This is a big week for Britain. It is also a big week for the US and NATO as Britain’s ugly baby election campaign stumbles towards its UK-busting nadir on Thursday. Last week Steve Erlanger wrote an insightful piece in the New York Times that considered Britain’s steady drift from the world stage. By way of response to Steve’s piece below is a piece I submitted to the NYT in March that explains more deeply the causes of Britain’s precipitous decline which looks as if now it will end in only one possible conclusion – the dismantling of what was perhaps the most influential state in World history over the last five hundred years.
The slide in British defence investment has been too-easily written off as a consequence of the 2008 financial crash and the need to balance Britain’s books. In fact, Britain’s defence cuts mask a much deeper existential question; what kind of power should Britain aspire to be in the twenty-first century. Britain is locked deep in a strategy crisis which if unchecked threatens to destroy the transatlantic security relationship and, in time, NATO. Washington has slowly begun to recognise the threat, or at least its symptoms. However, the US is doing nothing like enough to help pull its old friend and ally back from the edge of the strategic precipice over which London now peers.
In January President Obama warned Prime Minister Cameron about the continuing decline in British defence spending. In March Britain announced it is joining the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Both events are symptoms of a crisis over the future direction of British national and defence strategy that is tearing London’s High Establishment apart – both political and bureaucratic.
Indeed, London’s much-politicised High Establishment is split between those who believe that soft power is the future and that Britain should accept its place as yet another soft EU power and those that believe Britain can and should still count as a power – political, economic and military. The tired idealists believe that American military adventurism has led Britain to disaster. The frustrated realists believe that Britain remains a world power, albeit modest in size and ambition, and as such hard military power should remain the bedrock of all British influence and strategic effect. It is a philosophical and political divide worsened by a strategically-illiterate, inward-looking political class who routinely confuse strategy with politics and who have abandoned any sense of British patriotism to pursue narrow sectarianism. It is a confusion all-too evident in this most depressing of general election campaigns.
Britain’s EU-leaning foreign policy is run by a generation of politicians and diplomats who have built their career making the little, daily deals that are the stuff of Brussels. As a group the tired idealists are wholly unprepared for the return of the grand geopolitics implicit in Russian aggression and Chinese assertion or the super-insurgency ISIL is driving across swathes of the Middle East. Many in this group come from a school which also believes and accepts that Britain’s decline is inevitable and that their job is to manage Britain’s decline ‘successfully’ so that ‘Europe’ can rise in its place. Dream on.
The realists believe that the UK, one of the world’s top five economies and military powers, remains a power to be reckoned with in the world. They also believe that the special relationship with the US is not only Britain’s most important strategic partnership, but the anchor relationship in the wider transatlantic relationship and thus the strategic bedrock upon which NATO is established. As a group they are by and large unromantic about the US and the much-exaggerated ‘Special Relationship’ but recognise that if the US remains central to British security and defence policy Britain must be able to influence Washington. However, they also understand that much of that influence will be dependent on the capability and capacity of Britain’s sorely-pressed armed forces.
Prime Minister Cameron has been the catalyst for Britain’s strategy crisis but he is not the cause of it. Equally, Cameron’s determination to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is revealing in and of itself because the only ‘national strategy’ that he seems to understand is mercantilism – his belief that the only ‘strategy’ in world affairs is trade. This reflects what Labour leader Ed Miliband’s calls Cameron’s “pessimistic isolationism”, and not without reason. Certainly, Cameron’s government at times bears a striking similarity to Stanley Baldwin’s depression-era appeasement government of the 1930s. Equally, some of Milliband’s pronouncements reflect the fantasy, unaffordable Utopia into which much of the British political Left have retreated.
NATO is the big loser from Britain’s strategy crisis. At the September 2014 NATO Wales Summit David Cameron committed Britain to spending at least 2% of its GDP on defence. The statement was pure Cameron; meant for the moment but nothing more. If re-elected of Thursday Cameron’s current spending plans suggest that defence will again be savagely cut. Worse, Cameron has instructed his eminence grise Oliver Letwin to find ways to make it appear Britain is spending 2% of GDP on defence post 2017. Letwin is the architect of Cameron’s retreat from strategy into politics.
The Obama administration has not helped. The repeated lectures from Washington that Britain must not consider leaving growth-deficient, regulation-hidebound, equally strategically-illiterate Brussels and accept its place in an EU that is deeply ambivalent about its relationship with the U.S. has deepened the divisions in London’s High Establishment. Clearly, Washington must make up its mind. The US can either continue to treat Britain like the 52nd state of the US, insist on a Little Britain remaining embedded in an uncertain and counter-strategic EU. Or, the US can move to preserve the ‘Special Relationship’, help rebuild British strategic self-confidence that the US has helped to crush and again see a Britain that leads in Europe, rather than scuttling away into a rat-hole of declinism which is where Britain is today headed, and which would help no-one.
The bottom-line is this; with US forces stretched thin the world over it is vital that Washington’s NATO allies become effective first-responders in and around Europe. That was the message of the big NATO conference for which I acted as Rapporteur last week in Rome. For the sake of the Alliance Britain must be in the vanguard of such a NATO-centred effort. If Britain is not in NATO’s military vanguard London will become simply another other Europeans; all too happy for the US taxpayer to bear the true cost of Britain’s defence. Why? Over the next decade the rise of illiberal military power threatens to eclipse liberal military power. The Anglo-American special relationship is not what it was. However, the strategic alignment of these two powers still has within its gift the capacity to stabilise a dangerous world and if needs be strike and punish.
As a British strategist watching my country being led down the plug-hole of history by London’s High Establishment the struggle between tired idealists, frustrated realists and plug-hole politicians is perhaps the most depressing professional event of my now long career. Those that take a perverse pleasure in seeing the fall of the country that prevented tyranny in Europe twice this past century, and there are many such fools, may wish to pause. Britain’s strategy crisis is not just America’s strategy crisis, it could also mark the end of NATO and mark the end of political balance within Europe.
High politics, low politicians. It is not just Britain's future that is at stake on Thursday.