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To be the United Kingdom Foreign Secretary, as Boris Johnson knows well, is to live in a whirl of rushed meetings, urgent calls, fast-moving cavalcades and waiting aircraft. You become adept at trying to hold a calm phone conversation with one foreign counterpart while another one sits next to you in a car lurching around with sirens blaring and yet another presidential palace recedes in the mirror.

Eventually, you crave discussing what matters most with people you really trust, and with no agenda or deadline. So it was a relief to me when sometimes the foreign ministers of Australia or Canada would say “Let’s discuss the strategy of the western world”, which we would proceed to do. In my time in office, which was pre-Trump, this was a discussion I could also have with the United States secretary of state. I recall Hillary Clinton, another one who sometimes proposed the quiet chat, vehemently advocating a strong lead from America to defend western values with a unifying approach — all with more passion and animation than the voters were ever able to see in her.

It is perhaps a sad reflection on the state of the world earlier this decade that a discussion of what might be called the grand strategy of the West was only taking place, at foreign minister level anyway, between a small number of exhausted politicians who needed a drink. Yet, the West was at least trying to have that discussion.

The turn of the century had brought cracks in the unity of western, democratic nations after the triumph of the end of the Cold War. Terrorism from the Middle East brought sharp disagreements over how much intervention was wise. The rise of China began to produce a divergence between a business-hungry Europe on the one hand, and the US, with many military and political commitments in East Asia, on the other. Even so, leading western nations were still pursuing a common global approach in most respects, involving support for free trade, effective development aid to poorer countries, and strong support for making international rules and organisations work effectively. The West backed a Middle East peace process involving the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. It was united in trying to prevent nuclear proliferation, including seeking a deal with Iran to avert a race to build the most destructive weapons in the world’s most unstable region.

Three or four years ago, for leading foreign ministers to discuss their common global strategy was hopeful, but realistic. Today, it would seem ridiculous, and that is probably the single most alarming fact about world affairs. As I write, the US has opened an embassy in occupied Jerusalem, signalling a profound division with European and Arab nations in its approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace. The nuclear deal with Iran is reeling from its rejection by US President Donald Trump last week. In commercial matters, American allies are having to plead for exemptions from tariffs on steel and aluminium. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sound trade deal mainly between democratic nations, has been abandoned by Washington. If today’s ministers set out to discuss the grand strategy of the West while sharing a bottle, it could only be to crack a joke before pouring another glass.

Big advances

This is not just the result of a new ‘America First’ administration in Washington. Brexit is, at least for now, preoccupying Britain. And Brussels is mishandling its approach to our exit in strategic matters — ludicrously threatening British military use of the Galileo satellite system even though the United Kingdom contributes heavily to European security.

All is not lost. When Britain expelled undeclared Russian agents earlier this year, two dozen friendly and allied countries followed the example. In his speech in Berlin this week, the head of MI5 pointed to big advances in intelligence cooperation across Europe in preventing terrorist attacks. The US has led an effective coalition of nations in destroying the embryonic caliphate of Daesh in Syria and Iraq. It should nevertheless be of deep concern that, even though the ability of western armed forces and security agencies to work together remains strong, the political and diplomatic unity of their governments is deteriorating sharply. Eventually, the pursuit of differing foreign policies will undermine essential security cooperation. There will be crises where we decline to assist each other, confrontations in which we blame each other and negotiations when we don’t trust each other.

This is worrying because others around the globe do have a grand strategy. Russia has one, despite serious economic weaknesses, and it thrives on disunity in Western capitals. China has one, set out by Chinese President Xi Jinping, with goals for the country’s strength and role in world affairs for 2035 and 2050.

The West, by which I mean the developed democratic nations, cannot have rigid goals for 2050 precisely because it comprises free societies that change their minds and want to go where science, reason, and new thinking take them. Nor do they want presidents indefinitely in office who can make a confident plan that far ahead. But these societies do need a collective instinct and common set of values, kept together and renewed by unifying leadership. Such a combination prevailed through the second half of the 20th century, but is seriously weakened now.

No simple solution offers itself to this depressing problem. The growing splits between old allies are the result of deep domestic discontents throwing up new and unpredictable results in elections and referendums. Only more satisfied electorates will again produce a more united West. That will take time. In the meantime, it would be reassuring if heads of government and foreign ministers talked frankly behind their scenes about what is happening to the western alliance and what they can do to contain the damage. Before very long, it is really going to matter.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018

William Hague is a former British foreign secretary.