Boris Johnson’s government has cast its gaze eastward. The UK prime minister plans to turn back the clock by dispatching the Royal Navy’s flagship east of the Suez Canal to former outposts of empire in the Gulf and east Asia. The country, he says, is set to recover its maritime prowess. The aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will cross the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean to uphold free navigation in the South China Sea.
Mr Johnson had promised to publish a new foreign and defence strategy before the UK’s final separation from the EU at the end of December. This has been postponed in favour of an announcement of a big increase in defence spending. The prime minister lives in the first Elizabethan age. If anyone imagined Brexit would diminish the UK, his “global Britain” vision is proof otherwise. For European power, we must now read world power.
The exceptionalism belongs to the Rule Britannia school of foreign policy. It’s all about flag waving, cheering people up and, if ever Europe comes into view, reminding them that Britain won the war. The planned foray east of Suez is rich in imperial nostalgia. The rhetoric is miles distant from reality.
The extra £16.5bn Mr Johnson has committed to defence over the next few years will usefully fill shortfalls in the existing budget. It will also pay for some new projects in cyber security and space. It will not be transformational. Expensive aircraft carriers and an even more expensive nuclear deterrent have still to be paid for by a hollowing out of less glamorous capabilities.
So next year’s expedition will be brief. The navy is short of the costly F35 aircraft that sit on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth. It lacks support ships to sustain the carrier for long periods at sea. Doubtless the exercise will anger Beijing, but it is not about to dent China’s strategic calculus.
The UK gave up its global power pretensions at the end of the 1960s when it realised it could not afford a military presence east of Suez. This supposedly infamous retreat directed resources to the defence of Europe. At the time, the government was spending 6 per cent of its national income on defence. The comparable figure now is a little above 2 per cent.
Mr Johnson’s increase carries its own cost. The UK’s generous aid budget has until now been one of a handful meeting the UN target of 0.7 per cent of national income. It makes a unique contribution both to global development and security and to the country’s international standing. It embeds humanitarian values in practical policy. With the budget now to be cut to pay for the new military hardware, the UK will be no less a loser than the world’s poorest nations.
Brexit will change many things. The facts of geopolitics are not among them. The international threats facing the UK, and the options to counter them, will not alter on January 1 2021. As a sizeable European power with far-flung trade and investment ties, the nation’s interests reside above all in a rules-based global order. In an age of upheaval, international treaties, shared security and multilateral agreements are not matters of political choice or philosophy, but bulwarks of security and prosperity.
Post-Brexit, the UK must look to the same partners. National defence remains embedded in the close military and intelligence relationship with the US under the umbrella of the Nato alliance. Confronting today’s security threats — from Russian revanchism, violent upheaval in the Middle East, uncontrolled migration, cyber attacks, Islamist terrorism and cross-border criminals — is an endeavour shared with the rest of Europe.
These two pivotal relationships have been weakened by Brexit. Without a seat in Brussels, the UK has less leverage with the US. Antony Blinken, selected by president-elect Joe Biden as US secretary of state, looks to Germany as Washington’s most important European ally. The UK has given up its untrammelled access to European terrorist and criminal databases and its voice in shaping the response to the shared threats.
The question policymakers have to grapple with is how to sustain distinct British influence as the US administration refurbishes its partnership with the EU27. The increase in defence spending was intended as a downpayment — an assurance to Washington that the UK will maintain its contribution to alliance defence. To the same end, intelligence and law-enforcement chiefs are nurturing informal channels of co-operation with their European counterparts.
The infuriating paradox in all this is that Mr Johnson’s braggadocio hides rather than amplifies the considerable contribution the UK still has to offer in support of a liberal world order. Its economy ranks in the top 10, it has first-rate intelligence agencies, a formidable diplomatic service and defence forces that can keep the peace as well as fight. It is a member of the world’s important clubs. This is in addition to the soft power accumulated by its universities, creative industries and global cultural connections.
Weaving this into a worldview that projects the nation’s values and promotes international security and prosperity, however, requires a touch of humility in place of adolescent bombast. The UK is good at many things. It is not invariably a world-beater. If it wants to be comfortable in the present, it cannot remain trapped in Mr Johnson’s version of the past.