Strategic Posture Review: United Kingdom

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Successive British governments have stressed strategic continuity, and there appears to be general political support for this among the electorate. But over the past 10 years, and particularly over the past two years, the U.K. has struggled to find the resources necessary to maintain the capabilities that would ensure strategic continuity. It has also found itself forced to reassess its position on a number of key international issues that determine how other powers respond to the U.K. as a global power. As a result, the United Kingdom’s position in the current international system is generally ambiguous.

When the Conservative-Liberal coalition government of Prime Minister David Cameron took office in May 2010, it immediately made clear that there would be “no strategic shrinkage” in the U.K.’s global engagement or, indeed, in its tangible presence around the world. The analysis of the incoming government mirrored that of its Labor predecessors under Gordon Brown and Tony Blair in arguing that the U.K. had inherently global interests and must therefore promote them by being a global strategic player. With just 1 percent of the world’s population, the U.K. nonetheless accounts for 4.4 percent of world trade and is the seventh-largest economy. It ranks in first place among OECD members, jointly with the United States, for inward investment, and invests some $50 billion of its own overseas. Around 5.5 million Britons, or 8 percent of U.K. citizens, live abroad, while the ethnic minority population of the U.K. is almost 5 million. The U.K. has traditionally had one of the top-five widest networks of diplomatic representation in the world, and, through the BBC, it possesses a respected information service that, until recently, was unique in global communications.

For all these reasons, the U.K. sees itself as an inherently global power and a major player in the politics of contemporary globalization. A global security and diplomatic role for the U.K., therefore, has been seen by policymakers as both desirable and inevitable.

Nevertheless, over the past few decades, the economic and international environment has been moving against U.K. interests. Having lost European influence to Germany with the end of the Cold War and German reunification after 1989 and to France with the enhanced integration of Europe after the European Union’s Maastricht Treaty of 1991, and with successive British governments fundamentally weakened by bitter internal debates over participation in the European project, U.K. security policy tended to revolve around the successive expeditionary military operations that characterized the post-Cold War period and beyond. The Gulf War of 1991 was swiftly followed by the enforcement of Iraqi no-fly zones for the next 12 years, muscular peacekeeping operations in Bosnia under U.N. and then NATO authority after 1992, a NATO-led air war against Serbia in the Kosovo crisis of 1999, an expedition to restore legal government in Sierra Leone in 2000, and then operations in Afghanistan from 2001 and the war in Iraq from 2003. Afghan operations were stepped up as part of a NATO initiative in 2006, and in 2011, though militarily stretched, the U.K. took a leading role in creating the coalition that unseated the regime of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.

Such operations, with all their successes and failures, have largely defined U.K. security policy for the past decade. But the approach to security they embody is now being questioned on grounds of both the cost to the U.K. and the security and national interests they are seen to promote.

In defense terms, a perfect storm was brewing by 2010. The annual defense budget was already clearly unaffordable in 2006, making clear the need for a defense review. For political reasons, this review could not take place until a future election, which was delayed until 2010. As a result, a defense “black hole” of unfunded projects began to grow, one that over the next decade could amount to anything between $10 billion and $60 billion. Not least, the financial crisis that began in the autumn of 2008 put the incoming government under intense pressure to reduce the public deficit, which had reached a debt burden of $267 billion by 2011. By the time it took office in May 2010, therefore, the Cameron government was faced with the need to make severe cuts to all ministries, not least to those dealing with defense, security and foreign affairs. Within five months, it had responded with cuts of $129 billion over four years in planned public expenditure.

Nevertheless, the new government stressed that, even within these constraints, there would be some reorientation in the U.K.’s pattern of diplomatic interests, with more emphasis placed on the Middle East, and particularly the Persian Gulf, and on diplomatic and commercial relations with South Asia and East Asia. This implied a relative downgrading of U.K. representation in parts of Europe and in Africa. The effectiveness of the U.K.’s external representation and its projection of power and influence would reside in a greater emphasis on the interdependence between “hard” and “soft” power. The goal was to maintain the essential elements of competent defense forces across a broad spectrum of military capabilities, but also making better use of the U.K.’s inherent soft power — diplomatic, aid and cultural assets — and increasing the integration between them.

