Britain?s defence review: the real strategic questions

Britain’s defence review must take on board how much the world has changed since the late 1900s and focus on preserving Britain’s power and influence, both in and through Europe

What a curious exercise the UK Ministry of
Defence’s reappraisal of British defence policy is. The ‘green
, or discussion document, published last week confirms that no
government is going to open up the really interesting questions about national
defence only weeks ahead of an election. It also proves that no institution
operating on a war footing can be expected to achieve the psychological
distance necessary to effectively critique its own behaviour.

Which is not to say that the green paper is
without interest. On the contrary, the suggestion that the bankruptcy of the
defence budget must mean greater reliance on partners especially in Europe is something new – and, in the British context,
really quite brave. So too is the cautious hint that having all of the UK defence’s space-related eggs in the US
basket may be less than ideal.

But, in the main, the green paper is too
ready to fall back on the standard nostrums, without argumentation or
challenge. In particular, it tells us that:

  • “This Government
    continues to believe that the UK’s interests are best served
    by continuing to play an active global role, including through the use of
    armed force when required”.

Well, yes, quite possibly so – but such ex cathedra assertions hardly seem
to match the declared aim of opening up debate.

  • “[No security and
    defence relationship] is more important than that with the United States”.

Undeniably true: but is this good, or bad, or just an immutable feature of
the international landscape?

  • “[The UK’s]
    minimum strategic nuclear deterrent … contributes to NATO’s collective
    security and assists in reassuring key allies”.

A bottle of champagne awaits the first person able to identify one ‘key ally’,
or even a peripheral one, so ‘reassured’. And what, one must ask, is ‘minimum’
about maintaining the anachronism of continuous missile submarine patrols?

  • “NATO remains the
    cornerstone of our security”.

And so it has been in Whitehall
publications, time out of mind – unless, by way of elegant variation, it is the
‘bedrock’. This formula is pure liturgy – a statement of faith, not an argument.

There is nothing here to disturb the
contented rumination of the usual sacred cows.

This green paper shows little awareness of
the enormous international changes that have taken place in the dozen years
since the UK’s
defence policy was last reviewed – and no apparent consciousness that that
policy is now as full of holes as the ministry’s finances.

It is hard now to recall the sense of
optimism with which the old millennium closed. The triumph of liberal democracy
across the globe seemed assured: and the victors of the Cold War seemed to have
both the right and the duty to fare forth, right the world’s wrongs, and
generally make it a better place. America
bestrode the world, with Britain
as its loyal first lieutenant; Milosevic was humbled in Kosovo; NATO and the EU
were enlarging, to establish a vast new swathe of stability and security in eastern
Europe. Tyrants everywhere were in retreat. No wonder Britain was prepared to
base its defence policy on interventionism, and explicitly to size its armed
forces so as to be able to provide a chunky, free-standing contribution to any
US-led operation – the sort of contribution that could be expected, according
to the 2003 defence
white paper
, to buy an
influential say in the management of the campaign, “including during the
post-conflict period”. 

Now, of course, most of this millenarian
zeal has simply run into the sands of two debilitating Middle Eastern wars. Iraq
offered an early test of the concept of British influence over the American
leviathan – testing it, as it turned out, to destruction. And, far from
accepting Britain’s
self-appointed role as deputy in charge of restraining European defence, the US has
formed its own view, come round to supporting the endeavour, and left the
increasingly euro-sceptical British high and dry – more royalist than the king.
Nor is American power itself what it was: the unipolar moment has passed,
globalisation has redistributed power to the south and east, and ‘the West’,
whether understood to mean free-market capitalism or democratic values, is no
longer the unchallenged arbiter of global norms.

So where, one must ask, does this decade of
extraordinary change leave British defence policy? Does anyone any longer
really believe that the professionalism and sacrifice of our young service
personnel in Afghanistan
actually enhances the security of British citizens back home – or that NATO
strategy amounts now to anything more than sidling towards the exit? The policy
of heroic interventionism has run its course. Yet, as the green paper comes
close to admitting, the reality is that the UK, perched at the western tip of
the Eurasian land-mass, is today a remarkably safe place. War in Europe is no longer conceivable. Russia, difficult neighbour though
it may be, is no sort of conventional military threat. Only jihadist terrorism
poses a direct risk – but we now know that the idea of rooting it out by
military means is self-defeating.

Time then for Britain to be more like
Switzerland – to stay home, mind its own business, and reduce its defence
spending to the sort of level that most of its European neighbours regard as
adequate? In my view, no – but we need to be clear why not. I share the green
paper’s declared belief in a ‘globally active’ UK. But the point is not
‘security’, or implausible military counters to ‘threats’ which are either
remote, or intractable, or both. The point is power – the need to shore up our
diminishing ability to influence to our own advantage the way the world works.
Military prowess is only one of the dimensions of power; but it is a useful
one, and one at which – much like our diplomatic capability – we happen to be
well practised and rather good. We can no longer deploy it effectively by
ourselves – but exploited through Europe, and indeed within Europe,
it has real value.

A dozen years ago, the new Labour
government’s decision to launch the European defence project with France
at the St Malo summit brought exactly the sort of dividends that Tony Blair
anticipated. In European eyes, it made up for other policy areas, such as the
euro, where the UK attitude to the EU seemed stand-offish – it gave real
substance to the rhetoric about a Britain that wanted to be ‘at the heart’ of
Europe. Friends across Europe were happy to see one area of developing European
policy where the UK,
rather than the over-mighty Franco-German duo, was taking a lead. And it
contributed to the extraordinary influence that Britain enjoyed in those years with
the countries of central and eastern Europe.

Today, Britain’s churlish and grudging
attitude to the European defence policy it itself created puzzles and
frustrates its erstwhile European allies. Last November’s conclusion by Poland of a strategic defence partnership with France
was, from a British perspective, a culminating demonstration of how to lose
friends and alienate people.

So Britain’s ‘European partners’ need to be
seen not just as ancillary capacity that may help defray the costs of a defence
posture the UK can no longer afford by itself. They need to be seen as an
essential power centre through which Britain may hope to retain a measure of
influence in a world where the US is turning away from the Atlantic and
‘emerging powers’ – led by China – are increasingly calling the shots. The fact
that Europe is so ‘herbivorous’, so slow to assert itself internationally, is a
measure of how far Britain’s leadership is needed – and how easily Britain can
rebuild political capital in Europe.

Here then are the two questions that should
be front and centre in the upcoming UK defence review:

  • How best can Britain
    shape and use its military capacity so as to maximise its global power and
    influence? and;
  • How can we use that capacity and expertise to maximise both our
    influence within Europe, and Europe’s
    influence in the world?

Only a review that engages fully with these
key questions will be worth the ‘strategic’ label that it will claim.





The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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