Euan Findlater

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U.K. Strategic Culture and Post-Brexit Strategic Considerations

Political upheavals, economic turmoil, armed conflicts and intensifying security threats, have contributed to a current state of international affairs that is defined by deep uncertainty.[1] For the United Kingdom (UK), the decision to leave the European Union (EU), in a movement known as “Brexit,” has directly contributed to and promoted this sense of uncertainty, affecting the UK on a national, regional and international level. Due to these developments, the UK needs to significantly clarify, articulate and act upon a strategic position to ensure that it works toward national objectives and goals with coherency and consistency. Such a position will be established on and influenced by the UK’s strategic culture.

Alastair Johnston defines strategic culture as a “limited, ranked set of grand-strategic preferences that is consistent across the objects of analysis and persistent over time.”[2] Sources of these preferences can be physical, political and social or cultural; including, but not limited to: geography, technology, historical experience, political systems and beliefs, institutions and organizations, myths and defining texts.[3] The role played by strategic culture is complex and often non-determinant. However, the insight gained in studying strategic culture and the way it influences an actor’s actions or perceptions is essential to understanding international relations. This is particularly true with the current state of uncertainty regarding Brexit and the UK’s future course.

Geography and the notion of being an important leader in the international system have been dominant concepts in the UK strategic culture lexicon. This paper will look into the strategic considerations of these two aspects in the context of Brexit and what it could mean for the UK’s future.brexit-1485004_1280

The UK’s unique geographic position suggests its role as an important nation on a regional and international stage. One can easily reference and draw upon Churchill’s “Three Majestic Circles” theory, which has continued to be used in British foreign policy dialogue.[4] The three circles concerned are Europe, the United States and the Commonwealth, or in today’s terms, the wider world. These circles are co-existent and interlinked, and Churchill notably placed Britain at the center and point of juncture between these three interlinked and co-existent circles. In this way, the UK will continue to be of notable geostrategic importance, despite the consequences that leaving the European Union will entail.

Significant changes will certainly occur when the UK leaves the institution of the EU. Economic and political policies will be reshaped, the balance of power in Europe may shift and the rules-based international order will be questioned.[5] Nevertheless, geographic proximity to Europe, shared global interests in the form of overseas trade, territories and bases, as well as, geopolitical ties through institutional memberships and bilateral or multilateral relations, will maintain the UK’s ability to influence Europe and the wider world through soft and or hard power.

While many observers view Brexit as the UK’s retreat from European leadership, it may also present strategic opportunities. Without the constraints of the EU institution, the UK has the chance to rewrite and even enhance its role as a significant international actor. Such opportunities lie in the reshaping of relations between the UK and other nations and becoming more active in terms of foreign policy, ultimately establishing a cohesive overall strategy that is oriented for and dictated by UK’s contemporary and future interests.[6] As the RAND Europe report on Defence and security after Brexit states:

The UK may need to invest more heavily in NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and its bilateral partnerships, especially in the near term, in order to demonstrate its continuing or reenergized engagement with the world after Brexit, as well as to offset its diminished influence as part of a European bloc. The need also to establish new trading relationships with the rest of the globe may accelerate an already growing shift towards a UK security interest in securing global lines of communications and partners in Asia-Pacific, the Indian Ocean and other economies.[7]

Going forward there are clear geostrategic threats and opportunities the UK must consider in order to strengthen its position on both a regional and international level. These considerations will certainly take into account the UK’s strategic cultural outlook to maintain its global reputation and influence as a beacon of democracy and liberalism, a bridge and mediator between nations and regions, and an upholder of international law.[8]

At the same time, Brexit will also accentuate national issues for the UK. As an island nation, the UK is made up of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. In both Scotland and Northern Ireland, the majority voted to remain within the EU. In Scotland, the UK’s vote to leave has sparked calls for a second independence referendum. While for Northern Ireland, the Brexit vote has imposed serious questions regarding its border and peace process with the Republic of Ireland.[9] An un-united, unstable UK, with potentially violent national contestations, would only amplify the current state of uncertainty. Furthermore, vital financial, physical and human resources, along with valuable time, would be needed to settle such national disputes. These resources are limited and are critical for the both ongoing Brexit negotiations, as well as the subsequent readjustment and materialization of a new UK strategy. It is paramount for the UK to consider these complex national issues strategically post-Brexit and chart a path that navigates various positions that might otherwise undermine the UK’s national well-being.

A prime example of the UK’s geographic advantage is the GIUK (Greenland, Iceland and the UK) gap. This gap is “a choke point in the world’s sea lanes” and provides the UK a strategic upper hand in the North Atlantic.[10] First of all, this limits the ability of northern European navies and merchant fleets to access the Atlantic, where their only alternative is to navigate through the narrow and well-defended English Channel. Secondly, any Russian ship has to travel through the GIUK to get to the Atlantic. However, in the case of an independent Scotland, the UK would lose its favorable influence over the North Sea and North Atlantic, which in turn would be detrimental to the real and perceived power of the UK as an international player. Scotland’s northern location provides the UK several advantages due to its unique physical geography. The UK’s nuclear capability, another measurement of the UK’s real and perceived standing as a leading world power, is also projected through Scotland’s geostrategic location.

