The world is changing but Britain still has an important role to playby Robert Fry / November 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
The Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt recently laid out his stall to the Policy Exchange think tank in London. When pressed with questions about national priorities he responded that the aim was “to be strategic.” So far, so good but after the wars of 9/11and the challenge of Brexit, do we still have the national vocation for strategy that once seemed our birthright? In particular, can we pull off the difficult trick of combining the hard and soft instruments of national power in the most effective way?
Joseph Nye is the American apostle of the relationship between hard and soft power and he sees power today spread across three levels. On the top, traditional military power is largely unipolar, and, despite the travails of the last decades, remains associated with the United States; in the middle, economic power is multipolar and will become more so as China and India grow; the bottom level is the realm of transnational relations where social networkers post, bankers move fabulous sums, criminals launder proceeds, terrorists plot and geeks and governments test cyberspace. It is the intestinal tract of the 21stcentury world, where much of future conflict will be fought out.
So, for us “to be strategic” will require an ability to operate within and between all these realms, with equal facility. This will demand not simply the co-ordination of diplomacy, investment, cyber operations, military force and overseas aid but also their integration with the soft power impact of the Royal Family, the Manchester United franchise and the Oxbridge universities in the analogue and digital worlds, simultaneously.
The historical record is good. We did not out fight Germany twice between 1914 and 1945. We did, though, make a far better fist of industrial production, maintain global lines of communication, perfect techniques of intelligence, and, above all, forge better alliances. Our facility with strategic management defeated German genius on the battlefield, but then strategy—where wars are won—always trumps tactics—where battles are won. Real strategic talent can also transition in and out of war and the way in which we played a prominent supporting role to the US in creating a post-war, rules-based global architecture and an alliance that defeated the Soviet Union without firing a shot, showed that we still had the knack up until the late 20th century. But then in 1991, things began to change.
The first Gulf War looked initially like a conflict fought within the classical strategic tradition. But when two no-fly zones were established in the north and south of Iraq, followed by a limited land incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan, we moved away from the classical tradition of war as the means to resolve the balance of power between states, to war as an instrument to address the balance of power within states. Tony Blair would put some intellectual shape on this doctrine when in a speech in Chicago in April 1999 he made the case for liberal intervention, and, after 9/11, this doctrine would guide western strategy.
It hasn’t ended well. Liberal intervention can never have the absolute imperative of a war of national survival, and, unlike 1939-45, we were never able to mobilise the resources necessary to have a decisive effect against the energies we released. Ends always outstripped means and a complete re-ordering of the terms of engagement in the Middle East, an incipient war between the Shia and Sunni factions of Islam and a reluctance to put our hands in the mangle of tragedies like Syria has been the result.
Set in the current international context, Hunt and his colleagues in government will also need to decide how to address two other strategic challenges: populism and the collapse of the cherished post-war order. Even with Brexit and Trump, many have tried to dismiss populism as one last howl of rage from old white men soon to be replaced by tolerant millennials. Maybe so, but there is another view that perhaps rather than coming to the end of something, we are in fact at the beginning of a new era of political fragmentation. At the same time, the post-war institutional order populated by the IMF, GATT (later the WTO), the UN and NATO is staggering under the weight of its own failures and the rise of new, ambitious alternatives. That by 2030 the world’s largest economy will not be a democracy tells its own story and may be seen as a symptom of what has been titled a democratic recession.
To respond to all this will be a salutary challenge to a mid-sized nation thoroughly confused and distracted by its own internal debates. Hunt’s ambition for Britain “to be an invisible chain that links the world’s democracies” lacks the scale of Blair’s proposals in Chicago but perhaps it is a philosophy for our times. That the single doctrine of liberal intervention has failed does not mean that government can abdicate its role in setting national strategy. The foreign secretary might be on to something.