Sunday UK Strategic Defence Review Blogging: Chapter 1

So, here goes with the first in my series of posts on the UK’s strategic defence review as a blog.

Here are what the MoD thinks are the major forces that will determine the political environment:

The National Security Strategy sets out the key threats to the UK’s security and the underlying drivers of those threats. It makes clear that while there is no external direct threat to the territorial integrity of the UK, there are a variety of evolving threats for which we must be prepared, and different environments and domains in which we must be prepared to act, from counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency to maritime security, cyber warfare and capacity-building in fragile states.

We believe five major trends will impact on the international context for defence in the coming decades. The rise of the Asia-Pacific region as a centre of global economic and political power will create a major global shift as dramatic as the end of the Cold War. Continuing globalisation will make the world ever more open and interlinked in communication, trade, culture and transport, and we must ensure that those lines of communication remain open if the UK is to prosper. We will see serious climate change, whose impact is likely to be most severe where it coincides with other stresses such as poverty, demographic growth and resource shortages. We are likely to see growing inequality in many parts of the world, as economic development creates new divisions within and between countries. Proliferation will remain a cause for concern. Several states continue to pursue nuclear programmes in contrevention of their NPT commitments. Terrorists will continue to seek to exploit nonconventional means including chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials, with wider access to advanced technologies increasing the risks.

The first point here is something of a theme in the document – we state the problems, but have already decided what the solutions are going to be. This actually comes up in the very first paragraph of the executive summary:

The UK economy relies on trade and the free passage of goods and services. A stable international order is essential to our interests and security.

In the medium-term, success in Afghanistan is critical to UK security.

The next decades will see the development of a number of major trends, including a shift of power to the Asia-Pacific region and climate change.

Of course, anyone who relies on an executive summary deserves to be executed, but it is far from clear to me that the second point (success in Afghanistan) follows from the first or leads to the second, however you define “success”. It’s certainly a major alliance commitment, but its criticality to UK security is debatable, especially in the light of trade, international order, or the rise of Asian powers.

Similarly, there’s a sort of reiteration of standard War on Terror tropes – we’re asked to be very worried about terrorists getting hold of weapons of mass destruction.

Going through that little list of horrors under trends, there’s an interesting point that is missing. The rise of new world powers is not a matter of debate, but what about the corollary? Arguably, the UK and France remain medium powers; but the big change is surely that the status of the US as sole superpower is on the way out. It’s not yet clear how much of this change is accounted for by Chinese or Indian success and how much by American decline, in so far as “decline” is a useful concept, nor how fast and how far it will go. But that it exists is indeniable.

Surely “Coping with US relative decline” ought to be high on the UK’s political to-do list?

After all:

International partnerships will remain essential to our security, both membership of multilateral organisations – like NATO, the EU and the UN – and bilateral relationships, especially with the US….Within this multilateral framework, the UK has a range of close bilateral security and defence relationships. None is more important than that with the United States. The relationship is based on common values and interests which will endure in the 21st century, to our mutual benefit. The UK benefits greatly from bilateral co-operation in the nuclear, intelligence, science, technology and equipment fields. Our relationship also increases our impact on issues such as terrorism, proliferation and transnational crime that affect our security but over which in today’s globalised world our national influence is limited.

As anyone who reads this blog will probably know, I reckon several of those points should carry the Wikipedian tag “citation needed”. A major theme of Chapter 1 is the importance of multilateralism and international institutions, not just the formal ones like the EU, UN, and NATO, but also informal international institutions like maritime trade and telecoms interconnection. This is not new in British politics – up to a point it’s an implementation of the so-called international society approach associated with thinkers like Hedley Bull and Martin Wight.

But a key problem here is what happens if the bilateral special relationship and the multilateral institutions conflict. Since the second world war, it’s been a central assumption of policy that there is no conflict – the US is supportive of the institutions, it benefits from them, and therefore there is no problem. Relax this constraint, however, and the compass starts to spin crazily. What if the US wants to tear up the UN Charter, split NATO, commit a gaggle of war crimes? And we have to relax the constraint – not only do we have the example of Iraq, but we admit that the role of the US is itself changing and its relative power declining.

The answer is surely that a major aim of policy is to maximise our ability to say “no”. Otherwise, either the institutions themselves break down or get used to drag at least some of the members along. Looking at Iraq, it’s worth remembering that it’s not enough to be small and pro-European; the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy all ended up contributing significant numbers of troops, but hardly enough to give them any meaningful influence over the Americans. (Hey, a full armoured division and most of the RAF wasn’t.) Alternative scenarios include the creation of new multilateral institutions (that we might not like), a revived UN based on a balance-of-power settlement, or a pre-1914 scenario with five or so similarly sized world powers competing.

