Gulf pivot by UK demonstrates benefits of shifting international order

Rise of "coercive diplomacy" shows tough choices are changing international relationships

Britain's Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt takes part in a question and answer session, after delivering a speech entitled "Defending Democracy in the Cyber Age" at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, Thursday March 7, 2019. (Andrew Milligan/PA via AP)

Britain’s re-engagement with the Gulf after a strategic withdrawal four decades earlier is an example of the positive benefits of new forms of diplomacy emerging from the breakdown of the post-Cold War order.

The establishment of a naval base in Bahrain, a permanent military facility in Oman and a more frequent roster of official visits by senior policy makers, as well as London’s expressed interest in a trade deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), all rank as signs that Britain is laying down a platform for deeper relationships beyond Europe.

The imminent prospect of the British withdrawal from the European Union is one of a range of changing international relationships that is transforming the outlook for alliances around the world, a conference at the Chatham House think tank heard on Thursday.

Building or rebuilding relationships in the region as well as South Asia is key to the Global Britain brand London is to pursue in the wake of its break from the EU. Demonstrating that the security of the region is a key British concern but the approach is not centred on threats and dangers but on the opportunities closer ties will bring.

Disruption to the so-called rules based international order has gained a tag as Brexit, Trump and Putin or BTP. The unsettling of the existing system has spawned the idea that “coercive diplomacy”, such as that shown by Russia in its Syria intervention, is far more effective that broad attempts to deepen cooperation for the global good.

Policy makers gathered at the annual conference discussed a range of examples where this had impact and changed the course of events. The failure of the US to force its Nato partners to take up a much higher share of defence expenditure in the Western Hemisphere had been a constant for more than five decades.

The sharp tactics of President Donald Trump, who had focused on a single message to Nato partners, had succeeded where all his predecessors had failed. Mr Trump has told his Nato partners that countries must raise military spending to the agreed threshold of two per cent of Gross Domestic Product. Countries such as Germany lag far below this alliance target. Berlin is set to spend just 1.31 per cent of its GDP on defence in 2019.

The flipside of Mr Trump’s approach is that he has pivoted US foreign policy to a Great Power rivalry approach to international affairs.

As each nation looks out for itself, countries are forcing their own approaches to emerging domains of international competition. Examples were cited where the UK stands ready to retaliate against the Russian intelligence services in instances of cyber-attack or plots like the poisoning attacks in the city of Salisbury last year.

British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt set out a series of four principles underpinning the country’s policy in the cyber domain in a separate speech in Glasgow on Thursday. In particular, he highlighted the need to respond to any attack as a key plank of deterrence.

“The British Government’s starting point is that we must impose a price on malicious cyber activity, including interference in elections, sufficient to deter authoritarian states,” he said. “We won’t always react identically to every individual incident and a cyber-attack will not necessarily encounter a cyber-response.”

Beyond the immediate revolt against the established order there are states that are keen to rewrite the international rules to reflect what they see as a new reality, the Chatham House meeting heard. China’s one belt-one road (OBOR) is largely seen as an economic platform but has seen it become embroiled in the security affairs of nations where it has invested.

The long-run prospect is that the polar forces in the emerging system lie at Washington at one end and Beijing at the other