Arthur Snell reflects on the extensive shifts in the international order that have taken place over the last two years, suggesting that the UK should recognise its own contribution to the current state of disorder and that the recent Integrated Review Refresh represents a good starting point.
With the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the rules-based international order, that product of post-World War II optimism, came to an end. It had been under severe strain for some time, with major countries increasingly, in the words of Donald Trump, acting as “strong, sovereign nations”, indifferent to international law.
Russia’s indifference to international law, whether in its (two) invasions of Ukraine, its 2008 invasion of Georgia, its use of chemical weapons on foreign soil or its interference in foreign politics, is well-known. China’s territorial aggressions in the South China Sea and its repudiation of Hong Kong’s democracy are further examples of powerful countries indifferent to multilateral treaties and agreements.
Optimists might argue that the 2022 invasion of Ukraine has had the reverse impact: reviving internationalism with concerted action against Russia in the EU, in NATO and even at the United Nations. But this would be to succumb to delusions about the degree to which there is an international consensus against the war. Despite the fact that Moscow’s actions amount to attempted regime change by a former colonial power, it retains support from South Africa, and India and China continue to buy its oil (at knockdown prices).
The Ukraine war has to be seen in a wider context. It forced countries, particularly those in Europe to re-examine their assumptions about the world. Germany, for example, is going through its Zeitenwende (a historical turning point) as decades of underinvestment in its military and reliance on Russian energy are proven to have been unwise. Whilst more consistently hawkish on Russia, the post-Brexit vision of Global Britain, in which the UK largely ignored the need for trade and security co-ordination with the European Union, has also been shown to be unfit for purpose.
The stark change to the geopolitical landscape led the UK to update its 2021 Integrated Review, ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’. The Integrated Review Refresh was released on 13 March to take account of ‘a more contested and volatile world’ since February 2022. It notes that:
‘A growing convergence of authoritarian states are challenging the basic conditions for an open, stable and peaceful international order, working together to undermine the international system or remake it in their image.’
The refreshed review is markedly different from the 2021 original on the subject of the UK and Europe – recognising the necessity of ‘reinvigorating the UK’s most important historical bilateral ties across Europe’. It’s easy to see elements of this emerging strategy, in the form of the Windsor Framework and recent UK-France summit.
The Integrated Review Refresh spells out a range of ad hoc settings for further co-operation with Europe, including the Transatlantic Quad and Quint (the UK, US, France, Germany, joined in the latter grouping by Italy), as well as groupings to address migration and energy. Notable by its continued absence, however, is any formal framework for regular dialogue with the European Union itself.
So, what caused the breakdown of the ‘open, stable and peaceful international order’ the Refresh mentions, and what part did Britain play? The UK may be a declining country, struggling to come to terms with its reduced role in the world. But it remains a top six global economy, a nuclear-armed state, a UN Security Council veto-holder, and a soft-power leader.
In particular, the UK has influence, networks and enormous cultural capital. And it has used this at significant moments in the past quarter century in contexts where major events of global significance would have unfolded very differently without it.
As I outline in my 2022 book, How Britain Broke the World, it was an over-reliance on British intelligence that allowed George W Bush to make the case for war with Iraq, as his own intelligence agencies struggled to come up with a compelling case that Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction were an immediate threat. It seems probable that the US would have invaded with or without British involvement. But their over-ambitious project to reshape Iraqi society was made easier by the presence of 46,000 British troops.
Subsequent events showed the intelligence to be incorrect, likely a product of low validation standards in operation in British intelligence at the time, as both the Butler and Chilcot inquiries identified.
The UK was similarly instrumental in the intervention in Libya, a driving force alongside France, pushing against a reluctant US. With Syria, it was Parliament’s vote not to support intervention that led to the US and France abandoning their own plans. In all of these cases, Britain’s power, although limited, was still substantive.
Brexit, too, was a source of instability in the international order, removing one of Europe’s most capable military and security actors from the EU bloc.
Whilst the eventual challenges of Brexit made it an unlikely model for others to follow, the UK’s departure from the EU led it on several occasions to challenge the international order, such as through the UK Internal Market and Northern Ireland Protocol bills, which threatened to breach international law. The recently introduced Illegal Migration Bill is also like to be in breach of the UK’s international commitments.
The security impacts of the Libya, Syria and Iraq episodes are well-known. An arc of instability now runs from the Atlantic coast of Morocco to the shores of the Caspian Sea, in part a result of these conflicts. The wider multilateral impacts are also easy to find. Let us not forget that Vladimir Putin has often referred back to Libya and Iraq to justify his own actions in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Putin is cynical and dishonest, responsible for war crimes and murders at home. But his criticism of the Iraq war and the Libya intervention is not without merit. We should also recall that in 2011 Russia agreed to foreign intervention in Libya, proving that the UN Security Council was still capable of reaching agreement on such issues.
The idea that the world is broken, and that Britain has played a part in the breaking, does not excuse other countries. Many have done more, and for worse reasons. But the UK’s foreign misadventures need examining and understanding if we are to avoid repeating these errors. The gloomy realism of the Integrated Review Refresh is a good starting point.
By Arthur Snell, former diplomat and author of How Britain Broke the World.