The Brexit era in UK foreign policy coincides with a time when world order is increasingly under strain. Long-wave trends like American strategic rebalancing, the rise of China, Russia’s resurgence, and the EU’s dysfunction, are maturing and converging. The Middle East still matters after Brexit. It will continue to loom large among Britain’s concerns. None of the problems that have so vexed our leaders in recent years are yet resolved.
Making Brexit a success requires not just free trade deals but also peace, security and stability in the international system. On the face of it, UK Middle East policy should be, by and large, unaffected by leaving the EU because it largely rests on bilateral relations – in close coordination with the United States – and has little to do with the EU to begin with. Things like our partnerships in the Gulf, our current engagement with the anti-ISIL Coalition or with the UN efforts in Libya, will follow their course as before June 23rd. The frustrations and exertions across the arc of conflict from North Africa to Mesopotamia will continue. We need a broader policy for the Middle East; we cannot ignore its problems as continue to impact upon our security – and long-term strategic interests – almost daily.
A key theme in the Middle East is America’s diminishing regional role. This has been largely prompted at a grand strategic level by a rebalancing toward the Pacific, and at a local level by setbacks in Syria and in relations with Sunni allies over the nuclear accord with Iran. It is an open question whether the damage to the US position is already too great that the next US president, even if he/she wished it, could restore US primacy at an acceptable cost. Events are moving quickly, and nothing evaporates faster in the heat of the Middle East than the influence of yesterday’s power; so, much hangs on reversing that perception. This trend is highly damaging to British interests given that UK Middle Eastern policy – especially in the Gulf – is so intertwined with American policy. Any reorientation of local allies away from the US will inevitably strain our relations with them as well. In the end, America’s pivot means that the UK either needs to do more on its own – and show leadership in filling a growing void – or act in a way that encourages a return of American confidence and involvement in the wider Middle Eastern region.
What is needed most of all – and what has been missing in recent years – is a restoration of a clear political will to act, including militarily when required by exceptional circumstances. The December 2015 debate in parliament over extending anti-ISIL airstrikes from Iraq into Syria, in the wake of the Bataclan attacks, is only the most recent measure of our extreme reluctance to use force. However, as events in Syria amply demonstrate, wartime diplomacy that is not backed by real force remains impotent – a constant lesson of history we have curiously forgotten.
Questions of intervention and non-intervention are nothing new, and the balance of attitudes toward them keeps swinging back and forth over time. Given the dangers we are facing now, the Iraq War “syndrome”, which has produced an outsized recoil of Western policy from the real problems of the Middle East, should be put to rest. Any notion that non-intervention reflects a higher standard of morality and humanitarian concern – let alone a wiser strategy for peace and security – has surely long been obliterated by the hecatombs of Syria and the ascendancy of powerful adversaries. These choices are always difficult but we cannot wish them away.
And for all we have already seen in recent years, we are likely standing on the cusp of even greater change in the Middle East. The prospects for regional security are worsening, driven by the widespread jihadi terrorism and the ascendancy of Iran. The jihadi problem has become chronic and the longer it exists the more difficult it will be to defeat as many years of war will have generated many thousands of hardened, experienced fighters and resilient terrorist networks. The current sense of the ISIL threat somewhat receding is likely false. As they eventually lose control of territory, they will likely go to ground, and prepare for the next opportunity to re-emerge on the Middle Eastern battlefields when the international coalition pressure eases off. In the meantime, they will likely increase their focus on Western targets.
Iran presents an arguably even greater challenge. What is certain about the nuclear deal is that at the end of it Tehran will be likely richer, better armed and ready for the final sprint to the bomb. It will be able to continue its assertive policies in the Middle East from a position of strength, not weakness. Whether it will decide to forego that option, and become a partner to the West, is uncertain and perhaps unlikely.
All this impacts Britain’s national security and strategic interests, by putting pressure on our allies – in the Middle East and Europe – and of course via the threat of terrorism at home.
