The Weight of the Punch: British Ambition and Power

March 7, 2016

In the winter of 2015, as Britain released its latest statement of its national orientation, there was every sign that the wishes that had underpinned its statecraft were being blown away.

The Middle East is imploding through sectarian bloodletting and the wider Saudi–Iran cold war. Against optimistic expectations, the jihadist wave unleashed on 9/11 is not spent. Islamic state zealots are not a super-threat, but they attack interests and profane standards that Britons care about, from Palmyra to Paris. Power continues to violently fragment across parts of North Africa. Breakdown continues in Libya, despite efforts to forge a unity government, where in 2011 Britain had joined a coalition to steer the tide of the Arab Spring in the right direction. Having waded through blood to survive, Assad has not agreed to exit stage left. A flight of people escaping this distress brings upheaval to the wider Mediterranean world and to an unprepared continental Europe.

More globally, a slump in Chinese demand, and China’s volatile economy generally, threaten to bring on another recession. Though sanctions have punished Putin’s regime for its aggression in the Ukraine, NATO observers fear that an extension of Russia’s adventurism to the Baltic states could touch off an escalating crisis. We are not living through the most dangerous moment in memory. The Cold War was worse and more violently turbulent, not less, despite the rose-tinted memories of many observers. But today’s security environment is undeniably deteriorating. There hasn’t been a better time since the fall of the Berlin Wall to reassess British power and the balance of its power with its ambitions.

Despite claims to the contrary, Britain’s latest strategic review isn’t half bad. Both the National Security Strategy (NSS) and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) make serious efforts to respond to the worsening environment. Strategic planning is extremely difficult, not least because it requires decision-makers to invest in capabilities that need long lead times, against potential problems that are hard to predict and can emerge quickly. Faced with that general problem, SDSR 2015 closes the gap, or some of the gap, between capability and commitments. It makes serious efforts to identify and weigh risks, and offers a design for the pursuit of security as violent turbulence menaces the strategic order of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Some credit is due. Britain also deserves praise for its role in prudent efforts to blunt some of the more dangerous potentialities, helping to roll back the Iranian nuclear program, gradually turn the tide against the Islamic State, and bolster NATO’s eastern flank in the face of Putin’s revisionism.

Some warnings are also due. The document, and its architects, work from some suspect assumptions that continue to shape British statecraft. Formulating a National Security Strategy is an imperfect exercise that is still better than “muddling through,” but it does not always work as a deliberate, intentional, and systematic process of government. It can also be powered by built-up habits, entrenched assumptions, and “common sense” that don’t go properly examined. Assumptions need to be explicitly identified and tested, if Britain is to box clever.

To debate British statecraft is to spar with the language of boxing. The blame lies squarely with Lord Douglas Hurd, who in 1993 spoke of Britain “punching above our weight in the world.” Though this has become a tired cliché, it accurately summarizes the abiding, decades-long concern of British policymakers. Ever since 1945, when a war-depleted Britain slipped from being a geopolitical colossus to a major state in the shadow of America’s rise, the exercise of disproportionate levels of power has been its government’s elusive goal.

Today, Britain might clock in as a light heavyweight relative to the small group of leading fighters. But as the “outsized influence” theory hopes, its repertoire of global reach, its standing as a nuclear power, its attractive institutions, its economic volume, its sharpened military instrument, its Trident deterrent, its Commonwealth ties, and its rapport with the world champion means that it can still dine at the top table. Britain can, it hopes, project power benignly and effectively.

How, though, can a state generate this kind of power, or even measure it? The aspiration to exert a special scale and quality of power carries anxiety about becoming “little.” As the Brexit rumble shows, the fear of decline and irrelevance haunts debate about the purpose and magnitude of British power. Metropolitan internationalists, from the LSE to the Economist, often complain that the British boxer has lost its stomach for the fight, is weary of the international arena, and ought to resume punching (and expand its repertoire) to restore the crowd’s faith in its muscle. Others take the same obsession but invert it. They warn that Britain has over-reached and should hang up its gloves.

