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Foreign Policy Of New British PM Rishi Sunak – OpEd

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Can one compare the unflinching critical utterances of former British Prime Minister Liz Truss relating to Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s alignment with the illiberal tide of the two countries with the Munich Agreement when then European powers (Germany, France. Britain and Italy permitting German annexation of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland but promising that all future differences be resolved through consultations?

The agreement wanted to appease Adolf Hitler not to break peace in Europe. In the years following World War I Adolf Hitler was gaining a reputation as one who would not follow prior agreements. His deep desire to unite the true German people pushed him to expand Germany and overtake the surrounding areas. The other nations within Europe were desperately working towards peace without recourse to violence. This commitment to non-violence weakened the ability of anyone to stop Hitler.

Written treaties and agreements became the only options for slowing Hitler’s momentum or enacting any form of punishment. The Rhineland was one of the first non-violent buffers put in place to undermine any possible German aggression. The system of treaties and alliances ironically backfired as Hitler invaded the Rhineland in response to feeling threatened by the Franco-Soviet Treaty of Alliance and Mutual Aid. This first invasion began the pattern of violent reactions from Germany to agreements for peace throughout Europe. The militarization of the Rhineland quickly led to Hitler gaining complete control of the area. Hitler then took a step further by invading Austria. This invasion was widely overlooked as many other powers in Europe were committed to appeasement, focusing on foreign policy and negotiations to prevent another country from going to war. Due to this appeasement and the absence of any physical force against him, Hitler was able to annex Austria quickly. This evolved into a desire to unite the borders of Czechoslovakia to Germany as well. 

MUNICH AGREEMENT AND ITS RESULTS

The Munich Agreement resulted from this intersection between appeasement and Czechoslovakia. The Munich Agreement signed over the Sudetenland, or the borders of Czechoslovakia where many ethnic Germans lived, to Germany in return for a promise of peace from Hitler. Munich Agreement was written to appease Hitler once more in hopes of ending his violence. This was hoped to be the final straw as Hitler himself had agreed to back down and be satisfied after this.

If we put ourselves in 1938, this agreement could be considered a great step towards peace. Appeasement could have worked, the Munich Agreement could have stopped him, and World War II would have been non-existent. No one knew exactly what Hitler was capable of, what he was hoping to accomplish, and the devastating war that was to come. The Munich Agreement was meant to bring “peace for our time,” as heralded by one of its signers, Neville Chamberlain. It was set to finally wrap up all tensions and “assure the peace of Europe.” This agreement was supposed to end the aggression and was meant to be a peaceful agreement. Instead it enabled Hitler to continue showing force. The Munich Agreement had the opportunity to stop the war and failed due to its weak predecessors and the strong pattern of appeasement towards Hitler.

CONTRAST WITH THE POLICIES OF LIZ TRUSS

Contrarily, Prime Minister Liz Truss for a while had taken strong position against the Russo-China position. Ben Judah editor-in-chief of WPR magazine observed “From the war in Ukraine to China, Truss adopted hawkish stances while serving as foreign secretary. Judah describes her as a hard-liner who is always seeking a “Thatcher-Reagan solution.” Truss “has a taste for even greater action on the world stage after being foreign secretary during a European war”.

Gallup found that almost two-thirds of the British public lacked confidence in the government, while Truss herself was even less popular. Washington Post (September 6 2022) described Liz Truss as an unpopular leader of the UK. Then Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, was more popular among sitting Conservative lawmakers in Parliament. Broader public opinion polls show the opposition Labor Party with its strongest lead in a decade.

The country that Truss hoped to lead was unquestionably diminished. Most analyses find that Britain’s departure from the European Union has dented its economy, added to its supply chain headaches and hurt its trading prospects. An analyst recently warned investors that Britain is “more and more looking like an emerging market country” and won’t have the ability to manage “an easy escape” from a deep recession. Britain represents a country in dismal spirits: 69% of Britons, including 60% of Conservative voters, agree that the country is “in decline”.

And the Conservative Party had grown insurrectionary. The leadership campaign for the Tory Party leadership between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss had meant a policy vacuum on the cost-of-living crisis and in particular on the enormous rises in energy bills that will hit households and businesses imminently. Liz Truss had voted for Britain to remain in the European Union before becoming a hardcore Brexiteer. As foreign secretary, she was a reliable NATO ally and Ukraine supporter, talking tough on Russia and its President Vladimir Putin. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia expected no improvement in relations with Britain regardless of who won the Tory Party leadership was elected, because both (Rishi Sunak-Liz Truss) competing for Party leadership had “obviously been competing in anti-Russian rhetoric.” He said it was “hard to imagine a worse situation” in relations, “but, unfortunately, we cannot rule this out.” 

DOES RISHI SUNAK HAVE FRIENDS IN BRUSSELS

While unpopular in Moscow, it is not known how popular Rishi Sunak is in Brussels. The history of Britain and the European Union has been rocky. In 1963 President Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s application to join the European Union. Edith Cresson former Prime Minister of France was aware of Charles De Gaulle’s dislike for Britain. He told BBC in an interview in 2017 that “Formally Britain would be in but actually they’d always be with the Americans.” The UK finally made it into the club in 1973, but just two years later was on the verge of backing out again. In 1975, the nation held a referendum on the question of joining the European Union. Tensions between the EEC and the UK exploded in 1984, when the Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took a tough stand in order to reduce British payments to the EEC budget.

