Liz Truss enters 10 Downing Street at a difficult moment for the UK. The British public’s priorities are growing economic challenges and the cost of living, especially the cost of energy. However, having served for the past year as Foreign Secretary, Truss knows how much these domestic challenges are linked to the international situation, especially the Russia-Ukraine war, as well as the importance of the longer-term geopolitical challenges, including the growing power of China.
Truss was Johnson’s loyal Foreign Secretary, so we can expect continuity rather than change in British foreign policy. But what do we know about Truss herself? She has encouraged comparisons between herself and Margaret Thatcher through her style and even her clothes, and she shares Thatcher’s ideological commitment to small state economic liberalism at home and free trade abroad.
Truss campaigned for ‘remain’ in the Brexit referendum, but she has proven to have the heart of a leaver. As the first Trade Minister after Brexit, she traveled the world signing bilateral trade deals, including an agreement with Israel.
In the mind of Truss, like Johnson, Britain is not a rainy island off the Northwest coast of Europe. It is an independent, global, economic, technological and military power with an innovative, business-friendly economy and a global network of like-minded allies committed to free trade, sovereignty and rule of law.
She has spoken repeatedly about strengthening an international “Network of Liberty”, in which “freedom-loving countries trade with each other, build security links, invest in our partners and pull more countries into the orbit of freedom.”
In her speeches as Foreign Secretary, she has argued that freedom-loving nations went to sleep after the end of the Cold War, thinking the End of History would take care of itself. Now, she warns, we need to wake up and smell the geopolitical reality, in which we have become excessively dependent on bad guys like Russia for energy, and China for critical resources and infrastructure. She calls for like-minded states to strengthen and expand their alliances, especially the G7 and NATO.
She is particularly concerned about China’s economic policies, including its global infrastructure investments, which are drawing Asian and African nations into debt traps and dependency.
She has also taken a hard line on Russia and is critical of any suggestion of Ukraine making territorial compromises. This maximalist position is not necessarily welcome in Washington or in European capitals where they would prefer more room for maneuver.
This is not the only potential disagreement with Europe. There is still a big dispute over the arrangements for the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU. This disagreement is set to escalate in the coming months.
Lapid – easier to like
UK-Israel relations are likely to remain strong under Truss, at least in the short term. She has repeatedly praised Israel as an economic, political and strategic partner. In November 2021 she agreed with Yair Lapid to work towards an expanded trade agreement, and to greater cooperation in defense, cyber, diplomacy, climate innovation and international development. In a co-authored article in the Daily Telegraph they declared: “Israel and the UK are the closest of friends, and today we become even closer. Together we ensure the future is defined by liberal democracies who believe in freedom and fairness.” During her leadership campaign, she told pro-Israel Conservative party members that she would consider moving the UK embassy to Jerusalem.
However, that does not guarantee there will be no problems between the UK and Israel. While Truss talks tough on Iran, she is unlikely to block a return to the Iran nuclear deal.
Then there is the question of Israel’s next government. Israel’s current coalition, and liberal-minded Yair Lapid, are much easier for British politicians to like than a Netanyahu coalition including far-right extremists. An extreme right government would be harder to categorize as a liberal democratic partner. In addition, while Lapid’s preference is to align with Western liberals in condemning Putin, Netanyahu prefers to prioritize good relations with Russia. It would be interesting to see how Netanyahu’s approach would go down with Truss.
Israelis should also be aware that Truss’s prospects for winning a general election in 2024 aren’t great. Leader of the opposition Labour Party Keir Starmer has worked hard to distance his party from the antisemitic legacy of Jeremy Corbyn, but there is still a lot of hostility towards Israel in Labour. For UK-Israel relations, therefore, Truss’s premiership may prove a too brief interlude before more difficult times ahead, should Labour return to power.
This article is an abridged version of an essay on Liz Truss’ foreign policy world view and its significance for UK-Israel relations just published in the journal Fathom.
Toby Greene is a lecturer in the Political Studies Department at Bar-Ilan University. Twitter @toby_greene_