At the end of October 1956 Israel invaded – in secret collusion with the United Kingdom (UK) and France – the Egyptian Sinai, beginning what became the Suez Crisis. In his autobiography, Captain Professor, Sir Michael Howard recalled his depression at the time, likening the sickening psychological impact of ‘the Suez adventure’ to that of Munich for the previous generation (and that of Iraq for the one that followed):
…It was the end of an era. After that for a generation, under the dingy leadership of Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson, Britain simply ceased to try in foreign affairs; abandoning its global responsibilities, following in the wake of an erratic American leadership, scrabbling belatedly to join the European enterprise, and getting the worst of every possible world.
For Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister, the infamous Egyptian waterway became the frontier for the diminished scope of the UK’s global interests. In July 1967, following a lengthy policy review process, Denis Healy, the then Defence Secretary, announced the abandonment of Britain’s bases ‘East of Suez’. Shortly afterwards, this timetable was accelerated so that UK forces would leave Singapore, Malaya, and the Persian Gulf by the end of 1971.
It was indeed the end of one era but it was also the beginning of another, governed by assumptions that still matter because they continue to influence British thinking about how geopolitics relates to the national interest. The conclusion that a withdrawal from East of Suez served the British interest was based on three assumptions, themselves shaped by the strategic situation in the mid-1960s:
1. The US had become the leader of the West: Suez revealed that Britain had lost the ability to achieve foreign policy goals if it was actively opposed by the US. It soon became clear that this was not a one off, and that American ambition was not merely to act as a spoiler, but to take the lead. On 6th December 1957, Richard Nixon, then US Vice President, issued a ‘declaration of independence on foreign policy’, by which he meant independence from the British, marking the moment the US took over leadership of the Free World. This approach was re-asserted by John F. Kennedy at his inauguration as US President: ‘Let every nation know,.. that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.’ His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, tried to prove that in Vietnam. When that failed, and Mr Nixon took power in the late-1960s, the ‘Nixon doctrine’ of expecting support from regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Gulf, and Japan in East Asia, was intended to fill the gap left by the British withdrawal. By the end of the 1960s the assumption that the US had not just had the means, but also the will and the alliances to act as the leader of a global coalition (complete with military, economic and cultural dimensions) sank into the British strategic subconscious, as if it were some immutable law of nature.
2. The Soviet Union was the main threat to Britain’s security: For the generation who grew up after the Cold War, today’s diverse threat landscape is in strong contrast to the centrality of the Soviets in the 1960s, when military, ideological and even economic threats to British interests were bound up in a single hostile entity. A nuclear power and a pioneer in space, by the mid-1960s the Soviet Union had the means to completely destroy the UK. Notwithstanding its nuclear capability, the Red Army was such a massive conventional force it could overrun continental Europe, while Soviet Navy’s submarines could menace the trans-Atlantic lines of reinforcement on which Britain would depend. The doctrine of world revolution aimed to subvert British interests overseas as well as British domestic politics. Prior to the slowdown that was still to come in the 1970s, the Soviet Union boasted capital accumulation, high productivity and sizeable per-capita economic growth. Britain meanwhile was in a malaise of balance of payments problems and currency crises. Hence, Britain was paralysed and forced to cut defence spending.
3. Europe had become central to British interests: In the early 1960s, the EEC (established in 1957 by the Treaty of Rome) beckoned as the economic replacement for the loss of Britain’s empire, not least because – after recovering from the Second World War – Western Europe emerged alongside North America and the British Isles, as well as the Soviet Union (which remained economically closed), as the main market for and region of economic and industrial production. In 1961, when the UK first attempted to join the EEC, there was already a sense that membership was bound up with the question of Britain’s wider global role. This was expressed by Hugh Gaitskell, the then Leader of the Opposition, who warned:
It means the end of a thousand years of history. You might say “let it end”, but, my goodness, it is a decision that needs a little care and thought. And it does mean the end of the Commonwealth.
But what was the alternative? Imperial preference – a system by which Britain had operated its empire, dominions and Commonwealth as a protectionist bloc – had ended as a condition of the Marshall Plan. The economies of Asia were still emerging from occupation and/or enmeshment in violent Cold War rivalries. Back then, Western Europe looked like the only option.
Moreover, by 1964 the British Cabinet felt that economic integration with Europe would intersect well with the UK’s existing defence interests:
As long as Britain wants eventually to join the European Economic Community, she must maintain a posture of active interest in Europe. To some extent this will be judged by the level of our military commitment on the mainland of Europe.
Subsequently, the defence of Europe was as much an economic as a strategic priority. Mr Wilson’s second attempt at joining the EEC in May 1967 was vetoed again by Charles de Gaulle, the then President of France. It was not until 1973 that Edward Heath, the then Prime Minister, succeeded in joining the integrationist project.
Changed realities, new assumptions?
Today each of the pre-eminent assumptions of the 1960s – US global leadership, British national security and British economic interests – looks quite different:
1. US leadership of the West is over: American leadership over the Euro-Atlantic system lasted six decades, ending with Donald Trump, the US President. In his inaugural speech of January 2017, after listing various ways America has protected and enriched other countries at its own expense, Mr Trump pledged that ‘..from this day forward a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward it is going to be only America First. America First.’ Although the US looks set to remain by far the most powerful nation on Earth – with considerable authority – it lacks the vision, obligation and willingness to set an example or build a coalition that constitutes leadership in the full sense. What is left is more a system of command and control.
This does not fundamentally alter the importance of the UK-USA alliance but it does change the terms of the ‘special relationship’. Not knowing if the America will reclaim the role of leading the West – and so far there is no reason to assume it will – Britain would be better off adopting a stance where it maintains the benefits of its alliance while making its own efforts to defend and nurture the community of Western countries.
