It is my favourite Churchill quote, even though the great man may not actually have said it (though he certainly felt it): “Americans will always do the right thing—after exhausting all the alternatives.” As someone who has lived the Special Relationship, the quip perfectly captures Washington’s habitual initial analytical short-sightedness, as well as the dogged pragmatism that historically so often has saved the US, allowing it to avert disaster by switching policy course.
But while it is practically a British elite sport to poke fun at ‘the cousins,’ I would argue right now that it is the Johnson government itself which is clearly living up to Churchill’s mixed blessing. For beneath the overarching story of the coronavirus, one of the most important geostrategic things going on is the UK’s definite drift away from either European or Chinese strategic moorings, as seemingly unrelated events move it closer and closer to the Anglosphere, English-speaking former dominions and colonies of the UK, such as the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and India.
First, the European Union (EU) has been proved itself decidedly wanting in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Crises clarify, and the Brussels edifice has been shown to be not for purpose—due to its inability to act either quickly or coherently—in a post-virus strategic world. The EU’s relative failures have raised existential doubts as to whether such a cumbersome political structure can compete in our new age with continental powers the US, China, India, or even Russia.
Indeed, the basic structure of the EU has still not been agreed upon, even after all these years, as the EU struggles to have its ‘Hamiltonian moment’ of federation (or even a more politically organically appropriate ‘Jeffersonian moment’ of confederation). To put it mildly, if a political organisation does not know what it is, it probably will not come to dominate the age. It is increasingly clear that from the UK’s point of view backing Brussels as its primary geostrategic ally in the new era amounts to backing a losing horse. The strategic doors between the UK and the EU are clanging shut.
The same holds true for Sino-British ties, for the entirely different reason of wildly diverging values. The dominant Conservative Party, particularly its parliamentary backbenchers, have rightly adopted an increasingly anti-China tone as Beijing’s wilful cover-up of the origins of the virus have become clear, negligence which contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands and global economic ruination. This damning reality, combined with China’s determined moves to go back on its pledges of ‘One Country, Two Systems,’ and definitively crack down on semi-autonomous Hong Kong, have badly hurt China’s image in London.
Long gone are the halcyon days of the Cameron premiership, when a new golden age of trade and closer ties between Beijing and London seemed within reach. Instead, pressed internally by Tory backbenchers and externally by an increasingly exasperated US, the Johnson administration has backtracked, finally agreeing to do the right thing and (it seems) entirely curtail Chinese company Huawei’s involvement in the construction of Britain’s 5G network by 2023. It is symbolic of the strategic dead end that Sino-British relations have come to.
So with the main strategic alternatives exhausted, look for the Johnson government to continue its foreign policy pivot. The Anglosphere now clearly amounts to the strategic path of least resistance as the UK reconfigures its foreign policy. It is economically successful in terms of healthy growth rates, pre-virus, in a way a sclerotic Europe simply no longer is. At the same time, the Anglosphere—along with the EU and the UK—broadly shares values in a manner that China’s recent actions prove that it does not. For these practical, policy reasons the Anglosphere is the UK’s logical strategic destination.
Indeed, for all the momentous events that have characterised his premiership, Boris Johnson may come to be remembered historically more than anything else as the Prime Minister who definitively steered the UK away from other geopolitical options and into a more committed alliance with the Anglosphere.
Indeed, Johnson’s overall Brexit plans will be judged a historical success or failure depending precisely on whether, in the course of his coming five-year term, he can nail down free trade deals with the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and India. With EU trade talks at a standstill, and with the rethink on Huawei and China proceeding, look for the Johnson government to do the right thing, after exhausting every other alternative.