By Arab News
By Alistair Burt*
The UK continues to digest the impact of the conflict in Ukraine, with its wider influence on near neighbors and those farther afield, such as in the Middle East. The shakeup of alliances is being watched carefully through analysis of votes at the UN, visits by foreign dignitaries or others and an appreciation of Western decisions in recent times, which may have contributed to setbacks in the expectations of current relationships.
Closer to home, a foreign policy — fate-temptingly entitled “Global Britain” — was under intense scrutiny just a few weeks ago. Brexit was not yet done and the tying up of ends with the EU was proving as difficult as many had predicted. Irascible words accompanied angry media. Solving the regulations controlling trade flows across the only land border with the EU, between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, was difficult enough. But this issue had also attracted the interest and concern of the US on account of its effects on both the peace agreement of almost 25 years ago and a president fiercely proud of his Irish roots. Global Britain was pointedly aimed at a fresh start and the odd skirmish to project a new identity was not contrary to wishes in Downing Street.
What a difference a few weeks has made. To those disappointed by the UK leaving the EU, but determined to support a new and close relationship with friends, the nature of the coming together of Europe as a whole has been encouraging. It was as if we had suddenly found what our post-1945 lives had truly been about. Despite all their faults, liberal democracies, in which the people choose the direction of their sovereign states, are worth fighting for after all and there are some value judgments of right and wrong still to be considered in a world where relativism had held sway maybe too long.
Equally, a NATO that had been considered almost redundant by President Donald Trump found new vitality. Eastern European states no longer felt “technically” vulnerable to potential, though unlikely, events, such as a Russian invasion, but truly fearful of what they had seen unfold. The rapid reversal of long-held political positions on military expenditure, energy sources and diplomatic relationships brought about, at this initial stage, a remarkable coming together.
That was the easy bit. Striking out for Ukraine, with full support short of a commitment of actual forces, was the right response. But as everyone knows, the longer the conflict between Ukraine and Russia continues, the more difficult the questions may get. The problems between the EU and UK are not Ukraine-based. It ought to be axiomatic that efforts should be made by both sides to compromise sensibly to cement the new opportunity and avoid forthcoming clashes and political point-scoring for electoral gain. Equally, NATO should nail down the new commitments needed for its future, not as a challenge to Moscow so much as providing the certainty of response that forestalls inappropriate risk-taking.
However, a further problem looms. Most electorates pay relatively little attention to world affairs until they impinge upon them domestically. They are going to pay attention now, and they are going to be angry about it.
The postwar Western world has devoted many resources to improving living standards, including expenditure on health, pensions, education and personal leisure and entertainment. Defense and security spending was often contrasted with these in times of economic pressure. People cheekily called for defense to be supported by charity, not their welfare campaigns. Governments in the UK made much of the “peace dividend” after 1989 and steadily reduced investment in the armed forces, claiming their impact remained as powerful as before because of new technology and improved kit.
We are not going to be able to keep this up. The true horror of Ukraine — the war crimes, the destruction and mass movement of peoples (given shamefully less regard in Middle Eastern conflicts than in Europe) — is not inflicted on Western European populations. But they are going to be asked by their leaders to bear new costs. Food and energy prices will rise as a result of matters perhaps outside their control and economic growth will be halted. But there will have to be more spent on defense and preparedness, with less going on what we have grown used to. Our commitment to humanitarian aid will be further reduced, as the UN has already noted.
Where this will leave elected governments when they face their next elections is unclear. People will be angry, but they should reserve their anger for the regime and man responsible for it, tighten their belts accordingly and remember their freedom was bought at a cost in the past. They will also ask that more of our friends bear this burden around the world, for then the lower the ultimate cost will be.
- 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