DIGITAL EXCLUSIVE — British Secretary of State for Defense Grant Shapps lamented the delicate state of the international security landscape as more voters than ever head to the polls in a potentially defining year for the world.
“I just think that we need to wake up to the risks that exist,” Shapps said. “So, we’ve lived in a kind of a post-Cold War era in which we’ve taken the peace dividend. Fine. But you can’t carry on taking that same peace dividend whilst at the same time you’ve got a very aggressive Russia right now. You see what Iran are doing and how they’re increasing the tensions in the Middle East.
“You’ve got a very assertive North Korea with nuclear weapons,” he added. “What happens when China is looking at all of this to see how the West responds? So, it seems obvious to me that what we need to do is make sure that we do not carry on trying to take a peace dividend that no longer exists.”
Shapps warned in his first major speech as defense minister the world might see conflict between the West and rival nations, including China, Russia, North Korea and Iran within the next five years, as tensions continue to ramp up in various regions, particularly and most recently the Middle East.
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But Shapps noted that the state of the world remains in flux as more voters than ever head to the polls in a rare alignment of elections in dozens of major countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, the European Union, India, Mexico, Pakistan and many others.
Taiwan kicked off the election year with a historic third consecutive term for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, beating China’s implied favorite, the Kuomintang party. The shocks started the year before with an upset victory for Holland’s Geert Wilders, who will become prime minister if he is able to form a cabinet.
“It’s obviously critical that we make sure that the world order in which billions of people actually get a good vote this year, 2024, 2 billion people will go and vote is the greatest Democratic year in history in that sense,” Shapps said in an interview before the U.S. initiated retaliatory airstrikes in the Middle East.
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The potential to reshape the political balance of the majority of big players on the international scene will set the direction for many issues, including support for Ukraine in the third year of Russia’s invasion, China’s regional aggression and, most pressing, the escalation of violence in the Middle East.
The U.S. initiated airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria and Iraq following an attack in Jordan that killed three American service members. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin revealed the strikes hit 85 targets at six locations in the first wave.
In his interview with Digital, Shapps offered his condolences for the U.S. deaths and stressed that the U.K. wants to see “restraint” from Iran and de-escalation. He cited the ongoing attacks on commercial shipping vessels in the Red Sea and the attacks against American military personnel and assets as unacceptable actions Tehran has continued to endorse.
“You cannot go about infringing on international waterways, freedom of navigation, and we call on Iran to step in there, but also with these militant groups,” Shapps said, noting that his stance follows continued joint statements between Washington, London and their allies.
“It is in no one’s interest to see this grow as a regional conflict. So, of course, we are calling on everyone to show restraint.
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“I want to see Lebanese Hezbollah stop,” he added. “I want to see these Iran-backed militant groups stop, and, of course, most of all, we want to see an end to the conflict in Israel and Gaza as well, for which we need a bunch of preconditions like the hostages released, for example.”
Shapps reiterated the British position seeking a two-state solution, which necessitates recognition of a Palestinian state, an option the Biden administration has reportedly started to explore as the president plans for the aftermath of the conflict.
“We’re going to have recognition of a Palestinian state, and that requires security guarantees to Israel as well, so that has to be the end state,” Shapps explained.
“I don’t think we could jump to that conclusion,” he warned. “We have to see a bunch of things happening. First, a large number of agreements would need to go in place. That’s where we want to end up getting. … Of course, it’s said, much harder to do, but a good start would be for those hostages to be released and a sustainable cease-fire off the back of that.”
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Shapps highlighted 2024 as a pivotal year not just for the upcoming elections but the fragile state of conflicts such as Ukraine’s defense against Russia. He suspected that Russian President Vladimir Putin aims to play “the long game” and wait out the West, hoping it will “get bored.”
“Will we turn our backs? Perhaps because of what’s happening in the Middle East … maybe just because he thinks we won’t have the stomach to support Ukraine until the end. So, I think 2024 is a really pivotal year,” he said.
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“We have to essentially make the conscious decision. Are we in this for Ukraine to establish total sovereignty across all of Ukraine … or are we just going to say it’s OK for a democratic neighbor to be invaded with all that read across to China and others will be looking at this,” he argued.
“North Korea, Iran and the situation we’re seeing right now in the Middle East … China will draw their own conclusions when they’re thinking about Taiwan and elsewhere,” Shapps stressed. “We must wake up to the real threat that is posed, which is not just about Russia or Putin, but is about the entire world order.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.