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This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: What next for Global Britain?

Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. This week’s edition is about Britain’s place in the world, a new king and a new prime minister. But the UK faces some familiar problems. Above all, the threat from Russia. But also, relations with Europe, rise of China, and charting a new course after Brexit. My guest this week is Bronwen Maddox, who’s just taken over as the new director of Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs here in London. So with Liz Truss installed in 10 Downing Street, will we finally discover the true meaning of Global Britain? Britain stopped still on Monday, September the 19th, for the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.

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Gideon Rachman
But after the solemnity and emotion of the funeral, it was quickly back to politics and diplomacy as usual. Liz Truss jetted off to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. One of her first meetings there was with President Emmanuel Macron of France. During her campaign to be Tory leader, Truss have caused a few raised eyebrows with her response to this question about Macron.

News clip
[Liz Truss speaking] President Macron, friend or foe? The jury’s out. But if I become Prime Minister, I would judge him on deeds, not words.

Gideon Rachman
Liz Truss, of course, has replaced Boris Johnson as prime minister and she served as his foreign secretary. So I asked Bronwen Maddox if she thought Liz Truss represents anything new and distinctive in foreign policy.

Bronwen Maddox
I’m sure she does. Her key decision is gonna be on Europe. Does she adopt an abrasive tone, which is what she has done so far? But really, all roads lead to Europe, I think, in her foreign policy. We need the trading relationships. We need the alliance over Ukraine. We need a lot of other things. And if there was a fight over Northern Ireland, that really gets in the way very badly. The tone is at the moment, both from her and from European leaders, that they don’t want that fight. But what they both mean by that may be different.

Gideon Rachman
I’m very struck by your phrase “all roads lead to Europe,” because as far as Brexit is concerned, the whole point of Brexit is all roads lead away from Europe. That they see this non-European Global Britain as their ideal, really.

Bronwen Maddox
They do. And Liz Truss has been one of those in saying, look here, all the other trade relationships. And when it became clear when she was foreign secretary and making much of the trade deals that a US trade deal might not be in the offing, she’d never mind. There are others, there are lots of others. She’s been very good at talking that talk. But the fact is, the numbers aren’t big of these other relationships. And it is, if you listen to the trouble that business and individual travellers are still having in getting to Europe, dealing with Europe and so on, it’s clear that much of the ordinary life of the country needs to be built on close relations with Europe in some sense. And so I think it is very hard in just that everyday sense to get away from relations with Europe, and then you get the more dramatic, more current stuff about energy policy, about relations with European countries over Ukraine, about a common front on these bigger problems. And again, she can’t get away from those conversations, I think.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, we should go into detail on some of those issues in a second, but just on the kind of government that she’s going to lead and therefore their approach to Europe, it seems to me I mean, I think you probably know them a bit better than I do, but what I call sort of a one last push tendency is still dominant that people like Jacob Rees-Mogg and so on, who believe that we haven’t done enough really to pursue what they call the opportunities of Brexit and therefore would be very allergic to the idea that we should come to some sort of rapprochement with Europe and that there’s no real alternative to it. Are they not still the dominant voices? I can’t quite read, James Cleverly, the new foreign secretary. I don’t really know what he stands for, but the others who have a more visible public profile seem to be more prone to that tendency than the other.

Bronwen Maddox
I do use the prime minister’s phrase “the jury is out” on what her government is going to choose to do. All we’ve got is scraps of tone from her. We’ve got die-hard positions amongst some of her cabinet. Absolutely, Jacob Rees-Mogg. But I think there is more flexibility in her foreign secretary, in her chancellor, in herself even. It really depends what case they can see for getting close to Europe. Not at any cost, but really the cost of friction. Even a trade war at this point is so high. If you think of what appears to be in government presentation, completely different bit of policy, the desire to spend, the intention to spend more than a £100bn on helping people with the cost of energy at the moment. That money is a downside easier for Britain to borrow in the markets if we are not simultaneously having a trade war with our nearest trading partners. But the markets might well take a much dimmer view of lending Britain that money if there were a lot of friction with Europe because of the consequences for the country’s finances.

Gideon Rachman
And that market pressure could come really quite quickly. I mean, the pound is at the lowest level against the dollar, I think since the mid-1980s?

Bronwen Maddox
We live in very rhetorical times. I don’t mean to misappropriate the Financial Times’s slogan, but I think finances can make themselves known very, very quickly. We’ve had this almost suspension of normal conversation about finance, even with markets during the period of coronavirus. But I don’t think that period will go on forever. These are very large sums of money that the country intends to borrow to pay for this current crisis. And it can’t fight too many battles at once. And taking on the markets at the same time as European leaders would not be wise, I think.

