Britain could still be a powerful player on the world stage if it so chose. According to the CIA World Factbook 2013 Britain has an economy worth $2.48 trillion serving a population of 63,181,775. France has an economy worth $2.60 trillion serving a population of 65,350,000. Germany, on the other hand, has an economy worth $3.4 trillion serving a population of 80, 399,300. As a comparison, the United States has an economy worth $15.68 trillion serving a population of 316,391,000, whilst China has an economy worth $8.23 trillion serving a population of 1,353,921,000. In terms of purchasing power parity, Britain is the ninth richest country in the world and Europe’s second richest after Germany. Moreover, according to the web-site Global Firepower, Britain ranked fifth in global defence spending in 2012, with the US having spent $689.59 billion, China $129.27 billion, Russia $64 billion, France $58.24 billion and Britain $57.87 billion.
In other words, Britain cannot hide from power and the responsibilities it imposes. Therefore, Britain has every right to aspire to have influence over other states, if the security of the British state and its citizens is to be assured in a complex environment in which state power will remain the main driver of change and competition in the world. As Britain is an architect of the contemporary state-centric international system, the meaningful, robust and durable stability of that system should be the necessary goal of British influence. Equally, the institutions of systemic governance, most notably the UN, but also relevant regional institutions, must also be reformed if they are to be effective instruments for managing stability and stable change rather than expensive talk shops. Strange though it may seem given the financial crisis, it is precisely this moment when Britain must seek to assert maximum influence over change. For Britain to assert such an influence role, demands of Britain the policy, strategy and organisation worthy of such an ambition and the political will to seize the moment.
Harvard University’s Professor Joseph Nye described national or grand strategy as the organisation of large means in pursuit of large ends. Clearly, Britain still possesses a significant amount of that most important of strategic commodities - influence. However, influence is as nothing if the ends of British strategy become estranged from ways and means. That makes any call for an ambitious British strategy seem, on the face of it, perverse. One can only imagine the tut-tutting and head-scratching response of tired, senior practitioners in a London worn down by political uncertainty, financial constraints and diplomatic and military over-stretch, not-to-mention the eternal bureaucratic infighting that, in the absence of firm political leadership, is Whitehall today. A London today that does not know where Washington ends and Brussels begins. However, it is precisely the danger of this moment and what it portends that makes such a call for a decidedly British strategy not only necessary but also timely.
Part of London’s problem is that it sees avoidance of conflict as a strategy in and of itself, particularly if it means conflict with allies and partners. However, as Sir Lawrence Freedman states, “…strategy comes into play where there is actual or potential conflict, when interests collide and forms of resolution are required. This is why strategy is more than a plan. A plan supposes a sequence of events that allows one to move with confidence from one state of affairs to another. Strategy is required when others might frustrate one’s plans because they have different and possibly opposing interests and concerns”.
Looked at from across the ages, the need for strategy is even more pressing. In 1562, John Hawkins sailed to the Americas at the dawn of a new strategic age for England. Britain may well now have come to the end of that unparalleled strategic adventure which started with Hawkins’ 1598 battle with the Spanish at San Juan de Ulloa. If that is indeed the case, the consequences will be profound and not just for the British. There is a strange but compelling symmetry to British history. The true age of Empire began with the 1607 arrival of English and Dutch settlers in what eventually became the United States. Britain’s two hundred year domination of the seas can be dated to the 1713 signing of the Treaty of Utrecht that saw Gibraltar ceded permanently to Britain. In 1815, Britain’s supremacy was confirmed by Wellington’s final victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. In 1914, the First World War broke out and, in spite of British victory in 1918, the long slide of decline was set inexorably in place. Will 2014 and a possible Scottish secession from the Union mark the true end of Britain as a strategic power? The jury is out.