Foreign Policy

Back to Reality: British Foreign Policy and Strategy in the Post-BREXIT Era


In recent months there have been two manifestations of a worrying trend that has been observable in British foreign policy making for nearly three decades now. The trend is a decaying of accountability for foreign policy making in the upper levels of government, combined with a policy making strategic culture that is almost anything but strategically minded, jargon rich, intellectually bereft of being able to discern between tactical, operational and strategic levels of activity, and syntactically chaotic to the point of being incomprehensible to those who are none of the above. The two manifestations are the Iraq Inquiry and the recent mini-me of inquiries, the Foreign Policy Committee report on Libya.

In both documents British strategic decisions were found to be at fault because the Government had followed other nations into war. In the case of the Iraq Inquiry volumes of testimony and guardedly worded findings implied that Tony Blair and the British Government had followed the United States lead into war. The expectation was, it appears, that America would know more and be more prepared for such actions than Britain. That such a reality might not have been the case, or indeed, that even if it was there no choice for Britain but to follow defies logic concerning the strategic realties of Team GB’s past 100 years of foreign policy: America has been the centre of Britain’s foreign policy world all that time, not always leading, but always the strongest influence. Following it was the strategic centre of gravity in the Iraq/Afghanistan war, as it had been since 1943. How could this be a failure then of strategy? Iraq and Afghanistan might have been operationally unsatisfactory conflicts, with tactical elements of success, but given the nature and the character of Britain’s strategic reality and culture following America into war is not a “lesson learned”. As for the Foreign Policy Committee’s report on Libya, declaring that David Cameroon “followed France” into military action, it is not clear from the report what coercion, allure or promises was used by the French to induce this followership activity. Such an unwillingness to be accountable for the UK’s own strategic interests, and the consequences of those realities, is a worrying condition of either the deliberate misappropriation of historical realities, or, a symptom of an unacceptable ignorance regarding power and its use by a state at the strategic level. Neither will be useful attributes by the UK’s policy making elite in the post-BREXIT age.

In both these cases the reflexive tendency to blame British “mistakes” on “following” implies a lack of independence of thought, or capacity for it, on the part of the nation. And it is there, in the organs of the state apparatus for thinking about and implementing strategy through policy that things go horribly wrong. The UK system appears to wish to put policy before strategy. Does one not have to have a strategy before you put your foreign policy, or defence policy, or healthcare policy, or transport policies in place? The role of the National Security Council has run afoul of this lethargic thinking, being neither policy making or strategic thinking. It appears from its limited operational existence to be advisor in a non-definite way, reactive not pro-active. Strategic thought is a continuous process, and so if there is no pre-thinking, reactive-thinking that is likely to have great utility is more a wish than a realistic expectation. And hope is definitely not a strategy. All of this is most worrying to think about as the state’s foreign policy making and strategic think apparatus gird their collective loins to meet the realities of a BREXITing Britain.

Strategic cultures are hard things to change. A product of generations of actions, promotions, reforms and personal prejudice and bias, of organisational malaise, of human nature’s natural desire to find security through the familiar because of fear of the unknown, the myriad inputs that go into a nation’s strategic culture are not easy to detect, let alone change. And yet, BREXIT most certainly will mean change. It is yet to be determined what Britain’s status will be in relation to many of its former “natural” relationships. Already the Australians have signalled that relying on shared history, language and culture is not going to automatically implied preferred trading status. Japan likewise, in a most un-Japanese fashion, has publically signalled Britain’s need to think carefully of its way forward if it is to expect economic relations to continue as they did before. Chasing China for greater investment and financial linkages will not endear Britain to any American Government, Trump or not. So has that strategic alliance, the centre-piece of a century’s worth of foreign policy making, no longer what it was? Will India care so much about stronger economic links with a Britain that is not in the single market? What are the principles upon which British foreign policy is to be based around: opportunism, economic recovery, isolation, liberal interventionism?

If one looks at a nation in the strategic position Great Britain now finds itself in, transitioning from a known position within the international order to a new, unknown position, an old, out of fashion concept can provide some utility as strategic thinkers and foreign policy makers attempt to find a way: Realpolitik. Used incorrectly throughout the last half of the 19th, and all of the 20th and first decades of the 21st centuries, to imply a selfish, nationalistic, superiority over collectivist approaches to national security thinking, the concept is worth reconsidering as a valuable analytical tool for Britain’s strategic thinkers. Too many years ago now to want to recall, I do remember a senior history honours seminar at the University of Saskatchewan, run by a Professor Ivo Lambi, on this very subject. Tracing the analysis of power and its relationship to the state from the classic Greek tradition through to the post-Enlightenment Europe, whose borrowing of those classics was the engine of their new progressive thinking about the human condition, Lambi postulated the inseparability of this philosophy-based, as opposed to politically-based, conceptualisation of the nature of the relationship between power and the state. If the UK is to deal more effectively with the new realities of its choices regarding the creation, utilization and maintenance of power, and not just military power, in the post-BREXIT age, perhaps now would be a good time to start recalibrating the strategic culture to the nature to thinking more philosophically and less politically, more Realpolitikly, about how and why it should wield power in international relations the way it does. After all, now that the nation has its sovereignty back, there can be no easy excuse that it was “lead” by anyone to do anything.

Image: John Kerry listens to Boris Johnson during a joint news conference in London, 19th July 2016, via wikimedia commons

The Significance of Suez 1956: A Reference Point and Turning Point?

This is the third in a series of posts drawn from an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Suez Crisis which the Defence Studies Department Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre hosted on November 7th, 2016. Recordings of the papers will be posted shortly to the Department soundcloud.


From a British perspective 60 years after the crisis, Suez has an almost iconic status, often used as a short hand for everything ‘wrong’ in foreign policy and decision making. It is said to be the moment when Britain’s status and reputation as a global power ended and with it a decline of British moral power and prestige, the ultimate exemplar of Albion’s perfidy. In this way ‘Suez’ evokes a specific response which intends to tap into a shared meaning that is still used today.

For example, in the context of the Brexit debate, Matthew Parris wrote in The Times on 15 0ctober: ‘As in a bad dream, I have the sensation of falling. We British are on our way to making the biggest screw-up since Suez and, somewhere deep down, the new governing class know it. We are heading for national humiliation, nobody’s in charge, and nobody knows what to do. This Brexit thing is out of control’.

In Britain and the Suez Crisis, the historian David Carlton argued that ‘No event in the post-war period has so divided the nation as the Suez crisis; in none has the government so adamantly obscured the truth, and there has been much controversy as to its effect on Britain’s standing in the world. In consequence, many will see 1956 as one of the turning points in Britain’s post-war history’.

In these ways then Suez is both a reference point and a turning point.


Background to the Suez Crisis

So what was the crisis about? What was at stake that produced what Enoch Powell later called ‘a national nervous breakdown’?

First of all, it was not about the Canal Zone or the Suez Canal Company and if it had been it could have been solved peacefully, through the UN. Instead it was a multi-crisis at the international, regional and state levels, and only Nasser’s removal would resolve the crises because he was perceived to be at the centre of them all.