After Brexit, there must be a careful consideration of how the Middle East now plays within the broader UK grand strategic objectives. The first of these is keeping the US firmly engaged in Europe and the Middle East; the second is to help arrest the disintegration of the international system. One way to advance these aims is to recast British strategy in the wider Middle Eastern region more clearly as a tool for securing Europe. Unquestionably we will continue to be less interventionist than we used to. But we cannot step back from region management, burden sharing and general neighbourhood security.
The outstanding requirement for this approach is increased UK military and diplomatic capacity. Post-Brexit, an active British foreign policy seeking to support the country’s interests at a global scale and in the context of international upheaval necessitates new investments in British hard and soft power.
In adopting a more front-footed attitude on security in the Mediterranean area, Britain could also make a stronger case to Washington that it is in American interests to have more regard to extended European defence – especially since the US has drawn down on its Middle Eastern ambitions. The eventual aim should be a US-led partnership with continental Europe specifically tailored to the Mediterranean basin, as NATO was tailored to deal with Russia. Such a new arrangement for a re-energised regional security architecture could also encourage Turkey to adopt a policy more compatible with shared Euro-Atlantic security interests in the area. (Inserting a new element in Turkey’s strategic calculus is one possible way to control its behaviour, to mutual benefit.) More importantly, this arrangement would help secure Europe’s exposed southern flank, reinforce the Euro-Atlantic alliance, and confirm Britain’s role as the indispensable security partner of the EU.
Finding solutions for ensuring continued US engagement in the European-Middle Eastern space is a grand strategic priority for Britain, given that the sustainability of this arrangement is currently being tested. Specifically, America’s position in Europe is coming under particular strain in the Brexit era, as some EU leaders see UK’s departure as an opportunity for the Union’s own brand of ‘exit’ from US influence. The fact that this is accompanied by overtures to Russia – such as the drive for arms control and ‘détente’ recently initiated by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister – is not coincidental. From a certain continental European standpoint, an eventual ‘partnership’ with Russia would kill two birds with one stone: it would reduce the direct Russian threat to Europe; and looks like the best bet to eventually control the threat from the Middle East as well, potentially easing off the migrant and terrorist pressure. This is coming from a basic reading of the geo-strategic landscape in the region, and of contrasting signals of political resolve sent by Moscow and Washington in recent months and years. It also leads, as things stand, to a continued fade-out of US from the region – with Pacific pressures only reinforcing the trend. This would be an unmitigated disaster for British and European security interests in the long run.
Hasty moves toward cooperation with Russia – even dressed up as ‘détente’ – are not a silver bullet, as demonstrated most recently by events in Aleppo. On the other hand, real détente remains a valid option that was road-tested with some success in the 1970s, at a time of arguably even greater international tensions and peril. But a real détente implies a set framework for negotiations designed to generate progress on the basis of incremental mutual benefits. The process is driven by self-interest on both sides, and the key ingredient is credible military pressure. In our period, as before, this process remains possible but only under determined American leadership, with wide allied support.
Such an initiative, which would necessarily focus primarily on the European theatre, would also offer the opportunity of negotiations with Russia over its position in the Middle East. The key would be developing ‘linkages’ between international issues – a concept which lay at the heart of Henry Kissinger’s successful détente diplomacy with Russia in the Cold War. The diplomatic and strategic failures over Syria are not unrelated to the determined Western refusal to link it to other issues like Ukraine – despite facing the same adversary on both fronts. A wider approach sometime in the future, potentially aided by British diplomacy, seems to be the only way out of this literally dead end.
There are no easy answers to the dilemmas of the Middle East; on the contrary. The challenges are mounting, driven by forces that had been put in motion well before Brexit. What is clear is that new, even radical, strategies are required to break some of these deadlocks and prevent pernicious trends from developing further. The reason we have been so involved in the Middle East is that it is impossible to avoid. It remains so after Brexit as well.