Politics

How Britain Wants to Rebuild the World


With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces bogged down in Ukraine, apparently unable to defeat one of the poorest nations in Europe, and China locking up millions of people in a seemingly never-ending battle to contain COVID-19, the once-ubiquitous idea of inevitable Western decline has suddenly been called into question. Out of nowhere, the free world once again stands for something, and is even showing signs of shaking itself out of its decades-long torpor.

That, at least, is the message Britain wants the United States and its allies to take from the bloody chaos and confusion that characterizes global politics today. More than that, Britain wants the West to raise its sights. Forget trying to get Moscow and Beijing to play by the rules of the game; they won’t. Forget the idea that the United Nations and the World Trade Organization are fit for purpose; they aren’t. And forget utopian beliefs about the inevitable progress of democracy; they’re mistaken.

Instead, Britain’s leaders believe that NATO should expand its mission, that the G7 should be turned into an economic weapon, and that the West, for so long embarrassed about its history and wealth, should start trusting itself again—and acting like it does.

The message is a striking one from a country that, perhaps more than any other, has over the past few years been paralyzed by its own division, strategic confusion, and myopic self-doubt. But the war in Ukraine appears to have given London an injection of energy and ambition (or, as its critics might prefer, hubris and self-delusion), a shift that has caught the attention of Moscow and Kyiv, where Britain’s sudden sense of hawkish self-belief has sparked equal measures of opprobrium and delight.

In Moscow, Britain is now portrayed as one of the West’s leading belligerents determined to stop Russia’s reemergence as a great power. State news features clips of the U.K. being annihilated with nuclear weapons. Analysts decry London as one of the two heads of the great Anglo-American dragon, more evil than Washington, while displaying images of the government’s leading hawks—Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his lesser-known foreign secretary, Liz Truss.

Before rising to her current position, Truss was often mocked in the British press for her self-promotion, particularly on Instagram, as well as for a viral video of her, tongue planted somewhere in cheek, condemning the country’s dependence on imported cheese as a “disgrace.” She has also been criticized as a shape-shifter who backed remaining in the European Union before becoming one of the government’s chief proselytizers for Brexit. Yet Truss has been as forceful as Johnson in pushing Britain’s response to Putin’s invasion, and promoting the reimagination of an international order that she admitted to me she had taken for granted.

Truss’s central idea is that the West has grown complacent since the end of the Cold War, because of a spiritual crisis in which it has forgotten what it stands for and how to defend its ideals, allowing its opponents to take advantage of its institutions and openness. She believes that the West needs to start fighting back. To do so, Truss called for the G7 to be “more institutionalized” and turned into an “economic NATO” that can defend its members from Chinese economic coercion. She also wants NATO itself to become more global in its vision, reflecting the fact that thinking of European security is now impossible without taking into account Beijing and its deepening alliance with Moscow.

“This is consciously saying the UN and the WTO have not worked to challenge this behavior,” she told me in a wide-ranging interview in her office. “This is why we really need to lean into these groupings, these partnerships—coalitions of the willing, if you like—to get things done.”

For many officials and experts in Paris, Berlin, and even Washington, Britain’s ideas are not new, just a different take on self-serving attempts to protect British influence. Leaving the EU has made Britain more dependent on the international organizations it still belongs to, such as NATO and the G7. France, in particular, believes that the real lesson of the Ukraine crisis is to empower the EU to be less reliant on the U.S., in turn freeing Washington to focus on its rivalry with Beijing.

Truss, however, countered that the last time Europe cut Britain and the U.S. out of its diplomatic efforts—when Germany and France brokered the so-called Minsk agreements between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea—was a disaster. Truss suggested that things might have been different had London and Washington been involved from the start. “We should’ve been there,” she said. “The U.K. is the biggest European spender in NATO. The U.S. is the major force in NATO. Both the U.K. and the U.S. should’ve been involved, and we’re not going to make that mistake again.” Implicit in this is a message to the U.S. that its leadership is still needed.