As it happens, Britain has not “retreated,” “retired,” or “turned inward.” On every measure, the fifth largest economy in the world is a major and active state. It spends a greater percentage of its national income on development than most countries. Its defense spending may be bolstered by creative accounting, but it still exceeds most NATO members. Its diplomats are trying to broker political settlements in Libya and Syria. It was unwise to reduce the country’s diplomatic expertise — more on that later — yet this reflected not retreat but an elevation of aid above diplomacy.

A parochial power does not assist the overthrow of a tyrant in Tripoli or bomb Islamists in two Middle Eastern states. It does not lead EU states to impose sanctions on Russia in protest at its aggression in the Ukraine. It does not increase defense collaboration with Japan from joint exercises to cyber security to the development of new missile technology. Even most proponents of “Brexit” are not calling for withdrawal from NATO, or isolation of any kind. The overall record of engagement, especially at a time of scarce resources and pressure to relieve austerity at home, suggests that on the occasions when the United Kingdom has declined to embark on risky overseas projects, like when Parliament voted not to bomb the Assad regime in 2013, it is not because elected MPs have amorally abandoned the world. It was because they thought joining the Syrian civil war was a bad idea.

So London is still in the ring. It still wants to be something between a superpower and “Belgium with nukes.” To postpone decline and give the punch renewed weight, successive British governments have taken up the practice of formal strategy-making. As 2015 drew to a close, the UK published its National Security Strategy and its strategic review in one combined document. Along with a few other countries, Britain does the historically unusual thing of writing down and codifying its strategy in advance and out in the open. The country has now settled into a rhythm of quinquennial strategic reviews, adapting to its own governance the ways and institutions of the American “national security state,” with a declaratory strategy, a national security council, and a process of regular formal review. We cannot expect too much of such public documents. But they can set out organizing principles for decision-making. And putting the national security strategy and the defence review into one merged publication does not necessarily integrate diplomacy, economics and military power, but it’s a start.

National security strategy is an inflection of what used to be “grand strategy,” or the orchestration of power and commitments between wars and over decades. At first glance, there is something historically un-British about grand strategy. “Grand sounds like grande,” and grande sounds like Napoleon. London prefers “national security strategy.” It seems less tainted by imperial ambition. But “national security strategy” also evokes ambition, and British leaders still voice the aspiration to remain a major power.

With this latest effort, have the Brits done a good job?

SDSR 2015 is the successor document to SDSR 2010. It works on the train tracks laid down five years prior. In 2010, the government declared there would be no “strategic shrinkage” while shrinking military capabilities as part of its effort to address a debt-deficit problem, straining the balance between means and ends.

In 2010, the government assumed a benign environment, or benign “enough,” with the winding down of the Afghanistan campaign and interstate confrontation seeming like a remote eventuality. The security environment since then has progressively eroded, war broke out in the Ukraine, and an inadvertent major war cannot be so easily dismissed.

In 2010, the SDSR described an uncertain and unpredictable world. “Uncertainty” was its watchword. Yet it also defined an ambitious role for the United Kingdom in preventing problems “upstream,” stabilizing fragile states and spreading enlightened governance, suggesting a highly confident vision of the West bringing order into chaos. With Libya now almost a shattered state, and disorder following intensive efforts to rebuild Iraq, that confidence looks misplaced.

The sin of SDSR 2010 was not to reduce spending. In the fiscal circumstances, some reduction was defensible. The problem was that it did not supply a coherent or realistic enough framework for judging how to interpret or react to crises, in North Africa, the Levant, or the Ukraine.

Dealt this difficult hand, SDSR 2015 takes some laudable steps. It rebuilds some capabilities that have been eroded. Most assessments begin and end with military investments, but we should begin with diplomacy. Hans Morgenthau observed that diplomacy is the instrument that links all other raw materials “into an integrated whole, gives them direction and weight, and awakens their slumbering potentialities by giving them the breath of actual power.” Reductions in investment in expertise and embassies have reduced Britain’s capacity to detect early warnings. According to the House of Lords EU Sub-Committee on External Affairs’ report of February 2015, “the Foreign Office has lost expertise and analytical capacity on Russia and the region,” making the UK and other Member States “unable to read events on the ground and offer an authoritative response.” It is therefore welcome that the new review pledged (and followed up) to extend country expertise to areas salient to British security interests, including language ability in Mandarin and Arabic, and rebuilding expertise on Russia.

