Back in October I wrote an article in praise of the start of the Anglo-Sino «Golden Age». Finally some strategic direction and purpose in British foreign policy was apparent after years of stale inertia and uncreative thinking or worse the dangerous craziness of Tony Blair’s neoconservatism which led Britain into invading Iraq alongside the George W Bush administration, helping to create the nightmare scenario we see unfolding day by day in Iraq thirteen years on.
For a student and practitioner of foreign policy it was difficult to sum up in a few sentences what British foreign policy was all about – apart from the decades old griping about being a member of the European Union or clinging neurotically to the so-called «Special Relationship» between London and Washington DC. It was a refreshing change to witness the rolling out of the UK-China «Golden Age» dubbed in the British press the «Osborne Doctrine».
In return for massive inward investment desperately needed in the UK to update its creaking infrastructure and help regenerate it’s long neglected and short changed Northern cities – Britain would become China’s «Best Friend» in the West to quote the Chancellor – enhancing diplomatic, political, security, economic, energy and cultural relations. Unlike the British state, the Chinese Government place great premium on mutual trust and mutual respect. From my own experience of working in Whitehall and Westminster, I can testify that these principles of trust and respect are very much lacking, even frowned upon, at the heart of the British State. Those who operate upon the principles of trust in Whitehall, even within a legal framework, do so at their own peril. If you go to work in Whitehall or Westminster, make sure you are armed with a good solicitor.
I have seen contracts tampered with illegally at the drop of a hat; a grossly unprofessional working culture more worthy of the playground than supposed mature adults; jobs handed out not based on merit but the patronage of the old boys network; total disregard for health and safety, employment and human resources laws passed by the so-called «Mother of all Parliaments»; a near total absence of HR structures and a culture of cheating people out of their deserved remuneration and disjointed communication. The Ministry of Defense couldn't care less about the soldiers it sends into battle treating them more like expendable pawns on the Whitehall chess board while the domestic security and surveillance service (MI5) have no qualms about signing off on «amnesties» to suspected terrorist murders of British citizens, soldiers and policemen and trolling through British citizens private medical records, all the while amassing even greater powers of intrusion and snooping upon British citizens in the name of fighting a «war on terror» more worthy of a Gestapo state than the much heralded birth place of the Magna Carta and liberty under a rule of law.
Therefore I was not really surprised, more irritated, when I heard that the UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and his Ministry of Defense counterpart Michael Fallon MP, on their recent trip to Asia, describe Japan as Britain’s «closest strategic security partner in Asia». Hammond is a prime example of the deficiencies and inadequacies of the British governmental system when it comes to foreign policy making. If ever there was a square peg in a round hole, it is the current Foreign Secretary. On the aesthetic level his whole presentation and manner is redolent more of an accountant than a diplomat. This is borne out upon closer examination of his professional credentials and work experience outside of domestic party politics. Before he was appointed Secretary of State for Defense and then promoted to Britain’s Chief Diplomat and foreign-policy maker in the summer of 2014, Hammond had practically next to no expertise, training and experience in the world of foreign affairs and national security policy. It was an extremely odd appointment of Cameron to make by sending Hammond first to the Ministry of Defense and then the Foreign Office, but there again, that has been a consistent theme of David Cameron’s incoherent and mediocre Premiership. Hammond studied at Oxford University, though it is unclear if he ever specialized in international relations and foreign policy matters during his academic training.
After graduating from the university, his career was focused on private sector business dealings in the healthcare, property, oil and gas sectors. He had no professional credentials on foreign policy or military matters whether it be in the university, consultancy, academic/think tank Track II policy research community, or Governmental spheres. His policy briefs once he became an MP and the Conservative Party formed an administration in May 2010 were all exclusively domestic portfolios concerned with employment, pensions, public expenditure and transport.
This has always been the problem with the British political system when it comes to foreign policy. There is no strict separation of powers in the Britain State which operates without a written constitution, formal checks and balances, and where the Government, including the Cabinet and middle and junior ministerial ranks, are stuffed with party politicians by the Prime Minister of the day, some democratically elected from the House of Commons, others on the patronage of the Party drawn from the undemocratic House of Lords. Thus, rather than being dedicated and distinguished policy experts in their subject fields, most UK Government Ministers are pure party political creatures who have spent most of their working lives in their party’s political machine, climbing up the greasy pole of political life in the Westminster village rather than becoming professional experts in policy areas such as international relations.
