Old confrontations make for new conflicts

Old confrontations make for new conflicts

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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.

We appear to be nearing the next cycle of the confrontation, ready to be exploited by those who do not truly seek the peace of Jerusalem or beyond

Alistair Burt

It would be good to find an early public opportunity to reassure the region that the UK remembers its friends and allies. Looking far eastwards should not come at the expense of maintaining maritime security in the Gulf, for instance, and surely will not. Whatever new conflicts may arise, the ability of terror groups to use ungoverned space, and to be supplied with the means to apply aggression, will need to be continually countered. Those who mean us all harm will note how quickly the eye of the West moves from one drama to another, and what gets missed in the process. That the GCC makes a significant contribution to the UK warranted a mention alongside those other alliances elsewhere.

However, there is another lesson to be drawn from Ukraine —  that age-old conflicts, if not resolved, will not be managed or forgotten, or fade away; that sooner or later they will be a threat to local and wider security. The history of antipathy and past horrors between the Ukraine and Russia was known to all, as we struggle to pinpoint what we might have missed in not being prepared for what has recently emerged. In that respect the actions of three key Abraham Accords partners — the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco — to raise directly with Israel the recent incursions at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem should have interested the UK and others as to whether this new alliance could deliver on its leverage to pursue a resolution to the old but still current issues between Israel and Palestine.

The Accords have their detractors, and much skepticism surrounds them. But UAE Minister of State Reem Al-Hashimi used the opportunity to make the point about the need for serious negotiations to resume to reach the comprehensive and just peace that is the only thing which will conclude the conflict. Coming at a time when there are heightened tensions and violence against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and a renewed vicious, unjustified terror campaign against Israel, the “status quo” seems as false as were the slumberings in eastern Europe.

We appear to be nearing the next cycle of the confrontation, ready to be exploited by those who do not truly seek the peace of Jerusalem or beyond. If this is to be avoided, then the diplomatic opportunities of new alliances must at least be worth following up by countries such as the UK, and may be part of the equation needed for resolution.

• Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019.

Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK

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