Britain’s New Strategic Outlook: The View from Washington
Given my long association with Britain, it is hard not to view the Johnson government’s new strategic vision through a personal lens. About 12 years ago, I arrived in London as a new graduate student at the famed War Studies Department at King’s College London, where I worked at a new research center focused on terrorism. Britain and other Western countries were fixated on terrorism and counter-insurgency. The surge in Afghanistan was just a few months away. About two years later, I left Britain. On my way out the door, the college hired the historian John Bew to be the center’s assistant director, and we struck up a friendship. I took a job with the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System and soon found myself assigned to support the British-led Task Force Helmand. I couldn’t escape the Brits, nor they me. I did my bit to contribute to the U.S.-led campaign for nine months then returned home. The next year, I came up with the idea for a podcast that later grew into the publication you’re reading right now. Our first three episodes, long since lost unfortunately, were all recorded in London. The third featured a conversation with Bew. We spoke about his then-new book, a biography of Lord Castlereagh, who served as war and foreign minister during a time of great change and played a key role in reshaping the European order — and, by extension, much of the world order — in the form of the Concert of Europe.
In the decade since, while remaining alert to terrorism, the United States no longer allows it to be the driving force of its foreign policy. Since the Obama administration — and with mixed success, to say the least — America has sought to re-orient itself away from the Middle East and rebalance its considerable resources to focus on a rising China and a disruptive Russia. As so many submissions to War on the Rocks and other outlets now describe, we live in an era of great-power competition, which would have been familiar to Castlereagh, as well as to the subject of a later book by Bew, the Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee.
Just under a decade after we recorded that podcast at a pub by Waterloo Bridge, Bew led the task force that produced Britain’s new formal expression of the role it intends to play in the world: Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.
I still host podcasts.
Weighing in at 114 pages, the strategy says many things (as these documents are wont to do), but most significant among them are a commitment to shaping an open and resilient international order that protects human freedoms, deeper engagement in the Indo-Pacific, a reinforced commitment to NATO and European security, and bold investments in science and technology. The Johnson government’s strategy has been much discussed, often in cynical terms. Given the prime minister’s prominent role in the bitter Brexit battle, many of his critics see the notion of a global Britain and the integrated review as little more than an extension of the Brexit fight and a fig leaf for its failures. More charitable assessments view it as clever but possibly unaffordable. Other observers, after reading the review and its companion document, the 74-page Defence in a Competitive Age, exclaim that these defense spending increases are not nearly enough to get the U.K. military both out of the red on its existing commitments and ready for the future of warfare.
Despite my fondness for Britain, I’ve been a strong critic of its foreign and defense policies in the past, to include Brexit and underinvesting in military and especially maritime power. Still, from my perch in Washington, I read the integrated review with much optimism. With these documents, Johnson has set Britain on the same strategic course as the United States. From China to NATO to military spending, the integrated review heralds a bilateral relationship closer than it has long been on the issues that both Washington and Westminster agree matter most. Indeed, reading the integrated review alongside the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, I am struck by how similar they are in their emphasis on democracy, reinforcing the international order, economic statecraft, climate change, the challenge of illicit finance, and the threats posed by authoritarianism generally and China in particular. It is certainly true that the integrated review ought not and, indeed, cannot be separated from the context of Brexit, but this incentivizes Britain to align more closely with U.S. security concerns, and so it has done. With Germany refusing to act as the great power that it is and France more focused on “strategic autonomy,” Washington should see Britain’s integrated review as a good signal that ought to be fostered and encouraged.
For Britain, the most dramatic shift concerns China. At a conference I attended years ago, a former senior British intelligence official noted that while the U.S.-U.K. intelligence-sharing relationship was second to none, the one portfolio to which it did not apply was China. Even then, well before great-power competition was the watchword of the Washington security establishment, Britain was seen as too mercantilist and therefore untrustworthy on China. It was just six years ago that then-Prime Minister David Cameron visited Beijing and called for a “golden era” in bilateral ties. Something has changed: The integrated review labels China a “systemic competitor,” and Britain has been out in front, standing up to Beijing over Hong Kong. The significance of this shift cannot be overstated, especially as it cuts to the core of the central challenge to America’s power and prosperity.