Such is the case starkly with the current Foreign Secretary. It was painful listening to him talk at the United Nations General Assembly back in September. The UN annual opening session was dominated by the issue of Syria and the Russian military intervention. However, Mr Hammond clearly looked and sounded out of his depth and each interview he gave to the press felt like a rehash of the last one with Hammond merely mouthing ad nauseam talking points crafted for him by a Foreign Office civil servant. There was a total absence on Hammond’s part of evidence of independent, innovative thinking, deep erudition, and strategic grip on such complex international issues.
It is a great pity and handicap that in Philip Hammond Britain does not possess an intellectually confident, substantive and talented thinker and practitioner on foreign policy who is able to hold his own with foreign policy heavyweights such as US Secretary of State John Kerry or the veteran Russian external affairs supremo Sergey Lavrov. Ergo, the Foreign Secretary seemed in office but not in power on his latest visit to Asia. Rather than taking into account the momentous upgrading in Sino-British relations with the roll out of the Golden Age back in October, the UK Foreign Secretary along with Defense Secretary Fallon, presided over the UK Foreign Office and Ministry of Defense trumpeting the visit to Tokyo as an opportunity to reaffirm: «Japan is our [UK] closest security partner in Asia». The Japanese Minister for Defense Mr Gen Nakatani drew inspiration from the recently published UK Strategic Defense and Security Review stating: «The SDSR highlighted Japan as the closest security partner in Asia, and I highly regard this statement».
Yet if Britain is to be China’s «Best Friend» in the West, who is to be Britain’s «Best Friend» in the East? This is what happens when there is no strong, self-possessed leadership at the top of British international relations and no coherent joined up strategy. Confusion reigns. Is it really strategic sense and wise to align the United Kingdom’s strategic security interests in Asia to a country like Japan, with its history of militaristic barbarity and aggression, poignantly portrayed in the recent film «Unbroken», which reached its gruesome climax during World War II? Over the course of its history, culminating in the Asia-Pacific theatre in the 1930s and 40s, the Japanese security and military establishment was renowned for its vicious and imperialistic ambitions to conquer and rule as pre-eminent in the Far East. General MacArthur and the occupying American regime post-1945 basically had to tame and rehabilitate the country into a pacifist power with its military proscribed from undertaking military interventions abroad and governed under a strict system of laws to ensure purely «Self-Defense» forces.
When I hosted a roundtable briefing on global trends with Sir Richard Dearlove, the former Head of MI6 – he outlined his view that with the nuclear crisis unresolved on the Korean peninsula – Japan must be watched closely for how it will react and develop its military posture, perhaps becoming more assertive. Indeed, this is already happening, and it seems with Britain’s misguided blessing. The British Government welcomed Japan’s recent Legislation for Peace and Security, and supported Japan playing a more proactive role in securing global peace, stability and prosperity through its policy of «Proactive Contribution to Peace» based on the principle of international cooperation. Encouraging a greater leadership role on the World Stage for Japan which could eventually morph into a more interventionist role militarily is a delicate exercise fraught with problems and demonstrates a limited understanding of history. In taking in the broad sweep of history, it has been Japan which has consistently throughout its presence on the planet been a far more aggressive nation-state than China or many other countries in Asia for that matter.
It was not China who inflicted upon British Prisoners of War some of the most horrendous torture and treatment meted out during any war in human history. It was not China invading and molesting many countries gripped by an imperialist-nationalist fervor which eventually required the atomic bomb being dropped to subdue the warrior island of Imperial Japan into submission. Nor is it Japan today turning on the taps of the massive investment of the future for Britain’s sluggish and unbalanced economy. Thus if China is to be Britain’s «best friend in the West» it is a two-way street and Britain must be China’s number one ally in Asia.
British foreign policy cannot have its cake and eat it just as it is attempting to do with its fellow EU partners. There has been a long and consistent pattern of the British State, at home and abroad, of being a fair weather and deeply dishonorable friend. One need only look at the Munich Agreement of 1938 which represented one of the most foul acts of cowardice and appeasement of Nazi aggression or the callous and duplicitous behavior of the British State in its own backyard of Northern Ireland to understand that how the British State operates at home or abroad leaves a lot to be desired with a very bitter taste in one’s mouth.