The ends of British strategy require the generation of the maximum possible capacity and capability to achieve maximum possible influence as part of an overarching British strategic concept as enunciated and elaborated by British security policy. This of course begs several very large questions. Capacity and capability should certainly be geared to the ends sought. To that end strategy must also strike a balance between effectiveness and economy – cheese pairing simply leads to a waste of reduced resources. One of the many nonsenses of official Britain today is the oft-heard notion that in the absence of overt threat there is nothing to plan for. Friction is the stuff of today’s world and strategy informed by sound strategic judgement is more not less important.
Up to World War Two, British strategy traditionally combined a well-honed policy mix of power, pragmatism, national cohesion and power projection. Britain was for a long time a key enabler of sound and balanced strategic engagement, even in the midst of previous domestic crises. The system worked. British society can still produce the creative strategic talent to prosper in the world of the twenty-first century. However, to do so, Britain’s leaders must first break out of London’s dangerous short-term mind-set if the country is to properly conceive strategy and policy relevant to the challenges posed by the twenty-first century.
That will not be easy. General Sir Nick Houghton warned in a December 2013 speech of what he called “a creeping aversion to risk in the employment of our [British] armed forces”. He said such aversion had “…multiple origins – politics, society, the media and the Armed Forces themselves”. With the connivance of a risk-averse political leadership much of British society has been lulled into a strange almost child-like state; at one and the same time uncertain and uneasy and yet in many ways disengaged from their own security. In the absence of an elite consensus on strategy there is no honest debate with the people about the aims, costs and responsibilities of security, which is dangerous in a democracy and particularly so given Britain’s many challenges.
Sound national strategy can only be fashioned via a partnership between government and people. Such a partnership must be informed and with government unwilling or unable to trust the people with the fact and extent of Britain’s many challenges that partnership today has weakened to the point of fracture. The result is a dangerous paradox; by attempting to maintain the illusion of security, it is only a matter of time before the fact of its absence results in the kind of shock which could see the partnership between political class and people broken beyond repair.
Furthermore, if London is to shape the choices of others, a conscious national effort will need to be made and that will mean a Britain with the necessary power to be attractive as a partner. The need for partnership is important because Britain will continue to bear a great burden of strategic security responsibility for the foreseeable future - too powerful to hide, and yet too weak to lead – the worst of all strategic positions for any country to occupy in international relations. Therefore, London has no alternative but to properly organise and aggregate British influence at home and abroad. However, generating influence will demand of London a clear idea of the ends of British strategy, allied to a sober debate with the British people about the dangerous world into which Britain is moving.
The world in which Britain must compete is one in which there are powerful, undemocratic states emerging, the leaders of which are legitimised not by democracy but rather by the maintenance of economic growth. Being the proxy target of choice for those angry with the United States, Britain must also cope with a world of mass movements in which the technologies of mass destruction are becoming ever more accessible to ever smaller and more dangerous groups. Indeed, in many respects, this age will be defined by mass disruption and haunted by the possibility of mass destruction. The crafting of British strategy worthy of the name will thus only be possible through a clear, elite understanding of the realities that must be confronted, the necessary end-states sought, and the costs and impositions the British people must expect. In other words, what Britain needs is a far better understanding of the what, the why, the where, the when and the how of British interests, i.e. a distinctively British strategic concept.