The ability to project force has always been vital for the UK’s long-term security as an island nation.[11] Within the UK’s strategic culture, and as outlined in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), independent nuclear capability is seen as an extension of power through deterrence, second-strike potential and as self-defense for both the UK and for its allies (along with the United States, the UK is the only country to commit its nuclear weapons to the defence of NATO).[12] 8950656444_0a212665ea_zThe UK’s nuclear arsenal is a continuous at-sea deterrent, delivered through the Royal Navy via four nuclear-armed submarines based out of Faslane, Scotland, amid deep protected fjord-like channels on the southwestern coastline. With Brexit reigniting the issue of an independent Scotland, the future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent is unsettled. If Scottish independence were to materialize, the Scottish Government has promised for the ‘speediest safe removal’ of the nuclear force from Scotland.[13] Deprived of Scotland’s natural geography as a bse of operations, the subsequent challenges of nuclear relocation, or even the possibility of nuclear disarmament, would produce immediate and long-term political, economic and practical challenges. As the RAND report on Defence and security after Brexit states: “the costs and time taken to relocate are seen as potentially prohibitive,” and raises “difficult questions over the sovereignty and the independence of the deterrent.”[14] As a result, the UK’s hard power influence, both real and perceived, could significantly diminish, impacting relations as well as security nationally, regionally and globally. This effect would have particular consequences with regards to NATO. As stated above, post-Brexit, NATO will be a key institution through which the UK would seek to exert its and influence. NATO members would be extremely concerned about the uncertainty and complexity surrounding the UK nuclear question, as it would directly undermine their own security by weakening alliance’s real and perceived influence capabilities – an eventuality that undoubtedly would create no small amount of anxiety due to the increasing Russian threat to the east.

As discussed earlier, Brexit will also foster challenges between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. EU membership has fundamentally supported the peace process between the two nations through political, social and economic incentives and agreements. With the UK leaving the EU, these bases of support for peace between Northern Ireland and Ireland will be undermined and will induce practical and economic issues that will include: defining a new border, re-imposing security checks, inflammation of sectarian tensions and bilateral trade.[15]

The intrinsic relationship between Ireland and the UK is clear, “the UK is Ireland’s largest trading partner…(and) the UK sells more to Ireland than to China, India and Brazil combined.[16] Furthermore, Ireland is and will continue to be a EU nation. Any substantial or perceived unfavorable actions taken by the UK on Ireland will poorly resonate with other EU nations. In turn, this would hurt the UK’s international reputation, likely harming many bi-lateral and regional relations with far-reaching impact. Nonetheless, geographic proximity, shared interests and coinciding social connections inherently ties and constrains the UK and Ireland on multiple levels, thus a post-Brexit UK strategy will need to consider these potential destabilizing consequences.

As one can see, the UK has to contemplate serious national, regional and global strategic consequences resulting from Brexit. It is therefore imperative for the UK to develop and articulate a clear and cohesive strategic position to provide a sense of certainty for itself as well as for its allies. This post-Brexit UK strategy will assuredly take into account primary tenants of the UK’s strategic culture, notably its geostrategic position and its traditionally acknowledge role of being a vital and influential nation around the world. The initial shock of Brexit and the subsequent affects of uncertainty, including distrust, confusion, instability and unpredictability, will continue to negatively influence Britain. Therefore, to tackle, control and counter this uncertainty, Britain must quickly and comprehensively establish and implement a clear post-Brexit strategic policy. This policy must outline and support British strategic preferences and behaviors both at home and around the world. As a result, Britain will be more prepared and better equipped to foster positive strategic results and to direct its own fate.

[1] Black, James, Alexandra Hall, Kate Cox, Marta Kepe and Erik Silfversten. Defence and security after Brexit: Understanding the possible implications of the UK’s decision to leave the EU — Overview report. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017.

[2] Johnston, Alastair Iain. “Thinking about Strategic Culture.” International Security 19, no. 4 (1995): 32-64.

[3] Lantis, Jeffrey S., and Darryl Howlett. “Strategic Culture.” In Strategy in the Contemporary World: An Introduction to Strategic Studies, 82-101. 2nd ed. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

[4] Davis, Richard. “Articles – WSC’s.” The International Churchill Society. March 18, 2015. Accessed April 11, 2017.

[5] Defense and security, RAND

[6] Bew, Proffesor John, and Gabriel Elefteriu. Making Sense of British Foreign Policy After Brexit. PolicyExchangeJuly 19, 2016. Accessed April 11, 2017.

[7] Defense and security, RAND

[8] British Foreign Policy, Policy Exchange

[9] Defense and security, RAND

[10] Marshall, Tim. “Western Europe.” In Prisoners of geography: Ten maps that explain everything about the world, 87-113. New York: Scribner Book Company, 2016.

[11] British Foreign Policy, Policy Exchange

[12] United Kingdom. Cabinet Office, Department for International Development, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, Home Office, and Ministry of Defence . National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: annual report 2016. 2016. Accessed April 11, 2017.

[13] Defense and security, RAND

[14] Ibid.

[15] Defense and security, RAND

[16] Ibid.


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