Ranj Alaaldin is the Director of Crisis Response Council, a UK and US based international affairs organisation, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
British foreign policy is in the midst of a honeymoon period. Post-Brexit Britain is defining itself on the international stage, thanks to its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and the resettlement in the UK of tens of thousands of Hongkongers fleeing China’s repressive rule.
Irrespective now of whether a Russian invasion of Ukraine materialises, Britain’s valiant effort to push back against Russia’s aggression has exemplified resolve, conviction and moral authority, allowing the British flag to emerge as a beacon of freedom and democracy in a matter of just months.
When the Integrated Review was published last year, its critics rejected it as a pipe dream, premised on the notion that Britain could not be a “soft power superpower” outside of the European Union, but our approach to Ukraine has highlighted an ability to balance our soft power tools with our hard power capabilities: the dispatching of weapons to Ukraine and the mobilisation of our allies might just de-escalate tensions, and one could argue that our muscular approach has forced Europe to get its act together, potentially paving the way for the Russians to contemplate a diplomatic resolution that may have previously been unfathomable.
The same critics of the report who predicted Brexit would lead to a Britain less relevant in global affairs are also currently disparaging the Government for spearheading the global pushback against Russia. Opponents of Brexit warned that the withdrawal from the EU would diminish the country’s capacity to shape the contours of international affairs, but the logic of that argument meant that less Europe would mean more responsibility.
The Government has, therefore, rightly adopted a proactive and assertive foreign policy that allows Britain to be both global power and global broker to work closely with like-minded nations to address common threats.
Our approach to Ukraine should continue to set the tone for British foreign policy moving forward, namely by deploying the country’s reputational assets and global reach to address ongoing and future threats, and to mobilise our allies into action in increasingly complex and multi-layered challenges to international security. The shape and nature of long-standing and evolving security threats, which at times inter-connect, requires a re-calibration of how we combat them.
Firstly, coercive diplomacy, like that which we have undertaken with the Russians, constitutes a strategy designed to make an enemy stop or undo an action, either with or without resorting to military action. What is essential is ensuring the threat of force is credible enough to compel adversaries to comply with the coercing party’s demands.
The Government, along with its allies, has demonstrated a resolution and willingness to escalate the dispute militarily, thereby producing escalatory steps that can be either advanced or reversed depending on how the target country, Russia, responds. This differs from the conventional use of force in situations where diplomacy may be on the margins or discarded altogether and where the use of force is designed to be decisive and at times overwhelming to achieve military objectives.
In this instance, Britain’s approach has set the bar and paved the way for the likes of the Americans to step-up and assume more responsibility for a collective response to Moscow, while increasing the pressure and inducing action on the part of the Europeans, including the French and the Germans.
Second, the Ukraine crisis notwithstanding, inter-state wars are rare but proxy wars, civil-wars and hybrid warfare are on the increase, which requires re-calibrating policies to account for the reality of warfare today. Conflicts come and go but the resulting calm is often deceptive: of the countries that have suffered a civil war since 1945, more than half experienced a relapse into violent conflict – in some cases more than once – after peace had been established. These are the conflicts that inflict long-term damage to the fabric of societies and produce refugee crises that have far-reaching cross-border implications.
Re-calibrating policies to account for the reality of conflict and warfare today could not be more urgent: a paper by Stanford University concludes that droughts, floods, natural disasters and other climatic shifts have influenced between three per cent and 20 per cent of armed conflicts over the last century. One in four intrastate conflicts will result from changing climate, according to the paper.
Hybrid warfare will continue to test the rules based international order: such countries as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea will deploy and become increasingly effective at harnessing cyber and information operations to undermine the West’s interests and values. This year will see at least ten elections of note across the globe – arenas where malign state and non-state actors will look to subvert and manipulate electoral outcomes, undermine democracy and circumvent the true will of indigenous populations.
Britain should lead the push for an international framework that establishes the guiding principles for combating cyberwarfare. Its purpose would be to enable investment in cybersecurity and cyber resiliency, and to establish a framework that is similar to the 2006 commitment from NATO countries to commit a minimum of two per cent of their GDP to defence spending. Cybersecurity is underfunded, but our private and public sectors are increasingly exposed to sophisticated attacks designed to wreak havoc on our lives and national infrastructure.
Finally, to prevent and address conflicts that produce the breeding grounds for terrorists and their state sponsors, that enable the ascension of malign state and non-state actors, and that produce humanitarian and refugee crises, the government should establish a conflict-mediation unit within Downing Street, a team of dedicated experts whose sole mandate would be to empower the ability of Number 10 to navigate the tricky waters of conflict mediation. This could provide a valuable adjuvant to the work of the Foreign Office, which more often than not is ill-equipped to undertake agile and creative mediation and negotiation strategies that constitute tradecraft in their own right.
Such a unit would continue to build on the momentum that has been generated from the Ukraine crisis, a legacy builder that empowers Number 10 with sense of direction and purpose, and that allows Global Britain to stay true to its convictions and ideals as it moves to establish the country’s post-Brexit identity on the global stage.