On the military front, SDSR helps Britain adjust away from an era of protracted, intensive, and unsustainable armed nation-building efforts, and towards an era of raiding and disruption. It is hard enough for superpowers to keep fighting counterinsurgency campaigns against determined weaker parties with greater stakes in a conflict. It is harder still for “middle powers” like the United Kingdom, especially given that Britain’s geographical and security domain also covers the defense of NATO, the maritime-air environment, increasingly contested cyberspace, and non-trivial responsibilities ranging from the Falkland Islands to Cyprus.

The strategic world may have moved into a dismal continuum of chronic violence, somewhere between low-intensity light constabulary work and high-intensity and sustained major warfighting. If so, the investments that match SDSR 2015 at least give the United Kingdom the ability to contain and limit threats from afar, enabled by strengthened security and intelligence agencies, to buy time for local parties to restore order. This is not just a matter of “missile diplomacy.” The move to a “raiding” posture also informs the formation of new, more mobile “strike brigades” designed to be deployable at high tempo over long range with a lower logistical footprint. Within the limits of reduction, the British Army is working hard to reconstitute itself around a new-look integrated division.

In the bleaker scenario of interstate confrontation and war, the United Kingdom is thinking harder, and rightly so, but within a still-limited scale of equipment and personnel. SDSR restores maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare capability. The new Boeing P8 maritime patrol aircraft enables Britain’s capacity to monitor the “deep, far Atlantic” and add a layer of security to its nuclear deterrent and aircraft carriers. These are prudent choices. Russia’s persistent probing of British airspace and its nautical environs suggests that the United Kingdom is right not to proceed on the longstanding assumption of a benign immediate neighborhood. This geopolitical context makes increased Anglo–French collaboration particularly valuable. On the other hand, hard limitations on resources mean that if things keep getting worse, the United Kingdom lacks capacity for independent action. For the Royal Navy, a reduced escort fleet and insufficient personnel means that it would struggle to protect its (coming) carriers without thinning out the rest of its fleet, and with a lack of redundancy, can’t afford to make mistakes. As things stand, the Royal Navy could become a stretched and risk-averse force, fielding a limited number of exquisite capabilities that it dare not gamble with.

SDSR 2015 also contains some embedded assumptions and omissions. First, whatever happened to Afghanistan? It was central to the review of 2010. Then, it was a “current” commitment that conditioned the review and, was accorded the status of “Main Effort” with protection and priority. Understandably with the planned transition to Afghanistan security forces, it is no longer the main effort. But it almost slips off the radar of SDSR 2015, which briefly describes British aid and NATO’s training and advisory mission. Unfortunately, Afghanistan as we speak may be unravelling, with the undying Taliban seizing back ground, and the Islamic State establishing a foothold. These reversals would not be so alarming, were it not that Afghanistan borders a nuclear Pakistan. It’s a remote but real contingency, that a rise in conflict could spill over, with part or all of its arsenal falling into radical hands in the event of a breakdown of governance or a revolution. Nuclear terrorism is very difficult to pull off, but we wouldn’t wish to run the experiment, and the U.S.-led coalition has an interest in taking achievable steps to prevent it. This issue reflects a wider tendency in Western security debate to lurch between threat inflation and complacency. Afghanistan is neither an existential struggle with unlimited stakes that some proponents suggested it was five years ago, nor conversely should it be an afterthought now. The suggestion that an international coalition commits itself to “holding the line” with a garrison in Afghanistan while brokering a regional settlement is worth entertaining, but hardly to be heard.