Such stark language is unlikely to go down well in Paris and Berlin, where Britain’s hawkish stance toward Russia has been quietly criticized since the beginning of the conflict. According to some diplomats and officials I spoke with, Britain’s position has made reaching a cease-fire more difficult, driving up the price of peace that will be paid for with Ukrainian blood, and all in a fairly see-through attempt to restore Britain’s reputation after Brexit. Even within the U.K. government, officials have voiced concern to me that Truss’s hawkishness is partly a political play to improve her standing ahead of any contest to succeed Johnson. (British diplomats, by contrast, argue that French and German reluctance is little more than weakness dressed up as sophistication.)

Yet it is hard to dispute that the Western position on Russia’s invasion has moved in line with Britain rather than the other way around. Instead of suggesting that Britain look for “off-ramps” for Putin, Truss echoed Johnson, who has said the Russian leader “must fail and be seen to fail.” Putin, she told me, “has ambitions to create a greater Russia that is threatening to all of continental Europe and the United Kingdom. So we have an interest in both helping the Ukrainians in restoring their sovereignty and territorial integrity, making sure in the future that they are properly defended, but we also have an interest in containing Russian aggression, because that is what we have failed to do since the end of the Cold War.”

She was critical not only of the French and Germans but, implicitly, most Western leaders since the turn of the century, listing the decision to allow China into the WTO under Bill Clinton and the failure to respond adequately to Russia’s annexation of Crimea under Barack Obama as significant mistakes. Such weakness, in Truss’s view, meant that by 2022, Russia did not believe warnings from Washington, London, Paris, and Berlin. “Putin had got the message by the West’s inaction in 2014 and subsequently believed that we would carry on doing, or rather not doing, what we hadn’t been doing before,” she told me. “So they didn’t take the warning seriously.”

Britain’s position is that Russia and China did not take the West seriously—because the West had stopped taking itself seriously.

When Truss sets out her vision of the free world unsheathing its sword of freedom once again, she seems to be overlooking one sizable problem: the United States. In 2024, the U.S. might well vote again for Trump—or one of his acolytes—and although the former president may share Britain’s notion of Western weakness, he certainly does not believe in a spiritual union joined in an idealistic defense of liberty. When I mentioned this to Truss, she dodged, declaring that it was “a matter for the American people who they elect as their president” and insisting that the U.S. had always been “an absolutely crucial part of the free world, its leading light.”

Indeed, there is a bit of Trump in Britain’s vision for the world. Truss told me that although free trade and free enterprise were “great drivers of human progress,” they had been abused by China and Russia. Free trade, Truss said, had to be based on proper rules, absent which it could “be used by kleptocracies, by authoritarian regimes to create dependencies.” She added: “We failed to think through all of those things, because we took freedom for granted.” I wondered whether she thought Trump had been proved right in his claim that China had stolen America’s lunch. “There’s a lot of things that Trump has said that have proved to be true,” she said—before adding by way of insurance: “There are also things he’s said that haven’t proved to be true.”

With Truss it is hard to avoid the sense that, imaginatively at least, she has never quite left the 1980s and its sense of mission. As we chat, I can’t help but notice her references to “Mrs. Thatcher” and sound bites that seem to be from another era: “We can never ever let down our guard”; “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Truss was teased in the British press for appearing in Moscow before the invasion wearing the same Russian-style fur hat that Margaret Thatcher once wore during the Cold War. To her critics, the foreign secretary was purposefully mimicking her great heroine in the hope that some of the Iron Lady’s aura might rub off on her.

In our conversation, Truss didn’t do much to dispel the idea of herself as something of a Cold Warrior. She told me she was working her way through a biography of Peter Carrington, Thatcher’s foreign secretary when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. On a shelf, I saw a copy of Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge, which explores the link between Richard Nixon’s administration and Ronald Reagan—exactly the sort of book I would have expected her to read. “I read a wide variety of books,” she said, adding that she had recently completed Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People. “But I think what happened in the Cold War, learning the lessons of how we succeeded in challenging the U.S.S.R.’s ideas as well as their actions, is very important.”

As I spoke with her, it became clear that, rather than thinking we are now in a second cold war, she believes that the first one never really ended. “The sense that we had [was] that the battle was over,” she said. “But they never stopped fighting.” She went on: “There are elements of the Soviet system that have continued.” Does she think the battle ahead is one not just of economics and power, but of ideas? I asked. “Yes!” she exclaimed.

