Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Dr Patrick Porter (ST 14)

I would like to offer some brief thoughts on why grand strategy is difficult for the UK to conceive and apply today. This submission intends to address question 1(a) Where is there a failure to be coherent? and on the concept of national strategy in government more broadly.

This is based on my work as a Reader in Strategic Studies at the University of Reading, as member of the UK Chief of Defence Staff’s Strategic Forum, and a contributing editor to the online strategy ejournal Infinity.


In current strategic debate, the predominant focus on institutions and mechanisms runs the risk of eclipsing a deeper debate about identity and ideas.

The coherence of British grand strategy suffers from several interlocking difficulties in the realm of ideas: the cultural problem, the boundaries problem, the liberalism problem, and the autonomy problem.

The Cultural problem: there is resistance to the very concept of grand strategy at both an elite and popular level in British society.

The Boundaries problem: the fading of geopolitical thinking means British “interests” have been de-territorialised almost to the point of incoherence.

The Liberalism problem: liberalism potentially makes it harder to recognise the compromises and tradeoffs inherent to making strategy.

The Autonomy problem: Britain has become a satellite state within an American grand strategy.

Institutions and Ideas

Recent debate on UK grand strategy has pivoted on the issue of institutions. The focus for a recent conference at the Royal United Services Institute, for example, was on creating mechanisms within government that will more effectively produce strategy. The creation of new fora, a new National Security Council and new declaratory documents reflects the priority of giving strategy an institutional “home”.

This is an important undertaking and deserves attention. But the question of ideas and identity has been underplayed. The creation of an elaborate architecture within which the nation coordinates its arms of government, and links its resources to its goals, can potentially be a hollow exercise. Formal structures in themselves are not necessarily a bulwark against what Walter Lippmann called “insolvency”—where a state’s commitments exceed its power, leading to greater insecurity abroad and division at home.

Institutions are not necessarily fertile for the creative interplay of ideas and critical thinking. They can be captured by orthodoxies, hostile to dissent and constrained by narrow political agendas. The United States faces a grave debt-deficit crisis and is still recovering from the costly and polarising invasion of Iraq, despite having a National Security Council and a National Security Strategy. Indeed, a preoccupation with styles of government potentially can eclipse the most vital question of ideas and identity: what kind of country does Britain want to be, and have the power to be?

To be sure, there is an important relationship between institutions and ideas. For strategy to be effective, it needs a vehicle of articulation and delivery. But for institutions to be effective, they need to be receptive to the broadest possible market of ideas.

In the realm of ideas and identity, conceiving and making strategy in contemporary Britain is made difficult by four interlocking problems: the Cultural problem, the Boundaries problem, the Liberalism problem and the Autonomy problem.

The Cultural Problem

It is difficult for the concept “grand strategy” to take root in contemporary Britain, because in several respects there is considerable resistance to it. On one hand, it can be conceived so grandly as to be a useless concept, so that “grand strategy” is conflated with just about everything. Grand strategy is an expansive but not unlimited idea. It is the orchestration of ends, ways and means to secure a way of life in a context of actual or possible armed conflict. The actuality or possibility of armed conflict, and the underlying notion that world politics is an anarchic jungle where states need to help themselves causes discomfort to many contemporary government officials, as it jars with their notion of a de-bellicised, rules-based international community. It also conflicts with an increasingly popular view that human politics is transforming to the point where the prospect of war between states is marginal, irrelevant and at odds with the interdependent and globalised character of the world. There are good arguments for not proceeding on the basis of this assumption and for designing a national defence on the possibility that world politics could become uglier and more insecure in the future, as the escalating strategic rivalries in the Asia-Pacific suggest. But for many in Whitehall, the subject of grand strategy in itself carries ideological baggage.

To others within government, “grand strategy” smacks of outmoded, amoral power-politics and archaic militarism. This preconception is unfounded. Grand strategy in its most prudent and responsible form is about how security communities shape the external environment to make it conducive to their institutions and way of life. It is not necessarily militaristic. Indeed, the most prudent statecraft is about the limitation of war and its subordination to policy, to make it the servant rather than the master. It is not necessarily amoral, but rather a question of how to relate morality with power. This takes concrete form in difficult decisions about alliances and relationships, for example the issue of aligning Britain with Stalin’s Soviet Union as a lesser evil to counter Nazi Germany, or more recently, commuting the sentences of convicted Irish terrorists in order to purchase peace.

