It has been a bruising decade for Britain. If on 10 September, 2001 an analyst had suggested that within months British forces would be fighting on the ground in Afghanistan, let alone in Iraq less than two years later credentials would have been questioned. 911 quite simply changed all the planning assumptions upon which British security and defence policy was established.
In September 2001 London was still enjoying a late Indian summer of British power. Under Tony Blair’s leadership London had enthusiastically embraced liberal humanitarianism. The decade of tragedy in the Balkans had done much to shame Europe and Britain with it. However, the British armed forces had performed reasonably well when the bluff of the Bosnian Serbs was finally called in 1995.
The 1998 Strategic Defence Review was a radical document. Then Secretary-of-State for Defence in a moment of prescience said Britain faced “a complex mixture of uncertainty and instability. These problems pose a real threat to our security, whether in the Balkans, the Middle East or in some trouble-spot yet to ignite”. In his now famous Chicago Speech Tony Blaire set out the ‘doctrine of international community’ which effectively spelled out the Responsibility to Protect that became UN mantra. And, with British land forces leading the way into Kosovo in 1999 Blair was into his strategic stride.
And yet no-one could have foreseen both the impact on Britain’s armed forces and the traditional balance between protection of British society and projection of British power of what was to ensue. As the sheer scale of the horror of that day sank in London knew it faced a profound dilemma. Of course, standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States was the right and natural reflex for a country the defence policy of which in effect amounted to standing on America’s shoulders. America was the indispensable ally with whom Britain had a special relationship the support of which magnified British power and influence. And yet, sending British troops deep into the Muslim heartland was bound to ignite deep passion in Britain’s burgeoning Muslim population.
Furthermore, the cost would be prohibitive. The planning assumptions over the rate at which British military equipment would wear out presumed modest enough operations that the force would not need to be re-capitalised until 2025. In fact, it soon became apparent that the equipment would wear out by 2014, which partly explains government thinking in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and the hire-purchase approach to affording the military adopted by successive Labour governments. Sooner or later it had to be paid for.
There were also unexpected benefits. When Tony Blair went to the US Congress on 20 September, 2001 any chance of the IRA re-starting its armed struggle in Northern Ireland was ended. Any attack on a British soldier now fighting America’s global war on terror would be seen by the Americans as an act of terror, not a struggle for freedom. Washington moved decisively to cut off funds to the IRA.
And yet, taken together the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been disasters for Britain. They have been too big, too long and too far away for Britain to sustain on a peace-time defence budget and peace-time political and bureaucratic mentality. Strenuous efforts have been made, mainly by the military, to square the cost-resource circle by enhancing civil-military co-operation and through the extensive use of reserves, but somehow neither war crossed a threshold to be sufficiently serious for London to organise itself on a war footing. This of course begs the question were the wars serious enough threats to Britain’s security to fight? Did fighting both wars in solidarity with the US actually make Britain a more or less secure place?
It is too early to answer those questions but given the many stresses and strains on a changing British society as a result of those two wars they are reasonable questions to ask. And, it does seem strange that whilst sending British troops to Afghanistan and Iraq to keep violent jihad at strategic distance millions of people entered Britain over the same 2001-2011 period from some of the most conservative Muslim societies on earth.
This apparent disconnect between security policy, defence policy and immigration policy continues to this day, given added spice by the need to cut Britain’s budget deficit. Britain’s already under-funded armed forces are to be cut by at least a further 10%. Tellingly, since 2001 there has been a four-fold increase in investment in the intelligence services over the same period. In spite of the fact that the British military has fought two wars if defence cost inflation is taken out there has been a 25% cut in the defence budget since 2000.
In effect security has consumed defence and in spite of the fine sounding intentions of the 2010 National Security Strategy Britain’s strategic footprint is shrinking fast. The British armed forces just about got away with Libya but it was a close run thing. Ten years on from 911 liberal humanitarianism and the adventurism some saw in it is effectively over. Britain has revealed itself as yet another strategically-illiterate European country as the friction between mass immigration and Britain’s twenty-first century wars make the first order priority to stabilise a dangerously fractured society.
And what of the future? If the economic situation permits in 2015 (and it is a big ‘if’), and of course the current government is still in power, then a commitment has been made to reinvest in the British armed forces. However, the future force will be far smaller. Indeed, by 2015 the British Army will be smaller than at any time since 1911, when Britain had by far the world’s largest navy.
This can only mean Britain is shifting from a strategy of engagement to a strategy of protection. In effect, a fortress Britain is being created with a residual military able to reach out strike and punish on occasions but little more. Yes, there will be great emphasis (and much bluster) on conflict prevention through aid and development but so many of the causes that start conflicts are out of Britain’s control, not least the hyper-competition between the emergent and more established Great Powers.
Ten years on from 911 Britain is a much reduced power in spite of the heroic efforts of its young men and women under arms. Perhaps the two wars and financial and economic crisis of the last decade represent not merely the consequences of 911 but the final end of four hundred years of global influence. If so, Britain as super-Belgium is not very appealing and Britain’s retreat will mean the world is more dangerous, not less so.
Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.