Britain’s ongoing struggle to fully understand and accept its role in the world is perfectly embodied by its latest foreign secretary, who is attracting the wrong kind of attention for her delusional speeches and lack of humility.
Has Britain’s new foreign secretary registered on your radar yet? Liz Truss has only been in the role for three months, but she is unquestionably the most embarrassing top politician the UK has ever seen.
That’s quite a claim, but it’s not unfounded. On Wednesday, she gave a speech to the hawkish US, Japan, and Taiwan-funded neoconservative think-tank the Henry Jackson Society, titled ‘Building the Network of Liberty’.
The address was a messy bombardment of Cold War chauvinism, exceptionalism, delusion, arrogance, and dogmatism, all of which was so aggrandising that actually it made Donald Trump’s bullish rhetoric on America seem quite humble in comparison.
Truss told her audience, “Britain is the greatest country on Earth. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, you can achieve your dreams,” and “our foreign policy will project pride in our country and in all its elements, including our great cities, our towns and our countryside.” She also made clear her explicit intention to “pull more countries into the orbit of freedom.” Only days ago, she was stating that Britain shouldn’t worry about its historical crimes, and was then pictured posing in a tank in a Margaret Thatcher-style photo. The message is clear enough.
Truss is the embodiment of Britain’s foreign policy in the post-Brexit era, which is out of touch with reality and increasingly built on soundbites, ultra-nationalism, and outright fantasy. She occupies the office she holds not because she is in any way competent, but because of her base brand value to domestic voters, as seen in the kind of nonsense trotted out in her speech. Britain would be as well having Al Murray’s comic creation the Pub Landlord as foreign secretary; he says the same kind of things.
Truss is obviously not a strategist, but a salesperson, peddling to the public the idea that Britain is reclaiming its lost status as a great power and is on a crusade to dominate the rest of the world with its ‘sacred values’.
Even worse is that these egotistical soundbites are somehow deemed to be an adequate substitute from the economic fallout of leaving the European Union, showing how identity politics – and not practical thinking – are increasingly at the helm. Who could embody that more than Truss?
Global Britain is a global sham, and the so-called “network of liberty” is a mere foreign policy mantra that might win some votes but will deliver no tangible gains for Britain.
Why? Because the world is changing, mostly driven by the rise of China. There is an ongoing shift in the global economy’s centre of gravity from the Euro-Atlantic area to the Asia-Pacific. The countries of the West, who have been globally dominant since the rise of the European colonial empires in the 17th century, are sensitive to that shift.
There is a widespread sense of insecurity derived from a loss of status. As such, Western countries have tried to arrest this shift in the form of Indo-Pacific strategies, which are designed to both contain the rise of China and cement themselves as the dominant powers within what will become the world’s new financial epicentre.
The US is spearheading this, but the UK has specifically blended this strategic consideration in with the marketing of Brexit, which already incorporated Neo-imperialistic themes of being out of Europe, but embracing the world.
However, what will bring about the failure of Britain at large – and Liz Truss specifically – is the lack of self-awareness and inability to understand how offensive this rhetoric comes across, particularly in countries that were previously part of the British empire.
Truss is effectively spelling it out that Britain’s foreign policy is about nothing more than securing ideological dominance, framing the complexity of world affairs into a binary struggle between freedom and authoritarianism, and talking about bringing them into the “orbit of freedom.”
She is so indulged in self-exceptionalism that, similar to the US, she is unable to see the reality that some countries might just not want that. Is that kind of talk appealing to Africa? Or Southeast Asia? Or the Indian subcontinent? Or the Middle East? As was seen in some of the rhetoric espoused following Barbados’ decision to scrap the British monarchy and become a republic, the contemporary leadership of Britain does not grasp that for all its successes and soft power, countries are not asking to be ‘rescued’ and do not ‘belong’ in the British sphere of influence.
If they don’t want Chinese hegemony, they certainly don’t want Anglophone hegemony either. While Truss says she doesn’t care about the past, many countries do, having suffered atrocities on a scale the UK doesn’t take seriously and refuses to account for. It’s easy to dismiss colonialism if you have never suffered from it and don’t understand what it means, but the trauma is still fresh in the memories of many.
The English-speaking world has a mentality of “it’s in the past, get over it – but we’re still more righteous than you.” Not only is this condescending, it is ridiculous and plain ignorant. This is why Truss’s rhetoric will be met with indifference, if not amusement, by so many nations.
Accordingly, the “network of liberty” is destined to be a failure, not least because there is no obvious plan to implement it and it massively exaggerates Britain’s role and influence.
The reality is that modern Britain is a passenger, a country which makes up the numbers in aimlessly following America’s will. There is also the unspoken truth – which Truss will never acknowledge – that in a post-Brexit world, Britain will have to rely on China as an important partner in trade and investment, and doesn’t have as many alternative options as it would like to think.
The contradictions were on clear display in Truss’s speech, where Beijing was mentioned just once. She said, “China now spends over twice as much on development finance as the US. 44 low- and middle-income countries have debts to Beijing in excess of 10% of their GDP,” but then proceeded to propose just a £9 billion annual fund to try and counter China.
As a reminder, the total value of China’s accumulative Belt and Road projects amounts to $3.7 trillion. Such is the product of a foreign policy of hot air, from a country that is increasingly pretending to be something which it is not.