With Brexit on the horizon, growing Chinese influence and a resurgent Russia, this article aims to outline why an increase in defence spending is critical to the UK’s interests and for maintaining its diplomatic influence on the global stage for the future.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Edward Davies, an MA in International Relations at the University of Leeds with a keen interest in the military especially the RAF, having been a member of Yorkshire Universities Air Squadron and intending to join the RAF next year.
A recent report published by the Commons Defence Committee has outlined how defence spending should see a 1% increase (of GDP from £40bn to £60bn) in order for the UK to ‘maintain influence among Washington and NATO allies’1.
This comes at a time when the UK is facing an increasing number of new threats on the global stage. Most significantly, a resurgent Russia, a more ambitious and assertive China, and an evolving world order; moving away from the liberal rules and norms based system to, arguably, a new period of great power politics which is sure to present novel challenges to the UK in the 21st century.
It is in this backdrop that the UK finds itself attempting to project its global power and influence, with many starting to question the impact Brexit will have on the UK’s ability to protect its national interests. Despite the competing claims in the media, in academic circles, it is a widely held view that Brexit will only serve to detract from Britain’s once global influence. This will come as a result of the UK being removed from the decision making body of the largest cooperative block on earth, no longer being able to exert the great influence on the policy formulation processes that it once held and, therefore, losing one of the UK’s most important bargaining chips for bilateral relations on the international stage.
These concerns have been echoed in the Washington, as the UK Defence Journal recently reported that US defence secretary Jim Mattis is concerned that the UK’s military and diplomatic power is being ‘diminished’ amid a world that is ‘awash with change’2. As a result of this developing situation, the question of how the UK will protect its national interests whilst maintaining its influence is both an important and timely one.
In recent global history, the UK was able to exert its influence in the form of ‘soft power’ a term first coined by Joseph Nye in the late 1980’s3. Soft Power is described as the ability to attract and co-opt, shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction using the currencies of culture, political values and foreign policies. The soft power index provides an annual assessment and ranking of the soft power of states in relation to one another.
Whilst Britain once continuously led the world in the soft power index, Brexit has seen a changed in attitude toward the UK, with its status being downgraded and other countries, such as France becoming more prominent4. Therefore, in light of Brexit and the recent political turmoil in the UK, it seems clear that Britain will be increasingly less able to influence international affairs through the power of attraction.
This has led many to call for an increase in ‘hard power’, defined as the use of both military and economic means to influence the behaviour or interest of other political bodies, coercing another to act in ways in which that entity would otherwise not have acted5,6, in an effort to retain some of the UK’s global influence and protect its national interests. Here, Nye describes the ‘carrot and stick approach’ in which ‘carrots’ are inducements such as the offer of an alliance or the promise of military protection and ‘sticks’ are the threat of coercive diplomacy and the use of military force7. Therefore, an increase in defence spending would see an increase in Britain’s ability to project ‘hard power’ onto the global stage.
The review outlines how increased funds would be put to use stating that an increase in defence spending of 1% would comfortably fill the current ‘black hole’ in the defence budget, whilst enabling the UK’s armed forces to expand its current capabilities.
The significance of the potential increase in spending and improved capabilities is amplified when current global affairs are taking into consideration.
Since its 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russia has repeatedly shown its willingness to utilise a new form of aggression to attain its objectives. Aimed mostly at western states, this new Russian tactic termed ‘hybrid warfare’8, utilises a new blend of traditional hard power, nationalism, populism and subversive misinformation to attain Moscow’s objectives. This has generated a new generation of non-traditional security threats toward NATO and other EU states.
Most notably, increased aggression toward key national infrastructures in cyber space has seen a jump in the number of cyber-attacks by groups labelled as ‘cyber-criminals’, with only a thin veil separating them from their state sponsors. This has been followed by a propaganda war, conducted online, through the creation of conflicting stories designed to create confusion and obscure the real picture, allowing Moscow to set the narrative for unfolding events and subversively influencing national politics of other nations; Brexit and the U.S elections just two examples.
Finally, this has been underpinned by Putin’s new willingness to deploy ground forces, or the ‘little green men’ as they have come to be known in the media, claiming to be Russian nationals, with plausible deniability separating them from their true identity, in order to achieve Russian territorial gains and remind other nations of Russia’s strength. This new Russian aggression is likely to threaten the UK’s national interests and security if the country is not properly equipped and prepared to rebuke them.
