By Arab News
By Mohamed Chebaro
The UK before the economic crisis of 2008 was very different from the UK that emerged from the global financial meltdown and its repercussions, which have shaped, or rather failed to appropriately shape, the priorities of the country ever since.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the subsequent strategic reviews that initially saw Britain’s role in the world minimized to suit its size as “a small island,” as a British official once told me. Later, this stance got even worse, when populist, right-wing members of the ruling Conservative Party pushed for the country to leave the EU, persuading voters that being a member of that bloc had held Britain back from its “global potential.” However, Brexit has further limited the country’s tools for growth and prosperity, as well as its ability to set out clear long-term objectives in a world tilting in all geostrategic directions and where ignoring one global issue could simply backfire and damage other aspects of the national or international interest.
An in-depth report published in July by the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee criticized the government’s “Integrated Review” and its subsequent “Integrated Review Refresh,” as the called-for strategic tilt toward the Indo-Pacific would risk Britain losing ground in other areas where it has historic relations and has kept many interests, such as the Middle East.
The influential parliamentary committee warned in its report that the government decision to invest more in its security and economic focus on the China-dominated region should not sacrifice the UK’s relationships with other regions that have been nurtured over many decades, if not centuries.
In a recent interview, committee chair Alicia Kearns even said: “I feel the tilt to the Indo-Pacific was a tilt away from the Middle East and there hasn’t been sufficient focus on the Middle East and North Africa.” She added that London risked alienating friends and, as a result, Britain would lose its voice and influence in the region.
The Integrated Review of 2021 has, it seems, failed to list and address all the threats. This pushed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to call for a refresh, to fill gaps left by the previous review, especially since the world has witnessed a tilt in states’ approaches in pursuit of their interests, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Such changes have threatened to create “a world defined by danger, disorder and division, and an international order more favorable to authoritarianism,” according to Sunak.
In his overview, the prime minister also listed long-standing threats from terrorism and serious and organized crime, which are enduring and evolving, in addition to transnational state and nonstate-aided challenges such as large-scale migration, the smuggling of people, narcotics and weapons, and illicit finance.
As a result, the 2023 refresh called on the UK to harness its responses in four areas: to build on its core Euro-Atlantic security and prosperity, despite Brexit; to recognize the importance of deterrence and defense; to ensure the resilience of the economy and society; and to surge investment into science and technology. This left out the need to build on relationships with existing long-term allies in the Middle East, which have felt neglected, according to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report, as a result of the UK’s decision to retreat and seek smaller, cheaper soft and hard power roles for itself.
The committee’s assessment of Britain’s recent stance could not be more accurate, as the policies adopted by successive Conservative governments — including their austerity drive and small-state attitude to governance — have eroded UK influence on the world stage and harmed the country’s reputation as one of the world’s leading economies and a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council.
As a foreign correspondent based in London for decades, I could not fail to notice the impact the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had on the country, particularly its international posture and its tilt away from assuming its responsibilities in multiple theaters simultaneously, such as the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Retreating from any region could see Russia and China filling the gap, as witnessed recently in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Also, one cannot fail to notice how austerity has weakened the domestic resilience of society, due to the weakening of cash-starved state institutions across the board. Not to forget Brexit, of course, and the UK single-handedly peeling itself away from the EU’s family of states and the clout that afforded Britain on the international stage for many years.
The warnings of the Foreign Affairs Committee could not be more timely, as the country is likely to go to the polls next year. This presents the UK with an opportunity to not just refresh, but possibly to recharge and reboot, in the hope that it can tilt back and regain some of its balance after 13 years of Conservative Party populism that have eroded the standing of the country, primarily among its long-term allies. This will only work if Britain, like any state, is seen to be upholding the rule of law and evading double standards, which is a criticism often leveled at it and other Western powers, especially in countries that were, until recently, seen as part of their sphere of influence in Africa and the Middle East.
The alternative, as one expert on UK and Arab affairs recently told me, is that the UK, after Brexit, “has been weakened permanently.” As far as Britain’s influence in the Middle East is concerned, he claimed that it has never recovered since the Suez Crisis of 1956, when British and French forces invaded Egypt in collusion with Israel. Despite its success, the invasion unleashed a political storm and led to a humiliating retreat that dealt Britain’s global prestige a severe blow.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.