In wider society, the study of strategy—the role of the armed forces in symbiosis with other instruments of power in world politics, the prudent pursuit of security and the national interest, and the endless effort to align power and interests- remains marginal. That is the case in our universities. As the American political scientist John Mearsheimer observed on one visit to this country, politics departments are mostly dominated by idealists in many forms who have largely purged political realists from their ranks. Strategy is at heart the study of power politics, and “strategic studies” privileges the state as a central player. It is not exclusive to political realism, the pessimistic tradition that accepts insecurity, anarchy and power politics as facts of life. But it is most strongly associated with it. In this regard, the British academy lacks a healthy breadth of opinion. Strikingly, strategy also occupies only a modest share of the curriculum at Britain’s Joint Services Command and Staff College. And recent surveys suggest that children lack basic familiarity with diplomatic and military history. In sum, large segments of British society, at both a mass and elite level, are strategically illiterate or even hostile to the subject itself.

The Boundaries Problem

Grand Strategy deals with limitations, on resources, power and will. It therefore requires an intellectual “discipline”, to rank interests, to separate the vital from the peripheral. To defend everything, as the saying goes, is to defend nothing. Traditionally, geography and geopolitics were the organising ideas for British strategy. Two specific priorities guided generations of governments: the balance of power in continental Europe, and the securing of India. Britain’s worldwide exercise of power revolved around these causes. For centuries, there was a basic, often uncodified geopolitical logic to British grand strategy—to secure Britain by keeping Europe divided and at acceptable cost. Winston Churchill summarised it:

For 400 years the foreign policy of England has been to oppose the strongest, most aggressive, most dominating Power on the Continent, and particularly to prevent the Low Countries from falling into the hands of such a Power…Faced by Philip II of Spain, against Louis XIV under William III and Marlborough, against Napoleon, against William II of Germany, it would have been easy and must have been very tempting to join with the stronger and share the fruits of his conquest. However, we always took the harder course, joined with the less strong Powers, made a combination among them, and thus defeated and frustrated the Continental military tyrant, whoever he was, whatever nation he led. Thus we preserved the liberties of Europe.

To give this some historical perspective, the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID), formed in the wake of the Anglo-Boer war, wrestled with multiple commitments but knew what it was arguing about, because its debates orbited around geopolitical priorities. It discussed India in 50 out of 80 meetings between 1902 and 1905. India was at the heart of Britain’s standing in the world, and along with the balance of power in Europe, there was a sense of territoriality to how Britain defined its interests.

However, the British Empire receded. Continental Europe was pacified. For this and other reasons, a consciousness of geography was gradually replaced by “globalism”, universal, open-ended and imprecise concepts that recognise few limitations: “punching above our weight”, “global player”, “force for good”, or a “rules based” world order. Official strategic documents and government declarations identify contemporary threats as borderless, fluid and transnational, from the Al Qaeda terrorist network to cyber-threats to Bird-Flu. In other words, the hard work of defining the national interest and allocating scarce resources is now more intellectually difficult than ever, because it has been de-territorialised almost to the point of incoherence. As the various iterations of the National Security Strategy made clear, security is now articulated as a disembodied matter of promoting democracy, stability or the promotion of “governance”. This is not to say that there is no merit in recognising transnational security challenges. But it is to observe that without territoriality, it is harder strategise effectively.

The Liberalism Problem

As a body of ideas and practices, liberalism exercises a strong influence over British statecraft and how it is articulated. In all of Britain’s recent conflicts—against Serbia in 1999, Afghanistan from 2001, Iraq from 2003 and most recently Libya—the use of force has been married to an elevated conception of defending and spreading liberal values abroad in order to secure the UK, values such as individual rights, a free press or the limitation of government. Liberal values should play some role in defining the ends or purposes of strategy, if strategy is about securing a way of life. After all, this pattern was anticipated in the Anglo-American Atlantic Charter of 1941. There is a danger, however, in equating the nation’s values with its interests. It can oversimplify the tragic, conflicted and morally complex nature of international security.

Consider the recent NATO “Operation Unified Protector” in Libya, a multilateral effort spearheaded by Britain and France to forestall atrocities by Colonel Qaddafi’s regime and ultimately to enable his overthrow. Britain’s Prime Minister and his supporters justified this action on the basis that it fused UK values and interests, curtailing the destabilising violence of a predatory state, while aligning Britain with the right side of one front in the Arab Spring. In time, this action may be vindicated as a blow for human rights and democracy.

