This week, as the Royal Navy vessel HMS Duncan completes its first week in the Gulf ensuring safe passage for British-flagged ships transiting the Strait of Hormuz, the Foregin Secretary Dominic Raab has announced that the United Kingdom (UK) will join the United States (US) with joint naval missions, protecting the vulnerable maritime choke-point at the centre of the recent geopolitical confrontation between Britain and Iran.
Centred around the highly provocative, not to mention illegal, behaviour of the Iranian regime, the recent transgressions serve to highlight notable failings in British defence policy. Despite numerous prominent politicians having recently advocated increases in defence spending, including most notably Jeremey Hunt, the former Foreign Secretary, and Tobias Ellwood, the former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, it is still too early in Boris Johnson’s premiership to tell whether insufficient naval spending will be suitably re-addressed.
However, simply raising military expenditure will not automatically fix the situation in the Gulf. Such issues fall into a broader strategic misalignment, whereby UK strategic intent is being failed at a much higher level than a simple increase in the navy’s budget could fix. Defence spending does need to rise, but firstly the new government should re-appraise national needs, not least in the Gulf and the broader Indo-Pacific. It must reaffirm a British strategy fit for the future.
The UK has consistently been one of only a handful of allies that has reached the 2014 commitment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to spend 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence, albeit a value the country is beginning to place too keen an emphasis on. This figure, in a sentiment echoed by Penny Mordaunt, the former Secretary of State for Defence, should be seen as a floor, not a ceiling. Historically, the UK spent a far higher percentage of GDP on defence; today, in a deteriorating international environment, the current defence budget is simply inadequate for the tasks the military – not least the Royal Navy – is starting to face.
If the UK wishes to maintain its global position and future ambitions, then further priorities within defence ought to be addressed – and urgently – by the new government. The tensions in the Gulf have highlighted just how thinly the Royal Navy is currently spread. In order to mitigate its lack of critical mass – a consequence of thirty years-worth of cuts and reductions to the fleet – the government should provide resources for investment. The threat from Russia to European security notwithstanding, the UK’s long-term economic and strategic interests are based increasingly farther from Europe. Revisionist states including the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and, increasingly, Iran, are seeking ways to circumvent the rules-based international system on which British interests depend.
Whether achieved through military intimidation or aggression, ignoring tribunals governing the laws of the sea, meddling in Western democratic processes via cyber-attacks, or defying international law, revisionist states have shown a much greater propensity over recent years to engage in acts deemed just below the threshold for war. Consequently, they have highlighted Western vulnerabilities and weaknesses, demonstrated in this instance by the Iranian seizure of the British-flagged Stena Impero in July.
As HMS Duncan begins to patrol the Strait of Hormuz, safeguarding British tankers against further aggression, HMS Montrose – a British frigate, already in the region – will dock in Bahrain for pre-planned maintenance work. Leaving HMS Duncan to patrol such vast waters alone is not conducive to British strategic interests in the region. Increased patrols necessitate an increase in the fleet, not further reductions, which is the historical pattern to which Britain currently finds itself victim.
The Iranian maritime challenge in the Gulf comes at a particularly difficult time for the UK.
The Iranian maritime challenge in the Gulf comes at a particularly difficult time for the UK. On the one hand, Britain remains supportive of the European Union (EU) (along with Russia and China) in relation to the ailing Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, but on the other hand the UK finds itself – due to a lack of naval investment – in need of America’s naval support to uphold freedom of navigation in the Gulf. While it is possible for Britain to try to keep the two issues de-linked, both are related and will only become more entwined in the weeks and months ahead.
To re-address the current situation, two policies changes are needed, and simultaneously:
- Militarily, the UK should procure more frigates for the Royal Navy, which requires greater naval spending;
- Diplomatically, Britain should begin moving closer to the US position in relation to Iran and the ailing JCPOA.
