Secretary of State for Defence launches new Policy Exchange Security Unit

Mar 24, 2016

Policy Exchange hosted the Defence Secretary, Rt Hon Michael Fallon MP, this week for a keynote address on nuclear deterrence to mark the launch of our new National Security Unit, “Britain in the World.” Rt Hon Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, KT, former Secretary General of NATO, delivered the Vote of Thanks.

The Defence Secretary welcomed Policy Exchange’s move into the wider national security debate: “Policy Exchange has led the public policy debate over the last 14 years on issues as far apart as housing to the impact of lawfare on our armed forces. So I’m delighted to launch the new national security unit here today. It’s a great pleasure to see Policy Exchange going global and I know that under John Bew’s direction you will bring your trademark clarity to broader issues of national security.”

Dr John Bew, the Unit’s head, is one of the country’s most highly regarded foreign policy experts. He is a Reader in History and Foreign Policy at the War Studies Department at King’s College London, and formerly held the Henry A. Kissinger Chair at the Library of Congress. His biography of Lord Castlereagh was published to critical acclaim and he is the author of a new study on realpolitik: Realpolitik: A History. 

Dr Bew noted that the project’s foundational point is the need to think beyond the current five-year Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) cycles and to do more to incorporate considerations of grand strategy in the debate on foreign policy. Another guiding principle for the new unit is to get away from the “mild hysteria that has arisen around this question of British decline”, and to avoid introspection and handwringing. Instead, the project aims to tackle this notion of decline head-on by thinking seriously and in an independent, non-partisan way about where Britain stands in a changing world — its hard and soft power capacities, and about the challenges to the existing world order which impact directly on UK national security.

In his vote of thanks, Lord Robertson welcomed the creation of Policy Exchange’s new national security unit and noted that, “examining issues below the surface and beyond today and tomorrow is something that needs to be done in this country.”

The event was covered in The Guardian and The Mirror.



Introduction: Dean Godson (Director, Policy Exchange)

My lords, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the launch ofBritain in the World project. We’re very proud to be able to do this and it’s a significant moment in the life of think tanks in this country, because certainly in terms of centre-right think tanks there’s been no previous general service think tank which had a unit dedicated to foreign policy, national security. There are of course specialist units in this area but none within the general service think tanks, even during the height of the cold war. More particularly, it reflects a broader lack of centre-right strategic thinking in this country. Most of the distinguished strategic thinkers in this country over the last 100 years, Sir Basil Liddell Heart, Professor Sir Michael Howard and others have certainly not been Conservatives. The only person who would definitely be described on the right in this context, as Brian Holden-Reid pointed out in a recent essay, would be J F C Fuller, who of course was Mosleyite in terms of his political alliance. It’s hardly a happy precedence, so we like to think that we’re filling a gap here, particularly with one of the brightest young foreign policy scholars in this country, Dr John Bew, King’s College, London, who’ll be heading the project, author of a distinguished, indeed authoritative biography of Lord Castlereagh, and now author of this admirable new volume: Realpolitik: A History, copies of which are available outside for those of you haven’t had it, which he completed whilst a Kissinger Fellow in the Library of Congress. So John, if I can ask you just to say a few words on what the project is about before asking our other distinguished panellist to speak, thank you.


Dr John Bew

Thank you Dean, for that very kind introduction. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for being here today and also our distinguished guest, and I know you want to hear them more than you want to hear me, so I will be very brief. Just to give you some background to this project and to explain the guiding principles really, which we will keep in mind throughout our project of work over the following 12 months and beyond. First of all the origins of it are based on a conversation I had with Dean and the Security Fellow here, Gabriel Elefteriu, at the time of the election, and really we all had a shared sense that the standard of discussion and debate over the previous five years and perhaps longer had not been that impressive on foreign policy and national security issues, and in fact in terms of the debate over Syria, for example, there was a concern that we were getting tie up with linguistic cycles and echoes of the past and history, but actually we weren’t really responding to a changing world sufficiently or thinking deeply about that. And on the basis of that, Dean and Gabriel and myself conceived this project, and we have four guiding principles going forward. The first, and I think the most important, is that we need to think out of and beyond and above the current five-year SDSR national security cycles. I have a lot of friends who work in the SDSR process, we think it’s a useful and a necessary exercise, an important exercise, it’s also a very difficult one and I think our friends who work on the SDSRs would agree with that. It asks a lot of those involved in that process and it takes up a lot of energy, so it’s not a controversial point but I think it is an important point that we need to do more to incorporate considerations of what I would call grand strategy, to think beyond five years to ten years, twenty years, thirty years … and that this is in essence the foundational point for this project.

