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Joe Biden’s rebuff to Boris Johnson over Afghanistan proves that the “global Britain” strategy the prime minister set out only five months ago is already obsolete. The foundation stone of the integrated review of security and foreign policy was the US remaining “the UK’s most important strategic ally and partner.” Johnson told MPs: “Our influence will be amplified by stronger alliances and wider partnerships – none more valuable to British citizens than our relationship with the US.”
With Biden sticking to his 31 August deadline for pulling out of Afghanistan at Tuesday’s meeting of G7 leaders, the once special relationship proved not “valuable” enough for the Afghans the UK wants to evacuate from their country. I thought the most revealing comment came from Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, who said the administration believes “we have time between now and the 31st to get out any Americans who want to get out”. I’m all right Jack, in other words. Hardly the “America is back” that other G7 leaders including Johnson celebrated at their Cornwall summit in June.
How times have changed. Back then Afghanistan merited only a vague reference in point 57 of their 70-point communique. Biden assured NATO leaders the following day the US would maintain enough of a military presence for them to keep their Kabul embassies open. No wonder they feel betrayed.
Unusually, UK ministers repeatedly advertised their demand for an extension to the US deadline in a very public way before Tuesday’s G7 meeting, rather than using the normal private diplomatic channels. This only underlined the UK’s impotence once the request was rejected. So does the race against time for UK troops at Kabul’s airport, with the clock firmly in the grip of their US counterparts. Some Tory MPs wonder whether it was worth Johnson calling the emergency G7 session. If he thinks it was some sort of insurance policy allowing him to blame Biden if there are reprisals against those the UK could not rescue, the prime minister will probably be disappointed; he is unlikely to evade responsibility. Even the flimsy gain Johnson talked up after the G7 meeting – a roadmap on engaging with the Taliban – is in doubt, with EU officials saying no such plan was agreed.
Johnson is in denial: he argues there is no need for an inquiry into Britain’s 20-year operation in Afghanistan because the security and foreign policy review took account of it, but his “new” strategy has already been overtaken by events. In a topsy-turvy world, the UK is now wooing China and Russia, the two biggest threats to it identified by the review, to try to persuade them to exert a moderating influence on the Taliban. The same Russia branded “the most acute direct threat” to the UK in its home region. And China is described as a “systemic competitor” whose military modernisation “will pose an increasing risk to UK interests”.
The lesson from America’s unilateral action is that the UK should rebuild bridges with its EU allies, making defence interoperability with France and Germany rather than the US a much greater priority instead of spending billions on the same military hardware. Then the Europeans could potentially head NATO missions without America, although NATO members would have to do what the US has long demanded by boosting their defence budgets.
It would make sense for the Europeans, the UK included, to focus on containing Russia, and would make no sense for the UK to overreach in Johnson’s proposed “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific; waging economic war with China is Biden’s top priority so the UK should let him get on with it. The UK review was predictably wary of institutional links with the EU, trumpeting a post-Brexit future in which the UK is a major soft and hard power on the back of its strong relationship with the US. That now looks like a mirage.
Will Johnson draw the right lesson from the Afghanistan debacle? It’s very unlikely. He wants to play the Brexit card at the next general election to wrong-foot Labour in general and Keir Starmer in particular. Rows with the EU are therefore enshrined in the Tory script, as we have seen over the Northern Ireland protocol, an agreement signed and then disowned by the UK seven months after it took effect. In turn, that means EU leaders don’t trust Johnson any more than they trusted the unpredictable Donald Trump. Emmanuel Macron even declined Johnson a bilateral meeting recently, a worrying sign.
Johnson was judged the right leader by his party to complete the Brexit process. His central role in that and his unwillingness to move on from it means this one-club golfer is the wrong leader for a new era in which the UK will need to rebuild alliances closer to home because it can no longer rely on the US.