Boosting the Royal Navy
Production of the next-generation Type 26 frigates is currently underway, but only eight are earmarked for the UK – to replace the 13 Type 23 frigates currently in operation. Whilst the Type 26 is far superior in terms of surveillance, countermeasures and intelligence gathering, mass shifts mass, and the current plans for the fleet’s renewal fall short of current commitments. Despite costing approximately £1 billion each, the Royal Navy needs additional advanced frigates to counter increasing state-based naval threats, in addition to their already wide-remit of responsibilities.
This will bring the number of frigates closer towards the 1998 Strategic Defence Review which called for a bare minimum of 32 frigates. In addition, this will provide the UK with more strategic depth allowing for its increased commitment to the Gulf not to detract resources away from other key geopolitical priorities, including the Indo-Pacific – particularly as the Royal Navy moves towards becoming fleet-based again as HMS Queen Elizabeth becomes fully operational. This will further strengthen Britain’s reputation as a credible and reliable military partner, both in the eyes of the US, as well as Gulf partners.
With the Type 26 not due for operations until the mid-2020s, by starting this increased procurement now under this new government the costs can be modestly spread over the next five years, thus allowing the UK to meet its strategic commitments over the next 5-20 years.
This goes hand in glove with the wish of Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, to increase the size and capacity of the British defence industrial base – particularly pertinent to making a success of leaving the EU. With Australia agreeing to purchase the licensed design of eight of the Type 26 frigates last year, Canada followed suit with a deal for 15 units, with New Zealand stating interest in a further three units – deals worth billions to BAE Systems.
Moving towards the US position on Iran
In addition, the UK should edge closer towards the American position on Iran. Rightly, establishing closer cooperation with the US Navy has been an immediate priority for both Dominic Raab and Ben Wallace, the new foreign and defence secretaries. As opposed to the vague notion of a European maritime force, which both France and Germany refused to back with any meaningful military commitment, the US has advocated a new international task force to patrol the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. This new force, spearheaded by the US Navy, will allow for greater numbers of British tankers to be protected than currently afforded, avoiding the ambiguity of a separate European force – with potential national caveats or limited rules of engagement.
Whilst a unified Western approach to countering Iranian aggression should not be ruled out, it may prove difficult to achieve – besides declining to participate in a European patrol force, Germany has also ruled out participation in a US-led maritime force. If the Europeans fail to support the UK in maintaining freedom of navigation, the British government should also move closer to the US in a diplomatic context. The illegal seizure of an UK-flagged tanker (alongside a previous attempt) demonstrates an increasingly consistent pattern of behaviour on Tehran’s part in attempting to usurp the freedom of navigation upon which the British economy depends.
To begin with, Britain should join the US in imposing further economic sanctions on Iran, which have been proven to severely affect its economy. A weaker Rial would stymie the capability of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard, and thus prove less of a threat to British interests in the region.
In addition, the UK should reconsider its position on the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran. The US has withdrawn, whilst the UK, France and Germany still support its ineffective mandate. In light of Iranian provocations towards British shipping and Tehran’s recent defiance of the treaty – such as exceeding Uranium enrichment beyond the terms of the agreement – Britain should be willing to apply additional pressure on the Iranian regime.
As the UK looks to a new era with an increasingly open and far-reaching foreign policy – ‘Global Britain’ – withdrawing from the JCPOA would send a powerful signal to the world. It would also send an especially strong signal to the EU, which clings tenaciously to an approach that cannot work without US participation. Alongside a Royal Navy reconstruction programme, edging towards the US in the Gulf would show that Britain is willing to take robust measures to punish those who threaten the rules-based system, especially at sea – potentially helping to deter threats to British interests in the future.
The decision by a court last week to grant the youngest terrorist ever convicted in the United Kingdom (UK) lifelong anonymity has been marred with controversy. Originally labelled as ‘Boy X’, but now known as RXG, the boy was detained for life at the age of 14. RXG admitted to sending thousands of encrypted messages to 18-year-old Sevdet Besim in Australia, inciting him to launch a terrorist attack during an Anzac Day parade. He was sentenced to serve a minimum term of five years in a young offender institution, after pleading guilty to two charges of inciting terrorism overseas.