Gideon Rachman
Mm-hmm. Before we get on to how they might resolve Northern Ireland if indeed it is resolvable. You know a lot of our listeners are not in this country and probably is slightly grasping for sense of who Liz Truss is. And I think that’s not just because she’s new. It’s also because her biography, she was a Remainer and she now appears to be a very ardent Brexiteer. I mean, what happened there? Do you think this was just pure pragmatic politics?

Bronwen Maddox
No, I really don’t. I don’t think she’s an opportunistic politician, simply adopting the view of the moment because it will serve her politically. To the extent any of us know, my strong impression is she prides herself on being a disrupter of coming in with unorthodox ideas from the accounts of people working with her. Those can come very suddenly, that be picked up somewhere. It’s not that she cannot be disabused of them, but her team might then have to pedal quite hard to set out all the reasons why the latest idea is not gonna work before returning to another one. But she does pride herself on this disrupting quality. She was proud of herself on being one of the first to use Uber, to use all these kind of things. And the trouble is we’re talking about a very disrupted world already. What a disruptor is going to have as an effect is very hard to predict, but I think she sees herself as breaking the mould and would see the sequence or present the sequence of ideas, not as searching for votes, but as the best idea, in her view, at that time. And she would then justify all kinds of changes of opinion because of that.

Gideon Rachman
She has just come as foreign secretary. So we have some sense of her approach to the world. And one thing, I think probably the most distinctive thing about her, has been a very ardent support for Ukraine. Pretty hard line from the beginning when some people were sort of hesitating. And I remember meeting her at the Munich Security Forum just three days before the, four or five days, before the war broke out. And her saying very adamantly, you know, the outcome of this is that Putin must lose. I have a sense that, if anything, the central position the West has moved closer to where she was then. But do you think that some in America who, after all, you know, they’re the key, might find her almost a little too hardline on this?

Bronwen Maddox
I’d be surprised. I think they would share her view that Putin must lose. And the reason the West has moved towards her, if you like, is partly because of Ukrainians’ bravery and success in driving Russia back the point when it looked as if Russia might not lose. People were talking much more quietly about what kind of exit, what kind of settlement, and so on. I think it’s her strongest card because she wants to get the US onside to repair some of the frost or distance in that relationship. And talking about Ukraine, talking about the money and military aid that Britain intends to give Ukraine very soon, the money that Britain intends to spend on defence — this is gonna be music to the ears of the Biden administration and would be to any American administration.

Gideon Rachman
I suppose on the hardline aspect, I was thinking, you know, she said again very early that Crimea must go back to Ukraine. I’m not quite clear where the Biden administration is on that. They’ve been a bit more equivocal on it.

Bronwen Maddox
I’m not quite clear where the Liz Truss administration may end up on that one. That’s exactly the kind of thing where we may look for changes a position, if you like, an evolution of position compared to some of her earlier statements. Some of them do come very abruptly out of the blue, but the tone has been consistent — Ukraine must be the winning side for the sake of values it represents. And I think that kind of clarity can form a bridge with the US, even if the individual bits of policy attached to it get melded in some way.

Gideon Rachman
And obviously, the big flashpoint potentially with the White House and with the US in general, is Northern Ireland. If we break the protocol, how is she gonna play that? Because her party seem adamant that that’s what she’s got to do. Those are the noises she’s making. The legislation is sitting there. You mentioned that this is critical. Do you see room for compromise with Europe?

Bronwen Maddox
Yes, I do. I think it’s there for the fudging. On the face of it, it’s an impossible thing to fudge. There must be a border somewhere. So where’s it gonna be? In the Irish Sea or within the island of Ireland — one or the other. But in practice, given that most of the traffic and the importing across the Irish Sea is going to Northern Ireland or going to Great Britain, most between the two, it ought to be possible to have a fudge that would have a compromise, if you like, a detailed compromise with Europe about very light level checks. And I think talks are fairly advanced on that. It really depends whether both sides wanna get over the line. The trip to the US may be helpful in that. Liz Truss is in danger as every British prime minister is underestimating just how much the US cares about peace in Ireland, how much the Biden administration in particular cares. And just getting that wrong. But they will be told, “Look, this really, really matters.” And she can probably, you know, count on being the US’s main ally on all kinds of things. But that relationship will be much, much stronger if there isn’t a row over Northern Ireland.

Gideon Rachman
So you think the US still does have considerable leverage? Because it struck me that the fact that Truss has now acknowledged, what perhaps some of us probably knew, that there will not be a US-UK trade deal — which was this thing that Boris Johnson and others had held out as one of the great prizes of Brexit. In a way, makes it slightly easier to risk a confrontation with them over Northern Ireland because, you know, that had been the thing. Well, if you do this, you won’t get the trade deal when we’re not getting a trade deal anyway.

