Staying Power

Post-Brexit, this is the moment to rebuild Britain to take a central place on the world stage, say Con Coughlin and Sir Peter Wall

By Con Coughlin & Sir Peter Wall

June 15 2020

Boris Johnson’s announcement that the Government is to undertake a wide-ranging review of Britain’s global role post-Brexit provides the country with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to consider how it will approach the many opportunities and challenges our nation will face in the years to come.

Not since the end of the Cold War, when all the talk was about claiming the so-called ‘peace dividend’ following the Soviet Union’s demise, has Britain had the chance to have a serious rethink about both its place in the world, and the best means of defending its interests.

Looking back at the 1990s, the reality, of course, was that although the dividend was taken, the peace never actually materialised. Within a year of the final collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1991, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, thereby prompting the largest Western military mobilisation since the Vietnam War. A 500,000-strong combined force of American, British and many other coalition partners was assembled to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi control, thereby launching a new era of military interventions in the Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan that have more or less continued up to the present day.

Moreover, while the challenge presented by Islamist terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and, more recently, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), has determined the direction of Britain’s defence and security strategy for most of the past two decades, our defence and security establishment must now contend with the very different threats posed by rogue states such as Russia, Iran, and North Korea, as well as the emergence of China as one of the world’s dominant powers. When dealing with the likes of Moscow and Beijing, it is unlikely that we are going to encounter the type of conventional state-on-state conflict that defined Western strategic thinking during the Cold War.

These days, sophisticated actors such as the Russians and Chinese are more likely to resort to non-conventional, deniable capabilities – subterfuge, cyber attacks, and proxy forces – as well as the exploitation of social media platforms to disseminate fake news designed to undermine the political stability of the Western democracies.

Boris Johnson with The Queen’s Royal Hussars at the Tapa Army Base in Estonia, December 2019

That is not to say that we will not need to rely on the traditional military deterrent structures that have served us so well in the past. While the large-scale military interventions of the previous decade in Iraq and Afghanistan have ended, we still have British combat troops deployed at an array of key hotspots, from Afghanistan to northern Europe. RAF fighters and drones played a central role in the defeat of Isil in Iraq and Syria, while the Royal Navy is leading the multinational naval coalition in the Gulf to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz from attack by Iranian gunboats.

But while we still require our Armed Forces to provide the backbone of the nation’s defence requirements, it is also important that the wide-ranging review that is now being undertaken by the Government gives serious consideration to the changing face of modern warfare, for we live in an age of change – one in which the global threat environment is developing at an alarming rate, as are the methods being used by rival states to threaten our wellbeing. We need to understand these evolving threats and invest to harness technology to ensure that we have the advantage in a new era of persistent competition and confrontation. We need to change not only the way we fight, but the way we acquire winning capabilities. For traditional defence procurement, constrained as it is by antediluvian government rules, is far too ponderous to keep us ahead of our adversaries.

Consequently, in terms of Britain’s future leadership role, the country now finds itself facing a true moment of destiny. We can either choose to go down a more isolationist path, an approach that has been espoused by some of the more xenophobic supporters of Brexit, which would simply result in Britain becoming an insular and marginalised nation. Or we can stand up and be counted in world affairs, and assume the added responsibility that goes with being a truly independent P5 power [one of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members], one that is prepared not only to speak its mind on the key issues of the day, but to act in defence of causes it believes to be just and right, such as our democratic values and the rule of law, whenever these are challenged.

The nation therefore faces a critical choice, one that will define our place for the rest of the 21st century, which is why Mr Johnson needs to be applauded for undertaking his wide-ranging review of all the assets at our disposal in terms of both projecting and defending our national interests on the global stage.

As well as being clear on our national appetite for playing a more responsible role, and the political will to see that through in a crisis, it is important that our Armed Forces have the equipment and funding in place to provide the traditional hard power options that are necessary for defeating our foes.

British Forces Iraq
British forces prepare for operations in Iraq, February 2003

Yet at a time when the threats we face are increasing both in terms of sophistication and variety, it is equally important that we give serious consideration to the soft power options at our disposal that will complement, and may on occasion replace, the traditional hard power options of deploying our military assets. These are most notably the expertise of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, where the skilful use of diplomacy and judicious investment in foreign aid can help to mitigate the emergence of potential conflict.

Nor should we ignore the vital contribution our intelligence and security services have to offer. Intelligence gathering, whether it is the vital work carried out at GCHQ’s Cheltenham listening post in intercepting the communication networks of our enemies, or understanding the intentions of rival state actors, is invaluable both to limiting the threats we face, as well as thwarting attacks against Britain and its allies.

This is why it is so important that every facet of our defence, national security and foreign policy apparatus are being included in this so-called Integrated Review, the outcome of which should help to define precisely how Britain intends to position itself on the world stage post-Brexit.

It could also be argued that, in the wake of Mr Johnson’s victory in last year’s general election, where his leadership was game-changing and generated the largest Conservative majority since 1987, the Government has the best opportunity to reshape Britain’s global status since the Thatcher era, in which the Iron Lady definitively made her mark.

The Queen passes a guard of honour, RAF base Marham, 3 February, 2020

There is certainly a pressing need to revive our flagging presence on the world stage. The past decade, during which we ended our large-scale military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, has seen a dramatic decline in Britain’s status as a world power. Partly this is due to the painful reductions that have taken place to the strength and resilience of our Armed Forces. There is also reluctance by our political class to take a leading role on the big issues of the day, whether it is tackling the Syria crisis, confronting Russia over its constant meddling in Eastern Europe, or standing up to Iran’s mendacity in the Gulf, where it has hijacked UK-flagged shipping with impunity. This is why it is essential that the Government seizes the opportunity to make Britain’s voice heard again.

Throughout the course of the longrunning Brexit debate, Mr Johnson and other prominent Leave campaigners made constant reference to the concept of ‘Global Britain’ – the idea that the country, freed from the shackles of the European Union, was about to enter a brave new dawn where it would be able to embrace an array of exciting new challenges, from forging new trade deals to building alliances, both diplomatic and military.

To date, about the only indication we have given about how the Government sees our future relationship with the outside world is the inscription on the 50p coin specially minted for the occasion: “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”.

This worthy but improbable statement, which had Mr Johnson’s personal backing, summed up the desire to heal the bitter divisions arising in the UK and Europe during the three-and-a-half years since the British people took the decision to end their country’s then-44-year membership of the EU.

While there is much to applaud in the Prime Minister’s vision of rebuilding Britain’s global standing following our departure from the EU, work still needs to be done on how Britain intends to fulfil this key ambition. One vital element of our post-Brexit positioning must be to ensure that the transatlantic alliance remains the key pillar of our global outlook.

The bonds between the US and UK on defence, diplomacy, and intelligence-sharing are deep and long-standing, and are robust enough to withstand even the most difficult political differences, such as the recent row over the PM’s decision to allow Huawei access to Britain’s new 5G telecoms network. This was taken in the face of fierce opposition from Washington, and this controversial call may yet prove problematic for the Five Eyes relationship.

Boris & Trump
Boris Johnson with Donald Trump, UN General Assembly, September 2019

More importantly from America’s perspective is that Britain has the resources at its disposal to make it a credible player on the world stage and hence a worthwhile ally, and in this context the Government needs to decide whether the current level of defence spending, which is around 2% of GDP, is sufficient. It is all very well, for example, splashing out on two new 65,000-tonne Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, but they will lack credibility if they do not have sufficient numbers of combat aircraft and support vessels to make them operationally effective. Some US commentators still argue that, as a vanity project, they have already skewed the UK’s conventional defence effort to a damaging degree.

There is certainly a compelling argument in favour of defence and security spending being raised to around 3% of GDP if all three services and their supporting agencies are to be properly supplied with the equipment and manpower they will need to be able to confront the many threats we are likely to face for the rest of this century and beyond. This is a tall order set against an ambitious domestic agenda: Global could well become rather more local if these arguments don’t carry.

Another area that needs to be given serious consideration is the nature of our future global alliances. While the transatlantic alliance and NATO will undoubtedly form the bedrock of our world view, there are also opportunities to expand our horizons.

Australia, Japan, India, and the Gulf states are just some of the regions where there is an appetite for existing alliances to be strengthened and deepened. This strategy would enable Britain to expand its network of global alliances beyond the historic contours of the transatlantic relationship to pursue a more global influence.

There are exciting opportunities and responsibilities that lie before us as we seek to shape our post-Brexit destiny. It is now for our Prime Minister to decide how we can best employ them. These will be tough decisions with far-reaching consequences.

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor and General Sir Peter Wall is a former Chief of the General Staff