The Geopolitics of May’s Snap Election


This morning, inspired by an episode of Dan Snow’s wonderful History Hit podcast, I posted a picture of Theresa May meeting President Erdogan recently, accompanied by a text about the trade agreement Elizabeth I signed with the Ottoman Sultan Murad III in 1580. That trade agreement, which amazingly was repeated until 1922, was initially based on the sale of British arms to the Ottoman Empire and aimed to counterbalance the power of Catholic Spain. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The message of continuity in British foreign policy is unmistakable.


I had barely finished posting my previous blog on Spanish foreign policy when Theresa May announced that she was calling a snap general election in Britain on 8 May (actually, following the legislation adopted by the coalition government in 2010, she will ask Parliament to vote for a snap election). While there is clearly considerable electoral opportunism behind this (given the way the polls indicate a clear Conservative victory), there is also a strong geopolitical context. Theresa May aims to reinforce her position in three directions. Firstly she wants to reinforce her position domestically in Parliament. Secondly she wants to reinforce her position in relation to the Scottish government. Thirdly she wants to reinforce her position in in the Brexit negotiations with the European Union.


Theresa May’s position in Parliament is not comfortable. She has only a narrow majority, and a significant number of her own Conservative MPs who are strongly opposed to leaving the European Union. Her position in the House of Lords is even worse. Although she was able to get through the legislation authorising the signature of article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, she remains vulnerable to internal party rebellion on specific aspects of the negotiating process, for example the rights of EU or British citizens and access to the single market. She also has a legitimacy problem. Not only has she not won a general election, she was not even elected as party leader )her rival pulled out). Trusting in disarray within the Labour Party and the pollsters, she is convinced that this is the best opportunity to win a powerful majority in the House of Commons (some polls suggest she could win a majority as large as 200 over Labour). This would leave her authority in Parliament, and her strategy for Brexit, unquestioned and unquestionable.


This is the most likely outcome. However, she is still taking a risk. The greatest threat to her position may come not from Labour but from the Liberals. The Liberal leader Tim Farron has already announced his intention to convert the vote into a new referendum on Brexit. If a sufficient number of Britons still care about remaining inside the European Union, and if they are motivated enough to demonstrate this by voting for the Liberals regardless of their previous party affiliation or sympathies, this could significantly increase support for the Liberals performance. But it is unlikely to be enough. The nature of the British “first past the post” electoral system means that May should still secure a large majority in the House.


May’s announcement has put Scottish National Party leader (and Scottish First Minister) Nicola Sturgeon in a difficult position. Since the Brexit referendum, it has become clear that SNP voters are deeply divided on the issue, with a significant number in favour of leaving the EU. On the other hand, the official party position is that Scotland, after gaining independence from the UK, would rejoin the EU. If Sturgeon joins the Liberals in making the election a new referendum on Brexit, she risks her more Eurosceptic voters being drawn away by a resurgent Scottish Conservative Party. If, on the other hand, she ducks the Brexit issue and focuses instead on Scottish independence, she risks her more pro-EU voters has been tempted away by the Liberals, you have traditionally been strong in Scotland. 2015 was the best ever SNP result in a general election. Anything less than that will be seen as a defeat, and weaken Sturgeon’s position in relation to May. However, with the SNP increasingly divided over Brexit, and both the Conservatives and Liberals resurgent in Scotland, it may be hard to repeat the 2015 success.


If May’s (pretty limited) gamble comes off, she will also reinforce her position in relation to the EU. Not only will she enter the negotiating process with a united parliament and government behind her, she would also be dealing with European leaders who themselves have been weakened by elections. Even if Macron wins the presidential election in France, he is unlikely to have a working majority in French National Assembly, and likely to find most of his policy proposals under attack from both left and right. Holland’s centre-right may have held off the challenge from Geert Wilders on the far right, but it will still take time to form a new government, and it has been forced to move to the right to keep Wilders out. Germany’s election looks too close to call still, although Angela Merkel’s CDU seems to be recovering from earlier wobbles. However, all the polls suggest that whatever government emerges in the autumn will be weakened. As the long list of European elections this year seem only to increase uncertainty and undermine Europe’s ability to respond effectively to outside challenges (and it is still not clear whether or when Italy will hold elections), May believes that the elections in the UK will end uncertainty and increase her authority and effectiveness. She is probably right. But the language of the election campaign is likely to be bitter and intemperate, and the election itself divisive.


