Last week, the triumphant entry of the Royal Navy’s enormous new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth into Portsmouth Harbour, was received by many with heart-warming pride and nostalgia; a symbol of rejuvenated British military strength that rekindles memories of Britain’s heritage as a once great naval power.
While Theresa May declared the ship a “clear signal of Britain’s global power”, for me, rather than being a cause for such sentimentalities, the arrival of this ship was an odd moment.
This ship is a symbol of the strange ambivalence of Britain’s self-awareness as a nation but particularly as a military power: a schism between an old Britain we cling on to that no longer exists and the new Britain in a new world that we are reluctant to acknowledge.
After a surreal two weeks of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un erratically waving the nuclear sabre in a manner arguably not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we should all remind ourselves that we have entered an uncertain new era in the global balance of military power and we must urgently question what Britain’s participation in this is going to be.
Do we cling on to our stance as a global interventionist power, utilising our armed forces as a means to project power across the globe in theatres well beyond our borders, or do we acknowledge the numerable failures we have endured in the name of this project and instead pursue a new more restrained stance that puts our own interests at its forefront?
Before we can begin to approach this identity crisis, it is important that we identify the context of the world stage in which Britain now sits and who the major combatants are.
The New ‘Rogue States’: A Club We Want to be a Part of?
With the United States left bruised by the arguable failure of the ‘war on terror’, it’s reputation as the world’s dominant military power is unquestionably diminished. No better has this loss of authority and self-confidence been exemplified than by the still on-going Syrian Civil War.
In 2015, after a year of stalemate and hesitant US lead intervention in the conflict, the west looked on in astonishment as a huge expedition of Russian air and naval forces boisterously entered the Syrian battle zone, inflicting arguably the most decisive and substantial blow of any of the interventionist powers in the conflict.
Defying 25 years of unquestioned US military authority in the middle east region, as well as directly disobeying western consensus by supporting the widely condemned Assad regime, the Russian entry into the Syrian conflict was a truly historic moment.
Rising from the ashes of its post-cold war decline, this intervention, coupled with the annexation of Crimea a year earlier, represents an aggressive re-assertion of Russia as a major world power that can act independently of western and US authority.
A year later; the new brick was laid in the shifting balance of power; the astonishing victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential elections.
While on the campaign trial, many moderates were extremely fearful of what form a Trump presidency’s foreign policy would assume, as he directed hostile remarks toward China and numerable other foreign powers, as well as making dismissive comments about NATO, the alliance that has acted as the central pillar of US foreign and military policy since the end of World War II.
While since his electoral victory, Trump has re-assured that he is committed to the maintenance of the NATO alliance, he has recently proven himself to be an erratic and unpredictable commander in chief in his recent response to North Korea’s continuing missile testing.
In an astonishing week that began on August 8th, in which Trump threatened North Korea with “Fire and Fury”, which saw North Korea responding with the threat of a nuclear strike on US forces on the Pacific island of Guam, the recent North Korea-US standoff has revealed that the nuclear tinderbox is as ripe as ever for re-ignition.
But perhaps even more significantly, as China publicly committed to defending North Korea if a land based US invasion is mounted, this crisis has revealed that China, in front running to become the world’s next superpower, is willing to use its military might against the United States in defence of its interests and allies. This is a potentially prophetic development in the global balance of world power.
While North Korea was unquestionably initial aggressor in this crisis in the continuation of its provocative nuclear program and missile testing, it’s backward economy and political isolation make it a mere renegade in the context of global power; the US, China and Russia are undoubtedly going to be the major players on the world military stage in the foreseeable future.
With American politics becoming increasingly erratic and unpredictable in the wake of the new Trump era, alongside a Russia and China that continue to fall into the dark depths of despotic leaderships with potentially expansionist military objectives of their own, this is undeniably a trio of unpredictable ‘rogue states’ that represent a real threat to global stability. Is this a struggle in which Britain wants to or needs to participate?
Facing the Identity Crisis: Is Britain Still a Global Military Power?
As far as Britain’s future is concerned, we must ask ourselves fundamental questions about what kind of military power Britain is going to be in the 21st century; where do we stand in this new balance of world power that is emerging?
Perhaps the most fundamental factor in deciding Britain’s future identity as world military power, is the issue of whether or not it remains one of the world’s only nations to possess nuclear weapons.
Contrary to the way this topic usually debated, the continuation of our possession of our ‘nuclear deterrent’ is not merely a question of its strategic relevance or moral justification; we must justify what is it specifically about Britain, that warrants it being one of less than ten nations on earth that has the right to wield the weapon of the ultimate destructive power.
Far more than a mere defence against the threat of the Soviet Union, Britain’s development of nuclear weapons back in the late 1940s was a desperate attempt to cling on to its crumbling imperial status, as the British Empire began to disintegrate and its sub-ordinance to the military and economic might of the United States became increasingly evident.
Seventy years later, in the post-cold war, post-imperial chapter of British history, is the idea that Britain is still a global military power of the stature that warrants the possession of a nuclear weapon mere Churchillian nostalgia for a world status we no longer or can no longer maintain?
Then there are Britain's more recent military failures that raise serious doubts about our status as a world power to consider.
The catastrophes of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and latterly the intervention in Libya have left Blair’s heroic vision of Britain as a global, interventionist military power in ruin, achieving little or no long term strategic success and arguably exacerbating the threat of international terrorism that it intended to destroy; all this at the overall cost of over 600 British lives no less.
After the unquestionable failures of the last twenty years of British foreign policy and the balance of world power re-aligning into an unfamiliar formation in which our prominent military participation is dubious, has the era of Britain as a major world power reached its final conclusion?
British Defence Policy: A Nostalgic Vanity Project?
If we are to recognise the failure of the last twenty years of Britain as an interventionist power and shift accordingly from being an offensive military power, to a defensive military power, the priority now of British military strategy should surely be approached primarily on the basis of how best to keep the British people safe.
Before one even considers the issue of renewing our nuclear deterrent in the possible aid of this ideal, there is the much more concerning state of the rest of our armed forces to consider first.
After years of savage cuts, for the first time in a century, the British army has less than 100,000 full time front line soldiers and by the end of this decade, the RAF will have less than 200 operational fighter aircraft for the first time in its entire history.
With the British Armed Forces so chronically under resourced that it can barely fulfil its core defensive duties, are the renewal of trident, that may cost up to £205 billion in the long term and the recent commissioning of two enormous, arguably obsolescent new aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy mere vanity projects emblematic of the irrational, sentimental logic behind modern British ‘defence’ policy?
Whether your political affiliation is of the left or the right, Britain’s armed forces is entering a vacuum of identity. As we look to an uncertain future on the world stage, we must be wary of the nostalgic trap of attempting to prolong a military status from a by-gone era and diverting our gaze from the core roles that the armed forces must fulfil.
Is it time for Britain to break with its global military ambitions and redefine itself for a new era?