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  • James Baldwin

Peter Ricketts' 'Hard Choices' Review: A call to change British Foreign Policy


There are many people who have gone unrecognised for vital work in their fields. Look at the natural sciences – Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were overshadowed for their work on penicillin by Alexander Fleming. Rosalind Franklin is another figure whose work on DNA was forgotten until recently. They exist in politics as well; Sir Alexander Cadogan is one of them, and Peter Ricketts, author of Hard Choices, admires him greatly. Indeed, much of the foreign policy which has shaped Britain since the end of World War II, was built on the work of Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary under Halifax, Eden and Bevin in the interwar and immediate post-war period.

Cadogan’s excellent coordination skills got the Atlantic Charter signed, which has guided future international relations since. It is to that end which Ricketts feels we should aspire. Much has changed since the war’s aftermath, where Britain stood alongside the US and USSR and perceived itself a part of the ‘big three’. Ricketts is fast to point this out. But certain figures can be learned from, nonetheless. Ricketts, with an extraordinary wealth of experience in foreign policy, is certainly another.

Hard Choices is a book which helps to see the direction in which Britain should head, as well as the lessons she should take from the happenings of the past 75 years. It is extremely useful to do this, at a point when the nation is tackling an ever-greater number of growing threats.

It begins with the history – starting with the United Nations and NATO. In the book it is evident that Ricketts wants us to work within these pre-established international communities, it being no good breaking away from institutions to try and form new ones. The one’s established in the aftermath of the war have vast amounts of knowledge, actors, and global attention, and it is on this platform that Britain needs to find her voice again, helping move these organisations forward for the 21st Century. NATO, for example, could tilt to the Indo-Pacific to counter Chinese aggression, taking Australia under its belt and expanding its influence. On top of this, Britain could look to pursue what Ricketts terms a ‘new multilateralism’. A start to this may have been found with the D-10 group of democratic countries, an addition to the G7.

Making Britain’s voice heard may be difficult, though. In the aftermath of the Brexit debacle, it is evident that her international standing has been lost. Threats to break international law which, as the book describes proudly, she helped create, will not help this. Instead of working against clear partners – like those next-door in the European Union – we should be cooperating. Ricketts gives us the clear importance of the EU to the UK in trade, military and security terms. A tilt to the Indo-Pacific may help economically, but if we continue on a trajectory of anger against the EU, then that shift will never offset what we will lose out on across the Channel.

Post-Brexit, it is also important that Britain plays its cards right with other major players in the modern world. Ricketts points out the America-China soft conflict as one where Britain must think carefully. He brings up the discussion in government on whether to allow tech company Huawei to play a role in providing 5G in the country; here, they eventually decided not to give them that chance, following American pressure. This was a difficult decision, says Ricketts, as it slows technological progress. As he points out, these situations are all the more likely to continue growing. Now that the EU cannot be a protective shield for us, we have to assess the greater risk involved in standing tall against the CCP. Although, it is my opinion that the obvious path would be cooperation with America over China, even with potential costs.

What is the ultimate solution to the challenges that ‘global’ Britain faces in the modern-world? Ricketts says it’s time to be frank with the British public about the true nature of her worldwide standing. Britain is not the country she once was and it is time to confront the fact that we cannot stand alone.

Sound advice. But it ignores how much of the public would probably respond to such a claim. The campaign to remain in the EU in 2016 tried to argue that Britain could not cope as an ‘independent’ nation. That was dismissed as scaremongering. It also ignores the fact that, at current, there does not seem to be any attempt to build any sort of good relationship with Europe, never mind the stronger one he wants. Nor that, realistically, most parties will manoeuvre away from the issue in a general election campaign.

Nonetheless, Ricketts provides a very compelling argument for the future of British foreign policy and where we should look. It is time to reassess our true power in the world, and it is time to accept that our best interests lie with those countries who we have had years of building up mutual relations with. If we lived in a rational world, perhaps his expertise would be put to good use by this government, as Cadogan’s was by the interwar governments. Right now, that looks unlikely.

Image - Atlantic Books / Hard Choices / Peter Ricketts



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