New prime minister Rishi Sunak faces a steep learning curve in international affairs as he grapples with the UK’s post-Brexit tensions with the EU, an increasingly assertive China and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Unlike his predecessors Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, Sunak has never held a position at the Foreign Office. In unveiling his new cabinet on Tuesday, he retained James Cleverly, Truss’s choice as foreign secretary who had previously held several junior posts in the department. Sunak also kept the well-respected Ben Wallace as defence secretary, a post he was first appointed to by Johnson.
“[Sunak] is relatively inexperienced in the world of foreign affairs and diplomacy and so there will be a steep learning curve,” said Lord Peter Ricketts, a former UK ambassador to France.
European leaders welcomed Sunak’s accession to Downing Street. “In these testing times for our continent, we count on a strong relationship with the UK to defend our common values, in full respect of our agreements,” said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission.
The latter part of von der Leyen’s comment reflects private concerns among EU officials that a change in occupant in Downing Street will not guarantee a dramatic shift in the UK’s position on post-Brexit trading arrangements: notably London’s threat to override parts of the Northern Ireland protocol if Brussels refuses to renegotiate it.
Sir Peter Westmacott, another seasoned British diplomat, said there was “an urgent need” for Sunak to “look afresh at how Brexit is working, and to start rebuilding relations with European neighbours”. A former UK ambassador to Washington and Paris, he said this would “mean taking a fresh look at the Northern Ireland protocol”.
Officials in Brussels hope Sunak will be more open to a compromise deal than his two predecessors, who had both threatened to spark a trade war with the EU by tearing up the protocol. Sunak had previously warned against taking this step while still chancellor. “He is a Brexiter — but he’s a technocrat and not an ideologue,” one former British diplomat said.
In Washington, there was a sense among officials that Sunak would be a more reliable partner after tensions had mounted over the UK’s stance on the Northern Ireland protocol, and they had watched the political and economic instability during Truss’s short tenure with concern.
“I think the US was looking for a prime minister who would provide a sense of stability, predictability and credibility,” said Daniel Price, a former senior White House official responsible for international economics under George W Bush and managing partner at Rock Creek Global Advisors. “In all these respects, Rishi Sunak was, to borrow a phrase, a safe pair of hands.”
US president Joe Biden called Sunak’s appointment — the first non-white UK leader and practising Hindu — “a groundbreaking milestone” at a Diwali celebration at the White House on Monday. Highlighting the White House’s relatively limited experience of the new prime minister, however, Biden mispronounced his name, calling him “Rashi Sanook”.
On Tuesday evening, Biden and Sunak had their first formal call. Number 10 said president and prime minister discussed the need for collaboration in the Indo-Pacific region as well as the Ukraine conflict and the importance of the Good Friday Agreement — the Northern Ireland peace deal.
The deteriorating relationship between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan will also be high on Sunak’s foreign policy agenda, not least the way it affects how he approaches ties with China, the UK’s third largest trading partner after the EU and US.
UK-China relations have deteriorated rapidly in recent years following human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the clamp down on democracy in Hong Kong. As chancellor, Sunak continued to advocate for a “mature and balanced” relationship with China and sought to improve trade links with the country, by resurrecting the China-UK Economic and Financial Dialogue.
But faced with a hawkish Truss, during her successful Tory leadership campaign this summer, Sunak, then the runner-up, started voicing much more critical views of Beijing, including a promise to build “a new international alliance of free nations” to tackle cyber threats from China.
The UK is due to present an update to its defence and foreign policy, known as the “integrated review”, by the end of the year. “The large China hawk caucus in parliament will be watching for any indication that he is backtracking on declaring China a ‘threat’ in the refreshed integrated review,” said Sam Hogg, China-UK analyst and founder of intelligence briefing Beijing to Britain.
“We can expect that language on China will be hardened by the new administration,” said John Kampfner, executive director of the UK in the World Initiative at Chatham House.
Meanwhile, western allies will also be hoping Sunak will maintain the UK’s strong support for Ukraine, whose president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, regularly lauded the close ties he had with Johnson.
The UK has been at the forefront of the western support for Kyiv, offering £2.3bn in military support so far this year.
But analysts cautioned that balancing the needs of the domestic economic situation alongside the UK’s international commitments will be at the forefront of Sunak’s mind. “I don’t think you can ever take the chancellor out of a former chancellor,” said Ricketts.
Sunak has already refused to commit to Truss’s promise to raise defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP by 2030 in response to Russia’s increasingly aggressive stance. “He will want to maintain the policy on Ukraine but there will be some tension on resources as providing military support is expensive,” said Sir Simon Fraser, former permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office.
In the aftermath of Truss’s shortlived premiership, foreign affairs analysts believe the biggest challenge Sunak faces on the international stage will be proving that the UK remains a serious player.
“The world — notably our western allies — are looking to Britain to become a more reliable and trustworthy partner,” said Kampfner. “Rather than simply lurching from one prime minister to the next.”
Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington