After an arduous and protracted two-month leadership contest, Britain finally discovered its new prime minister on Monday. Liz Truss’ immediate in-tray will inevitably prioritize domestic issues given the cost-of-living crisis, rising inflation and soaring energy bills.
But what of her foreign policy? The former foreign secretary’s pronouncements during her leadership campaign do not suggest she will divert much from the approach of her predecessor, Boris Johnson. This is a concern.
Johnson oversaw a shrinking of Britain’s global importance and a plummeting in its international reputation, and Truss’ campaign pledges imply that she will extend this trend further, making post-Brexit “Little Britain” even smaller globally.
On the one hand, Truss should be praised for vowing to continue one of Johnson’s most important and successful foreign policies: Support for Ukraine in its war with Russia. Whether Johnson was as committed to Kiev as he made out, or whether photo-ops with President Volodymyr Zelensky made for useful distractions from his troubles at home, is a moot point.
London’s support has been vital to Ukraine and the policy has enabled Britain to exhibit some global clout after Brexit. The same will be true of Truss. She also has a penchant for martial poses and no doubt will be on a plane to Kiev as soon as possible, but this should not detract from the policy’s continued importance.
Another positive has been Truss’ pledge to increase defense spending to 3 percent of gross domestic product by 2030. However, how she will fund this alongside other promises to slash taxes and provide an energy rescue package remains unclear. The promise may end up being shelved.
But beyond Ukraine and defense spending, most of Truss’ foreign policy positions have ranged from underwhelming to downright alarming. She has doubled down on the almost petulant hostility toward the EU that has characterized Britain’s relationship with Brussels after Brexit. This included a promise to deliver the Northern Ireland Protocol bill, “in full,” which would tear up some of the commitments London agreed to on leaving the EU, breaking international law and risking a trade war with the bloc. Similarly, when asked whether French President Emmanuel Macron, leader of one of Britain’s oldest allies, was a friend or foe, she remarked, “the jury’s out,” raising fears of a more antagonistic relationship to come.
Truss seems committed to continuing and expanding other Johnson-era approaches that damaged Britain’s reputation. She said she would keep the aid budget “as it is,” sustaining Johnson’s cut from the UN-recommended 0.7 percent of national economic output to 0.5 percent. She pledged to “support and extend” the policy of deporting illegal migrants to Rwanda — a move that was slammed by Britain’s courts, human rights groups and provoked an international backlash. Truss’ Britain looks set to roll back further on environmental pledges.
Her political allies have explored drilling for more gas and oil in the North Sea, and have shown skepticism toward renewable power and the net zero policies of Johnson. With London already facing criticism from France for the raw sewage being pumped onto its beaches, Britain under Truss could quickly become the “dirty man of Europe,” with further environmental backsliding.
Finally, some of Truss’ domestic policies could negatively affect Britain’s standing. On the campaign trail she took a bullish approach to nationalist parties in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Were this to continue in power, it could accelerate moves toward Scottish independence and a united Ireland.
Such a scenario would make Britain physically smaller, resource weaker and less able to influence international politics. Likewise, her proposed economic policies of tax cuts and limited assistance on the cost-of-living crisis has been criticized by most economists, arguing it will spark further inflation and worsen Britain’s economic crisis. Such miserable conditions, especially if catalyzed by government mismanagement, would do Britain’s soft power few favors and decrease its global appeal.
Truss seems committed to continuing and expanding other Johnson-era approaches that damaged Britain’s reputation.
Of course, given Truss’ reputation as a political shapeshifter — she supported Remain during the Brexit referendum, but has since become an ardent Leaver — it is possible many of these campaign pledges will not translate into policy. To become prime minister, she had to court a very small right-wing constituency, just under 82,000 Conservative party members. But to stay in power after the next election she will need to appeal to a broader, more moderate electorate. That said, British elections are rarely won or lost on foreign policy, which might make Truss feel she has more of a free hand.
Indeed, foreign policy might prove an area she can throw red meat to her right-wing base, upping the rhetoric against Europe and bashing migrants, as a way to distract from possible compromises on energy, taxes and the economy. If that proves to be so, Britain’s descent into international triviality will continue apace.
- Christopher Phillips