British strategy and defence policy face a number of challenges over the coming 12 months. Some of these require close cooperation with allies, notably devising a common response to an increasingly assertive Russia whilst also formulating a workable approach to the Syria conflict (and the problems associated with it such as migration) and handling unfinished business in Libya. This is quite enough in the inboxes of senior decision-makers on the National Security Council, who will be earnestly hoping that no further crises are added to the pile (a clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example, or North Korea going further than its past missile waving, let alone a clash in the international waters claimed by China). Two particularly pressing issues lie rather closer to home, one underway and the other only a possibility. The first involves taking forward the decisions announced in the Strategic Defence and Security Review of last November. The second is dealing with what could be a huge strategic shock (albeit not an unforeseeable one) in the form of Britain deciding to leave the European Union.
For understandable reasons, commentary on defence reviews tends to focus more on the initial announcements made in a blaze of publicity on its release rather than the more prosaic yet vital implementation stage that remains after the headlines have faded. It is here that some of the less appetising details emerge as small print is scrutinised, detailed plans devised to flesh out and implement the main announcements, and assumptions and reasoning are tested against reality – which can, unsportingly, change.
Reactions to the 2015 review were divided. On the one hand, the resources that the government chooses to devote to defence and security still do not seem fully commensurate either with its political aspirations or with the more dangerous and unstable world that the review described. The much hailed ‘2% of GDP’ target for spending was retained, albeit via some fairly startling accountancy gymnastics – not least the inclusion of several costs not previously counted as part of the defence budget. While these adjustments may well be permissible under NATO rules, adding them into previous British spending to provide a truly comparable figure further underlines how steep the reduction in spending has been over the past couple of decades. More fundamentally, the question remains of whether these resources are enough to fund the stated strategic ambitions of the government – which is where previous reviews fell apart, not least the initially welcomed 1998 Strategic Defence Review. Much of the vaunted new equipment is some time away from delivery, with several programmes slowed or delayed, with the resulting increase in cost; as so often with defence reviews, the jam is promised for tomorrow (or even later), while today offers something less appetising. Moreover, even this relatively modest budgetary settlement is by no means guaranteed, as the assumption of continued economic growth offers quite a hostage to fortune and the vicissitudes of the world economy.
Yet on the other hand, there were and are real grounds to be more positive, even if in a guarded fashion, along the lines of ‘it is a lot better than it could have been’. At the most basic level, this is arguably the first British defence review since the Second World War to display an increase in strategic ambition rather than a reduction. It can therefore be seen as a turning away from, if not yet a complete repudiation of, the declinist instinct that welcomes continuing contraction of Britain’s world role. In terms of resources, despite the chicanery involved, retaining the 2% pledge with some modest increases to come provides a solid basis to move forward and is a stark contrast to some (expectation managing?) rumours before the review. In a refreshing change, this financial settlement was set during the early stages of the review rather than at its end, thus avoiding the wearyingly familiar ‘knife fight in a phone booth’ that has consumed the single Services right to the end of previous reviews, and permitting a more thoughtful and constructive approach. Looking forward, while there is still pressure on budget holders to save money, they have the incentive of knowing that these savings can be reinvested where they choose rather than disappearing into the ever hungry maw of the Treasury. More broadly, in terms of structure and process, while the National Security Strategy that underpinned the review has been criticised as rather thin, it must be a step forward that the UK is considering all the broad aspects of its security in the round rather than in isolation and is making some progress in joining them up. Taking this further by strengthening the secretariat of the National Security Council might be an area to explore.
Whatever one’s conclusion on the review, producing a snapshot of the government’s vision for defence was the easy part. It has often been observed that formulating a strategy is easier than putting it into practice. One of the reasons that strategy is challenging is that the world does not remain static: difficult as it is to devise a British strategy – or rather a British contribution to an allied strategy – to deal with the various problems mentioned above, doing so will become all the more challenging should a strategic shock occur. A renewed crunch in the international economy could throw the ‘cup-half-full’ financial settlement into doubt, while it is usually a safe prediction that some entirely unpredicted crisis will emerge. Perhaps the biggest cloud on the horizon is a potential strategic game-changer that is all but in the diary, in the form of the possibility that the referendum on British membership in the European Union will result in a vote to leave.
The implications of this result would be enormous, albeit unpredictable in detail. Much would depend on the relationship between Britain and the rest of the EU that was negotiated in the aftermath of a decision to quit.
Such a decision would not necessarily indicate an inwardly-focussed ‘little Britain’ any more than a decision to remain would demonstrate support for the ‘little Europe’ tendency that can be perceived in parts of Whitehall as well as in some other European capitals. Britain would still seek to play a role on the global stage and would be as keen to retain a close partnership with allies in Europe as they would be keen to keep Britain involved. Continued free trade across the Channel and also some policy cooperation in a range of areas would be a mutual benefit. The atmosphere surrounding an exit could make this difficult, however. While economic rationality, let alone security considerations, would point to a positive settlement, this could well be trumped by irritation and resentment at the British departure – as well as by a desire to deter other member states from taking a similar step – resulting in a vindictive stance despite the costs. On the other hand, perhaps in the longer term, a decisive resolution of the ongoing question could be preferable to a Britain that is a reluctant member, always casting longing glances towards the exit.
Equally significant would be the impact of a British withdrawal on the two unions concerned. First, it would in all probability be followed by a new Scottish referendum on independence. While the collapse in the price of oil has made a complete nonsense of the economic blueprint of the Scottish National Party, such a referendum could well be swayed (like the one on the EU that would have triggered it) by the issues of the moment and sentiment, rather than cold economic rationality. It is likely that a British decision to leave the EU would be followed by a Scottish exit from the United Kingdom, with all the complications for defence policy that would ensue. Second, the implications for the European Union could be almost as problematic, and not only because the departure of the UK would see it lose a considerably greater proportion of its population and wealth than Scotland represents within the UK. The EU has not yet healed the self-inflicted wound of the Euro crisis, which alongside the flow of migrants from outside its common borders has exacerbated some of the long-standing (though usually glossed over) differences of national perspective among members. The UK’s departure would shift the Union’s balance of power away from the ‘northern’ block with its preference for economic openness and financial prudence, further deepening many of these tensions. A British exit would therefore cause considerable shock waves on the continent, well beyond the loss of a significant contributor to the EU budget.
This will therefore be a busy year for British strategy and defence policy makers. At best, they will be implementing a defence and security review against a backdrop of considerable international instability. At worst, they might need to undertake a fundamental rethink of the place in the world of a UK (or whatever it might be renamed) without Scotland and outside the comfort of the European Union. All of a sudden, the challenge of getting defence spending to add up to 2% of GDP might look easy in retrospect.
Image: HMS Victorious near Faslaxne, via flickr.