/ 12 December 2022

UK’s Sunak exposes his naivety on foreign policy

Sunak Meets Zelensky In Ukraine
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine

Rishi Sunak, after his abrupt entry into 10 Downing Street as the new British prime minister, was not lucky enough to enjoy a honeymoon period. A plethora of problems on the domestic front, as well as in the domain of foreign affairs, can actually squeeze even the most experienced premiers.

Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, who had the experience of managing diplomatic affairs as foreign secretaries before becoming prime ministers, Sunak has an altogether different background and has no direct experience outside of financial markets on the international stage of geopolitics. 

So he has advantages as well as equal disadvantages for this handicap in his curriculum vitae. One key differential advantage, because of his track record as the chancellor of the exchequer, could be the probability of him being less ideological and more pragmatic in running British foreign policy. 

“Robust pragmatism” is the term Sunak used to describe his foreign policy vision. The atypical circumstances in which he has been propelled to the seat of power have made Sunak vulnerable to a lot of pressure from inside the Conservative Party. Lack of direction is quite visible ever since he took charge; be it the cost-of-living crisis or growing tensions with China in the Indo-Pacific, he is struggling to find a direction. Some of his critics in the media are even harsher in their observation that “his only mission being to survive another day in office”. 

His inexperience in the sphere of foreign policy was blatantly exposed in the traditional speech delivered last month at the lord mayor’s banquet in London’s Guildhall. A British prime minister’s annual speech in the heart of the City of London is customarily focused on foreign policy. But Sunak’s speech, mostly adorned with the “copy and paste” scraps from his predecessors, was a rather dull exercise that failed to attract any appreciation from any quarters at home or abroad. 

There was nothing new in it: support for Ukraine, the China “threat”, Brexit and Indo-Pacific security were the main topics. All the routine stuff that was expected from any British PM at this time. But, one country was conspicuously given less time and attention by Sunak in his Guildhall speech — the United States. 

There was no incantation of the “special” US-UK relationship, and no mention of the duo spearheading Western liberal values and democracy. Australia was mentioned more with reference to the Indo-Pacific power equilibrium than the US. It is quite unusual for any British prime minister to ignore its trusted ally like this in such an important annual speech that outlines the contour of British foreign policy. No apparent reason can be blamed for such a flagrant omission on the part of Sunak, except his naivety. 

Sunak is also well aware of his naivety in the sphere of foreign policy, and he is trying to compensate for this by projecting himself as hyperactive and over-aggressive in at least two important foreign policy matters: the Ukraine war and the China threat.  Johnson is worshipped like a national hero in Ukraine because of his inordinately munificent support to the country after the Russian attack. 

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was most stressed when Johnson was compelled to leave Downing Street. He was concerned about the continuation of British financial and military aid to Ukraine after Johnson’s departure. In an effort to outdo the Boris mania sweeping Ukraine, Sunak is also trying to be more Ukraine-centric than his former boss. 

His first official foreign trip was to Kyiv to reassure Zelenskiy of Britain’s continued commitment to Ukraine despite the change in leadership. Similarly, on the question of China’s growing economic and military clout in the global arena, Sunak is also trying to appear as a “super China-hawk” because of continuous criticism by his fellow party men against his apparent “softness” towards China. 

But setting the course for British-China policy comes at a very sensitive time. Although in his Guildhall speech Sunak expressed his willingness to engage with China, stating that Britain could not “simply ignore China’s significance in the world affairs to global economic stability or issues like climate change,” he also talked about “sharpening competition” with China. 

But he can’t afford to take a softer line on China because of the internal politics of the Conservative Party, which has gradually become more China-sceptic in recent times. With the formation of the hawkish China Research Group by the Tories as a replica of the European Research Group, which advocated for a hard Brexit, Sunak has no option but to go with the anti-China wave. 

His foreign policy speech noted that the “so-called golden era” in Sino-UK relations was over and. He also made it clear that his preference is “robust pragmatism” not “grand rhetoric”. When Sunak and Truss were fighting a duel to win the leadership of the Conservative Party, they indulged in a frantic competition of China-bashing to prove themselves as a bigger China hawk to lure the Tories. 

“For too long, politicians in Britain and across the West have rolled out the red carpet and turned a blind eye to China’s nefarious activity and ambitions. I will change this on Day One as prime minister”, is how Sunak bragged while campaigning for the leadership. 

Alongside China and Russia, Sunak also made it clear that building strong ties in Europe will be his priority. 

With mounting challenges at home — the upheaval inside the Conservative Party, a cost-of-living crisis, inflation with skyrocketing energy prices, and supply chain issues — his main priority will certainly be on repairing the debilitating economy, taming the financial markets and, more than anything else, restoring public trust in the Conservative Party. 

But he will need to tread carefully in the domain of foreign policy, an area where his naivety on crucial issues is embarrassingly obvious.

Imran Khalid is a freelance columnist on international affairs based in Karachi, Pakistan.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.