Who does UK National Strategy? - Public Administration Committee Contents

3  Do we a need a 'National Strategy'?

17. The Foreign Secretary set out the need for a concept of this sort. He explained to us that:

the way I think about it and in terms of the way we are going about our work is that we have to have a national strategy for extending our influence, for maintaining our presence in the world and for ensuring that we can look after the security and prosperity of the British people. That requires something more than just dealing with things on a day-to-day basis. [...] there should be something that is overarching [ ...]. There should be some sense of what we are trying to achieve as a country over a longer period.[21][22]

We welcome this recognition, that National Strategy is a vital component of the process of government if policies and actions are to respond to changing challenges.

18. In his first major speech last July, the Foreign Secretary stated that the SDSR would be a fundamental reappraisal of Britain's place in the world and how we operate within it. He warned that the world had changed. If Britain did not change with it, its role would decline. He enumerated five factors of change:
i. economic power and opportunity was shifting to countries in the East and South;
ii. the circle of international decision-making had become wider and more multilateral;
iii. ensuring security has become more complex in the face of new threats;
iv. the nature of conflict was changing; and
v. the emergence of a networked world.[23]

19. We recognise many of the factors that the Foreign Secretary outlined in his speech but the ways and means by which these could be met remain unclear.

Examples of strategic failure: Iraq and Afghanistan

20. The unpopularity of the war in Iraq, coupled with the public's lack of understanding of the reasons for the war in Afghanistan, have drawn attention to the lack of a strategic rationale and deficiencies in strategic preparation for those conflicts. Lack of consistent strategy goes a long way towards explaining why the conflicts have not gone well for the UK. For example Sir Robert Fry, who was Deputy CDS (Plans) when the first Helmand deployment was being planned, described "...a general mood within Whitehall at the time" for "shifting the main military effort from Iraq to Afghanistan".[24] Asked whether there was anyone generating thinking and challenging from within the MoD, or elsewhere in Whitehall, he gave an unequivocal "No".[25]

21. The initial plan was for a three year deployment with 3,150 troops and a budget of £1.5 billion. During this time the UK was meant to lead the reconstruction of Helmand. 340 British soldiers have died, all but seven of them since the incursion into Helmand. Before the deployment in Helmand only two service personal had been killed in combat.

22. Despite the initial plan for a three year campaign, Sir Robert Fry indicated that the deployment to Helmand showed "an absence of Grand Strategy" and no "sense of national interest".[26] Commodore Jermy, who was serving in the office of the CDS at the time, confirmed the impression of the lack of strategy within NATO. In 2007, after asking Regional centres in two separate areas of Afghanistan about the strategy they were using to design this campaign, he was told "There's no plan, Sir. We're just getting on with it." He described the consequences of this lack of strategy as follows: "if you think about the South, Kandahar is by far the most important province there, and it had 1,200 Canadian troops. Helmand is not the most important but it had 5,500 British troops. That does not make sense".[27]

23. He continued:

I think the position in Afghanistan is the classic example. The fact that we were not concerned that there was not a coalition strategy in Afghanistan is a demonstration to me that we must be more concerned. We are not going to win this campaign if there is not an overall strategy.[28]

24. The failure to develop a strategy after the initial deployment in Afghanistan left the UK and NATO unprepared to deal with the "long-term political problem" of altering the internal balance of power in Afghanistan between the north and south. It allowed the Northern Alliance a far greater primacy than had previously existed in Afghanistan. Commodore Jermy expressed his disappointment "that we didn't do any broader military analysis and that we moved for purely military reasons".[29]

25. The failure of government to take account of the impact of its Middle East policy on a sizable proportion of the UK's ethnic community, and the repercussions that has had for national security, is another example of lack of strategic thinking in government. As Steven Jermy observed:

I think we have probably over the last five years not really thought enough about the broad political context in which we are operating and whether, for example, it makes good sense to have large bodies of western troops marching about the lands of Islam. It might feel right tactically, but strategically I am quite nervous about it. As Eliza Manningham-Buller said, this is a recruiting sergeant and we have really got to try to think about this strategically for once.[30]