Spain’s Foreign Policy – A Lost Opportunity


In the 16th century Felipe II committed the classic strategic blunder of allowing his policy objectives to diverge too far from his geopolitical realities. At that time Spain enjoyed two important areas of influence: Latin America and the Western Mediterranean. Latin America, despite the best efforts of English sailors, was a major source of wealth for Felipe’s Spain. In the Western Mediterranean Aragon had long had an important commercial empire. Nevertheless the central focus of Felipe’s foreign policy was to maintain his control of the low countries. This meant constructing and maintaining the Spanish road connecting the low countries to other Habsburg territories and going to war against England. The costly, and ultimately futile, effort to hang onto the low countries drained Spain’s coffers of Latin American silver, resulting in Spain declaring bankruptcy no less than three times. Felipe’s strategic blunder condemned Spain to centuries of progressive decline as a European power, from which, arguably, it began to recover only at the beginning of this millennium.


Oddly Spain’s political leaders in the 21st century have seemed determined to commit their own version of the same blunder. Since Felipe Gonzalez left office in 1996, successive Spanish governments have paid little attention to either Latin America or the Mediterranean, and in particular North Africa. Aznar was obsessed with the transatlantic relationship with the US, and the hope, as futile as Felipe’s hope of holding onto the low countries, of replacing London as Washington’s bridge to Europe. Similarly Rajoy focused on the relationship with Germany and his determination that Spain should be seen as a northern European country. Zapatero did at least launch the Alliance of Civilisations with then Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, but he too ignored the rest of the Mediterranean and Latin America, while the Alliance of Civilisations ultimately amounted to little. The upshot is that Spain has allowed its political relations with Latin America and North Africa to wither on the vine.


In fact it is worse than that. To a large extent Spain seems to have given up on foreign policy altogether, replacing it with an obsession with national brand. Nation branding was an unfortunate result of a renewed interest in public diplomacy at the beginning of the 21st-century. It is a boneheaded concept. Nations cannot be branded like commercial products. Their reputation abroad growth from their reality and what they can offer international community, not self-conscious advertising campaigns. I once demonstrated this to young Armenian diplomats by showing them clips of nation branding advertisements for both Armenia and their rival Azerbaijan,. With the text removed, the students could not distinguish between them. Even one of the originators of the concept of nation branding has now recognised that it was a mistake. Nevertheless the Spanish government continues to devote considerable resources to, and maintain a High Commissioner for, Brand Spain (Marca España).


All this matters. The neglect of the political relationships in Latin America have left Spain’s considerable corporate investments without a broader context. It appears that it has also undermined Spain’s ability to analyse effectively political developments there. The upshot is that Spanish corporations are seen locally as asset strippers and left exposed to populist measures by Latin American governments. In the broadest sense it affects Spain’s reputation and influence in the world. All countries need calling cars to justify their access to the great geopolitical debates. These calling cards can include economic or military power, geopolitical situation or knowledge and influence about particular regions of the world. Despite the economic recovery, Spain is never going to be driving European economic growth and development. Spain’s military is too small to be relevant. Spain’s calling cards are its historical relationships with Latin America and its geopolitical positioning in relation to the Mediterranean and North Africa. By neglecting them it has undermined its standing and influence in the world. It is a player in the major strategic debates because it has little original to contribute.


