MENA relations should be a priority for the next British PM
“Very brave, Minister” says Sir Humphrey, the senior civil servant in the classic 1980s sitcom, Yes Minister. “Brave?” cries the minister in horror.
Sir Humphrey might give the same compliment to Conservative Leadership candidates. Standing to be Prime Minister of Great Britain today is indeed brave. Domestic challenges are a staple for the leader of a nation but making Brexit work at the same time as rebuilding a post-Covid society and economy would be exceptional challenges even in a tranquil season of global politics.
But we are not in a tranquil season of global politics. The pressures of shifting geopolitical tectonic plates have been intensifying. Senior analysts and policy makers struggle to recall a period of such global instability in their lifetimes and fear the triggering of a geopolitical earthquake of global conflict.
''One issue for the West appears to have been a lack of self-awareness – a blind-spot to the impact of our foreign policy decisions on how the rest of the world sees us, and how this encourages states hostile to us.''
Like most periods of crisis, this has not happened overnight. If our next Prime Minister is to embody ‘Global Britain’, he or she must have a fundamental grasp of how this situation has developed, and what Britain and the West must do to mitigate it. Global Britain must mean not only Britain sallying out into the world but having a deep understanding of the world.
There are changes that can be made to our apparatus of state: ensuring the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) is outward looking and prioritises continuity; specialised expertise and experience of its civil servants is vital. The managerially driven, dizzying merry-go-round of different appointments for desk-officers and diplomats should slow.
And since the focus of The Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) is on the MENA region, I would naturally suggest that having a Minister – with existing expertise and knowledge of the region – exclusively for the MENA, might also be a good start.
The new Prime Minister could put more resources to the Ministry of Defence, our armed forces, and our diplomatic service. It is perennially simple-to-say but difficult-to-do, but it would send an important signal to the world, and better prepare us for its challenges.
But if the next Prime Minister is to really meet the challenges and aspiration of ‘Global Britain’ in a dangerous world, a more fundamental re-think is needed.
The invasion should not have been a shock. Putin had been amassing military capability on the border of Ukraine for months, having conducted his first invasion of Ukraine with relative impunity in 2014. Had he accurately diagnosed the weaknesses in the West, with its reluctance to ‘get involved’ in things, tendency for optimistic idealism, and to put off difficult decisions?
Perhaps. The fact remains that an unsurprising event of enormous global significance was, for the UK and the West as a whole, a shock. And if we want to compete better for our own values and security in this dangerous global arena, we need to have an honest look as to why we were surprised, and what we need to do about it.
One issue for the West appears to have been a lack of self-awareness – a blind-spot to the impact of our foreign policy decisions on how the rest of the world sees us, and how this encourages states hostile to us.
Maybe this is a down-side of the inevitable lack of continuity in an elected democracy. But lack of continuity is not inevitable in Government departments such as the FCDO, and in an elected government’s maintenance of Ministers in post.
Continuity matters because it creates trusted relationships which can move beyond diplomatic niceties, to the mining of the more difficult truths – the foundation for realistic foreign policy.
It is because continuity matters that the CMEC places such importance on developing relationships that last decades not days, for Conservative parliamentarians, former and future Ministers, and their regional counterparts, beyond the strobe-lights of elected politics.
One key, uncomfortable theme emerges from my honest conversations, as part of CMEC, with senior officials and diplomats over the years. That is how many in the MENA Region see the West as an ally today. The invasion of Iraq in 2003, the backing down from implementing President Obama’s ‘red-line’ on use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2013, and our abandonment of Afghanistan in 2021 have all damaged the West’s reputation for sound judgment, strength, and reliability.
Meanwhile, the perception runs, the West is quick to issue statements and exhortations on values, with the odd expectation that such diplomacy-by-abstract-noun might dissuade a country from acting in its own (perceived) self-interest.
In other words, that the West has been loud where it should have been quiet, and soft where it should have been firm.
Our first reaction may be to argue that this perception is unfair and unfounded. Maybe we are right. But perception drives reality. What should interest us – not offend us - is why that perception is held, and what to do about it.
If we had faced this uncomfortable truth earlier, we would not have been so surprised at Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Nor would we have been surprised at a related development – and may even have been able to mitigate it: the abstentions of MENA states that the West counts as strategic allies, on some UN resolutions on Russia.
As Russia’s illegal war on Ukraine rolls on, it is within the world’s interest that global alliances do not become binary and that we maintain the security of multilateralism. If we are to do that, the West must not only urgently up its game in competing to be an ally of choice, but it must change it: more silence, and more strength. Perhaps our new Prime Minister can be the start.
Charlotte Leslie is the Director of the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC). She is a former Conservative Member of Parliament for Bristol North West in the British House of Commons.
Follow her on Twitter: @Cmec_uk @CharlotteLeslie
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