It’s the Foreign Secretary’s job to supply a foreign policy. Ours has failed.
The Economist doesn’t mince it’s word this week in judgement on the Foreign Secretary. It says what must be said; “Britain’s foreign secretary isn’t up to the job” it declares. Indeed, Mr Raab, claims the august news-weekly is now known to his officials as ‘5i’s’; ‘insular, imperious, idle, irascible and ignorant’.
I know from personal experience that civil servants will occasionally – in extremis – brief against their minister. But this isn’t the reason Mr Raab should go. Rather his departure is required because his job to supply a foreign policy. And in this he has singularly failed.
Though the NATO departure has been fraught with dishonour, it’s imminence was not a secret.
The US departure is not some act of new American solitude. It’s literally American strategy. And in fact it is not that new.
Since Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, US policy has been to pivot – or rebalance – to Asia, and ever since there are plenty in the foreign policy community ready to point out that since the policy was declared, action has fallen short of words
“Ten years and two administrations later” wrote two well placed commentators in Foreign Affairs, “it is clear that the United States has fallen short.
“In speeches and statements, the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations have all appropriately emphasized the singular importance of Asia to the United States’ future…But such rhetoric has often been disconnected from actual U.S. policies, budgets, and diplomatic attention…What matters more is what they actually do.”
Biden knows America is no longer the world’s great cloud-herder, the Zeus-like hyper-power of the post-Soviet world. He knows he must make choices. Choices, Biden knows, are key to the preservation of American power.
“The chaotic exodus from Afghanistan need not herald U.S. global decline in the twenty-first’ writes Chatham House director, Robin Niblett; “Power in international relations is always relative. And in relative terms, the United States has far more going for it structurally and societally than its two main geopolitical rivals’.
This is true. As long as America doesn’t try to do everything. So Biden knows he must make choices, backed as it happens, by plenty of political support for a ‘global America’ which is alive and well in the United States. Americans still hanker for leadership – as long as that leadership is shared; most Americans for example would support a defence of Taiwan despite supporting exit from Afghanistan.
So this is less Biden-retreat than it is Biden-re-aim and re-load at a different target.
America’s gameplan for Afghanistan – in place since the Obama surge – was always going to have a shelf life, regardless of whether it teetered on the razors edge. For the simple reason Henry Kissenger notes in the Economist this week;
“The United States has torn itself apart in its counterinsurgent efforts because of its inability to define attainable goals and to link them in a way that is sustainable by the American political process…. Such an enterprise could have no timetable reconcilable with American political processes”.
What is more, American analysts simply do not see Afghanistan and central Asia as the same place it was twenty years ago. They mark the risk of safe spaces for terrorism as lower (not non-existent) for the simple reason that Afghanistan’s neighbours are now far more concerned about stability.
‘Today, there is a regional order that can accommodate Washington’s absence’ wrote one expert ‘The United States’ enduring military presence also spurred China and Russia to develop their own rival institutions, norms, and practices, including security organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)
Which is why both Democrats and Republicans had targeted exit from the blood-fouled earth of Afghanistan as a priority.
But the reason we should have had better British planning is that the American exit was not simply an exit from occupation but the well-telegraphed advent of new tactics.
Plenty of the American security establishment is fairly confident that it has not perfected but certainly evolved effective counter-terrorism tactics that don’t require large scale occupations. As one author put it this week;
When defending withdrawal from Afghanistan, Mr. Biden made clear that he has no plans to give up counterterrorism. The infrastructure of drone and missile strikes and special forces raids is indeed ramping up again after the fall of Afghanistan, an antiseptic Frankenstein monster loosed even as the gory laboratory that birthed it closes down.
So a Pacific-America however is hardly a state secret. Which begs the question of why UK foreign policy has not adapted, especially given our efforts to stick as tight as a magnet as to our American cousins.
Once upon a time the brilliant historian Niall Ferguson coined the phrase Chimerica to illustrate the symbiotic relationship between the US and China.
But it’s RussChi that should command our attention today, and the corridor of chaos along Russia and China’s West and southern border from the Ukraine, to Crimea and the Black Sea, Syria, Iran, Kashmir, Myanmar and North Korea.
Can anyone tell us what is British grand strategy for this huge Eurasian market, the largest in the 21st century, the hottest conflict zone on earth and a space our two most important geo-strategic competitors are set to dominate? I can’t. Answering that question demands a foreign policy. We know Joe Biden’s. We know President Xi’s. We know President Putin’s. What can we say about a Britain’s? The best we can say is ‘there isn’t one’.