The second guiding principle is to bring top class academic expertise into the foreign policy-making process. There is a lot of excellent work going on in a number of universities. I would flag up in particular my department, the Department of War Studies in King’s College, London, also the new Centre for Geopolitics in Cambridge University. I can see some of my colleagues from King’s at the back there as well. We’re doing excellent work, important work, but often it’s not understood or heard in the places it should be, so very simply the second key principle is one of knowledge transfer to bring some of that expertise into the centre of the foreign policy, national-security making process.

The third guiding principle, which really arises out of the second, is to provide a new space and forum for discussion. It’s important to be quite precise about what that means. Having spent some time in Washington DC in particular, one thing that struck me on return to London is that the UK is not blessed with an abundance of think tanks or research institutes working in the areas of national security and foreign policy, so to a certain extent we’re filling that void. Also the two preeminent institutions we have, RUSI and Chatham House, are also connected to respective government departments so we really want to provide another tributary into the debate over national security, outside the existing, established channels of discussion. That’s really another opportunity for us to be a constructive, occasionally critical friend, and as I say, we’re not answering to anyone but ourselves so that’s a useful perspective for us to bring.

The fourth and final guiding principle is to get away from the mild hysteria which has arisen around this question of British decline and declinism. Now we do think it’s important to tackle the notion of decline or Britain’s diminishing role in the world head on, and think about it seriously. However, thinking about it seriously does not mean to be introspective about it and hand wring and over-concern ourselves with our own narratives about where we stand in the world. It’s actually to place Britain more seriously in the international system, to think about where it stands in a changing world, obviously we might have a different US grand strategy for example, which will be very important for us going forward. There’s been concerns over the unravelling or challenges to the existing world order, so to tackle decline head on, to think about decline seriously, but not in a hysterical way, and not in the idea that this is somehow an irreversible problem that we necessarily just have to deal with.

Finally, while we want to be bipartisan and cross-party and I would stress we’re already working with MPs from all three main parties in Westminster, we also don’t want to be unpolitical and we think that political leadership and political discussion is actually pretty crucial to questions of grand strategy, so we’re not academics coming in, telling the politicians that they don’t understand. We actually think the quality and texture and tenor of political debate is absolutely crucial to discussions over British national security and grand strategy, so just to sum up finally then, the project, if it’s conducted in the spirit of one word, it would be realpolitik, but as my own book argues really, not a narrow, conventional understanding of realpolitik. Realpolitik as I understand it is to not obsess about language and get torn up, entangled in cyclical debates about foreign policy, but to think more deeply beyond the surface level, to think about the ballast of the international system, Britain’s hard and soft power capacity, think about this in the round and to put Britain in this broader international context. That really is the essence of the project. So I will hand over to much more distinguished guests who undoubtedly you really are here to see this morning.


Secretary of State for Defence, Rt Hon Michael Fallon MP

Thank you John, and let me say that it is always a pleasure to speak at Policy Exchange. Policy Exchange has lead the public policy debate over the last 14 years in issues as far apart as housing, to the impact of lawfare on our armed forces, so I am delighted to launch the new National Security Unit here today, and as I think you said, Dean, it’s a great pleasure to see Policy Exchange going global. I know that under John Bew’s direction you will bring your trademark clarity to the broader issues of national security.

All our thoughts today of course must be with our friends in Brussels. The Strategic Defence and Security Review identified terrorism as one of the greatest challenges we face and it set out plans to tackle it. Today, however, I want to focus on another important national security issue, a case for our independent nuclear deterrent.

