Ambition Meets Reality for Global Britain


Despite the daily commentary on the divisions within Cabinet and the Conservative Party at large over Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, the government has been remarkably consistent over how the United Kingdom should orientate itself post-Brexit. Upon assuming office in June 2016, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson set out his vision for Britain as a “great global player.” Since then, the notion of “Global Britain” has come to dominate the government’s narrative. The concept has featured prominently in the prime minister’s major foreign policy speeches, and was one of the central themes of the Conservative Party Conference last month. What exactly does “Global Britain” mean though? Does it constitute the makings of a grand strategy, a new role in the world, or is it just a “specious branding effort”?

The United Kingdom already holds a strong hand in terms of soft power through institutions such as the British Council and the BBC World Service, as well as world-leading research centres and universities. How therefore is the concept of a “Global Britain” different to the status quo? The answer lies partly in trade. After all, the ability to strike new free-trade agreements with developing countries around the world was one of the key arguments in the Leave Campaign’s arsenal. Yet beyond its trade and soft power connotations, it is critical to understand how “Global Britain” signifies a shift in the country’s alliance posture, as well the use of its hard power assets. Gavin Williamson’s first statement as the new defense secretary suggests as much. Upon replacing Michael Fallon last week, he said:

[A]s we leave the European Union, and forge a new Global Britain, defence has the opportunity to deepen old friendships and contribute to building new ones around the world.

Thus, “Global Britain” is about reenergizing the United Kingdom’s extra-European role, and signifies nothing less than a return “East of Suez.” Such sentiments smack of “empire 2.0” for some commentators, while others have questioned whether the United Kingdom has the clout to play a global role anymore. The latter critique has more merit than the former but it still underplays the strength of Britain’s hand and its reach around the world.

Britain is one of the few countries which boasts a worldwide network of alliances. Indeed, one of the reasons that it has always been the “awkward partner” in Europe is because it has maintained close ties with several former colonies and dominions on the far side of the globe. There is appetite for “more Britain abroad,” as Secretary of State John Kerry is alleged to have said in June of last year. Similarly, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his hope in 2012 that the United Kingdom would “stage a comeback in terms of participating in strengthening Asia’s security.”

Since then, annual ministerial dialogues have been established and joint military exercises held. Several of the Gulf states also support an enhanced British role in their region. The Cameron government made several steps in this direction and the Royal Navy has re-established a permanent naval base in Bahrain. The “Global Britain” concept has the potential to build on such initiatives but, if it is to be successful, senior politicians and civil servants will need to strike a sustainable balance between their desired objectives and the country’s finite resources. This will involve ruthless prioritization and thinking at a grand strategic level.

“Grand strategy” is not a term that appears in the United Kingdom’s foreign policy lexicon often. The last Labour government and both Conservative-led administrations have preferred instead to outline “national security strategies.” In some quarters, grand strategy is seen as “hubristic” and “associated with empire.” It certainly does not have to be so and the latter claim rests, to some extent, on a misreading of history. All states conduct grand strategy – whether they choose to acknowledge it or not – and to varying degrees of success. Channelling Trotsky, Hal Brands wryly observed, “You may not be interested in grand strategy but grand strategy is interested in you.”

Decision-makers are inevitably faced with trade-offs over their country’s competing objectives and priorities and how to allocate resources accordingly. The judgements they make are based on their perceptions of the state’s vital, major and peripheral interests. This is the crux of grand strategic thinking. Brands convincingly argues that grand strategy lends “structure to a country’s statecraft” by providing the “intellectual architecture” for a state’s foreign policy without which its policies would seem ad hoc and reactionary. Officials have to contend with a constantly evolving domestic and international environment and so they must regularly review their evaluations over how to protect or further the state’s primary interests.

Many critics mistakenly believe that making grand strategy involves rigidly adhering to a five or 10 year plan. But to paraphrase the Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke, “no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.” Astute grand strategists will therefore adapt to the constantly evolving domestic and international environment. This practically means that the state’s objectives may shift over time and its resources certainly will. This is broadly in line with Lawrence Freedman’s interpretation of the concept as a journey:

…with each move from one state of affairs to another, the combination of ends and means will be reappraised. Some means will be discarded and new ones found, while some ends will turn out to be beyond reach even as unexpected opportunities come into view.

Grand strategy involves officials at the highest level of government ranking their country’s vital, major and peripheral goals and interests, as well as continuously evaluating how best they should interact with other states and deploy their own finite resources to protect or further these goals and interests. It should therefore be seen as a process, or a way of thinking, rather than something set in stone. It can be done well when a state’s means and ends are balanced (a coherent grand strategy) and it can be done badly when this matching of assessments and capabilities is unsustainable (a flawed grand strategy).

As the “Global Britain” concept takes shape, British leaders will face such trade-offs, given that most bilateral alliances are rarely cost-free. For example, the deepening of partnerships with states that have a questionable record on human rights undermines Britain’s moral standing and soft power. Officials also need to be mindful of the dangers of embroiling themselves in regional politics. Talk of more joint military exercises with Japan, for example, tends to provoke a cold response from China — a country near the top of Theresa May’s free-trade agreement wish list. New alliances or the strengthening of existing ones must be based on a cold appraisal of the “national interest.” As mentioned above, this will involve a sober assessment of which interests and values are of vital, major, and peripheral importance. Certain relationships must be prioritised, with an acknowledgment of the trade-offs involved. Furthermore, some values and norms of the rules-based international order, such as freedom of navigation, will have to be ranked above others.

