In a new publication released today by the British-based Henry Jackson Society, Bernard Jenkin MP and George Grant – supported, in part, by a foreword by a former defence minister, the Rt. Hon. Bob Ainsworth MP – argue that, after the Strategic Defence and Security Review of Autumn 2010, the United Kingdom has reached a strategic ‘tipping point’ and that the decisions taken over the next couple of years could decide the future position and status of the country as a major power, perhaps indefinitely.
I strongly agree with them that the United Kingdom should retain a strong military, geared towards overseas ‘power projection’. I also agree that peace is not the ‘natural state’ of either the global environment or mankind; rather, peace is a form of political order, which is always brought about and then underpinned by the dominant powers – in our case, since the end of the Second World War, the United States, the United Kingdom and France. As such, Britain needs a grid of overseas military stations and British military power must be able to turn up anywhere on the world’s surface at short notice and be able to engage in the highest and most sophisticated of combat operations. Thus, the Royal Navy needs two aircraft carriers and the fighter-bombers to fly off them, a large flotilla of surface combatants, as well as a fleet of cutting-edge nuclear attack submarines; the Royal Air Force needs technologically advanced aeroplanes, missiles and unmanned combat aircraft; and the British Army needs expeditionary ground troops to project force across the land. Maintaining this capability shows the world – friend and potential foe alike – that Britain is willing to work with its allies to maintain the peace and that any attempt to usurp the prevailing order will be met with overwhelming power.
However, the politico-strategic aspect of Jenkin and Grant’s approach seems confused – and even lacking. The problem is – in reality – that in a world where giant new powers are rising very fast, it does not matter whether London spends two, three, four or even eight percent of Britain’s gross national output on military forces. Other countries, with far larger populations and industrial capabilities, will always be able to spend more. Britain’s expenditure must therefore be calibrated as part of a wider effort, which includes the countries on which Britain is most economically dependent – i.e. the other Member States of the European Union – and the countries with which it shares similar values (again, the rest of the European Union, but also Norway, Iceland, the Commonwealth, Japan and the United States).
Now here’s the rub: it is almost certain that as a rising China contests American power in East Asia, Washington will be forced to withdraw more and more of its military and political assets from other areas of the world – like Europe, Africa and the Middle East – to bolster its Asian-Pacific military posture. Britain’s own history shows that London was forced to do something similar approximately a century ago: as Wilhelmite Germany rose in Central Europe and began to contest British maritime supremacy in the North Sea, Whitehall was forced into signing alliances with France and Japan to maintain a favourable balance in the Mediterranean and the Far East, while the Admiralty was forced into withdrawing warships from those regions to counter Germany’s rapidly-growing High Seas Fleet – which was only a day or so’s cruising from being able to bombard London and Britain’s eastern ports.
The point being that – contrary to the misty-eyed fantasies held among many of Britain’s conservatives about the ‘special relationship’ – the United Kingdom will matter less and less to the United States as the twenty-first century draws on. This will leave London in an increasingly vulnerable position, particularly given Britain’s reliance on American military technology and intelligence assets. The British government should therefore move quickly – as Daniel Korski argues – to clarify whether it intends to raise military spending in 2015, so that there can be no misunderstanding about Britain’s willingness to maintain expeditionary armed forces and an inter-continental geostrategic reach.
Yet increased spending will still not be enough to overcome the strategic ‘tipping point’: in the progressively more multipolar world of the twenty-first century, mass, size and power will again become important. Thus, London must also work – with France – to bolster the European geopolitical constellation on which both powers will increasingly depend. Indeed, had Jenkin and Grant thought more about how Britain could boost the comprehensive power of the European Union – which, with five-hundred million people and a third of the world’s wealth, does have mass, size and, potentially, the necessary power to deal with the rising giants as an equal – their arguments might have been somewhat more convincing.