But was it really mainly about prestige? We are used to arguments that suggest Britain’s interests in the Middle East and the maintenance of her informal empire was linked primarily to the control of important resources and the security of essential military facilities. Britain did not seek to retain its military presence in the Middle East to protect oil. In 1956 there were 16 plans for unilateral British action in the region. Fifteen plans were for national evacuation operations and only one was for a conventional war: to support Jordan against Israel. Neither did Britain seek to remain in Egypt because of the importance of her military facilities. This may have been the case in the Second World War and the early post-war period, but by 1956 the Suez base was considered to be of no military importance in peacetime. Yet the British still refused to meet Egyptian demands for evacuation because, significantly, they feared this would be seen as being forced out and, therefore, as damaging to their prestige and influence in the rest of the Middle East.

Traditional accounts of Britain and the causes of Suez highlight British defence of her longstanding interests and influence in the Middle East dating back to the 1870s to protect the vital trade and communications route through the Suez Canal to the remainder of the British Empire in the Far East. In these versions, the main threats to British influence were the lack of resolution to Arab-Israeli dispute, the rise of Arab nationalism and the threat of communism.

When Nasser became President of Egypt he seen as positive and treated as a client of the west and key to a number of British and American policies in the Middle East. For example, Egypt was central to Anglo-American Cold War strategy in the Middle East which aimed to create a Middle East defence organisation along the lines of NATO. For the United States this would act as a bulwark against Soviet penetration in the region. For Britain it would have the added advantage of formalising Britain’s bi-lateral arrangements in the region and become an umbrella collective defence organisation of existing British defence interests with Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. Britain and the United States also sought a resolution to the Arab-Israeli dispute, through plan ALPHA, essentially an early version of a land for peace deal: territorial compromises and an agreement to recognise borders.

But in 1953 American policy was re-evaluated. John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State toured the region and concluded that the British role in Middle East defence and Anglo-Egyptian relations hindered rather than served Western interests. He believed that the lack of settlement on the Suez Canal base undermined potential Arab unity and alignment with the west.

Nasser was increasingly perceived to be a threat to western interests. While the 1954 Anglo-Egyptian agreement gave Britain 20 months to withdraw their troops from the Canal zone and the right to reactivate the base if the freedom of the Canal was threatened by external powers seemed to indicate a resolution to the problem of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty, Nasser undermined the British sponsored Middle East defence organisation the Baghdad Pact, by pressuring Jordan not to join.

Nasser’s opposition to Israel threatened to renew the armed conflict in the Middle East. As a result his requests for military equipment from the west were refused. In July 1955 he turned instead to the Eastern bloc with an agreement with Czechoslovakia. Crucially, however, while there was western agreement that Nasser had to go, it was for very different reasons. For the United States it was because Nasser stood in the way of Middle Eastern unity in opposition to the USSR and Britain because Nasser was undermining Britain’s position in the region and the rest of the British empire. Opposition to Nasser’s policies led to Britain and the US withdrawing their promised finances of the Aswan High Dam in mid-July 1956. Nasser found an alternative source of income in his nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company on 26 July.

That evening when the news came in Eden was having dinner with the King and Prime Minister of Iraq and said Nasser had to go because he could not be allowed to ‘have his hand on our windpipe’ and ‘knock him off his perch’. But this was not going to happen quickly or decisively due to problems with military capabilities and readiness.

In private preparations were made for the use of force, including collusion with Israel and France for a pretext for the use of force which led to the Sevres Protocol on 22 October. In public, however, Britain pursued a diplomatic settlement thorough negotiation: a Maritime Conference of 22 Nations in August and the American sponsored Suez Canal Users’ Association in September.

The military operation ended abruptly when the UN called for a cease-fire on 2 November. The conflict led to a run on the pound and a sudden decline in Britain’s gold reserves. Although loans from the IMF would have eased the pressure, American backing for this was essential and so Britain had to bow to Washington’s demand for a ceasefire. The British had miscalculated, holding faulty perceptions of US policy: believed they would support or at least be indifferent, hoping at least for benign neutrality. Eisenhower summed up when he addressed the National Security Council on 1 November “How could we possibly support Britain and France and in doing so we lose the whole Arab world?”


Results of the Suez Crisis: a Turning Point?

The crisis led to a change to the regional balance of power for while the Egyptian air force destroyed, Nasser emerged as the only Arab leader capable of challenging the west. Israel gained for although did not depose Nasser, the UNEF guaranteed freedom of shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba and this gave Israel a Red Sea port. France applied her lessons when de Gaulle became President 18 months later with a European focus to French foreign policy. Part of de Gaulle’s veto British entry into the EEC can be explained by the Suez experience, not allowing Britain to be a Trojan horse of American interests. France withdrew from the military structure of NATO and refused to support American policy in Lebanon and Vietnam.

Globally it can be argued that the crisis formalised the dominance of the two superpowers and established a balance of power that remained effective until the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Some see Suez as confirmation that Britain was hopelessly overstretched, that if a global role was to be retained it would have to be subordinate to superpower interests. The limits of post-war British power were demonstrated and the further British decline as an imperial power in Middle East, Africa and South East Asia was presaged. Others look at the relationship between Suez and the British decision to join the EEC, as if that decision was a result of Britain acknowledging and adjusting to a new reality – where it had lost an empire and was seeking a new role.

Margaret Thatcher certainly saw Suez as both a turning point and reference point. She believed the impact of Suez on British policy making thereafter, a “Suez syndrome”, was negative: ‘having previously exaggerated our power, we now exaggerated our impotence’. And she drew on Suez to enhance her foreign policy achievements: “The significance of the Falklands War was enormous, both for Britain’s self-confidence and for our standing in the world. Since the Suez fiasco in 1956, British foreign policy had been one long retreat”. (The Downing Street Years).

It is also important to remember that at the time British policy assumptions remained the same. Britain still saw itself as a great power and still aimed to maintain global influence. And while Britain continued to exercise influence globally, on decisive issues it would do so only in close consultation with the US. In this way Britain continued to exercise its influence and remained active in the Middle East. British power may have diminished, but her interests remained the same. Britain remained concerned about Arab nationalism, communism and the Arab-Israeli dispute. Britain used military force in 1958 to intervene in support of Jordan and Kuwait in 1961, counterinsurgency campaigns were fought in Aden and Dhofar and Britain remained active and engaged even after the East Suez decision down to 1991 and beyond.

Whether or not Suez is a turning point or a reference point, it magnified British unpreparedness to undertake a limited war and the incoherency of British ends, ways and means. The fear that a failure to tackle Nasser would be disastrous for British prestige ended in disaster and ignominy. And in this way Antony Nutting was surely right to suggest that enduring significance of the crisis is its No End of a Lesson.

Image: Smoke rises from oil tanks beside the Suez Canal hit during the initial Anglo-French assault on Port Said, 5 November 1956, via the Imperial War Museum.

