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What should be on the new foreign secretary’s agenda?

David Cameron, the United Kingdom’s (UK) new foreign secretary, enters the position in a world very different to the one he left as prime minister. Russia’s war against Ukraine continues to destabilise Europe, and is now entering a stalemate. Escalation in the Hamas-Israel conflict threatens to spill over into a fully-fledged regional conflict. And in the Indo-Pacific, more assertive behaviour from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), particularly in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, threatens to erode adherence to established international norms and may too spin out into wider regional hostilities. These are the most immediate challenges – there are many more, and small competing issues within each. But what exactly should be on Cameron’s agenda? The Council on Geostrategy asks nine experts in today’s Big Ask.

Evie Aspinall, British Foreign Policy Group

Cameron’s first priority should be to clarify his, and the UK’s, position on the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Britain has failed consistently to articulate a clear position – struggling to balance the need to cooperate, with genuine concern about the security and human rights implications of doing so. At a time when the West’s approach to the PRC is softening, evidenced not least by Xi Jinping and Joe Biden this week agreeing to resume military-to-military communication, there is a growing need for clarity on the UK’s position. 

This has only been compounded by Cameron’s appointment as foreign secretary. Having led the ‘golden-era’ of UK-PRC relations, and having maintained strong links with Chinese investment since his departure from office, his appointment has been seen (including in the PRC) to signal an opportunity and British desire to strengthen UK-PRC relations. This may well be the case but, if so, the UK must present a clear narrative, and not let its engagement with the PRC be impacted by external actors. 

Cameron and His Majesty’s (HM) Government need to make clear, from the outset, where the UK’s red lines on engagement are, what it seeks to gain from such engagement, and what protections will be put in place to ensure such engagement does not undermine Britain’s national security or values. Otherwise, it may be easy for an already PRC-sympathetic foreign secretary to be influenced by the current softening of approach by some toward the PRC without protecting UK interests properly.

Stephen Booth, Council on Geostrategy

There is no doubt that the legacy of the European Union (EU) referendum will continue to cast a shadow over Cameron’s tenure. However, Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, and James Cleverly, Cameron’s predecessor, have normalised relations with Brussels through the agreement of the Windsor Framework. The challenge now is to move from the inevitably transactional post-Brexit environment towards a more strategic relationship, which reflects the UK’s new European role.

There are obvious issues on which there should be possibility for a shared, forward-looking UK-EU agenda. In the security sphere, the war against Ukraine and the challenges posed by the steady flow of irregular migration from Africa and the Middle East are necessary areas for cooperation. Economically, Europe faces the shared test of financing the demographic and green transitions, and the need to increase its resilience in the face of growing geopolitical uncertainty. Linking these shared challenges to tangible and mutually beneficial cooperation will need thinking through. But without a joint strategic understanding of how Britain and the EU can help each other, the relationship will remain one to be managed, rather than one which contributes positively to the UK and EU’s wider foreign policies.

Hillary Briffa, Council on Geostrategy

Despite the weather getting colder, the view from London is that the geopolitical climate is heating up. There will be a lot of crisis-management to occupy Cameron’s first days in post: Israel has just voted down a United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution calling for ‘extended humanitarian pauses and corridors in Gaza’, which the UK abstained on; Ukraine continues its fight against the Russian invaders; tensions are rising in the Balkans; and the Caucasus region is still reeling from the events in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Whilst each of these developments is worthy of due attention in their own right, it is important that Cameron keeps an eye trained on the most significant long-term threat to international security: the ongoing climate emergency, and all the significant, escalating, cross-border challenges which this ‘problem without a passport’ poses. 

Climate security is an area where the UK has significant potential to exert convening power, as shown by its hosting of COP26 in Glasgow and vocal advocacy for climate finance for adaptation and mitigation by Small Island Developing States. Yet, recent u-turns by HM Government on climate policy – with reductions in climate ambitions and moving the goalposts on Net Zero policies – risk jeopardising Britain’s reputation as a climate leader. Climate-related challenges, such as extreme weather events and resource scarcity, will continue to contribute to regional and global instability, and Cameron must remain vigilant against the potential cascading consequences negligence can pose for trade, energy, food, public diplomacy, and social well-being at home and abroad. 

Mark Galeotti, Council on Geostrategy

With talk of stalemate, maintaining the Western coalition in support of Ukraine must be a priority. However, the problem is that the mantras that ‘Putin must fail’ and that certain countries will back Ukraine ‘as long as it takes’ are beginning to sound hollow, and moral outrage can be redirected easily by new crises. ‘Ukraine fatigue’ is a real thing, and arguably the most powerful weapon in Russia’s arsenal.

Part of the problem is that it is difficult to imagine an end to the war – even the forcible expulsion of Russian troops from every occupied territory will not in itself stop the fighting, only move the battlelines. In this context, the spectre of a ‘forever war’ which costs the West billions every month indefinitely can be mobilised by those who would rather try and impose an ugly peace on Kyiv now.

Cameron thus needs not only to use the UK’s convening power but also build on internal discussions in Whitehall and with allies and partners to begin to develop a compelling and credible vision for an end to the war. This may involve considering some unwelcome concessions – just like forming a coalition administration – but considering how brief his tenure is likely to be, the revival and refocusing of the West’s commitment to Ukrainian security and sovereignty may be its most useful legacy.

Carmen Lau, Hong Kong Democracy Council

Cameron’s return to the political forefront is met with apprehension, given Sunak and Cleverly’s attempt to revive his economically-led policy towards the PRC. His ‘golden-era’ with the PRC, which prioritised economic interests over national security and humanitarian concerns, remains a stain on his record. In this sense, Cameron appears to be a convenient choice, continuing the trend of subjugating critical issues for short-term economic gains. The dangers of such a strategy are glaringly evident in the current geopolitical landscape, where the PRC’s behaviour poses a serious threat to people of its occupied regions.

