Strategic Choices in an Uncertain World
29th April 2012
We are living through what might be termed a grand transition. We are seeing a shift in global political and economic dynamics with the axis of global power moving inexorably from the west to the east. Defining Britain's response to this 'grand transition' and visualising Britain's role within it is a vital task for policy makers. There are two tasks for policy makers. The first is to determine what we mean by Britain's national interest in the context of this historical shift and the second is to determine the key strategic choices which advance that interest.
Before attempting to define Britain's national interest in a subsequent piece it is important that we establish the key drivers for change which will determine the strategic choices Britain will need to make over the next two decades. These choices will need to be made in the context of an external environment which is complex, uncertain and often chaotic. Yet it is vital that Britain defines it strategic direction and doesn't duck the big strategic choices which will determine the future destiny of the nation.
What are the key drivers of change which will drive these strategic choices:
1) Britain's relationship with Europe. The crisis in the Euro zone is a profound strategic challenge because it calls into question the strategic consensus which has marked British policy since at least the 1960's. Western Europe is facing an economic, demographic and political crisis which will have long term repercussions for Britain's relationship with Europe.
2) Britain and the emerging economies. The axis of economic power is moving East and this will pose multiple threats and opportunities for Britain. We need to build relationships in this multi-polar world as our future competitiveness as a nation will be determined how we negotiate our relationship with China, India, Brazil etc and how we respond to the competitive pressures these new relationships produce.
3) Post Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a consensus view developing that intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan were strategic mistakes. How Britain responds to the idea that these have been failed interventions will determine how we approach future conflicts and will impact on our relationship with the United States. The danger is that we might draw the wrong conclusions and determine that Britain will shrink further from a global role.
4) Middle-East and North Africa. The upheaval in the Middle-East and North Africa will be a source of profound instability. Many see profound opportunites in democratisation but history shows that the outturn could be a lot uglier. With the US on the path of strategic retreat what should Britain's role be in attempting to advance the cause of peace and stability and who should be our allies along the way?
5) Soft Power. Britain's possesses some unique strategic capabilities which need to be developed. Our linguistic and cultural reach gives us advantages which can extend our global influence. We need to be careful to analyse the value of this soft power and think through how it can be deployed to strengthen our global position.
6) The debate about the future of the United Kingdom. Whatever one's position on Scottish Independence there is a debate about the future of the Union which will have an impact on conceptions of what it means to be British and could be the most important domestic driver over broader strategic choices.
7) Public Opinion. Too often strategic choices are made in isolation from public opinion. One of the causes of the crisis in democratic legitimacy in Britain has been that politicians advance an idea of Britain's interest which is remote from public opinion. We must work harder to ensure that strategic choices align with the values and aspirations of the British people not fly in the face of them.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. It reflects, though, the complex external and internal environment Britain will face over the next two decades. One response to a complex and often chaotic world is to hope for the best and muddle through. A Conservative response should be reject this incrementalism and have the courage to make the hard strategic choices necessary to advance our national interest.