This is a shame because Spain is missing out on an enormous opportunity in north Africa and the Mediterranean. Euromed, subsequently the Union of the Mediterranean, is headquartered in Barcelona. And yet, despite the geopolitical and economic instability of the Mediterranean area, the organisation is all but moribund. Europe as a whole seems to have no coherent strategy for the Mediterranean as a region, despite the flow of migrants that threatens to destabilise several European countries and promote the rise of populist politicians. While some northern European politicians may see the Mediterranean as a distraction from their concerns with confronting Russia, they are severely mistaken, as shown by the increasing Russian presence in North Africa. Meanwhile competing national interests in former colonies further undermine efforts to secure a common European position. Libya demonstrate the problem. While Italy desperately tries to protect its national commercial interests and recover political influence in a former colony, Europe as a whole continues to support a government of national accord which has, to all intents and purposes, collapsed. At the time time the Russians are increasingly working with the Egyptians to support general Haftar’s anti-Islamist militia. Europe is confronted by the risk of Russia acquiring a naval presence in the Western Mediterranean to complement that they already enjoy in the Eastern Mediterranean.


There are more encouraging signs, at least in terms of the Spanish foreign policy. The new Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis has recognised the political importance of Latin America for Spain’s position in the world (possibly not unrelated to him being a professional diplomat rather than a politician!). Spain still has the opportunity to lead an initiative in the Western Mediterranean. But it will need to be bold. If the EU is to avoid catastrophe and irrelevance in North Africa and the Middle East it must start thinking, and talking, of the Mediterranean as a common economic area. This could be the opportunity for Spain, working through the Mediterranean Union, to establish its role in an area of key importance for the EU’s future. But to do so, it must abandon its obsession with Marca España , and its High Commissioner, and return to Foreign Policy.

The Accidental Diplomatist Part III: Realists


After I left the bar I went home full of doubts about my new profession. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be alienated from my own country. Or live in a netherworld of diplomacy. I talked it over with my boyfriend over dinner, but he convinced me that it was just an old rogue making fun of a young rookie. That in turn convinced me that I didn’t really want to see the old guy anymore. I mentioned this to one of my tutors at the Academy. He said it was up to me, but that talking with retired diplomat was always interesting. They sometimes gave a different perspective that came from a longer term view. Sometimes we could all be too quick to think everything was new and different, especially in the world of diplomacy. I thought about it, and in the end decided to see him again. Curiosity about what other stories he might tell me overcame the doubts he generated in me about my new profession. Accordingly, the next week I went to the pub again. My understanding was that he would always there at around 6 o’clock. To my disappointment, and a little bit of relief, his table was empty. I hung around for half an hour, nursing a gin and tonic, but he didn’t show. I told my tutor at the Academy the next day. He told me not to worry. The retired diplomat was getting on a bit, and had not lived the healthiest of lifestyle. No diplomat of his generation had. He was probably unwell. I should just try another day. However, my tutor must have sent him a message, for when I got to the Academy the next day there was a note waiting for me, inviting me for dinner in a Chinese restaurant in Gerrard Street.


I arrived a little late at the and found him already seated waiting for me. Instead of a pint, he had a glass of Chinese beer sitting in front of him.

“So you decided to listen to the old duffer again, after all” he said. “This is Qingdao beer, I think it is the best in China. Will you have some? You know I served there?”

He waved at the waiter as I sat down. The waiter brought across the menus.

“How are you” I asked. “I missed you in the pub the other day.”

“Sorry” he replied. “Your tutor told me that you had been there. That’s why I decided to invite you for a Chinese to make up. I thought Sichuanese food – Chuancai. It’s got more bite than Cantonese, although I know they Cantonese food is more traditional here in Chinatown. I learnt that when I was studying Chinese.”

“I didn’t realise you” spoke Chinese I said.

“Yes” he replied. “And it was very frustrating. All my friends assumed I would be able to order food in the restaurants in Chinatown. They didn’t realise that I was learning Mandarin and the Chinese community in London all spoke Cantonese.”

“Are they so different?” I asked.

“About different as French and German. I once had to interpret between a Hong Kong Chinese official and a Chinese government official when I was in Beijing. The Hong Kong official spoke English and Cantonese. The mainland official only spoke Mandarin. They never for gave me either of them the face they had lost having to rely on a big nose to interpret for them.” He chuckled “Is there anything in particular you like?”

“No, not really. I don’t know Sichuanese food very well. Why don’t you order for us.”

“Okay.” He spoke to the waiter in Chinese, I imagine to show off in front of me. For some reason it irritated me.

“I thought they only spoke Cantonese” I said.

“That was in the old days” he replied. “There is a new influx of migrants from China who all speak Mandarin.”