It is not unusual to grant children anonymity in legal cases. Family courts, where matters pertaining to children’s welfare are often discussed in great detail, are shrouded in privacy in order to prevent the public from finding out about the outcome of these cases. An argument from Sir James Munby, formerly President of the Family Division of the High Court in England and Wales, to foster greater transparency has resulted in limited aspects of some cases being made public. In the realm of terrorism, this ordinarily falls under children who are separated from families due to fear of radicalisation, or children being made wards of court to protect them from travelling to join terrorist organisations abroad, such as so-called ‘Islamic State’. The identity of these minors is rightly kept secret, with a ban on identifying them in the press or otherwise.
The case of RXG is unusual because anonymity in such cases would normally expire on the offender’s 18th birthday, by which time the individual becomes an adult. To date, only six lifelong anonymity orders have been awarded to convicted offenders. These include Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, who murdered toddler James Bulger, and Mary Bell, who strangled two male toddlers to death.
Lifelong anonymity does not come without obstacles. The first is expense. When the new identity of Venables was leaked in 2013, for example, the cost to the taxpayer of issuing him with a new identity came to approximately £500,000. Individuals who posted pictures of Venables online were given suspended prison sentences. The same case will be made for RXG, with any individual who breaches the order facing severe consequences.
The second issue is whether details about offenders – such as prior names, whereabouts, and activities – should be revealed if the individual re-offends. Such information, up to return to custody, would help inform the public about rehabilitation of offenders, and better protect civilians from potentially dangerous individuals. James Bulger’s family recently lost a case to overturn lifelong anonymity of Jon Venables, who was sent back to prison on charges related to possession of indecent images of children. A 2016 government-commissioned review, moreover, stated that 69% of children sentenced to custody go on to re-offend within a year. It is important that taxpayers’ money is spent on programmes within jails that ensure that children are offered appropriate mentorship and guidance to de-radicalise and rehabilitate them – as will be the case for RXG. Longitudinal studies on the effectiveness of such de-radicalisation programmes are desperately needed.
A decision of lifelong anonymity, however, should not be without constraints.
RXG, for example, was previously known to authorities. His radicalisation involved an 18-month history of extremism-related disruptive behaviour at school, where he expressed his desire to be a martyr and told a teacher he would stab them in the neck in a ‘halal’ slaughter. This prompted two interventions by Channel – the government de-radicalisation programme – before the police became involved in March 2015. While receiving de-radicalisation, however, RXG continued to engage with Anjem Choudary and Abu Haleema, both of proscribed group Al-Muhajiroun. Choudary advised RXG to increase his social media presence, and within two weeks of receiving this advice, RXG accumulated more than 24,000 followers across 89 Twitter accounts, which he used to influence others. It can be argued, therefore, that the de-radicalisation programmes offered to him both before and during his prison term may need to be more robust. According to court notes, one professional who dealt with RXG had ‘never encountered such entrenched extremist views’.
It is of course important to allow for a fair chance of rehabilitation on the part of offenders, particularly when it comes to children. The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10 years old, or 8 years old in Scotland. As with all cases, the level of intent and agency on the part of the child, which would help indicate responsibility, must be examined on a case by case basis. It was stated in court records that RXG suffers from autism, and a strong yearning for recognition. The necessary and proportionate decision made by judges, therefore, was to reduce the risk of him obtaining celebrity status amongst other extremists and terrorists (with whom he already had close connections) by revealing his identity. Such a decision would also allow for an adequate opportunity for him to rehabilitate and reform without the risk of re-radicalisation.
A decision of lifelong anonymity, however, should not be without constraints. The UK Prison Service had experience in dealing with high-profile individuals, including Hammad Munshi, who was reported to be the Britain’s youngest terrorist when convicted in 2010, at the age of 16. Even if the public cannot know the identity of RXG at the current time, they should certainly be allowed access to information that would be ‘common knowledge’ should he re-offend, especially after being granted the extraordinary opportunity to de-radicalise under anonymous protection. Otherwise, the nation risks protecting terrorists at the expense of protecting the British public.