The 2010 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defense and Security Review

In fall 2010, the incoming government assessed many dimensions of U.K. security policy in a series of urgent and overlapping reviews. The National Security Strategy, inherited from the previous government, was overhauled and made coincidental with the Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR). This coincided with a new National Risk Assessment and an updated CONTEST counterterrorism strategy. In addition, the entire array of strategic reviews had to be consistent with the keystone Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) of October 2010, which had become necessary to convince global financial markets that U.K. sovereign debt would be brought under control quickly.

Though predictions for public expenditure cuts in the security and external agencies had been dire, the CSR managed to soften the blow, with overall levels of expenditure within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defense escaping comparatively lightly. The Strategic Defense and Security Review reduced defense expenditure by 7.5 percent, as opposed to the 10-12 percent that had been expected and the 19 percent that other ministries were, on average, forced to cut back. Planned growth in expenditure on the Security Services — MI5 (domestic intelligence), MI6 (foreign intelligence) and the Government Communications Headquarters (signals intelligence) — was reduced but generally regarded by these organizations as sustainable for the future. Figures are classified, but it is generally believed that funding was only marginally cut from the intelligence agencies in 2010, following an overall increase in their budgets after 2005 on the order of 30 percent.

Working within these constraints, defense planners projected a force structure for 2020 that would retain as much military capability as was possible, though at smaller numbers, to maintain a “balanced” force structure across ground, air and maritime environments. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office reorganized and redirected a number of diplomatic posts with greater concentration on the Middle East and Asia, particularly in East Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The foreign aid budget was increased overall by the review, though 40 percent of it would henceforth be directed explicitly toward conflict resolution in a way that played directly to U.K. national interests.

Overall, the effect of the numerous reviews of fall 2010 was to emphasize a shift from hard to soft power resources. They also highlighted the need to devise strategies to prevent or head off significant crises; to make the most of the U.K.’s cultural, economic and trading strengths; and to integrate all instruments of government with greater efficiency into a more strategically sophisticated approach to world politics. The Cameron government was clearly determined to do as much as its predecessor in world politics but with fewer resources, which it would therefore have to use far more effectively. It was assumed that this shift would lay the foundation for more-expansive policy choices later in the decade. The immediate strategic concern behind all this thinking was to address the public expenditure deficit and thereby maintain Britain’s AAA credit rating, without which all other policy would become considerably more challenging, if not impossible.

This posture was the new government’s way of expressing the essential continuity of the U.K.’s desire to play a global role in the world. However, the “no strategic shrinkage” assertion made in a series of speeches during July and September 2010 by Foreign Secretary William Hague was met with a certain amount of skepticism by commentators. It was felt that the promotion of soft power assets, whether carefully integrated or not with hard power military and security capabilities, was a cover for cutting expenditure on defense and security. The approach, however, was put into practice during 2011 with a series of cuts and readjustments to the U.K.’s representation around the world, both in diplomatic posts and the redirection of some aid priorities.

Meanwhile, the SDSR imposed some significant planned shrinkage on U.K. military forces that began to curtail their ability to operate as extensively around the world as they previously had. In addition, it quickly became apparent that on the one hand, the cuts in the defense budget announced in the SDSR would have to be deeper after 2014 to meet the overall targets of the CSR, while on the other, the military force goals set out for 2020 would be nearly impossible to reach without extra spending or else much deeper cuts in service personnel to balance out the equipment acquisition program. The posture, which might be described as “readjusted continuity,” meant finding new ways of maintaining international reputation and an extended international presence. Nevertheless, it was immediately tested by a mismatch between what had been announced in 2010 and the financial trajectory that emerged in 2011. And it would be repeatedly tested by global events and trends that have become more evident in the past two years.

The Relationship with the United States

U.K. policy is increasingly based on an awareness that Britain’s relationship with the United States is changing. The United States is a continental power with an Atlantic and a Pacific front. During the Cold War, the U.K. could take for granted that the U.S. was a “Europe first” superpower, but with the demise of the Soviet Union and the evident onset of the “Asian century,” that assumption should now be reversed. The final phase of the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1995 was probably the last time the U.S. would be prepared to get significantly involved in any European crisis unless its own global interests were clearly threatened. Those global interests no longer involve competing with Russia in any meaningful European context.

