As refugees from Syria stream towards Europe, economic issues linger, and extremists seemingly gain ground on the Left and the Right from Britain to Italy to France, the pressure on the Continent’s grand post-war political experiment, the E.U., continues to increase. Sir Christopher Meyer, the eloquent U.K. Ambassador to the U.S. who saw the inner workings both of Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s White House, here offers his views on the stakes in Europe and the Middle East, as well as insight into Putin’s Syrian intervention and its geostrategic implications.
Octavian Report: Do you see the U.K. staying in the E.U.? How do you see the fight over that issue playing out?
Christopher Meyer: If you take the accumulation of opinion polls over the last couple of years, you’ll find that there has always been a majority in favor of staying in the E.U. There may have been one or two recently that had the “ins” and “outs” leveling, or maybe one that had the “outs” one percentage point ahead. The trend, the historical trend, has always been to have a majority in favor of staying in.
These polls are useless. They are meaningless. They are snapshots taken at a time when 99.9 percent of British people are not focusing on the E.U. The polling figures are only going to get interesting, say, a month out from the referendum. We don’t know when it is going to be held. The Prime Minister has said he’d like to get it out of the way next year. Maybe that is what is going to happen. We’ll see. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the technocrats have started negotiating. The Prime Minister set out in November the four main areas where he wanted to make progress to, as he put it, transform Britain’s relationship with its partners inside the E. U.
He wants Britain not to be involved in the mantra of “ever-closer union,” a mantra going all the way back to the beginning of the whole enterprise in 1951. He wants to be explicitly exempt from the requirements of an ever-closer union. That sounds quite radical, but it isn’t all that radical: the European Union has already agreed and acknowledged that different member states could move at different speeds. The idea of a closer union is more rhetorical than practical. He wants to put some physical constraints on freedom of movement, which is another way of saying immigration from other countries inside the E.U.
He can’t challenge the principle of freedom of movement because he knows perfectly well that it would be impossible to get from a negotiation. Nobody is going to agree to the overt compromising of one of the founding principles of the entire enterprise. The best he can get is some limitation on immigration — to be able to insist that no immigrant from inside the E.U. can draw welfare benefits in the U.K. after a substantial period in which they’ve been working in Britain. I think that when push comes to shove and we have the referendum, it’s going to focus essentially on what, if anything, Cameron has done to curb immigration. That’s the one popular issue which moves a very large percentage of the British public.
There are other things in there that he wants. He doesn’t want discrimination by the 17 members of the eurozone against the other 11 who are not inside the eurozone. Which essentially means if you are outside the eurozone, you still keep your national currency — but this should not prejudice the advantages you get from being inside the single market. Beyond that, it gets a bit technical. But the key thing to remember is that right now the polls are not telling us anything accurate at all and won’t until shortly before the referendum. There is right a harsh debate going on between the pro-Europeans and the anti-Europeans about the value of the things that the Prime Minister says he’s trying to get from our E.U. partners.
OR: Do you see the E.U. itself as becoming increasingly unstable?
Meyer: This is one of the interesting factors in the question of whether Britain stays in or out — the question the referendum will decide. Because when the referendum takes place, the question is going to be, “What kind of E.U. are we either voting to stay in or voting to leave?” You could say, as a general statement, that the move towards integration works better when the British economy is doing well and the European economy is doing well.
But since 2008, we’ve been in crisis economically one way or another, exacerbated by the huge problems with Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and above all Greece. What you’re now looking at is an E.U. more marked by competitive nationalism between the main member states than a willingness to integrate. Now that, I would suggest, is by definition a less stable E.U. than it was before. A year or nine months from now, when we have the referendum, what will the E.U. look like?
Will it look continually less stable? Will the Greek crisis have come back again, as many people think it will? That will genuinely affect people’s choices in the U.K. about whether they want to stay in or stay out.
OR: Do you see the Scottish issue as dead for the moment? Do you think there’s a chance that we could see splintering of the U.K. as well?