- The case of RXG was originally covered in the Henry Jackson Society’s report, entitled: Islamist Terrorism: Analysis of Offences and Attacks in the UK (1998-2015).
There is a strong perception that the United Kingdom (UK) is in retreat as a global power. Over the past few years, countless articles have been published with titles like ‘Britain’s decline and fall’, ‘The incredible shrinking Britain’, and ‘Britain shows signs of being in terminal decline.’ Much of this discourse is connected to the response to the European Union (EU) referendum result in 2016 and the subsequent negotiations between London and Brussels, as well as the failure to find political consensus within the ruling Conservative Party. Much is also related to those political forces – such as the Scottish National Party – that wish to downplay British strengths because they wish to break Britain up. And the anti-patriotic sentiment of Britain’s ‘Highbrows’ still bubbles away, almost eighty years after George Orwell first identified it in The Lion and the Unicorn – despite the fact that it has since mutated several times to assume a different character.
‘Declinism’ – the parochial idea that British power is on the wane – has an established pedigree. The point here is not necessarily that ‘declinists’ are worried about British weakness; rather, they indulge in declinism for domestic political effect. As Robert Tombs, Professor of History at the University of Cambridge, points out:
Declinism has always been a form of insularity, obsessed with Britain’s failings, but ignorant of those elsewhere. […] To see only weaknesses, and to diagnose them as part of a syndrome of decline, is to cling to a distorted view of the world and of our place within it. At worst, this undermines our position, and risks bringing about the very outcome it fears.
In other words, declinists overlook the fact that most of the UK’s peers face similar problems: is France in decline because it has been wracked for weeks by the gilets jaunes movement? Is Germany in decline because it is unwilling to undertake military operations in defence of its allies and the rules-based international system, the same system that German strategic discourse holds so dear? And is the United States (US) in decline because it no longer produces – as it did at its industrial apex in 1945 – around 45% of gross world output? If compared against other countries, the UK starts to look less like the ‘sick man’ it is often portrayed to be.
The foundations of British strength
Despite being just a ‘small island’ – as it was described in 2013 by a Russian official – several academic studies show the UK performs strongly across numerous indicators of national capability. Economically, the country has the world’s fifth largest gross domestic product, as well as one of the most advanced large economies. Its capital city – London – sits at the heart of the global financial system, from which it acts as one of the three ‘command centres’ (alongside New York and Tokyo). Technologically, the UK is not only the birthplace of the modern world, but also has more Nobel prize winners and respected universities than any nation other than the US – a country at least five times more populous. Diplomatically, the UK’s portfolio of embassies is rivaled only by the US, Germany and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), while the country has the world’s third largest budget for Official Development Assistance.
Militarily, although the size of the Royal Navy was recently described as ‘pathetic’ by Julian Lewis MP, Chair of the Defence Committee in the House of Commons, its relative strength in comparison to other navies is still considerable – even if the time has come to enlarge its lead over rivals further still. In terms of overall displacement tonnage of major combatants, the Royal Navy is larger than the French, German and Italian navies combined, while the Royal Fleet Auxiliary – the maritime arm on which Britain’s global reach depends – is third only to America’s Military Sealift Command and the auxiliaries of the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army Navy. Moreover, the UK is the only country other than the US to have access to a global array of military bases and to operate modern supercarriers and large modern nuclear attack submarines equipped with a long-range land attack capability.
In terms of ‘soft power’ – the ability to attract others – Britain draws millions around the world towards its dynamic liberal culture, whether through the plays of Shakespeare, the television and radio programmes of the BBC or ITV, the Royal Family and Trooping the Colour, or the political shenanigans of parliamentarians. To no small extent, the very fact that much of the rest of the world finds British culture and domestic politics so interesting is evidence of the UK’s global reach. Indeed, perhaps the greatest indicator of global power is when a country can draw others towards its domestic politics and culture. Apart from the US, there is surely no other country that other nations – including the US – find more interesting than the UK.
