Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.
Does “The West” mean anything any longer? Over the past week, we have watched the 20 year old US-led invasion of Afghanistan come to an inglorious end, with the final exit of US military forces in a way that was visually reminiscent of the American exit from Vietnam in 1975.
This has not just been an American story. Four hundred and fifty-seven British troops lost their lives there, as did over 600 soldiers from other allied countries. As a result of this shared investment in trying to save Afghanistan from the Taliban, the departure from Afghanistan has been met with much hand wringing and emotion in the UK and much of Europe, with much criticism of Joe Biden for both the fact and manner of withdrawal.
At the time of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, we knew what “The West” was. Broadly speaking, it was a collection of like-minded, democratic countries – a long term partnership between the US and Western Europe which had eventually won the Cold War.
NATO was its core infrastructure, largely funded and buttressed by the America, supplemented by the European Union and different bilateral partnerships. The US acted as a superpower and often acted selfishly in its own interests (lest we fool ourselves otherwise), but it retained a sense that the unity, purpose, and values of the West meant something, and that it was America’s responsibility to lead it. Isolationism was still a dirty word.
Henry Kissinger wrote: “torn between nostalgia for a pristine past and yearning for a perfect future, American thought has oscillated between isolationism and commitment”. Isolationism has always been a recurring force in US foreign policy. In his famous Farewell Address, George Washington warned against what he called “entanglements” and against permanent foreign alliances, and regarded Europe as having “a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relationship. Our detached and distant situation invited and enables us to pursue a different course”.
America was extremely reluctant to enter both world wars, and were late in doing so. After 1945, the Cold War saw a renewed American commitment to engagement on a global scale, but after the fall of the USSR and the resultant ideological “End of History” of the early 1990s, the oscillation that Kissinger talked about remained through the controversies of Bosnia, Afghanistan and then Iraq.
Anyone watching President Biden’s speech last week would have noticed that the Trump “America First” stance is alive and well. If this stance is the new normal for the US, at least for the foreseeable future, what does this mean for Britain? It appears to me that there are three potential strategic futures for the UK.
One option is for us to shrug our shoulders and accept the current situation as the new reality. The West’s period of dominance cannot last for ever. China is on the rise, the US is in decline, and therefore we – as part of the old “West” – will decline along with it. We should focus on our domestic problems, and be highly pragmatic with our international relationships to keep us out of entanglements as much as possible, ignoring much of the value-driven approach that we have championed over the past generation.
The second option is for us to try and reinvigorate our existing alliances and institutions, and somehow find new strength, unity and purpose to tackle the pressing challenges we face. Unless faced with a changed approach from Washington, this will mean a significant investment in military and diplomatic power from European powers.
To achieve this would require much better relations with them, and improving our defence and foreign policy cooperation. Do they really want to partner with us fully with Brexit, still an open wound for them? Is Europe really willing to improve its NATO contributions, and explain to its electorates that there is the need for less butter and a more guns?
The third option is perhaps the most radical: a fusion between these two. We need to breathe fresh life into the phrase “Global Britain” and rethink our foreign policy not in the world we would like, but in the world we actually live in. America is no longer likely to act as the “leader of the free world”, in the short to medium term. The Chinese are increasingly willing to flex their muscles in foreign affairs (only hours after the Taliban overran Kabul, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said Beijing was ready for “friendly cooperation with Afghanistan”), and India is not far behind.
Yet in the UK our values matter to us, and our partnerships with the US and Europe are not just historical: they are based on fundamentals of our culture and shared understandings in the modern day.
I believe that the UK can help play a truly global role by seeking a more independent route in foreign affairs, by leveraging our strong relationships all over the world and our soft power. We should act as a global convenor – a trusted and safe network hub in which all the major powers wish to operate, and bring our positive influence to bear in this way.
This could be in areas as diverse as international finance (e.g. rules on international tax), diplomacy (e.g. reforming the UN and WTO), humanitarian assistance (i.e: ensuring more vaccines are sent to the developing world and tackling climate change). Not to act as a bridge between the US and EU, but to continually act as several bridges between many more powers – the US, EU, China and the Commonwealth.
Thereby, we could play a central role in reshaping the global institutional framework of tomorrow – one in which China, India, and many in the developing world feel that their status is more fairly represented. A retreat from a unipolar world into a multipolar world does not necessarily mean chaos if we have the institutions to manage that new reality.
Whatever one’s view of the right path forward, it is my strong belief that in Britain we need to shift gears. We need to accept that American power is waning, and they are no longer interested in using its blood and treasure in faraway countries of which they know little. We can either just accept this reality and continue pretending that the West’s dysfunctional institutions and military weakness doesn’t matter, or we can reinvigorate our alliances, reshape the international system, and work much more closely with the new ascending powers to try and adapt to the new multipolar reality.