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Retreat, Britannia?

5 March 2015

No foreign policy, mute diplomacy and a weak military, goes the mantra. In London, David Hayes tests the alarm


On a knife edge: prime minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street on 3 September last year after chairing an emergency meeting following the execution of a second US journalist by Islamist fighters in Iraq and the threat that a British hostage will be next. Justin Tallis/AFP Photo

On a knife edge: prime minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street on 3 September last year after chairing an emergency meeting following the execution of a second US journalist by Islamist fighters in Iraq and the threat that a British hostage will be next. Justin Tallis/AFP Photo

A year after becoming the United Kingdom’s thirteenth prime minister since the second world war, David Cameron was asked how the job had differed from his expectations. “The huge amount of time I’ve spent on foreign affairs, security, and terrorism,” was the gist of his reply. The long interview, on the eve of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, went on to focus almost entirely on those issues. It was implicit that all those hours, all that busy-ness, were self-evidently (in Cameron’s favourite word) important. After all, this is Britain: foreign policy is what we do, right?

Today, that enduring assumption is itself being questioned – and how! With a sudden intensity, a widespread perception has taken hold. Britain is in retreat from the world. It lacks a coherent strategic stance and clear priorities. Its illusive security outlook overburdens its meagre and ramshackle armed forces. Its ambitions and resources are growing ever more widely apart. Its cultivation of unsavoury allies is joined by a knack for alienating well-disposed ones. Its governing class, veering between have-it-all and let-it-be, has brought the country to irrelevance at best, perilous weakness at worst.

The targeting may be scattershot, the headlines a touch overdone, the prescriptions often vague. There is no consensus on what is to be done. But the dismay in much current policy analysis and media comment, much of it from establishment figures or outlets, is genuine.

For example, a Financial Times editorial – “Britain’s Drift to the Foreign Policy Sidelines,” published on 6 February – says that Britain needs to make “a realistic judgment about what kind of security player [it] aspires to be”; otherwise, it will continue “lurching from halfhearted engagement towards strategic irrelevance.”

The Economist – “Britain’s Strategic Ambition Has Shrivelled Even More Than Its Defence Budget,” on 14 February – is more sanguine, but still regrets “the country’s diminished appetite to be a leading security player on the world stage.”

The New Statesman – “The Long Shadow of Decline: Is Britain Bowing Out of the World Stage?,” on 26 February – echoes the concern. It suggests that “a mood of war fatigue, coupled with prolonged austerity, is leading to a marked and perhaps permanent decline in British influence,” reflected in the fact that David Cameron is “wholly absent as a significant actor on the world stage.”

If the discrete worries are not new, their coalescence and urgency is. The immediate reasons are twofold. The first is the rise of Islamic State, which in June 2014 expanded rapidly across northwest Iraq from its Syrian bases. Air strikes and Kurdish efforts have since stalled the main advance, but the group still holds most of the areas it has seized. Its example continues to inspire affiliates across a wide arc (for example Libya, Somalia, and Nigeria). Its absolutist ideology, skilfully parlayed by social media, has also attracted new recruits to its territory, among them young men and women from the West. British officials say that at least 600 have gone from the United Kingdom, most travelling more or less freely via Turkey. Several of IS’s gruesome snuff videos, including those in which two British aid workers were killed, feature a man speaking with a London accent now identified as a Kuwaiti-born former student in computing at the University of Westminster.

Britain’s security agencies are in overdrive in chasing the threat of returning jihadists and those radicalised here, as well as protecting targets abroad. The attacks in Paris and Copenhagen have concentrated many minds, though memories also remain fresh of the brutal murder of an off-duty soldier in south London in May 2013 by two British jihadists from Nigerian Christian families. A complex and many sided challenge is a good candidate for “the too difficult box” (a useful coinage of the former Labour minister Charles Clarke).In tackling it, only an optimal mix of strategy, resources and (above all) ideas is likely to prove effective. In Britain as elsewhere, that is still elusive.

The second reason for acute concern is the belligerence of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The annexation of Crimea, followed by pro-Russian militias’ seizure of swathes of eastern Ukraine, is the starkest example. A ceasefire agreed with Putin by two European Union heavyweights, Angela Merkel and François Hollande, proved shortlived, but was widely cited as illustrating Britain’s increasingly marginal and voiceless foreign policy stance. “Where is Cameron? He is clearly a bit-player. Nobody is taking any notice of him. He is a foreign-policy irrelevance,” was the caustic verdict of Richard Shirreff, an army general who until 2014 served as NATO’s deputy commander in Europe. Cameron’s subsequent deployment of seventy-five trainers to Ukraine’s beleaguered military has tended more to reinforce than dispel the impression.