The perception of British weakness
And yet, for all of Britain’s strengths, there is a kernel of truth in the idea that the country has weakened, which goes above and beyond the Brexit commotion. For more than a decade, a number of foreign actions have made the UK look weak and indecisive, to the extent that the country fails to even get a mention on some lists of the world’s strongest powers. Britain looked weak in 2006, not only when Russia murdered Alexandr Litvinenko – a naturalised British citizen – with a radioactive isotope on British soil, but also because the UK mounted a pitiful response to the Russian operation. The UK looked weak a year later when British sailors failed to defend themselves when they were surrounded and intercepted by Iranian forces off the coast of Iraq, despite being in proximity to a heavily-armed British frigate. The fiasco was compounded when one sailor later stated – after being released – that he cried himself to sleep when his Iranian captors taunted him because they thought he looked like Mr Bean. The ‘stiff-upper-lip’ reputation Britons had built up for over two centuries was undone in a flash.
A few years later, in 2013, the UK looked weak – especially in US eyes – when British parliamentarians dithered and then failed to provide support for punishing the regime of Bashir al Assad after it had murdered and maimed thousands of Syrian opponents with chemical weapons. Britain looked weak again in 2018 when Russia deployed nerve agent on the streets of Salisbury in a clumsy attempt to assassinate an opponent – Sergei Skripal – only recovering to some extent when it managed to mobilise an international coalition to expel hundreds of Russian diplomatic personnel from a number of friendly foreign capitals.
And yet, for all of Britain’s strengths, there is a kernel of truth in the idea that the country has weakened, which goes above and beyond the Brexit commotion.
More recently still, Britain looked weak when the International Court of Justice – backed by the United Nations General Assembly – ruled that the British Indian Ocean Territory should be ceded to Mauritius, a territory over which Mauritius has never held sovereignty and over which the PRC has a suspected geostrategic interest. Britain’s isolation looked all the more extreme due to the stance and duplicity of many of the country’s allies and partners. Only the US, Hungary, Israel, Australia and the Maldives supported Britain, while traditional European allies like France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Poland and Romania abstained. Others – not least Austria, Greece, Ireland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland – voted against the UK.
And of course, in recent weeks the UK has looked particularly weak, not only because Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard succeeded in hijacking a British-flagged oil tanker, but also because London has so-far failed to recover the vessel or mount any form of effective diplomatic response.
Which countries are perceived as powerful?
Meanwhile, as Britain has appeared to be waning, other countries have been understood to be growing in strength, such as the PRC, Russia, France and Germany. In some cases, this is because of the growth in their material capabilities. In the PRC’s case, it has gained in strength because it has become the world’s largest industrial producer and has the material means across several sectors – if fully exploited – to overtake the US as a global superpower. Likewise, the growth in German geoeconomic muscle since the mid-2000s has not gone unnoticed. But Russia and France have both shown that the perception of a country’s growth in power does not necessarily correspond to an increase in its national capability – and can even take place while it suffers some significant setbacks. After all, Russia’s ramshackle economy is only marginally larger than the economy of Spain – a country very few would label a major power – while France has suffered economic stagnation for over a decade. Russia has also suffered numerous diplomatic setbacks since it embarked on the invasion and dismemberment of Ukraine in 2014, whether in the form of punitive international sanctions, its ejection from the Group of Eight, and the diplomatic expulsions of Russian diplomats and intelligence operatives coordinated by Britain after the Kremlin’s bungled assassination attempt in Salisbury.
