In Praise of Lesser Evils
Can Realism Repair Foreign Policy?
Six months after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of a European democracy, the West is awakening to a startling reality: the nation-state is back. The institutions built to constrain rogue actors are vulnerable, and technology has given autocracies new forms of leverage. Rather than the last gasp of nationalism, the attack on Ukraine shows the new direction of power.
Risks that were only possible now look probable. The Baltic states’ paranoia about Russia now seems well founded, and Finland and Sweden’s once vaunted neutrality no longer appropriate. Even Beijing’s threats against Taiwan look less performative and more preparatory.
The severity of the international response to Russia’s aggression is just as notable. For years, Moscow made clear its plans—cyberattacks on Estonia in 2007, the occupation of Georgia in 2008, the attack on Ukraine in 2014—but Europe and the West treated these events as business as usual. This time is different. Governments from Tokyo to Stockholm are proving their resolute support for Ukraine with military aid and unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia.
The global order has been upended, and the events of the past year show that the world has moved into a new era of brutish great-power politics. Western democracies now inhabit a world in which multilateral institutions are no longer able to provide the stability or security they once promised. For a country such as the United Kingdom, whose economic and diplomatic model is based on its status as a globally connected nation, the new instability presents an acute threat.
Until recently, the United Kingdom’s response to this discordant new world has been dangerously inadequate. Shaped by the post–Cold War decades of globalization, British foreign policy has found itself unprepared for the rise of autocracy and the combustible new conflicts that have come with it. The country’s dependence on others for energy and technology have exposed it to powerful new forms of external pressure that weaken its economic foundations.
Too often, the United Kingdom has responded by ignoring the problem or turning inward. Instead, the United Kingdom must exploit its own traditional strengths of outreach, diplomacy, and influence by seeking new kinds of partnerships with current allies and future powerhouses. And it must do so while reducing its exposure to malign powers and building its economic resilience at home. Accomplishing both will be tough, but failure to do so could risk reducing the country into a vassal of the new world order. The costs of maintaining the status quo are already apparent, not only in growing energy insecurity and severe economic pain but also in the gradual erosion of liberal values that underpin freedom.
British foreign policy did not start from here, of course. Over the past three decades, from the end of the Cold War through the first decade of this century, burgeoning connectedness and growing partnerships took root across the world. International institutions such as the World Trade Organization, by and large, worked well enough. Even after the September 11 attacks, the threat of international terrorism was asymmetric and comparatively limited, affecting only small parts of the global network at any one moment, even if specific incidents echoed more widely. Where geopolitical conflicts emerged, such as the messy breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s or even the reignited wars in Sudan and Yemen, they rarely seemed to threaten the institutions that buttress the international order.
During these years, the rise in connectivity delivered remarkable prosperity and freedom for hundreds of millions of people, not only in the West but all across the world. Technology and the Internet promised opportunity and openness as flows of trade and information delivered growth and built new connections between countries and communities.
The climax of this hopeful era arrived only a few years ago. It was marked not only by extraordinary trade between United Kingdom and China but also by Germany’s industrial strategy, built on a deliberate dependence on Russian energy through Baltic Sea pipelines. Policymakers and businesses made thousands of smaller decisions based on the assumption that geopolitical rivals were no longer threats and that economic competition was based on fixed rules.
Where Western leaders saw new prosperity, their rivals saw new vulnerabilities.
Over the past decade, however, these assumptions have come crashing down. The forces of globalization that made the United Kingdom richer, reduced its costs, and knotted its citizens into a global network also helped authoritarian governments create monopolies and turn international hubs into chokepoints. China’s dominance in manufacturing, for example, leaves British citizens medically dependent on Guangzhou for items no longer made in Europe. Just-in-time commerce has become not just a supply chain principle but a way for adversaries to amass power. The quest for efficiency has led to dependence, and technology has accelerated the change.
Nor are these the only forces undermining global stability. Viewed from Beijing and Moscow, Western disasters such as the botched U.S.-led withdrawal from Kabul in 2021 have reinforced a perception of weakness. Watching Washington’s failures in Afghanistan—where its strategic impatience left allies exposed—autocrats concluded that Western democracies have lost the will to endure. Moscow’s assault on Kyiv may have failed, but China is watching and absorbing lessons on how to threaten Taiwan. The era of “respectful disagreement”—when dictatorships had more to gain from using existing systems than breaking them—is over. Where many Western leaders in the first post–Cold War generation saw globalization as bringing greater interdependence and efficiency, our rivals saw the creation of new vulnerabilities.
