Strategic Suspense: British Foreign and Defense Policy at a Crossroads


This is a truly momentous year for British foreign and defense policy. The United Kingdom is now undertaking two lines of effort that could affect its national security for generations. First, the country is negotiating a deal that will determine its “future relationship” with the European Union, most importantly in trade. The process is complex, politically fraught, and is supposed to be wrapped up by the end of the year — record speed for such a negotiation. Missing this deadline would mean that Britain would be trading with the European Union under World Trade Organization rules, which would have a grave effect on the British economy.

At the same time, the British government has undertaken, since the beginning of the year, an integrated review of security, defense, development, and foreign policy. This review is an ambitious exercise that appraises the United Kingdom’s priorities and alliances with a holistic approach to strategic challenges. The result of the review, it is assumed, will be a new plan to advance U.K. security interests after Brexit.

Both projects — negotiations with the European Union and the defense review — are of enormous consequence for the security of Britain and the West, extremely difficult and uncertain, and inextricably related to each other. While E.U.-U.K. negotiations and London’s defense review have been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and have not made headlines in months, they are now back on track and more relevant than ever. The pandemic has magnified the strategic issues — delays in the Brexit negotiations, the changing global roles of China and the United States, and rapid technological change — currently facing the country.



London seems set to pursue an ambitious foreign and defense policy that relies on flexible engagement with the European Union and other partners across the globe. At the same time, there are enormous constraints on British policy: serious disagreements with Brussels about the “future relationship” complicate negotiations; Washington often ignores British interests on key issues; and the economic consequences of COVID-19 and Brexit will leave fewer resources for the U.K. armed forces. However, drawing lessons from the current crisis, London also has the opportunity to seize the moment to design new policies and partnerships that are fit to address today’s strategic challenges.

Boris Johnson Rejects Formal Defense Ties with the European Union

The United Kingdom is no longer a member of the European Union. Until December 2020, it is in a transition phase that is aimed at defining the new relationship that will link it to the bloc from January 2021 onward. These negotiations were supposed to include defense, foreign, and security policy, along with trade and an array of policy programs in which Britain was involved as an E.U. member. However, London has not chosen the path of a smooth transition toward a broad-ranging, institutionalized defense and foreign policy partnership with the European Union. Instead, earlier this year, Boris Johnson indicated that the United Kingdom was unwilling to address these issues as part of the negotiations.

Cooperation between the United Kingdom and the European Union is a key to regional security. Ever since the United Kingdom voted in 2016 to leave the European Union, London and Brussels have displayed the desire to develop an ambitious partnership in defense and foreign policy. However, this all changed as soon as Boris Johnson became prime minister last summer. In a shocking reversal, he announced that his government would not negotiate a defense and foreign policy deal as part of negotiations with the European Union, despite the fact that these topics were included in the political declaration on the “future relationship” that he signed with Brussels last year. The shift in the British position has apparently surprised even Michel Barnier, the chief negotiator for the European Union.

While the decision indeed appears puzzling, there are several possible reasons, which are not mutually exclusive, for why Johnson took defense and foreign policy off the table in negotiations with the European Union — tactics, timing, and form. Moreover, understanding Johnson’s rationale on this issue can help anticipate the future of British decision-making during his tenure.

First, the prime minister’s move could be a negotiating tactic. Johnson might be trying to use the United Kingdom’s sizable contribution to European security, especially intelligence and nuclear deterrence, as a bargaining chip. By first shutting the door on the idea of ​​an ambitious treaty that included security issues, Johnson could then attempt to open it in the weeks or months to come at a time when he will need to obtain concessions on other matters. This is what some in Brussels have feared and criticized since the start of the negotiations.

Secondly, Johnson might be sidelining defense issues in the negotiations with the European Union because his priority is to finalize a deal as soon as possible. Adding defense and foreign policy to trade talks might lead to delays and missing the end-of-the-year deadline. Failing to reach an agreement by the end of 2020 would be a disaster for Johnson’s government due to its effects on the U.K. economy. Defense is less urgent than trade matters as the effects of a “no deal” in these areas will not be felt immediately. Thus, the priority is on trade, and the U.K. position now is that all energy should be invested toward that end.

Thirdly, the prime minister is treating defense as a separate agenda because he believes that separate, sector-by-sector deals play to British strengths against the European Union. In contrast, Brussels is offering one comprehensive agreement governing the future E.U.-U.K. relationship covering all policy areas, with dispute resolution mechanisms. Such an arrangement, London fears, could be used by the European Union to pressure the United Kingdom into compliance in case of policy divergence, including in foreign policy, security, and defense.

The United Kingdom’s current negotiating position with the European Union on foreign and defense policy leaves two plausible options moving forward. First, there could be fast progress on the free trade agreement by the end of the year, and a limited agreement on U.K. participation in the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy can be added to it at a later date. Second, an entirely new negotiation phase on defense and foreign policy will have to take place in 2021 after the trade deal is finalized.

