Rishi Sunak offers UK’s allies cause for hope but Tory dangers linger
Without Liz Truss’s economic mess there would be no UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. But his inevitable focus on the cleanup job has left allies wondering how he’ll handle international issues — and whether his pragmatist, pro-growth instincts can beat out the more extreme voices in his party.
There may be an early indication at United Nations talks on climate change next week in Egypt, and at the two-day Group of 20 meeting in Indonesia starting Nov. 15 focused on boosting the global recovery from the pandemic.
Both are the type of geopolitical set-piece where real progress can be elusive, and almost certainly impossible if a world leader opts for a Trump-like stance. According to one diplomat, the world wants Sunak to revert to the steady, dependable, perhaps boring British diplomacy that predates the topsy-turvy Boris Johnson years and his ill-fated successor, Truss.
It’s an approach that ought to suit Sunak, Britain’s youngest prime minister in more than two centuries, who came to politics via a career in finance and an MBA from Standford in California. But as always in his post-Brexit Conservative Party, much depends on the strength of resistance from Tory hardliners.
Any whiff of Sunak ‘going soft’ on the European Union or on China — or climate change — is likely to trigger a political headache.
It’s a dynamic that’s already visible in talks on a free-trade deal with India, where logic suggests that Britain’s first Hindu premier could help grease the wheels. Yet internal party politics led Sunak to appoint an immigration hardliner to his Cabinet in Suella Braverman, which risks slowing progress.
Still, there are some signs a Sunak’s arrival will soften the harder edges of recent British foreign policy. His office confirmed Thursday that Sunak has abandoned Truss’s controversial proposal to move the British embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, for example.
The problem for foreign diplomats is that Sunak has yet to say much publicly about his foreign agenda.
Whereas both Truss and Boris Johnson were both former foreign secretaries — meaning the world knew where they stood on issues when they took the top job — Sunak rose through Treasury ranks. Even in the UK, he is still widely known as being Chancellor of the Exchequer during the pandemic, and has yet to fully emerge from Johnson’s shadow.
Last month, Joe Biden inadvertently illustrated the UK premier still has some work to do. During a Diwali event at the White House, the US president mispronounced Rishi Sunak as “Rashee Sanook.”
Yet Sunak does come into the job with some overseas connections. According to a German official, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has a positive impression of Sunak after they met when both were finance ministers during the Covid-19 outbreak, and is looking forward to another meeting. There is some hope the British government will be more stable to boost cooperation, the official said.
Another European diplomat said they are reserving judgment to see if the nicer tone from Sunak’s team translates into changes in substance.
“The initial reaction has been that hopefully he will be a bit easier to work with than Liz Truss; that’s a personality thing,” said Emily Lydgate, deputy director of the UK Trade Policy Observatory, a partnership between Chatham House and the University of Sussex. “It’s a case of wait and see.”
It’s the economy
Sunak’s obsession with the economy is likely to mean a more pragmatic approach to foreign policy on some issues.
The embassy in Israel is a case in point. After Donald Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, then British Prime Minister Theresa May denounced the move as provocative, given both Israelis and Palestinians consider Jerusalem to be their capital.
But Truss twice suggested she would follow Trump’s example. Now, amid widespread criticism at home and abroad, Sunak’s has made clear it’s not a fight he has any interest in having.
Sunak is also likely to differ to Truss on China, according to two British officials. She viewed ties through the prism of alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang province, Chinese aggression toward Taiwan and the spat over Hong Kong. Another official described her approach as binary or black and white.
As chancellor, though, Sunak took a different tone and emphasized the strength of the UK-China economic relationship. In that sense, he is more in line with Johnson’s view that British policies toward China should not underestimate the importance of trade, according to one official.
A softer approach toward China would also bring Sunak into line with Scholz, who was the first Western leader to meet Xi Jinping after the Chinese president’s third term was confirmed.
An early public indication of Sunak’s position may come in the next few weeks when his foreign policy special adviser, John Bew, updates the Johnson-era integrated security, defense and foreign policy review from 2021. Bew, an academic, was appointed by Johnson and has stayed in the post since.
Truss had planned to toughen up the language. But Bew is unlikely to go much beyond the condemnation of Beijing’s human rights records and emphasizing the UK view of the Indo-Pacific as a region of most strategic concern, a person familiar with its current contents said.
Boris Johnson’s Conservatives Are Burning Bridges With China
The issue carries political risk for Sunak. Just as Johnson was pushed by angry members of his Conservative Party into a tougher line on China, so Sunak is likely to face Tory brickbats if they see Sunak yielding ground to protect trade.
Old Brexit battles
They are many of the same colleagues who will cause trouble for Sunak if he’s seen to compromise too much with the EU over post-Brexit trade terms in Northern Ireland. The mood music around the long-running spat with the bloc actually started to improve under Truss, and the UK government says its preference is for a negotiated solution.
Publicly, Sunak is still pressing ahead with legislation to directly override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol which the EU has said would spark a strong retaliation, perhaps even a trade war.
But that would go against Sunak’s efforts to protect the economy and would also have major implications for his relationship with Biden — both of which strongly suggest Sunak will ultimately forge a different path.
Where he will almost certainly stick to his predecessors’ playbook is on Ukraine, according to British officials. The officials point to the fact that Sunak chose to make Volodymyr Zelenskiy the first foreign leader he called upon taking office, promising Britain’s “steadfast support.”
Johnson’s Ukraine script
Even as he and Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt prepare to find £50 billion ($56 billion) of tax rises and spending cuts, savings won’t necessarily come from the defense budget, according to one British official.
UK Premier Sunak Says He Will Attend COP27 UN Climate Talks
Meanwhile Sunak’s focus on the British economic crisis has already led to a foreign stumble, after he was widely criticized for initially declining to attend the COP27 summit before being forced into a politically embarrassing U-Turn.
He is also set to attend the G-20 meeting in Bali. But don’t expect any major foreign policy initiatives, warned Anand Menon, professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London. Sunak’s focus will still be on domestic politics and his party’s chances of re-election, he said.
The next general election is due by January 2025 at the latest, though many in Westminster predict it could be in Spring 2024.
“It’s all in the optics for the voters at home,” Menon said. “He must have a bilateral with Joe Biden and wag his finger in the direction of Vladimir Putin. It’s about Brand Rishi and in the time of an economic crisis, foreign policy plays second fiddle.”
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