The world is witnessing a turning point and perhaps the end of the post–Cold War order. This transformation has led us back into great-power competition, where the biggest states build influence and assert their interests through strength, not negotiation.
These are the evolutions we have been witnessing, and the triggers for the changes I have been calling for in my five years as chair of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. From the government’s response to this new arms race, and the cancer of kleptocratic cash in London and Westminster, to the rising influence of autocracies in British universities and civil society, the committee has been calling for a rethink in the government policy, not just diplomacy, starting with a reevaluation of the economic and geopolitical forces now shaping the country. For too long, Britain has treated many of these developments as isolated foreign policy issues rather than symptoms of larger problems with the whole body politic, impossible to confine to just foreign affairs. The challenge now is to find new ways to deliver for the British people by shaping actions at home and abroad amid enormous global unrest.
Over the past year, the Ukraine crisis has led to a growing recognition of this larger threat. Many now understand that the United Kingdom cannot flourish, or even stay free, if it is forced to choose between allowing the steady expansion of authoritarian power or watching its economy suffer as despots exact an ever higher price in economic and energy disruption. It is now clear that the country will have to go much further to ensure security and economic resilience.
In this new era of great-power politics, the response must not be to turn inward. Instead, the United Kingdom should lean into the strengths it has honed over decades. For the United Kingdom, partnerships are power. It can address the economic dependence and lack of resilience that have become its key weaknesses by building networks, not just missiles.
Building alliances to confront the most pressing issues of our time was how the country fought and won the Cold War. It must also be how it fights and wins the wars of the future. After the Allied victory in Europe and Japan, the United Kingdom helped bring allies together to remake the world. The World Trade Organization and the Bretton Woods monetary system embedded trade and cooperation among countries that recognized the rule of law as paramount. Over the next decade new partnerships will need to be built to provide a scaffolding for an increasingly unstable world, and the United Kingdom is well placed to take a leading part in their construction.
London hosts one of the world’s most extensive diplomatic networks and wields global influence through the media and its rich legal tradition. The United Kingdom has the resources to build the bridges which can reverse the concentration of economic and diplomatic power by authoritarian regimes, which have increasingly sought to build dependencies from other countries to insulate themselves from the consequences of their belligerence.
But such an approach cannot simply replicate the global networking of previous decades. At the center of the new British strategy must be a simple idea: although it may benefit the country to build trade relations with many different countries across the world, these ties should not come at the expense of deeper partnerships among close allies that emphasize security and a set of shared values. Instead of reopening trade and economic dialogues with China, it should focus efforts on partnerships with countries in the Commonwealth, Europe, and others, such as Indonesia, that are on a path closer to the West’s. Building trade with trust strengthens resilience rather than weakening it.
Trade relations should not come at the expense of security and shared values.
Starting with ad hoc cooperative structures, the United Kingdom can make economic and diplomatic systems more responsive to the needs of the British public. Instead of a single new institution, the country should seek a series of overlapping partnerships covering trade, medicine, science, defense, technology, and migration in different regions of the world. Smaller and more nimble, these partnerships can build a baseline of cooperation on issues that matter most today, such as technology, climate change, and security; they can also be deepened over time.
AUKUS, the trilateral security pact that Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States created in 2021, is a perfect example of this approach. It does not replace the UN or NATO, but it provides a framework for deeper collaboration on sensitive and strategic technologies. Better still, it can be expanded. As the technological component of the accord grows, different parts of the pact could include cooperation with Japan and Germany and perhaps France.
The new Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, is paving a similar path through trade partnerships among fast-growing Indo-Pacific nations. The United Kingdom is right to pursue membership. With the approach set by the partnership, it can work with rising economic powers, including not only the members of the Association of Southeast Nations but also Brazil, Mexico, and Nigeria.
In the new era of great-power rivalry, multilateral cooperation still has a role to play. But the United Kingdom should prioritize reform in areas that truly require global consensus, such as climate change. The country can deepen its reach by leveraging its legal expertise to draft agreements that build on access to British courts and shape global norms around democracy and the rule of law. The British government will have to look at the obstacles it has built—from visas and professional qualifications to tariffs and quotas—for others who seek to use its capital and markets. Drawing on its expertise in trade, foreign aid, diplomacy, and defense, the United Kingdom can enable a more flexible and responsive strategy that combines smaller partnerships with more global action where needed.
But the West faces a far-reaching economic challenge as well. As with its counterparts, as long as the United Kingdom remains dependent on Chinese technology and Russian gas, its foreign policy can be compromised by hostile actors. In basic terms, the country needs to think more about the value it gets from addressing long-term strategic vulnerabilities and less about the immediate costs. The war in Ukraine has shown what can happen when powerful states are prepared to use their economic as well as their military might, and it would be foolish for the United Kingdom not to protect itself from attacks aimed at the British economy itself.