For all its huffing and puffing, Moscow is in no position to threaten Western Europe, and though it might be an edgy neighbor for Europeans and a brooding power for those countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union, it is hard to imagine the United States putting itself on the line for a European crisis that involved present-day Russia. The difference between U.S. and European reactions to the Russia-Georgia War in 2008 — and the mutual recriminations that were traded, especially between Washington and Paris — made a significant impression on U.K. defense officials, as did the exasperation in the U.S. this year at the amount of military support the European NATO members needed to maintain a relatively limited air and maritime operation in Libya. U.K. policymakers have had to accept that trans-Atlantic security may still be a meaningful concept in general, but it is no longer “indivisible” when it comes to any particular European crisis.

The Obama administration reportedly takes a cooler and more instrumental view of Washington-London relations and is seen by U.K. officials as distinctly less interested in European security than most of its predecessors. The U.K. understands, therefore, that continuing to put great effort into acting chiefly as the “trans-Atlantic bridge” between America and Europe runs the risk of offering the U.S. an elegant structure it does not want to send much traffic across. At best, such a posture brings diminishing returns to the U.K. in its relationship with the United States, and even the most plausible European security crises are unlikely to revive its value.

At least in theory, the current government accepts that if the U.K. is to really make strategic common cause with the United States in a way that echoes the special relationship of the 20th century, it must somehow bring influence to bear on U.S. concerns in Asia, or at least help hold down Washington’s Asia-related concerns in the Persian Gulf. The strategic instinct in London may indicate that the relationship with the United States is still fundamental to U.K. security. But that instinct will now force the U.K. to redirect its gaze from west of the Suez toward some of the common interests that Washington and London share to the East.

The practicalities of achieving this, however, are troubling at a time when the country is becoming more introspective due to the impact of the global economic crisis. Policymakers know that if the U.K. is to make common cause effectively with the United States in some key strategic areas that genuinely matter to them both — for instance in regional stability in the Persian Gulf and South Asia, in nuclear nonproliferation, in a new strategic partnership with India and in pressing to keep global trade free and liberal, among others — it will have to play its high-value military cards when and where it can, but constantly back them up with even higher-value diplomacy, private enterprise and cultural entrepreneurship.

The problem is that, for all its aspirations to a more integrated approach that blends hard and soft power in subtle and effective ways, the British government is not well-structured to achieve this. Whitehall is good at coordination but far less adept at policy integration. Policymakers freely admit that such strategic congruence with the U.S. in other parts of the world is still in its infancy and has suffered from U.S. perceptions of the U.K.’s military abilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, though most are hopeful that it will be given greater substance in the coming decade.

New Security Partnerships

The previous government’s Green Paper on defense and security in the spring of 2010 spoke traditionally, and somewhat ponderously, of “NATO, the EU and the U.N.” as the U.K.’s key partnership frameworks. There was more than a little theology in such a formulation. The current government’s reorientation puts greater emphasis on more-flexible multinational arrangements and the promotion of some tangible new partnerships with countries that have normally been relegated to “rest of the world” status in previous strategy and defense reviews. India and Japan, in particular, are candidates for a new security relationship, and BAE Systems has been working hard in both countries to sell the Eurofighter Typhoon for their new-generation air forces.

Similarly, there is a greater awareness of the importance of Turkey in any arrangement for Middle East stability, as well as of the need to help create a greater sense of unity and stability among the Gulf states that are increasingly alarmed by Iran’s regional ambitions. There have been some recent signs of what this might look like in practice. The effective integration of Qatari combat aircraft into the allied command system for running the Libyan operation as well as the role of Qatari and United Arab Emirates special forces on the ground in Libya is seen as one of the key military gains of the operation for the U.K. The increasingly strong relationship between the U.K. and Qatar, which supplies the U.K. with liquefied natural gas to meet more than 20 percent of its gas demand, is fast becoming one of mutual dependency.

Much greater attention is likewise being paid to bilateral diplomacy with India, though for historical reasons the London-New Delhi relationship is delicate for both countries. Nevertheless, the potential for a much deeper trade relationship, the role of the wealthy Indian business community operating in the U.K., and the growth in the financial services industry all suggest that opportunities for better strategic relations between the two countries exist. Not least, the British military will have spent a decade-and-a-half in Afghanistan by the time combat forces are drawn down in 2015, and London has gained increasing leverage with Islamabad as a result of the recent steep decline in U.S.-Pakistan relations. The U.K. is keen to capitalize on its regional relations in South Asia even as it extricates itself from its Afghan commitment. Policymakers know that India and the U.K. have common interests in limiting Pakistan’s urge to control events in Afghanistan after 2015.

