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.