This shows that besides a sudden visible growth in national capability, the perception of a country’s power is often shaped by the approach it takes to cultivating international influence. Here, it is possible to identify at least three different approaches:
- Authoritarian revisionism: The PRC and Russia have often looked so strong because of their willingness to break international rules and trample over weaker neighbouring nations. Their autocratic character also means they have different priorities: whereas the UK and its liberal democratic allies and partners tend to emphasise national security and commercial relations with other countries, authoritarian regimes like the PRC and Russia – under the leadership of strongmen like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping – simply prioritise building up their own power. Whether redrawing the European map with military force or threatening neighbouring nations in the South China Sea, both the regimes of the PRC and Russia are more willing to arbitrarily lash out at their opponents and disrupt or revise the rules-based system, which they see as an impediment to their freedom of action. Their willingness to disrupt has only been encouraged by the fact that others – like the UK – have failed to respond adequately to their aggression in the past.
- National transactionalism: Differently to the PRC and Russia, France has appeared to be stronger than its material capabilities would otherwise suggest because it has deployed a more national transactionalist approach in its foreign policy. Its support is conditional if it offers assistance and is willing to withdraw support if it does not receive anything in return. France also works hard to hide its weaknesses and emphasise its strengths: for example, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June 2019, it was noted how France – with some fancy infographics – projected a more strategic image of itself in the Indo-Pacific region than Britain. The irony is that it was the UK that projected more naval firepower into the Indo-Pacific during 2018 and 2019, culminating in the transit of HMS Albion through the PRC’s illegal ‘straight baselines’ around the Paracel archipelago in the South China Sea. In reality, the French military presence – centred on a couple of small frigates, each armed with a pop-gun and a few missiles – was mostly concerned with the administration and policing of France’s Indo-Pacific overseas territories.
- Focused multilateralism: Meanwhile, the perception of Germany’s growing power is – save for the economic domain – largely a consequence of its foreign policy, which is focused heavily on Europe. It has used its geopolitical centrality on the European continent to forge a web of bilateral relationships with neighbours and penetrate the European institutions and structures to etch out an EU leadership position. It has then used this posture to shape the European agenda and reject proposals – such as those of France or the UK – it feels may undermine its own national economic interests. Although this approach has prevented it from developing a more holistic approach – it lacks military power and strategic influence over questions of international security – its influence over the EU enhances its capacity to shape international politics, not least because of the sheer scale of the European economy.
Why should the perception of national power matter?
At this point, the question must be asked: why does this matter to the UK? It matters because the world appears to be re-entering a period of intense interstate competition – as the 2015 National Security Strategy, the 2018 National Security Capability Review and the 2018 Modernising Defence Programme all point out – where many of Britain’s core national interests are being challenged. In a world where other countries are rising and integrated state power is becoming more important, the UK needs to prepare for more concerted and determined attempts by strategic adversaries and tactical opponents (who may even be allies) to pursue their own interests and/or undermine its own.
Further, if other countries think Britain is strong, they are more likely to support UK policy or respond in a more deferential way when London makes requests of them. Conversely, if they perceive Britain to be weak, they are more likely to ignore its interests, even when they have little or no interest in an issue themselves.
The next question is: why does Britain get challenged – often brazenly – by other countries, which are often weaker in terms of national capability? Here, Britain’s supposed weakness or retreat cannot be because of a lack of national capability, because the UK possesses national capability, often in abundance – both in absolute and relative terms. While other countries – such as Germany – may have greater national capabilities than Britain in specific sectors, only the US (and maybe the PRC) exceeds the UK when all national capability sets are viewed together.
So, if Britain is waning, it would appear that it is largely a consequence of its own actions (or lack of actions). The problem is not that the UK lacks national capability; the problem is that the UK lacks the political will to use its national capability in support of its national objectives, particularly to hold its opponents to account when they engage in courses of action that are detrimental to British national interests.
For example, why did the UK fail to push back against Russia in 2006 when it poisoned a British citizen on British soil? Why did London not turn the screw on Iran after Tehran released the sailors that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard seized in 2007? And why has the UK not turned its glare on France and Germany – to say nothing of Spain and Italy – for failing to provide it with support over the duplicitous and possible PRC-backed Mauritian push to acquire sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory?
In a less orderly world British foreign policy should seek to build up and cultivate the instruments of the country’s national power.