My embarrassment at not being able to distinguish between Cantonese and Mandarin was saved by the arrival of my beer, with another bottle of Tsingtao for my host. He poured the new bottle into his glass and took a long draft. I sipped mine. It was surprisingly good, light and refreshing

“Tsingtao was a German concession. They introduced beer making my there. That’s why it’s so good. It’s particularly good in the summer”. He took another appreciative draft of the beer. “So what do you want to talk about today?”

“I am not sure I really understood what you told me last time” I said. “I mean about the shades of grey and why non-diplomats with black and white views of the world are so dangerous. Why do you think being a diplomat is so corrupting of the soul?”

He thought for a while and then began.

“Let’s go back to the war in Bosnia. You remember, when Yugoslavia was breaking apart in the 1990s?”

“Vaguely” I replied. “It was a case study at the Academy.”

“How quickly time passes, and memory fades” he laughed. “But at the Academy, did they teach you the real lessons I wonder.”

I started to open my mouth, but he waved at me to be quiet.


“During most of that war I worked in the Yugoslav department in the Foreign Office. Actually we called it the Eastern Adriatic Unit, but that doesn’t really matter. Although I worked on the desk in London, I used to have to visit the Yugoslav capitals to meet local officials and familiarise myself with local politics. It was also a way of letting our Ambassadors out there bend my ear about whatever was annoying them. This included Sarajevo, which always terrified me. Not so much the threat of being shot by a sniper, as the fear that the aircraft we flew in was going to crash into the mountains. We used to fly down from Zagreb in big military transport aircraft. They would “dive bomb” the airport to avoid the anti-aircraft missiles. This meant a very steep descent in a big aircraft. Used to terrify me. I am still afraid of flying. Then once we were on the ground we would put on our flat jackets and helmets and wait for an armoured personnel carrier to backup to the aircraft. We would then leap from the aircraft straight into the armoured personnel carrier, before being driven off to the UN headquarters. I remember someone once asking me later if I had ever been to Sarajevo, and when I said yes, asking me if I had seen the spot where Princeps had shot dead Franz Ferdinand. I replied yes, but only out the small porthole of an armoured personnel carrier, because when I was there that street with known as Sniper Alley.


“The routine was always the same. We would be driven to the headquarters of the UN protection force, commonly known UNPROFOR , where we would be briefed by the British officers on secondment there. The briefings always told us that things were better than they seemed, and warned of the dangers of airstrikes against the Bosnian Serb. Then we would be taken on to meet the Bosnian government, which always meant being berated for an hour by the Prime Minister Silajdzic. Reasonably enough he argued that the arms embargo was forcing the Bosnian government to fight with one arm tied behind its back, and pleaded for real support against the Bosnian Serbs. He would complain of the atrocities which we did not condemn, and ask why we thought we should be evenhanded between monstrous assassins and democrats defending their government. I confess that even in my younger days I sat through this with a weary worldly wiseness. Remember what I told you about your soul.”

He stop as the food was delivered. I was to discover later that all China hands like to show off by explaining the meal they have ordered, and he was no exception.


“This is Gongbao Jiding, the favourite chicken dish of Bao, a judge who is supposed to have lived in Chengdu in the 19th century. And this is Mapu Doufu, Mother Pu’s beancurd. Be careful. If they’ve made it right it should blow off the back of your throat.” And so on for the rest of the dishes. With my culinary education completed, he pick up some chicken with his chopsticks before continuing.