The Shape of Future British Partnerships

In terms of the substance of a U.K.-E.U agreement on defense and foreign policy, Theresa May, the former British prime minister, sought to achieve a special status for the United Kingdom that went beyond that of a classic “third country.” Third countries (e.g., Norway, Canada, Turkey, or the United States) have formal channels for coordination with the European Union when a military or civil operation abroad is launched, but their influence is limited ahead of these decisions. To the United Kingdom, the experience with the Galileo satellite provided a tough, real-life example of the limits of third-country status. Britain is excluded from the program and does not have access to the encrypted signal that can be used to guide missiles or share information during emergencies, such as terrorist attacks.

The European Union, however, has been reluctant to create a special status for the United Kingdom that would make it a full participant in decision-making bodies. Brussels fears creating precedents: Other partners could also claim a special status reflecting the degree of their involvement in European security. Despite the United Kingdom’s refusal to negotiate on these matters and concerns about setting a precedent for other countries, the European Union released in March 2020 a draft agreement that would provide Britain with a third-country status with a “close political dialogue” and structured consultations on foreign policy, security, and defense. The document includes arrangements for information-sharing and coordination with the European Union on sanctions. It also features a protocol addressing legal issues related to U.K. participation in E.U. crisis management operations. However, the United Kingdom was uninterested in the proposal, and hardline Brexiters denounced the draft agreement as too constraining and even akin to an “administrative coup d’état.”

While Johnson suggested that the United Kingdom will not negotiate any arrangement in which it “does not have control of its own laws and political life,” he is indeed aiming for a close partnership with the European Union. The challenge for the prime minister is doing so without alienating his most conservative flank. He explained his vision in a speech this February, suggesting that “the UK [sic] is not a European power by treaty or by law but by irrevocable facts of history and geography and language and culture and instinct and sentiment.” Consider NATO: It is based on the North Atlantic Treaty, signed in 1949, which does not include any practical legal obligations. Yet (or perhaps because of this) the Atlantic alliance has been the cornerstone of British defense policy since the 1950s. From Johnson’s perspective, a long and complex treaty is useless for maintaining close cooperation with European partners after Brexit. British leaders have confidence that its enduring interest in European security and strategic proximity to the continent are enough to cement its relationship with the European Union.

In other words, London will consent to written institutional arrangements — which the European Union favors — only if they appear necessary, such as in the area of internal security and police cooperation. The United Kingdom has been willing to negotiate with Brussels on these issues and agrees to continue data-sharing agreements, such as the Prüm convention. London is also willing to sign sectoral, technical agreements to participate in some E.U. programs (in research, for example). COVID-19 has led the United Kingdom to seek guaranteed access to the European Union’s early warning and response system, which played a critical role in coordinating Europe’s response to the pandemic.

When negotiating the “future relationship,” policymakers in London and Brussels should think beyond existing institutionalized frameworks, such as the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy. The latter deals only with certain aspects of foreign and defense policy, such as peacekeeping operations. And even when it comes to operations, ultimately, the United Kingdom does far more in operational terms via non-E.U. frameworks. U.K. armed forces work with NATO and in less institutionalized settings like bilateral cooperation with France or the Joint Expeditionary Force with Nordic and Eastern European partners. London has made relatively small contributions over the past 15 years to E.U. military operations and deployed only a few dozen personnel in such operations. It is therefore not surprising that a legal arrangement to participate in E.U. operations is not London’s foremost concern at this point.

In other words, the Common Security and Defence Policy is not necessarily the most relevant policy vehicle for addressing today’s key strategic challenges facing both London and the European Union. Countering malign foreign influence, for instance, requires bespoke policy tools. The European Union’s recent framework on foreign investment screening shows how non-defense-related actors (in this case, the Directorate General for Trade of the European Commission) are involved in designing policies that are critical to European security. A convergence of U.K. and E.U. approaches on international trade and investment matters will thus be critical for their future security cooperation.

On many international security issues, London seems willing to engage in informal coordination with European capitals. For example, it coordinated in the “E3” format with Germany and France to discuss Iran, Libya, NATO, and arms control. On a bilateral level, too, cooperation with European partners is of paramount importance to the United Kingdom. The upcoming 10th anniversary of the Lancaster House Treaties signed in November 2010 between the United Kingdom and France will be an opportunity to design a new type of bilateral partnership for a new context, not only as relates to Brexit but also with regard to the strategic challenges that have emerged over the past five years in relation to space, cybersecurity, AI, and hybrid threats. While the Lancaster House agreements have focused on conventional military capabilities, operational cooperation, and nuclear deterrence, the United Kingdom and France are likely to try to deepen their cooperation in those new areas.

The United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union is not the only one that is up in the air. Since 2017, relations between London and Washington have been severely shaken by President Donald Trump. Who would have thought that one day there would be a president in the White House who consistently berated the British prime minister on telephone calls and did not know that the United Kingdom had nuclear weapons? The United States under Trump is also known to have used unusually heavy-handed and coercive behavior toward European allies on foreign policy. For instance, Washington tried to force Europeans to trigger the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action dispute mechanism last January, using the threat of tariffs on European cars.

