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How UK foreign policy is fatally wedded to a declining US empire

Boris Johnson's successor will continue the post-imperial farce of Britain’s Middle East policy and further squander the immense cultural power the UK wields
US President Joe Biden (L) and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) at Nato Headquarters in Brussels, 24 March 2022 (AFP)
US President Joe Biden (L) and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Nato headquarters in Brussels, 24 March 2022 (AFP)

One thing you can be sure that neither candidate in the Conservative party leadership contest will dare question is the basic premise of UK foreign policy.

Underwritten by various permastate institutions and intelligence agencies across the Foreign Office, Home Office and Ministry of Defence, these fundamentals entail tracking US policy as closely as possible and ever-increasing defence spending.

Liz Truss - currently the favourite to take over as UK prime minister in September - has kept close to Johnson in a bid to inherit his right-wing base

The Tony Blair principle generally applies. Since the United States took the baton from Britain as the imperial leader of the West following the Second World War, even if a policy choice appears horribly misguided, better that Britain stands with America rather than weaken US prestige through charting its own course.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was unusually blunt about the issue in his parting oration to parliament, advising his successor to "stay close to the Americans".

What this means in the immediate term is that if and when the Biden administration loses its nerve over Ukraine - where it is spending a whopping $40bn of US tax dollars in various forms of military and economic aid - London will follow suit.

It's easy to forget that the UK government's loud policy in support of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after Russia invaded, which has cost Britain £3.8bn ($4.6bn), was partly political theatre designed to keep Johnson in power.

Liz Truss - currently the favourite to take over as UK prime minister in September - has kept close to Johnson in a bid to inherit his right-wing base. As foreign minister, she was in Moscow in February with the task of giving the impression to British media that the UK was telling Russia what's what, with the help of ludicrous photo-ops.

Now she has vowed to increase defence spending to three percent of GDP by 2030 from the current 2.1 percent to face an "increased threat" - to the UK, apparently - from Russia and China, which would mean a significant hike on 2023's budgeted £60.2bn.

Tories' Russian links

Yet it's worth remembering that China was nowhere on Britain's radar as a threat until former US President Donald Trump made it one after taking office in 2017 and Democrat policymakers chose to roll over.

As for Russia, Tory links have been rather cosy, turning a blind eye to suspected meddling in the Brexit vote and corrupt money sloshing around Londongrad. The most egregious example of British kowtowing to Washington is the case of Julian Assange.

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Though his administration went after whistleblowers with a vicious gusto, former US President Barack Obama chose not to pursue charges against the WikiLeaks founder because of the simple fact that the only charge to be pinned on him was one of publication, not theft of classified material.

That would have exposed the New York Times, the Guardian and other traditional media outlets that cooperated with Assange in revealing US and UK war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan to exactly the same charge.

Yet Conservative governments cooperated with the CIA in an insane plan to kidnap him from the Ecuadorean embassy in London or even kill him, and are keeping him in solitary confinement in the notorious Belmarsh prison with the clear intent to induce his death.

The Labour Party under Keir Starmer, typical of the Thatcher-Blair era, offers no real alternative to this at all.

That was not the case when the left briefly dominated during former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's four-and-a-half-year tenure. The party manifesto questioned foreign policy fixtures that put Israeli security over Palestinian rights, plied arms to repressive regimes and resisted the emerging multipolar world order, to the horror of a permastate establishment for whom Corbyn was a heretic of Akhenaten proportions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss during a meeting in Moscow, 10 February 2022 (AFP)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss during a meeting in Moscow, 10 February 2022 (AFP)

Truss can be expected to lean even more heavily into the post-imperial farce of Britain's Middle East policy under Johnson.

Following the US script, his government came straight out of the gates after the Brexit-driven Tory general election victory in December 2019 with a declaration that legislation was in the works to ban public bodies from participating in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaigns, which the next session of parliament is likely to pass.

Tragic folly

The current government also opposes an International Criminal Court investigation into Israeli war crimes following the May 2021 war on the Gaza Strip. And in December 2021, parliament proscribed the entirety of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas as a "terrorist organisation," despite its governing Gaza.

In an effort to make up for Brexit trade losses, arms sales to the Gulf Arab governments were ramped up.

Meanwhile, Johnson, when Truss's predecessor at the Foreign Office, botched the cases of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, jailed from 2016 to 2022 in Iran on spying charges, and Matthew Hedges, jailed in the UAE for seven months in 2016, also on spying charges.

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Needless to say, Britain has dutifully fallen in line as the Biden administration fails to re-establish the nuclear deal with Iran.

The most tragic folly of British foreign policy during the neoliberal years has been the failure to appreciate the immense cultural power that Britain wields.

Tory governments in particular have run down the BBC, overseen declining educational standards, especially in universities that no longer enjoy the worldwide reputation they once did, and have even slashed funding for the British Council, which should be at the forefront of any serious policy that calls itself Global Britain.

If there's anywhere where Britain truly punches about its weight, it is in the cultural sphere. Instead of hanging onto the coat-tails of a declining US empire or scaring people away, Britain should be reaping the benefits of its outsized role in shaping the modern world and the interest people share in its achievements in so many fields.

But long-term investment in the institutions that exist to capitalise on this legacy means little to the ruling clique if there's nothing in it for them.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Andrew Hammond currently teaches Turkish history at Oxford university. He is the author of Popular Culture in North Africa and the Middle East, The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia, and numerous academic articles on modern Islamic thought. He worked previously at the European Council on Foreign Relations, BBC Arabic and Reuters in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.