Defence is the first duty of any government. As our SDSR said, and I quote, ‘Defence and protection start with deterrence, which has long been and remains at the heart of the UK’s national security policy.’ Deterrence means convincing any potential aggressor that the benefits of an attack are far outweighed by its consequences. Deterrence draws on the full spectrum of our capabilities: diplomacy, economic policy, law enforcement, offensive cyber, covert means and of course our armed forces, which is why the most fundamental role of the armed forces is not to fight wars, but through their very existence, to deter and thus to prevent war. For no part of our armed forces is that more true than our nuclear capability. IF nuclear weapons are fired, they have failed. But they are used, every day, to deter. This government was elected on a manifesto that included a commitment to build four new ballistic missile submarines, replacing the vanguard submarines that come out of service from the early 2030s, and we’ve committed to a debate and vote this year, so that parliament can endorse that decision. So now is the right time to set out why we should retain our nuclear deterrent.

There are three reasons: because we are realistic about the world we live in; because we take our responsibilities to the British people and to our allies seriously; and because that means that nuclear weapons are relevant now and are going to be relevant for the foreseeable future. Let me take each of those in turn.

First realism. There are some who will characterise this debate as one of extremes, between those who want to disarm and those who never will disarm. Let me reject that artificiality. We all agree on the destructive power of nuclear weapons and that we must do everything to ensure that they will never be used. We also have a shared ambition to see a world where nuclear weapon states feel able to relinquish them. Where we really differ is on how best to achieve this. On the one hand are those idealists who believe that unilateral disarmament will make us safer. On the other are those of us who recognise that the real world threats to the United Kingdom are growing, not diminishing. So we must be realistic about the world in which we live. The Labour government’s 2006 white paper, the  future of the deterrent, identified risks to the UK from major nuclear arms states, from emerging nuclear states, and from state-sponsored terrorism. Those risks have not gone away. Indeed, nine years on, our own SDSR judged that the United Kingdom is facing challenges that are growing in scale, in diversity, in complexity and in concurrency. Nor has the nuclear threat gone away. Our SDSR recognised, and I quote, ‘continuing risk of further proliferation of nuclear weapons’ and it concluded that we could not, and I quote, ‘relax our guard or rule out further shifts that would put us under grave threat’ and Russian behaviour is a case in point here. Russia has become more aggressive, more authoritarian, more nationalist. Its illegal annexation of Crimea and its support of Ukrainian Separatists through the use of deniable, hybrid tactics and media manipulation have shown its willingness to undermine the rules-based international system, in order to promote and secure its own perceived interests. Russia is upgrading its nuclear forces and Russia is threatening to base nuclear forces in Kaliningrad and in the Crimea. The last two years have seen a worrying increase in both the official Russian rhetoric about the use of nuclear weapons and the frequency of snap nuclear exercises, and we should take head of those developments.

North Korea is another worrying case study. North Korea is the only nation to have tested nuclear weapons in the twenty-first century. It claims now to have withdrawn from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It is developing long-range missiles and continues to flaunt its new-found nuclear capabilities. So just as we must be realistic about the growing nuclear threats, we also have to acknowledge that our prospects of single-handedly convincing the world to abandon its nuclear arms are limited.

Now we are committed to creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons, in line with our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. And we have led the way on disarmament.  We have cut our nuclear stockpiles by over half since the height of the cold war. Last year I reduced the number of deployed warheads on each submarine from 48 to 40 and we have pledged to reduce further our stockpile of nuclear weapons to no more than 180 warheads by the mid-2020s. Other nations have not followed suit. There remain about 17,000 nuclear weapons in the world. We have less than 1% of them. It is frankly naïve, even vainglorious, to imagine that a grand gesture of UK unilateral disarmament could change the calculations of nuclear states or those seeking to acquire weapons. Far more likely they would see it as weakness. So the only way to create the global security conditions necessary for achieving nuclear disarmament is by working multilaterally, by taking tangible steps towards a safer and more stable world, and by giving states with nuclear weapons the confidence that they require to relinquish them. Our recent efforts, working alongside other leading powers, secured a deal with Iran and showed what can be achieved. But we should also be realistic about how long this will take.

