Spring 2021 Editorial

Editorial – Spring 2021

Beyond the sad departure of our most senior member, it will not be a surprise that this edition of your journal is dominated by thoughts on, and analysis of, the UK Government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (IR21), published after prolonged gestation on 18 March, and the subordinate Defence in a Competitive Age Defence White Paper made public a week later. However one views the output of both documents – and this edition of your Review offers much in the way of analysis – the one thing certain is that IR21 matches the moment; a watershed as much deserving of serious attention as the Options for Change Strategic Defence Review did in 1990, when it looked to the restructuring of the British Armed Forces after the end of the Cold War. 

Why? In my opinion for two reasons. First, we in the UK now stand alone on the world stage, no longer part of an economic and political bloc. This requires the Government, who took us out of that bloc, to describe its vision for what this newfound ‘self-determinism’ means and how we might shape a niche for ourselves on a globe now riven with a multiplicity of political, economic, societal, ideological and environmental challenges – with the latter explicitly highlighted as a critical concern in IR21. And second, in that context, after two decades of what could be termed strategic distraction, we are waking up to the dangers of a re-emergent Russia – an ‘active threat’ – and the hugely more pernicious danger of China (and in particular that of the Chinese Communist Party) that IR21 considers a ‘systemic challenge’. The first contribution in this edition includes a very compelling analysis on this danger. We have debated in previous editions of this journal – and no less so in 2019 (NR107/4) – the tension between developing maritime presence or poise. We have also discussed the problems of living in an age of a deficit of trust and the consequence of not countering the corrosive narrative that, for instance, supported Russian attacks on UK soil – ‘Weapons of Mass Disruption’ (NR 106/3). We have also repeatedly discussed the value of deterrence and Britain as a nuclear power. Over numerous articles we have sounded warning bells regarding China. We have even engaged on a discourse on the consequences (or not) of Climate Change. I could go on.

The point is, looking back, just over the last few years, we have in the pages of this journal proffered thoughts, ideas and themes entirely in step with the outcome of IR21. Given we now stand at a ‘tilting’ point, consequent of threats and motivations highlighted above, this cannot be the time for further ‘fence sitting’. Action not indecision is essential if the UK is to become strategically credible – or ‘strategically serious’, as the second contribution in this edition opines – in an increasingly competitive era, whose accompanying complexity is at least part of our own making. 

The UK Government has declared a future based around ‘Global Britain’; asserting an ambition, after decades of unproductive introspection, to regain strategic relevance through four overarching objectives: sustaining a strategic advantage through science and technology, shaping an open international order through working with partners and international institutions, strengthening its security across all levers of power at home and abroad and developing the UK’s resilience to threats to our national interests at home and overseas. What wasn’t, perhaps, emphasised enough is that this is a monumentally ‘wicked’ 

problem; given our drift for many years over numerous defence and security reviews (nine in the last 20 years), the challenges of digging ourselves out of a crippling pandemic and an international order where autocrats have made much ground amongst disunited democrats – whose model of governance, and leadership example, has been seriously undermined by the global financial crisis of 2007–8, by some more recent military adventures, by comparatively less successful responses in the West to the pandemic and by fractious polarised politics leading to uncertain directions of travel. 

So, from an encompassing IR21 that provides a truly ‘Comprehensive’ appreciation, the Defence White Paper highlights the intent to address new forms of warfare that will inevitably impact on traditional conventional means, to reshape a global capability to influence where our national, not just defence, interests lie and to stop being continentally orientated in favour of a maritime future that is more aligned to the geopolitical needs of an ex-EU member (island) state on the north-western fringes of Europe. Some will point to the lack of detail in that White Paper (as highlighted in a recent NR ‘Thursday Jaw’ – a summary is recorded in this edition) and, in that respect, it might thus be more a statement of aspiration than policy. But I would opine, there is still a very clear signpost – global doesn’t mean remaining largely at home but reaching out, with sustained presence, to the other side of the world, if necessary, via the environment best suited to such endeavour – the maritime. And in this regard, for the first time in decades the sense of decline in the UK’s maritime capabilities now has the very real promise of being reversed. 

You, undoubtedly, will have a view. I would suggest we, the NR, must engage in teasing out the detail and holding to account those who promote the promises of IR21. Too often in the past have such reviews failed for lack of sustained political will or due to incoherence in financial provisions when the ‘devil-in-the-detail’is exposed. That said, as highlighted above, we must recognise that we are at a watershed. Indecisive action now, in part consequent of our natural scepticism resulting from past failed strategic reviews, will only undermine the UK’s future in a fast-evolving world. As Cicero said, “more is lost by indecision than wrong decisions…indecision is the thief of opportunity.” Now, particularly for the maritime, is a fleeting opportunity to shape a successful future, to the real benefit of the UK, before that future overtakes us. 

BRUCE WILLIAMS