SDSR 2015 also has a China problem. The government presently embraces China and defines it through the lens of the “prosperity agenda,” as a primarily commercial actor and partner for Britain. This is evident in SDSR itself, which uses notably softer language about China than it does about Russia, and plays down China’s recent practice of seizing and militarizing disputed territories in the South China Sea. It is also evident in hard investments recently negotiated between both countries. The government does not go so far as to define China as exclusively a trading state, but it does place other strategic aspects of the relationship in the margins. This could create problems. Firstly, the United Kingdom is also tightening its defense and security collaboration with Japan. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but it will create tensions in what is supposed to be the Anglo–China “golden time.” Given Japan is one of its leading rivals in an Asian setting of escalating rivalries, China may notice and it could become hard to de-link Britain’s commercial and military-strategic activities. Washington may also notice. London claims a special relationship with the United States, but with Washington’s Asian pivot, its redeployment of naval air assets to Asia, and its strengthening of ties with Asian states, Britain’s larger cousin emphatically does not elevate commerce above all else in its relations with Beijing. It is possible that on this issue, the government is falling prey to the illusions of the free lunch, of the harmony of interests, and of commerce without politics. This wager may be worth the rewards, but it would be wise to consider the costs, and give the whole move some rigorous testing.

SDSR 2015 also offers a broad, and problematic logic of what may be called “anticipatory security,” or the ambition to prevent problems long in advance through the judicious application of advice, training, and resources — an agenda that underpins “Defence Engagement.” Recent experiences in this experiment have not all been happy ones, and some have had serious unintended consequences. It is difficult to bring stable governance to fragile states by increasing their capacity to govern. It implicitly assumes that this is primarily a technical exercise, rather than a political one. The difficulty is the “misalignment problem,” where other actors who are given Western assistance often have a separate, and sometimes conflicting, view of their interests. Providing predatory or partisan governments with weapons, skills and money may reinforce rather than reform their behavior, and implicate the West in what victims see as repression. Resources flowing in to bolster governance can fuel corruption and implicate the occupier, stoking resistance and hardening division. If a host government is predatory on its population, for instance, this can undermine security sector reform. In Iraq, because a Shiite regime governed in sectarian ways to alienate Sunni communities, $26 billion of U.S. investment in the military, police and justice system (including about $12 billion on supplying the Iraqi army) over a decade created a force that proved unwilling to fight for the state, that was hollowed out by corruption, and that collapsed and fled in the face of the Islamic State’s offensive. This does not mean that the UK should never engage in anticipatory security. But it should be clear-eyed about what it can achieve, and what it costs.

Though moves to bolster NATO’s forces in Eastern Europe should be commended, they are not yet enough in two respects. Firstly, they may not be enough or at sufficient readiness strictly in terms of warfighting. On the evidence of recent exercises, the United Kingdom still reportedly would struggle to assemble a brigade at credible readiness. Secondly, even if this were not the case, there is a difficulty with deterrence and the escalation ladder. Beyond the sheer ability to operate, there may be a dangerous gap within the correlation of under-sized conventional forces (under-sized compared to what Russia could apply to the region) and Western nuclear forces. Should that gap appear too large, it is possible that the tripwire of an international protective force may not be enough, and an aggressor might gamble on the perception that NATO would be unwilling to go rapidly to the top of the escalation ladder. Or it could use salami-slicing tactics to seize territory and then dare NATO into a disproportionate response. As Jakub Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell observe,

The forward positioning of U.S. troops is useful for shoring up the effectiveness of American extended deterrence in the region and should be done immediately. But that step alone will not deter Russia. The deterrent aspect of this forward posture is that it puts U.S. assets and manpower in a vulnerable position — creating a so-called tripwire — thus showing commitment and creating the incentive to defend the allied country. The loss of American soldiers to an initial attack by the enemy would, so the argument goes, create powerful pressures for Washington to respond. [But] What if they’re never even involved because the attack is so limited — a “jab and pause” like that in Crimea — that it does not come near American forces? If the aggressor establishes a quick fait accompli, then the U.S. forces would have to be used not to defend an ally’s territory, but rather to attack an enemy that has already achieved its territorial goal and, in all likelihood, has ceased military operations.

Finally, at the time of writing, there is a non-trivial chance that the existence of the United Kingdom as a political union may be under threat. Some chain of events between a Brexit and Scottish secession could place everything from naval bases in Scotland to the British constitution up for grabs. In that scenario, Britain would have to think again about the weight of its punch.


Professor Patrick Porter is the academic director of the Strategy and Security Institute at the University of Exeter.  He is the author of The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power.


Photo credit: Defence Images