To be fair, the drafters of Chapter 1 do seem to be aware that – as Bruce Sterling might say – whatever happens, things are going to get weird, or to put that in civil service prose:

It will be harder to predict which threats will emerge as the most significant, leading to a future international context characterised by uncertainty.

They also draw conclusions from that:

On the basis of experience in the United Kingdom and internationally, if we continue to search for a technological edge, including improved protection for our personnel, we can expect the cost of successive generations of equipment to continue to rise at above the rate of inflation

Am I right to read this as a call for general-purpose capability and the avoidance of expensive and hyper-specialised gear? A sort of Toyota strategy, perhaps not the best analogy to use right now. In fact, of course, the industries that have been best at doing what Toyota did recently are the ones that supply the UK armed forces. Chapter 1 also touches on that:

We will need to establish a better balance between operational output and supporting activity and between the quality and quantity of our major platforms.

To put it another way: enough with the cost overruns, and projects that spend £192m on PowerPoint presentations. This, of course, is much easier said than done and heavily reliant on the kind of people the MoD recruits to run its procurement operation.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Europe and the world by Alex Harrowell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Alex Harrowell

Alex Harrowell is a research analyst for a really large consulting firm on AI and semiconductors. His age is immaterial, especially as he can't be bothered to update this bio regularly. He's from Yorkshire, now an economic migrant in London. His specialist subjects are military history, Germany, the telecommunications industry, and networks of all kinds. He would like to point out that it's nothing personal. Writes the Yorkshire Ranter.

8 thoughts on “Sunday UK Strategic Defence Review Blogging: Chapter 1

  1. A very nice piece. I would just add that on the eve of the Great War, there were several nations that were in the same position of relative strength vis a vis the UK, as the UK, France and Germany are to the US.

    And in the outcome, whatever their contribution to fighting the war, their influence on strategy and even tactics was negligible.

    What they got out of helping to fight the war was not influence on how it was fought, but a seat at the table once it was won.

    To be cynical, the US’ allies in the Middle East are not in it to influence how the US fights wars, but to be present when the post-war settlement and its attendant economic opportunities comes to fruition.

    And this is nothing new. Napoleon didn’t take advice from his weird family, but he made then into minor Kings and Princes.

  2. “The answer is surely that a major aim of policy is to maximise our ability to say “no”. ”

    How could that be in jeopardy? And in particular whom do you wish to be able to say “no” to?
    As for the hypothetical of the US wanting to trash existing international organisations, is there any doubt it could do so if it really wanted to, irrespective of anything the UK might do?

  3. A strange piece. Declining US power in no way implies that the Americans will wish to rip up the liberal international order they have built. On the contrary, they will become keener than ever to maintain it. This article reads like something from 2003. The worry in 2010 – and doubtless 2020 – is not how to say “No” to America but rather how to maintain a liberal international order when the ascending powers are fundamentally illiberal.

    America will play a vital role in this. I suspect that complaints about American unilateralism will come to look rather quaint when China is throwing its weight around in 2025.

  4. Pingback: uberVU - social comments

  5. “As for the hypothetical of the US wanting to trash existing international organisations, is there any doubt it could do so if it really wanted to, irrespective of anything the UK might do?”

    I think that is spot on. If I understand British policy, it is not based on the delusion that they can prevent the US from doing anything it wants. Rather it is based on the argument that if the UK gives the US something it wants – political cover at the UN, for example – then in return the UK has “some” influence.

    The US can ignore any of its allies on any particular issue, but if it ended up alienating all of its allies, that would be a bad outcome for the US. I tend to assume that the US is run by people who are a bit more sane than the US yahoos who post xenophobic nonsense all over the net.

  6. So I can understand the fear that the ability to offer the US something it wants might be lost by underfunding.
    I can’t see how the UK could lose the ability to refuse the US by simply doing nothing.

    There certainly is a competition between independent capabilities and things the US may want, but how is that about a capability to say “no”?

  7. A strange piece. Declining US power in no way implies that the Americans will wish to rip up the liberal international order they have built. On the contrary, they will become keener than ever to maintain it.

    Recent history seems to be against your argument.

  8. Pingback: google « Alternate Seat of TYR

Comments are closed.