Gulf State Foreign Policies and Non-State Actors (part I)

This post is the second of a three-part series based on a panel titled ‘Middle Eastern Pragmatism and the Islamic State’ which took place at the Tenth Nordic Conference on Middle Eastern Studies Centre for Contemporary Middle East Studies 22-24 September 2016 at the University of Southern Denmark, Odense.

Dr David B Roberts

It is an axiomatic facet of modern international relations that all states engage on a daily basis with non-state actors (NSAs) of all varieties such is their ubiquity and variety in the contemporary world. NSAs can be broadly split into four categories. At the first level are the likes of grassroots organisations and local professional associations. The second level refers to formally established non-governmental organisations (NGOs), unions and the likes. The third level comprises a networked federations or committees, while the fourth level refers to the results of the official organisation of these federations into overarching umbrella organisations or forums (see Floridi, Sanc-Corella and Verdecchia). Accordingly, NSAs can range from local environmentally-focused groups to behemoths of international relations like the World Trade Organisation (WTO), terrorist groups, and Amnesty International.

It is crucial, therefore, before discussing at any length, state relations with NGOs, to narrow down the scope of enquiry. This post (and the second part of this piece, to be published at a later date on the blog) is concerned with issues related to the contemporary security situation in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. More specifically, it seeks to examine how Gulf States conduct their foreign policy to expand their influence throughout the MENA region and the role that NSAs play towards this overarching end. As such, the NSAs examined herein could often be equally accurately described as armed proxy forces engaged in one of the MENA region’s many on-going, smouldering conflicts. The goal of this post is to flesh out the reasons for and – perhaps more importantly – repercussions of Gulf State interaction with such NSAs/proxy forces in the MENA region; a particularly relevant issue given the grave security crises besetting key regional states like Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen and the role of NSAs therein.


The central argument put forth in this post is that there are two overarching reasons as to why Gulf States engage with NSAs in the wider MENA region: preference (dealt with here) and pragmatism (dealt with in ‘Part II’). The first of these reasons is, of course, relatively straightforward: like all states, the likes of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman – the states that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – support NSAs that they prefer and want to support. Religious, ideological, or straight-forward political affinity or alliance can be at the root of the support.

The Saudi Arabian state in particular supported the Afghan Mujahedeen in the 1980s against the Soviets partly motivated by a religious belief in the importance of supporting broadly like-minded allies in their struggles. More recently, in post-Gaddafi Libya, the UAE put its support behind the National Forces Alliance movement and groups based in the Nafuza Mountains. Here, the motivation was not religious but more political. In essence, the Emirati government sought in Libya – as elsewhere – to support groups that were quite explicitly not religiously motivated, strongly preferring to support those NSAs motivated by nationalist ideas. The same can be said for the UAE support of General Hiftar and his attempts to counter overtly Islamically motivated groups in Libya.

In another sense, ‘preference’ plays a role when a state choses to forge a foreign policy and needs to find allies in the international arena. During the latter half of the twentieth century, Kuwait was a highly active state in foreign affairs. It sought to utilise its wealth to create a large impact internationally. One method of doing this was assiduous support of the Palestinian cause, an example of a state supporting a quasi-non state actor where domestic Kuwaiti politics demanded, as it were, that the state be active in one of the central concerns of the MENA region, as I noted in my chapter ‘Kuwait’, in Power and Politics in the Persian Gulf Monarchies.

Qatar’s relations in the late-1990s and 2000s is a similar tale. Without being overly endowed with human capital or a history of foreign relations on which to build, the Qatari state used the resources that it did have to cultivate a foreign policy for a new era. Qatar’s financial reserves were, thus, heavily employed to sponsor a range of NSAs and proxy groups around the region from Hamas to those active in the Darfur conflict.

Utilising NSAs in this kind of instrumental way is not unusual and is, in fact, to be expected. All the Gulf States are relatively new entities, receiving independence relatively late into the 20th century. They are also relatively homogenous. There are a great number of shared cultural, historical, familial, tribal, and political dynamics. In an era when states are seeking to consolidate their own independent polities, such relative homogeneity presents a challenge. Moreover, not only does Islam provide some level of competition as a reference for citizens, but tribes span states, and the states also suffer from a relative lack of ancient fables and myths. In other words, the states have a relative lack of the basic building blocks of nationhood. As such, when it comes to the invention of tradition, a planned activity that all states go through, the Gulf States have had to become more creative and utilise whatever they can to differentiate their own states and to forge national identities. Forging a unique foreign policy is one method of creating a ‘difference’, as it were, between the states. Such a rationale can certainly be ascribed to Qatar’s foreign policy ventures in the 1990s and 2000s, when it was overtly seeking to forge a separate, unique independent for itself, and also, perhaps, for Kuwait in the 1970s, as I note in my work titled ‘Qatar™ and a Changing Conception of Security’.

Image: Gulf Cooperation Council Headquaters. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Soft Power and Hard Brexit


Much has been written about the British vote to leave the European Union and its wider implications. It is perhaps the UK’s most important strategic decision in a generation or more. However, concrete predictions and forecasts about the post-Brexit future are still confined to the realm of uncertainty and speculation. This is particularly true for the twin themes of British access to the EU’s single market and EU immigration into the UK, which will dominate the Brexit agenda for the foreseeable future. Yet, as a recent roundtable on the security and defence implications of Brexit at the Joint Services Command and Staff College has shown, uncertainty is also the dominant feature in less central areas. In short, even leading security and defence experts cannot be sure about what is going to happen in their areas of expertise. The future EU-UK relationship may not be as complex in security and defence matters as it is in the economic and commercial field. After all, European security and defence integration is not particularly deep, as I argued already before the referendum. But it is contingent upon uncontrollable factors in other areas. For instance, EU-UK cooperation in defence procurement is dependent upon the type of access the UK gains to the EU’s single market, as Prof Matthew Uttley pointed out during the roundtable. It may even be influenced by the way President Putin of Russia is able to exploit the post-Brexit situation, as Dr Tracey German warned during the same event. The good news is that none of the roundtable participants expected a worst case scenario for EU-UK relations in matters of security and defence, although such a scenario certainly remains a possibility. Prof Luis Simon emphasized that the UK will remain a major political and military power even outside the EU. And Prof Malcolm Chalmers highlighted that the UK will remain a member of NATO, Europe’s most important defence organization. A completely different question is, of course, if the EU or Britain will actually gain any security and defence benefits from Brexit. And there were few, if any, positive answers to this question.

It could be argued that the most likely – or as some would argue, the most desirable – outcome of Brexit is no or only very little change of the current state of affair of European security, at least in terms of hard power. Although Prof Uttley cautioned that there is the possibility that a weaker pound means that the UK can buy less military hardware abroad, especially in the United States, the capabilities and structure of the armed forces in both the UK and the remaining EU member states will be largely unaffected by Brexit. Other classical power attributes such as population, geopolitical location or GDP will also remain by and large the same after Brexit. Likewise, European nations will retain their power to coerce other actors on the world stage, in particular if the UK joins the other EU member states in coercive actions such as imposing sanctions. However, the roundtable at the Joint Services Command and Staff College drew the audience’s attention to another, perhaps even more important form of power, namely soft power or, citing its standard definition, ‘getting others to want the outcomes that you want’. According to Joe Nye, who coined the term at the beginning of the 1990s, ‘The soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority)’.

