as prime minister next month, British international policy will face a sharper break than if ex-Finance Minister Rishi Sunak wins out.
Foreign affairs beyond Europe is one of the few policy areas where Truss has more experience than Sunak. Indeed, she would be the first serving UK foreign secretary to move directly into the role of prime minister since Jim Callaghan in 1976.
This experience might prove invaluable, as the new premier’s inbox will be bulging. And she would make her first foreign visit no later than mid-September, with the annual UN General Assembly in New York opening for world leaders, including a likely first meeting with US President Joe Biden.
Truss also hopes that foreign policy could help deliver one of her first big wins as prime minister, with the UK targeting a trade deal with India by Oct. 24. She has made much of her track record in signing such post-Brexit agreements in her former role as international trade secretary and would welcome meeting this new goal.
Current PM Boris Johnson, like Margaret Thatcher, has challenged the Whitehall foreign policy “establishment” by ruffling feathers to get things done. Truss wants to be perceived as being able to act in a similar vein. For instance, she has extolled a more nimble “Global Britain” by declaring in a recent speech that the UK should be prepared to “do things differently, to think differently and to work differently.” One of the areas where Truss could be significantly more hawkish than Johnson is China and Russia policy, guided by her concept of the “network of liberty,” dividing the world into friends and enemies of democracy.
UK PM hopefully believes London should be more open to working with like-minded free-trading partners around the world
She describes herself as a “freedom fighter” on Ukraine, telling Conservative members she will do all she can to ensure Moscow is defeated. She has been one of the most vocal advocates in the Johnson Cabinet for sending defensive weaponry to Ukraine and to keep up UK resolve. She claims to abhor suggestions of Ukraine cutting any peace deal, believing it would only lead to Russian forces rearming and returning.
In April, she said Russia must be pushed out of “the whole of Ukraine,” suggesting this should include Crimea, which Russia annexed years prior to the February invasion. This was decried by her critics as a potential dangerous escalation with Moscow.
She considers herself a hawk on China too and previously suggested that the West needed to learn the lesson of Ukraine by arming Taiwan early to prevent a Chinese invasion. However, her campaign suggests she would prioritize “moral support.”
That said, while Truss (and Sunak likewise) has pledged a “fresh start” from Johnson, they have so far not radically differed from him in multiple policy areas. It is therefore likely that there will be more continuity than divergence on some big geostrategic issues, including the pivot to Asia-Pacific and the importance of remaining in Western alliances such as NATO and the G7.
On the Asia-Pacific, for instance, there is a broad consensus between Truss and Sunak on the importance of the UK’s continued focus on the region. This includes possible UK membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The two candidates for PM are also largely agreed on a tough line on China, including UK membership of the AUKUS group with the US and Australia. Sunak has hardened his tone during the leadership election, moving closer to Truss, calling Beijing the “biggest long-term threat to the United Kingdom.”
The network of liberty concept has persuaded Truss that London should be more open to working with like-minded free-trading partners around the world that are willing to prioritize the defense of democracy.
She also believes the UN is fatally compromised by having Beijing and Moscow as two of the five permanent members of the Security Council. She instead wants the G7 to be a key vehicle for defending democracy and has also unveiled plans to boost trade between Commonwealth nations.
The hawkish position that Truss espouses means she would need a larger military, so she has pledged to increase defense spending to 3 percent of gross domestic product by the end of this decade. Sunak has vowed to stick to the NATO target of 2 percent and refused to go as far as committing to the “arbitrary” 2.5 percent promised by Johnson.
Taken together, it remains to be seen if Truss will be the foreign policy radical she professes to be. While her network of liberty concept provides a framework for change, there are challenges, not just opportunities, in dividing the world in this way, as Biden has discovered with his own championing of democracies versus autocracies.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.