“After our ear beating by Silajdzic, we would be taken in convoy up to Pale to meet the Bosnian Serbs. For some reason, we always seemed to arrive at lunchtime, and they always had a meal laid on for us. Unlike Silajdzic, who was always angry, they always treated off with an exaggerated bonhomie, offering endless toasts of slivovitz sliver under awnings by their headquarters. Even when making bullying complaints, they would soften them with back slaps and another toast. Their murderous commander Mladic could be particularly engaging when he chose, which may be why we found it so hard to believe he was ordering the massacres. We were always careful to make sure there were no cameras around. We didn’t want to repeat the mistake of the UNPROFOR Commander Michael Rose, who managed to get himself snapped apparently laughing at a Mladic joke. I did once make the mistake of making my own complaint. Mladic had asked how our arrival in Sarajevo had been (of course knowing full well). I commented it would be nicer if we did not have to hide from the snipers in the hills. He immediately replied by offering a ceasefire whenever we were arriving or departing from Sarajevo. We just needed to give him a little notice to make sure the order got down the line. Suddenly realising how that would look in the media (“British diplomat negotiates his own safety in Sarajevo siege while local people continue to die”) I quickly declined the offer. Then it would be back down the hill and out of Sarajevo in the reverse order. We always tried to avoid having to stay the night in Sarajevo. A little bit of war zone tourism, with the added protection of diplomatic immunity.”


He stopped, with a look of disgust on his face. For several minutes he said nothing, eating mouthful after mouthful of the different Chinese dishes on the table. Finally he washed them down with another long draft of beer.

“You know what Thucydides said about the powerful and the weak?”


“Yes” I replied The Melian dialogue. The powerful do what they will and the weak do what they are allowed to.”

“Well yes, that’s part of it. But you’ve forgotten the first part, which is the most important. Thucydides says that justice only exists among equals. Then he goes on to say the powerful can do as they like but the week must do what they are allowed to. It was true in Bosnia as it was in the Peloponnesian war. It is still true today in Syria.”

I looked at him, trying to gauge if he was really that cynical. He held my gaze.

“There’s another thing” he said. There is only one way outsiders can sort out a Civil War.”

“How? I asked, picking up my cue.

“By picking a side and making sure they win. Pick the more moral side, or the side that best suits your interests , or the side that is most likely to maintain security and stability. Then arm them, give them air support, boots on the ground, whatever they need to make sure they win. And then just at the point when they are going to win, make sure they deal generously with the losers. In the end it was what the Americans made us do in Bosnia. In the end we supported the Bosnian against the Serbs and, when the Serbs were facing defeat, forced them all to the negotiating table. Meanwhile we had lost four years and tens of thousands of lives.”

“But can you not take a more balanced approach? Surely you can mitigate the consequences without getting fully involved on one side or the other” I asked. His line was definitely not what we learnt at the Academy.

He shook his head.

“Humanitarian assistance” he snorted. “Look what good that did in Bosnia. It just prolonged the fighting. The UN served only to make sure that no one ever won a completely decisive victory. So thousands more die. The same has happened in Syria. If you want to stop the suffering, stop the war. If you want to stop the war, picks sides and stop it. We are kidding ourselves if we think our humanitarian interventions, and our expressions of moral outrage, do anything to civilised warfare.”

“So those are my lessons for today” I asked.

“Just one more thing” he said. “Beware group-think. We could have ended the Bosnian war on day one if we had targeted airstrikes against the Serbian artillery and tanks. With less infantry, most of which spent all day drunk, the Serbs needed their kit to beat the Muslims. And we knew where it was, because it was where it had to be, on the front line. But we spent four years convincing ourselves, and anyone who would listen to us, that airstrikes would be counter-productive. That they would not work. I remember preaching this to numerous European diplomats in London. In the end, the Americans forced us into the air strikes. And guess what happened. They worked.”


A silence settled upon us like a pall. The gloom was almost tangible. Despite the excellence of the food, I wasn’t really hungry anymore. I began wondering about excuses to leave.

Syria: Moral Outrage is no Substitute for Foreign Policy


And when he cried the little children died in the streets. 

W H Auden

Once again the expression of moral outrage has substituted for coherent foreign policy. The most worrying thing about Donald Trump’s cruise missile strikes against Syria are not whether they are justified or not, but that they appear to be an emotional response to seeing pictures of dying children. This at least is the impression given by Trump in his highly emotive public statement. It is not that we should not be horrified by such pictures. We should. But if Trump is willing to overturn US policy in 24 hours on a gut reaction this time, how many more times will he do so?. In other words, US foreign policy becomes a series of emotional responses to whatever images or sensationalist news stories make it to the Oval Office. This time the story appears to have been accurate, but in the world of fake news that cannot be guaranteed. The members of the East Coast Establishment delighting in Trump’s response to the chemical attack, and in particular the damage it seems to have done to Trump’s relations with Putin, should beware. The next emotional response could just as likely be against German carmakers or other friends of the East Coast Establishment. In foreign policy, process can be as important as the outcome.