As the great nuclear theorist and former MOD Permanent Secretary Sir Michael Quinlan once wrote, and I quote, ‘No safer system than deterrence is yet in view, and impatience would be a catastrophic guide in the search.’ ‘To tear down,’ he said, ‘the present structure, imperfect but effective, before a better one is firmly within our grasp, would be an immensely dangerous and irresponsible act.’

That brings me to my second point. We have a political and moral responsibility to our people and to our allies. No one would claim the nuclear deterrent solves all of our national security requirements. Terrorist threats are all too real as we saw so tragically yesterday, but nuclear weapons were never intended to combat terrorism. They are intended to deter the most extreme dangers our nation might face. What’s more our independent deterrent isn’t just key to our security; it contributes to our NATO allies’ security as well. NATO is the cornerstone of our defence, but it is first and foremost a defensive alliance and it is also a nuclear alliance. By maintaining our independent nuclear deterrent alongside the United States and France, we provide NATO with three separate centres of decision making. That complicates the calculations of potential adversaries and it prevents them threatening the UK or our allies with impunity.

Now some will ask why we possess nuclear weapons when other allies, such as Germany, can do without them, but we can’t rewrite history. We were one of the original nuclear powers. Others were not, and many of those allies signed the non-proliferation treaty in the late 1960s in the knowledge that they were covered by NATO’s nuclear umbrella including the United Kingdom deterrent. It would not be the action of a strong and valued ally to withdraw that protection. And how would the United States or France respond if we suddenly announced that we were abandoning our nuclear capabilities, yet we still expected them to pick up the tab and to put their cities at risk to protect us in the event of a nuclear crisis?

Without our nuclear contribution to NATO, could we guarantee that a potential adversary might not miscalculate the degree of United States commitment to the defence of Europe? As one of the leading members of NATO, we shouldn’t now think of outsourcing our commitments. That wouldn’t make us safer and it wouldn’t have any moral merit. It would weaken us now and in the future. It would undermine NATO and it would embolden our adversaries.

That brings me to my third point: the relevance. Our nuclear deterent is relevant not only for today but for the foreseeable future, for our case does not rest on our assessment of the threats that face us now, but on the assessment of what the world could be like in the 2030s, the 2040s, the 2050s and beyond, and the truth is we don’t know. No one accurately predicted the end of the cold war or the coming of the Arab Spring, Russia’s annexation of Crimea or the rise of Daesh. Those who argue in favour of scrapping our nuclear deterrent unilaterally must be certain, absolutely certain, that no extreme threats will emerge in the next thirty or forty years that threaten our security or way of life, and they can’t be so certain. And that is why successive governments for over sixty years have concluded that this country should retain its nuclear weapons.

Now the UK government last formally presented the case for the future of the deterrent to Parliament in 2006. Launching that white paper, Tony Blair said, and I quote, ‘An independent nuclear deterrent is an essential part of our insurance against the uncertainties and risks of the future.’ That was the right judgement then. It is the right judgement now. Our nuclear deterrent has helped keep the peace between the major powers for decades. Abandoning it would undermine our security and that of our allies. It would not make us safer and once we gave up those weapons, there would be no going back.

So that is the case for retaining our nuclear deterrent, and I put it to you that it is hard to argue against the principle, but before concluding, let me finally address some of the main practical objections that people have raised.

First, the claim that there are cheaper and more effective ways of providing a similar effect to the Trident system. There aren’t. Successive studies have looked at this in detail under Labour ministers in 2006, and more recently under the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition in 2013. They reached the same conclusion: a minimum credible, assured and independent deterrent requires nuclear submarines with ballistic missiles. Other options were considered. The Trident Alternatives Review in 2013 assessed what ships, aircraft, submarines or silos could deliver nuclear weapons and which missiles, bombs or nuclear warheads were the most appropriate. It found that submarines were less vulnerable to attack than silos or aircraft. They can maintain a continuous posture in a way that aircraft and land-based alternatives cannot. It made clear that alternative delivery systems, such as Cruise Missiles, wouldn’t have the same range as the Trident Missile, reducing the reach and capability of our deterrent. Only the current submarine based Trident Missile system offered the resilience but also the cost-effectiveness that successive UK governments sought.