The Maastricht Treaty, which took effect in 1993, created the Brussels-based European Union (EU), of which the EEC, renamed simply the European Community (EC) was the main component. The EU was designed to integrate Europe’s nations politically and economically, including a united foreign policy, common citizenship rights and (for most member nations, not including the UK) a single currency, the euro. (The History Behind Brexit. The often-rocky relationship between Britain and the European Union stretches back nearly half a century. Sarah Pruitt 2019).

Tensions between the EEC and the UK exploded in 1984, when the Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher talked tough in order to reduce British payments to the EEC budget. Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair, who won a landslide victory in 1997, was strongly pro-European Union, and worked to rebuild ties with the rest of Europe while in office. Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown signed the document, but was criticized for failing to defend a treaty he had helped to negotiate.

In the interests of protecting Britain’s financial sector, David Cameron became the first UK prime minister to veto a EU treaty in 2011. In early 2013, he gave a much-anticipated speech in which he outlined the challenges facing Europe and promised to renegotiate membership in the EU if his Conservative Party won a majority in the next general election. At the same time, support was growing among British voters for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and its hard-liner stance against the EU. Against the backdrop of economic unrest in the eurozone (as the territory of the 19 EU countries that use the euro is known) and an ongoing migrant crisis, UKIP and other supporters of a possible British exit from the EU—or Brexit—increased. After winning reelection in May 2015, British Prime Minister David Cameron went to work renegotiating the UK-EU relationship, including changes in migrant welfare payments, financial safeguards and easier ways for Britain to block EU regulations. 

BREXIT REFERENDUM

In February 2016, he announced the results of those negotiations, and set June 23 as the date of the promised referendum. Turnout for the referendum was 71.8 percent, with more than 30 million people voting. The referendum passed by a slim 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent margin, but there were stark differences across the UK. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, as did Scotland (where only 38 percent of voters chose “leave”), leading to renewed calls for another referendum on Scottish independence. England and Wales, however, voted in favor of Brexit.

In October 2016, Prime Minister Theresa May, who had assumed office following David Cameron’s resignation, announced her intention to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, formally giving notice of Britain’s intent to leave the EU. On March 29, 2017, the order, signed by May a day earlier, was delivered to the Council of the European Union, officially starting the two-year countdown to Britain’s EU departure, set for March 30, 2019. However, on March 30, 2019, Parliament rejected May’s EU withdrawal agreement. The European Council set a new deadline of October 31, 2019, or the first day of the month after that in which a withdrawal agreement is passed—whichever comes sooner.

One has to take into account the tension between Britain and the European Community to understand British attitude towards the European Union. In his congratulatory message to then PM Liz Truss (on 6th September 2022) President Joe Biden vowed to work closely on global challenges and the U.S.-UK “special relationship,” despite differences over Northern Ireland. Biden reiterated “to deepening the special relationship between our countries and working in close cooperation on global challenges, including continued support for Ukraine as it defends itself against Russian aggression”.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that China hoped relations with Britain would remain “on the right track”. It is presumed that British conviction is deep rooted in favor of democracy and against illiberal regimes that promise quick delivery of essentials to the needy while not tolerating any dissent from the prescribed policies. 

UKRAINE AND DETERIORATION OF GLOBAL ORDER 

Harvard luminaries Dany Rodrik and Stephen Walt apprehend that, “The global order is deteriorating before our eyes. The relative decline of U.S. power and the concomitant rise of China have eroded the partially liberal, rules-based system once dominated by the United States and its allies”. They added that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have revitalized NATO, but it has also deepened the divide between East and West and North and South. The international order that will emerge from these developments is impossible to predict”.

Rishi Sunak has to be on guard of Boris Johnson’s Churchillian ambition of making a comeback as Prime Minister once again. There is however a difference between the two. Winston Churchill won the Second World War. Ben Baxel-Dale Smith writes in Foreign Policy magazine of large degree of continuity will persist between Johnson-Truss-Rishi Sunak administrations on foreign policy particularly on Russian invasion of Ukraine reaffirming the Western support to President Zelensky.

Given the difficulties faced by Rishi Sunak at home it is difficult to predict how far the commitment to Ukraine will go. President Biden has already ruled out American boots on the ground both in Ukraine and Taiwan. Sunak had publicly said that China is the biggest long-term threat to Britain and the world’s economic and national security. Despite Rishi Sunak’s explicit opposition to Chinese way of doing business he has not committed to assurances of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss that by 2030 the UK defense budget would rise to 3 percent.

In the same vein Harsh V Pant, an Indian analyst wrote in his article titled THE CHALLENGE OF BEING RISHI SUNAK that Sunak’s ascendency to the top is a great moment for British democracy. Sunak’s appointment as Prime Minister and his over whelming support from the members of Parliament displays that Britain has crossed the Rubicon of color prejudice that had tainted British rule in the world for centuries. It is too early to tell whether the British people will vote in a Labor Party government in the next general elections.

Now Rishi Sunak is in charge. An important analyst Peter Mclaughlin has expressed apprehension about the very unity of the United Kingdom. He thinks the ending of the Good Friday Agreement between feuding parties, the Catholics and Protestants, in Northern Ireland that had ended the bloody war in 1998 may raise the issue of uniting with the Republic of Ireland.

Equally the question of a second referendum on the independence of Scotland raised by Scottish Nationalist Party ( SNP) does not bear well for either King Charles III or the new British Prime Minister. In short the war between freedom loving countries of the world and those preaching illiberal way of life that may quickly deliver goods to the needy but under complete sway of dictators like Presidents Vladimir Putin or Xi-Jinping where George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World would be taught to the students in text books.

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a former Ambassador and Secretary of Bangladesh.

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