The Tipping Point: British National Strategy and the UK’s Future World Role

George Grant

Executive Summary

  • The United Kingdom is currently at a strategic tipping point. At stake is whether we wish to maintain our position as a global power with a global role, or whether we wish to become by default just another European country with only a regional one. A decline to regional-power status is not an inevitability; it is a choice, and one based upon erroneous assumptions about the nature of the geopolitical environment in which we operate, and the UK’s proper place within it.
  • Today, the UK is confronted by the additional danger that our government still aspires to the global role, but is cutting our capabilities to the point where only a limited regional role will be possible in the future.
  • This incoherence is not just a consequence of pressures imposed by the ongoing financial crisis. It is also a consequence of the fact that this country lacks a proper national strategy. Last year’s National Security Strategy (NSS) does not constitute a coherent national strategy. National strategy is altogether broader than national security strategy, and should constitute the conceptual framework within which the latter is directed and fashioned. National strategy seeks to further the national interest through the effective coordination of all instruments of power, be they economic, political, cultural, military or diplomatic. Good national strategy enables a country to respond effectively not just to predetermined, definable threats, but also to strategic shocks that can materialise without warning, at any place and at any time.
  • In order to craft an effective national strategy, it is essential that the UK first decides upon an appropriate world role. Without deciding what sort of power we want to be, we cannot properly determine what our interests are, or how best to protect and advance them. Since the end of the Cold War, the UK has failed to decide upon an appropriate world role. This problem has been exacerbated by ongoing guilt over our imperial past, and concerns about how we should engage internationally in light of it. It is time to move forwards from this. We rightly define ourselves as a tolerant, outward-looking liberal democracy, and this must underpin the world role we seek for ourselves.
  • By virtue of historical legacy and present necessity, British national interests are irrevocably global. Broadly defined, these interests can be divided into two categories. In the first category are the physical, geopolitical interests that the UK has a direct and immediate stake in protecting. The second category, closely tied to the first, involves the less tangible but equally important efforts to promote British values and maintain the UK’s position as a central actor in global geopolitics. We must recognise that promoting our values and pursuing our traditional interests are not objectives that stand in opposition to one another. As recent events in the Arab world have demonstrated, the notion that we can rely on so-called ‘stable dictatorships’ to safeguard our energy supplies and keep a lid on extremism is inherently false.
  • The NSS produced a list of what it perceived to be the 15 most serious threats to the UK and British interests, broken down into three tiers of impact and probability. However, having sought to acknowledge and prioritise identifiable threats, it is defective in its failure to address the problem of strategic shocks that we do not predict but which compel a response. The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) that derives from it thus falls short of what is required to ensure that the UK possesses the capabilities to defend and advance its interests effectively. None of the main military conflicts in which the UK has been involved since 1945 have been predicted and there is a simple lesson in that. We must retain a full spectrum of forces, not a bare-bones defence specialised for scenarios that may not and probably will not be the ones that we actually face. The conflict in Libya, a classic strategic shock, is only the latest manifestation of this reality.
  • Good national strategy must also recognise the critical importance of perceptions in international relations. As we visibly reduce our capacity to defend and advance our interests, and as the public and political will to do so dissolves away, we will find ourselves confronted more, not less often. It was the decision to withdraw our only naval presence from the South Atlantic in 1981 that prompted Argentina’s decision to invade the Falklands, perceiving that the UK no longer possessed either the capacity or the will to defend them. Likewise, a contributing factor in Osama bin Laden’s decision to attack the United States on 11th September 2001 was his perception of American weakness. To withdraw from the front line of global geopolitics will not make the UK more secure. On the contrary, the weaker we are perceived to be, the more often will our interests be challenged, and the more often will we be overcome.
  • Those who believe that the UK can no longer afford to maintain a global role neglect the fact that power is an essential guarantor of prosperity. The reason why British citizens have been able to enjoy the social, economic and political freedoms that so many now take for granted over the past 50 years is because we have, working closely with our allies, retained the capabilities necessary to keep the threats to that freedom and prosperity at bay. At no time was this clearer than during the Cold War. Now that the Cold War has ended, Europeans have become dangerously complacent. We live in a highly uncertain world and these threats could re-emerge. As the outgoing US Defense Secretary said recently, we Europeans cannot continue to rely on the American security guarantee indefinitely, especially if we are not willing to contribute our share to that effort. It is for these same reasons that we must retain our nuclear deterrent.
  • The UK needs a national strategy that enables us to guarantee our security and interests, and to deal with the unexpected when it occurs. This strategy must be based on a clear understanding of what the UK stands for, what sort of power we want to be in the world, and what we understand about the world around us. It must recognise that our interests are global, and that the threats to them are numerous, diverse and often unpredictable. Our national strategy must inform policy on what capabilities are necessary both to advance those interests and to defend them where necessary.
  • We have no such national strategy at the present time, and the consequences of that fact threaten this country’s security, its prosperity and its freedom. Deficit reduction is of incontestable importance, but making strategy with budget cuts as the primary objective is clearly the wrong way to go about it. It is not too late to redress this situation and to maintain a global role for the United Kingdom, but we need to act now

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