Bronwen Maddox
It is just costing too much all around. That point of friction with the US, if you look back a year ago to the G7, Boris Johnson had to spend so much time talking to Biden and to US officials about Northern Ireland that he didn’t really have time to bring up Afghanistan. One of the many reasons why Britain was both taken by surprise and didn’t really get its say in over the exit from Afghanistan.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. And coming back to this rebuilding of the relationship with Europe, I mean, there will be an opportunity quite soon potentially because President Macron has floated this idea of a new European political community, which would take in a lot of the countries that haven’t joined the EU or, you know, may not for a very long time. The invitation has been extended to Britain to go to this meeting in Prague, I think in the beginning of October. Do you think the government will accept and do you think they should accept?

Bronwen Maddox
I think they should accept. Whether they will . . . what level? I don’t know. But they should, because of the common conversations that Britain has with Europe — security, migration or energy policy — even before you get down to, you know, details of borders and trade and so on, and standards and regulations and so on. So, no, I think Britain should and I think it’s a useful kind of device to break the binary “Well, are you in or are you out?” But creating ways for countries not in Europe still to have conversations on common interest with Europe? I think it’s only useful that quite a lot of these countries, not just Britain, who are around the borders of Europe and feeling unsure about what kind of links they can have if it’s not the whole of membership. So it’s useful, but people have created a lot of these talking shops over the years, and . . . 

Gideon Rachman
It’s an idea the French have pushed in different forms for a very long time.

Bronwen Maddox
And these things can take off given a bit of urgency, or they can just dissolve.

Gideon Rachman
I mean, I guess the thing that the British are always saying and others say that is Britain’s strong card in Europe is the strength of the military, the security role, et cetera. And that has been in evidence over Ukraine. I mean, they’re training a lot of Ukrainian troops right now. Do you think that the government, though, might be tempted to try to use that in a different way? I mean, already they’ve offered the security guarantee to Sweden and I think Norway and Finland. There’s building a close relationship with the Baltics. Might they try to, if not divide and rule, at least deal with the EU again as individual states, rather than try to create some new structure which, so, for example, Macron’s European political community suggests?

Bronwen Maddox
It’s very much to the British way to try to form these bilaterals or, you know, relationships with groups of countries. Coalition of the willing, if you want to use that phrase. Countries that see things the same way. And there always have been a squad of those within the European Union that see things more the British way or have need, particular need, of the things that Britain can offer — in this particular case, military. So I think, yes, that feels like the kind of informal, quasi-formal way that Britain has gone about its relationships and it has been more the French way to try to create structures and clubs, if you like. But, you know, in the end, these may amount to much the same thing as to the degree of formality attached to them.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. I mean, I think one of the interesting things around the royal funeral was the extent to which Macron really went out of his way to emphasise the depth of British-French ties and so on after Truss had not been able to say whether he was a friend or a foe. But do you think that at least I mean, in France and in some other European countries, there remains a suspicion of what Britain is trying to do with Brexit, a sense that maybe they actually want to destroy the European Union, because I’m not that they necessarily have the power to do that. But you see that rhetoric on bits of the Tory right. People can read English, so there must still be some suspicion of what Britain’s really up to.

Bronwen Maddox
I think that’s right. Some of that might be well-founded in the sense that the people who wanted Brexit, nobody saw it as a bigger project of Britain in the world. Some of it is not well-founded suspicion. It’s imputing all kinds of ground projects to things that never really had that aspiration.

Gideon Rachman
But I think that, you know, for — hate to keep taking its name in vain — but the Jacob Rees-Mogg’s tendency, there’s always been this idea that the European Union was on the point of collapse. And I suspect that if it collapsed with or without British help, they would see that as a kind of vindication, a sort of told-you-so moment.

Bronwen Maddox
They would, but it doesn’t seem on the point of collapse now in its own grand project. In fact, having an external enemy famously can be good for this sense of direction and purpose, and some of the rows that were boiling up before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, like with Poland and Hungary over democratic rights and courts and so on, those have faded because of Europe’s need to hang together on this particular front. But there’s no question that your phrase on other fronts and energy policy is absolutely one of those at the moment. So it depends which lens you’re looking through. But is the European Union just about to dissolve? No.

Gideon Rachman
And talking about external enemies — I mean, obviously, the major foreign policy challenge facing Britain is Russia — feels as if people feel that Britain’s been on the right side and that it’s going relatively well. But do you think that there’s an undercurrent of concern, alarm about where this might go? I mean, Russia is a major military power, which, you know, as we speak, seems to be on the point of mobilising its population. At the moment, people seem to me to be quite relaxed. But that mood could change, yeah?

