So-called populists with lofty ambitions are often advised by the greatest historians of their times. Whether the historian’s sage advice is integrated during planning is another matter. Sometimes that gets complicated, and a pandemic sees the downfall of the populist. Mercifully, it appears that Boris Johnson has seen that particular threat off. Regardless, in his quest to put the Great back in front of Britain, he is aided by one of the finest historians of our times. John Bew, professor of history at the department of war studies at King’s College, and the former Henry Kissinger Chair at the Library of Congress, is the brain behind the Global Britain in a Competitive Age, an integrated review white paper charting British grand strategy for the coming turbulent decades.
The document is thorough in charting the threat scenario facing the isles. The aim of the United Kingdom is to remain a science and technology superpower, “remaining at least third in the world in relevant performance measures for scientific research and innovation, and having established a leading edge in critical areas such as artificial intelligence.” The United Kingdom is also changing to a points-based immigration system to invite the best and brightest. In addition, London aims to remain a maritime power and to be a global champion of free and “fair” trade. The addition of the word “fair” is arguably a hint to the United States that demonstrates British-American alignment on China—a theme noticeable throughout the document. The United Kingdom also reverses the decades-long drawdown in military spending and nuclear disarmament. “We will remain a nuclear-armed power with global reach and integrated military capabilities across all five operational domains. We will have a dynamic space program and will be one of the world’s leading democratic cyber powers. Our diplomacy will be underwritten by the credibility of our deterrent and our ability to project power.” In the document, China is considered a systemic enemy, but also a competitor with whom Britain must trade. Also, the paper considers Russia to be the biggest threat in Europe.
Britain’s nuclear stockpile is upgraded from 180 warheads to 260 warheads, making Britain the only nuclear power among the P5, to embark on a mission to increase nuclear offense capability. This is interesting in three ways. First, Britain’s platforms still only include London’s four nuclear submarines. Britain will also stop providing information about deployed warheads and will bring down the threshold for retaliation against massive cyber, biological or chemical attacks. Second, increasing the number of nuclear weapons changes nothing in reality, as the deterrence posture remains the same. So arguably it is purely rhetorical a move, aligned with the great power aspiration of the current Prime Minister. And three, the extra cost could have been better spent on corvettes or frigates or other surface fleets which will be needed, in the future, if Britain truly wants to pivot alongside the United States to the Indo-Pacific, or even provide escorts to its own carrier fleet for patrolling the Euro-Atlantic waters.
The naval strategy portion is the most baffling in the entire document as it does not reflect the otherwise realist and grounded aspirations behind the strategy. Britain understands that it is a middle power, and out of the European superstate, must drift towards her old Anglosphere allies, and side ever closer to the United States. That part follows a certain logic, debatable while it might be. It also reflects that Britain is only nominally pivoting to the Indo-Pacific while keeping the majority of the force posture in the Atlantic. Geography is part of destiny, and Britain is and will be a European power, and the European theatre will always be the primary focus. In fact, to relieve America of the burden of defending Europe, and to focus on China, Britain can help more by taking more security responsibility in Europe, alongside France. Why then focus on nuclear weapons? A buccaneering middle-sized naval power should have a dozen smaller surface fleet warships with long-distance anti-ship missiles and other submarine-hunting platforms. Such a fleet is vital, whether to provide security in its own backyard or to send flotillas across the globe supporting allies. London should not have more trident nuclear missiles which will still be dwarfed next to the Russian and American atomic arsenals.
Nevertheless, the document is superb. Diplomacy, as the saying goes, is the art of surviving till the next century. John Bew, in the classic tradition of Anglo-Irish realism, followed the footsteps of his forebears Wellington and Castlereagh. It shows that British grand-strategic thinking is still comparatively secretive and undemocratic, which means it is not susceptible to the maladies of either lobby groups and foreign interests, or volatile public opinion, that their cousins across the pond face. And it proves that realpolitik and hedging are still in British blood. Britain, after all, has still a lot to teach to the rest of the Anglosphere.
Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham.