The British government’s new defence strategy gestures towards the real security challenges of the 21st century while remaining locked overall in an outmoded vision. But the seeds of new thinking, beyond and even inside the state, will grow.
Britain's defence posture for the first half of the 21st century was, as recently as 2005, fairly clear. Its heart was that the country would hold on to its tenuous membership of the “big boys' club” by maintaining a global military capability. At the core of this objective was the deployment by 2020 of two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft-carriers which, at 65,000 tonnes each, would be the largest warships ever deployed by the Royal Navy (see "Britain's security future", 16 September 2010).
They would cost around £2.5 billion each, but a far greater expense would be entailed in providing for the hugely expensive United States F-35 multi-role aircraft that would fly from them. This would bring the total cost nearer to £15 billion; then, after deployment, further billions would be spent annually in keeping the warships at sea along with their supporting destroyers, frigates and auxiliary ships. The reward, that Britain would end up being the only country with forces even remotely comparable with the US navy's carrier battle-groups: worthy support for the world's (still) sole superpower.
A further vital reinforcement of Britain’s global military aspiration would be the planned replacement of the aging Trident nuclear force, at a lifetime cost that approached £100 billion. (see Paul Rogers “Big Boats and Bigger Skimmers: Determining Britain's Role in the Long War”, International Affairs 82, 4 July 2006).
With its commitment to these two huge projects, Britain could march proudly into the new century: far from the superpower status of old, but still (allow for a degree of licence) “first-rate”.
The key big realities already affecting global security and certain to grow in scale and seriousness barely figured in this defence strategy or the mindset that produced it: namely climate change, resource conflict, the growing socio-economic inequality, and the marginalisation of millions of the world’s people (see "A world on the margin", 20 May 2010).
The middle of the first decade of the new century, with Britain deeply involved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, saw the country’s elite trapped in “old thinking”: a post-cold-war world but one that still operated (in both policy and psychological terms) in its shadow, albeit with states rather than global systems at the centre of everything.
The backward step
The fate of this orthodoxy in the broader context of how the British state would choose to deal with its severe financial and public-debt crises was at the heart of the publication, on 18-19 October 2010, of two documents: the United Kingdom's new national-security strategy (NSS) and its strategic defence and security review (SDSR). The NSS - entitled "A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty" - made some mention of issues such as climate change and marginalisation, but the central “Tier One Threats” to Britain it identified were more familiar: terrorism, cyber-attack, natural disasters (such as pandemics), and the risk of becoming involved in interstate conflicts elsewhere in the world.
The SDSR, part of the extensive spending-cuts programme announced on 20 October by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, cut the defence budget - already too small for existing commitments - by about 8%. This meant inevitable casualties. The two carriers would be built, but one would be mothballed or even sold off, and the other would have to wait until 2020 for a much-reduced complement of F-35s. The final decision on Trident replacement would be postponed until 2015.
The review thus amounted to a serious diminution of Britain's previous global pretensions. It also involved imposing an effective policy of “equal misery” across the armed forces, each of the three branches being asked to maintain almost all their functions on much-reduced resources. At the same time, very little of the revised and reduced defence posture connected to the main tier-one threats listed in the NSS; and neither document took seriously the core global-security issues that will dominate the 2010-40 period ("A century on the edge: 1945-2045", 29 December 2007).
This is in one sense surprising. In spring 2010, before the election on 6 May that led to the replacement of Gordon Brown’s Labour government by a Con-Lib one headed by David Cameron, both the government and the Conservative opposition published policy-papers that notably highlighted these broader issues. Moreover, some of the ministry of defence's own think-tanks, such as the Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre, have in recent years done some serious analyses of global issues, on occasions engaging with independent policy bodies such as the Oxford Research Group.
This ostensible retreat from more forward-looking thinking makes it appear that routine politics - along with the more narrow interests of the most senior military figures - has intervened. The result, a hurried review driven by financial expediency and rooted in a failure to think carefully and systematically enough about the fundamentals of 21st-century security (see “After war, security”, 10 December 2009).
The green shoots
A closer look at the new documents, however, suggests that some of the “new thinking” is creeping in, quite possibly inserted by thoughtful civil servants rather than their political masters.
The strategic defence and security review, for example, seeks to “extend the remit of existing climate change governance structures to include management of the national security risks posed by the global impact of climate change and global competition for resources” (SDSR p.66); while the national-security strategy points to problems of endemic marginalisation, especially in Africa, and concludes that “compounded by other drivers such as climate change and resource scarcity, this increases the likelihood of conflict, instability and state failure” (NSS p.156).
These references signal that a wider vision of global-security issues has a shadowy presence at the heart of the state. But there remains a twofold limitation: that this understanding is peripheral to rather than driving the analysis, and that even where acknowledged the nature of the response to the problems is still too narrow. The latter is revealed in the SDSR’s endorsement of a policy of “management of the national security risks posed by [them]”. The recognition of the dangers of a socio-economically divided and environmentally constrained world is thus combined with a policy reaction that seeks to address the risks these trends pose to national security rather than working to prevent them becoming risks in the first place.
This is hardly surprising. A proper official response to the risks that everyone faces would be that Britain would provide some serious leadership in the direction of ultra-low-carbon economies, thereby also promoting far greater equity and emancipation. That would require two things: transformative actions over the 2010-2015/20 period that are far greater than presently contemplated; and – since they would incur short-term opinion-poll and electoral unpopularity - considerable political leadership.
These innovations are most unlikely to be provided by the current coalition government, whose reviews are in the end disappointing (if not unexpectedly so). So, at least for the time being, it will be left to civil society in many of its diverse forms to provide the overall vision and proposals for transition.
The other source of modest encouragement is the tangible signs of some new thinking going on within the civil-service depths of London’s Whitehall. That is progress, and not to be dismissed lightly. For when in the near future the problems of the global economy and environment become even more obvious and unavoidable, these “green shoots” - especially if supplemented by vigorous and confident support from analysts, advocates and activists in the wider society - could become much more influential.