After Brexit, a Bold Britain: A Game Plan for Remaking British Power
Whatever you think about British politics now, or the desirability of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May has been decisive since taking office. While she has asserted – rightly – that Brexit can only take place once the four parts of the United Kingdom are content with the overall strategy, she has also stated, firmly, that “Brexit means Brexit,” adding, importantly, that: “we are going to make a success of it.” This approach, which feels as decidedly British, in its willingness to balance competing interests and its dogged optimism, is the right way to bring Britons round from the garishness of the referendum debate – hardly the United Kingdom’s finest hour – with its lies-as-truth, untruths-as-realities, and facts-to-cover-uncertainties from both sides. Short of the success of the upcoming legal challenges, or some unforeseeable political developments, Brexit is almost certain to happen.
As when waking from a disturbing dream, it is best to start with a quick reality check: Let’s separate desires from the empirical facts. The shape-shifting beast – that is, Brexit – has not bitten the United Kingdom’s leg off yet, contrary to various calamitous predictions. The country’s vital parts are still in place. The British people have, albeit by a small majority, chosen to leave the European Union, not Europe. The United Kingdom is still there, and its allies will remain its allies because despite all the appeals to base emotion, all the cant and exaggeration, nothing happened to change the determining facts of geography, geopolitics and a well of common culture. Already Britons’ spirits are starting to recover.
The initial part of “making the best of it,” in May’s words, must be to recover from the shock and take an inventory of what is still in its place. What is still in place? What are the essential capabilities of the United Kingdom?
- A maritime economy ranking in the first half dozen countries of the world and likely to stay that way well into the 21st century;
- The world’s premier global financial center – London;
- A still potent – if somewhat recently neglected – capacity for defense and power projection;
- A dense diplomatic network, alliances, and partnerships that span the globe, including a unique relationship with the world’s leading power, the United States;
- A growing population and premium educational institutions and global talent in science, innovation, and art.
That said, Brexit may put some of these capabilities in jeopardy, or at least reduce their salience and power. Contrary to what Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom, and others in the Leave camp said, Brexit is not necessarily a dream and some of its costs are going to be real. Maintaining, let alone, expanding the United Kingdom’s capabilities will take particularly hard work from the new British government. Not only will it require the creation of new patterns of interaction with the outside world, but also new ways of thinking about Britain’s global role. If insufficient national resolve is found, Britain could be tossed into a sea of uncertainty, leading to four potentially different outcomes by 2020, determined by the strength (or weakness) of the United Kingdom itself, as well as the proclivity of the British government’s willingness to engage (or disengage) with the European continent and the wider world:
Bearing in mind Britain’s geopolitical position, economic needs, history and culture, three of these futures are not desirable, though some are worse than others. Yet, without decisive thinking and planning to prevent them, they are all possibilities, and would leave the United Kingdom a greatly weakened entity relative to its position prior to Brexit:
- Little England: The United Kingdom contracts through disintegration, leaving a weakened England, self-absorbed, disengaged and licking its wounds;
- Engaged Island: Scotland secures partial separation, creating a precarious constitutional settlement within the United Kingdom, leaving London to engage actively with the European Union, while remaining open to immigrants for economic development;
- Fort Albion: The United Kingdom retains a robust set of capabilities but dials down its international engagement, largely cuts itself from the European continent, much like during the years of so-called Splendid Isolation.
While, in theory, any of these futures is possible, here is the rub: “making a success of it,” or preventing Brexit from becoming an economic disaster or banishing the United Kingdom into geopolitical rabbit warrens will require so much more than just damage limitation. Brexit has given the United Kingdom a once-in-a-generation opportunity to sweep out the dead wood – clear away the policies that no longer serve a purpose in the contemporary context – and replace them with something more fit for the present age. The time is ripe for a cathartic purge of institutional weaknesses. Nobody should be under any illusion: ”making a success of it” will require a national intellectual project to facilitate a thorough strategic reorientation of Britain.
Strategy is the art of harnessing capabilities for the realization of some form of political vision. Assuming the British people want to retain and even improve their high standard of living and remain open to the world, there can be only one future available to them: a “bold,” “positive,” “outward-looking,” and “expansive” – to use May’s words – future for the United Kingdom.
This is where we get to the fourth option: A “Bold Britain” would reform itself and hold together politically, reorient and broaden its economy and remain heavily engaged within NATO and Europe, while expanding its reach East-of-Suez in the Indo-Pacific, a region fast becoming the world’s economic center of gravity. To achieve such an outcome, the government might do well to appoint a Royal Commission to report on how such a strategy could be realized to ensure the security, sovereignty and prosperity of the United Kingdom through and beyond Brexit. It would need to begin the process of adapting Britons’ own image of themselves from being a complacent rich country – Dean Acheson’s “country without a role,” or a country that runs to the E.U. snuggle blanket at the first sign of trouble – to being one that works hard, aggressively seizes opportunities worldwide and looks forward more than back.