Above all, however, the strategic game-changer in the world is China, and to a lesser extent, China’s relationship with India. The U.K. has no special influence with Beijing and is unlikely to gain much in the future. Nevertheless, the U.K. sees itself as having a more strategic sense of how geopolitics in East Asia might play out than many of its European partners, who have taken a predominantly commerce-only approach to China. This U.K. instinct may create common cause with the United States in the Pacific and certainly promotes a new interest in Anglo-Japanese relations, though it remains to be seen whether the U.K. can make any tangible contribution to security in this region, even indirectly. So far, there are no plans to do so except through the better use of soft power assets.

European Defense and Security

The United Kingdom looks at current European security relations with something close to dismay, while continuing to encourage the growth of more-efficient defense capabilities within any available political frameworks, whether they be in the context of NATO, the European Union or bilateral and ad-hoc arrangements. London now generally regards the EU’s European Security and Defense Policy — and the various attempts to give it some substance through the Headline Force Goals and the EU Battle Groups Concept — as dead in the water, if not holed beneath the water line. The global economic crisis has called into question most of the premises of the EU’s Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties and has created a deep political and economic introspection within the EU. Though the fate of the EU is intrinsically important to the global economy and to the politics of many other countries, the EU has not been a vigorous international actor in world politics. Now, to further complicate matters, it is in a highly reactive mode and is not likely to emerge from that, certainly in defense and security terms, for some time.

The Blair government’s enthusiasm for a solid EU defense contribution foundered within three years of the St. Malo Agreement in 1998. It was not replicated by the Brown government, and certainly not by Cameron, notwithstanding the fact that the pro-European Liberal Democrats are part of his coalition. The U.K. sees the relative contributions that the EU and NATO can make to European and global security as probably more distinctive and separate now than at any time since the end of the Cold War. The EU’s potential role in contributing to long-term economic stabilization and governance for countries in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia remains impressive, at least in theory and when the political will exists. But London considers that the EU’s willingness and ability to provide a framework to project hard military power is likely to remain very low indeed in the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, at present NATO is not in obviously better shape to offer much more. NATO’s Afghan deployments have exhausted much of the alliance’s political capital with its member states’ publics. That campaign has increasingly hinged on bilateral and trilateral commitments among the key military players — the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands and Canada — rather than NATO as a unified command organization. The Libya campaign, by contrast, did rely on NATO command structures and would not have been possible without them. But the operation also cruelly exposed the political divisions in the alliance: Germany, Spain, Poland and Turkey, among others, explicitly opposed the operation at different times, while small Arab countries stood solidly behind it and made valuable contributions. As a result, London views NATO as having come out of the Libyan success with as many negatives as positives, and quite possibly in a weakened state overall.

The U.K. hopes to use the Libyan experience, however, to encourage its European NATO partners to commit to greater defense efforts. Currently, the U.K. is one of the few members of the alliance still planning to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense, even as the European NATO average drifts down to less than 1.7 percent. London is also convinced that NATO needs to look much harder at the provision of enabling capabilities to the front-line forces — namely, the logistic, intelligence and targeting facilities that the U.S. had to provide to its allies during the Libya operation — and wants to use the shock, and the success, of the Libya mission to galvanize new investments in these areas. Above all, the intervention signaled that U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy of “leading from behind” in Libya may become the norm that the U.K. and its European partners will have to accept and adjust to.

Under these circumstances, one strategy for the U.K. that recommends itself is to play up the Anglo-French alliance that was concluded in the fall of 2010 as part of the diplomacy surrounding the SDSR. On paper, it was a very ambitious bilateral alliance indeed, virtually harking back to the dramatic Anglo-French declarations of 1940. In reality, it was a top-down political device that the British armed forces knew little about beforehand and for which very scant pre-planning existed. Nevertheless, it has become a major plank of U.K. security policy in Europe for a number of reasons. The need for financial austerity has forced both Paris and London to pursue military cooperation to ease the burden on their defense budgets. Some pooling of resources in the maritime sphere is entirely logical, as is collaboration over targeting and surveillance technologies, though almost certainly not extending to national intelligence.