The second objection is that submarines will somehow become obsolete through technological developments such as unmanned underwater vehicles or cyber threats. The ocean is a vast, complex and challenging environment in which to conduct large-scale antisubmarine warfare. Our confidence that submarines will not be rendered obsolete by technology is partly based on classified analysis, but also on some more obvious facts. Operating quietly for long periods in the ocean is highly demanding, it requires endurance, a powerful energy source, resilience from high pressure and corrosion, and stealth. The ability to track submarines and then communicate their position brings with it many significant challenges. Now we dedicate considerable resource to assessing these emerging capabilities and we judge that there is no inherent reason for the foreseeable future to believe that unmanned submarines will be substantially more difficult to counter than manned submarines.

As for cyber-attack, while deployed, submarines operate in isolation. It’s hard to think of a system less susceptible to cyber-attack and it’s also worth asking if nuclear submarines were redundant or going to be redundant, why would the United States, Russia, China and France all be spending tens of billions of dollars on their own submarine-based ballistic missile systems? As practical as these objections might appear, they are in fact simply the latest in a litany of arguments employed to justify an anti-nuclear position.

The third practical objection is cost. Now we must remember that security underpins all the government’s priorities. With the fifth biggest defence budget in the world, backed up by our commitment to invest 2% of GDP in defence, we can afford conventional and nuclear capabilities. Our estimate is that four new submarines will cost £31 billion to build. We’ve set aside a contingency of £10 billion on top of that, but that £31 billion acquisition cost will be spread over 35 years. That works out as an insurance premium of 0.2% of total government spending. 20 pence in every £100 the government spends for a system that will provide a capability through to the 2050s and beyond.

I believe that that is a price worth paying.

So let me say in conclusion, before we had nuclear weapons, major powers embarked on two of the most destructive wars imaginable. Many millions died, millions more suffered. Yet for all the conventional conflicts since, and there have been many of them, there has been no major conflict between nuclear armed states. The devastating possibilities of nuclear war have helped maintain strategic stability, and our independent UK nuclear deterrent has played its part. Those who still oppose it must prove to us how relinquishing it would make us safer.

Now we should not accept nuclear deterrents as the last word in ensuring freedom from major war. Our commitment under our non-proliferation treaty obligations is clear. But to abandon our deterrent now would be an act of supreme irresponsibility. In 2007 Parliament voted to maintain the minimum strategic nuclear deterrent beyond the life of the existing system. Last year Parliament voted twice to retain our deterrent. This year, Parliament will have the opportunity to vote on the principle of continuous at-sea deterrents and our plans for successor. This is not a judgement about short-term threats. It is about the threats we may face over generations to come. We should not gamble with our national security. The United Kingdom’s independent nuclear deterrent remains right for our nation for as long as the global security situation demands.

Rt Hon Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, KT, former Secretary General of NATO and Secretary of State for Defence 1997-99

It’s an interesting facet of British democracy today that competing parties can stand on a platform and agree with each other, whereas the major divisions appear to be within the individual parties, so I’m glad to be here this morning and to agree with the contentions put forward by the Defence Secretary about Trident that I’ll come to a minute, but the first thing I wanted to say was about what happened in Brussels yesterday. I spent four years, over four years in Brussels as an inhabitant of the city and as Secretary General of NATO, and I think all of us, and I certainly, feel the pain and share the agonies of the Belgian people today at what happened, at the airport and at the metro yesterday. It is one of those terrible tragedies that now seems to be increasingly familiar and increasingly unacceptable as well. I have to say, listening to the news this morning, I find it sad that some people have dragged this atrocity into the on-going debate in this country about the European Union. I think some of the comments this morning are tasteless and worthless, but much worse than that, they’re actually dangerously arrogant in assuming that the Dover Straits will somehow insulate us from home-grown extremists.

The second point I want to make is in relation to the Policy Exchange’s new initiative, and to welcome the National Security Unit that has been set up, and John Bew is an ideal candidate to lead this new and I think fresh examination of British foreign and security policy, and somehow to counter this hand wringing over alleged decline that characterises some of the debate up to now. So examining below the surface and beyond today and tomorrow is something that needs to be done in this country, and I hope that Policy Exchange will be able to produce some answers and at least some food for thought.

