The Changing Nature of UK Power

In 1998, Zbigniew Brzezinski stated in his book The Grand Chessboard that:

Great Britain is not a geostrategic player.  It has fewer major options, it entertains no ambitious vision of Europe’s future, and its relative decline has also reduced its capacity to play the traditional role of European balancer. Its ambivalence regarding European unification and its attachment to a waning special relationship with America have made Great Britain increasingly irrelevant insofar as the major choices confronting Europe’s future are concerned.  London has largely dealt itself out of the European game.

Great Britain, to be sure, still remains important to America.  It continues to wield some degree of global influence through the Commonwealth, but it is neither a restless major power nor is it motivated by an ambitious vision.  It is America’s key supporter, a very loyal ally, a vital military base, and a close partner in critically important intelligence activities.  Its friendship needs to be nurtured, but its policies do not call for sustained attention.  It is a retired geostrategic player, resting on its splendid laurels, largely disengaged from the great European adventure in which France and Germany are the principal actors.[1]

Last week I was invited to attend a one-day workshop at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst to discuss UK Security in a Multipolar World.  It was my first time visiting Sandhurst, which lies on some spectacular grounds, and the group offered some fascinating discussions and, at times, some heated debates.  The following are a few thoughts that struck me about my visit and the discussions in general:

First, in terms of historical narrative, one gets the feeling that over the last 100 years, while some dynamics have changed dramatically, others have remained constant.  For example, the RMA smacks of UK establishment and power from the moment you enter the grounds.  Once inside the Old College building itself, this is even more impressive with the various gifts in various sideboards presented from all around the world to the RMAS.  There is still very much an old world feeling of empire and power to the place but this is exactly what has changed as Brzezinski so rightly pointed out.  The nature of UK power has altered and this too was the nature of the discussions and the proceedings throughout the workshop.

Second, we started with an excellent discussion on power and whether or not we a currently living in a multipolar world or if, in fact, we are still in the US dominated unipolar ‘moment’.  However some things have remained the same with regard to the specifics of UK military and security deployment.  Within the Old College there are many stain glass windows  commemorating soldiers lost or battles won by UK/Empire service personnel in wars long since past.  However, one window in particular was just as relevant today as it was in 1919.  This window was dedicated to soldiers who fought battles in Afghanistan, Waziristan and many other places surrounding the Pak-AF region.  So in some ways, nothing has changed in terms of where defence and security is being played out.

Third, these issues are of course related.  If the world is unipolar, moving towards multipolarity/nonpolarity, or has already arrived then the UK’s position vis-à-vis these poles must be in flux.  This is especially so in the UK’s case given its particularly close relationship to the US.  If the UK has indeed dealt itself out of the game, decided to merely back the main player in the game through thick and thin, then what implications does this have for the UK in a world that is not dominated by the US, or even in a world where the US is predominant but not always effective in areas that are vital to the UK’s national interest.  Furthermore, if the US really does move away from Europe towards the pacific region has it has indicated, pressure may build on the UK sooner rather than later.  It is stating the obvious, but if this is really the UK’s only real discernible strategy then the UK’s power hiatus is dependent and inextricably linked to the US’s continued predominance.  Where does a world with much less US relative strength leave the UK.  The one thing that gives the UK some time however, is that in the areas of defence and security, the US is still the lone unquestioned superpower.  Yet hard power seems to be less and less valuable with regard to the nature of the modern security challenges.

Fourth, if the UK continues to hedge its bets between Europe and the US, it may also find that its inability or refusal to become a strong and committed European partner means that it will become of much less utility to the US in years to come.  This uncommitted stance that the UK has pursued since joining the EC in 1973 may be approaching its final act.  Of course, with the current economic problems plaguing many if not most of the European member states as well as a (more than usual) divided Tory party on the benefits of European membership, achieving anything other than the status quo is probably a bridge too far.

Finally, in the current political and economic climate, any sensible debates on this issue are moribund.  Once again, the old arguments remain but events are evolving quickly.  The EU of today will not be the same as the one (if it survives this crisis) that exists in the future.  If the EU does get past its current difficulties that will only be as the result of more integration and an ever closer Union.  This though, will be an EU of which the UK will have an even deeper resentment and of which it may even decide it does not want to be a part.

So what does this mean for UK-European security cooperation?  Would a UK on the outside of the EU only take part in NATO operations?  Or would it, ironically, mirror a path equivalent to its economic relationship if it left the Union?  In other words, would the UK contribute forces to EU military missions while at the same time retaining no real decision making powers just as it would be eager to trade in the European Common Market but without any voting rights over the rules that govern that market.  Is a UK based on the Swiss model really viable and if it were what would be its defence and security relationship with the US?  If the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and the National Security Strategy are anything to go by, fence sitting and bet hedging are still the order of the day.

Your thoughts…

[1] Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy And Its Geostrategic Imperatives, Twelfth Impression. (Basic Books, 1998), 42–43.


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