For their own reasons, both France and the U.K. now want to show Washington that their commitment to European defense goes beyond sterile arguments over whether it is best expressed through the institutions of NATO or those of the EU. They both understand that they need to keep the United States engaged in their conception of European security at a time of waning U.S. interest in this sphere. Not least, the Libya campaign has proved a useful catalyst, one that officials in London and Paris say has produced a step-change in military cooperation, particularly in the air and maritime environments. It is seen to be in the interests of both countries to seize the moment as one of the few existing opportunities for innovation in European defense matters. At some stage, Berlin will have to be added to the mix, but for now the U.K. is relatively content to put more effort into a promising bilateral military relationship in Europe between the two powers that have the most convincing military capacities. It is one of the few bright spots in the European defense picture.

Meanwhile, the U.K. views the crisis in the eurozone with increasing trepidation. In an immediate sense, a collapse of the euro would trigger a continental recession that could be catastrophic for a U.K. economy that is almost flatlining. But the survival of the euro, a more likely outcome, will only be achieved by greater integration among the most robust members of the eurozone and, possibly, by ditching some of the weaker of the club’s 17 members. Either way, a growing division of the EU into a rich North and a poor South is entirely plausible for the coming decade.

For the U.K., this poses some particular challenges. The return of insecurity to Europe — through political and social chaos in poor countries subject to severe austerity; migration pressures from South to North; the loss of stability in the Balkans; demagogic political movements; and acrimonious debates over a shrunken eurozone construction — would not pose any direct security threats to the U.K. But such pressures would raise afresh the question of the U.K.’s attitude to European security after 60 years during which it could take the internal stability of Western Europe for granted. Though the U.K. had a big interest in playing a key role to anchor East-West security for most of that time, it is not clear it will have the capacity, or the political interest, in trying to anchor North-South security for decades to come. As the euro crisis unfolds, such speculation is whispered in the corridors of power but not spoken of openly or officially — for the good reason that it is too early to tell, and for the bad reason that the logical outcomes are too alarming to contemplate.

Domestic Security

Terrorism remains a significant part of the landscape of U.K. security and has steadily grown in importance for successive governments since the London bombings of 2005 and the deployments to Helmand, Afghanistan, of 2006, which had the effect of focusing the activities of many homegrown jihadist terrorists in the U.K. The National Security Strategy of 2010 identifies national and international terrorism as a “tier 1” risk in the U.K.’s national risk assessment. Jihadist terror is still regarded as the most significant terror threat to the U.K., though the upsurge in Irish Republican dissident terror since 2010 is regarded as problematical, though not strategically significant. The directors of both MI5 and MI6, the two main Security Services, have gone on record in the past year about the constantly high threat level to the U.K. from jihadist groups. In particular, they have both highlighted the aspiration of such groups to develop terrorist capabilities featuring chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear elements. Meanwhile, the government has continued to review the CONTEST counterterrorism strategy that it inherited and has initiated a series of detailed reviews of counterterrorism legislation and existing powers. That process is ongoing.

Cybersecurity, however, has moved to near the top of the domestic security agenda in the past two years and features prominently in all national security and SDSR-related documents. Information and communications technology is accepted as a key part of the U.K.’s critical national infrastructure, alongside water, energy and transport, whose own operational systems also rely on cybersecurity. Within the European Union, the U.K. is regarded by the European Network and Information Security Agency as having sophisticated cyberdefenses and being reasonably well-prepared to cope with disruptions from cyberattack. This may be taken as a relative rather than an absolute judgment, however. Within the U.K., more than 200,000 malicious emails are received on government networks every month, and the Security Service estimates that at least 20 foreign intelligence agencies are operating against U.K. interests in cyberspace. The U.K. is currently ranked sixth behind the U.S., Brazil, India, China and Germany as world hotspots for malicious cyberactivity.

In response to this, the U.K.’s first Cyber Security Strategy, produced in 2009, has been enhanced considerably over the past year. An Office of Cyber Security has been created as well as a Cyber Security Operations Center at the GCHQ monitoring hub. A new government policy on cybersecurity for U.K. businesses is in the pipeline. It is impossible to know how much protection is enough in the cyber sphere, but at least at the conceptual level, the U.K. shows an intention to take the potential threat very seriously. Cyber capabilities, however, are not only regarded as threats to critical national infrastructure and private enterprise. They may also constitute important weapons that integrate hard and soft power in the way the government intends. The chief of the Defense Staff observed in November 2010 that the U.K. was devoting more energy to understanding and developing “weaponry” for cyberwarfare than in any other military area.

