Old confrontations make for new conflicts

Alistair Burt

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss made her first Mansion House speech last week, the diplomatic set piece of the year in London. She may not make many more. Since William Hague understudied the role in opposition for five years and then occupied Britain’s premier diplomatic seat for a further four years, the average length of stay at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is slightly less than two.

It is a difficult world that should drive the UK government to resolve to keep Truss in place for a while, as she gets to grips with the world’s recovery from COVID, the Brexit negotiations and the war in Ukraine. We shall soon see if UK domestic politics allow this. Hoping that she does, the orientation of policy in her remarks suggested a doubling down on the UK’s position over Ukraine, and a strong focus on alliances to combat the threats the UK sees emerging in the wake of the conflict there. In emphasising the need to modernize military alliances, the foreign secretary identified the need to “pre-empt threats in the Indo- Pacific.” She noted the role that the economy plays in security, again looking east to put down a marker about the need for China to be aware that the UK would “prioritize security and respect for sovereignty over short-term economic gain.”

Truss looked to bilateral partnerships and alliances, mentioning those such as ASEAN, the AU, and the US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement, as an antidote to the malign actors seeking to paralyze international institutions. The disappointment for MENA watchers was the absence of the Middle East from her remarks.

A speech, even as major as the Mansion House speech, cannot simply namecheck the world, and it was entirely understandable that most of her remarks were directed toward the catastrophe that is Ukraine. But coming quickly on the heels of the reorganising of the FCDO, in which the role of Middle East minister has been dropped and the responsibilities for engaging with North Africa and the Middle East have been split between ministers for the first time in many years, it is a worry that some might see an overstretched department losing focus on a region that surely fulfils the objective of providing security through strategic defensive partnerships and key alliances.