While British culture may change only very slowly after Brexit, it are the UK’s political values and foreign policies where Brexit may have its most immediate impact. In the eyes of other nations, leaving the European Union is a sign that the UK is going to be more inward-looking and less committed to advanced forms of international cooperation. Perhaps quite tellingly Theresa May is the first Home Secretary to move straight into 10 Downing Street since Lord Palmerston in the 19th century. What is also clear from the magnitude of the Brexit decision is that – paradoxically – the UK’s relation with the EU will be at the centre stage of British foreign policy for years to come. In other words, even though the UK may want to re-emphasize its traditional political values of an open, outward-looking power committed to international cooperation by re-enforcing its ties with the United Nations, the Commonwealth and other international institutions, the necessary resources to do so will be absorbed by the more pressing need to implement Brexit, especially if it takes the form of a ‘hard Brexit’ that will sever the ties between Britain and the UK in a more profound way. So, despite the difficulty to gauge the exact knock-on effects of these developments, it is very likely that in a world of growing political populism other nations may want to follow the British example to withdraw from international organizations and re-nationalize their foreign and security policies. This, however, would certainly not be in the long-term national interest of the United Kingdom, as it depends for its own security on an open international system based on cooperation. In fact, such developments would be an ironic – and tragic – effect of its soft power: getting others to want the outcomes that the UK does not want by following the UK’s lead. In short, although we will always have NATO, as the Brexiteers (rightly) highlight, it are the intangible, hard-to-predict factors that we have to watch out for in the long-term.

Image via public domain pictures.

Russia and the use of force


The first anniversary of Russia’s intervention in Syria has been marked by the collapse of talks between Russia and the US on a ceasefire agreement, and a fierce assault on Aleppo by the Russian-led coalition. In the year since Moscow first intervened in Syria, initiating airstrikes against Islamist targets, the conflict has broadened further, triggering a war of words between Russia and Turkey, and now between Russia and the US. The Russian military intervention in September 2015 took the West by surprise and bolstered Russian claims that it is a major power with a key role to play within the international system. It also drew attention to the apparent ineffectiveness of Western efforts to date, allowing the Russian leadership to launch implicit criticism of the West’s inaction. During a meeting with President Vladimir Putin earlier this year to discuss the Syrian operation, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserted that Russia has ‘consistently advocated establishing an intra-Syrian dialogue’ but had been disappointed by the lack of will of its ‘partners’, a situation that he believed had begun to change since the start of operations by the Russian Air Force. Thus, it would appear that a key lesson that Moscow has drawn from its involvement in Syria is that the use of force is an effective tool to utilise in pursuit of its strategic objectives.

Since Putin came to power in 2000, the Kremlin has demonstrated an increased willingness, and ability, to use the military lever to achieve broader strategic and foreign policy goals. Despite this, many in the West continue to be surprised by the primacy of hard power in Russian policy-making, particularly the use of force. The 1990s were a period of turmoil and change for Russia. Putin took power when the country was perceived to be at its weakest, both domestically and internationally, encapsulated by the disastrous first attempt to quell separatism in Chechnya in 1994. Russia was initially unable to convert its extensive (numerically at least) military capabilities into military and strategic success, and thousands of Russian troops proved unable to secure the tiny republic. One of Putin’s first priorities on taking power in 2000 was to halt the perceived decline of the Russian armed forces, which have undergone a comprehensive programme of reform and modernisation. The 2008 conflict with Georgia, the first Russian offensive operation against a foreign state since the end of the Cold War, demonstrated the renewed ability of the Russian armed forces to fight conventional wars, following years of conflict in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. The military action, an extension of policies that served to reinforce Russia’s coercive efforts in other post-Soviet states, also acted as a warning that Russia will not stand by and let countries in what it considers to be its ‘zone of privileged interest’ integrate more closely with Western organisations. Medvedev himself stated his belief that the events of 2008 were vital for Russia ‘for it to feel strong and not disintegrate—irrespective of how those events may be interpreted in other countries. This was important, first and foremost, for ourselves’. This reflects a determination to re-establish Russia’s authority as a strong state that is capable of influencing events within the global arena and pursuing an independent stance on international issues. The 2014 annexation of Crimea and increasing support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine were indicative of a far more confident Russia, one that is determined to counter the perceived expansion of Western involvement within its ‘sphere of influence’ to ensure that it remains the predominant power in the post-Soviet area, using force if necessary.

Moscow’s intervention in Syria, which began in September 2015, initially appeared to have been a significant foreign policy coup, ending Russia’s isolation from the West less than two years after its annexation of Crimea. Casting its mission as part of an international coalition against IS, Russia again took the West by surprise in March 2016, when Putin ordered the withdrawal of the bulk of Russian forces from Syria, announcing that they had achieved their objectives. The West seems powerless (or perhaps unwilling) to halt the bombardment of Aleppo, despite the large number of civilian casualties. This is perhaps partly because there is very little understanding of what Russia is seeking to achieve through its use of military force in Syria. Certainly, the 2015 National Security Strategy (NSS) made it clear that the Kremlin considers Russia to be a major power within the global system, one that has a key role to play ‘in tackling major international problems, the resolution of military conflicts, the maintenance of strategic stability and of leadership in international law and inter-state relations. Russia’s proactive and often ambiguous use of force (across the post-Soviet space and now the Middle East), has been related to a variety of issues, not least an attempt to counter the attraction of the EU, NATO and the West, with hard power tools of coercion and threats. Russian involvement in Syria has undoubtedly demonstrated that it is now able to project power beyond its own strategic ‘backyard’ and that it is determined to play a global role. Encouraged by its use of the military lever in Syria, Russia is likely to take an even more assertive line on the global stage over the coming year and will seek to boost its international influence by both hard and soft means.

Image: Unloading of anti-aircraft missile systems S-400 via wikimedia commons

EU Governance: Troubled internally and when used as a foreign policy

Dr Amir M Kamel

The foundation of the European Union (EU) is built on the belief that the pooling of natural resources creates a framework for interdependence, which in turn eliminates the potential for conflict. As I noted in my previous Defence-in-Depth piece The EU: A model for economic governance?, this ideal is rooted in Liberal economic thought which became a priority following the end of World War II. The Brussels based entity has succeeded in its goal of eliminating conflict between the European member states since its foundation, and has extrapolated this idea when dealing with foreign actors in the international system. However, there have been complications in this process which have led to a less than successful EU interdependence-based foreign policy in action.