Energy Security

The United Kingdom has also given a high and renewed priority to energy security for the medium-term future, due to some obvious metrics in the U.K.’s own energy position. The U.K. will experience a substantial decline in indigenous generating capacity by 2020. Output from North Sea oil and gas is declining sharply, although they will still be important to the energy mix in the next decade. But by 2016, around one-third of coal-fired generation will be shut down, and most of the rest will be decommissioned by 2020 to comply with EU emission standards. All but one of the existing nuclear generators are scheduled to close by 2023. The U.K., therefore, faces sharply rising dependence on imported energy at a time of increasing competition for resources from fast-developing economies such as India and China. The threat of political blackmail through the withholding of energy supplies is also partly anticipated, given recent Russian behavior in its energy politics with its immediate neighbors. The Strategic Defense and Security Review explicitly lists energy security as a major driver of U.K. policy and, interestingly, adds to it the guarantee of supplies of key minerals, such as rare earth metals, for the needs of U.K. manufacturing.

The government, therefore, intends to increase the U.K.’s use of low-carbon technology and create a mix of technologies on the basis of a balanced investment portfolio in new energy sources. Presently, the U.K. generates only about 6 percent of its electricity from renewable sources and will need to generate 35 percent of its electricity — 15 percent of its total energy — from renewable sources by 2020 if it is to meet EU targets. New nuclear generating capacity is planned to be built without public subsidy, but there are many uncertainties regarding the political acceptability of such efforts. The government also believes that there is a long-term need for gas-fired energy generation that can be used as a reserve for unexpected outages and to supplement intermittent renewable energy supplies. However, this requires a considerable increase in storage facilities for largely imported supplies and further work on energy pipeline connections with foreign suppliers.

These vulnerabilities have two effects on the U.K.’s strategic posture. First, it gives the U.K. a strong incentive to push along the European Union’s energy strategy to exploit the full potential of energy savings, promote low-carbon economies, create a better internal market and improve cooperation both within the EU and outside it. This, however, assumes that the EU will continue to function reasonably well throughout a period of prolonged political and economic turbulence. Second, it increases the importance of energy security requirements, particularly during the potentially vulnerable period for the U.K. from 2015 to around 2025, before new capital investment in energy comes on-stream. This has forced military planners to consider the possibility that British forces may be deployed either directly for the protection of energy supplies, or indirectly to enhance security and reassurance in areas from which the U.K. is most dependent for supplies. It also suggests a greater willingness to provide military assets to areas such as the Persian Gulf and West Asia, in the event of any regional crises occasioned by Iranian policy, or even possibly to the “high north,” as global warming opens Arctic trade and maritime routes over the next 20 years. However, any such deployments during that 10-year period of energy vulnerability would be extremely challenging for the military as presently resourced.

Conclusion

The coalition government of 2010 began with a bullish statement of influence and continuity in its approach to U.K. security in the globalized world. Ministers are discovering, however, that they are approaching more decisive choices than usual as they try to give form to their ambitions. More than most of its Western partners, the U.K. is vulnerable to global strategic change. Not since the early 1930s has the country faced so wide a range of global developments that generate as much political uncertainty. From the late-1930s to the 1990s, it was not difficult to determine which developments in the world most threatened the country. That is no longer the case. It has been more than 75 years since British politicians had to confront a world that offered so little indication of what was strategically best for Britain.

Policymakers are aware that they are increasingly confronted by a “strategic moment” the likes of which the U.K. has not faced in three political generations. As in the 1930s, but now for the globalized 2010s and 2020s, British leaders have to second-guess how the United States will interpret its role in an emerging world order dominated by Asia. They have to define a new relationship to that role and pay some price in hard power to play it, at a time when they cannot take Europe’s stability for granted. And if Europe does become once again a dangerous neighborhood, or a safe neighborhood with dangerous suburbs, London has to decide how much that really matters to it, and whether to put its faith in NATO-style collective security or take the consequences of trying to deal with such an environment on an ad hoc basis, with whoever will join coalitions of the willing. Unlike the 1930s, U.K. territory is not under any credible threat, but its complex and open society is vulnerable to international terrorism and could certainly be brought down by massive cyberattack. Seldom has continuity seemed so discontinuous.

Professor Michael Clarke is director-general of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

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