Bronwen Maddox
I think the mood could change. You do hear people musing, but I agree with you. It’s sort of like a distant subject about whether Putin might use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. People don’t feel it’s about to hit home. It is an incredibly rapid change in sort of fear, if you like, from it feels not so long ago when people’s prime external fear appeared to be terrorism and terrorism coming from outside the country. And we swung around in just a few years from that fear to again fears of enemies that have nation-states as their face. I think people are actually afraid of a lot of things at the moment and cost of living and money and the sheer uncertainty of the world — for a lot of people it’s sort of melding together. And viruses that we, you know, would never have expected three years ago that that was going to be one. And there’s just a huge sense of uncertainty, all of these having some legitimacy.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. And I think that if we were having this conversation in Washington, if we were Americans, the great threat that they would see on the horizon wouldn’t be so much Russia as China, and Britain as recently as was at 2015 and David Cameron’s period was talking about a golden era in relations with China. Has that been completely forgotten now? How close are we to the American position, which seems to me to now pretty unambiguously treat China as a rival and as a threat?

Bronwen Maddox
I think we don’t know. Yes, Liz Truss has indicated that she’s likely to label China a threat, but Britain has tried this ambivalence for years and years, really wanting America to sound tough towards China and meanwhile exploiting commercial, academic opportunities. I think Britain is going to be pushed by the US to be a bit clearer about this. You can hear the Truss government trying to construct the same room for having it both ways: to talk tough, to side with America if we’re trying to do anything on Taiwan, but also to keep open commercial links. But I think the government genuinely has not worked out what to do, borrow a couple of cases of investment and so on. Really not worked out what to do about the Chinese presence in universities and so on. And so this is one of the naughtiest, not the most urgent, but one of the naughtiest problems to face Britain’s foreign policy now.

Gideon Rachman
Hmm. And one big development in the Johnson years was the signing of this pact with Australia and the US, the Aukus pact, which I think was interpreted by China perhaps not entirely wrongly as a sort of anti-China front. How significant do you think that was? There are some people who say, well, there wasn’t actually that much substance to it because the submarines, which are the centre of the deal, weren’t actually materialised for many, many years.

Bronwen Maddox
These things can be hugely substantive or nothing at all, and it really depends what’s done. I don’t think China was wrong, though, to take it as a statement of solidarity of these countries in the face of many threats, one of which being China’s assertiveness in the region. But it really depends what use the signatories to that pact want to put it. You hope they’re not going to have early reason to test it, but it’s conceivable they do.

Gideon Rachman
And finally, I guess it was a manifestation of Global Britain. And Global Britain is slightly contentless at times or can seem that. But I guess it was a statement of ambition that we don’t just have to be this one member of the European club, we can be a global player again. But for that to be even vaguely plausible, we have to have a strong economy. And you mentioned earlier in the discussion this economic anxiety. How fragile do you think Britain’s economic situation is right now?

Bronwen Maddox
The country is not in good shape. You have all kinds of long-standing problems that government after government has tried to solve about productivity, about the unequal distribution of wealth, of earning power across the country, of the patchy educational system — all these things. And they take time to address, if they can be addressed at all. And the country clearly wants more in the way of public services, particularly health, than it can afford. Those were all true before the pandemic, and pandemic finances have made it even worse. So, you know, this is a difficult economic handful of problems for any government to take on. But I think you’re absolutely right in what you say, and that success does answer a lot of these questions about whether our country can stand alone, about whether it can project itself on the world stage. I certainly wouldn’t write the country off at this point, but these problems have been there for a long time. Governments were, I think, getting better and more direct about tackling them. Boris Johnson’s levelling up was actually, it seems to me, an honourable, if fitful, attempt to do something about development around different parts of the country, the devolution to the four nations, but also within England that is getting more momentum. All those things begin to have an effect, but they’re slow burn and obviously the world is looking for quick answers, which aren’t going to come. But, you know, there are some enormous economic strengths, but it is patchy.

Gideon Rachman
One of the strengths that Britain does have is a network of international institutions, universities, et cetera. And you’re now head of one of these quite well-known international institutions, the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Everywhere I go, the phrase “Chatham House Rule” seems to be used globally. So you’ve been in the job for, what, just a few weeks now, so it’s perhaps unfair to ask you, but what do you hope to do with this institution?

Bronwen Maddox
We need have a clear voice on the problems facing the world and what we think the answers are, and that includes some of the relationships between countries. We do a lot on geopolitics and we want to look very hard at what the rise of China means, where the US goes now, whether it can hold itself together and work well as a country internally, what that means externally. We do want to look at Britain’s role in the world, and we look at big themes like environment and sustainability and so on. So, you know, my job is to make sure we’re posing the right questions and that we are not just leaving them dangling as questions, but answering them.

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Gideon Rachman
That was Bronwen Maddox, the new director of Chatham House, ending this edition of the Rachman Review. Thanks for joining me and please listen again next week.

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