Eyes tight shut

Britain’s defence review is deeply flawed because it is based on a self-deluding picture of the world. It brings to mind the spectacle of the Viking King, Canute, who one thousand years ago commanded the tide to stop on an English beach.


Not far from Portsmouth, home of the now-diminished Royal Navy, a Viking king stationed himself on the shore and commanded the tide to stop. Had he not lived a thousand years too early, Canute might very well have been tempted, as the water washed over his shoes, to quote from Britain’s new National Security Strategy: “Britain’s national interest requires us to reject any notion of the shrinkage of our influence”.

Never mind the ‘aircraft carriers with no aircraft’ absurdity, on which the press have majored. Given the shambles of a defence programme the coalition government rightly insist they inherited from their predecessors, balancing the books was always going to involve some pretty weird decisions. And the assertion that cancelling the carriers would now cost more than going ahead with them sounds horribly plausible, given the efforts of both navy and contractor to create exactly that situation.

No – the real problem with this review lies not in the specific detail of the cuts, but in the self-deluding nature of the world view on which it is based, as set out in the Security Strategy. The defiant claim of Britain’s unshrunk influence quoted above is bizarre – but no more so than the wider assessment that “The balance of geopolitical power will gradually change over the coming decades. The world of 2030 will be increasingly multipolar, with power distributed more widely than in the last two decades”.

So that’s all right then; no need to panic. Britain remains a world power (and we are treated to an enumeration of in just what ways, which omits only the World Service of the BBC, and is fairly described by the Economist’s Bagehot as complacent boosterism). Those Chinese chappies are showing promise – but no need to take them seriously for another couple of decades. Meanwhile, Britain will continue with its civilising mission, promoting stability and good governance around the world, with a regal disregard for geography. Perhaps ‘imperial’ would be a better word: the spirit of the document evokes the splendid Victorian fresco adorning the Foreign Office’s main staircase, in which ‘Britannia teaches her sons the arts of war and peace’.

But here’s the problem. The world is multipolar now, not in 2030. The ‘emerging powers’ already have. Power has dramatically shifted from the old west, and the era when America ran the world with Britain as its loyal first lieutenant is gone for good. The US has grasped this, and turned its focus to the Pacific – someone needs to tell the National Security Council about the G2. European influence on global affairs is diminishing by the day, and Britain’s along with it. The water is getting hotter all the time, and this sleepy frog seems content to dream its nostalgic dreams.

The real risk to our national security and prosperity is that we do not wake up to the scale and immediacy of the challenge – the challenge that will bundle us out of Africa and the Middle East, that will trump human rights with ‘sovereignty’ as the standard by which the world lives, and will generally shove us to the margins of world affairs -until we are thoroughly boiled.

Is it complacency and nostalgia, or the institutional admiration for all things American that characterises the Tory right wing and the armed forces, which lies behind the Strategy’s repeated affirmation that the US must remain our principal partner and ally? Certainly, it cannot be any analysis of the geostrategic interests of Americans on the one side, and Europeans (including Britain, by inescapable fact of geography) on the other, which are manifestly now diverging. Ironical that at on the very day that we were proclaiming our undiminished influence in the world, just across the Channel in Deauville the French President and German Chancellor were meeting with the Russian President to prepare the ground for a new European security order, based on closer cooperation between Russia and the EU. All three have a lively awareness of the problems the old European powers face in the century ahead – and, strangely, seem prepared to look for solutions without the Brits, unshrunk influence or no.

In fairness, if the defence review has repeated Britain’s reflexive desire for American leadership, it has also shown an unusual openness to military cooperation with France. And one must also credit the government with a sensible decision to drop the idea of new jump-jets for the one carrier that will be brought into service, and to fit it instead with catapults so that American and French maritime aircraft could fly off it. Not, though, that either would find it useful to do so unless the right maintenance gear were installed below decks. If Britain persists, then, in its plans to buy JSF aircraft from the US, its carrier will be a useful adjunct to the US navy. Only if we buy French Rafale aircraft instead will true interoperability with France be achievable.

So there remains a lot to play for as long as the JSF contract remains unsigned. That said, the idea that Britain’s defence and foreign policy establishment could so far catch up with reality as to favour France over the US in a major defence equipment buy seems, it must be admitted, about as plausible as rivers flowing uphill, or the tide being turned by a word of command.


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


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.