The U.K. Still Knows How to Punch Above Its Weight

The recent defense review lays out how to be a midsize power in a superpower world.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy.
Members of the 105th Regiment Royal Artillery fire a 41-round gun salute to mark the death of the Duke of Edinburgh at Edinburgh Castle on April 10.
Members of the 105th Regiment Royal Artillery fire a 41-round gun salute to mark the death of the Duke of Edinburgh at Edinburgh Castle on April 10. Andrew Milligan-WPA Pool/Getty Images

With the recent publication of the United Kingdom’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, a country that lost an empire may finally have found a role. That matters not just in a post-Brexit Britain looking for direction but for a world in which the U.K. still matters. Though no superpower, the U.K. remains a significant player on the geopolitical chessboard, with sustained medium- to long-term capabilities that can alter global dynamics. The shift in defense stance and offensive focus that this review signals will do just that.

After World War II, the U.K. settled into a path of managed decline on the global stage as it slowly withdrew from an empire it could no longer afford. Part of the process was the conscious effort to become a trusty lieutenant to the then-unquestioned Western superpower, the United States, while aiming its dwindling capacities at defending against the potential ambitions of the Soviet Union in continental Europe and ditching expensive imperial possessions. Consequently, the defense posture of the country for the past half-century has been largely aimed at large-scale land battles in Europe against the national armies of Warsaw Pact countries.

The Soviet Union has been gone for three decades. But that defense posture still found utility as part of America’s military efforts in the Balkans in the ’90s, and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in the 2000s. Today, however, this defense posture is looking well and truly obsolete. Modern threats do not look like classic war over territory between state actors. Today’s contentions with other states are over technological supremacy; over the security of the electronic information infrastructure; over the legitimacy of political institutions and the moral bases that underpin them; over transnational economic forces, both formal and criminal; over resource security; and over refugee flows. And more than often enough, nonstate actors also get actively involved in these battles, with their own agendas entirely separate from the interests of any state.

This Integrated Review is Britain’s first serious examination of these actual threats, as well as some of the emerging areas of conflict, such as space. And the “integrated” nature of it is significant. The military capabilities of the U.K.—although growing in absolute terms—continue to dwindle relative to the United States’ and especially China’s. Yet the U.K. retains in the civilian domain globally relevant capabilities in areas such as the internet, space, artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnology, and other high-tech areas with military and geopolitical applications.

The fundamental thrust of the Integrated Review is to bring in some of these capabilities—principally cyber-, space, and AI—under some degree of state coordination to aid in defending U.K. civilian interests in those areas but also to help the country project power internationally.

The significance of this redeployment is best understood in the context of the trans-Atlantic relationship. Were it not for the U.S. security guarantee under NATO, the shrinking of the standing army by more than 10 percent and the reduction of stocks of armored vehicles would be reckless, compromising the fundamentals of defense for offensive capabilities that might seem nonessential.

But the British have long been on a trajectory toward specialization, whereby they increasingly dedicate resources to become extremely competent in specific areas of military capability that are of very high utility to their U.S. and NATO partners—on the understanding that the basics of their domestic defense will be covered by the pact with their allies. The British have for a while now had some of the most competent special forces units in the world, routinely a genuine asset to U.S. operations all around the world, but at the same time have maintained a considerable smaller navy in recent years than might be expected.

Given the current geopolitical realities, this is a perfectly sensible way for the U.K. to specialize. It allows London to project much more force with limited resources than it would have otherwise been able to had it maintained a more traditional defensive stance.

The Integrated Review should be understood as a full embrace of this approach. The special forces capabilities, increasingly relevant in the current world, will be significantly bolstered, reinforcing Britain’s status as a global leader in the area, but the ambition for global excellence in narrow areas of hard power will be extended especially to the domains of the internet and space.

Britain is already a globally significant player in the cyber-arena and, with adequate resourcing, could become a powerhouse in this domain as it has for special operations. Space, another key area in the review, is shakier, where the Europeans, Japanese, and Indians have made leaps ahead of the British in recent years. But the U.K. has a long postwar record of successful scientific specialization, as amply demonstrated by its vaccine successes.

And London should be able to rely on the continued cooperation of the United States in this area of shared interest, since their cyber-research, both governmental and private, has been closely tied together for decades.

Within that trans-Atlantic framework, Britain’s specialized capacities will act as a force multiplier. By default, the incumbent military superpowers, the United States and China, will have more traditional defensive postures, seeking to match and neutralize each other’s offensive capabilities.

Caught in between that fundamentally defensive arms race, middle-tier powers such as the U.K., France, Russia, Japan, and India tip the scales in the favor of one or the other of the superpowers in particular areas. The difference between the U.K. and all the other relevant middle-tier powers is that the others also feel compelled to maintain an independent defensive posture of their own. France and Japan would normally expect the United States to underwrite their domestic defense, as Washington has done since World War II, but for both domestic political reasons and as a consequence of the disastrous effects of the Trump administration on allies’ trust in America’s security guarantees, they do not feel comfortable entrusting their defense entirely to Washington—Tokyo having ordered its largest-ever defense budget last year.

The U.K. is in a unique position in this respect because it does not have any reason to expect a threat to its heartland from any of its near- or even mid-distance neighbors. The closest hostile country to the U.K. is Russia—with a hearty swath of NATO states between it and Britain. This frees the U.K. to allocate resources to offensive capabilities in the emergent areas of special operations, the internet, and, yes, even space to such an extent that it can reasonably be expected to be able to compete even with China and the United States in those specific areas.

This is where the last piece of the puzzle fits in: the shift of focus of the U.K. defense stance away from Europe and to the Indo-Pacific. Since Britain is making itself almost entirely dependent on the U.S. and NATO security guarantee for the traditional defense of its heartland, those new offensive capabilities will only be used against powers hostile to the trans-Atlantic alliance: China and, to a lesser extent, Russia. In other words, Washington is looking at having its capabilities effectively doubled in those areas for free. If anything is likely to contain the rise of China to regional military dominance, this force multiplier effect—led by the U.K. and perhaps soon followed by others—may be it.

Azeem Ibrahim is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC. He is the author of Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism and The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide.
 Twitter: @azeemibrahim