The three Baltic states – like Ukraine, part of the former Soviet Union and containing large Russian minorities – now feel vulnerable. An incursion there would oblige Britain, under Article 5 of the NATO treaty that binds the alliance’s twenty-eight members, to act. Already, Britain has promised to commit 1000 troops and four Typhoon fighter jets to a new NATO force designed to support the Baltic states in an emergency. What it would be prepared to do in the likelier event of sustained “hybrid warfare” – the classic Soviet and now Putinesque blend of destruction and deceit, more insidious than overt attack – is uncertain.

Russia’s airforce and navy are also conducting regular unannounced forays close to UK territory to test its defences. Britain has had to scramble its Typhoons on eight occasions in the past year to intercept and escort Russian visitors. The provocation (Putin’s favourite word) may be mainly symbolic – though by switching off electronic signals, the Russians have risked collision with civilian planes – and the impact largely psychological. But in context, the conclusion that the “post–cold war” in Europe is indeed over, and a more insecure era begun, is unavoidable. “Russia has become a danger,” is the bald judgment of John Sawers, the former head of the intelligence service MI6.

These two transnational emergencies loom large, and Britain is far from alone in facing them. But its ability even to contribute to a shared effort, alongside all its other commitments, is diminishing. Defence spending has declined since 1981 from 8 per cent of gross national product, or GDP, to 2 per cent (by comparison, health spending in the same period is up from 7 to 12 per cent). The Royal United Services Institute analyst Malcolm Chalmers estimates that on current growth and spending projections, the headline figure could fall to 1.88 per cent in the financial year 2015–16.

Britain’s military has been repeatedly trimmed by a series of reforms impelled as much by a managerialist response to financial constraints as by strategic reassessment. The last strategic defence and security review, conducted in 2010, prepared the way for an 8 per cent cut in spending, which has become three times that in real terms. The size of the core army is approaching 80,000 – its smallest since the post-Napoleonic era of the 1820s – and may go even lower. There have been no maritime patrol aircraft since 2010, following the abandonment of the costly Nimrod program. This in a country with the thirteenth longest coastline in the world. In late November, the periscope of a suspected Russian submarine was glimpsed close to the Faslane base in western Scotland which hosts Britain’s nuclear-armed submarines; Aviation Week reports that Canada, France and the United States were requested to assist the search, and provided four maritime patrol aircraft of their own.

The inquests continue into the army’s performance in the attritional wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where 453 and 179 personnel died and thousands were injured. A vote in parliament in September 2014 allowed Britain to re-engage in Iraq by joining the United States–led aerial assault against Islamic State; it was exactly a year since the government had lost a motion endorsing such action against Damascus after the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians near the city. A degree of fanfare accompanied the later vote, though the sum of Britain’s reported contribution to “Operation Inherent Resolve” is a handful of bombing raids of indeterminate utility, along with the deployment of seventy special-forces personnel.

A scathing report by the House of Commons defence select committee, published on 16 February, says it is “shocked” by military chiefs’ “inability or unwillingness” to explain the United Kingdom’s objectives in Iraq, and “troubled by the lack of clarity over who owned the policy – and indeed whether such a policy existed.” The committee, headed by Rory Stewart – a Conservative romantic in the derring-do mould of The Thirty-Nine Steps who has worked in both Iraq and Afghanistan – concludes by warning against a “lurch from over-intervention to complete isolation.”

On the other side of the scale, two enormous aircraft carriers are being built to carry military jets that the country cannot afford to build and barely to purchase, in the service of an unreal policy of global power projection. (The ships are due to enter service in 2017 and 2020, at a projected cost of £6.2 billion.) The replacement of the Trident nuclear system will be even more pricey, though on a longer-term span. The policy of “continuous-at-sea deterrence,” operated by four Vanguard-class submarines based at Faslane in western Scotland, reaches the end of its service life in the 2020s. Estimates for the successor program go up to £36 billion, along with what the analyst Nick Ritchie calls “important conventional military opportunity costs.” Britain can still boast – if that’s the word – of being the fifth biggest military spender in the world, but resources without judgement and leadership can become a burden.