For Truss, the West’s failure to defend its values explains not only its external problems with countries such as Russia and China, but its internal problems as well. “There has been some worrying polling that even in the West, younger generations are less attached to democracy than older generations,” she said. “I think this is a broader part of not making the argument for freedom and democracy, not following through particularly on economics.”

I can see the attraction of such an analysis. Out of the seeming chaos of the past few decades, in which Western liberalism has felt under attack from almost everywhere and everything—including from within—suddenly there is the prospect of a return to a more straightforward division of the world: into good and bad, free and unfree, rule-abiding and rule-breaking. In this world, Britain can once again take up a mission and a role it understands, that of the hawkish freedom fighter stiffening the spines of its yellow-bellied European allies while working with the other head of the Western dragon—if only it too would start to believe.

Ever since World War II, Britain has held on to an idea of itself as the Greece to America’s Rome, guiding its imperial successor in the art of hegemony, giving it the ideas to shape the world. This vision of British influence has always had a comforting naivete to it. And despite Truss’s condemnation of naive Western idealism, there remains something slightly naive and idealistic about Truss herself. She believes in the free world in a way that Trump and many in both Britain and the U.S. clearly do not.

When I casually mentioned that, after all, we live in an American world, Truss quickly interjected to dismiss my premise. I suggested that she was being too credulous, but she insisted that British policy decisions to align with the U.S. were taken because they were the “right” thing to do, not because of America’s power.

To some jaded diplomats, officials, and academics, Truss is a manifestation of British double standards and oversimplification, too strident and see-through. But as one senior British official put it to me, her directness has its benefits, bearing a forcefulness that allows governments to bypass ever-cautious officials. And, at least, she carries with her an idea—something to rally around.

During our conversation, Truss told me she had just finished America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, by the former George W. Bush–administration official and World Bank president Robert Zoellick. In the book’s opening pages, Zoellick tells a story from America’s founding, when the new nation had to carefully balance its relations with France and Britain, the two superpowers of the day. After winning its independence with French support, the U.S. quickly decided to mend relations with its former master, sparking fury in Paris. “Great powers never complained,” a French diplomat said, “but they felt and remembered.”

Today, just as in 1782, nations feel and remember. You have only to read or watch Putin’s ranting about “Great Russia, Little Russia, and White Russia” to understand that. The same is true in Britain: Almost every room of the Foreign Office seems to contain some reminder of the past. To get to Truss’s office, for example, you climb the building’s grand double staircase, sweeping past statues and busts of former foreign secretaries who once had the power to move borders and armies, until you are standing in front of a series of giant murals depicting Britain’s allegorical rise to imperial glory. The first of these is titled The Seafarers Claim Britain as Their Bride. Britannia, the female manifestation of Britain, is shown crouched, shielding England’s native tribes from what look like Viking raiders. To modern eyes, the images—painted during the First World War—are jarring, both in their brutality and in their high imperialism. Yet they are also examples of how nations tell stories and how quickly those stories change.

Chatting with Truss was a reminder that national memory is not so much a recollection of dry facts and events as a narrative that nations construct to help them understand their history. Her narrative has been shaped by her perception of the 1980s, the triumph of liberty, of Reagan and Thatcher.

Truss’s assessment is not particularly controversial or new. Governments across the world recognize that the decades following the Cold War were marked by a disastrous combination of hubris, sanctimony, and inaction.

The point, however, is not whether Britain’s story about Western complacency is new or accurate, but whether it is believed. Nations not only feel and remember; they change their stories depending on what is happening at the time, projecting upon history a new story that fits whatever new situation they are facing, helping them make sense of it.

In the 1980s, the story many people—at least in Britain and America—believed was about righteousness and victory. It may have been overly simplistic, even wrong, but it was powerful precisely because enough people subscribed to it, including Truss and Johnson.

Today, Russia clearly feels and remembers its history. But because of what it has done, other countries are starting to remember theirs. For the current British government, whether out of self-interest or ideological conviction, the hope is that the West itself will start believing in an old story again.



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