Defense planners should also be mindful of overstretch, particularly at a time when the defense budget looks set to go under the knife once again. Orders for American military equipment, such as the F-35B fighter jet, and the P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft, are taking up an increasingly large share of the Defence Ministry’s spending due to the drop in the value of Sterling since the Brexit vote last June. The government has embarked on a “capability review” to ensure that it has sufficient resources to meet its commitments set out in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. Such an approach seems sensible at first glance. As set out above, ensuring that there is a sustainable balance between means to ends, and ends to means, is the essence of responsible and coherent strategic thinking. The danger, however, is that officials fixate on “efficiency savings” and retain commitments whilst shelving capabilities. The effect of the pound’s depreciation on the defense budget could, however, just be a taste of what is to come if the Brexit talks go awry or the economy stalls. Ultimately, the ability to sustain a capable, full spectrum military is dependent on having a strong economy.

The current manpower shortages in the Royal Navy are also very troubling, considering that the military dimension of the “Global Britain” strategy is likely to be naval-centric. The Royal Navy has recently been forced into the early decommissioning of the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean in order to help man the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. Aside from this temporary fallout in capability, the carriers, once operational, will make Britain one of the few states with global military reach. A port in Oman is being reconfigured to berth these vast capital ships, and ministers have suggested that HMS Queen Elizabeth will be sent to Asia on her first deployment. Some fear that procurement delays will limit the number of British F-35Bs available for her maiden voyage but the U.S. Marine Corps will be making up the numbers in the short-term at least. It is easy to be cynical about this, but these carriers were specifically designed with interoperability in mind.

The presence of a British carrier strike force in the Gulf would underscore Britain’s commitment to its alliances beyond Europe. The United Kingdom is one of the most vocal defenders of the rules-based international order, which is so essential to its continued prosperity, as well as that of its allies. The carriers can be the bite behind Britain’s bark when it comes to the governance of the global commons. This would of course be valuable to the United States, as it seeks to rebalance its military assets towards the Pacific, whilst retaining a capable foothold in the turbulent Middle East.

Beyond the Gulf, Britain continues to send small numbers of military assets to the Indian Ocean to participate in joint exercises with Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Singapore. The Five Power Defence Arrangements, which were signed in 1971 after the bulk of British forces had withdrawn from the region, help to underpin the security of Southeast Asia. Given the increasing importance of this area to the global economy, the participation of a carrier in these exercises would be one of the best ways to demonstrate Britain’s enhanced resolve to guarantee regional and international stability.

There are, however, limits to the hard power side of “Global Britain.” The carriers need sufficient protection and a Maritime Task Group, even supplemented with allied ships, will stretch the Royal Navy’s surface fleet to the limit. The United Kingdom currently has 13 Type 23 frigates and six Type 45 destroyers but they are not all available at any one time, given the need for repairs, as well as home defense. Those that are deployed are spread thinly across the world and perform a variety of roles from anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa to the defense of the Falkland Islands. The Royal Navy is also called upon to assist in emergency relief operations in the wake of natural disasters, as the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean aptly demonstrated in the Caribbean recently.

There has, however, been growing concern over the past year that some of the aged Type 23s will be decommissioned before they are replaced by the Type 26 and Type 31e frigates. The Type 23s are due to be retired at a rate of one a year from 2023 but the first Type 26 is not expected to be operational until the mid-2020s. More recently, there has been a flurry of speculation that several Type 23s may be sold off before 2023, as part of the ongoing capability review. Such a move would grievously undermine the naval punch of “Global Britain.”

Even if we assume the optimistic scenario — that frigate numbers do not drop below 13 — the Royal Navy will still have to concentrate its surface fleet on the Maritime Task Group at the expense of other areas. This creates further problems, as a carrier task group can, rather obviously, only be in one place at any one time. London’s ability to meet its alliance commitments may come into doubt if two crises, manmade or otherwise, erupt simultaneously. Thus, having a worldwide network of alliances could prove to be an albatross around the neck of “Global Britain.”

If the rumors circulating Whitehall are to be taken at face value, the Royal Marines also stand to lose 1,000 personnel, along with their amphibious assault ships, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark (one of which has to be kept in port anyway due to the aforementioned manpower shortages). Irrespective of its vision for “Global Britain,” the government must honor its commitments to the security of Northern Europe. Cutting the United Kingdom’s only cold-weather fighting force would send the wrong message to the country’s Scandinavian allies, among others.

The inherent trade-offs and contradictions in “Global Britain” relate to a wider point about Britain’s identity and its elusive quest for a role. Since Dean Acheson’s famous assertion that the United Kingdom had “lost an empire and not yet found a role,” there has been no shortage of British politicians trying to articulate their country’s place in the world. In 1975, James Callaghan declared the British were the “bridge-builders,” an idea that was later echoed by Tony Blair in his “pivotal power” speech of 1999. “Global Britain” is just the latest iteration of this trend. The problem is that national role conceptions are often too imprecise and difficult to measure, particularly one as expansive as “Global Britain.” It is difficult to see how planners can reconcile such a role in the crucial relationship between means and ends. It is, for example, unclear whether the achievement of such a role is the objective of the government’s national or grand strategy, or the means to attain conventional ends such as prosperity and security. “The quest for a unique role,” Christopher Hill once wrote, is “like the pursuit of the Holy Grail” and can be “a fatal distraction to politicians with responsibilities”.

The new defense secretary and his colleagues face some tough decisions over how they will deploy the country’s finite diplomatic and military resources to build or deepen alliances beyond Europe. Compromises will inevitably have to be made, which will require strategic thinking on a grand scale. Decision-makers should focus on specific issues and place them within the context of the country’s interests and resources. Perpetuating the search for grandiose roles that impede coherent strategic thinking might not be the wisest course of action.


William James is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford. His research is centred on past cases of British grand strategy. It assesses the conditions that have facilitated the conceptualisation and implementation of coherent, as opposed to flawed, grand strategies. He is also a research student of the Oxford Changing Character of War Centre.

Image: UK government