On the military spending front, the investments announced are considerable: 24 billion pounds (about $33 billion) more on defense over the next four years — a 14 percent increase. This is nothing to sneeze at, but the microdroplets are flying nonetheless. Part of this is an own goal by the Ministry of Defence. In the past, such U.K. defense strategies included detailed force structure investments, with numbers and estimated dates for when new assets (such as ships) would enter into the force. Such specifics are unfortunately absent from Defence in a Competitive Age. I have no explanation for the omission and I hope it will soon be rectified. But this does not change that fact that the increased spending announced by Johnson was considered politically impossible in the United Kingdom just a few years ago. And we do know that these investments will increase the size of the Royal Navy and fund critical advances in space power and cyber power, as well as a larger nuclear arsenal (although I think this latter issue has perhaps received a little more attention than it merits). Do I wish Britain would spend even more on defense? Absolutely, and I wish the same for all NATO members, but until European finance ministers think of themselves as treasurers and strategists rather than accountants and high priests of the church of austerity, this will not happen. Still, while the United Kingdom suffers from this same European problem on spending, it is outspending the rest of NATO on defense, aside from — of course — the United States.
So how should Washington respond to this situation, a middle power aligning itself more closely to America’s interests, aims, and vision than any other ally? As the former foreign minister and prime minister, Lord Palmerston famously said, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” But the more dramatic line came earlier in the same speech:
As to the romantic notion that nations or Governments are much or permanently influenced by friendships, and God knows what, why, I say that those who maintain those romantic notions, and apply the intercourse of individuals to the intercourse of nations, are indulging in a vain dream. The only thing which makes one Government follow the advice and yield to the counsels of another, is the hope of benefit to accrue from adopting it, or the fear of the consequences of opposing it.
It is easy to assume that the “special relationship” will last forever, can only deepen, and that closer alignment is thus only natural. But there is nothing inevitable about it. Yes, Britain needs the United States more than it did before because of Brexit. But that does not mean there is no gamble in this new vision for British power, aligned more closely with that of America’s at least since the end of the Cold War. And American policymakers should remember that even a closer alliance is not the same thing as obedience. Britain’s integrated review reflects British agency, just as any decisions it might make in the coming years that depart from or conflict with the American interest will do the same.
Johnson has transformed his country’s foreign policy toward China and is making real investments in Washington’s vision for the Indo-Pacific while standing far firmer against Russia than Germany and France, NATO’s other two major European powers. This is valuable and laudable. It ought to be encouraged and preserved, first in the specific context of the U.S.-U.K. alliance: Britain will continue along this path if it guards and advances its security, prosperity, and power. This means it is time for the Biden administration to leave behind any residual resentment toward the Conservatives and Johnson over Brexit and look to the future. Like many in Washington, I saw Brexit as foolish and disastrous. It brought out a great deal of ugliness and tension that is still playing out in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and elsewhere, but now that it has happened, Johnson used this moment to make one of the most important grand strategic shifts in modern British history. Washington would be wise to make this shift worth it for Britain, well beyond kind speeches and warm read-outs of calls between Johnson and President Joe Biden. This works both ways: The integrated review also gives the Biden administration something to hold Johnson to, especially on issues where the Conservative Party’s record is weak, such as its longstanding tolerance of Russian money sloshing around London. In the wake of harsher U.S. sanctions on Russia aimed at hitting the Kremlin where it hurts, now would be the time for the United Kingdom to tackle this “illicit finance” — a term that appears 12 times in Global Britain in a Competitive Age.
As for how the United States chooses to respond, it is not just Britain that is watching. This brings me to the more general context: Other countries will watch how Washington treats a middle power that is taking some risks to align itself even more closely with the United States when other allies and partners in Europe and Asia are hesitant. This gives the United States a chance to prove something that it often proclaims but does not always live by: An open, liberal, rules-based world order may have started as an American project, but it is embraced and supported by others because it provides global goods and even Washington is willing to be constrained by the rules that it sets. With China aiming toward the antithesis of an open world, the United States should be supportive of those efforts, though careful to allow people to make their own choices. Britain is not doing this simply to court the United States, but because it benefits Britain. If the United States can help set Britain up for success in this regard, it too stands to reap benefits around the world.
Ryan Evans is the founder and CEO of War on the Rocks.