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 paper', 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. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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