Internally, the EU has been faced with barriers and issues surrounding the successful implementation of its foreign policy since the foundation of the supra-national organisation in 1951. These include barriers surrounding the over-bureaucratisation and politicisation of issues. Aside from these aspects, a further set of more nuanced issues have surfaced when the EU’s interdependence-based foreign policy has been implemented outside of the European continent.

In an article in International Affairs titled Trade and peace: the EU and Gaddafi’s final decade, I argue that the failure in the case of Libya was largely due to the fact that Brussels failed to take into account the environment in which it deployed its interdependence-based foreign policy. I also made corroborating arguments for a further two Middle Eastern state case studies in my book The Political Economy of EU Ties with Iraq and Iran. The key takeaway point from this research project has been that the EU faces a set of barriers when flexing its attempts at governance on an international scale.

These barriers vary from case to case and can broadly be put into two categories. First, each country in which the EU implements its interdependence-based foreign policy has a unique history, culture, context, set of internal, external and strategic interests which are in play. Such an amalgamation of characteristics makes for a complex environment in which to implement such a Liberal-orientated policy. This was particularly the case in Libya, Iraq and Iran.

Second, the economic interests of the actors involved evidently plays a predominant and in some cases, a usurping role when implementing the EU’s interdependence-based foreign policy. These actors can be in the guise of European leaders, policymakers, businesses, etc… and their counterparts in the country with which the EU is interacting with (in foreign policy terms). Empirically speaking, this has led to situations where economic incentives, such as demand for energy or a drive for profits in the private sector, have taken precedence over the political goals of limiting and eliminating the potential conflict.

Consequently, unless the factors in the first category are understood and then accounted for, and the factors in the second category overcome, the EU’s interdependence-based foreign policy will continue to face the same barriers to success.

Image: The European Quarter (aka Quartier Léopold) in Brussels, containing the headquarters of the different EU institutions. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.



Even before the release of the Chilcot Report on 6th July 2016 the reputation of Tony Blair was tarnished by the controversies surrounding Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War (2003-2009), his relationship with former President George W. Bush, and the flawed decision-making which took the UK into this conflict. One side-effect of Operation Telic is that it has contributed to the retrospective rehabilitation of another former Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, with particular reference to his reaction to the Vietnam War. Wilson is now praised for refusing to send British forces to fight in this conflict, and he has been held up as an example that Blair should have followed.

The comparisons between both conflicts and the leaders concerned are superficially attractive. Both involved Labour Prime Ministers who entered office comparatively young (in their late forties), on the back of electoral disaffection with a tired and discredited Conservative government, and both presented themselves as technocrats who were also down with the kids – Wilson gave the Beatles MBEs, Blair invited Noel Gallagher to No.10. Both faced a dilemma when a Texan President asked them to commit British troops to fight as part of a US-led alliance in a foreign conflict, and had to balance the strategic requirement to uphold the ‘special relationship’ with the political consequences of participating in a war condemned as illegitimate and unjust by a swathe of international opinion, not to mention the ranks of the Labour Party and a vocal anti-war movement.

At face value, Wilson made a significant – and, in the view of his latter-day defenders, brave – decision to refuse Lyndon Johnson’s requests for military support. The reality of the historical record is more complex.

Wilson was originally from the left of Labour, although by the time he became Prime Minister in October 1964 he had moved to the centre, and also selected a Shadow Cabinet from the ‘Atlanticist’ right of the party. During his first premiership (October 1964-June 1970) his two Chancellors (James Callaghan and Roy Jenkins), three Foreign Secretaries (Patrick Gordon-Walker, Michael Stewart and George Brown) and Defence Secretary (Denis Healey) were right-wingers who were firmly – if not uncritically – pro-American. Nonetheless Wilson preserved his links with the Labour left via Cabinet colleagues like Richard Crossman and Barbara Castle, and he was conscious that Vietnam was in issue which could fracture party unity. This became an increasingly greater problem as the war continued, and as the core of hard-left MPs were reinforced by more centrist colleagues who were appalled by the humanitarian suffering caused by the conflict, and feared that US escalation could provoke a disastrous war with China, and possibly the USSR too.

The Prime Minister was in a bind. The USA was not only Britain’s most important alliance partner, but was also providing financial assistance to prevent the devaluation of the pound. However, Wilson feared escalation, and also fretted over the fact that the conflict between the USA and North Vietnam undermined his efforts to promote improved Anglo-Soviet relations. Wilson did also share the humanitarian concerns of many Labour MPs over the war’s death toll, and had a genuine (if inflated) conviction that it was his role to play peacemaker. As a result, the Labour leader presented the Johnson administration with the following compromise.

Unlike Australia or New Zealand, Britain would not commit a contingent to fight in South Vietnam; officially because the UK was overstretched in the low-level war (or ‘confrontation’) with Indonesia over Borneo, and also because as co-chair of the 1954 Geneva Conference on Indochina it was obliged to promote a negotiated solution to the war in Vietnam. But unlike the French President Charles de Gaulle Wilson resisted appeals from Labour backbenchers to condemn US policy in Indochina, offering diplomatic backing for the American war effort, repeatedly declaring that Washington DC was fully justified in supporting the Saigon regime. In essence, British policy on Vietnam was to prove Johnson with all support short of troops.

The Chilcot hearings and the report show that in the run-up to the Iraq war of 2003 there was vociferous support – not just in Cabinet but also within the Chiefs of Staff (COS) and also the intelligence services – for a British contribution to Operation Iraqi Freedom. In contrast, Wilson’s compromise over Vietnam was essentially unchallenged in Whitehall. Although Cabinet colleagues like Stewart were prepared to publicly defend US policy, Cabinet Ministers, the Foreign Office, the Joint Intelligence Committee, the Ministry of Defence and the COS alike were  collectively unwilling to commit British soldiers to a fight with the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army. The British armed forces were after all already overstretched by their NATO commitments, and also the ‘confrontation’ in Borneo (1962-1966) and the fruitless counter-insurgency campaign in Aden and South Arabia (1962-1967).

So even if Cabinet colleagues (notably the ever resentful and occasionally well-lubricated Brown) and Foreign Office diplomats were critical of Wilson’s posturing over peace proposals, the policy of non-involvement was never contested. The UK did find discreet means of assisting the US war effort – soldiers from the British Special Air Service on secondment with their Australian and New Zealand counterparts apparently did see combat in South Vietnam – but the idea of even a token overt commitment to the conflict (the ‘platoon of Highlanders with bagpipes’, as LBJ put it) was never seriously mooted in Whitehall.