What happens now depends on whether a strategic vision can be tacked onto Trump’s knee-jerk reaction. Essentially there are three possibilities:

  • The cruise missile attacks remain a knee-jerk response to the use of chemical weapons. Both sides pull back from further confrontation. The impact of the cruise attack seems to have been limited. The US warned the Russians in advance, and the Russians no doubt warned their Syrian allies. The damage, physical or human, seems to have been minimal. Russian outrage may prove to be manufactured. Within a few weeks all returns to normal. The killing and suffering continues. Russia remains the dominant foreign power in Libya. The missile attack may still prove to have been useful if it discourages Assad from further use of chemical weapons. But for the Syrians themselves, as opposed to Western liberals, it probably makes little difference whether their children die from chemical weapons or barrel bombs.
  • Trump is won over by those who want greater US involvement in Syria. Convinced now that Assad must be removed, Trump increases direct US support for Syrian rebels. This would probably be the most dangerous outcome. Supporting the rebels would undoubtedly also help the more Islamic groups fighting against Assad. While we may not want to support them, it is increasingly difficult to separate out the “good” rebels from the “bad” ones (if such a distinction even has any meaning outside Western chat shows). The US, and the West as a whole if the US called for their support, risk being bogged down in a long and bloody conflict, with no obvious path to success. In these conditions the Russians would not abandon Assad. The risk of direct conflict between US and Russian forces would be significant. The outcome of such conflict, and the risk of escalation, are difficult to foretell.
  • Trump takes advantage of the crisis to reach out directly to Putin to negotiate an outcome for Syria. It would fit with Trump’s instincts about Putin, and his delight in unpredictable gestures. It would re-insert the US into the Syrian peace process, and offer Putin a way back. Ultimately Putin his might have to sacrifice Assad, but he might be willing to do so provided he got another Russian puppet in his stead. However, the East Coast establishment would be firmly opposed to any such move. Although Trump likes to be unpredictable, he has shown no signs of strategic grasp or coherence.


The most likely outcome is that the cruise missile attack on Syria will remain a one off. The suffering and killing will continue, and Assad, with Russian support, will slowly extend his grip on the country. Putin learnt from the shooting down of MH17 that he can outwait Western moral outrage. Nevertheless he will not be pleased with his ally for putting recent gains at risk. Putin is already looking beyond Syria to Libya as another Arab country where he can, in collusion with Egypt, take advantage of western geopolitical ineptitude. But Thucydides taught us over two thousand years ago about the dangers of junior allies dragging their betters into unwanted conflicts. Assad may yet prove to be the latest geopolitical tail to wag the dog.


Brexit: Another Chance to Sort Out Gibraltar (But don’t hold your breath!)


The Gibraltar issue has again raised its head. Like a bad penny, it keeps coming round. I spent nearly four years working on Gibraltar in the British Embassy in Madrid, without any perceivable success whatever. I was left wondering whether the British or the Spanish government was most boneheaded on the issue. At the risk of accusations of bias, in the end I decided it was the Spanish government, although only marginally. Their persistent harassment of the Gibraltarians, hardly designed to incline them toward Spanish citizenship, seemed almost designed to keep the rock in British hand. Similarly a decision by John Majors government not to make the same statement about Gibraltar as it had about Northern Ireland (that Britain had no selfish or strategic interests there) struck me as perverse, and the reluctance to take seriously accusations of dodgy financial practices on the Rock as irresponsible.


