Houses of Parliament and Westminster Bridge, London, UK

Late last month Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pointedly restated Great Britain’s longstanding designation as Tehran’s public enemy No. 1, surpassing the Great Satan America and Zionist Israel. In this verbal assault, the clerics credited “Perfidious Albion” with manipulating and even controlling the actions of the United States in confronting Iran and containing its ambitions. Wow!

Rather than dismiss or mock these allegations, Whitehall should capitalize on this huge exaggeration of Britain’s influence. The almost certain strategic defense review to be conducted next year following national elections is the perfect vehicle to use this misperception more broadly to enable Britain to fight well above its “weight class” measured by its military capabilities and resources devoted to national security and foreign policy.

The current mood in Whitehall is bleak. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan along with a struggling economy and a sinking government have sapped morale. The hijacking of sailors and marines in the Persian Gulf by Iranian revolutionary guardsmen last year further tarnished Britain’s international reputation. And the size of its military, no matter how able, is smaller than the U.S. Marine Corps.

With about 173,000 people in uniform, that is still below the authorized level of 180,000. The annual defense budget of some $60 billion is likely to remain capped for several years given budget debts and deficits that are far larger percentages of GDP than in the United States. That means large cuts will be required intensifying already fierce inter-service disputes and rivalries. And should the Conservatives win the next election, that leadership has not always been favorably disposed towards the military.

Whether there is a defense review, Britain faces two basic choices regarding the role it can or will play internationally. First, Britain can continue as a “first team or first division” player in the U.N. Permanent Five, NATO and other international organizations along with the United States. Or, as argued in the 19th century, Britain could become a “little England,” reducing its international commitments and responsibilities and turning inward, possibly dismantling its nuclear deterrent as obsolete and too expensive.

Assuming the first view prevails, Britain must not be overly constrained by its relatively modest and probably declining military power. Thus, it will have to box well above its weight class. That means dealing with perplexing “what if’s” from an Argentine government bent on reoccupying the Falklands to a resurgent Russia or aggressive China. With a navy that owns only two relatively small aircraft carriers, about two dozen destroyers and frigates and seven amphibious ships and overstretched ground forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere, duplicating the exploits of 1982 would be a bridge too far let alone facing states with far greater military strength.

Here is where the mullahcracy of Tehran provides an unwitting solution. British strategist B.H. Liddell Hart called for an “indirect approach.” Britain can build on Hart’s strategy by creating or finding means for magnifying its influence to complement, replace or substitute for diminished physical capabilities. The starting point is intellectual and through assessing the global scene afresh to determine where Britain’s influence can have potentially disproportionate positive impact. On this basis, Britain can begin crafting a strategy that applies intellect and strategic innovation to leverage physical capabilities.

Examples abound. Success in Afghanistan, almost no matter how low the bar is set, depends on Pakistan defeating its insurgency. Since the outside world is unlikely to find sufficient resources to assure Pakistan’s success, this gap must be filled by other means. Obviously a slackening of tensions between India and Pakistan will permit the Pakistani army to turn west in fuller force to take on the insurgents and extremists. Surely, innovative British diplomacy with India and possibly with China too can facilitate a rapprochement. Similarly, Turkey can play a far more decisive role in the Middle East and South Asia
that Britain can stimulate should it choose.

Fighting above one’s weight is not dependent on military force. However, the British military in many ways is better prepared for this type of thinking than its sister agencies because of its broader recent experiences in the field and its superior programs for educating its leaders. With or without (but better with) a strategic defense review, such thinking is essential. But neither the Labor nor Conservative parties has sufficient numbers of dedicated people for this task, and the other branches of government are too small or lack the resources.

A new era of Rule Britannia, admittedly in a more subdued and refined state, could surely emerge. If it does, the Iranian clerics will have inadvertently created the momentum for a better way of thinking. And that thinking might even migrate its way to America and influence the U.S. Quadrennial Defense Review that will soon be getting under way.

Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University.  This essay was originally published in the Outside View column, part of UPI‘s Emerging Threats analysis section.  Photo by Flickr user Robert Stokes under Creative Commons license.