After a grim recent record of Conservative governance, one of the pleasant surprises of Rishi Sunak’s premiership has been Britain’s return to a relatively modest and achievable set of foreign policy and security goals. As Sunak set out in his first major foreign policy speech in November last year, Britain’s new security focus under his leadership would entail “standing up to our competitors, not with grand rhetoric but with robust pragmatism”. The aim of this would be to “foster respectful, mature relationships with our European neighbours on shared issues like energy and illegal migration to strengthen our collective resilience against strategic vulnerabilities”.
The perfect example of what this means in practice came in this week’s reporting by the Times that Britain would shortly announce a cooperation agreement with Belgium to protect energy infrastructure in the North Sea, with the eventual intention “to sign up other countries such as Denmark, Norway, Germany, Holland and France to a ‘North Sea security pact'”.
The proposal follows the announcement last month of a new security agreement with Norway to protect undersea energy and communications infrastructure, and the planned deployment of the new RFA Proteus support ship next month to monitor and deter any malign Russian activity in British and Norwegian waters. While recent reporting in the Washington Post, citing leaked intelligence from European and American defence officials, implicates Ukraine rather than Russia as the culprit for the mysterious destruction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline last year, the risk of Russian sabotage of vital undersea infrastructure — a longstanding Sunak concern — remains a genuine threat.
Alongside Britain’s secret air defence deal with Ireland — a source of some political controversy in Ireland itself, a militarily incapable weak point in Europe’s vital Atlantic flank — the agreement with Belgium highlights both Britain’s utility to Nato as the linchpin of security in the eastern Atlantic, and Sunak’s success at using bilateral agreements to reintegrate the UK within a broader European framework.
All this follows naturally from the 2023 reboot of the UK’s suddenly outdated 2021 Integrated Review. This report dialled down the focus on the Indo-Pacific — a perhaps unrealistic expression of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss’s Global Britain aspirations — to re-emphasise that “as a regional actor, we will seek to lead and galvanise where we have most value to add, giving particular priority to the contribution we can make in northern Europe as a security actor.”
The Integrated Review also stressed Britain’s return to constructive engagement with neighbouring European nations in the wake Brexit, pledging to “seek to extend practical cooperation through bilateral and minilateral formats”. In particular, “with Benelux, France, Germany, Ireland and the Nordic countries through the North Seas Energy Cooperation group,” the last of which Britain re-engaged with in December last year.
In all this, we can see the contours of a realistic and sensible Sunak doctrine emerging in foreign policy and security. Just as the Foreign Secretary James Cleverly’s recent speech on China softened the hawkish rhetoric of our two previous prime ministers and aligned Britain more closely with the EU’s policy of cautious engagement, the renewed emphasis on the North Sea and wider North Atlantic region plays to Britain’s strengths and geographic advantages.
De-emphasising Britain’s commitment to a risky future conflict on the other side of the world is sensible. Additionally, leaving the defence of Europe’s land borders to more capable partners while focusing our efforts on the security of our strategically vital Atlantic doorstep is a return to sound and realistic policy. For this, Sunak deserves unqualified praise.