The task of Whitehall’s National Security Council is to map the threats facing Britain. It has plenty of material to work with: Islamist terrorism, Russian revanchism, the Middle East in flames, rising nationalism, nuclear proliferation and Chinese cyber attacks among them. The other day, though, the council’s senior min-isters and policymakers took a different tack. What if the biggest danger turned out to be hiding in plain sight?
The question posed — and, as I understand it, not fully answered — at this particular meeting was whether the strategic challenge lay not so much in the intentions of known adversaries, but in those of Britain’s most vital ally. For 70 years the cherished special relationship with Washington has been a pillar of British foreign policy. But for how much longer will the US be a dependable ally?
Reading the latest headlines you can see why Theresa May’s government might have doubts. The prime minister is fighting for her political life to win parliamentary support for the Brexit deal she has struck with the EU27. US president Donald Trump’s response to her predicament was the casually wounding judgment that Brussels seemed to have called all the shots and may well have thwarted a bilateral trade accord between Britain and the US. With friends like that . . .
British angst runs deeper than the US president’s habit of insulting old allies. This is not the moment to lose Washington’s protection. Brexit will demolish a second foreign policy pillar — the influence and leverage that flows from membership of the world’s richest club of democracies. When Vladimir Putin’s regime next sends assassins to the UK in search of Russian dissidents, Mrs May will struggle to appeal to European solidarity. Britain will not be in the room when the EU next ponders whether to ease or tighten sanctions on Moscow.
For the past several decades, Britain has been one of Europe’s ordering powers. Post Brexit, organising and decision-making will be left to Paris, Berlin, Brussels and others. The painful irony is that on just about every geopolitical issue, the British view is closer to that of its neighbours than to the White House. Whether it is Iran, the Paris climate accord, the multilateral trading system or the status of Jerusalem, Britain, like the EU27, is fundamentally at odds with Mr Trump.
There is a dangerous pattern here. As a second-rank power with global interests, Britain depends on a robust international order. Mr Trump prefers power to rules.
The role of values in geopolitics can be overdone, but a shared commitment to democracy, the rule of law and individual freedoms has served as the essential glue of Atlanticism. None of them means much to a US president more at home in the company of autocrats.
Britain, of course, is not alone in its disenchantment. Germany’s Angela Merkel states publicly that Europe should take more responsibility for its own security. French president Emmanuel Macron wants a serious European defence capability. Neither leader expects a short-term transformation. And they might be disappointed even in their limited ambitions. But they are surely right to assume the best days of Atlanticism are in the past.
The architecture of the alliance — whether it be Nato, or bilateral military and intelligence arrangements between European nations and the US — remains largely in place. And there are still those who talk in terms of “waiting out” the Trump presidency before restoring the ancien regime. But the prevailing view on Mrs May’s NSC seems to match that of shrewd observers in Washington. There has been a structural shift as well as a change of president. Mr Trump takes everything to dangerous excess, but his America First worldview has wide appeal.
The US’s retreat is China’s opportunity. Or at least it could be. At the heart of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s plan to make China great again is the Belt and Road Initiative. And threaded through that programme is a plan to shrink the distance between Asia and Europe. It is often said that China wants to be the pre-eminent Pacific power. In truth, the serious strategic goal is to be the pre-eminent power in Eurasia.