A comprehensive review of the UK Security, Defence and Foreign Policy 2030 widely flaunted in Britain last month shows an erstwhile colonial power that is hankering for a return to the past years of global domination.
The review is a radical plan that seeks to reposition Britain as a high-tech superpower with a sophisticated Ministry of Defence and a thriving economy at home amidst a domineering role in the rapidly-changing international order.
According to the UK Review plans, the 82 000-strong army will be whittled down by about 10 000 officers. Opposition British Labour Party backbenchers are complaining that the British army is already the smallest in 400 years.
But Brigadier John Clark, Britain’s Head of Army Strategy, has been quoted as arguing that a reduction in the army numbers will help fund the modernisation of the British armed forces. “By harnessing technology,” he is cited, “you are able to achieve the same effect with fewer people.”
Well, I concur with Clarke’s standpoint on the role of technology in reforms. Technological development does tend to get rid of the traditional warm bodies and replace them with computers and other latest gadgets in the market.
My major concern with Britain’s modernisation agenda is its nuclear expansion plans. In 2010, the British government announced its intention to reduce the maximum size of its nuclear arsenal from 225 to 180 warheads by the mid-2020s. But in the current Modernisation of British Defence Review, the UK argues that this is no longer possible. “Given the changing security situation, including the increase in technological and doctrinal threats, this is no longer possible and the UK will raise the ceiling to 260 warheads,” according to the Review.
My concern is the apparent lip-service that the UK’s plans, similar to the US foreign policy, appear to pay to the much-needed nuclear disarmament and global arms control. Washington and London are often quick to mobilise Western powers in hypocritically lecturing Iran and North Korea on the dangers of possessing nuclear weapons. Yet the two nuclear powers and traditional allies are paradoxically happy to expand their nuclear arsenal in the response to nothing more than mere cyber threats. How disproportionate could they be?
The move also poses a major challenge to the occasionally fragile nuclear disarmament programme within the framework of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which has notably kept both the US and Russia in check since the end of the Cold War. This is the treaty that former US President Donald Trump attempted to tear apart, but was fortunately ejected from office before he could make good on his threat. Hopefully, his successor, President Joe Biden, will choose not to carry on with his predecessor’s agenda.
Now, I fully agree that post-Brexit, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is perfectly within his right to reposition a country faced with a litany of new challenges.
According to PM Johnson, Britain’s interest in the world post-Brexit seeks to focus less on the EU but more on Canada, the US and the Indo-Pacific region, which he described as “critical to our economy, our security and our global ambitions to support open societies”.
But it would surely not be easy for the UK to rule the world. For example, the navy of the former proud “Mistress of the Seas” is a pale shadow of its former glory. Today, it is out-smarted not only by the US, but also by Russia, China and Japan. Britain’s once largest fleet in the world is today surpassed by that of Greece, whose ship-owners are now boasting the largest merchant fleet in the EU and the world.
UK’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has been quick to point out that as his country reposition itself, London is keen to maintain close ties with Beijing particularly on “climate change”. He was quoted as saying there is no need for the “outdated Cold-War mentality” toward China. Well, Raab is correct. China has become a magnet that attracts political and economic cooperation with most of the smart world. China lies at the heart of today’s Geopolitical centre of the world, and every nation worth its soul wants to do business with Beijing.
According to Andrei Suzdaltsev, the Deputy Dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at the UK-based Higher School of Economics, “The UK has neither the military nor the economic resources to become an independent global player. Most likely, London will remain fully committed to NATO on a number of issues, including the confrontation with Russia. At the same time, Great Britain will try to get closer to the United States and constantly balance between Washington and Brussels.”
The situation in the post-Brexit economy isn’t looking rosy, either. According to experts, after Brexit a decrease in the level of production is forecast to be between 5-8%. There will also be a decrease in migration and inflow of foreign capital and the weakening of the British Pound.
This also takes place amid a global pandemic that has wreaked havoc across national economies without sparring anyone. The “Global Britain”, as envisaged by the Conservative government, is not going to be like a stroll into Utopia. It is going to demand of Britain to appreciate the importance of multilateralism in the 21st century, where the world has become both inter-connected and inter-dependent. In this light, nuclear proliferation is not ideal to reposition the post-Brexit UK as a force to reckon with in a harmonious international world order.
UK’s plans to increase nuclear warheads is as apprehensible as Iran’s obstinate nuclear programme or North Korea’s dare-devil “to dare is to do” ill-advised diplomatic posture. A world that desires peace could do with none of the above. Period.