Wilson hoped that his compromise would satisfy LBJ and the Labour left. It did neither. Johnson and his officials were privately contemptuous of the British Prime Minister, and regarded his repeated engagement with peace initiatives with ill-concealed scorn. Responding to one request for a summit meeting, LBJ replied (with typical profanity) ‘[we] have got enough pollution around here already without Harold coming over with his fly open and his pecker hanging out, peeing all over me’. Meanwhile, Wilson himself faced a barrage of invective and fury from anti-war activists, backbench MPs and press critics which was as vitriolic as that which Blair received forty years later. In April 1965 the satirical journal Private Eye printed a front page cartoon by Gerald Scarfe showing Wilson applying his tongue to Johnson’s rear – an image which makes the more recent renditions of Blair as Bush’s lapdog look tame.  Wilson also faced public displays of hostility which at times descended into violence. After one visit to Cambridge in October 1967 the Prime Minister was mobbed in his car by protesters who called him a ‘right-wing bastard’ and a ‘Vietnam murderer’, and he had to be rescued by police.

Wilson received little if any contemporary praise for keeping British boys out of the Mekong Delta or the Central Highlands, or for trying to get the US and North Vietnamese to the conference table. Domestic opponents of the war saw him as a hypocrite who facilitated American imperialism and war crimes against a small and weak South-East Asian country. The US President and his inner circle for their part despised him, regarding him as a faithless ally who had failed to come to their aid. This sentiment was expressed by the habitually Anglophile Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, during the last months of Johnson’s presidency, when he shouted at one Times journalist ‘[when] the Russians invade Sussex, don’t expect us to come and help you!’

After Chilcot, and with the memory of 179 servicemen and women killed in Iraq, it is difficult to see how Blair could get the same revisionist reappraisal that Wilson received after his death. Nonetheless, any historian who has studied the Prime Minister depicted as the ‘Yorkshire Walter Mitty’ will find it ironic that Wilson is being presented as the model that Blair should have followed with respect to Anglo-American relations and the Iraq war. For in the eyes of his contemporary critics, Wilson was as discredited and as compromised over Vietnam as ‘Bush’s poodle’ is now.

Images: Harold Wilson at a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara  and  Tony Blair at the 50th Munich Security Conference, 31st January 2014; photograph taken by Marc Müller, both via wikimedia commons.

Iraq: not the first British disaster … and it’s unlikely to be the last


After seven years, the Chilcot inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war finally has been released. Its conclusions are an excoriating critique of the limitations in British strategy and policy in 2003. The inquiry has identified a raft of issues: that war was not the last resort and that alternatives to military action were not fully explored; that the public case for war was built on evidence that did not reflect the uncertain nature of the actual intelligence; that the government was woefully unprepared for the post-conflict context; and that, in the end, Britain failed to achieve its key objectives. There may be many consequences. The Chilcot inquiry may reflect, as Sir Martin Gilbert has hoped, ‘an important milestone in government willingness to confront contentious issues’; or it may result in, as Alex Salmond as called for, the beginning of a ‘political reckoning’ for those most associated publicly with Britain’s decision to go to war. But Phillipe Sands, QC, has noted that the inquiry’s crucial role should be to ensure that ‘lessons will be learned that will allow us to make sure it never happens again’. Lessons undoubtedly will be identified, but whether they make another Iraq debacle impossible is more doubtful.

The eminent repeatability of the events of 2003 is evident when one examines two overarching themes identified by the Chilcot enquiry that weave themselves throughout the detail of the government’s decision-making over Iraq. The first is internal in nature, and it concerned the government’s decision-making processes; the second is external, and it was the priority accorded in British calculations to the ‘special relationship’ with the United States.

In terms of government’s decision-making processes in 2003, Chilcot notes their informality and ad-hoc nature. Cabinet often was informed of decisions rather than debating them. The inquiry identifies, in consequence, that there needed to be a ‘collective discussion by a Cabinet Committee or a small group of ministers’ on a number of crucial issues, including the political and legal implications of recourse to military options, and the potential difficulties in the post-conflict situation. In future, Chilcot recommends the creation of ‘a more structured process’ to ‘probe and challenge’ government options. Indeed, in such structures as the National Security Council, Britain already has more refined security policy decision-making mechanisms than existed in 2003. But it is doubtful if such changes would effect any revolutionary improvement in the quality of British strategy-making. The challenge for the Blair government in 2003 was the operation of two pervasive policy influences: uncertainty and beliefs.

There is generally in international relations an enormous gap between what decision-makers actually know as objective fact and what they would need to know to make fully considered, rational decisions. Decision-makers fill this gap with beliefs: beliefs about what it is right to do; beliefs about what will work and what the outcomes will be. Chilcot identifies Blair’s belief that Saddam Hussein was ‘a monster’ and that his regime represented a threat. This was reinforced by a set of ‘ingrained beliefs’ in government that Saddam had Weapons of Mass Destruction and that he would continue to develop them. Blair needed to make policy decisions but faced such uncertainties as the qualified conclusions of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), and competing perspectives on the nature of the post-conflict context. Political crises typically short-circuit formal decision-making processes and reduce the size of decision-making groups. Facilitated by the nature of British political system, which accords great informal powers to the Prime Minister, Blair did what many British Prime Ministers before had done, and took the lead in driving foreign policy. From a 2003 perspective, he also had perceived successes in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and Afghanistan to support belief in his judgement. Blair has noted in his memoirs that in acting over Iraq he was doing what he believed was ‘right morally and strategically’. In conditions of uncertainty what is believed to make strategic sense often becomes a function of what a decision-maker believes that it is right to do. Tinkering with government decision-making processes cannot eliminate in the future the uncertainty problem; nor eliminate the psychological factors that have such an important bearing on crisis decision-making.

Shaping Blair’s belief in the necessity of action was the second theme: the influence of the United States on British policy considerations. The Chilcot report concludes that the UK’s relationship with the US was ‘a determining factor in the Government’s decisions over Iraq’. This influence is a long-standing theme in British foreign policy. But what the inquiry also illustrates is that, time and again, British influence over US decision-making was minimal. Britain’s shift towards involvement in the Iraq war was influenced powerfully by the Blair government’s belief, as Chilcot notes, that supporting the US over Iraq was necessary in order to sustain cooperation in other areas; and that the UK could best influence US policy towards Iraq ‘from the inside’. But generally, Blair’s government proved unable to exert a decisive influence on the US – indeed, the reverse was true: by prioritising relations with the US, British policy was forced by degrees into alignment with that of the US. As Chilcot illustrates, despite Blair’s post 9/11 commitment that the UK would stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the US, he was keen on reigning back the US focus on military options, preferring instead a gradualist approach that would maintain international support and that might at some point look towards regime change. Progressively, however, in attempting to reign the US back, the UK was instead simply dragged forwards. Blair’s long note of 28 July 2003 included the phrase ‘I will be with you, whatever’. This phrase was contained in a missive whose general thrust was a desire to slow the US’ moves to the military option; but it also expressed a general truth about the realities of the British position. The Chilcot inquiry notes that, in 2003, Britain should have adopted a more questioning attitude. But whether, especially post-Brexit, Britain would be in future be more willing to risk a rift in Anglo-American relations is a matter of debate.

