Monday, 9 November 2015

Superpower on a Shoestring: Britain's Place in the World

Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role.
-Former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson, 1962

Those simple words spoken by the chief diplomat of a confident and rising power, about an economically moribund country in apparently inexorable retreat, continue to grind at a raw nerve in the British psyche. Since then more words have been written and spoken on the subject of "Britain's place in the world" than most people could ever reasonably be expected to digest. It should be noted that most other great powers are not constantly trapped in the same cycle of questioning and self-doubt that the UK is. This country has at times been described as a "hub", a "bridge" and a link between Europe and the United States. In short, a distinct entity deeply connected with both regions and yet still separate from them. It is likely the distinctive and unique nature of Britain's power that makes it so difficult for so many people to understand; and which generates this constant national discussion.

Of the seven current great powers: the United States, France, Russia, Germany, China, the United Kingdom and Japan, only two are maritime powers. And while the UK and Japan share many common strategic challenges, only the UK has the freedom of action to employ the full range of it's national power. For all the talk of its re-militarisation Japan is still severely limited in what it can do with regards to foreign policy. The remaining five are continental powers, whose global influence is limited, to greater or lesser degrees, by their need to police and defend extensive land borders. The ability to generate and maintain military power has therefore, historically, been an essential determinant of a continental power's ability to defend it's territory, position and international influence. Applying the same standards by which we measure the strength of continental powers to a maritime power such as Britain leads inexorably to the "small irrelevant island" view. In the global rankings Britain's population and military are remarkably small, while it remains a significant economic power. As it stands the UK has the fifth largest economy in the world, with some long term projections indicating that it may overtake Germany into fourth place by the middle of this century.

Clearly Britain has substantial economic power, but some will still argue that this power isn't useful unless it is converted into military means. This is patently not the case, the UK's place at the centre of the European finance and banking sector gives it leverage, influence and power whenever the economic weapon is wielded. Comprehensive sanctions and targeted asset freezes are often the modern equivalent of a blockade, with the ability to deal severe damage to a country's economic activity and national life. This has been shown to be true time and again, sanctions had the power to badly hurt regional powers like Iraq and Iran as well as a major power Russia in the wake of it's invasion of Crimea. Financial means are especially useful because, unlike the armed forces, they cost next to nothing when they are not being used; and are an effective way of inflicting damage to states without the risks inherent in military action.
The City of London, Europe's banking capital,
 and a formidable source of UK economic power
Despite what a number of newspaper columnists and commentators would have the general public believe, the UK clearly sits amongst the top tier of great powers. While Russia and China may both have far more men and women under arms; and an impressive array of military equipment, their reach and ability to sustain forces far from home is limited. Neither possess the network of strategically located bases and territories that the UK does; in this regard we are only really surpassed by the United States. The construction of a major new naval base in Bahrain is only the latest development in this regard. It's location would, in theory, allow the Royal Navy to project and sustain it's carrier and/or amphibious battle group almost anywhere in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. Air bases in Cyprus, the Falkland Islands, Ascension, Qatar and Gibraltar mean that the RAF could rapidly establish a strong presence in the Atlantic or Mediterranean If deemed necessary. Neither Russia nor China possess the strategically placed sovreign territory necessary to effectively forward base their forces like the UK can. While the port of Tartus in Syria gives the Russian Navy a toehold in the Mediterranean, it has come at the cost of being dragged into that country's civil war. This is potentially a very high price for the use of what amounts to a small naval station, unable to service any of Russia's major warships.
An RAF Tornado flies out of the UK's military airbase on Cyprus. 
While the UK's range of military bases and overseas territories give it substantial military reach, the nation's ability to effectively employ force rests on a comprehensive network of bilateral and multilateral military alliances and partnerships. Of the six other great powers the UK is part of a defensive alliance with three, including the pre-eminent conventional military power: the United States, and is currently less close but still friendly with Japan; especially with regards to military training. It can't be stated enough that Britain's international security strategy, especially in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, relies upon building the capabilities of regional and local actors to a point where they can effectively provide their own security. While a network of alliances with the great powers helps secure the UK's international position at the highest levels, many of the partnerships with smaller powers are aimed at empowering them in order to address problems at the lower end of the conflict spectrum. Small military missions, training and consistent engagement can achieve what ten thousand British troops, fighting for over a decade at a great cost in blood and treasure, struggled to do in Afghanistan. As a maritime trading power stability, especially in areas near important waterways, is nearly always in Britain's national interest. It is undeniable that the UK's network of military alliances, friends and partners is an important means of maintaining and supporting stability in vital areas of the world.

Another area where Britain's great power status is clearly evident is it's diplomatic presence. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has either a high commission, embassy or diplomatic mission in almost every internationally recognised state. With the exception of a handful of West African and Central American countries and Syria. The UK has maintained it's embassies in North Korea and Iran, acting as an important intermediary in the latter case.
The UK maintains a comprehensive global diplomatic footprint.
It also goes almost without saying that Britain was a founding member of the United Nations and remains one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. With this position comes a constant UK voice at the highest levels of international decision making and a veto on issues of peace and war. Excepting the UN Britain is a member of a further eighty international organisations. A comprehensive list of which reads like a bizarre alphanumeric soup, but demonstrates the country has an impressive voice on the world stage in a vast array of areas.

These are just a few of the ways in which Britain makes its presence felt on the international stage. It has become a national cliché to state that the UK "punches above it's weight", this oft repeated statement suggests that the country's natural position is that of a much lesser power. This is patently not the case, for the ~300 years that the United Kingdom has existed as a state it has always been a great power. While it has always been cast in a different mould to its continental competitors, a maritime power able to use a raft of advantages and alliances to achieve it's goals, its great power status is indisputable. So what, to return to Dean Acheson's question, is Britain's place in the world? In the author's view it is to be a "superpower on a shoestring", leveraging its advantages in order to achieve national objectives without the massive resources that can be brought to bear by the largest continental powers.

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