UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivered a speech yesterday to the Lord Mayer’s Banquet outlining his foreign policy, in which he claimed he will have an ‘evolutionary’ approach to Russia and China. The speech was couched in the usual ideological hyperbole of ‘freedom’ and ‘openness’, which western leaders continually use to portray themselves as having the moral high ground in international politics.
He started by saying the UK is ‘a country that stands up for [its] values, that defends democracy by actions not just words’. He then correctly made the point that the ‘pace of geopolitical change is intensifying’ and that nations like Russia and China plan for the long term. He claims that the West must adapt and similarly adopt long term policies in order to respond to these changes. This is certainly true and we have made the point for a long time that western policies have been limited by short-term thinking. However, it is not exactly clear what kind of long-term thinking Sunak is alluding to. Judging by the remainder of his speech, there is nothing ‘evolutionary’ about his approach at all but rather it is a further intensification of the same hawkish rhetoric that has characterised the West’s attitude towards Russia and China for years.
Sunak proclaimed that Britain will need to be ‘stronger’ in ‘defending’ its values and ‘the openness on which our prosperity depends’. He aims to do this by strengthening the economy while at the same time standing up to ‘competitors’ with ‘robust pragmatism’. This is a very contradictory statement. Sunak seems to forget that Britain and other western nations are economically reliant on precisely those ‘competitors’. Economic growth in the west has been largely fueled by trade with China in recent decades and many European nations, most notably Germany, have been heavily dependent on cheap Russian energy. Damaging those trade relations will prove catastrophic for western nations, as we are already seeing with the current energy crisis. Western leaders seem to believe that they can continue to antagonise Russia and China while at the same time managing their trade relations in such a way that it does not severely damage western economies because they think China and Russia are as reliant on them as the West is on Russia and China. This is exactly the kind of logic that is deployed by western leaders in their justification of anti-Russian sanctions, namely their belief that Russia relies on energy exports to the West to maintain its war effort. They forget that Russia has been living under sanctions for years and has become very adept at circumventing and anticipating them. They also forget that China has been watching closely in the knowledge that one day, they too may become the subject of such sanctions. Furthermore, China has been actively rotating its economy towards domestic consumption and high-tech innovation.
Further in his speech, Sunak invokes classic balance of power politics in his promise to ‘dramatically [increase] the quality and depth of our partnerships with like-minded allies around the world’. Again, there is nothing new in this. The West has been deploying this tactic for decades and Britain itself is certainly no stranger to it. The most notable and relevant example is of course NATO, an organisation built on the premise of bolstering military alliances between the US and Europe as a counterweight to Russia. In fact, it is precisely these kinds of tactics that have led to the Ukraine war. Sunak goes on to provide examples of some of the ‘like-minded’ allies he is proposing to work with: Commonwealth nations, the US, the Gulf states and Israel. It is clear that no new alliances or partnerships are being built here. While Russia and China continue to build and expand their relations with nations around the world, Britain seems incapable of doing the same. Instead, it continues to rely on old partnerships which were forged many decades ago. Not to mention the fact that some of those nations, such as Saudi Arabia, are now increasingly rotating east.
In the final part of his speech, Sunak makes a bold statement regarding the UK’s relations with China:
“We also need to evolve our approach to China. Let’s be clear, the so-called “golden era” is over along with the naïve idea that trade would automatically lead to social and political reform.”
“We recognise China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests… …a challenge that grows more acute as it moves towards even greater authoritarianism. And it’s why we’re ending global dependence on authoritarian regimes – starting with Russian gas.”
The problem with this statement is that it diametrically opposes liberal democracy to so-called authoritarianism in terms of international relations, making the assumption that any regime that is not democratic will by definition seek to impose its own undemocratic or illiberal values on others. Not only is this an unrealistic assumption with regards to Russia and China, it is precisely this argument in reverse that is used by China, Russia and others in the Global South to justify their assertion of their own values within international politics. Those nations have for a long time criticised the West’s intolerance of any alternative political views and its tendencies to impose regime change either directly or through the backdoor. If the West continues to push its ideological agenda, it will not only hurt itself but it will also cause increasing insecurity and instability around the world. Western leaders will need to recognise that liberal democracy is not universally applicable and it is not a precondition for global peace. New powers will arise which have their own distinct cultures, values and interests that are different from those of the West. Despite those differences, nations can work together where there are common interests without seeking to impose their views on others.
It is time for Sunak and other western leaders to acknowledge and accept that the rise of multipolarity is a fact. In a truly multipolar world, there must be room for ideological and cultural differences. Of course this must be underpinned by a set of shared values on which international law and trade are based but these must not be used to justify quasi colonial actions and attitudes. Surely nothing is more liberal than to safeguard differences of opinion and the rights of others to express themselves as freely as possible? True liberalism should therefore embrace multipolarity in all its facets. The West needs to stop seeing liberal democracy as a one-size-fits-all solution to the world’s problems. And it must stop seeing it as the only legitimate way of governing a country. Of course there is an argument that in a globalised world, nations have some responsibility to protect citizens of other nations against extreme forms of oppression. But there are ways to do that without forcibly imposing liberal democratic reforms. Too often the West has used the pretence of brutal dictatorship to justify the toppling of regimes around the world. It has been using the same old playbook for decades in its pursuit of economic and political influence in international affairs. Until recently, it did not face any significant challenges. But with the rise of the multipolar world and the decline of its own economies since 2008, it is finding it increasingly harder to maintain its standing in the world. As the famous saying goes, ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result’. This is exactly the kind of insanity that has gripped the West and Sunak’s policies are no different. While proclaiming his foreign policy to be ‘evolutionary’, it is no doubt just more of the same.
To be truly ‘evolutionary’, Britain and other western nations would have to accept the uncomfortable reality that the unipolar moment is over and that instead of seeking to ‘protect’ our values by angering, antagonising and demonising those who think differently, we need to engage with them constructively to build lasting relations that are capable of transcending ideological differences. Sunak is right in saying that we need to move beyond the idea that trade with China will lead to democratic reform. However, the solution is not to damage trade relations on which the west depends but to accept that we can have lasting and peaceful relations with non-democratic nations such as China. The only way to do this is to build mutual trust through diplomatic solutions, not through ideological rhetoric and balance of power politics.