“Global Britain” Is Becoming Reality and It Has a Strong Eastern and Northern European Dimension
Much of the hullabaloo about the future of the United Kingdom’s (UK) international orientation resulting from the Brexit referendum has now subsided.
Since late 2019, Britain has had a stable government with a large parliamentary majority, which has signalled that it takes defence – and the security of its allies and partners – more seriously than its predecessors (or any conceivable alternative political formation of recent years). The new government signalled its strategic intentions in late 2020 when it announced a £16.5 billion increase in defence spending between 2021-2024, on top of an additional commitment to increase by £7.7 billion over the same period. This will maintain the UK as the world’s fourth largest defence spender.
In March 2021, Government went further still by publishing the Integrated Review – ‘Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’ – the blueprint for ‘Global Britain’.
Europe Still Priority
This matters given the discourse that rose in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum questioning Britain’s continued international relevance. The argument went: how can a small island country compete with continental behemoths if it is outside of the European Union (EU)? The Integrated Review provides the answer. It stresses the structural enablers that gave Britain great power in the first place – namely science and technology. It commits the UK to boost its research and development spending, invest in cutting-edge education, and build new infrastructure.
The defence of Europe no longer starts at the Narva River (to say nothing of the Rhine or the Vistula) or the eastern Balkans, but instead in the Black Sea region, the Middle East and south and southeast Asia.
Another argument, commonly heard, is that “Global Britain” represents a “tilt” away from Europe towards the Indo-Pacific or even space. However, this is the wrong way of looking at the issue. Due to the rise of the Indo-Pacific and the increasing importance of space, the defence of Europe no longer starts at the Narva River (to say nothing of the Rhine or the Vistula) or the eastern Balkans, but instead in the Black Sea region, the Middle East and south and southeast Asia. With Russia’s revisionism (described in the Integrated Review as ‘the most acute direct threat’), China’s Belt and Road Initiative and forays into eastern Europe, combined with America’s so-called ‘rebalance’ towards the western Pacific, it no longer makes sense to think of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific as discrete geopolitical theatres. The age of the Atlantic-Pacific has dawned. This is what the Integrated Review implicitly recognises.
Europe, then, has not been deprioritised in British geostrategy; rather, the UK’s focus has switched to specific parts of the continent, particularly the geopolitical arc stretching from the Arctic to the eastern Mediterranean, which Britain has been prioritising for some years. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the UK surged in support of NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence, deploying more forces to more allies than any other ally – including the US – with approximately 750 standing guard in Estonia and 150 posted to Poland. The Joint Expeditionary Force has also gone from strength to strength: in April 2021, Iceland joined the formation, bringing its membership to 10 northern European countries.
Leading Role in the Black Sea Area
Meanwhile, in the Black Sea region, the UK has taken a leading role, particularly in support of Ukraine – the ‘gatehouse’ into Europe from the east. Since Operational Orbital was launched in 2015, British troops have trained tens of thousands of Ukrainian personnel, while UK loans worth £1.25 billion are helping rebuild the Ukrainian Navy. The British naval presence in the Black Sea has grown, with a persistent presence established, marked most recently by the deployment of HMS Defender to uphold freedom of navigation and remind the Kremlin that the annexation of Crimea is not a done deal.
But what of the British Army’s ability to reinforce NATO allies? Has it not been sacrificed by the Integrated Review for naval strength and technological modernisation? Granted, although the British Army has been scaled back, it should never be forgotten that NATO is first and foremost a maritime alliance: without the unfettered ability to convey North American and British military power across the Atlantic and the English Channel into central and eastern Europe, the alliance would be hamstrung in the event of an emergency. Given the location of the British Isles, alongside British overseas territories in Gibraltar and Cyprus, the UK has to prioritise naval power.
How effective Britain will be depends on the extent to which these wealthier European allies honour their spending commitments, irrespective of the financial fallout from COVID-19.
Moreover, in keeping with its maritime perspective, the UK cannot meet Russia symmetrically – with terrestrial mass. It can only do so with superior technology and effective strategy. For this reason, the Integrated Review places renewed emphasis on increasing the lethality and speed of the British Armed Forces’ ability to strike potential enemies, including improved fire support and better cyber and space-based defence systems. It also hones Britain’s military strategy, committing the country to a more active form of deterrence. The Integrated Review foresees the forward deployment of greater numbers of British military personnel to more areas over the coming decades, to exert presence and deter revisionism. This is why it places renewed emphasis on increasing the UK nuclear stockpile and signalling that its nuclear forces cover all NATO allies, as well as itself. This is why the Integrated Review explicitly describes UK deployments to Estonia and Poland as ‘tripwires’; it could also include UK deployments in Germany, as well as, periodically, Lithuania and Romania, through NATO’s air policing missions.
In sum, Global Britain is no longer a vision. It is becoming a reality – and it has a strong eastern and northern European dimension. But while the British commitment to NATO is steadfast, the UK does not expect to become Europe’s defence guarantor, even if the US focuses more on east Asia. By exceeding NATO’s two spending agreements of 2014 – to invest two per cent of Gross Domestic Product on defence, and 20 per cent of that on new equipment – the UK has thrown down the gauntlet to other large and wealthy allies, Germany primarily, but also Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. How effective Britain will depend on the extent to which these wealthier European allies honour their spending commitments, irrespective of the financial fallout from COVID-19. It also depends on the willingness of the committed spenders – the Baltic states, Poland, Romania and France – to put pressure on those European allies who do not pull their weight.