In response to America’s diplomatic approach, U.K. Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace suggested in an interview that the United Kingdom should “diversify” its intelligence assets to alleviate its dependence on “American air cover and American intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets.” Britain’s nuclear deterrent and defense industry, too, rely heavily on American cooperation. If Joe Biden is elected president in November, NATO and the transatlantic relationship would certainly be reinvigorated — although problems in the alliance would remain. Nevertheless, this would allow London to continue to invest with confidence in this transatlantic relationship rather than in E.U. defense. But if Trump were to have a second term, it would be very risky indeed to continue betting on the “special relationship” with Washington.

Beyond Brexit: Strategic Doubt or Affirmation?

The United Kingdom’s strategic choices will be determined not only by Brexit and the identity of the U.S. president but also by the security threats the country is facing. The ongoing cross-government national security review will play a key role in determining the United Kingdom’s foreign and defense policy. Conducted by the National Security Council and chaired by the prime minister, the review is set to be the most ambitious since the end of the Cold War.

The review will have to address technological and other strategic developments that have emerged or intensified since the publication of the Strategic Defense and Security Review in 2015. The 2015 review, coming a year after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, marked the return of large, deployable military formations and expeditionary platforms. Both could respond to the threat from Russia and to the asymmetrical threat of terrorism. While these security challenges persist, current deliberations in London are assessing the impact of technological developments in AI and China’s assertive behavior. As a result, one of the questions to be addressed is the balance that the United Kingdom should strike between traditional military tasks and capabilities (which the British chief of the defense staff coined “sunset capabilities”) and a more disincarnated form of military power.

COVID-19 has delayed the review process — the integrated review document was originally planned to be completed by July 2020 and is now set for late fall. At the same time, the pandemic has accelerated some of the challenges that the review was set to address. Britain’s National Security Council suggested in early July 2020 that the pandemic had caused those working on the report to focus on intensified geopolitical competition, the effect of this competition on the ability to work with others on global issues, including health, and the security of international supply chains in strategic sectors. The United Kingdom is the first country in the West that can include a thorough strategic assessment of the changing balance of power (i.e., the rise of China) and of the effects of the pandemic on its defense policy. As such, it will be a useful exercise for its partners, too.

Indeed, the interlinked questions of China and technological dependency will be defining elements of any country’s strategic calculus. As a result of U.S. pressure and pushback from members of his own party — and in the context of Beijing’s imposition of national security legislation in Hong Kong and growing diplomatic assertiveness — the Johnson government recently changed its stance on 5G provider Huawei. The move has implications for Europe. When it comes to China and Huawei, European countries face the same strategic dilemmas as the United Kingdom. London could try to help reconcile European and American approaches to the security challenges posed by China.

The same is true for other partners of the United Kingdom, including members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence network (United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) and Japan, with which London is hoping to develop broader strategic links, including in critical minerals and medical supplies. The United Kingdom also appears to be leading the “D10” diplomatic initiative, a group of democracies that London suggested could include G7 participants plus Australia, India, and South Korea. Indeed, liberal democracies across the globe should work together to define the legislation and ethical norms framing AI and other technological developments.

Prioritizing foreign policy ambitions and addressing new strategic challenges will require significant investments in diplomacy, development, and defense budgets. On that note, the review is set to revisit military spending. In 2019, a parliamentary inquiry estimated that the United Kingdom would face a £14.8 billion ($19.1 billion) gap in defense spending between forecasted defense expenditure and planned budgets over the 2018 to 2028 period. The problem of tight defense budgets is far from new in London. However, the pandemic is likely to make things much worse. Britain’s GDP fell by 2.2 percent over the first quarter of 2020. This is only slightly more than the 2.1 percent GDP loss in the fourth quarter of 2008 during the financial crisis, which was then followed a 14.7 percent decrease in defense spending between 2009 and 2014. Moreover, if no trade deal is reached with the European Union by this autumn, the economic impact of Brexit will exacerbate the problem.

Looking Ahead

While London’s current refusal to engage in negotiations with Brussels on defense and foreign policy is unsettling, cooperation with the European Union is on track on matters of internal security. Beyond the European Union, bilateral or trilateral cooperation with European partners continue. All in all, whether the United Kingdom manages to broker a trade deal with the European Union before the end of the year will have bigger strategic implications than signing a third-country agreement to take part in the European Union’s defense framework.

New security challenges call for new security partnerships, and Brexit provides a paradoxical opportunity to think that through at a critical moment. For Britain, the European Union, and partners across the globe, collaboration with the United States on China policy, supply chain security in strategic sectors, and emerging technologies would pay dividends — even under a second Trump administration. London’s relations with Washington have been strained over the last four years, but ties between Brussels and the U.S. capital have been worse. In this pivotal year for British foreign policy, the United Kingdom should try to act as a bridge and avoid a widening of both the Channel and the Atlantic.



Alice Pannier is an assistant professor in international relations and European studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and an associate research fellow at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Airman 1st Class Erin R. Babis)