This cannot mean isolation: decoupling from the global economy is not an option. The United Kingdom is dependent on Taiwan for semiconductors and on Silicon Valley for data services and much else. But even with friends and allies, the British government needs to think about what hidden vulnerabilities lurk in its supply chains. Many areas of the service sector rely on an increasingly narrow core of companies—from TSMC, the Taiwanese semiconductor company, to Amazon—injecting further risk into the economy.
Economic resilience does mean properly addressing the structural weaknesses that encourage dependence. With the return of great-power competition, economic warfare will become more frequent, and the United Kingdom will need to build up its defenses accordingly. The country cannot have an independent and strong foreign policy until the foundations of the state can be made less vulnerable to shocks.
Decoupling from the global economy is not an option.
The most obvious area is energy. British thinking on energy has been built on the underlying assumption that access to global gas markets can provide the cushion it needs to make the painful reductions necessary to reach net zero carbon emissions. But Russia’s weaponization of energy pricing has exposed the weakness of this approach.
The country will need to generate more energy domestically, whether by authorizing more nuclear power plants and developing a stronger homegrown nuclear industry, accelerating the adoption of renewable energy sources by shortening the timescales needed to build or upgrade infrastructure, or boosting North Sea exploration by granting more licenses. Perhaps most immediately, the United Kingdom must work with partners such as Canada to make the case for further exploration and exports of energy resources by democratic countries to ensure that fossil fuels are obtained from allies, not from enemies.
The same principle applies to other areas of scarcity, from semiconductors to critical minerals. Notably, China has made a concerted effort to establish monopolies in these areas. The most charitable interpretation is that Beijing wants to safeguard the needs of its domestic market; a more sobering view is that it is seeking to leverage its economic power to gain influence over rivals. Yet the United Kingdom has until recently done very little to protect its own critical industries, despite rivals’ engaging in systematic theft of British innovation and intellectual property.
This problem demands more scrutiny of foreign takeovers. The new National Security and Investment Act grants the powers the country needs, and it must now be willing to use them and look beyond the market effect to the deeper implications of any international deal. It demands a more rigorous approach to international research collaborations and university spinouts. And it demands a better understanding of which areas of British science and innovation are worth protecting. Announced in July, the government’s critical minerals strategy, establishing how the country will secure supply chains for those resources, is a good example of the approach needed to identify areas of strategic weakness and resolve them. Now, the same is needed in areas such as semiconductors and synthetic biology.
Above all, the United Kingdom can increase its resilience by leveraging its strategic partnerships with key democratic partners. Already the U.S. partnership in intelligence and nuclear technology shows how trusted allies can add strength and reduce costs. Looking more widely, it is possible to envision a more integrated trade network reducing dependence on unreliable sources. As history has shown, trade is not just about profit. Britain and the United States could provide a new axis of growth by enabling their services to connect and empower development around the world, challenging China’s debt webs. From individual states to the federal government, that openness would strengthen the welfare of U.S. and British citizens and open markets for millions.
This goes beyond major allies. In the face of growing threats from autocratic regimes in recent years, many countries have stepped up to lead. In defense of democracy, Lithuania has been clear and strong in standing up for Taiwan. In setting new standards for digital governance, Estonia has been a global leader in areas ranging from digital public services to cybersecurity, and since 2008, it has hosted NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence, which allows alliance members to share information and develop new strategies to counter cyberwarfare. For both countries, strong British support could enhance the reach of such efforts and help them deliver for their own people as well as for the United Kingdom. By backing other similar initiatives, the British government could strengthen its allies and encourage stability and democratic values.
This is not just about the United Kingdom, but about the fate of democracy, freedom, and global resilience. The ability of democracies to adapt and rebuild is the main reason they are stronger than autocracies. They can pivot and rebalance, reversing the structural weakness that autocratic forces of centralization inject into our intertwined economies, making every society stronger. The core values of open societies are at stake: the right to choose and change leaders and direction, to criticize and correct, to experiment and succeed, and, yes, to fail. That is good for every nation, however it is governed.
The fracturing of the globalized world into newly assertive nation-states will create friction but, with new forms of cooperation, can be turned into a strength for the world’s democracies, driving them to build new networks with competition and values at their core that can generate the resilience the West needs. That is the role the United Kingdom can play, as it builds more effective alliances and partnerships, but it can only do so if it recognizes the scale of the challenge and mobilizes the forces necessary to achieve them.