The evolving strategic context

26. The strategic 'certainties' of the Cold War led to a reliance on the two touchstones of modern British diplomacy. On the one hand the 'special relationship' with the US with the associated defence framework around our membership of NATO; and on the other, the primacy of our economic interests being identified as falling largely within the European Union. The Foreign Secretary considered that—even after independent thought—we would soon reach the conclusion that, "[...] our alliance with the United States is of extreme importance to us and that our membership of the European Union is desirable for the country. So yes, those things—the relationship with the United States and the European Union—are, if you like, givens in our approach to the world".[31]

27. Those assumptions are shifting and should now perhaps be challenged. Professor Lindley-French considered that:

For the last 50 or 60 years, our penchant for balancing others has tended to lead us to seek common ground between the American worldview and the French European view, to put it bluntly, but those pillars are changing. Those assumptions that we've had for 50 or 60 years about where our best national effort should be made to achieve the most likely security for our citizens are themselves in question.[32]

28. Furthermore the recent financial crisis had thrown into sharp focus not only the interconnection and interdependency of the global economy, but also how unpredictable the source of the threat to our society's prosperity and well-being can be. Sir Robert Fry identified 'strategic shocks':

[...] something that happens that makes us think entirely differently: [...]. 9/11 was one of those and then the financial collapse was another. It seems to me that the world in which we live, which is globalised, networked and increasingly anarchistic, is likely to have more rather than fewer strategic shocks, so at best we create a mechanism which allows us to absorb them as and when they happen.[33]

29. A possible response in a less certain environment could be, as Dr Niblett noted, to focus on effective crisis management and contingency planning. However, as he went on to observe, the right response was to be proactive in the face of such changes based on clear strategic thinking. "Otherwise, the UK will condemn itself to becoming a victim to the negative aspects of those changes while potentially foregoing opportunities to promote its interests in a changed world".[34] We therefore need to adopt assessment methods which reliably identify risks and opportunities and can suggest ways to address them.

30. Plotting the UK's path through these uncertain times needs clear, deep and sustained strategic thinking which adapts to changes in our strategic environment. It needs to be articulated constantly and updated regularly. If the UK is to navigate its way successfully through the networked world, and to "lift its eyes to the wider strategic needs of this country", we need a National Strategy. It must be well founded , coherent and responsive to events as they occur as well also capable of anticipating opportunities. As things stand there is little idea of what the UK's national interest is, and therefore what our strategic purpose should be.

Principles of good strategy making

  1. In taking evidence we sought to identify the defining elements of good strategy-making. Therefore we have distilled the contributions we have received into a set of principles which we hope can form the basis for an agreed 'grammar' for a renewed strategic literacy amongst practitioners.

Fig 1: Principles of good strategy making
i.  investment of time and energy by ministers to create an 'appetite' for strategic thinking;

ii.  a definition of long-term national interests both domestic and international;

iii.  consideration of all options and possibilities, including those which challenge established thinking and settled policies;

iv.  consideration of the constraints and limitations which apply to such options and possibilities;

v.  a comprehensive understanding of the resources available;

vi.  good quality staff work to develop strategy;

vii.  access to the widest possible expertise beyond government;

viii.  a structure which ensures the process happens;

ix.  audit, evaluation and critical challenge; and

x.  Parliamentary oversight to ensure scrutiny and accountability.

We go on to consider how far these 'principles' are adhered to in government.

21   Q 2 Back

22   Q 53 Back

23   Britain's Foreign Policy in a Networked World, 1 July 2010 , http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/news/latest-news/?view=Speech&id=22472881. Back

24   Q 197 Back

25   Q 200 Back

26   Q 208 Back

27   Q 196 Back

28   Q 215 Back

29   Q 198 Back

30   Q 236 Back

31   Q 96 Back

32   Q 4  Back

33   Q 231  Back

34   Ev 81 Back

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Prepared 18 October 2010