For the past five centuries, the United Kingdom (UK) has been forced to engage with the European mainland, despite its preference to move freely of European entanglements. As Field Marshal Lord Carver put it in 1981:
For centuries the basis for the protection of the interests of Britain has been the need to ensure that the continent of Europe is not dominated by a power that is unfriendly to us. That was the basis of opposition to France in the time of Louis XIV and XV and of Napoleon Bonaparte, and to Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II and Hitler. It is the fundamental reason why we have welcomed the foundation of NATO, the threat from Germany having been replaced by that of the Soviet Union.
The reason for this is simple: the sheer size of the European continent in relation to the British Isles – today it is 39 times greater in terms of land area, 11 times bigger in relation to population, and almost six times larger in terms of economic output – means that, if united, it could become a deadly threat to Britain’s continued existence and/or independence. Britain’s central geopolitical objective has therefore been to prevent large swathes of the European mainland from coming under the control of an unfriendly foreign power, particularly one of the larger continental states, such as France, Germany or Russia. This is because they are – through their sheer scale – potential “ordering powers”, with the means to control and shape surrounding regions, areas that are filled with far weaker countries.
In the past, the UK engaged with Europe as an “offshore balancer”: it would hide behind the might of the Royal Navy, bide its time, wait for the emergence of a hostile coalition, fund a counter-coalition, and ultimately – if necessary – deploy the British Army to grind the potential aggressor down. However, from the early twentieth century, this form of engagement became increasingly untenable. The surge of Germany and Russia during the late nineteenth century had created two industrial juggernauts, with sufficient size to resist invasion. Worse, the development of speedier transport technologies – not least the railway – provided these new terrestrial powers with the means to spread out of their homelands like never before. If the First World War did not reveal the inadequacies of the established British approach, the Second World War, with the concentrated use of airpower, ballistic missiles and the atomic bomb, rendered it redundant: the sea was no longer a defence, the British homeland could now come under direct attack. Future wars might be over not long after they had even begun.
The UK changed tack after 1945: faced with the threat of Soviet encroachment and/or German resurgence, it realised that it needed to “tether” itself onshore, in such a way that the Soviets would be kept out of the Low Countries, Western Germany and Northern France, and that Germany would be kept down. It did this through three means:
- By forming an alliance with the Low Countries and France, of which 2018 marks the seventieth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Brussels, bringing to fruition the Western Union;
- By forwardly deploying a permanent and sizeable military presence on the European mainland, in the form of the British Army of the Rhine, including 55,000 troops, backed up with a tactical air force;
- By drawing in the formidable military and industrial power of the United States (US) and Canada, which was secured a year after the Treaty of Brussels with the formation of NATO.
In addition, as the French-German project of European integration took hold in the 1950s, the UK began to warm to membership, both for economic reasons, as well as geopolitical ones. The UK sought to gain access to the growing European market, as well as to ensure the perpetual subordination of the European Community to the Atlantic order, symbolised by NATO. The UK therefore positioned itself as a “geopolitical knot” at the epicentre of the two organisations, boosting its influence and preventing the Europeans – not least the French and Germans – from taking European integration off into a more “exclusive” direction.
So as Britain withdraws from the EU, this strategy will go awry. How then should the country reposition itself as a European “ordering power”? How can it ensure that it remains in the driving seat of the Atlantic system, and European geopolitics more generally?
The UK needs to be less complacent and more far-sighted. The established order in Europe has taken over seventy years to put together. It involved the systemic destruction of a chauvinist and genocidal enemy – Nazi Germany – and the active deterrence of the Soviet Union, both at enormous cost. There is no reason why the geopolitical faultlines in Europe, which have been progressively hidden over the past seven decades, should remain covered. The resurgence and revisionism of Russia; the growing power of China and the emergence of Chinese influence at the fringes of Europe, combined with the US repositioning itself as an Indo-Pacific power, threaten to alter the structural foundation on which the Atlantic order – and European security – have been built. Moreover, the growth of German power over the past fifteen years, and the consequential struggle between France and Germany to define the future of the EU, merely complicates an already degrading canvas. The emergence and extension of “post-Atlanticist” thinking in Germany – as elsewhere on the European mainland – only compounds this unfortunate trend.
In this environment, the UK should not try to revert to “offshore balancing”. Lending support to this or that initiative, organisation or relationship, whether in the form of NATO, the EU or multilateral and bilateral partnerships, is unlikely to bear significant fruit. This approach risks placing the UK perpetually on the back foot as other countries seek to define the initiative, shaping Europe to their strategic advantage, which might not always be coterminous with Britain’s own. France and Germany have both grown increasingly bolder in their pursuit of European primacy over the past few years, with Berlin having collared hold of the EU’s new “defence union” and France having proposed a “European Intervention Initiative”. While there is nothing inherently wrong with British cooperation (though not integration) with either of these projects, they will not by themselves empower the country or help to sustain the general parameters of the Atlantic order. Indeed, they may leave the UK uncertain of where to turn, flip-flopping here and there, with no agenda of its own as to how the defence of the European continent should be upheld.
