By Harrison Brewer
4 January 2019
Strife and PS21 joined forces to present a fascinating panel discussion on the future of the UK’s grand strategy. We live in an uncertain world that gets more uncertain by the minute, as the United Kingdom flails around Brexit, Trump’s America turns away from Europe, and Europe looks to redefine what it means to be in the Union. All the meanwhile, the UK avoids the aging imperialist elephant in the room: who are we, what are we doing, and how can we do it? PS21 brought in an expert, an academic, and a practitioner to help disentangle the UK’s approach to grand strategy in the 21st Century.
Dr. Charlie Laderman, a lecturer in International History at King’s College London, first explained his definition of grand strategy, believing it to be the intellectual architecture that forms foreign policy. It is a historically British concept — although Dr. Laderman questioned whether Britain ever got it right — and is predicated on balancing peacetime goals with war and using limited resources to achieve a state’s goals. Dr. Laderman suggested that British foreign policy experts have a ‘maddening pragmatism’ that is borne out of Britain’s historical pole position in global politics but argued that it is imperative for the UK to break out of this mould and to reassess.
The UK has long been perceived as the facilitator and bridge between the US and Europe, but this relationship is at risk. Trump’s de-Europeanisation policy and Merkel’s and Macron’s attempts at firming the bonds of European fraternity leave the UK out of the loop post-Brexit; therefore, Dr. Laderman believes the UK must engage in the business of trade-offs. Britain must consider how it can use its limited yet still formidable capabilities in defenCe, soft power, and international development to continue to be a reliable partner, as well as a global player. Lastly, Dr. Laderman noted that the UK needs a stable EU in order to thrive. Therefore, despite leaving the union, the UK must look to fortify it relationships with EU states and support the EU as best as it can.
Cllr Peymana Assad, a defence and international development expert, as well as a local councillor in the London Borough of Harrow, discussed how the UK must address its relationship with its imperialist and colonialist past to improve its foreign policy. Assad underlined the need for the UK to champion equality in its foreign policy, acknowledging that the UK could use soft power to correct some of its mistakes made under colonialism. Assad referenced her work in Afghanistan and recalled a conversation she had with Afghan tribal leaders about the Durand Line, the internationally accepted border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Afghan people were absent in this international decision-making process, she noted, which showed a disregard for the people directly affected by this decision. She argued that the UK’s grand strategy needs to be founded on principles of equality for all actors, both international and local, and it needs to address Britain’s imperial history and the suffering it caused.
To summarise, she stated the focus should be on the following points:
1) The key to establishing ourselves in the world is seeing all as equals. In order to do this, we must understand the real impact of colonisation and imperialism on the countries we left behind, and we must understand how some of those actions of the past haunt us today.
2) The UK needs to consider and seek opportunities with non-western powers like China and India, but also continue to facilitate between European and other allies, such as the United States — it’s too important not to do both. We should not solely focus on Europe.
3) Britain must use its soft power and understand that the world has changed; we can command more influence through art, culture and education by way of exchange and scholarships. India currently leads through music, film and education, for example in the South Asian region.
Finally, Assad stated that in order to achieve this, we need to bring the British public with us, on the ride and convince them, that engaging with Europe and the non-western world, brings us benefits and also stops us being swallowed up in a world of constant changing super powers.
Georgina Wright, a research associate in the Europe Programme at Chatham House, began by stating that British foreign policy must be separate from the Brexit process. Britain has a privileged position in global affairs — it is both one of the leaders in official development assistance and a strong partner of both the US and the EU — and the UK should not forgo this position as a consequence of Brexit. Rather than turning further inwards, the UK should take the opportunity to engage more meaningfully and extensively with its allies. This change, however, must be managed carefully and swiftly to prove the UK’s commitment to the international community.
Wright outlined three risks the country faces post-Brexit: a more inward-looking Britain that is fully consumed by Brexit; incoherent external policy that is driven commercially rather than politically; and a failure to grapple with the changing international context, evidenced by the rise of China and Russia, as well as rising levels of inequality and popular insurgency. Wright then proposed five areas the foreign office should focus on to form its foreign policy. First, the foreign office needs to clearly articulate the vision for Global Britain. Second, the UK must figure out how to do more with less and avoid commitment without impact. Third, without the stage of European Union politics for alliance building, the UK must prioritise how it uses the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and where. Fourth, the government must mobilise the entire British population, not just London, behind any grand strategy to ensure its success. Finally, the foreign office needs to be consistent. Wright ended by pointing out that Brexit will only become more intense with trade negotiations on the horizon and a plethora of actors and interests that will need to be balanced at home and abroad. Above all, the UK needs to ensure that it builds a strong, deep partnership with the EU despite its departure.
Editor’s note: This event review was also published by PS21.
Harrison Brewer is pursuing an MA in Conflict, Security, and Development. He recently graduated from McGill University in Montréal, Canada with a degree in Classics, Political Science, and Art History. Harrison has previously worked for Deverell Associates, a security consultancy firm in London, specialising in crisis preparedness and leadership training. He is now working for Boxspring Media, a tech-driven learning disruptor for corporate firms. Harrison’s interests include strategic analyses of paramilitary violence in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa with a focus on gendered violence, insurgency patterns, and conflict simulation. Harrison has designed and produced a simulation modelling the urban warfare of the Iraqi Army’s campaign for Mosul in 2016-2017 that is being developed for commercial use. You can follow Harrison on twitter at @_HarrisonBrewer.