The contrast between questionable grandiosity and mundane practicality, with little realistic ambition in between, is striking. More relevant is the dysfunction of strategy: what is the present mix, or any mix, of military tools for? Where does cyberwarfare fit in, and how does it relate to the hard kinetic type? A phalanx of academic ex-officers is on the case. Jonathan Shaw, in his new booklet Britain in a Perilous World: The Strategic Defence and Security Review We Need, puts intellectual confusion at the heart of his diagnosis. (“All who work in Whitehall should be trained and educated in a common executive methodology.”) The next strategic defence and security review, beginning after the election on 7 May and due for completion before the end of 2015, will have its work cut out.

These military dilemmas are matched by diplomatic ones. Britain’s principal ties, with the European Union and the United States, are in neither case serene, though this is also a by-product of wider restlessness: Ukraine, Syria–Iraq and the Greek debt crisis are the tip of a piling diplomatic agenda, with equally grave issues in the next tier, from the packed boats breaking on Europe’s Mediterranean shores to climate change, corruption, cybersecurity and China.

Britain’s high diplomacy has long been a juggling act, with Europe, America and the Commonwealth the putative objects of its dexterity. A conceit rather than a doctrine, with Winston Churchill the inevitable progenitor (in another “hand of history“ flourish), this offered itself after 1945 as the most painless way of finessing the nation’s loss of status (and empire) while preserving the sense of options infinitely open – a vital consideration for a state whose imaginative kernel is absolute sovereignty.

Churchill’s notion of “concentric circles” with Britain as the pivot point – a native equivalent of Charles de Gaulle’s “certain idea of France” – has given sterling service over the decades. Much mocked but never replaced, it has suffered minimal damage even from great changes (Britain’s entry into the then European Economic Community in 1973) and fallouts (with Washington over its invasion of Grenada, with the Commonwealth over South Africa, both in the 1980s). In practice, the Commonwealth has receded from view, to become more a fixture in the summit, sporting or royal calendar than any sort of magnet. That shift left an ever-mutating argument over primacy, with Europeanist sentiment (marketeer in the early years, then centre-left, now pragmatic) vying with pro-American. The latter was by default mainly geopolitical during the cold war, but given an ideological gloss in the Reagan–Thatcher years, which several waves of “Anglosphere”-mania have tried to refurbish without much success.

The hard centre of the UK–US alliance – the “special relationship,” as by law it must be described in every article touching on the subject – is intelligence and security cooperation. This extends to the multilateral “Five Eyes” and subsidiary networks. The co-presence of Australia, Canada and New Zealand (and the reported shunning of Germany’s wish to join the gang) is suggestive of the civilisational assumptions that underlie such “deep state” programs. For Britain, the Washington–London dimension has a double bonus: as the last redoubt of a claim to shared glory, and a screen against boring old reality.

Matters of war and security ensure the future of that link, though little love remains. Britain’s credibility with Washington “rests on a knife-edge,” says Michael Graydon, former chief of the air staff, writing in the Financial Times on 1 March. “Informed sources on both sides of the Atlantic say so, yet ministers deny it. This is denial on a grand scale.” History and politics can still kindle the embers, just as Barack Obama’s domestic priorities and pivot to Asia have made for cooling. But in most ways Britain’s value to the United States is a subset of its membership of the European Union.

Like their counterparts on the American right, the libertarian-Anglosphere wing of the Conservatives and the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, dream of a global association of laissez-faire true believers – once Britain is free of the “Soviet-style” European Union. With its nostalgic echo of “imperial preference,” that fantasy has always made Churchill’s concentric circles look like reinforced concrete. The proposed free-trade agreement between the United States and the European Union (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP) has tipped into farce.

Membership of the European Union has become the main focus of Britain’s foreign policy. Its place in the union is underpinned by hard realities of trade, law, policy, migration and geography, if sometimes concealed by the routine abrasiveness of much of its political and media discourse about “Europe.”

But bonds can decay in ways that put unions in peril, as the near misses of Scottish independence and “Grexit” (Greece’s exit from the eurozone) have shown. A chain of factors has led Britain closer to a vote on withdrawal from the European Union. In particular, since 2010 the Europhobic and anti-immigrant UKIP has attracted many Tory defectors to its ranks (as well as Labour voters), propelling these two issues even higher up the political agenda. David Cameron, leading a coalition government with the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, responded to the threat in 2012 by promising to negotiate new terms of membership inside Europe that would entail some “repatriation” of powers or opt-outs from collective decisions, and then seek endorsement of the deal in a plebiscite (probably in 2017, though more recently 2016 has been mooted).

