It is High Time for a Fundamental Discussion on British Grand Strategy

December 19, 2016

On 7 December, the UK Government published, without great fanfare, its first Annual Report on the 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR). A summary of the Report was provided a week later, on 15 December, by Britain’s Acting UK Ambassador to NATO, Paul Johnston.

At almost 100 pages in length, last year’s SDSR was Whitehall’s most ambitious effort at cross-departmental strategic thinking in years. It was effectively an SDSR, National Security Strategy, and Overseas Development Assistance strategy all rolled into one, plus a trade plan: a comprehensive blueprint for Britain’s international role and action over the course of this parliament.

At the time of its publication (November 2015), the SDSR placed a welcome emphasis on the strengthening of a “rules-based international order” as a British national interest of the highest importance. Another important message was on the use (or willingness to use) hard power in pursuit of this goal: “We remain ready and willing to use armed force when necessary to protect our national interest.”

For a routine update on Government policy implementation, the new Annual Report contains no great headlines or exciting new departures. Its overall message is ‘business as usual’. This is understandable given the pressure on Government’s time. Yet the truth is that this report can only be a holding document. Since last year’s SDSR, Britain has voted to leave the EU, and our most important ally, the United States, has experienced a major political upheaval. Both these historical events are evidently of momentous strategic significance for Britain’s position and role in the world.

It is against this backdrop that Policy Exchange will work towards a major publication on British Grand Strategy in early 2017. As we said in our July paper, Making Sense of British Foreign Policy After Brexit, the 23 June vote alone would have warranted a “‘Brexit update’ to SDSR2015 to recalibrate UK defence and national security”. The case for such a reassessment has only become stronger in view of the US presidential election result.

As it stands, the Annual Report on SDSR 2015 only gets us so far. It is technically true, as it says, that “Only one of SDSR 2015’s 89 principal commitments will be directly affected when the UK leaves the EU (Championing the EU/India Free Trade Agreement).” It does not necessarily follow, however, that “threats and challenges to UK national security have not fundamentally changed as a result of the decision to leave the EU”. It may be that some sensitivity is still required around negotiations with the EU. However, substantive questions of grand strategy — which would not necessarily prejudice the negotiations — require at least some debate, or even recognition, at a time when the foundations of world order are being shaken to the core.

Among the changing circumstances, developments in the broader Atlantic alliance require most attention. Brexit cannot be considered in isolation from the effects of Donald Trump’s election, which is already causing ructions throughout the UK’s own alliance network. One such effect has been a surge of scepticism about the Atlantic dimension of the Western security alliance in EU capitals, paired with the acceleration of EU plans for ‘defence integration’. This dynamic, which is as much a self-fulfilling prophecy as a self-interested policy by euro-federalist politicians, is placing the continued existence of the Euro-Atlantic Alliance at real risk. It was a subject of a recent Policy Exchange op-ed and is likely to become an area of growing concern.

In the difficult times ahead, and especially as our partners in the EU prepare their own Brexit negotiating position, it is perverse to pursue a “more European” foreign policy as some have argued. While the relationship should never be slavish, it remains the case that the actions of the United States remain the key reference point in UK foreign policy. This is acknowledged in the latest report, which stresses that the US and UK are in “maximum strategic alignment” and that “The United States remains our pre-eminent partner for security, defence, foreign policy and prosperity”. Notwithstanding recent changes in American leadership, the report goes on to say that:

“The UK and US will remain strong and close partners on trade, security and defence under President-elect Trump, with our enduring and special relationship based on the values of freedom, democracy, and enterprise.”

This is based on longer-term developments in our security relationship, which predate 2016, and look far beyond it:

“The British and US Armies have agreed a detailed plan to increase their ability to work together as part of Joint Force 2025 and the equivalent US Army Force 2025.”

While remaining close — or drawing even closer — to America, Britain remains a global nation with a direct stake in the international order and the norms underpinning it. The Report on SDSR 2015 lays out a compelling picture of the depth and breath of British activity around the world, whether it is the British forces currently deployed in 69 countries and the new defence staffs being established in the Middle East, Asia Pacific, and Africa; technical assistance provided to countries like Ukraine and Bosnia; influencing the founding policies of the AIIB; or setting up rapid support teams ready to deploy overseas to control disease outbreaks. No country — outside the US — matches the scale of the UK’s international involvement, and the range and complexity of activities that this involves.

The fact remains that Britain enjoys tremendous assets and a powerful international position. As the fifth largest economy in the world, its second-largest foreign aid spender, and third-largest defence spender, Britain has the wherewithal and influence to take an active role in shaping the world today in the same spirit in which it did at similar historical inflection points in the past. The EU and Brexit are only part of a wider picture, and that is worth bearing in mind. Ultimately, being ‘global’ is not simply about being ‘open’, but also being ‘strategic’, self-confident, and bold.

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