Cover Section

Jan 10, 2024

British Geostrategy and the Defense of Europe

The United Kingdom has not become “unpredictable” or “undependable” as a consequence of Brexit. Rather, its grand strategy suggests a blueprint for containing Russia’s aggression and increasing Europe’s security.

British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth arrives in Oslo, Norway November 21, 2022.
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When the British people decided to withdraw from the European Union in June 2016, the United Kingdom was in flux. Strategic analysts, often profoundly invested in the European enterprise, thought withdrawal would weaken the British position, and if the UK was weaker in Europe, the argument went, it would also be less influential in the wider world.

Fast forward to 2021, and the situation began to look different. In March of that year, the British government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson published the Integrated Review, the broadest appraisal of the UK’s foreign and defense policies in a generation. This review was innovative in that it looked more like a grand strategy than a national security strategy; it did not seek merely to react to and protect Britain in the changing geopolitical context, but put forward a strategy to use British power to reshape the international order in accordance with British interests.

The Integrated Review was praised and attacked with equal measure. Critics saw in it the last gasp of a weakened power trying to relive imperial glories, while supporters saw a bold new international approach, captured by the term “Global Britain.” In reality, although the Integrated Review charted a new course for the UK, it retained geostrategic continuity. True, it identified how British prosperity and interests would be increasingly defined by geoeconomic and geopolitical developments in the Indo-Pacific, compelling a British “tilt” toward the region. But it also clarified that “the precondition for Global Britain is the ... security of the Euro-Atlantic region, where the bulk of the UK’s security focus will remain.”

An Innovative Approach

The British government’s new grand strategy was innovative in that it looked to “intensifying geopolitical competition,” not international terrorism, as the key challenge to international security. Russia, in particular, was highlighted as the most “acute” and “direct” threat to British interests, though the People’s Republic of China was identified as a “systemic challenge.” In consequence, the strategy looked beyond a reactive defense of the failing “rules-based international system” and sought to shape, alongside old and new allies and partners, an open international order.

The government was also prepared to put its money where its mouth was. In the months before the Integrated Review’s publication, London announced a substantial uplift in defense investment, amounting to over £16.5 billion on top of £7.6 billion promised during the 2019 election.

Backing Words with Actions

“What Global Britain means in practice is best defined by actions rather than words.” This is perhaps the Integrated Review’s most important sentence. A foretaste of the UK’s new geopolitically-motivated approach to international affairs was seen in June 2021, when HMS Defender, a well-armed Royal Navy destroyer, cruised past Russian-occupied Crimea, which the British government considers, similarly to many other states, to be part of Ukraine.

The Russians whipped up an international media frenzy by claiming to have fired at the vessel, though the Royal Navy, supported by an independent BBC reporter on board HMS Defender, denounced these claims as hokum. The incident rattled the Kremlin; the UK would not be cowered, nor hold back in supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty, even in areas considered by the Russians to be their own backyard.

HMS Defender had broken away from the Royal Navy’s Carrier Strike Group while it was in the Eastern Mediterranean. The UK had dispatched this flotilla in May to demonstrate the global reach of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s newest aircraft carrier—at 65,000 tons by some margin the largest warship afloat in any European navy. The group would eventually make its way to South Korea and Japan, where it undertook drills to assert freedom of navigation with Indo-Pacific partners, not least in the South China Sea.

In September 2021, the next big announcement came. The British and Australian prime ministers and the US president declared their intention to establish a new naval and technological accelerator. To be known as AUKUS, the three powers agreed to develop a new generation of nuclear attack submarines—to empower Australia—and pursue various advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing. Along with becoming a “dialogue partner” (equal to the EU) of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) the month before, the UK’s Indo-Pacific “tilt” was becoming a reality.

Britain was reaching the Integrated Review’s goal of becoming “the European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific—committed for the long term, with closer and deeper partnerships, bilaterally and multilaterally.” Later agreements, in May and July 2023, respectively, to establish reciprocal military access and consultation with Japan and join the Comprehensive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) only served to compound Britain’s posture.

Containing Russia

Impressive though the British “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific has been, it was in the Euro-Atlantic that the country’s new approach was most widely felt. As the Kremlin began to contemplate a renewed push into Ukraine, the UK started to release intelligence to disrupt the Russian preparations for war and alert allies and partners to President Vladimir Putin’s true intentions. Moreover, Prime Minister Johnson and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss warned of excessive German and European dependency on Russian energy supplies, calling for the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline which was nearing completion.

In late January 2022, as a renewed Russian push into Ukraine looked increasingly likely, British aircraft began to fly over 2,500 Next-Generation Light Anti-tank Weapons (NLAW) to Kyiv. These short-range missiles, the first batch of what would become over 10,000, were crucial in helping the Ukrainians inflict significant damage on Russia’s armored columns as they trundled toward Kyiv in February and March 2022. Many more British weapons would follow, including ammunition, tracked heavy artillery, field guns, anti-air missiles, and modern battle tanks. What the UK could not provide itself it bought on international markets and transferred to Ukraine.