Making a decisive break with the past will not come particularly easy. Some things have become cherished, gathered sentimental value, or become heavily ingrained in the context of party politics, and yet still need to be tossed onto the scrap heap. In turn, the United Kingdom will need to be clear-headed to realize Bold Britain. A post-‘Brexit’ United Kingdom cannot blame the European Union any more for its failings, only itself. London, therefore, needs the policies, tools, and instruments to secure the country’s political and economic interests and in the face of potentially determined opposition, not just within Europe, but also worldwide. What might a Bold Britain need to succeed?
Europe Must Remain a Top Priority
As Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson has not stopped pointing out Brexit does not mean the United Kingdom will disengage with Europe. Indeed, unless the European continent is secure and orderly, the United Kingdom will find it difficult to undertake a global foreign policy. Moreover, continental Europe serves as a security buffer for the United Kingdom against threats to the East and South. The United Kingdom must, therefore, continue to devote a proportionate share of its intelligence, diplomatic, and military capabilities to reinforce European security. In the first instance, this means reinforcing its commitment to NATO in the face of Russia’s geopolitical revisionism, not only in the Baltic, which is vital to U.K. strategic interests, but also the Black Sea region, which is critical to the south-eastern flank of the alliance. Equally, even after Brexit, the United Kingdom should still remain engaged with the European Union, not least through securing bespoke access to the Single Market, but also by using its capabilities to support E.U. crisis management operations. This could be achieved through some form of ‘Treaty of Mutual Association,’ giving the European Union access to certain British strategic military and intelligence capabilities, but allowing London some say over where E.U. missions take place and how they are directed. The practice whereby non-E.U. countries (even non-European nations like South Korea) may participate in E.U. civilian and military missions could serve as the template.
A Bold Britain is a Global Britain
Aside from the fact that the European Union is in relative economic decline, the United Kingdom should continue refocusing its national economic and geopolitical interests more closely towards the regions East-of-Suez, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. This will require the securing of new trade agreements with the largest established economies, such as the United States and Canada (increasingly oriented towards the Asia-Pacific region), as well as emerging giants like China, India, and Indonesia (a country with a population more than half the size of that of the European Union). Equally, it will mandate focusing on the Gulf states, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand, Thailand, and Vietnam. Securing these economic interests will mandate, increasingly, a larger British geopolitical role in the region, which the United Kingdom is particularly well-appointed to play given its military footprint and growing maritime ‘power projection’ capabilities. This will enable the United Kingdom to continue playing a major role in reinforcing the United States, so as to ensure the maintenance of a liberal world order. In this sense, bringing the United States and Japan closer to the Five Power Defense Arrangements, might develop a potent U.K./U.S.-backed node at the heart of the Indian and Pacific oceans, extending and amplifying British influence, potentially even with economic advantages. In addition, the United Kingdom could also work towards forging ever closer relations between the Anglosphere countries, especially those straddling the Indian Ocean.
Rebuild and Refocus Strategic Capabilities
As the international liberal order comes under evermore strain, the United Kingdom will need greater reliance on its own national efforts to secure its vital interests. After many years of cuts, the U.K. armed forces ought to be regenerated, with a bigger share of resources directed to the Royal Navy for engagement and dissuasion operations East-of-Suez and to the British Army and Royal Air Force for deterrence missions on NATO’s eastern flanks. Indeed, May’s government should announce a substantial increase to defense spending above and beyond the 2 percent of gross domestic product currently spent. This will complement the renewal of Trident in the sense of underlining the United Kingdom’s commitment to protect both its NATO and emerging global allies.
In addition, the diplomatic service, like the intelligence services, need to be reinforced and re-composed, while overseas development aid should be cut down to size and refocused to support British interests. Consequently, British aid should be directed primarily not for benevolent purposes but to secure British interests, such as assisting allies or to secure economic dividends. For example, aid could be re-allocated to assist the Baltic States, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria to improve their resilience.
Together, this recalibration of capabilities will enable London to continue to exert influence beyond that required for its own defense, particularly in the new center of the global economy, namely the Indo-Pacific. It will also allow the country to fulfil its responsibilities as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council; and shore-up NATO while simultaneously remaining critical to the balance of power within the European continent.
To be sure, a Bold Britain is not incompatible with E.U. membership, should Brexit never actually come to pass. However, Brexit provides the spark to set the engine in motion. Now is the time for the United Kingdom to seize the opportunity and establish a bold, positive and expansive new platform to define its global role for the rest of the century. As the great British statesman, Sir Winston Churchill, is often attributed as having said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
James Rogers is Director of the Department of Political and Strategic Studies at the Baltic Defence College and co-founding Editor of European Geostrategy. He holds an M.Phil. in European Studies from the University of Cambridge and a B.Sc. Econ. (Hons.) in International Politics and Strategic Studies from the University of Aberystwyth.
Philip Shetler-Jones is the Program Lead for International Security and Geopolitics at the World Economic Forum and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield School of East Asian Studies. He holds a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Sheffield and a M.A. in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.
Both write here strictly in a personal capacity.
Image: Public Domain