The specific issues identified by the Chilcot inquiry are a devastating critique of the Blair government’s handling of the Iraq crisis in 2003. However, it would be unwise to assume that the roots of the problems identified are new or that in the future they won’t be open to repeat. The decision-making difficulties that manifested themselves in 2003 reflect pervasive problems in foreign-policy decision-making relating to uncertainty. Equally, the priority placed upon the ‘special relationship’, and the influence therefore on the UK of US policy priorities, is a long-standing theme that is likely to endure. These factors can generate great policy difficulties but they do not make failure inevitable. For a war fought on questionable legal foundations, for example, see Kosovo in 1999; or for policies driven forward by Prime Ministerial fiat, see the Falklands War in 1982. Blair has argued that his decisions over Iraq were taken ‘in good faith and what I believed to be the best interests of the country’. It is entirely possible that this is true; but, unlike in Kosovo and the Falklands, Blair’s great problem is that Britain lost.

Image: Jacques Chirac, George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi during the G8 Summit in Évian, June 2003, via wikimedia

Brexit and International Security: A Guide for Undecided Voters


The most recent polls for the referendum on Britain leaving the European Union suggest that neither the ‘Brexit’ nor the ‘Bremain’ camps have mustered the necessary support to win today. The still undecided voters will certainly play a crucial role. So, how should these voters take their decision? The most obvious approach is to gather as much impartial information as possible. Admittedly, in the present climate of the referendum campaign identifying such information is a challenging task. However, I argue in this blog post that academic scholarship can offer useful remedies. To be sure, academics have been accused of a clear Bremain bias. After all, a substantial number of academics have come out in favour of Britain staying in the EU. Universities UK, the umbrella organization for British universities, supports strongly the Bremain campaign and, according to The Independent, ‘vice chancellors from almost every major higher education institution in Britain say they are “gravely concerned” about a vote to leave’. At a recent workshop on the security implications of a potential Brexit, which I co-organized at King’s College London, it was difficult to find pro-Brexit security experts. None the less, academic scholars have demonstrated that they are capable of providing much needed, impartial information, as Anand Menon of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative has argued forcefully in a recent article for The Guardian. In a recent contribution to this blog, I have already refuted the arguments by both Brexit and Bremain supporters who have tried to use defence-related arguments in their campaigns.

In this contribution, I will go beyond the narrow focus on military defence. Using basic insights from International Relations theory, I will offer an impartial examination of British membership in the EU in the context of international security. From an International Relations perspective, the EU is basically a very advanced form of inter-state cooperation. And the classical International Relations theories tell us that states cooperate because it is in their national interest to do so. Historically, the main examples of international cooperation are alliances. You do not have to be a military genius to realize that it was easier to defeat Nazi Germany or to oppose the Soviet Union as a block of states rather than each country for itself. However, International Relations scholars also tell us that effective international cooperation always comes with a price tag. Especially for major players like the UK it is very difficult to ‘free-ride’ on the efforts of others. This is, if you will, the fundamental issue of this referendum: whereas the Brexit supporters believe that the price tag of EU cooperation is too hefty, Bremain supporters argue that the benefits of EU membership outweigh its costs.

But what do International Relations scholars consider to be ‘costs’? Too much focus in this regard has been on the misleading figures of the UK’s financial contributions to the EU. More important are costs in terms of national independence. In abstract terms, cooperation always entails some sort of compromise. In other words, if a nation state cooperates with other nation states its narrow national interests will be ‘compromised’ in one way or another. Let’s take an easy example: NATO and its leadership. The Alliance members have accepted that the Supreme Allied Commander Europe is always a US commander. This might be a small price to pay for America’s continuing commitment to NATO, but it is still a significant concession in terms of national military independence. Consequently, (neo) realist scholars believe that strong international cooperation only occurs – and should occur –in the rare instances when (minor) limits on national independence offer far superior benefits in terms of national interests. As the new head of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, Prof. Michael Rainsborough, argued in The Telegraph, ‘What remains permanent in Europe and the world are nation states that ultimately have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.’

There is no doubt that the EU encroaches on the UK’s national independence – every international organization of which the UK is a member does so in one way or another. In economic terms this encroachment is arguably more obvious than in the case international security. After all, in the realm of international security, the EU remains a largely intergovernmental organization, where decisions are still taken by consensus. Most notably, the EU does not infringe the right of the UK – or any other member state for that matter – to take fundamental national security decisions on their own, e.g. the decision to go to war with Iraq in 2003 or the decision about the renewal of Trident. However, research shows that it is also true that many security-relevant decisions in Europe are not taken anymore in the national capitals in isolation, but rather by national representatives in Brussels. Conceptually, this is called supranational intergovernmentalism. Another example where the UK has lost some of its security-relevant national independence is border control. Although Britain has never joined the Schengen Agreement and remains formally in control of its borders – hence the long queues at the border control posts at UK airports whenever we try to enter the country! – the border-free Schengen zone and the free movement of persons in the EU has certainly limited the UK’s ability to control its borders.

However, all these costs in terms of national independence also have clear benefits for the UK. First, EU membership reduces uncertainty. Although the EU might have its shortcomings, at least we know what we have. And this might be better for the UK’s national interests than going it alone in an increasingly turbulent world. As the saying goes, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. To be clear, nobody knows what will happen if the UK actually leaves the EU. There is certainly the possibility that the UK will be better off after the Brexit. But there is also a high risk that the UK will be worse off. As the historian Lawrence Freedman pointed out in a recent article for Survival, ‘Extracting the United Kingdom from the European Union is not going to make either body stronger or better able to cope with the current set of security challenges, whether from Russia or ISIS. It could leave both in a much weaker position. With so little clarity on what Brexit is intended to achieve, it is hard to think of a greater test of the law of unintended consequences’.

Second, international organizations such as the EU help to lower transaction costs, as (neo) liberal scholars have argued since the 1980s. What this means in practice will be all too familiar to those readers with small children. As the eminent International Relations scholar Stephen Walt explained in a blog post for Foreign Policy, ‘My kids might like to negotiate every single aspect of their lives, but who has time? And as with most norms, failures in the short-term are less important than success in the long run’. In other words, cooperation with like-minded countries in an institutionalized setting like the EU tends to be much more efficient in the long-term than negotiating new forms of cooperation from scratch, whenever the need for working with other nations arises.

Third, many of today’s major security issues are global in nature. Transnational crime, the proliferation of WMD, climate change, energy security or the rise of China are issues that affect in one way or another most nation states, including the UK. Likewise, the issues cannot be addressed effectively by individual nation states, even the most powerful ones. For instance, if the UK tackles climate change nationally, but China and other major actors continue with their greenhouse gas emissions, British policies will not have a major impact and the UK is still likely to face the consequences of climate change. In International Relations theory, these kind of challenges are known as collective action problems. And the only way to avoid these kind of problems are powerful international organizations such as the EU.

So, what does all this theorizing about security cooperation tell the undecided voters today? Clearly, they should not cast their vote based on an ill-defined gut-feeling but on a fundamental decision about what each individual voter values most: national independence, though without being able to reap fully the benefits of security cooperation with the EU and its member states; or the ability to shape collective responses to common problems, but with less national independence. The ideal solution – full sovereignty and full benefits from cooperation – is unfortunately simply a pipe dream. As all too often in life, we can’t have the cake and eat it too.