Meyer: Let me put it like this: the Scottish issue is never over. It will be with us until the end of time. It’s been with us for as long as the history of the British Isles has been written, from the endless wars between the English and Scottish kings in the Middle Ages through to James I taking the throne of Britain in 1603 (he was already James VI of Scotland). You then have the Scottish Catholic pretenders to the English throne fighting great battles with the English monarchy in the 18th century. You then have the union of England and Scotland.
It has always been a highly productive relationship but a highly contentious one. Now fast forward to the day after that little historical essay. We had the referendum last year but it obviously has not settled things. It hasn’t settled things because we have in Scotland a government dominated by the Scottish National Party whose principle objective is to secure the independence of Scotland from the rest of the U.K. The issue is out there all the time. The danger that we faced last year — the danger of an imminent splintering of the U.K. — has gone away for a while. But when the issue of another referendum rises again, the danger of splintering will return. It’s always been there; it’s the permanent backdrop to British politics.
OR: What is the meaning of the rise of Jeremy Corbyn? Is this the end of Labour as a significant force?
Meyer: A lot of observers will now say that the traditional Labour Party is over. Jeremy Corbyn represents what used to be a very small but troublesome minority trend inside the Labour Party — one that has now broken out and taken power. This is effectively the hard Left. It’s the hard Left that was marginalized in the Labour Party for many years and is now back on center stage. It’s not a stable situation. It can’t be a stable situation: although Corbyn appeals to a certain kind of Labour supporter, many of them are very young. They can’t remember the disaster of the Labour Party 25 or 30 years ago when it moved pretty hard to the left. These supporters are very enthusiastic and have swelled the ranks of the Labour Party enormously. But they do not represent the majority view of the British electorate. One doesn’t know how long the Corbynistas or the Corbynites are going to stay in the leadership.
What I’ve just described is a very specific British phenomenon, something that’s going on inside one of our parties. But there’s a wider phenomenon here, one that affects many other European countries and some would say democracy in the U.S. as well. Because there is clearly in Britain a fatigue with politics as usual and with the same old politicians, with their heavy dependence on focus groups and polling and positioning and all the other things that characterize modern politics.
There is a yearning in the U.K. for fresh faces with fresh voices and this has led to highly marginal parties moving towards the center of politics. On the right, we have had the U.K. Independence Party, UKIP, which garnered millions of votes in our general election in May. Because of the peculiarities of our parliamentary system, they only got one parliamentary seat. But it is still a case of renegades, insurgents, and mavericks suddenly becoming a significant force. On the left you’ve got Corbyn and his supporters inside the Labour Party.
You can argue, depending on your point of view, that the Scottish National Party is not just a Scottish nationalist party but is actually an insurgent party that happens to find itself in Scotland. You look across Europe and you see something similar happening in France with Marine Le Pen and the Front National. You see it in Italy with the Five Star Movement. In Germany you’ve got Die Alternative. We would say in Europe that the Trump phenomenon and the Ben Carson phenomenon and the Bernie Sanders phenomenon are similar. They represent a disillusion with politics as usual and a yearning for something fresh — especially as enunciated by people who are virtually popular demagogues.
“There is a view in Washington that when you meet a Brit, just keep on saying ‘special relationship’ and we’ll roll over and let you tickle our stomachs.”—Sir Christopher Meyer
OR: Do you see a real chance of any of these insurgents coming into power anywhere in Europe?
Meyer: One of the characteristics of this new phenomenon of political insurgency is unpredictability. There are two major European countries where there is an anxiety about what’s going to happen. One is Italy, where these insurgent parties have done extremely well. The really big worry is France and the strength of Marine Le Pen and the Front National, the party that her father created. She is now one of the main political forces in France. When they have the French presidential elections in 2017, there is a very real possibility — a minority possibility but still a strong possibility — that she could become the next president. People are very anxious about that.
OR: Do you see the current administration as running to the right ahead of those elections?
Meyer: It’s been a characteristic of French Socialist governments that in the end they are forced to move right because their left-wing program just doesn’t work. François Mitterrand started with a strongly leftist policy which he was unable to sustain. In the end he had to cohabit with a party that was not a Socialist party. We’ve seen something similar with Hollande, who started with a strongly Socialist agenda that has effectively by now run out of steam. Manuel Valls and his cabinet are now moving right. It’s not by European standards a massively right-wing move, but it does reflect a greater confidence in the market and a greater willingness to liberalize the French economy and some of its rules about how you do business.
