Global Insider: Britain’s New Security Council

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s newly formed coalition government has announced that it will create a National Security Council to manage all aspects of the country’s security. Richard Fontaine, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who served on the United States National Security Council staff from 2003-04, explains the significance of Britain’s newly formed NSC.

WPR: How will the new NSA/NSC impact Britain’s national security infrastructure and policymaking?

Richard Fontaine: In creating a new National Security Council, Prime Minster David Cameron is fulfilling a campaign pledge to integrate the work of Britain’s foreign, defense, energy, home and development departments at the highest levels of government.

How it will impact policy all depends on the prime minister. Should he choose it as the central vehicle through which the government makes foreign policy decisions, its deliberations will have great weight. But if he grows tired of the formal NSC structure, and tends toward more informal or restricted methods of receiving advice and making national security decisions, it will simply wither on the vine. The prime minister will ultimately get the NSC he wants, no matter what its organization looks like on paper.

The appointment of Sir Peter Ricketts — a vastly experienced senior diplomat — as the prime minister’s first national security adviser holds the potential for truly significant change in the way British foreign policy is developed. Sir Peter will not only have responsibility for coordinating policy among the ministries, but will also be empowered to go head-to-head with ministers to implement the prime minister’s foreign policy vision.

WPR: What new demands or past shortcomings does this change respond to?

Fontaine: The stated reason for the new council is to improve coordination. And while the NSC holds the potential to do just that, it is also true that Gordon Brown’s cabinet had a similar national security committee that coordinated policy. More importantly, for the first time the prime minister will have an explicitly designated representative to push his foreign policy agenda within the government. By chairing NSC meetings, providing a focal point for inter-ministry deliberations, and via his proximity to the prime miniser, the new national security adviser has extraordinary potential to shape British foreign policy.

WPR: What does it tell us about David Cameron’s approach to defense and security policy?

Fontaine: It suggests that the new prime minister wishes to put his personal stamp on British foreign policy and elevate its importance. In convening the NSC almost immediately after taking office, the prime minister sent a strong message — both to his government and the public — that he will personally preside over matters of state. He took other steps as well, including dispatching new Foreign Secretary William Hague to Washington in just his third day in office. From the perspective of No. 10, these are smart moves. The prime minister now has an individual, essentially of ministerial rank, who is responsible not just for coordination but also for implementing the prime minister’s agenda, free from ministerial interests. Two messages come through loud and clear: Foreign policy is important in the Cameron government and, commensurate with its importance, the prime minister himself will exercise control. In the uncharted territory of the Con-Lib coalition, these steps may well be defining ones for Britain’s foreign policy trajectory.