AUKUS: Brits are undecided but the PM must convince them

Two big issues have set the backdrop for this week’s meeting between Prime Minister Johnson and President Biden – the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the establishment of AUKUS, the new defence and technology pact between the UK, US, and Australia. While the first provoked questions over the health of the UK-US relationship, the latter demonstrated that the closeness on security and technology sharing between the two countries, and another close ally Australia, remains as strong as ever.

So far so good. However, recent research conducted by us at CT Group in the wake of the Afghanistan withdrawal demonstrates that AUKUS has been launched into a sceptical world. Our research shows that support for maintaining US-centred multilateralism is low, especially among Britons and Australians. Almost half of Britons (48 per cent) and 40 per cent of Australians believe it is becoming too expensive to support the US as the dominant power and that other countries should take the lead while the UK and Australia focus on domestic issues.

Here is the crucial challenge. It means that leaders will need to make the case as to how these international relationships benefit the public and that the resources deployed balance the risk and benefit we face. And they will need to do it in a way personally relevant to their citizens. As ever, all politics is local.

More Britons and Australians in fact believe economic interests rather than strategic defence interests or shared social values should be the dominant driver of foreign policy (39 per cent of Britons and 38 per cent of Australians identify economic interests as the most important foreign policy driver, with just 19 per cent of Britons and 21 per cent of Australians naming strategic defence interests). It is therefore understandable that the British Prime Minister has already started linking this pact with his big domestic push – so called levelling up.

Afghanistan has however not helped this sales pitch. A plurality of Americans supported President Biden’s Afghan withdrawal, even if not the way it was managed, there is no doubt it damaged the US President in the eyes of key allies. The research we conducted in the UK, US, and Australia immediately after the withdrawal showed net support for the move among Australians (44 per cent supportive and 23 per cent opposing) and Americans (46 per cent and 29 per cent respectively). Britons were however divided with 31 per cent supportive and 33 per cent opposed.

Biden’s handling of the withdrawal was viewed as poor across all three countries. This was especially pronounced among the UK public, with 49 per cent saying he had done a bad job, compared to just 19 per cent saying he had done a good job. His lack of collaboration with key allies was a key driver of this negative perception. More people in the UK, US and Australia believe the withdrawal makes us less safe than safer.

The most influential arguments in support and opposition to the withdrawal do focus on the geopolitical ramifications. Those arguments being that strategic competitors, such as China, Russia and Iran have benefitted from resources being tied down in Afghanistan and these need to be deployed elsewhere, and on the other side, withdrawing from Afghanistan sends the wrong message about what the US stands for to the rest of the world.

Concern over the threat to national security and terrorism arising out of the Afghan withdrawal is prevalent, with 39 per cent of Britons naming this as a major international issue. Voter concern about the rising global influence of China is lower, with 29 per cent naming this as a top international issue. However, while voters see the US as still the dominant political force in the world, a plurality of Britons and Australians believe China will overtake the US as the dominant political force within the next ten years.

The focus on technology sharing as part of AUKUS also taps into the public’s view that advanced technology and intelligence could replace the need for boots on the ground in the future in maintaining security (42 per cent of Britons agreeing with just 16 per cent disagreeing). That is an international policy providing domestic benefit, however indirectly.

Boris Johnson knows the importance of thinking these things through. When he was Mayor of London he successfully made the case to the Treasury for record investment in London’s transport system, in part by arguing that it would not just benefit the capital but create jobs, boost industries and economic activity across the UK. He would point to new air-conditioned trains being made in Derby, Tube rails manufactured in Scunthorpe, concrete sleepers in Derbyshire, and windows for London buses made in Runcorn. The UK got jobs. Londoners got better, more reliable transport.

The AUKUS pact may well make us safer. But will we feel or know we are safer? If British firms benefit, jobs are created, and economic activity is boosted in the Midlands and further north, voters will see and feel it. The Prime Minister has already spoken of how the pact can deliver a much-needed jobs boost to British manufacturers in poorer seaside towns such as Barrow-in-Furness. The link between AUKUS and levelling up has to mean something to people personally and they need to benefit from it in a tangible way.

Just as there was when Boris Johnson secured investment in London transport, there will be strong competition. US firms will be lining up to get their share of the action. The Prime Minister will understand that he and his government will need to make the case for British firms, advocate our technological leadership and in turn deliver tangibly on his domestic agenda, starting with his meetings this week in Washington.

Sam Lyon is Managing Director of CT Partners.

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