Image via pixabay.

The Impact of the Battle of Jutland on Economic Warfare

This is the third in a series of posts connected to a King’s College First World War Research Group and Corbett Centre Event to mark the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. 


Prof. Kennedy’s latest book, ‘Britain’s War at Sea, 1914-1918: The War They Thought and the War They Fought’ is now available. You can read more about it here.

Often the link between the outcome of campaigns or battles and the resulting changes to public or private perceptions; the changed nature of accessibility to critical air, sea or land domains; the subsequent inability to use military power in the same way thereafter; or, the ongoing ability to influence domestic and foreign opinion in a manner consistent with that practices prior to the combat, has gone unnoticed. Military historians have focused on the fighting; diplomatic historians on diplomatic activity; economic historians on economic factors. Rarely is any attempt made to analyse the strategic context existing at the time of battle, or to follow the ripples of tactical and operational success, or failure, through to their logical resting place amongst the strategic assessment process. Using the May 31st, 1916 Battle of Jutland, famous and infamous for its tactical indecision, questionable operational objectives, but strategic impact and enablement, we will A. show the complexity of the relationship between battle, diplomacy and strategic decision making, as well as B. reinforce the centrality of the oceanic domain to the overall war efforts of both the Allies and the Central Powers, one seeking to use it to create overwhelming power and the latter attempting to deny the Allies access to it for that purpose.

In January 1916 Anglo-American strategic relations were becoming more strained due to the increasing restrictions on American maritime commercial activity being imposed due to Britain’s blockade policy. Tighter and more extensive contraband lists, as well as an increasing number of American vessels being seized and detained for Prize Court proceedings in United Kingdom harbours, was whipping up a higher degree of anti-Britishness in the United States than had been seen since the beginning of the war. German propaganda and nominal gestures of conceding for American demands regarding attacks on merchant shipping and the contemplation of possible peace negotiations had moved the initiative as far as wooing American public opinion towards Germany for the moment. Forthcoming British replies to the American State Department rejection peace proposals and demands for a lessening of the blockade’s effectiveness would only exacerbate that condition. One of the very real dangers of a rift in Anglo-American relations was the fact that America could limit its sale of munitions to Great Britain in order to get the terms governing blockade policy changed in their favour. Such an embargo would have a crippling effect on the Allied war effort until alternative sources of munitioning could be established in Canada, Australia India, or Latin America. Sir Cecil Spring Rice, the British Ambassador to the United States hinted and insinuated to the American State Department throughout late January 1916 that they should prepared themselves for little movement by the British with regard to weakening blockade policy. While relations between the two nations did not fracture, or indeed impair the ability of the Allies to wage war, Germany retained a more favoured position within the American Congress and large swathes of the public in the spring of 1916. That governmental and public perception of Germany would change rapidly as the autumn of 1916 came to pass, and that change was a direct result of the Battle of Jutland. While Germany was held in good odour in the United States in the immediate aftermath of the great sea battle, the question of Germany’s desire and willingness to use unrestricted submarine warfare was an issue of concern to America. 

In early October 1916 the American Chargé at the Embassy in Berlin, Joseph Grew (future American Ambassador to Japan in the 1930s and at the time of the outbreak of the war in the Pacific) reported that Germany’s return to indiscriminate submarine warfare was a distinct possibility. The Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg, who was opposed to unrestricted submarine warfare, along with the Kaiser, and key senior Army officers such as Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg, continued to be able to dissuade the Reichstag from approving the unleashing of the submarine weapon, but it was thought that such a state of affairs would not last for long. The German Navy was seen to be readying itself physically for a renewed submarine offensive, with more material and resources being targeted at the construction of a greater number of such vessels. With Admiral Tripitz and other members of the naval staff agitating openly and covertly for a resumption of submarine operations it was thought not possible for many party members and leaders within the Reichstag to remain opposed to the renewal. By mid-October the conviction that submarine warfare ought to be carried out indiscriminately was gaining ground among the leading men of all parties and the great mass of the German people.

On October 13th German naval officers, heading by the commander of the High Seas Fleet, Admiral Scheer, presented the Emperor with a petition demanding the immediate resumption of submarine warfare without consideration for neutral rights as being the only way to win the war. The petition referred directly to the outcome of the Battle of Jutland for Germany’s strategic condition:

High sea battle may damage the enemy but would not force England to make peace as fleet could not overcome disadvantages of Germany’s military geographic situation and great [naval] preponderance of the enemy. Victory can be attained only by overcoming English economic life which means beginning of a submarine war against British commerce. To choose any weaker method would be in vain and I most urgently dissuade Your Majesty, as I did before, from the choice of this dubious form, not only because it does not correspond with the character of submarine weapons, but the endangering of the boats would not compensate for the profit to be obtained thereby. It would also be impossible in spite of the great conscientiousness of the commanders to avoid in England’ waters where American interests are lively such accidents as would humiliate us and which would force us to give in if we cannot hold through to the fullest extent.

More and more the realization of the Battle of Jutland signalling the end of any consideration of the use of the sea to progress German war aims in a conventional fashion was percolating throughout the German policy making system.

By November the “von Tripitz” policy, as the submarine solution was described by Grew, was frustrated still by the reluctance of the political apparatus to approve the use of full unrestricted warfare. The fear of embroiling the United States fully and openly on the side of the Allies was a major part of the opposition’s argument. And, while parts of the German Navy recognized this potential danger in escalating the situation thru such submarine actions, they believed the risk worth the investment, and that America would not engage in the war if enough effort was spent in either compensation or propaganda to put the blame for Germany’s need to take such measure squarely at Britain and her blockade’s feet. With the blockade beginning to be felt to a greater extent and through a wider range of parts of the economy, pressure to counter such effects were growing greater and greater in Germany. Denied access to the sea by the finality of the Jutland engagement, but requiring some means of exerting pressure onto the strategic lifelines that were the British Sea Lanes of Communication which ran throughout the world, Germany was left with no choice.

The Battle of Skagerrak forced the German strategic policy makers to have to return to the one thing that was assured to rekindle harsh German-American relations, and, by default, create closer Anglo-American strategic relations. To arrive at that decision took time, time that saw a strategic paralysis and dissonance within the German strategic planning elite. That disconnection and friction allowed the Allied blockade valuable time to tighten the economic blockade both at sea and in various markets, such as strategic metals. As well, the naval victory and resultant German debate over the return to submarine warfare was observed by the Americans. That German debate and resultant action worked to further influence the American strategic policy making elite into believing that Germany’s eventual ability to win the war could only revolve around actions detrimental to American strategic interests. Overall, therefore, the Battle of Jutland’s strategic ripples resulted in a great commonality and accommodation of strategic relations between Great Britain and the United States in areas related to the vital ground occupied by economic warfare.

Image: A steamer sinking after being torpedoed by a German U-boat, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.