To be fair I had got the Spanish position wrong. There are two underlying principles in international relations which are frequently in conflict with each other: territorial integrity and self-determination. If the British, for historical reasons, hang onto the latter, Spain is even more determined in its defence of the former. It is not just that Britain and Spain cannot agree on the sovereignty of Gibraltar (although in one sense it is already agreed: under the Treaty of Utrecht most of Gibraltar is British in perpetuity – although the same Treaty also stipulates that neither Moors or Jews can live there). The very basis on which Britain could agree to transfer sovereignty to Spain, that the Gibraltarians had decided as an act of self determination to become Spanish, would be unacceptable to the Spanish government. It would have unacceptable implications of Spain’s own position in relation to the Basque country and Catalonia. It is not just that Spain is careless of the attitude of the Gibraltarians, it is important that their views should play no role. Gibraltar must be resolved between Madrid and London on grounds of territorial integrity. If not, it is better it remains British. I once suggested to the government of Gibraltar that it should announce its decision to become part of Spain as an act of self determination. Because of the Basques and the Catalans, Spain would have to turn it down. But, under the Treaty of Utrecht, Spain only get one chance to claim Gibraltar if the British leave. Having blown their chance, Gibraltar could then declare the independence it really wants. Sadly, the then government of Gibraltar did not share my sense of humour, or understanding of Spanish politics.


Given that the underlying sovereignty issue cannot be resolved, even if the Gibraltarians were to change their attitude towards Spain, what can be done? In fact a solution to the problem is relatively straightforward, and has been known for some time. Stop talking about sovereignty. Park In sovereignty issue to one side, and focus on the broader geopolitical and geoeconomic picture. Gibraltar abuts one of the poorest regions of Spain. This is absurd. The geoeconomic position of Gibraltar’ and Algeciras should be key. If Rotterdam flourishes because it links the Ruhr via the Rhine to the North Sea and thus eventually to the Atlantic, the Gibraltar region should be even better off. It forms an ideal geoeconomic hub between Europe and North Africa, and the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. In the past this explained its naval importance (with Spain a full member of NATO, and Britain’s naval role in the Mediterranean diminished to the point of the nonexistence, Gibraltar no longer has much military significance for London). Gibraltar is unable to play this role both because of the disagreement with Spain, and because it is too small. The same applies to the neighbouring Spanish port of Algeciras. Gibraltar and Algeciras combined could develop into one of the more important geoeconomic hubs in the world.


Whatever the Gibraltar government may hope, and however many gunboats Michael Howard threatens to send against Spain (actually we do not have that many these days), Brexit does change the situation on Gibraltar. Where in the past Spain’s constant complaints about Gibraltar irritated EU Partners, leaving Britain with the whip hand in Brussels, that situation is now reversed. Although closing, or further restricting movement over, the frontier would harm the economic interests of the many Spaniards who work in Gibraltar, Spain has been known before to cut off its nose to spite its face over the issue. Britain and Spain can either continue with their petty dispute and the narrow minded vision of the issue, in which the main losers will be Gibraltar and the Spanish side of the frontier, or they can lift their game. The EU negotiations offer both sides the chance for new thinking and taking a more strategic view. By agreeing to put the sovereignty issue to one side, if necessary for a specified time period, and developing Gibraltar and Algeciras as a joint economic area, they can benefit the people on both sides of the frontier while creating a new strategic asset for Europe. It would give Britain the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to European development even after Brexit. It would give Spain the opportunity to launch a new Mediterranean strategy. Once Gibraltar and Algeciras integrate with each other in a successful economic zone and maritime and trading hub, the sovereignty issue will slowly lose its significance. All that is required is strategic vision and a modicum of courage on all sides. Don’t hold your breath!

China is not a Nation State – and it Matters


European leaders do not seem to share President Trump’s concerns about relations with China. Whatever their other disagreements about foreign policy, they seem unified in their view that Europe’s long-term economic well-being depends in large part on China. In fact it is not Europe’s economic well-being they are concerned about but that of each European country. This is an area in which European leaders think only of national interests and compete with each other for Chinese investment, making a common position all but impossible. But in doing so they misunderstand the nature of the Chinese state and its approach to foreign affairs, and risk policy errors that will result in curtailing their economic freedom of movement and even political autonomy.


In his 2009 book “When China Rules the World”, Martin Jacques described China as a civilisational state. Yet Western policymakers continue to treat to China as another nation state. They forget (or never knew) that the nation state, and indeed the idea of international relations (relations between states of theoretically equal status), are particularly European constructs resulting from the contingencies of European history. They make no sense in terms of Chinese historical experience, or that of most other non-European states. The Eurocentricity of Europe’s political leaders could cost us all dear.