Yet in a broader sense, this action may have had pernicious unintended consequences. An equally important, official objective of the UK and NATO, according to the NATO Strategic Concept agreed at Lisbon in 2010, is counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the creation of conditions that lead to disarmament. Multi-lateral disarmament as well as democracy promotion is an important part of shaping a security environment in which Britain can protect its way of life. In Libya, a Western-led intervention has attacked and overthrown a state that had peacefully disarmed. From the perspective of potential adversaries, such as Iran or North Korea, there is a broader and brutal pattern in the past decade. To cite David Patrikarakos:

Hardliners in Iran have learned an important lesson from recent history. They have just seen Gaddafi overthrown after giving up his nuclear programme in 2003, the same year that Iraq, which never had a nuclear weapons programme, was invaded. And they remember that in 2001 the US invaded Afghanistan on the grounds that it harboured and funded the Taliban, while making Pakistan, which also harboured and funded the Taliban, but had nuclear weapons, a major ally in the war on terror. The message is simple: nuclear weapons mean security.

If the war against Qaddafi has added impetus to proliferation elsewhere, it may still arguably have been “worth it”. This is a difficult judgement call. But this argument was hardly made in the public debate. The underlying problem is that liberalism with its tendency to view the world in crusading terms of right and wrong at crucial moments fails to recognise the way different “values” and “interests” can conflict, and can lead to a narrow comprehension of issues in a vacuum. Enabling free elections, a new political order and human security in Libya may add to spiralling mistrust and confrontation elsewhere. Prudent strategy recognises the way that the exercise of power often forces compromises and trade-offs between the things we value. Without a sense of the tragic, it is hard to grapple with the dilemmas that are inherent in making strategy.

The Autonomy Problem

The notion of a distinctive British grand strategy is problematic. Britain is no longer an independent, autonomous Great Power as it once was. Historically, Britain’s historical capacity to project power as an independent force was symbiotic with its relative financial and trading clout. It is hard to understand Britain’s use of force, and the shape and posture of its armed forces, without considering one of the most momentous strategic shifts of the twentieth century: the eclipse of British power by America, and Washington’s dismantling of the British Empire. Britain became a satellite state of an American grand strategy. In World War Two, the United States proved to be both friend and adversary. With the leverage of Lend-Lease, America exacted strict terms on Britain’s export trade, its dollar and gold reserves, indeed the very sinews of its global strength. As it became the senior partner in the relationship and acquired ever more bargaining power, Washington deliberately broke up the Stirling trading bloc created at Ottowa in 1932, and the imperial preference system, and muscled British industries and traders out of markets. The Bretton Woods conference of 1944 confirmed the economic transformation of the world, supplanting the existing, protectionist systems with free trade, the reign of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency and the “Open Door” on America’s terms.

This shapes how Britain designs its armed forces. It plans around US-led coalitions and inter-operability with America’s. Ever since the 1958 US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement, renewed ever since, its nuclear deterrent has been dependent on the US for design, procurement, infrastructure and satellite guidance. Britain borrows the architecture of grand strategy from Washington. At a grand strategic level, in exchange for support and even loyalty when the shooting starts, in exchange for the blood price, British governments hoped to secure unparalleled sway in Washington. Indeed, Britain’s overriding project since 1945 could be called the “pursuit of specialness”, trying to exert power vicariously through the medium of the transatlantic relationship. Though it has sought to influence and even tutor the new superpower, Britain became a subordinate state of an American grand strategy.

It is not the place of this submission to judge whether this project is wise. But it does make strategising more difficult. The coming of the Pax Americana, especially through World War Two, has constrained and complicated Britain’s capacity for independent strategy ever since. This was realised sharply in some of Britain’s post-war conflicts. During the Suez crisis in November 1956, with British gold and dollar reserves falling, the government turned to International Monetary Fund for emergency loans, but under US pressure, the request was rejected. The 1982 Falklands war again underlined British reliance on American permission and support in order to operate. While being an independent Great Power is no guarantee of success, designing one’s foreign policy, military capability and diplomacy around the U.S. does compromise the ability to calculate and decide freely.


This brief submission has indicated just some areas where the Select Committee might direct some of its inquiries. As the Committee will appreciate, before the UK government can address and begin to “solve” the problem, it is worth defining the problem itself and bringing some context and perspective to bear. The long overdue inquest into the “strategy deficit” in Britain should be richer and more conceptual than a merely institutional and technocratic debate. I hope this document is a small step in that direction.

December 2011

Prepared 20th April 2012