Looking at the world scene, the French are doing stuff in places like West Africa and in the Eastern Mediterranean with Syria which is at least as robust as anything that we in the U.K. are doing and in some ways more robust. If I were sitting in the National Security Council in Washington now I would say, “Hey, the French are proving pretty good allies.” I find a number of Americans on this side of the Atlantic making comparisons between France and Britain at the moment that are not particularly favorable towards the U.K.
OR: What do you view as the future of the special relationship? Do you think Britain is going to continue to retreat from a leadership role on the world stage in military terms?
Meyer: Although I believe the U.S. is our single most important partner and ally both economically and in national-security terms, I never believed in the notion of a special relationship. I think it is a rhetorical device, essentially, which is often used by the U.S. to put pressure on the U.K. to do things that the U.S. wants and the U.K. may not want to do. I can remember having a meeting with Colin Powell very shortly after I became ambassador to the U.S. and our new Secretary of State at the time, the late Robin Cook, was coming to visit Washington for the first time.
He was going to meet Powell. Powell’s deputy, Richard Armitage, showed me a draft of a speech of welcome that Colin was going to make. Somebody had scrawled on the top of the draft speech in ink: “Don’t forget the special relationship.” There is a view in Washington that when you meet a Brit, just keep on saying “special relationship” and we’ll roll over and let you tickle our stomachs. I’ve always been a tad suspicious of the expression despite the very closeness of our relationship.
If you look at the British-American relationship since the Second World War, it’s a history of ups and downs, of good times and bad times. The relationship is more characterized by volatility than by stability, at least politically. What I mean by that is that after the war you had between Harry Truman and Clement Atlee a very, very difficult relationship. We had a very difficult relationship with President Eisenhower; it was the U.S. under Eisenhower who pulled the rug from out under our feet in a very unwise attack on Egypt in an attempt to retake the Suez Canal.
It got better again with Harold Macmillan and JFK. It got bad again with Harold Wilson and LBJ. It had glorious periods between Thatcher and Reagan. It went down a bit between Thatcher and George H. W. Bush, as he recounts in the new book by Jon Meacham. It goes up again between Tony Blair and Clinton, between Blair and George W. Bush. Wonderful relationships. Between John Major and Bill Clinton, things were not so good. It’s now going through a period which is a bit down, a bit cool. Obama and Cameron get on perfectly well, but you would hardly say it’s the love-in that Thatcher had with Reagan or Tony Blair had with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
The essence of the relationship is still very, very close. It’s extraordinarily close economically, particularly in financial services; it’s very close in intelligence-gathering and security. A bit rocky at the moment on the military side because first of all our politics are all screwed up about what we do over Syria. Secondly, we’ve only recently recommitted ourselves to spending two percent of GDP on defense. The U.S. government does not like the idea of us leaving the E.U., so we repeatedly get warnings from different official and non-official spokesmen on your side of the Atlantic saying, “Don’t do anything as silly as leaving the E.U. Don’t think we’re going to help you when you are out.”
OR: What do you make of Cameron’s recent meeting with Xi Jinping?
Meyer: There was a huge fuss about this in certain circles here and an even bigger fuss on your side of the Atlantic. The truth of the matter is we have sat by over the years for all kinds of reasons — some of them economic, some of them political — watching the Germans and the French and even the Italians carving out slices of market share with their exports to China, and we have lagged behind (particularly behind the Germans). The government here has taken the decision that we want more of the Chinese cake. We want a better share of China for our exports. We’re an entirely open economy as regards inward investment. So let’s have some of those huge Chinese renminbi reserves invested in the U.K.
It’s a complicated relationship, doing business with China. I’ve seen it at the board level when I served on the board of a big British engineering company that had major assets in China. It’s even more complex for a nation. But in the end, if you’re going to move things forward, you’ve really got to make a successful relationship. You’ve got to have the head of state come to the U.K. There’s no getting around it and that’s what Xi Jinping was doing.