The artful dodge resembled that of the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson in 1975, who for similar reasons of political and party management initiated a referendum on the EEC following some cosmetic adjustments to Britain’s terms of entry two years earlier. The vote for “staying in” was 67 per cent. Cameron can only dream of such a clear victory; the corrosive effects of years of “Euroscepticism,” the associated failure to build a positive case for membership beyond bean-counting, and a thinning of the European project on the continent itself, all augur badly. (All too have close parallels in the battle for Scotland.) Even more relevant, many EU states – beset by their own problems, bruised by the Greek experience, and wearied by perennial John Bull-ish animosity – are not well disposed to accommodating a revised settlement with Britain (which all other twenty-seven member-states would have to ratify).

Indeed, clumsy official rhetoric and high-pitched media coverage of immigration and abuse of the welfare system have caused needless disputes with sympathetic partners such as Poland and Romania. Worse, the instinct to indulge distorted and evidence-light views in these areas grants the country’s regiment of isolationists – left and right versions increasingly melting into one – an unearned credence.

Inevitably, Cameron’s contrivance has prolonged uncertainty about Britain’s position in the European Union, which worries business and financial sectors without doing much to halt the UKIP tide (though that party’s own internal strains, including between respectability and prejudice, are shaping up well to do the job).

Where pettiness leads, “Brexit” – Britain’s exit from the European Union – is more likely to follow. To achieve that outcome, a contract will be needed between embittered nativists and the enlightened globalisers who dream of a Singapore-on-the-Thames. The ensuing civil war would not be pretty.

For all that, a revised status quo may yet – as with Scotland’s independence vote – have the edge over outright break-up. Anti-EU feeling is wide but shallow. The benefits of membership are real. A vote for withdrawal could well precipitate Scotland’s exit from the United Kingdom. And a strong case can be made that the EU grain is now closer to the “inter-governmentalism” favoured by Britain than to the “integrationism” of the union’s pioneers.

Moreover, Europe’s overall economic lassitude, the unending eurozone crisis, and the example of harsher populisms and leaderships on the continent (as in Hungary) have made Britain seem a bit less recalcitrant. A recent growth spurt is luring even more workers from Europe and beyond, creating a positive economic dynamic, if a regressive political one. A lasting recovery or another bubble? Much depends on what the answer turns out to be.

Britain’s uncertainty over Europe clearly owes much to immediate political circumstances. But in a long-term context it can also be seen as the latest phase of a “refusal to commit” to just one direction in foreign policy. The menu of the post-1945 banquet is ever full – a special relationship with Washington, a post-imperial world role (a reduced form of destiny, but destiny nonetheless), the “independent nuclear deterrent,” membership of the United Nations Security Council. All this, and Europe too. Churchill lives. In that 9/11 anniversary interview, David Cameron even offered an impromptu variation on the eternal theme: “We care about what happens in the world and we’re a global player.”

Given its inheritance, it’s arguable that Britain has handled its foreign and defence policy in these postwar decades pretty well. Old alliances have been kept, new ones built, enemies overcome or kept at bay, disasters survived, dark chapters smoothed over. The show has been kept on the road, even if much of the pain (as in the late colonial wars and the post-1989 ones) was kept hidden from public view and is still to be acknowledged. The state has been able to contain the gravest internal challenges – Irish Republican Army and jihadist bombs, Scottish nationalism – without fatal damage to its democracy.

What may underlie some of the present angst is that rival performers are putting Britain’s juggling act under exceptional strain. An asymmetrical and multipolar era is undermining traditional bases of power and creating new threats to those with the biggest stake in them. A new information and technology order is shredding the authority as well as the operating model of those who play by older rules of securing consent. In defence and diplomacy, even more than in business and journalism, these dilemmas have no easy answers, for they go to the heart of the state.

They also tend to be bypassed in agendas for reform, where officialdom’s trigger instinct is towards the politically and financially expedient. In the military area, this means amalgamating forces and outsourcing functions while aspiring to “do better with less.” (This is the guiding principle of the government’s reform of the civil service, which it claims has achieved both gains in efficiency and substantial savings.) The approach neatly avoids the implications of current transformations of power – for example, in assessing the actual strategic value of expensive long-term projects, and the role of the arms and equipment companies that service them.

