Hawkish Truss faces credibility test over Northern Ireland, EU

·8-min read
© Czarek Sokolowski, AP

Liz Truss travels to Scotland on Tuesday to formalise her accession to Downing Street with Queen Elizabeth II. Hawkishness on Russia and China characterises the next British PM’s foreign policy agenda – but so does hawkishness with the EU over the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland Protocol. Truss now faces a formidable challenge in preserving Britain’s credibility to make it a leading player in the geopolitical contests with Russia and China, seeing as she plans to break an international agreement with its European partners.

The pre-eminent figure in the Tory leadership contest was not Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak or even Boris Johnson, but Margaret Thatcher. There was a vexed economic debate over the competing merits of different incarnations of Mrs Thatcher at various points in her premiership. But Truss’s archetypally Thatcherite, Cold Warrior approach to great power competition was far less contentious, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exposed Western naïveté about Moscow’s revanchism.

At the end of the Cold War, the West thought the “battle was over”, but “they never stopped fighting”, Truss told The Atlantic in May.

Hence everyone expects Truss to continue Johnson’s fulsome support for Kyiv – a rare achievement for her lethargic predecessor, seeing Britain become one of the biggest and fastest arms suppliers to Ukraine.

Hawkish on Russia, China

As foreign secretary, Britain's next PM left no doubt about her Ukraine position. She expressed her desire to see Russia removed from the “whole of Ukraine” in her Mansion House speech in April — meaning Kyiv must regain sovereignty over Crimea and parts of the Donbas seized in 2014. Russia has to “suffer a strategic defeat”, she said in June.

Truss regards the 2014-15 Minsk accords as a totemic mistake – since those agreements brokered by France and Germany effectively acquiesced to Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory, while failing to end the fighting in the Donbas. The next British PM suggested the exclusion of the UK and the US was a key factor in the Minsk fiasco.

“She wants to be one of those prime ministers with a particularly strong foreign policy voice, and I think her stance on Ukraine especially will play well for her,” said Richard Whitman, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent. “It fits very well with that image she’s trying to cultivate, which plays off nostalgia for Mrs Thatcher.”

As well as continuing Johnson’s resolute stance on Russia, Truss endorses an even more hawkish approach to China than her predecessor.

In a big symbolic step, Truss’s staff briefed The Times last week that she would officially declare China a national security “threat” after entering Downing Street. “There will be no more economic partnerships,” a Truss source told the newspaper.

Truss’s hawkishness on China applies to military as well as economic issues. She emphasises parallels between Russia and China and between Ukraine and Taiwan. The West needs to “learn the lessons of Ukraine”, she told LBC radio in June. Western countries should have “ensured that Ukraine had the defensive capacity earlier”, which could have created “deterrence by denial”, she continued. A “similar approach” needs to be taken towards Taiwan, Truss concluded.

“The public line on China is only going to get tougher under Truss,” Whitman said. “It’s an approach very much in line with that of the US – the Europeans have been playing a bit of catch-up — and that will help her in putting forward her China policy. Even if the US is a little bit guarded about Truss when it comes to European policy, such as over Northern Ireland, it will certainly see her as aligned with US policy on China.”

‘Difficult’ N. Ireland situation

So far, speculation that Britain would alienate the US over Northern Ireland has been overplayed, with Joe Biden’s White House focusing instead on the need for close allies like London amid geopolitical rivalries with Moscow and Beijing.

Despite some movement from Paris and Berlin, Britain is still far closer to the US issues relating to these great power contests than France and Germany – as exemplified by Emmanuel Macron’s statement in June that the West must not “humiliate” Russia over Ukraine.

Yet tensions over Northern Ireland are heating up – prompting Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to say she was “deeply concerned” about London’s policy after a phone conversation with Truss over the summer.

Continuing Johnson’s agenda, the next PM wants to unilaterally modify the part of the Brexit deal keeping the province in the European single market for goods, even if that legislation faces a perilous passage through both the Commons and Lords.

>> Johnson moves to renege on his own ‘terrible’ Brexit deal – but will the Tories kill it?

The Northern Ireland Protocol put a wound at the heart of the British body politic – creating a customs border in the Irish Sea separating the province from the rest of the UK, prompting upset and anger amongst Northern Irish unionists. But the fact remains that Johnson’s government – including Truss – ratified this international agreement in 2020 after refusing to heed warnings about its political consequences. For all its faults, the protocol also provided much-needed economic stability to Northern Ireland after years of uncertainty during Brexit talks.

So Truss enters Downing Street in the “difficult situation of trying to appease Brexit hardliners in her party, on one side, and preserving the UK’s credibility internationally on the other, particularly with the Biden administration”, noted Nicoletta Pirozzi, head of the EU politics and institutions programme at the Istituto Affari Internazionale in Rome.

U-turn on the cards?

The million-dollar question is whether Truss the prime minister will be different from Truss the Tory leadership candidate. She has not always been an arch-Eurosceptic – and, in theory at least, if her anti-EU credibility amongst Tory hardliners could survive her voting Remain in 2016, it could survive her declining to rip up an international treaty.

“It’s difficult to know whether her tough talk on Northern Ireland is genuine or whether it was all about positioning herself in the long leadership contest to take over from Johnson that kicked off long before he actually resigned,” noted Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London.

“I think Truss is more nuanced than many people give her credit for,” said Georgina Wright, head of the Europe programme at the Institut Montaigne in Paris. “It’s worth remembering that she was the first British minister to attend an EU Foreign Affairs Council back in March; the first attendance after Brexit.

“But she separates the collaboration on mutual interests from Brexit negotiations,” Wright continued. “On Brexit – and in particular the Northern Ireland Protocol – I think she’s someone who sees being tough as what matters. So I could see her continuing with the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“On other issues, she may decide it is worth co-operating with the EU or member states – but the question is: can she separate those issues from Brexit?” Wright concluded.

‘Bloody-minded for the sake of it’?

One moment augured badly for Truss cordoning off Brexit from the UK’s shared interests with the rest of the EU.

The Franco-British alliance has provided mutual benefits ever since King Edward VII crossed the Channel in 1903 to pave the way for the entente cordiale. Even during the long zenith of Brexit squabbling, Paris and London were much more aligned with each other on certain issues than either was to Washington – notably when it came to Donald Trump tearing up the Iran deal and US attempts to stop European countries imposing new taxes on American tech giants.

However, when asked at a press conference in late August whether France is a “friend or foe”, Truss refused to give an answer. It was difficult to see the upside for Truss: by that point everybody knew she would beat her rival Rishi Sunak in the Tory members’ vote, and she had long won over the Tory right in the Commons.

It was also difficult to imagine Truss’s hero Mrs Thatcher giving such a response. Contrary to the Tory right’s myth of Thatcher the hardline Eurosceptic, her diplomatic approach exemplified the longstanding Foreign Office axiom that Britain should balance closeness to Washington with friendships in Europe – to side with one against the other or use both alliances at the same time, as the circumstances dictate. Hence her siding with France and West Germany in a bitter dispute with her friend Ronald Reagan over a Soviet gas pipeline in 1982 – and drawing on her ties to Reagan and European leaders alike during the Falklands War the same year.

“Thatcher wasn’t bloody-minded just for the sake of it,” Whitman put it. “She built relationships to get things done. She built up victories at European summits early on her premiership by gaining respect as a negotiator, not through unwillingness to negotiate.

“So for Truss, the real test is whether she is interested in moving an agenda forward – or if she just wants to strike a posture.”