By Arab News
By Dr. John C. Hulsman*
Political risk analysts, in their understandable human desire to make sense of a seemingly chaotic world, tend to see things back to front. Rare is the statesman who thinks first about their grand strategic designs, then crafts specific policies to suit those wishes. While there are such rare foreign policy chess players out there — as last week’s column on Russian President Vladimir Putin makes clear — they are actually few and far between.
Far more usual is to find leaders who have general impulses and then, armed with these vaguer ideological motivations, confront issues on a case-by-case basis. For example, former US President Harry Truman’s superlative foreign policy was crafted by men who established the containment doctrine as the strategy to successfully take on the USSR over many decades. But they did so largely pragmatically (if guided by fixed general instincts) one crisis at a time, establishing NATO, the Marshall Plan and fighting in Korea as largely specific responses to specific foreign policy problems. Grand theories, then, are usually developed from overall patterns that emerge from discrete responses to a series of foreign policy tests, and not the other way around.
Such is the present case for newly liberated British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. There is little doubt that, ideologically, Johnson is the first UK premier since Margaret Thatcher to espouse a general Anglosphere school of thought — believing the UK’s strategic future lies in cultivating closer ties with its English-speaking foreign former dominions, such as the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India. Indeed, Johnson’s overall Brexit plans will be judged a historical success or failure depending precisely on whether, in the course of his coming five-year term, he can nail down free trade deals with this list of countries.
But, for Johnson, like most leaders, his Anglosphere proclivities are more a guide to his impulses (and the foreign policy tactics that arise from them) and less a coherent, thought-through strategic compass. It is how he deals with the practical, real world crises that end up on his desk that will flush out coherent strategic patterns over time, often after the fact.
And the first such crisis to challenge Johnson’s overall Anglosphere school of thought is already in front of him: The prime minister’s looming decision as to whether to include Huawei in the construction of the UK’s new 5G wireless technology network.
It is important to understand that, in policy terms, there is one realm where the Anglosphere already fully exists — that of intelligence sharing. The “Five Eyes” (the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) have, for many years, shared open-source intelligence, trusting each other to an extraordinary degree, based on common historical, cultural and linguistic ties.
Huawei, a successful Chinese state-owned company, is the leading developer of 5G networks around the world, facing true competition only from Nokia in Finland and Ericsson in Sweden. For the UK, working with Huawei makes perfect commercial sense. However, particularly from the American point of view, involving Huawei in the UK’s 5G network is a dagger pointed at the heart of continued Anglosphere intelligence sharing.
This explains why panicked senior American officials just flew to brief the British establishment ahead of Johnson’s decision. The Americans flatly told British ministers that using Huawei technology in the UK’s 5G network would put transatlantic intelligence sharing at great risk, going so far as to say that allowing the Chinese firm such intimate access amounts to “nothing short of madness.”
American officials presented their British counterparts with a dossier that they say details further new evidence of the security risks Huawei poses. Up until now, Johnson has been advised by Britain’s security establishment that any Huawei risks can be contained. The alarmed Americans have flatly contradicted such a sanguine assessment.
Huawei itself has consistently denied that it has ever been asked by the Chinese government to introduce secret “back doors” into its technology and has even offered to sign a “no-spy agreement” with the UK. The Americans have responded to this with deep skepticism, saying that, at a pinch, of course Huawei — given the very nature of China’s state-dominated form of capitalism — would do as its masters in Beijing ordered, whatever they had previously agreed to.
The fear is that China would be able to conduct wholesale surveillance in Britain via Huawei kit, exploiting UK software vulnerabilities it was made intimately aware of in helping construct the 5G network. Australia — another member of the emerging Anglosphere — heeded America’s pleas last year, shutting Huawei out of the work on its own 5G network.
Trying desperately to pass the buck, Johnson has publicly said it is up to the Americans to propose an alternative to Huawei, just as the Americans have, in turn, hinted broadly that continued intelligence sharing rests on Downing Street’s choice. Johnson’s final Huawei decision, then, will also provide a crucial early signal of how closely the UK wants to move into America’s orbit and of how committed he is to Britain’s Anglosphere future. The prime minister should jettison Huawei and more fully commit to the UK’s newly emerging strategic ties with the English-speaking world.
- Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via www.chartwellspeakers.com.