The legendary strength of the Conservative Party’s omerta and the distracting tempest of British politics didn’t keep Gavin Williamson safe; even in 2019, leaking from the National Security Council, in which government ministers meet with the nation’s top spies, is Just Not On, Old Chap.
Why did he do it? It can’t be ruled out that he chose the UK 5G network’s supply chain as his personal hill to die on, born of true love for the motherland. But setting aside this charitable guess, and looking at the episode using a world-systems lens, we might understand how the move may stand to boost Williamson’s career, even after this apparent fall from grace.
World-systems theory is a strand of thought in Geopolitics, Development Studies, and many other disciplines explored at SOAS, in which the world is modelled as comprising a ‘core’, a ‘semi-periphery’, and a ‘periphery’.
The core sustains itself via exploitation of the natural, industrial and human capital in periphery and semi-periphery. Using a high-profile technology brand which is also a fruit as an example, this actor leverages a supply chain of rare metals and hydrocarbons from the periphery (i.e. latin american and sub saharan african mineral deposits), assembled and processed in the semi-periphery (in China, Malaysia, and other ‘emerging markets’), with the lion’s share of the profit consumed in the ‘global north’ – or, in the fruity brand’s case, just stockpiled in a swelling cash hoard that they’re not sure what to do with.
But what happens when elite communities in a ‘semi-peripheral’ country decide they’ve had enough of playing second fiddle, of performing lower-value work as ‘the world’s factory’, while the core creams off the good stuff?
In that case, a concerted strategy to readjust the world system is needed. This is what the grand strategy of Xi Jinping’s administration is about: structured around a ‘One Belt, One Road’ project, breathtaking sums of effort and cash are being spent to realign the global ebbs and flows of value and power in a balance more favourable to Beijing.
Further to building roads, rail lines, ports and other capital investments inside and outside of the country, this species of mercantile capitalism, in which lines between private company and Chinese Communist Party are blurred, is coupled with intensive technological research and development. Funded by a high domestic savings rate, this has enabled the economy to upgrade from mass production of basic goods into an increasingly high tech one; from dog chew toys to jet engines in a matter of years (Zhang 2017) (Morrison 2014).
Enter John Bolton, trusted advisor to the leader of the free world since March 2018. Bolton entered the President’s thought yurt, bringing with him an uncompromising realist hawk perspective on the world and America’s position in the world-system; at the tip top of the core, brandishing a big stick at anyone trying to take the King of the Hill spot.
Bolton and his contemporaries regard China’s ascension from the semi-periphery as an existential threat to US hegemony. A China-oriented world system realignment has been the slow-burning nightmare fuel for the ‘realist’ and hawk communities of the global north since the year dot.
In a 2017 piece in the Wall Street Journal titled ‘A Resolute Message to China’ (Bolton 2017), Bolton made his message to Trump eminently clear; that China is screwing the world market to become more powerful at American expense, and that “no drama Obama” was asleep at the wheel as it happened. He got the advisor job just weeks after publication. For men wearing goggles of his colour, Huawei becoming a crucial services supplier to the world communications network would amount to an intolerable milestone in a realignment of the world-system.
Still with me? This is where Gavin Williamson’s leak of the spies comes back in.
It’s no secret that on-the-make Tories have made moves to cuddle up to the office of the POTUS, via Bolton (Busby 2018). Bolton will not have missed that Williamson put his neck on the line, literally spilling the beans on the holiest of holies in British politics, to uphold the (presently) America-first world order. Williamson has used his position as Defence Secretary to frustrate government efforts to cuddle up to the Middle Kingdom, such as announcing a deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth to the South China Sea days before Chancellor Philip Hammond’s planned trade talks in Beijing (which China withdrew from, citing Williamson’s “gunboat diplomacy”) (Kentish 2019). Such manoeuvres, signalling resolution to uphold the world-system with aircraft carriers if need be, will have won him trust and favour from Washington DC.
Like a school of sharks, Williamson and every other Tory with an ounce of sense smells the Prime Minister’s blood. This stage is all about jockeying for promotion in the new Tory order, when she takes her leave and sacks it in, especially as a general election victory against a weak Labour party is regarded as a shoe-in.
In that new Downing Street order, connections to the White House will be highly valued and could help a man climb high. Along with the Huawei leak, Williamson has backed Trump’s withdrawal from the intermediate nuclear weapons treaty, increasing NATO defence spending, and in so doing positioned himself as a Washington-oriented Tory. Keep a close eye on the moves he makes in the months to come.