‘National Strategy’ is about making big decisions and the Prime Minister is set to launch a series of them. We are promised they will be big decisions –‘eye-popping’ said one insider. Some observers are suspicious that there will be too much ‘Brexit ideology’ behind them; others argue that they are long-overdue. Michael Clarke begins a series of commentaries as the various documents are unveiled.
It’s been a long time coming. Since the Brexit debate got serious in 2015, we have been waiting for some definitive statement about our strategic future as ‘Brexit Britain’. So, six years on, and facing up to the 2030s, we are about to find out what the government thinks now needs to change, and what should stay much the same.
This week’s Prime Ministerial statement to launch the strategic overview of the process, Global Britain in a Competitive Age, is only the first in a series of announcements the government will be making in the next couple of months. There will be much to comment on as different documents are published. So let us focus on the two most strategically significant themes in the first document and the Prime Minister’s statement about it to Parliament.
A More Effective Global Actor
One strategic theme is the intention that Britain should play a distinctively global role, as a good international partner, a problem-solver and a more effective actor on the world stage. As part of this, Britain is to invest in new technologies of all kinds, and particularly in AI, advanced computing and data fusion to give the British government the ability to be ‘effective’ by making smart decisions – to get ahead of the decision curve, to get inside any adversary’s ‘OODA loop’, to link hard and soft power more effectively. A new ‘Situation Centre’ has been constructed in the basements of the Cabinet Office at 70 Whitehall to bring together, in real time, all the relevant data on any issue from across the world and from every part of the government’s own machinery. After a decade of strategic drift and tragi-comic opera at the heart of government throughout the Brexit hiatus, Whitehall and No.10 are committing themselves to playing a high-tech, and much better, game in the future – at least as far as foreign policy and security are concerned.
But data fusion doesn’t guarantee good decisions, and taking a ‘whole of government’ approach to foreign and security policy is commendable, but in any case, no more than governments should aspire to do all the time. The fact is that acting ‘smartly’ across the whole of government is extremely difficult to do, and requires strong political commitment throughout the system on any particular issue to make it work. A whizzy Situation Centre is no magic wand, but it may provide the ‘necessary but not sufficient condition’ for a more coherent and agile approach to external policy as Britain seeks to ‘go global’ in some meaningful way. Britain aims to chart consistent lines of policy that other states can identify and support. There will be much to straighten out. To mention only the most recent examples; Britain’s performance in pursuit of its international legal obligations has been ambiguous, to say the least, and how the decision to cut foreign aid spending fits into any new conception of British global engagement remains incomprehensible to most analysts.
The ‘Tilt to the Indo-Pacific’
The other, and more eye-catching, strategic announcement is Britain’s ‘tilt to the Indo-Pacific’. There are some good arguments behind this idea. Around 90% of the growth in world trade up to the 2030s will be in the Asian economies. There are certainly more economic and security partnerships on offer as the world frets about increasingly assertive – in some cases downright aggressive – Chinese behaviour. Britain could establish or renew strong economic or security partnerships with countries such as India, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand. Britain seems already to be pushing for membership of the CPTPP that would link it more closely to North America and the Pacific economies. It will certainly associate itself – and could even join at some point – the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the US, Japan, Australia and India, that has been galvanised into action by China’s recent behaviour. Nor is it any secret that in June the Prime Minister will seek to persuade the G7 meeting he will be hosting to expand the group into a G10 by adding India, South Korea and Australia.
We will hear a lot more about this ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific when the Prime Minister visits India in a few month’s time, and it will certainly be a talking point when the aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, enters the more politically sensitive waters of the Pacific on the global tour it begins in April.
But the Prime Minister might do better to be boring rather than too excited about the impacts of this dynamic ‘tilt’ in the country’s overall national strategy. The document he is launching undoubtedly says all the usual – boring – things about Britain’s strong commitment to European defence and to NATO. But with the Royal Navy committing itself to a global role with its brand new aircraft carriers, and the Army and RAF being cut back further to make headroom for the introduction of new war-fighting technologies, our European and NATO allies might not believe that the ‘tilt’ can be achieved without diminishing Britain’s central commitment to the security of its own neighbourhood.
Britain can certainly play a role in the Indo-Pacific, but its core strategic interests will always lie in Europe, the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Stretching itself towards ‘new opportunities’ in the Indo-Pacific may diminish Britain’s role and its core competence in the Euro-Atlantic area – and at a time when Putin’s Russia is working hard to dominate Europe’s security agenda. This is certainly the way the Pentagon currently appears to see the issue. Britain and its European allies, the Americans feel, have more than enough to do in countering Russian revisionism for the time being.
Of course, with the US committed to containing China, British naval forces operating in the waters of the Pacific, or some cooperative basing arrangements with our ‘new partners’ there, would always be welcome. But it is very doubtful that they would be strategically significant. Whereas in the Euro Atlantic area, Britain’s contributions are, almost by definition, always of strategic significance. Being visible and welcome around the world is not the same as being strategically relevant. If Global Britain’s small forces and other security assets – transformational or not – overstretch themselves across the world, the danger is that they may become quite visible but nonetheless strategically irrelevant everywhere.
The Prime Minister will doubtless make much of the idea that Britain is now in a position to seek new and exciting opportunities around the world, and particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. He probably won’t want to say too much about the old boring facts, so often said before, regarding Britain’s solid and faithful contributions to the security of its own neighbourhood. These facts are boring precisely because they are, and always have been, fundamentally true.
Global Britain in a Competitive Age will be an exciting read for the policy nerds. Some of us hope that, in many significant respects, it will be a bit boring too.
Michael Clarke was the Director General of RUSI, 2007-15. He is the author of The Challenge of Defending Britain, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2018. He is the co-author of Tipping Point: Britain, Brexit and Security in the 2020s, London. I.B. Tauris, 2019; and Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, London, I.B. Tauris, November 2021, forthcoming.
Photograph: © Crown copyright. This photograph is public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0, available via the Ministry of Defence here.
 The OODA loop is the widely-quoted conception of US strategist John Boyd, representing the process in all decision-making system to Observe–Orientate–Decide–Act (OODA) and continuing to do so in a constant ‘loop’.
 The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership