Foreign policy

The West cannot do business with Iran

Salman Rushdie’s would-be assassin might have been a lone wolf. He might have had no contact with military or intelligence figures. He might never even have set foot in Tehran. But be in no doubt: he acted, in effect, as an agent of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Under the terms of the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in February 1989, Rushdie ‘and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death’. Khomeini urged ‘brave Muslims to quickly kill them wherever they find them so that no one ever again would dare to insult the sanctities of Muslims’, adding: ‘Anyone killed while trying

Has Putin resurrected the West?

I think Putin will have been surprised. I mean: I was surprised. Weren’t you? Not, necessarily, that Ukraine should have been resisting as valiantly as it is; nor even that Russia’s supposedly unstoppable war machine should have found itself out of petrol on a chilly highway from which the road signs have been removed. But surprised by the sheer force and volume and unanimity of the international cry of: no, this will not stand. That is one thing, even amid the unspeakable human cost of the war in Ukraine, to feel encouraged by. If this invasion does, as many have said, mark the beginning of a new order in European

Two reasons Putin thinks he can weather sanctions

The nature of the Russian attack on Ukraine, striking across the country and not just concentrating on the territory claimed by the so-called breakaway republics, shows Vladimir Putin’s confidence that he can weather whatever sanctions the West imposes. This is not an assault designed to sit in any kind of grey area, but an unambiguous invasion — which the West has always made clear would bring forth the maximum set of sanctions. This is not an assault designed to sit in any kind of grey area Putin’s confidence is driven by two things. First, as I say in the magazine this week, Russia has been preparing to face expanded sanctions since

Putin must look at the West and laugh

Whatever the West’s response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty, the crisis demonstrates the limitations of western politics and policy across the board. If Vladimir Putin understands any demographic better than the Russian people, it is the governing class of the West: that Harvard-Oxbridge-Sciences Po axis of toweringly smug and practically interchangeable global-liberals who weep for international norms they weren’t prepared to defend. Their ideas and their sanctions are tired because they are civilisationally tired. Putin knows this, but none of the rival ideologies aiming to replace liberalism have anything better to offer. The failure of the global-liberals comes on many fronts but two of the most significant have been

Putin may yet resist a full-on invasion

The west is still in the dark on what Vladimir Putin will do next. The Russian military build-up on the Ukrainian border continues but in televised meetings with Sergey Lavrov, his foreign minister, Putin was told that there is a case for ‘continuing and intensifying’ diplomatic discussions with the West. For Putin — who smarts at what he sees as the humiliation of the end of the Cold War and the decline of Soviet power — there is a satisfaction in watching the West scramble to respond to his actions. The Biden administration wanted to prioritise competition with China, but Putin is succeeding in forcing him to concentrate on European diplomacy

Ukraine’s plight paints a bleak vision of Europe’s future

It is tempting to view Vladimir Putin as a Cold War relic: a former KGB officer who hasn’t got over the fall of the Soviet Union, which he called the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.’ But, as I say in the Times today, what is happening on Ukraine’s border isn’t a throwback to the Cold War. Rather, it is a preview of Europe’s future. Since Nato’s creation, European security has rested on America’s involvement. But Europe is now a secondary concern for the US; Asia and competition with China is the most important challenge facing Washington now. The horribly messy US withdrawal from Afghanistan was justified on the basis that it would

No one should celebrate the decline of America

Where is America? Like an old friend who hasn’t been in touch for years, you wonder if its silence is lost interest or if it just got too busy. America used to be everywhere, the dominant voice in world affairs, a desirable friend and a much-feared enemy. It intervened (and, yes, interfered) whenever it felt its interests or values were threatened. Often its involvement was unwanted and sometimes it didn’t improve matters, but there was a reliable solidity to it, a sturdiness born of military might, prosperity and national self-belief. It could be admired or reviled, but it had to be reckoned with. America shies away from it all now.

Does the world want America ‘back’?

American foreign-policy strategists used to promulgate doctrines. Now they dream up slogans. ‘America is back’ is the jingle under which the Biden administration has been conducting — or marketing — its post-Trump, post-Covid diplomacy, much as ‘Go big’ has been its jingle in domestic matters. The problem is, being ‘back’ can mean a number of different things. It can mean a sweet and tender reunion. It can also mean barrelling through the front door after a four-day bender hollering, ‘Anything to eat?’ Joe Biden’s advisors were confident of an effusive welcome. Maybe too confident. At their first bilateral meeting with Chinese diplomats in Anchorage last spring, Secretary of State Tony

China is right to laugh at the west

Signs of the enervating weakness of the west’s governing elites aren’t that hard to find but the case of the Winter Olympics may be the most demeaning. The UK and Canada have followed the US and Australia in announcing a diplomatic boycott of February’s games in Beijing over China’s human rights record. It’s a crushing blow to the communist dictatorship: Xi Jinping has been unable to sleep or dress himself since learning that the deputy head of the British mission will be skipping the mixed doubles luge final. The UK’s boycott may not even be a boycott, with Boris Johnson saying ‘we do not support sporting boycotts but there are certainly

Joe Biden is making the world a more dangerous place

Less than a year into the Biden presidency the world suddenly is a very chaotic place. The hasty and botched US exit from Afghanistan has created a terrorist-led state. Iran is ploughing forward with its nuclear plans. Russia has leverage over European energy supplies. Communist China is no longer hiding its totalitarian nature and global ambitions. And yet the US, UK, Germany and other major democracies seem more concerned about climate change and what may or may not happen 100 or more years from now than tackling the very serious threats to the free world’s national security today. This dangerous moment is what the late George Shultz dubbed a ‘hinge