The history of Europe since the 15th century has essentially been that of failed attempts to secure continental hegemony. One country after another has sought to dominate the others, each time defeated as the other countries have combined to block it. Throughout England has played the role of offshore balancer, aligned always with the second most powerful European power against the most powerful (hence its focus on interests rather than friends, and its ambivalence about the European Union). This serial failure by any power to secure domination has had a series of consequences. Rather than falling under one Empire, Europe has evolved as a series of states in permanent competition (when not conflict) with each other. Through a series of treaties, a European system evolved of nation states of equal status, maintaining relations (International relations) between themselves. The perpetual competition between them drove the innovation in technology, military practice, commerce, finance and government, which progressively allowed European states to dominate the world system. Innovation in government, incidentally, included the evolution of parliamentary democracy, essentially as a solution to the problem of how to finance ever more expensive warfare.


China has no comparable history of dealing with states of equal status. In contrast to Europe, Chinese history has been one of Han hegemony of the continent, punctuated by periodic collapses into chaos. China’s name reflects its attitude to the rest of the world: , 中国 – Zhongguo -not middle Kingdom, as often translated in the West, but the central country – the country at the centre of the world. China structures international affairs not in terms of networked relations between states of equal status, but of hierarchical relationships radiating out from China. Traditionally China has not had international relations, but rather tributary relationships. States would recognise their place in the hierarchical and radial structure and in return would receive rewards from China. The precise place and status of an alien state within the structure depended on the size of the proximity to China. But there could be no question of equal status with the central country. Likewise, as Lord McCartney, George III’s envoy, discovered at the beginning of the 19th century, there could be no equivalence between a European monarch and 天子 – Tianzi – the son of heaven. China gave up this tributary view of the world only under force of western arms. There are ample signs that as China again becomes a major power, and as the more assertive Xi Jinping consolidates his power in Beijing, China is returning to its traditional way of dealing with the world.


This is, perhaps, most clear with the “One Belt, One Road strategy (OBOR). Whether through the revival of the old Silk Road or the creation of new Maritime Silk Road, OBOR is creating radial trading routes centered on China. Countries who sign up to OBOR receive investment infrastructure. But in return they are expected to accept their place in China’s evolving world system. OBOR is designed to serve China’s interests. It radiates out from the central country. The I nfrastructure does not network laterally. Africa and Latin American countries have already experienced the tributary relationships, receiving investment and infrastructure projects in exchange for Chinese access to their raw materials. This is not an equal exchange. They must acquiesce in the Chinese system before they receive their rewards. It is increasingly being seen in Europe. The obsequiousness of former British Prime Minister David Cameron in seeking Chinese investment in Britain’s nuclear sector or Renminbi trading in the City was painful; the power balance in his relationship with Xi Jinping clear to all but Cameron himself. A similar dynamic can be seen in the alacrity with which European and other) leaders are signing to up to the Chinese alternative to Bretton Woods, the Asian International Investment Bank (AIIB). The deal is the same: accept your position in China’s world system and 天子 will give you his reward.


I spent several years in the British embassy in Beijing as part of the negotiating team with China over Hong Kong. One day my Ambassador referred me to an old quote from Zhou Enlai: “For us, it is alright if the talks succeed, and it is alright if they fail”. Sadly we never understood the implications of Zhou’s comment for the Hong Kong negotiations (I suspect the Ambassador did!). The same is true today. The Eurocentric misunderstanding that China is just another nation state is combining with short-term desperation for foreign investment to lead European governments astray. In the 19th century, Manchester mill-owners thought that if they could sell each Chinese just one shirt they would become millionaires. The trade went so badly that Britain had to invent drug (opium) trafficking to balance the books. China is not the panacea for economic woes now either (nor an alternative economical leadership to Donald Trump). Its tributary world view is the same now as in a reign of the Qianlong Emperor who humiliated Lord McCartney. We need to understand that before we sign away or economic freedom of movement and political economy. We cannot continue to sacrifice geopolitics to economics.