OR: What’s your view on Russia’s involvement in Syria? How do you think the U.S. should be thinking about that?
Meyer: The Russian intervention strikes me as being perfectly explicable. I’m even a little surprised that they didn’t do this earlier. If you look historically at Russia’s involvement in the Middle East, Syria and the Assad regime constituted their last bastion of influence. The U.S. turned Egypt away from Russia. The fact is that the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Lebanon — and you can include Israel in this example — have become an area or traditionally have been an area of American influence at the expense of Russia, leaving Russia only Syria (you might include Iran there, but I would not). So you can understand that if you’re sitting in Moscow and you’re thinking to yourself that our last asset in the Middle East — namely the Alawite regime under the Assad clan in Syria — looks like it’s going down the tubes, it both makes sense for and seems to be typical of Putin to decide that Russia cannot allow the further humiliation of seeing Assad and the Alawites become overwhelmed. And so he steps in.
It’s pure geopolitics. It’s pure sphere-of-influence foreign policy. You guarantee you keep Latakia and Tartus as your main naval bases in the Middle East and you keep a regime in power in Damascus which is friendly towards you, more or less. I don’t find this incredibly surprising. The question then is, “Is this a terrible complication and danger for American and European interest in the region or is it something that we can take advantage of?” One of the things we’ve got to sort out in our minds is which is the greater evil — is it ISIS or is it Assad?
If you are one of the Syrian civilians fleeing in their thousands from Syria to find safe haven in Europe, the answer would be, “The greatest danger of all is Assad and his barrel bombs.” If you are sitting in northern Iraq or eastern Syria, then you would say the greatest danger of all is ISIS. The Europeans and the Americans are going to play a role in the region. They are going to decide which of these things is the greatest threat to their national interest. I would argue that the greater danger is ISIS and the lesser danger is Assad.
We have to look at this in a very hard-headed way. If we accept that Assad is the lesser danger, then actually I think it makes it more possible to come up with a political settlement involving the Russians, the Iranians, the Saudis, the Gulf States, the Turks, and the Syrian parties themselves. If I were sitting in the National Security Council, I’d say to the President, “There’s nothing we can do about the Russian intervention. What we should do is we use it, try to exploit it to accelerate the negotiations for a political settlement on the Syrian Civil War.”
OR: Do you think that Putin will do something aggressive in the Baltics or in Eastern Europe?
Meyer: If I were a national security consultant arriving from the planet Mars, if I had no dogs in any of these fights, I would say to President Putin, “I can understand what you did in Ukraine, although it’s costing you a lot of money now. I can understand what you did in Crimea. I can understand what you did in Georgia a few years back. Those are all areas where the West doesn’t like what has happened but is not going to go to war to stop you.” However, I would go on to say, “Should you start tinkering with any one of the Baltic States or with any of the other former members of the Warsaw Pact who are now inside NATO and benefit from its Article 5 protection, that I would not advise you to do, because you are risking real hot war which cannot be in your interest.”
OR: What do you think of the Iran deal?
Meyer: I like it, in a sentence. Of course it’s not waterproof, of course it’s got leaks in it. You had a very interesting interview with Richard Haass back in your November issue. I thought everything that Richard had to say about the Iran deal was absolutely right. This thing is not perfect. There could have been places where it might have been tightened up. And it leaves open the question: what happens at the end of 15 years? There are all kinds of difficulties here, but on the balance it advances the U.S. national interest and the interests of the other four states, including the U.K., that were part of the negotiating team.
On that basis, it is better than no deal. Here’s the perfect instance of where you should never let the best be the enemy of the good. The deal is good. It’s in the Iranian interest to honor it and it’s in the Western interest to bring Iran back as a player into at least the region and maybe more widely. I think we need the Iranians as full players in the Middle East. I think to exclude them would cause difficulties for us. It certainly caused difficulties for us in our intervention in Afghanistan, when the Iranians offered to help in certain instances and in the end we rejected that offer.
I think if we can persuade the Iranians to play an active and constructive role in sorting out Syria, then we will see that what we have done on the nuclear program actually has knock-on beneficial effects in other areas of international policy. I’m an optimist about it, but I know there are a lot of pessimists on the issue.
