The next prime minister has a big decision to make: what is Britain’s role in the world?
What a difference a decade makes.
When David Cameron first entered Downing Street in 2010, Russia seemed like a mere nuisance on the fringes of Europe, the Arab Spring had yet to shake the Middle East and the revival of relations with China was seen as the future. The UK was still a member of the European Union and populism was, for the most part, a flicker on the horizon. The most pressing issue was the war on terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The first Strategic Defense Review of the new Conservative government, published the same year Cameron became Prime Minister, reflected this sense of security – it even recommended that the UK reduce its military strength as the risk of conflict between states seemed weak.
Fast forward 12 years and the next Prime Minister will face a world that has turned its head, from Ukraine to the Western Balkans, to the myriad proxy wars in the Middle East, the resurgence of the Taliban and expansionism China, the Western liberal order has rarely felt in such peril
Above all, Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss must figure out where Britain fits in the world – and how to make ‘Global Britain’ more than just a slogan.
Make no mistake, they will work in a world where trust in the Western world and the strength of the liberal international order have been shattered. The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, in particular, has seriously damaged the idea of a strong, values-driven Western world ready to defend its interests abroad.
This collapse of trust and the collapse of the post-Cold War worldview has in turn emboldened our enemies. Indeed, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was inspired by the belief that the West would not be willing to sacrifice anything to defend it.
Putin may have miscalculated, but there is no doubt that the Western will to defeat him could be stronger than it is now. Sharp increases in energy and food prices dampened the already soft response from powers such as France and Germany.
Britain can at least be proud of its tough stance against Russian aggression. The next Prime Minister must go even further: the objective must be not only to push Russia back behind its pre-war borders, but to secure a decisive victory over the Kremlin autocracy. It would be the boost of confidence that the Western alliance so badly needs and confirm once again that the UK is a major player in Europe, inside or outside the EU.
This awareness must underpin the strategy of the next leader on the continent. Support for the development of the Three Seas Initiative, for example, offers the UK a golden opportunity to invest in Europe and build real and lasting stability. It also represents a welcome pivot from ‘old Europe’ to ‘new Europe’ – in many ways this would be the truly Thatcherian approach to European relations.
The UK also has an important role to play in the Western Balkans, including drawing clear lines against the growing threat of Serbian revanchism – a threat hailed by Russia.
Clarifying our role in the Middle East is another priority for Boris Johnson’s successor. Fortunately, rOnline engagement with countries such as Jordan, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain has been facilitated through the signing of the Abraham Accords. For the first time, Britain’s allies in the region are all on the same page – especially as they share a common enemy in Iran.
Also keep in mind that since 2014 the UK has again had a naval base in Bahrain, HMS Juffair. The reopening of the Manama base marked the first time since the 1970s that Britain had an ‘east of Suez’ presence, from which the UK can offer naval support to our allies then that they repel Iran – which is fighting with proxies in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
As well as strategic support, the UK can provide world-class training to our allies’ armies, helping to modernize and standardize their practices. Why not create a ‘Sandhurst-on-Gulf’ preparing our allies for the future and equipping them to combat Iranian hybrid pressure?
Above all these global threats is the ever-growing threat of Chinese authoritarianism. With every trade deal and cheap loan, Beijing exports its anti-democratic worldview, supporting strongmen and breathing new life into evil regimes around the world. Through the Belt and Road system, China is poised to reshape the world in its own image, or at least dominate the developing world.
We cannot hope to match the scale of this investment, but we can push back in smart ways, including using our existing Commonwealth connections to push for new investment in the developing world, providing an alternative to China’s grim autocracy.
In all of these efforts, the overriding objective, not only for the UK but also for our partners, is to restore confidence in the West and its institutions. This is especially important when China, Russia and Iran do not work together to undermine liberalism, democracy and human rights. Alongside strongmen from Syria, Venezuela and Belarus, they are doing all they can to reshape the world that emerged from the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Of course, the UK cannot act alone, but it has a key role as a convener, bringing together a coalition of the will to cooperate on security, economic challenges and, if necessary, military action to defend our values.
Whether it’s Sunak or Truss, the next Conservative leader must be prepared to stand firm at the helm of a nation that continues to wield power and influence in the world – and must be committed to doing so. maintain our country.
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The columns are the author’s own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.