While ministers dutifully chop, their retired predecessors and former military chiefs worry about governments’ blinkered motivation. (Michael Graydon describes the most recent strategic defence and security review, in 2010, as “another budget-driven exercise, which lacked intellectual rigour and did deep damage to Britain’s military power.”) A prominent demand is that the government pledges to maintain defence spending at a minimum of 2 per cent of GDP (as recommended by NATO, though Britain is one of only five out of twenty-eight members to meet the target), with advocates citing the promise that the overseas aid budget will continue to hit the 0.7 per cent of GDP recommended by the UN. Less explicit in the argument over figures is the concern that an ageing society of endemic indebtedness is shrinking an overstretched state’s capacity, or at least willingness, to meet its many security commitments.

In diplomacy, too, cost-conscious managerialism is the dominant approach to reform, eclipsing more fundamental issues of purpose, priorities and, not least, expertise. Property sales, staff reductions and ambassadorial twitter feeds are among the motifs of recent years. In 2014, Rory Stewart noted that only three of Britain’s fifteen ambassadors in the Arab world spoke Arabic, and called for “more emphasis on language, political reporting, and deep country knowledge.”

The Conservative foreign secretary William Hague, for all his underworked mien, sought new uses for the vast, deserted corridors of what is still the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, or FCO. He reopened the department’s library and language school, a welcome lurch towards seriousness continued by his successor, the lugubrious Philip Hammond, who in February launched a “diplomatic academy” designed to improve the “knowledge and skills” of FCO staff of all grades.

In the craving for relevance, “soft power” offers itself as a legal high. (The term is defined by its architect Joseph Nye as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion.”) It’s true that the United Kingdom has a lot of it, reaching mass and niche markets alike: the BBC, educational services, music and film stars, luxury and design brands, royals, soccer’s premier league with its mega-clubs and huge Asian fan base, English itself. The advantage to government is maximum credit on minimal direct investment.

But there are spots on this sun. Britain is not just living off its capital but running it down. A substantial decline in the teaching of foreign languages at all levels cascades throughout society to corrosive effect. (The fact that since the 1990s the country has become more diverse linguistically than at anytime in its history doesn’t alleviate the situation but makes it more troubling). The estimable BBC World Service’s progressive closure of radio language sections, for the most otiose cost-cutting reasons; the culling of area specialists and “lesser” languages by university departments; the closure of libraries and the mass liquidation of books; the narrowing of foreign coverage by newspapers and broadcasters (with honourable exceptions) – these are among the quieter signs of a broader psychological withdrawal from the world.

Very few of the anxieties about Britain’s foreign or defence policies (or lack thereof) seem likely to be debated in the grinding election campaign, at least beyond the ritual exchange of gaseous soundbites. All politics is now ultra-local. David Cameron is rigidly following the week-by-week “grid” of policy themes and high-profile announcements laid down by the hypnotist in Conservative central office, Lynton Crosby.  

The Labour leader Ed Miliband, marginally ahead in most polls, is even more reticent. After five years he has yet to make a single speech on Labour’s foreign policy plans, nor is he ever questioned on the matter. Cameron, who told the Economist a year before becoming prime minister that he regretted not having enough time to think about foreign affairs, at least is only acting parochial.

There’s no sign either that Britain’s place in the world will be uppermost in the minds of many voters. But relatively few seem to embrace a retreat. A Chatham House–YouGov survey among “the British public and opinion-formers,” published on 30 January, finds that overall “there is support for an ambitious British foreign policy and leadership role.” Over 60 per cent in both categories believe that Britain should aspire to be a “great power”; a majority of the public says that Britain has a responsibility to maintain international security, contribute troops to peacekeeping missions, and help lead the global response to climate change.

Today’s alarm may prove to be momentary, the flurry of warnings pass. But the underlying problems they identify are enduring. The crises in eastern Europe and Syria–Iraq will mutate, and others keep coming. The belief that Britain can escape their effects or turn its back on them is a grand illusion. In part this is because the country’s history, interests and demographics irrevocably connect it to the world, in part because the walls between foreign policy and domestic policy are continuing to erode.

These truths will have to be relearned in the coming years. How painful will the lesson be? The combination of international danger and zombie election makes it hard not to recall the closing words of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, published in 1938:

And then England – southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass this way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from seasickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage underneath you, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. The industrial towns were far away, a smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the earth’s surface. Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen – all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.

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