UK International Defence Engagement Strategy: A Balancing Act with Little Impact?

With Britain edging ever closer to negotiating our departure from the EU, the UK’s defence and security represents perhaps the most critical policy area which could see a significant shakeup.  It was therefore in timely fashion that the UK’s International Defence Engagement Strategy 2017 (IDES) was published on February 17th laying out ‘how defence engagement contributes to delivering our vision of security and prosperity with strengthened influence to further our interests across the world’. Since the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, there has been an ambition to more explicitly align defence with broader diplomatic interests. This has been a welcome driving force of successive IDES documents, with the latest one being the first IDES to be published jointly between the Ministry of Defence and Foreign & Commonwealth Office, with a joint introduction from both Secretaries of State. This is important, and it is therefore telling that the publication of the IDES has passed so unremarked in all major UK news outletsanother reminder of the increasingly stretched and distracted capacity in the UK at a critical time on so many fronts.

In the introduction of the IDE strategy, British defence policy is set out as being ‘International by Design’. The strategy propagates a distinct global outlook, reinforcing Britain’s position as an international player, whose influence extends beyond Europe. Within this strategy, defence engagement is the key means by which this international approach should be achieved, deploying our wide-ranging defence capacity, expertise and reputation to be used alongside other tools of government, for positive soft power influence to support government strategy. An example outlined in the strategy is the creation of a new Joint Force 2025 with the aim of tackling potential adversaries and to increase the Armed forces’ ability to work with the rest of the government. The fact the IDE strategy was created in conjunction with the FCO demonstrates the government’s commitment to broadening our defence strategy beyond military operations through the skills and expertise of the FCO.

The clear global outlook in British defence policy outlined in the IDE strategy is counterbalanced by an ongoing commitment to security and defence cooperation with Europe. However, the nature of this UK-EU defence relationship is relatively ill-defined in the new strategy.  Notably, there is no reference to how Britain might redesign its relationship with the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Britain’s possible position within the CSDP and CFSP post-Brexit could be wide ranging. From being an integrated player, remaining outside the EU but inside the CSDP, to becoming detached, working in separate missions on a case by case basis alongside EU military deployments, replicating the US’ approach. Therefore, the IDE’s absence of any mention of how the government intends to navigate this relationship, whilst understandable, represents a major area of uncertainty in the UK’s defence engagement strategy.

Potentially compensating for the IDE strategy’s lack of clarity regarding its post-Brexit involvement with EU’s CFSP and CSDP, the strategy reinforces the UK’s goals for strengthening other multilateral groupings and bilateral relations within and beyond Europe. For example, the IDE strategy explicitly mentions the UK’s desire to continue to build “exceptionally close defence and security ties with France”. The 2010 Lancaster House treaties created a new Anglo-French defence relationship rooted in collaboration on nuclear weapons technology and increased interoperability of armed forces. The IDE strategy makes a renewed commitment to this treaty.

The IDES represents an important statement of the British government’s intention of striking a balance in its defence policy between extending its global reach and maintaining close ties with Europe post-Brexit, but in other respects the report deserves to be more ambitious in proposing  how the UK can seize the opportunities not just of our changing relationship with Europe, but of the fast shifting geopolitical, social and technological changes playing themselves out globally. In particular, given the important emphasis on its role in promoting prosperity, there is little consideration, outside the important but narrow issues of arms sales and technology sharing, of the interrelationships between international defence engagement and the protection and promotion of market access, trade routes and supply chains. Given the ongoing revolutions in military technology and their growing impact on how the UK, its allies, and its adversaries interact with hi-tech industries, manufacturing, supply chains and raw materials, this absence seems significant.

It could be that the government is currently keeping its defence cards close to its chest ahead of Brexit negotiations, but evidence of more consideration of some of these critical issues for the UK is important. One useful step would be to publish the next IDES as jointly between the MOD, FCO and Department of International Trade. This would be a welcome statement of the increasing interdependence between the UK’s prosperity, security and influence, with our international defence engagements sitting at the heart of all three.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
BFPG Admin