British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has a formidable history of gaffes—he even mistakenly referred to his Chinese wife as Japanese during an official trip to Beijing—but few of his missteps have caused as fierce a polemic as when he recently likened the European Union to a Soviet prison.
That incident, which took place at the Conservative party conference in October, had European leaders up in arms—particularly those, such as President of the European Commission Donald Tusk, who lived through and fought against the actual Soviet regime. Trying to claw back the diplomatic clout he lost by putting his foot in his mouth, Hunt swiftly announced a significant overhaul of the Foreign Office. The reforms will include the recruitment of at least 1,000 more staff members, and the opening of 12 new diplomatic offices, including an embassy in the small African country of Djibouti.
The timing of Hunt’s announcement seems suspiciously like an attempt to divert attention from the fulminant faux pas he made with his Soviet gulag allusion. And, of course, Hunt also wants to do a bit of metaphorical sabre-rattling to alert the world that Britain will still have a powerful voice on the global stage even after Brexit.
That sabre may prove to be little more than a toy sword. The UK and the EU have yet to reach a deal on their future relationship; indeed, given the thorny issue of the Irish border, it seems increasingly likely that they may never reach a divorce agreement. Analysts have remarked that once the UK leaves the EU, its gravitas in the diplomatic world will be seriously hampered.
A strategically-chosen embassy
In an attempt to counter this loss of influence, Hunt chose the site of the newest British embassy with care, wading into the scramble for influence in Djibouti. The country, third smallest in Africa but located on the Suez international shipping corridor, is currently the focus of much jostling between global superpowers including the U.S. and China, who are bristling at each other over Djibouti’s importance to their respective militaries.
Djibouti’s strategic placement across the Bab el-Mandeb Strait from Yemen and Saudi Arabia explains why the tiny nation is host to the most foreign military bases of any country in the world. China—claiming that its motives are purely innocuous—has built a base in close proximity to Camp Lemonnier, the sole US base in Africa – set up after 9/11 for vital counter-terrorism and anti-piracy activities. The Chinese base has provoked enough tension on its own—there was an international incident in May when the US military accused Beijing of trying to blind its Djibouti-based fighter pilots with military-grade lasers—but a dispute over an adjacent port has escalated the strain.
But the most concerning forays made by the Chinese involve a long-running legal tussle over the nation’s port. Last February, the Djiboutian government, led by long-time autocrat Ismael Omar Guelleh, forcibly seized the Doraleh Container Terminal from its operator, Dubai-owned DP World. A top London court ruled in August and September that DP World’s contract remained valid and prohibited Djibouti from switching up the port’s management.
Guelleh’s administration has openly flouted the ruling, however, amid rumours that he plans to let China take charge of the port. International observers have expressed their concerns that which would gravely undermine Western military and political influence in the area. In an attempt to protect its investment, DP World took the bold step of suing China this week, accusing it of unlawfully causing Djibouti to break its agreement with the port operator.
It’s nevertheless unclear how much clout a stand-alone post-Brexit Britain can have in the ongoing geostrategic game between China and the West—or how much sway a simple embassy will have compared with the military installations dotting Djibouti’s arid landscape. It’s equally uncertain whether Hunt’s diplomatic overhaul will bear fruit by improving the British government’s standing, either domestically or overseas.
Too little, too late?
Indeed, recent polls have shown that Britons are becoming increasingly dubious that Brexit is the key to a better future for them. Were a second referendum to be held, Remain would likely win by an 8-point margin. As negotiations have dragged on, British voters have become highly skeptical that they, or Britain, will be better off after the divorce next March. Leading government figures, from PM Theresa May to Jeremy Hunt himself, have abysmal approval ratings. British citizens singularly unimpressed with their government’s ability to negotiate with Brussels – the most important diplomatic task London currently faces.
What’s more, this lack of confidence has spread beyond British borders. The impasse in Brexit negotiations has caused the international community to perceive Britain’s global status as “stagnant or on the decline”. Earlier this year, The Economist disparaged the UK’s diplomatic network as “like an aristocratic family that has inherited a crumbling pile in the country and insists on keeping up appearances”. In the face of this mounting skepticism both at home and abroad, it’s doubtful that a Foreign Office recruitment drive and a new embassy in Djibouti will do much to restore confidence in the UK government’s foreign relations.