Indeed, Britain worked assiduously to drum up support for Ukraine, including through the “Tallinn Pledge.” It also eased Finland’s and Sweden’s admission to NATO: London was unique in offering both countries bilateral security assurances while they waited to join the alliance.

Tempting Fate

Britain’s new approach has proven those commentators wrong who expected the UK to become “undependable” or “unreliable.” Intervening at decisive moments to disrupt Russia’s ambitions and stiffen European and international support behind the Ukrainian cause, the UK remained a trustworthy and committed friend. Britain has not left Europe despite the stronger focus on the Indo-Pacific and withdrawal from the EU. Indeed, the UK has doubled down on the defense of Europe.

Conversely, when Germany and France tried “to take Europe’s fate into their own hands” (to quote former German Chancellor Angela Merkel), the result was systemic failure. After the first Russian invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Berlin and Paris attempted to appease the Kremlin with the Normandy format and Minsk agreements. Absurdly, the Russians were treated as a non-party to the very conflict they started.

During this period, the UK remained more realistic than either Germany or France about Putin’s true intentions. Instead of becoming involved in such humbug, Britain took a different approach. It bolstered the resilience of allies along NATO’s eastern flank through the Enhanced Forward Presence (to which it provided more troops to more allies than even the United States). Simultaneously, it set up the Joint Expeditionary Force to draw together Baltic and Northern European countries. The UK also established Operation Orbital in 2016 to help train the Ukrainian Armed Forces to make them more resilient in the event of Russian escalation.

In 2024, the British strategic perspective may be needed more than ever. Later this year, the Americans will vote for their next president. Notwithstanding his setbacks in Maine and Colorado, where he has been disqualified by state officialsfrom running, there is a real possibility that Donald Trump will return to the White House in early 2025.

And this says nothing of a potential Russian victory in Ukraine, particularly if Europeans fail to increase defense investment and provide Kyiv with the military and financial resources it needs to defeat the Russians. An isolationist or Indo-Pacific facing United States combined with a victorious Russia would make for a dire European situation. Add the effective closure of the Red Sea by Houthi militants backed by an emboldened Iran, and the European outlook darkens further.

The Road to London

For all the British political and economic flux of recent years, the UK remains a significant power. Unlike any other nation in Europe, it holds sovereignty over three European locations: the United Kingdom, Gibraltar, and the Sovereign Base Areas on Cyprus. This contributes to its expansive, sophisticated, and sober assessment of international security.

As per the refresh of the Integrated Review, published in March 2023, Britain sees itself as operating in an increasingly volatile and unpredictable environment stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, anchored on each side by NATO and AUKUS, alongside a deepened partnership with Japan.

Backed by one of the world’s largest defense budgets, the UK still has a powerful navy and air force and an expeditionary mindset and capability like no other European country. It is also a nuclear weapons state, unique in pledging its strategic forces—capable of erasing all of Russia’s major population centers—to the defense of NATO, a point reiterated by successive British leaders. What is more, Britain “extends” its nuclear umbrella over European allies through deployments of its own conventional forces to allies such as Estonia, Poland, Lithuania, Romania, Norway, and Iceland—and it still retains a residual presence in Germany.

But, despite these strengths, Britain cannot defend Europe by itself, particularly if the US looks inward or elsewhere. Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine has emphasized not only the importance of modern technology such as autonomous and remotely piloted systems, but also extensive land formations and heavy armor—an area where the UK, as a sea power state, does not excel.

Looking forward, the time has come for Germany and Britain to move beyond Brexit by appraising how each can support the other while working alongside other allies, such as Poland, Romania, as well as the Baltic and Nordic states, to uphold the defense of Europe more effectively. Here, there may be more for the German side to do than the British. The UK mentioned Germany seven times in both the 2021 Integrated Review and its 2023 refresh, where Berlin was described as “an essential ally.” In Germany’s 2023 National Security Strategy, Britain was not mentioned once. Given that the National Security Strategy described a “profound friendship” with France, it is peculiar to see Britain omitted, not least when the UK has done more to defend NATO’s so-called “eastern flank”—the theater most important to Germany.

Later this year, the UK will hold a general election. The Labour Party, currently in the lead in the polls, and by some margin, seeks a new treaty with Germany and the EU on security and defense. But not on any terms. Through its geographical spread across the continent, its nuclear posture, its globally-oriented strategic culture, and its willingness to constrain Russia, Britain is an extraordinary European power. By combining the UK’s strategic depth and naval power and Germany’s industrial wherewithal and reinvigorated terrestrial military posture—the natural consequence of a real Zeitenwende (historic turning point)—the foundations would be put in place to protect the continent in the face of any challenger.

The question is: Will Germany and the EU be ready for the British offer?

James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy in London.