Johnson pins U.K. future on U.S. ties, as European bonds loosen

By Mark Landler

Having cast off from the European Union, Britain wants to bind itself closer to the United States in a perilous world, according to a long-awaited blueprint for its post-Brexit foreign policy, released Tuesday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson presented the document — which grew out of a lengthy review of security, defense, development and foreign policies — as an argument for how Britain will stay relevant globally. One way, he said, is to help the Biden administration face down challenges from Russia and China.

“In all our endeavors, the United States will be our greatest ally and a uniquely close partner in defense, intelligence and security,” Johnson said in Parliament. “We will stand up for our values as well as for our interests.”

Johnson and his allies have long argued that Brexit would liberate Britain to act as an agile maritime power on the world stage — a concept they called “Global Britain,” in language more suited to marketing than diplomacy. This 100-page report was an effort to put some meat on the concept.

But it was notable less for highlighting the opportunities that await Britain than in stressing the need to prepare for a world of threats and foes. Cyberwarfare, nuclear deterrence and pressure on China, Russia and other human-rights abusers will all be unavoidable elements of Britain’s future role, Johnson said.

Among its specific commitments: a $32 billion increase in military spending that includes raising the cap on Britain’s nuclear arsenal from 180 warheads to 260, and a plan to deploy its new aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, to Asia, where it will reinforce the U.S. Navy in sending a deterrent message to China.

But the report also implicitly acknowledged the limitations Britain faces after Brexit. It says little about cooperation on security with the European Union, which remains its largest trading partner and the giant in its neighborhood. Since Britain and the bloc cemented their split with a trade deal in January, political and diplomatic ties have frayed, and there have been disruptions to trade.

Relations with China have also deteriorated since Johnson restricted the access of a Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei, to Britain’s 5G network, and China imposed a draconian security law on Hong Kong, a former British colony. Britain has offered visas to more than 300,000 Hong Kong residents who hold British overseas passports.

In the report, Britain characterized China as a “systemic competitor,” language not dissimilar to that used by U.S. officials. Russia, it said, remained a threat, three years after it poisoned several people with a deadly nerve agent in Salisbury, England, prompting a diplomatic backlash.

“It is structurally inevitable, given our other relationships, that we should turn to America,” said Simon Fraser, a former head of Britain’s Foreign Office. “For [U.S. President Joe] Biden, that is a big opportunity.” Still, he added, the review was a “serious effort to think through the risks and opportunities.”

Critics said some of Johnson’s initiatives seemed grandiose for a country that is now essentially a midsize power off the coast of Europe. The deployment of the carrier to Asia, for example, harks back to Britain’s imperial past, as does the government’s emphasis on rebuilding its presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Johnson plans to travel to India next month, his first foreign trip since the pandemic took hold. He also wants to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade pact abandoned by the United States after President Donald Trump took office.

The transition from Trump to Biden had once seemed fraught with risk for Britain. Unlike Trump, Biden opposed Brexit and has displayed little interest in pursuing a trade agreement with Britain. Trump had dangled a trade deal with the United States as a reward for Brexit.

But Johnson has worked hard to cultivate Biden, announcing policies on climate change and global health, as well as military spending, which dovetail with the priorities of the new president.

In November, Britain will play host to the United Nations’ climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. That is expected to give Biden a stage to showcase the renewed American commitment to the Paris climate accord. Britain’s military spending is a fillip to NATO at a time when Biden also hopes to shore up the alliance.

But there are still places where Britain and the United States could part company. The lack of emphasis on Britain’s relationship with the European Union will disappoint some in the Biden administration, who are trying to revive international cooperation after the unilateral approach of the Trump years.

Britain’s decision to expand its nuclear arsenal may also cause tensions. In its last defense review in 2015, the government disclosed the numbers of missiles and warheads that it planned to carry on submarines. In this review, Britain said it would no longer give numbers for its operational stockpile.

“The decision to reduce the level of transparency on the U.K. nuclear stockpile will not go down well with U.S. officials who want to signal an openness to more progress on nuclear disarmament,” said Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director general of the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London. “The U.K. decision on this would have been easier to sell to the Trump administration.”

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