New UK government Middle East policy 'dependent' on US election outcome

New UK government Middle East policy 'dependent' on US election outcome
The incoming UK government expected to be led by the Labour Party's Sir Keir Starmer will face an increasingly uncertain geopolitical scene.
4 min read
05 July, 2024
The next UK government will face an intensifying geopolitical scene even as issues at home heat up [file photo/GETTY]

The next UK government led by Sir Keir Starmer's Labour Party will have to juggle an "increasingly dark environment" for geopolitics while dealing with pressures at home, international policy experts in London have predicted.

The UK's trade relationship with Europe, Chinese electric vehicle tariffs, the US presidential election, and the Israel-Gaza war are just some of a myriad of foreign policy issues facing the new Labour government.

The centre-left Labour Party achieved a landslide win with 411 seats out of 650 with ten constituencies still to declare, bringing to an end to 14 years of Conservative governance which saw see events such as the Arab Spring, Brexit, the Covid pandemic, and the Russia-Ukraine war.

In recent months, the outbreak of Israel's latest war on Gaza has sparked one of the biggest challenges in years for the UK government in regards to the Middle East.

Over the course of the nine-month war, outgoing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak expressed unwavering support for Israel's brutal invasion, siding firmly with close ally the US.

When the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced in May it was seeking an arrest warrant for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sunak described it as an "unhelpful move".

Although Starmer expressed similar support for Israel's invasion under the pretext of "self defence", senior party member David Lammy, who is tipped to be the next foreign secretary, recently said a Labour government would comply with an ICC arrest order for the Israeli premier, marking a small step away from the Tories.

Lammy's remarks are indicative of what minor differences could play out in the UK’s approach towards the Middle East over the coming months.

Experts have noted that it is rare to see huge disparities in UK foreign policy even with a new party at the helm - excluding responses to sudden global events.

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Professor Michael Cox, founding director of the (London School of Economics) LSE Ideas and emeritus professor, explained that one of the reason's for foreign policy's absence was the change in Labour leadership from Jeremy Corbyn to Starmer.

"Corbyn made foreign policy a very distinct position which he took very clearly... He had a very clear view on NATO and a very clear view on foreign politics," Cox said at the LSE Election Night event on Thursday.

Three external factors will influence how the UK's foreign policy will play out in the coming year, Cox added.

A trade deal with the European Union following the UK's departure in 2019, China and Russia who are "trying to re-change the world order", and the US presidential election in November "will have an enormous impact on this country", according to Cox.

The outcome of the American election in which President Joe Biden is running against former President Donald Trump could influence how a future Labour government handles the Middle East, the experts said.

Historically, the UK has mirrored Washington in its Middle East policy and Cox expects a Starmer government to follow suit, even against a backdrop of pressure from a vocal pro-Palestinian contingent in the Labour party.

But if Donald Trump is re-elected it could pose "huge problems" for the Labour government, who will have to navigate Trump’s approach to the Middle East, considering the Republican candidate's strongly pro-Israel stance and precedent of support for Israeli settler expansion in Palestinian territory.

"I think in the end [the Labour] policy will largely pursue that of the Biden administration and this is why the November election is so important," Cox said.

The imposing geopolitical outlook alongside the UK’s burning domestic issues such as the cost-of-living, public health services and a housing crisis, will be a "trade-off" for the incoming government, according to Professor Peter Trubowitz from the Department of International Relations at LSE.

Trubowitz described it as a balancing act of the "intensification of geopolitics" alongside the "strong desire" in the UK to focus on domestic issues.

Trubowitz, who directs the US Centre at the university, also warned that the outcome of the US election will be a key moment for the incoming Labour government.

If Trump is re-elected, US commitments abroad will shift, Trubowitz said, leaving UK officials isolated on significant crises like that of the Middle East.

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Trump's previous tenure saw the US controversially disengage from major policies, such as the Iran nuclear deal, and move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump repeatedly threatened to pull funding for NATO, and held a surprise meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

"I think we can say Trump will push back on America’s international commitments," Trubowitz said. "He will complicate the special relationship as well," he said, referring to the longstanding British-American ties.

"This election is a classic problem of statecraft where you're facing intensifying and increasingly dark geopolitical environment but you're also facing domestic pressures to focus on," Trubowitz said.