Ukraine has set the cat amongst the pigeons. The war there has turned upside down the lives of millions of people, making them into refugees, persecuted, displaced and dispossessed people. And it has shone a light on villainy and heroism. But it has also turned on its head what many thought they knew. Global Britain’s place in the world has been shown not to be the Union flag draped backdrop of many a Ministerial interview but the hard slog of collaboration and engagement with others to coordinate action and to contain hurt, harm and damage.
Above all, Ukraine shows us in stark form the peril into which our much vaunted “rules-based international order” has been thrown. Not so much rules-based; and not so much order.
Go-it-alone Britain has been leading from the back, scrambling to catch up with Europe and to keep up with the sympathies and instincts of many of its citizens, recycling the actions of others as post facto initiatives of ours. Government talks a sure-footed talk about “leading the way” but seems to stumble wrong-footed at nearly every turn. Tone deaf Ministerial pronouncements land like mortar fire walking towards inevitable change – no refugees; a few refugees; more refugees; many refugees. (Who knew that policy change could be shaped merely by visiting the scenes which our media have been faithfully relaying to us daily?)
But beyond the human tragedy, minds must be turning to what this all means.
Events dictate policy as surely as anything. So talk of an Indo-Pacific Tilt – in our own self interest – will inevitably turn to discussion about coalitions and alliances for a common good. The Laws of War, tattered and damaged as they have become in the last decade or so, will be advanced as the necessary basis for a new global order. (Who knows, perhaps even UN Security Council reform?) Issues on our doorstep will drive action on the ground, dictating with whom we act and on what. And on the way, we might pause to reflect on the way points which measured our progress to this point in time and space: Chechnya, Afghanistan, Crimea, Grozny, perhaps; but Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Central Africa and Somalia too. Perhaps now the Responsibility to Protect will gain some teeth and backbone. A comedian’s legacy to the world: decency, respect, courage of conviction, morals. But at a terrible price.
The limits and excesses of military power have been laid out for all to see. A terrible conundrum: on the one hand, an overwhelming military power with the means but not the moral fibre to win a peace; on the other a moral but essentially tiny David standing up to Goliath in fear of losing a war, an identity, a nation.
How to engage differently in the future? The UK needs narrative, insight and influence. But it needs all of these with others and in coalition, wielded for shared values and common benefit. Yes, our military is “hard” – but it is constrained by global politics to watch from the side-lines. (Although surely it is inevitable that we will have to join this fight for what is right if Ukraine, Russia and the world are to be saved from Putin.) But the UK’s soft power assets are where the hard fighting ought to have been being done in the last decades. Alongside music, culture and sport, our media, our diplomacy, our development programme, our defence engagement and the British Council are probably the places where our values have been most evident – but the laser dot of political snipers has been playing between the shoulder blades of these actors for some time now.
If we learn nothing else from this, perhaps it ought to be that there is no incompatibility between a truly Global Britain and a Britain that engages with, forms and shapes and then enables better global responses to things that matter. We are judged by our actions and the company we keep. Londongrad’s Union flags look tawdry when contrasted with Ukraine’s yellow and blue armbands. One talks the talk; the other walks it. Time to put the red, white and blue at the disposal of a better world in which our shared values – currently much better articulated and enacted by Europe – deliver common benefit for all.