Gunboat diplomacy won’t revive Britain’s waning power
In the months leading up to the first Gulf War in 1991, my late friend Christopher Hitchens took part in a televised encounter in which he demolished actor Charlton Heston who strongly supported the bombing of Iraq. Hitchens asked Heston to name the countries clockwise from Kuwait that shared a common border with Iraq. “Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, Russia, Iran,” replied Heston, a list that must have surprised Russians and Bahrainis.
“If you’re going to bomb a country, you could at least give it the compliment of finding out where it is,” Hitchens replied, as he delivered the final blow. Heston angrily but unsuccessfully tried to defend his credibility by saying he had been insulted, prompting a final taunt from Hitchens who told him to “keep his hairpiece”.
The exchange drew a lot of mockery from Heston at the time, but I recalled it this week as politicians, retired military officers and various pundits debated sending a modern British-type destroyer 45, the HMS Defender, to navigate near the Crimean coast. The aim was to demonstrate that Britain does not recognize the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. I wondered how many experts supposedly endorsing British action could pass what might be called the “test” Heston “and name the countries bordering the Sea.
It is hardly surprising that the Russians found the trip of the HMS Defender as intentionally provocative since he had sailed 6,000 miles from Great Britain before making another voyage from Odessa to Georgia. The fact that there were journalists on board suggests that the British government was keen to let the world know all about Britain’s new “forward-looking” military position.
The British government justifies sending a warship so close to Crimea as an act of solidarity with Ukraine and a sign that Russia’s annexation of the peninsula is not internationally recognized. These are reasonable grounds, but Russia will not abandon Crimea unless it loses a war against the United States and NATO. This does not mean that annexation should be recognized, but using a warship to make a diplomatic point is an unnecessary risk.
Rather than demonstrating renewed British strength, the confused confrontation off Crimea showed the dangerous frivolity at the heart of British politics. It is not only a bluff, but it is known to be a bluff and is less likely to intimidate than to invite a vigorous response aimed at exposing the bluff. Russians can now threaten to bomb the next British Navy ship that repeats HMS voyage Defender believe that this will not happen again. The danger is that, in the unlikely event that this happens, such rhetoric will be difficult to curb.
HMS Defender will now join the Royal Navy Aircraft Carrier Strike Group, which includes the new aircraft carrier HMS queen elizabeth, to show the flag of the South China Sea where China exercises control. An outright military clash is unlikely, but there is always a danger that a show of force – when that force is less than that on the other side – will invite rather than deter retaliation.
In a reversal of President Theodore Roosevelt’s formula for successful imperialist intervention, Boris Johnson’s approach is to “speak loudly and carry a small stick”. To be carried out without catastrophe, this policy requires restraint on the part of a potential enemy and a calculation that he will not use his military superiority.
In the case of Ukraine and Russia, there are other dangers. Too much rhetoric about Ukraine’s defense might give some in Kiev the idea that the United States, NATO and Britain are ready to fight Russia to do so, although all that is has happened since 2014 suggests they won’t. Meanwhile, a return to the pre-WWI tradition of using gunboats to assert diplomatic points increases the risk of an accidental clash or overreaction.
Hands are all the more likely to be overplayed when Britain and Russia are involved, as both countries were at the center of great empires in the recent past. They may be shrunken politically and economically, but they are run by people who like to play the patriotic card and cannot afford humiliation.
Britain’s brief confrontation with Russia off the coast of Crimea may end as a minor footnote in history, but the event provides an alarming glimpse into patterns of British government behavior in the country and abroad. In either case, the gap between claims and reality is widening, as the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol shows.
Brexit was supposed to strengthen Britain’s control over its future and to some extent it restored freedom of action, the most positive example of which is the development and deployment of the Covid-19 vaccine. Apart from that, the UK state is paying a high price in terms of the loss of gross political power due to friction with the EU and the fragmentation of the UK.
It is extremely ironic that Johnson, as the leader of a movement to restore British sovereignty, has signed an agreement under which an international border now crosses inside the United Kingdom. It is difficult to imagine a greater abrogation of national sovereignty than this. No wonder trade unionists in Northern Ireland were dismayed.
Johnson and his government enjoy a state of constant bickering with the EU, allowing them to beat the patriotic tam-tam and shift all the blame to Brussels. What they cannot afford is for this conflict to get really serious, because then – as the saga of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU has demonstrated – it becomes clear that Brussels holds most of the high cards. The best way out for Britain in the Irish protocol dispute would be for the EU to find it to its advantage not to seek a decisive victory.
Over the past five years, Britain has grown into a weaker state while claiming to be a more powerful state. This tension will remain at the heart of British policies from Belfast to Sevastopol and the South China Sea despite all efforts to pretend otherwise.
Johnson has exacerbated the wedge between Britain’s real and supposed place in the world, but it follows previous trends. I have reported the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria over the past 20 years and in none of them the UK government really had any idea of the mess it was getting into. The only overriding goal, as long as there was one, was to show the Americans that Britain deserved to be an ally.
I half-believed there must be some hidden British strategy that I hadn’t detected, but when the official post-war investigations were released they showed an extraordinary degree of ignorance on the part of politicians. and officials who ordered these interventions. Charlton Heston would not have been embarrassed in their company.