From this lack of resolve, the UK’s adversaries and opponents have both realised that London will do them no or little harm if they attack, undermine or fail to support Britain in the pursuit of its national interests. They know it rarely escalates, either vertically or horizontally. The UK is seen as a very passive and highly predictable country – predictable in its passivity. Britain’s competitors know it will continue to adhere to ‘the rules’, even when they do not. They also know the UK frequently places the pursuit of national security and trade above almost any other consideration – at least in the final instance.
Equally, the UK’s adversaries and opponents know it is a highly transparent country. This transparency is compounded by the reach of Britain’s media, the spread of the English language, and the country’s enormous ‘soft power’, which means internal British domestic debates are often more open to the world than with other countries. The lack of foreign agents and propaganda legislation in the UK also makes it easier for foreign governments to ‘get inside’ the nation’s domestic political space and exploit internal divisions – in terms of politics and identity – to their advantage.
How should Britain respond?
Besides enacting tougher domestic legislation to shut out foreign activities designed to undermine and confuse Britain’s ability to think for itself, there are a plethora of ways the UK could improve the international perception of its own power. Clearly, Britain would not want to adopt the Chinese or Russian approach – authoritarian revisionism – because the UK is neither an autocracy nor a revisionist. Rightly, the British people would not tolerate the brutal and underhand methods that Beijing and Moscow often employ.
Likewise, France’s national transactionalist approach is often petty and jarring – and frequently operates simply to hide French weakness. That said, given the new strategic circumstances – intense interstate competition – UK officials would do well to stop thinking like the chief executives of international agencies or charitable organisations and focus instead on the national interest. Equally, the focused multilateral approach of Germany would also be ill-suited to the UK – a global maritime power with a distaste for European integration. Nonetheless, the UK should be more prepared to lead in its own continental neighbourhood – a potential opportunity awaits in the context of the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) – not least to keep its European allies in alignment with the Atlantic structures.
What Britain needs to do is develop its own approach. Given the changing strategic circumstances, part of this will involve understanding why it is necessary – to use the colourful phrase of Francis Urquehart, the Chief Whip in the television series House of Cards – to ‘put a bit of stick about’. In other words, when adversaries and opponents seek to harm British interests, the UK needs to mobilise and integrate its national resources and use them to push back. This does not mean that the response should always be immediate or vertical, but it does mean a proportionate response should always come. And Britain’s adversaries and opponents should be left in no doubt as to why there was a response, either.
In this sense, the principal objective of British foreign policy should not be to enhance national security or promote trade, nor even to underwrite the rules-based international system or make the world a better place. Of course the UK should seek to be ‘a force for good in the world’, but little good can be done without upholding Britain’s ability to affect positive change – namely its national power. The cart cannot come before the horse, and the horse needs to be strong to pull the cart. In a less orderly world British foreign policy should seek to build up and cultivate the instruments of the country’s national power. This could be achieved through the radicalisation and extension of the ‘Fusion Doctrine’, to the extent that it moves towards the pursuit of national power alongside of the pursuit of national security. The UK would then be better prepared to discourage adversaries and opponents from thinking that they can get their way at little or no cost to themselves.
The reason is simple: deterrence. Britain’s adversaries – authoritarian, revisionist regimes – must come to understand that hostile moves against British interests will always elicit a cost that will be equal to or greater than the gain from their potential action (even if the level and form of response should be harder to predict). Britain’s allies – when they oppose British policy – must also understand that if they turn a deaf ear to the UK, their actions will not go overlooked. They should live in trepidation of what the UK might do to them if they take stances that undermine British interests.
‘Putting a bit of stick about’ will require changes to Britain’s post-1989 approach to international relations. It will necessitate a more hard-headed approach, which could even jeopardise Britain’s national security or trade prospects in the short-run. But in the long run, a tougher, more assertive Britain will pay dividends, particularly in a world of assertive great powers and strategic competition. In such an environment, wielding power effectively – deterring – requires the projection of national resolve and the will to enact retribution.