“The May Doctrine” is a three-part series discussing the three major planks of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s new foreign policy grand strategy. This first piece analyzes the first plank: fighting global terrorism.
In her first major international address following the historic Brexit vote, new British Prime Minister Theresa May did something unexpected: She embraced an internationalist foreign policy. May laid out a proactive plan to reassert UK global leadership by targeting the root causes of three global crises: global terrorism, historic mass migration, and modern slavery. The May Doctrine benefits the U.S. through increased burden-sharing on these key global issues.
As the UK prepares to leave the EU, May is already pivoting toward the UN as well as other bilateral and multilateral relations such as NATO to project global leadership. May proudly proclaimed that the UN will vote on a UK-led resolution for strong common standards for aviation security. She enthusiastically supported the Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism. She also upheld the UK commitment to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense, signaling continued solidarity with NATO members.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton can take note of how May is skillfully channeling the UK populist electorate wave into an international foreign policy that benefits both national domestic interests and strategic global interests.
Fighting Global Terrorism
The first of three planks in the May Doctrine is a commitment to fighting global terrorism. Rather than speaking on the hot topics of ISIL and Syria, May focused on defeating Al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa and stabilizing the region.
May pledged new UK security support to defeat Al-Shabaab, including 30 UK military training units of up to 30 personnel each on rolling missions to Somalia as well as a new UK headquarters in Mogadishu. She touted the UK doubling its UN peacekeeping deployments in Somalia and South Sudan, adding 40 troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and 300 personnel to the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) respectively. May also called on other nations to increase support, announcing an international conference on Somalia in 2017.
Why East Africa?
May recognizes that conflict in East Africa contributes greatly to asylum-seeking migration across the Mediterranean and to the UK. According to the Red Cross, 1.1 million refugees worldwide originate from Somalia, the third-largest nationality of refugees after Syria at 4.2 million and Afghanistan at 2.6 million. While the UK received just shy of 39,000 asylum applications in 2015 — compared to 431,000 applications for Germany. More African applicants apply for asylum in the UK than those from the Middle East. Applications from Eritrea and Sudan have also spiked in recent years.
Despite the UK not being part of the Schengen zone — and thus independent of the majority of the EU immigration policies — a significant amount of Brexit support stemmed from anger toward increased migration inflows in the last few years. May is tuned into the demands of her electorate that is weary of migration, and she is taking tangible steps to address the root causes of the historic 65 million person migration crisis.
Strengthening Non-EU Partnerships
The effects of Al-Shabaab spill over from Somalia into neighboring countries including Kenya, which hosts half a million Somali refugees and also happens to have close ties with the UK. Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp is the largest in the world, hosting hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees in unsecure conditions. In a political pitch before the 2017 elections, government officials threatened to close the camp and dump the problem on the west, stating they have already done their share of assimilating 250,000 refugees.
May is listening to the Kenyan government’s warnings because of her long-term strategy to find much-needed trading opportunities in lieu of Brexit. The EU is one of Africa’s largest trading partners, and the UK will eventually have to negotiate new trade deals with these African countries. 3.6 percent of African goods are exported to the UK, and 2.6 percent of UK goods are exported to Africa.
These seemingly small numbers are in fact crucial markets for both countries. About 100 British investment companies are based in Kenya, mostly in agricultural and energy markets. One-third of Kenya’s cut flower exports go to the Netherlands and the UK. The Kenya Flower Council expects any delays of a trade agreement between the EU and the East African Community (EAC) due to Brexit will cost $38 million per month, the equivalent of 0.9 percent of Kenya’s annual GDP. The UK is also Kenya’s top tourist destination while Kenya, too, hosts a large presence of British.
Stabilizing the Horn of Africa is good business for May and, therefore, good politics.
A Winnable Fight
May did not bring forth a far-reaching plan for peace in Syria. Instead, she chose to address a conflict where momentum is already on the side of UK and western interests. Since 2011, Al-Shabaab has lost its hold on most major cities. The Federal Government of Somalia, while weak, is slowly gaining democratic legitimacy, providing new opportunities for economic relations and political partnership for the once-collapsed state.
How the May Doctrine Promotes U.S. Interests
Like the UK, the U.S. can benefit from increased economic opportunities in a Horn of Africa that is free of systemic conflict. A stable Somalia would allow 1.1 million refugees to begin returning home, lifting the burden off of its neighbors and the international community while increasing Somalia’s economic productivity. While the U.S. does not feel the effects of the mass migration crisis to the extent of the UK, it is in U.S. interests to tackle the root causes that include terrorism and insurgencies like Al-Shabaab.
The defeat of Al-Shabaab will mitigate the chances of ISIL gaining a foothold in East Africa as the group continues to expand globally in reaction to shrinking territory in Syria and Iraq. A stable Somalia will also reduce the threat of pirates to international trade and subsequently reduce the U.S. military cost of policing the Indian Ocean.
Lessons for the Next President
While May’s policy promotes U.S. interests, just as importantly, her politics demonstrate how to skillfully turn populism into internationalism. A large part of the Vote Leave campaign in the UK centered around opposition to migration in the forms of both political asylum seekers and economic migrants. A similar U.S. phenomenon of protectionism and immigration fears is occurring on both the right and left.
May listened to the anger that led to Brexit — constituents feeling left behind — and shaped her foreign policy around those concerns. May is honing in on key global issues as well as the root causes of the electorate’s anger: the thought that migration leads to lower wages, fewer jobs, and security risks. May is targeting specific regions like East Africa with the aim of stemming mass global migration and therefore easing the tide of migration into the UK.
May is adhering to the electorate’s concerns, however misguided or truthful they may be, while simultaneously asserting UK global leadership and tangible actions to make real positive change.
No matter who is elected president this fall, there will be a large bloc of angry voters demanding protectionism and isolationism. May has shown that anger can be channeled into a global good that will also benefit an angry constituency through proactive internationalism.
21st-century politics have increasingly been whittled down to sound bytes. “Good” short-sighted politics often lead to bad policy, which can worsen the situation that voters were originally angry about.
May’s long-term international vision will hopefully create an environment where good policy determines winning politics.