There is no Russia-China axis

You should be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it, so the old cliché goes. In diplomacy at the moment, it seems you should be careful of the threats you prepare for, because you may end up producing them. There is a growing trend in the West towards treating Russia and China as some single, threatening ‘Dragonbear’ (a reference to the two countries’ national animals). This underrates the very real tensions between Moscow and Beijing, but risks pushing them even closer together. The most recent case in point was Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg’s interview in the Financial Times, in which he criticised ‘this whole idea that we

What Liz Truss didn’t say

As the big winner of the reshuffle, Liz Truss’s appointment as Foreign Secretary set the cat among the pigeons. Truss is the first Conservative woman to take on the brief and cuts a rather different figure to her predecessor Dominic Raab who was, by comparison, publicity shy. Since her promotion, there has been a non-stop stream of Twitter and Instagram posts documenting her meetings in New York, Mexico and Westminster. Today in Manchester, Truss gave her first speech to a domestic audience on what she wants to achieve. Truss is the first conservative woman to take on the brief and cuts a rather different figure to her predecessor Dominic Raab The former

Raab faces an Afghan grilling from MPs

After a week of hostile briefings over his future as foreign secretary, Dominic Raab appeared before MPs this afternoon to face the music. As a blame game gets underway in Whitehall over the chaotic response to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Raab has found himself in the firing line. One government source suggested his handling of the crisis meant he ‘has about as much chance of being in a top four position by next spring as Arsenal’ when it comes to a cabinet reshuffle. This afternoon, Raab came out swinging — defending his department’s handling of the situation and pointing blame in the direction of others. Today’s appearance had been billed by

Labour’s foreign policy is still stuck in the Corbynite past

I went to my first live political event this weekend, organised by the big tent ideas festival, with actual people in a room together as opposed to talking to each other through their computer screens. It felt like taking a trip back to 2019. Unfortunately, some of the contributions from the speakers felt a little like a throwback to that time as well, particularly in the case of Fabian Hamilton, Labour’s shadow minister for peace and disarmament. Hamilton was speaking about the UK’s foreign policy, and his contribution revealed how little the Labour party really have changed since Corbyn stepped down as leader – despite the party’s ‘under new management’

Biden and Putin have left Britain out in the cold

It would probably be wrong to say that Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin got on like a house on fire. But the results of the Geneva summit, which observed all the rules of Cold-War era summitry – from the venue to the formality of the arms-control and confidence-building agenda – far exceeded the deliberately doom-laden forecasts. In the space of around four hours at the Villa La Grange, the leaders of the United States and Russia effectively normalised relations that for the best part of four years had been bouncing around at rock-bottom, and dangerously so. The Russian and American ambassadors are returning to their capitals, working groups are being

MPs question Johnson’s plan for Global Britain

Boris Johnson still has a journalist’s ear for snappy phrases — levelling up, an oven-ready Brexit, Global Britain. The PM attempted to flesh out one of those headlines on Tuesday with his integrated review — so called because it ties together foreign and defence policy alongside trade and international aid.  The 100-page document — designed to set the course for ‘Global Britain’ over the next ten years — identifies Russia and China as the UK’s two biggest international challenges. The former is described as an ‘active threat’, a dangerous rogue state, while the East Asian country is seen instead as a ‘systemic challenge’. The position is clear: China is the

Brexit Britain should take a stand on Venezuela

The United Kingdom has an opportunity to become a more significant player in Latin America while setting an example for other European countries. Venezuela is an important test case of how truly ‘global’ post-Brexit Britain wants to be. Latin America has not seen a meaningful British presence in over 100 years. In colonial times, Britain was one of the leading powers with interests, particularly in the West Indies. In the 1820s, it supported the independence movements from Spain and built trading relationships with the newly formed countries. After most British business interests were sold to fund the country’s efforts in world war one, Britain largely disappeared as a major player,

Why does Keir Starmer always play it safe?

Keir Starmer’s keynote speech at the Fabian conference today was focused almost completely on foreign policy. The thrust of the Labour pitch was that Starmer is ‘pro-American but anti-Trump’. Given Corbyn’s tendency to see the United States at the Great Satan, this marks a huge shift in Labour’s foreign policy outlook. However, the speech was also classic Starmer and not in a good way: correcting the most obvious mistakes from the Corbyn era but going absolutely no further. I should take a moment to applaud Starmer for at least pivoting Labour back to a foreign policy position that is sensible and won’t stand in the way of the party trying

Will the Beirut blast change Britain’s foreign policy?

What should the British government do to help Lebanon recover from the Beirut explosion? Ministers say they are working to provide the Lebanese government with technical support and financial assistance, but they are coming under pressure from senior Conservative colleagues to use the disaster as a turning point in the way Britain approaches the Middle East generally. Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Select Committee, and Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, have both called for Britain to take a more active role in the region, or risk seeing hostile states such as Iran and terrorist groups filling a ‘vacuum’. These two MPs have been instrumental in pushing

John Bolton is gone — Boltonism isn’t

John Bolton is out. It was a long time coming — Trump resisted hiring him in the first place, passing him over in favour of a military man, H.R. McMaster, at first. Bolton is a near-synonym for war and regime change, a hawk’s hawk. That was an obviously awkward fit for a president who got elected by campaigning against America’s Mideast wars. But just because John Bolton is gone doesn’t mean Boltonism is. Secretary of state Mike Pompeo is hardly less hawkish, just less principled. And Pompeo is the worse for mixing human rights-moralizing with his bellicosity: he represents an opportunistic confluence of humanitarian hawkishness and neoconservatism. It’s the optimal formula for being