2. The threat from Russia is secondary to the challenge of the People’s Republic of China (PRC): Russia’s dismemberment of Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) and assassinations in the UK (in 2006 and 2018) demonstrate that it poses a threat. While Russia is candid about the scope of its aggression, it is also predictable and limited: Moscow does not accept the sovereignty of countries that were part of the Soviet Union, and fights to keep them within its perceived sphere of interest. Foreign jurisdiction is no protection for ‘compatriots’ and ‘enemies of the state’. However, this does not oblige Britain to accept Russian aggression passively. The UK has to respond by imposing costs to discourage these actions, but should also calibrate its contribution to a collective defence effort in deterring Russia – based on the context, including starting from the Kremlin’s capability and intent.
First, Russia has no equivalent to the ideological drive of the Soviet regime, which denied the possibility of peaceful coexistence with the West. It also lacks material capability. Second, European NATO members have adequate resources to deter a Russian attack. A detailed study by the International Institute for Strategic Studies – ‘Defending Europe’ – examined two plausible scenarios of Russian aggression and found that although today Europeans would be unable to win without US help, their capability gaps could be filled if they invested between US$288 billion and US$357 billion into their defence forces. Even allowing for Brexit, this is entirely within reach of mainland European countries, considering that ‘had all European NATO member states in 2018 spent in accordance with the 2% of GDP benchmark, they would have had an additional US$102 billion available compared to the US$264 billion they did spend.’
Meanwhile, the influence of the PRC is growing economically and strategically, putting it on a collision course with America. This obliges every nation to consider how a strong PRC will alter the international hierarchies and relationships that constitute world order. China’s evolution depends on internal factors but also on the response of its neighbours and powers from outside its own region.
The PRC’s emergence on the international scene has been a long time coming. Even in the early 1960s, Mr Macmillan, the then Prime Minister, noted that ‘the relative importance of Europe in the world-wide confrontation between West and East might progressively diminish’ while ‘no similar prospect has yet presented itself in the Far East’. Sure enough, the world seems now to be entering a new ideological confrontation between West and East, and in that context it makes sense to reverse the importance of Europe and Asia in UK foreign policy.
3. Europe is no longer central to British economic and security interests: Due to the simple fact of geography, continental Europe will remain a factor in UK foreign policy, both in defence and economic terms. However, it no longer has anything like the importance for the British interest as it did 60 years ago.
In 1957, the EEC began life with more than three-fourths of its land area outside of continental Europe, and it stretched ‘from the mouth of the Rhine in the North Sea to the Congo River in Africa.’ Back then, European imperial power still extended across the globe, making Europe a vital component of the world order. After decolonisation, Europe is no longer as central to the global economy as it appeared in the late-1950s. This is also a function of the way European economies have matured in a globalised economy. Other factors like demography, pension liabilities and debt are stymying growth. Arguments on debt mutualisation and bailouts from rich to poorer regions of the Euro area look likely to complicate the process of political integration.
UK trade and investment with the EU remains significant but was declining long before Brexit came on the horizon. The share of UK exports to the EU fell from 55% in 2006 to 43% in 2016, though this increased slightly to 44% in 2017 and 46% in 2018. The share of UK imports from the EU fell from 58% in 2002 to 51% in 2011, increasing to 53% in 2018. The Indo-Pacific is now the locus of global growth.
How then should the British interest be advanced in new circumstances, when Asia is up, Europe is down, and America is – for the foreseeable future – out?
Towards the future
At the opening of the British defence review that resulted in the draw back of the late-1960s, it was assumed that Britain would only be able to sustain two out of three priorities: the defence of Europe; an independent nuclear deterrent; and a global role – with the latter being jettisoned to allow for the former two. Today, securing Britain’s global interests requires an acceptance of what has changed so that the country can adjust and shape the new reality. In terms of Britain’s security and economic outlook, this involves revising obsolete assumptions about the centrality of Europe, and putting the Russian threat into proportion.
The UK’s pre-eminent strategic priority should be to establish a policy for the Indo-Pacific – including China. The guiding aim of this policy would be to contribute to an order in which the PRC can rise alongside its neighbours and fully enjoy its sovereign rights without feeling the need to take actions that threaten the peace, sovereignty and prosperity of others. Britain should therefore actively engage in the process of ‘coevolution’ to ensure that the new order that emerges is one that accommodates Chinese development, while protecting the rights of others to freely pursue their chosen way of life.
How then should the British interest be advanced in new circumstances, when Asia is up, Europe is down, and America is – for the foreseeable future – out? Foreign policy resources should be reapportioned in a three way split giving equal attention to the following priority areas: One third should be devoted to Europe, which now means the EU for economic relations and NATO for defence, with the British contribution going mainly towards maritime security, air policing and a very minimal land commitment. The next third should be devoted to the Indo-Pacific. Without a persistent presence, the UK will not be able to be part of Asia’s economic rise or security network. Being present in the Indo-Pacific means rooting firm relationships in the region, including with Britain’s main ally, the US, ‘quasi allies’, such as Australia and Japan, and partners like Singapore and Vietnam. The remaining third should be devoted to protecting the British homeland, including cyber defence and deterrence (mandating an offensive cyber capability) and sustaining global public goods elsewhere (e.g. peacekeeping, countering organised crime, alleviating pandemics, and so on).
The ability of the UK to preserve its way of life is still enabled by cooperation with an international community of shared values – individual freedom, the rule of law, open markets, and sovereign equality among nations. With the US retreat from global leadership, Britain needs to reach an understanding of how it might – in this new context – play a leading role in sustaining a broad community of values based on the conceptual foundation of ‘the West’.