Moreover, trying to uphold the existing approach – “onshore tethering” – runs the risk of strategic malaise. Tethering was dependent on British participation in the EU, to ensure that it remained beholden to the wider Atlantic framework. Insofar as the UK is leaving the EU, it will now become harder for London to maintain the EU’s perpetual alignment to NATO.
Rather than these tired and exhausted approaches, Britain needs to appreciate the gravity of the situation. If the UK wants to emerge as a “Global Britain” during the course of the twenty-first century, maximising its emerging relations with new economic and military powers in the Indo-Pacific and other growing regions of the world, such as the rimlands of the South Atlantic, while simultaneously upholding the “rules-based” international order, it needs to be able to hold its own neighbourhood in check. It has to be capable of dissuading any single power – either internal or external to the Euro-Atlantic system – from the pursuit of European ascendancy.
In this new environment, the UK should recalibrate its geostrategic approach towards one that might be described as “onshore bonding”. Onshore bonding would require additional British resources – particularly higher military expenditure – to maintain strategic ascendancy over all potential European rivals, while also ensuring that the main European structures remain bound to one another in ways that are preferential to British interests. This necessitates a “re-arrangement” of the existing Euro-Atlantic architecture, to prevent the EU from becoming decoupled from NATO. Given growing US dissatisfaction with low European defence spending, it would also require rebalancing the two sides of the alliance, with one side – the European one – coming progressively under British strategic leadership.
One way this could be achieved is through the formation of a new group – let it be called the “European Defence Initiative” (EDI) – affiliated to NATO, not so dissimilar to the old Western European Union, which was – ironically – wound up in 2010 by the UK insofar as it had been effectively consumed by the EU. While this may sound like a radical proposal, insofar as it would create a new structure, it would nevertheless solve several emerging problems:
- Unlike the EU, which the US continues to distrust, the EDI would include the UK, with all its strategic resources and natural “Atlanticism”, as well as its “active” and “expansive” strategic culture;
- Unlike NATO, the EDI would include a non-military dimension, to better enable Europeans to confront so-called “hybrid” and “non-linear” attacks and assaults from Russia and, potentially, in the future, other powers;
- Unlike both NATO and the EU, the EDI would have a wider zone of geographic priority, and insofar as it would not be merely a defensive alliance, it would facilitate a transformation in the European strategic mindset, given that “defence” will include, increasingly, the promotion of European interests as far as East Asia, the destination of the “Royal Route” that connects the ports of the Atlantic side of Eurasia to those on the Pacific side;
- Unlike the British-French alliance, it would be open to other European countries, so long as they meet the requisite criteria for membership;
- And unlike the “European Intervention Initiative”, it would include another arm focusing on deterrence in support of NATO.
This EDI would have three simple but important objectives: first, to improve European strategic and military capabilities; second, to encourage those countries currently shirking their obligations and commitments, particularly to NATO, to step up and do more to boost their defence expenditure and pull their weight; and, third, to uphold the alignment of the EU with the Atlantic Order. As such, the EDI would need to be a highly “exclusive” group open only to democratic European countries, and only then if they are able to meet its strict criteria for spending on the armed forces and – at least for the wealthiest members – Official Development Assistance (ODA). In exchange for reaching these targets – 2% of national output spent on defence (of which 20% would be spent on new equipment) and 0.7% of national output spent on ODA – EDI members would gain access to what might well become the top-table for deciding on matters pertaining to the defence of Europe, as well as an additional confirmation of British (and potentially French) strategic protection, including their nuclear shield.
The UK has always been capable of acting as an “ordering power” on the European mainland. What it has often lacked is the vision or the understanding of the European geopolitical balance. Irrespective of its withdrawal from the EU, the UK should be taking its European relations more seriously. The old comfortable certainties are now creaking and breaking apart. Unless the UK wants to face a strategic shock – for example, additional Russian action in Eastern or South-Eastern Europe; a growth in German “post-Atlanticism”; or some completely unforeseen eventuality – it needs to begin laying the foundations for Europe’s future. By stepping up as a European power, the UK could do much to enhance European security, and help it find a new and important role for itself as it leaves the EU.
James Rogers is Director of the Global Britain Programme at The Henry Jackson Society. Formerly he was Acting Dean and Director of the Department of Political and Strategic Studies at the Baltic Defence College. This article is derived from his full report: Defending Europe: “Global Britain” and the Future of European Geopolitics (The Henry Jackson Society, Global Britain Programme Report No. 2018/1)