OR: How do you read the fact that Iran has increased its hostile rhetoric since the agreement was announced?
Meyer: Everybody has got domestic politics. Obama has had a hell of a time defending the Iran deal in the U.S. Every now and again, you have to aim wide to keep your domestic critics quiet. I think we have to accept that Rouhani and all his people in Iran who have been firm supporters of this deal have themselves come under a lot of domestic criticism for doing a deal with the great Satan. And there’s a little Satan in the mix, with the U.K. on the team as well. There’s no lack of political elements hostile to the deal both in Washington, D.C. and in Tehran.
One way on the Iranian side that you try to keep your domestic critics quiet is by ramping up the rhetoric. Yet it’s not what you say, it’s what you do that matters. If the Iranians stick to the deal, to its letter and its spirit, then whatever they may say rhetorically is of lesser importance.
OR: One of the lenses used to examine Middle East geopolitics is the Shia-Sunni conflict. Do you think that the West should be aligning itself with Shiites rather than Sunnis?
Meyer: I am personally almost indifferent as to whether these regimes are Shia or Sunni. It’s got nothing to do with us in Europe. It’s got nothing to do with us in the West. It’s an ideological schism much like that between Catholicism and Protestantism in the 16th century in Europe. In the Syria case, in the Assad case, and in the ISIS case, you have to decide which is the greater threat — and that decision has got nothing directly to do with the Shia-Sunni conflict.
Yes, ISIS is a bunch of crazed Sunni Jihadists determined to create a Sunni caliphate. But we in the West shouldn’t let our national interest be affected by whether we prefer the Sunni interpretation of Islam or the Shia interpretation of Islam. What bothers us about ISIS is its brutality, its medieval barbarism, the fact that it is eliding the frontier between Syria and Iraq. Also the fact that although they are Sunnis, their proposed caliphate reaches also into Saudi Arabia and into the Gulf.
The threat of ISIS is a threat of geopolitical upheaval which will not be in the interest either of the regional powers or of us in the West. Compared with that, Assad is a lesser evil. The fact that Iran is Shia is neither here nor there. I think this is one lesson we should have learned — we being the U.S., the U.K. and all the other powers who have intervened in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. I think one of the conclusions we should have drawn is, “Don’t get yourself involved in other people’s civil wars. Don’t try to nation-build in countries and cultures with which you have very little in common and you don’t understand.”
Those, I think, are the two key lessons to draw from the last 15 years. They pose agonizing further questions: When is it right to intervene abroad and when isn’t it right to intervene abroad? Obama has taken a very cautious view of that question since he has seen his role as getting the U.S. out of Iraq and out of Afghanistan. I think he was very right to be cautious about getting backed into the Syrian Civil War, although most unfortunately he used that “red line” phrase with reference to chemical weapons.
But in general I think not intervening more directly in Syria is an extremely wise thing. I think the notion that it was possible to train up a serious so-called moderate Syrian opposition is fanciful, as time has shown. Being careful and cautious about Syria seems to me to be prudent. We went rocketing into Libya. We have the lessons of Afghanistan behind us and the lessons of Iraq behind us, and nonetheless, we go shooting off into Libya, we the Brits with the French and the U.S. We destroy Gadhafi, admittedly an unpleasant tyrant, and what happens? The entire nation falls to pieces. ISIS is now present physically in Libya because Gadhafi isn’t. This itch that we had at the beginning of the century to deploy liberal interventionism in a number of countries in the interest of creating democracy has turned out to be entirely fanciful and has led to a fundamental misinterpretation of what the Arab Spring meant.
I think that we are right to be very cautious about intervening in Syria. The U.S. is right to be hesitant about this. Take Assad away and who replaces him? Who would it be? It’s more likely to be another Libya than some haven of Western-style democracy.
Sir Christopher Meyer served as the U.K.’s Ambassador to the U.S. from 1997 to 2003. He is the author of Only Child, a memoir; Getting Our Way, a history of British diplomacy; and DC Confidential, about his diplomatic career.