This also raises concerns for Hong Kongers on British soil. During Cameron’s term as prime minister, the reluctance to address human rights abuses and democratic concerns was apparent. The six-monthly report on Hong Kong July to December 2014 serves as a stark example, a period which coincided with critical developments in Hong Kong, such as the Umbrella Revolution. Its lacklustre content failed to address human rights abuses and democratic concerns. The disregard for the high degree of autonomy promised under ‘One Country, Two Systems’ further underscores the shortcomings of Cameron’s approach, leaving a legacy of appeasement rather than principled foreign policy. Therefore, there is genuine concern that the promised support and safeguarding to Hong Kongers who sought a safe heaven in the UK may be compromised.

James Rogers, Council on Geostrategy

The world Cameron inherits as Britain’s new foreign secretary is very different to the one he left as prime minister. His own government’s foreign policy successes are mixed: while he is widely acknowledged to have got relations with Xi’s PRC very wrong, he also laid the foundations for some considerable successes, including the establishment of the Joint Expeditionary Force and Operation Orbital (to train Ukrainian Armed Forces in the aftermath of Russia’s 2014 invasion) and deepened relations with Japan and Australia.

Cameron’s principal concern should be to establish a new narrative to help Ukraine secure victory over Russia. The extent of this challenge has not yet been fully grasped. There is a real risk that the war will freeze into a frozen conflict which would only benefit Russia. If Ukraine is to prevail, a sustained effort is needed to coordinate European allies to furnish the Ukrainians with ammunition and weapons sufficient for an effective counteroffensive next year. Minilateral groupings, such as the Joint Expeditionary Force and the British-Polish-Ukraine trilateral initiative may be helpful here.

His second concern should be to push forward with establishing the Indo-Pacific as a pillar of British foreign policy. AUKUS needs further work, and relations with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam should be strengthened. Active measures should be taken to prevent the regional balance of power from moving further in the PRC’s favour.

Beyond that, Cameron should encourage the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to focus more on identifying ways the UK can establish strategic advantage. This will make it easier to pursue and secure British interests.

Emma Salisbury, Council on Geostrategy

In a world with multiple ongoing and potential flashpoints in different regions, the most important job that Cameron will have is to work ever more closely with the UK’s allies and partners around the globe. Collaboration will be essential for dealing with the threats we currently face.

His focus should be centred in particular around the maritime space. Maintaining our close relationships with NATO allies, especially the coastal naval powers on the European continent, will be integral to defending the Arctic, Baltic, and northern Atlantic waters from Russian aggression. Strengthening our ties with friends in the Indo-Pacific will be vital to deterring the PRC in its hostility in the South China Sea and beyond. And, as always, keeping up our ‘special relationship’ with the United States (US) will be of the utmost importance for tackling shared threats around the world, keeping trade flowing, and protecting global communications. 

Given the current significance of increased military capabilities among the UK’s allies and partners, Cameron should work closely with his defence and trade colleagues to promote technology sharing, reduce red tape, and facilitate joint projects. AUKUS, in particular, should not be far from his mind.

Patrick Triglavcanin, Council on Geostrategy

The Integrated Review ‘Refresh’ rightly identified the folly of dividing the world down rigid ideological lines in response to the still-evolving nature of systemic competition underpinning today’s geopolitical climate. Indeed, such a reductionist approach does not help to advance British interests insofar as it is largely at odds with the worldview of many states which the UK desires closer engagement with for a host of economic, strategic and normative reasons.

Deepening engagement with these ‘middle-ground powers’ should be high on Cameron’s agenda. Importantly, they should be high on his list of destinations; personal engagement is a prime lubricant. This is particularly true in the Indo-Pacific, a region where hedging is arguably the dominant strategy amongst states seeking to gain economically from the PRC but also for greater strategic association with the UK and US as a countermeasure against hostile Chinese behaviour, particularly in the maritime domain. As competition has increased, so has the bargaining power of those pursuing this strategy, appreciating the value of the currency of diplomacy.

Important to this is also recognising the distinct desires of these states. Cameron will need to have his ear to the ground. Luckily for him, Britain has achieved deeper engagement with many of these powers since the ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific was announced some two and a half years ago. In fact, HM Government now recognises that the UK has a ‘footing’ in the Indo-Pacific, and Cameron should be sure to not overlook those in the middle when consolidating it.

Richard G. Whitman, University of Kent

Cameron has already tackled the most important European agenda item for the UK’s new foreign secretary. In his visit to Kyiv, he has reaffirmed publicly that his appointment does not in any way diminish the strength of the UK commitment to Ukraine. 

Britain’s European foreign policy priority for the foreseeable future will remain focused upon addressing Vladimir Putin’s upending of the European security order and ensuring that its war on the people and territory of Ukraine concludes with defeat for Russia. A priority for Cameron should be to ensure that the European element of the coalition which has provided diplomatic, military and financial support for Ukraine continues to be unified in its support for Kyiv. The unwelcome news that the EU will fail to reach its target in providing Ukraine with a million artillery shells is a reminder that European pledges of support need to remain credible through being deliverable, rather than just the product of institutional grandstanding. 

The UK will host the next European Political Community meeting next year. Cameron will be leading the preparations for the 47 nation summit. Its importance lies in it being a gathering of all Europe’s leaders except Russia and Belarus. Setting an agenda and hosting a gathering which puts emphasis on meaningful collective European interests and tangible outcomes, from which Russia has excluded itself, needs to be to the fore. 

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