I was in Istanbul last week, two days before the car bomb exploded. My daughter was in Brussels last week, a week before the atrocities that took place. Neither of us could have foreseen what was going to happen so quickly after we happened to be in these two European cities, so in the context of continuing our nuclear deterrent, how is it that there are people who can take a decision today and try to predict with certainty what is going to happen in 20, 30 and 40 years’ time? So we have to take a decision, a decision this year, that will have profound implications for the future, and it must be taken in the context of what we think is going to happen and what we fear might happen in the future. I think somebody, a wise person, once said that some decisions are so important that future generations should have a vote, and this is one that falls into that category. And just as Michael Fallon has said, for the Conservative Party, the Labour Party fought in the last election on a manifesto to build four new nuclear submarines, ballistic missile submarines, and to continue with Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, and that remains the policy of my party and quite properly it should be.

If we can’t anticipate surprises over a week, how are we going to anticipate the surprises and the shocks that might come over the next thirty years? And as the Defence Secretary has said, deterrence is a concept that goes way beyond nuclear weapons. Deterrence is the means by which we protect our societies in a way that does not involve the active engagement of armed force, and sometimes the better prepared you are, the less likely you are to have to use these weapons as well. But in relation to Trident and the continuation of Trident, all of the studies that have taken place in recent years have come to one single conclusion. The Trident alternative review that was demanded by the Liberal Democrats as part of the coalition agreement in the last government concluded that continuous at-sea deterrence was by far the best and indeed the only way of continuing with our nuclear deterrent. The organisation BASIC, which is not one that is given to supporting multilateralism as a principle, set up another commission with some very distinguished people and it was conclusive as well. If I just quote one paragraph in its report, and not an untypical one: ‘Nevertheless, they [successive British governments] have not considered it prudent to disarm the UK’s nuclear arsenal, given the nuclear danger that could yet surface, and given the limited benefit to reducing global nuclear dangers such a state would have. We agree.’ So each of these considered studies have come to exactly the same conclusion. And if we were to make the decision now, if Parliament was to make the decision now not to go ahead with the building of the four nuclear submarines with all the defence industrial implications and jobs that might be involved in it, it would be a permanent decision. There’s no turning back, there is no alternative, there’s no new strategy that could be developed, and that would be a blind and irresponsible step and would illustrate a degree of confidence for the future that is completely unjustified with that as well.

I was the Secretary General of NATO at a particularly important time. What happened in Brussels today is what happened in New York and Washington on 11th September 2001, and at that time the Alliance, because it was an attack ordered from outside of the United States, invoked for the first time in NATO’s history, the self-defence clause of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. We recognised then, as we had before that, that global terrorism was a threat to us and to our way of life, and NATO remains a nuclear alliance, reaffirmed at the Newport Summit. It will be reaffirmed again, I have no doubt, at the Warsaw Summit later on this year. So political parties in this countries who subscribe to membership of NATO have to accept that that is a fact, an unassailable, unavoidable fact, and that if they wish to be members of NATO they have to accept that basic principle as well, but I hope that in this debate there won’t be any partisan jousting, that we won’t play party politics on an issue of such national and indeed international policy, because if there is any such game playing then those involved in it will face justified condemnation and pay a very substantial electoral penalty for it.

So I welcome very much what Policy Exchange is about to do, I look forward very much to John Bew’s thinking and promote his latest tome, which is here, and well-developed thinking in that, very interesting examples that are given, and I think a solid indication of how inventive and how much fresh thinking the new leader of this policy is going to be, and I very much wish it well in its work. Thank you very much.

Research Areas


Upcoming Events

There are currently no events scheduled.

You can watch previous events on our Youtube Channel or subscribe to our mailing list to receive notification of upcoming events.

PX on Twitter

Latest Tweets

NEW BLOG: Five options to reduce energy bills @ed_birkett and @jbuckland13 take a look at the Government's options to reduce energy bills in the face over rising wholesale energy prices. Read here 👇…