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The UK must rediscover its strategic vision if it is to succeed as ‘Global Britain’ after Brexit


By James Rogers Director of the Global Britain Programme at The Henry Jackson Society
2018 marks the seventieth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Brussels, founding the short-lived Western Union Defence Organisation (WUDO). This move was undoubtedly one of the high points in British strategy during the post-war period, if not the twentieth century. It marked the genesis of the Atlantic order, secured in concrete form a year later when WUDO was folded into a new alliance: NATO.
The formation of this alliance ‘negated’ geopolitics on the western half of the European continent by ending the age-old security dilemma. It extended the awesome power of the Atlantic democracies – Britain, Canada and America – to ensure that Germany was kept down and Russia was kept out. This winning formula dissuaded internal challengers and deterred external threats. Peace in Europe has consequently been upheld for the past seventy years.
The formation of WUDO marked Britain at its finest: an ‘ordering power’ in Europe, ready to look ahead to provide the foundations for a more prosperous and peaceful future. Today, things look very different: the sands beneath the Atlantic order are starting to shift and the UK – divided and focused on Brexit – has become complacent.
Russia has become a menace, even a “strategic enemy”. Moscow looks eagerly at a divided and rudderless West. China is surging in Asia, extending its communication and transport systems around the coasts and across the interior of Eurasia. Beijing has a very different vision for the future of the world order and it will almost certainly seek to influence and shape Europe to its own advantage. And the US now seems to be slowly building-up to decisively rebalance its strategic posture to constrain the Chinese challenge in East and South-East Asia. Britons should never forget that America is as much a Pacific power as it is an Atlantic one.
Meanwhile, France and Germany, far from being the “dual motor” of the EU, are increasingly misaligned. Berlin has gradually extended its dominance from the economic to the strategic plane. As it has held down its own military spending, it has collared hold of the direction of EU security and defence, signified by the initiation of an EU “defence union” last autumn, with its Permanent Structured Cooperation (“PESCO”), Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (“CARD”) and “defence fund”.
As two noted strategic analysts – Julian Lindley-French and William Hopkinson – point out, for all the fanfare surrounding these EU initiatives, “such gestures in fact weaken European defence because it is more tinkering than it is proper strategic thinking, and thus demonstrates all too clearly that Europe’s elites do not really believe future war possible and so are not serious about investing in deterring it or preventing it.” In short: these measures are not really about enhancing European military effectiveness. What they are really for is to further European integration, under German leadership.
It is for this reason that after a long period of decline vis-à-vis Germany, President Macron is trying to reassert the power of France. Mr. Macron proposes a French-led “European Intervention Initiative” to encourage Europeans to acquire a shared strategic culture and the willingness to intervene in nearby trouble spots, especially on their southern flank.
Where, then, is Britain, which has done more than any other European country over the past seventy years to define the shape of continental geopolitics? Although, as the tectonic plates have started to shift, the UK has taken the lead in the development of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence and the Baltic-Nordic Joint Expeditionary Force, the country seems unable to lead or adapt. It supports the European Intervention Initiative and appears to want to participate in EU defence. It is flip-flopping all over the place with no strategic vision.
This failure means that others – whose intentions may be far from noble – are likely to try to take hold of European defence and reshape European geopolitics.
The way forward for the UK is not complex; it merely requires tweaking the existing structures and the geopolitical context. As most US presidents since the end of the Cold War have pointed out – President Trump most vocally – NATO currently suffers from an acute imbalance between those who produce security and those who consume it. The UK and US – as well as Estonia, Poland and Romania – are the producers. They all now meet the commitment to spend at least 2% of their national income on defence. France, Lithuania and Latvia have promised to meet their obligations over the next few years.
Countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy, however, remain self-absorbed consumers, even though they are considerably wealthier than their Eastern European allies, who have moved heaven and earth in a short time to meet their commitments. These shirkers have effectively “underfunded” NATO by almost half a trillion dollars over the past five years, money that they have reinvested – to add insult to injury – into improving their economic competitiveness or upholding their standard of living.
Given that all attempts to spread the burden within NATO have so far failed, the time has come for the alliance’s custodians to force change. The reason for this –
aside from the unfairness – is simple: in a global world, the defence of Europe is not confined to Europe. It depends increasingly on upholding the rules-based international system, not least as it comes under growing revisionist challenge and strain.
NATO’s shirkers should therefore be placed at a structural disadvantage, to incentivise them to change. As an “ordering power” in its own right, the UK needs to draw together its most capable allies, as well as those most willing to meet their burden-sharing commitments by 2025 to form a new group affiliated to NATO. This “European Defence Initiative” would almost certainly include France, but also Poland, Romania and the Baltic states.
This European Defence Initiative would become the top table for questions and issues surrounding European security and defence. Excluding the shirkers may just incentivise them to step up and pull their weight so that they too could become part of the UK-backed defence initiative. In exchange, not only would British military spending go up, but the UK would also pledge to come to any ally’s defence in the event of linear or non-linear attack.
While the exclusion of existing NATO allies (until they take their commitments seriously) may sound like a harsh proposal, it is increasingly necessary. A “Global Britain” will continue to depend on a stable and orderly continent. If the continent becomes more unstable, the UK will be forced to revert from its growing global focus and concentrate on its own neighbourhood.
Moreover, the military and industrial power of both the UK and US is, unfortunately, in relative decline: without European support, the West’s collective power will further falter, accelerating its decomposition and making it more vulnerable to wild and unruly regimes like Mr Putin’s in Russia.
So as the UK leaves the EU, the opportunity is there to tweak the structures and institutions of the Euro-Atlantic area, to ensure they remain ready and relevant for the new geopolitical age. Seventy years ago, the UK took the initiative to create a better Europe and a better world. There is no reason a “Global Britain” cannot do the same again, albeit for a new era and a new context.
James Rogers is Director of the Global Britain Programme at The Henry Jackson Society. His latest report is ‘Defending Europe: “Global Britain” and the Future of European Geopolitics’.
(Image © Crown Copyright 2014)


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