Europe has not been the only place which has witnessed rising tensions in recent years. As is only natural for any rising major power, China has looked to challenge U.S hegemony in its region, hoping to replace the regional hegemon through a more assertive foreign policy, spearheaded by an annually increasing defence budget and land reclamation programme in the South China Sea. This has seen more assertive confrontations between U.S and Chinese forces as each side tests one another’s capabilities and limits creating a strong feeling of strategic mistrust between Beijing and Washington with an increasing potential of miscalculations spilling over into conflict.
Although no direct threat to the UK Britain has a vested interest in ensuring that the East Asia region remains peaceful with freedom of navigation in the seas to ensure continuing prosperity for all nations. Additionally, with global economic power shifting east, the UK must be prepared to adapt to the potential of an evolving world order in which the U.S is not the sole global hegemon, requiring the UK to project itself into the region in order to reinforce current relationships whilst forging new ones; a task facilitated by an expanded and capable armed forces.
Britain leaving the EU will also further expose the UK to threats of terrorism and organised crime, as leaving the EU will result in Britain’s removal from intelligence sharing and policing agencies, such as Interpol, which has contributed to the security of all of Europe. In the future, the UK will solely be responsible for securing its borders, a task that would seem difficult simply as a result of the islands proximity to mainland Europe and the continent’s freedom of movement.
The UK may stand alone relying on policing on UK shores and self-generated intelligence to tackle organised crime and terrorism, or be forced to develop new treaties with European nations to ensure continued cooperation. Decreased cooperation between the EU and UK on these matters will leave UK resources not only overstretched but disassemble many years of fruitful work developing world leading counter-terrorism and organised crime procedures and institutes in the face of an increasing terrorist threat to the UK.
An increased investment in defence would allow the UK to remain at the forefront of global affairs, effectively tackling these new challenges, influencing bilateral relations, reassuring allies, deterring potential aggressors and protecting its overseas interests. Away from issues of national security, one practical example of this is how increased investment in the armed forces could benefit the UK is in trade negotiations.
Possessing an expanding and capable armed forces and reaffirming British commitment to NATO would provide a powerful bargain chip in any future trade negotiations Britain may conduct with the U.S and Canada, in which the UK would likely find itself on the back foot, providing a return on the investment spent. This could also be true for Australia and New Zealand, both of whom are very aware of increasing Chinese influence in the region, making the UK an attractive trade and security partner.
Domestically, the importance of the UK’s armed forces has also recently been highlighted with a new report published by Philip Dunne9 stating that British prosperity ‘relies on defence’. The review reports that over 500,000 people work directly or in-directly with defence, with the sector being a leading provider in highly skilled jobs, including 25,500 apprenticeships, and bringing in £22 billion annually.
Therefore, any boost in defence spending would also bring clear economic benefits at home, as growth in the defence sector cold expect to be met with an increase in exports and trade deals for UK industry, helping to protect and generate new jobs.
Therefore, an increase in defence spending would go some way to mitigate a margin of the political fallout Brexit is expected to generate in the future, helping to sustain some of the UK’s influence in bilateral relations.
Furthermore, an increasingly capable armed forces would ensure the UK is seen as a serious partner in defence, security and other sectors, also ensuring the continued protection of the United Kingdom as it faces numerous challenges to its national security. However, an increased defence budget alone will not be a sufficient remedy to counter the effects of Brexit and would only be part of the solution the UK would need to project a successful foreign policy, helping the country to tackle the many evolving challenges on the international stage in the 21st century.
A full effort of novel solutions, policies and attitudes will have to be adopted in London to ensure the UK is best placed not only to navigate but prosper in the future rough seas of the international environment.
- Joseph Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, 2004
- Daryl Copeland (Feb 2, 2010). “Hard Power Vs. Soft Power”. The Mark.
- Ernest J. Wilson (March 2008). “Hard Power, Soft Power, Smart Power”(PDF). The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 616 (1):
- Joseph Nye (January 10, 2003). “Propaganda Isn’t the Way: Soft Power”. International Herald Tribune.
- Kingsley Donaldson and Paul Cornish, 2020: World of War, 2017