A lot of things have changed for Britain over the last few years. First there was Brexit, where the UK detached from the European Union and struck out on our own path. And until recently the focus of our security strategy was on the so-called ‘special relationship’ with the US. But then rug was pulled from under us in Afghanistan, as President Biden’s determination to withdraw from Afghanistan by 31st August – and damn the consequences – left UK forces scrambling to get our people out in time.
The decision by Biden marked a step change in America’s approach to global security, with the new position defined by a narrower view of that country’s interests, a willingness to throw allies under the bus, and the perception of a weakened former superpower.
This has left leaders across the West reconsidering their approach to foreign affairs and security. In a mix of contingency planning for if America leaves us in the lurch again and recognition that in the future the world will be secured by networks of allies rather than a global hegemon, Boris Johnson and his new ministerial team have set about strengthening relationships with key countries.
Enter Liz Truss, newly appointed Foreign Secretary, famed for her jet-setting, deal-making success in her previous role as Secretary of State for International Trade.
In the first two weeks in post as Foreign Secretary, Truss met with a startling number of her counterparts, including from Russia, Mexico, Kenya, Germany, and many more. Among the read-outs, press conferences, and tweets reporting on meetings a theme has developed, pointing to two key global security hot spots as areas of concern to the UK.
At an early stage, talks were held with Marise Payne, Australia’s Foreign Minister, with Indo-Pacific security cooperation firmly on the agenda. Here, the recent announcement of the AUKUS security deal was top of everyone’s minds. And while headlines around the deal focused on the forthcoming nuclear-powered submarines (and France’s President Macron’s chagrin at being left out), perhaps more importantly the deal also takes in cooperation on cyber, artificial intelligence, and quantum technology – a move that mirrors China’s investment in non-traditional warfare capabilities.
This was soon followed by further meetings with other key allies in that region, including representatives from Indonesia, India and Japan. The meeting with the latter suggested further recognition of the importance of that country as a regional challenger to China’s dominance. These latest talks with Japan follow steps taken earlier this year towards a closer, deeper, security partnership between the two, which is expected to involve collaboration between the Royal Navy, RAF and Japanese forces.
The second region that is clearly a priority for the new Foreign Secretary is, unsurprisingly, the Middle East. Truss’s diary was dominated by friends – and even a foe – from that troubled part of the world.
Truss pushed Iran to engage with talks on nuclear weapons and to release dual national prisoners including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and discussions with Egypt built upon earlier conversations about bilateral military relations. Meanwhile, talks with Jordan and the UAE focused on a mix of regional stability and the prospect of future trade deals.
The focus on Afghanistan, the security threat on everyone’s minds, sharpened with meetings with representatives from Turkey, a country which proved to be invaluable during the evacuation of Afghanistan, while Boris Johnson met with the Emir of Qatar, another ally that is increasingly being recognised as a critical partner to the UK as tensions rise once again in the Middle East. Qatar also played a pivotal role in the evacuation, and was responsible for getting Kabul airport back up and running after Western troops withdrew.
Through these meetings, and the defence deals that sit behind them, we can see the development of Global Britain’s new approach to security. At the heart of the strategy is the sharing of our top-class military tech, helping to make key allies not just stronger, but smarter too. Bulwark states in geographically critical positions are being backed above all others, with joint missions and visits from technical and strategic military experts used to enhance their capabilities.
With these allies, Britain is building its ability to respond to security developments as necessary. Rather than the traditional approach of having a large standing force, Global Britain is working with partners to develop a more flexible military capacity which can be stood up or down.
But it’s not just about security. Freed from the restrictions of the EU, the UK is placing security cooperation within a broader basket of issues, including aligning foreign aid with diplomatic goals, and, much more importantly, including trade talks alongside discussions about military collaboration.
Looking through the list of Britain’s key allies, it is striking just how many of them were formerly part of the British Empire or whose leadership were educated in the UK. This shared history can bring countries together, but at times it has also created difficulties. That’s where trade deals become extremely important, as they put relationships between the UK and others on a more equal footing.
Much has changed for the UK and the rest of the world over the last few years, with changing relationships between countries and the emergence and re-emergence of security threats. Against this backdrop of uncertainty, Liz Truss – driven by necessity following President Biden’s decisions – is flexing the room for manoeuvre granted to the UK by Brexit to develop Global Britain’s new security strategy and tackle the threats posed by China, Iran, and instability in the Middle East.