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How should ‘Global Britain’ respond to Russian aggression?

The Russian military build-up around Ukraine has exposed divergent ways of thinking about world politics and national interests. As distinct geopolitical schools of thought emerge, what does the course of British policy tell us about the trajectory of ‘Global Britain[↗]’?

1. Clinging to the past or looking forward?

As Tom McTague[↗] put it, although some wish to see Russia’s leader as a throwback to a bygone age[↗], ‘The reemergence of China and Russia, …, poses an imaginative challenge.’ He goes on: 

Suddenly, we are forced to confront the prospect that in the future we may not have “progressed” toward some more enlightened, just, and universal order. Instead, the future might be more particular, competitive, national, or perhaps even civilisational. And if that is the case, what happens if we are on the wrong side of history, not because we were necessarily wrong but because we just got beat?

Apparently[↗], some are reluctant to let go of the idea – popularised in the 1990s – that multilateral dialogue alone is a panacea for any conceivable dispute and if force is needed, that is a matter for the United States (US). Meanwhile, ‘Global Britain’, as a concept that frames global action in the national interest, and increases investment in the military instrument to work alongside diplomacy[↗], situates the United Kingdom (UK) more in the forward-looking camp.

2. Short-term or long-term?

The current crisis can be understood either in terms of the need to avoid a war in particular, or to reduce the risks of war in general. Alternative policy actions stem from distinct worldviews. In one, issues like the Russia-Ukraine crisis are an historical anomaly. By that way of thinking, the right response is to pay off Russia on the assumption that it will in time conform to the ‘arc of history[↗]’. The example this might set to others is discounted because, presumably, they will come around too.  

The other response, which accepts short term costs are worth paying for long-term gains, rests on a worldview that places Russian aggression in the context of a broader more persistent challenge to world order – or ‘a competitive age’ as the 2021 Integrated Review[↗] title has it. This view recognises that observers pass judgement on one’s actions, and assess the strength of one’s other commitments in the same light.

3. Reactive or pro-active?

Among the three European leaders recently united in an assessment[↗] that ‘Our goal is to avoid a war in Europe’, only Poland has gone beyond diplomacy and threats of sanctions, and is sending arms[↗] to help Ukraine defend itself. The emphasis France[↗] and Germany place on ‘avoiding war’ signifies a defensive mentality in the face of Russian threats of ‘military technical[↗]’ steps that will follow from Ukrainian non-compliance, not to mention a tolerance of bellicose rhetoric that sets an example for other aggressors to follow. Likewise, an American tribe of ‘Restrainers[↗]’ in places such as the Quincy Institute[↗] advocate for a similar posture in answering Russian demands with compromises (pushing neutrality[↗] on Ukraine, pressuring Kyiv to implement a Russian version of the 2015 Minsk II agreements).

This emphasis on ‘avoidance’ and compromise stands in contrast to British policy, which has emphasised ways to actively assist Ukraine in its legitimate self-defence, launching preemptive information operations[↗], and directly countering Russian narratives[↗]. The willingness of Ukrainians and their leaders to accept such support undercuts the charge that this policy amounts to ‘fighting to the last Ukrainian’.

4. Local versus global?

Some leaders choose to respond to Russian aggression towards Ukraine as an isolated event. There is a valid debate about whether the current Russian challenge has broader significance for the direction of world order, but the harping on unity[↗] and sniping about the competition[↗] for European leadership feels myopic and self-referential. That reluctance to be drawn into a wider struggle – where leverage for narrow national advantage is likely to be reduced – is understandable, if uninspiring. 

Even if some are reluctant to situate the European crisis in the context of larger trends, the same cannot be said for the leaders of Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), who met in Beijing to launch their vision for a new era in the global order[↗] that would make the world safe for authoritarian states like theirs. NATO enlargement was on their agenda, but is their ‘new era’ (whatever that might offer) on ours?

Other leaders are responding to this crisis in the framework of a larger political and geographic context. Britain has tended towards this group. As Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, put it[↗]:

It’s time to wake up. The free world’s age of introspection must end now. Instead we need the age of ideas, influence and inspiration. And that’s why Britain is determined to work with our friends to form a network of liberty that spans the world. 

It is disappointing when others who enjoy the benefits of established principles shrink from making a commitment to their universality, not least because the values of those who stand up to aggression attract broader and deeper support.

Which course for ‘Global Britain’?

Which is the right course for the UK? It is wise to be wary of overstretch. Not every point under attack is a geopolitical domino. British initiatives can only prevail in common cause with allies like Poland, the US and partners like Japan, Australia and Ukraine. But while it is harder to think and act with forward-looking, long-term, active and global policies, those who advocate a less ambitious course also need to find the answers to two hard questions:

  1. If the UK calibrated its policy to outdated and short-term world views, and took a defensive and parochial approach, who will shape the ‘new era’ of global governance?
  2. If there are countries sympathetic to British preferences and assertive enough to uphold the present order, waiting to assume a leadership role, where are they?

If those questions cannot be easily answered, should not the UK think twice before shrinking from the ambition of ‘Global Britain’?

Dr Philip Shetler-Jones is a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He works in the field of Europe-Asia security cooperation, with a personal focus on United Kingdom-Japan defence and security relations.

Image credit: Anton Holoborodko (CC BY-SA 3.0)[↗]

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