British Prime Minister Boris Johnson cannot be faulted for the sheer scale of his ambitious vision for “Global Britain”, his post-Brexit plan to expand Britain’s international network of alliances to broaden the country’s prosperity and standing on the world stage. The big challenge now is whether Mr Johnson will be able to deliver and really restore Britain’s status as a major world power.
In what has been described as the biggest shake-up in British foreign, defence and security policy since the end of the Cold War more than 30 years ago, this week’s publication of Mr Johnson’s Integrated Review has set a number of exciting, if demanding, targets for Britain’s global realignment.
While consolidating long-standing alliances, such as the transatlantic partnership with the US and Nato, Mr Johnson has also declared his determination for Britain to broaden its horizons further. Deeper engagement with the Indo-Pacific region is likely to be the subject of a major re-orientation in London’s diplomatic outlook.
Indeed, Mr Johnson’s desire to forge closer trade and security ties with the likes of India, Japan and South Korea is reflected in the fact that he will be visiting India at the end of next month, while the first major deployment of the Royal Navy’s new 65,000-tonne Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier will be to the Indo-Pacific region later this year.
The Gulf region, too, figures prominently in Downing Street’s plans to revive Britain’s engagement with long-standing allies, with the government keen to foster closer trade and security ties.
But while the Review sets out a number of ambitious proposals for diplomatic and military expansion, it also has some uncompromising words for countries that are deemed to be hostile to Britain’s long-term interests. Russia, in particular, comes in for severe criticism, which is hardly surprising given that the British government still holds Moscow responsible for carrying out the March 2018 poisoning of a Russian dissident, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia on British soil. According to the 100-page Review, Russia is regarded by Britain as being “the most acute direct threat” to its national well-being, while the threat posed by China is seen more in terms of the challenge it poses to Britain’s long-term economic well-being.
These conclusions have, unsurprisingly, provoked an angry response from both China and Russia. Beijing accused Britain of “toadying” to the US, while an editorial in the Global Times, a Chinese state-owned newspaper, argued that this “immature” policy “originated from London’s fantasy of reviving its past glory as a world superpower”. Russia, meanwhile, denounced Britain’s aggressive tone as a “threat to world peace”.
Certainly, the seriousness of Mr Johnson’s determination to revive Britain’s standing after Brexit is reflected in his controversial decision to increase the country’s stockpile of nuclear warheads. Even though Mr Johnson’s administration is committed to renewing its Trident nuclear deterrent missile system, in recent years successive British governments have gradually reduced the stockpile of available warheads to around 180. So the announcement that the number of available missiles is now to be raised to 260, a 40 per cent increase, represents a significant change in Britain’s nuclear posture, one that suggests that the deterrent will figure far more prominently in the country’s future defence calculations.
Mr Johnson has openly suggested that Britain could use nuclear weapons against any state that inflicted a devastating attack on it using “emerging technologies” like cyber and artificial intelligence.
Previously, the submarine-launched Trident nuclear missile system was regarded very much as a last resort, only to be used if Britain itself came under a nuclear attack. Known as “ mutually assured destruction”, this policy is a relic of the Cold War, based on the belief that hostile states would be dissuaded from launching nuclear attacks if they understood that they might suffer wholesale devastation in return.
But in an age when new technologies make it possible to cause immense damage to a nation’s well-being by destroying its internet connection or satellite communications, the British government’s fundamental change of attitude towards its nuclear deterrent is simply a reflection of the rapidly changing nature of modern warfare. Indeed, a key element of Mr Johnson’s plan to boost Britain’s global standing is to implement a significant increase in defence spending with the aim of making Britain’s Armed Forces the most powerful and effective in Western Europe.
Investing in new warships such as the two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers that are shortly to enter service, is seen as sending a clear signal that, while Britain is no longer a member of the EU, it remains firmly committed to European security by providing military capabilities that no other European country can match.
Certainly, at a time when London and Brussels are locked in an unseemly spat over their respective handling of the coronavirus vaccination programme, with EU President Angela Von Der Leyen even suggesting that Brussels might withhold much-needed vaccines from the UK, there has never been a better time for Mr Johnson to demonstrate his commitment to Europe’s security.
After all the acrimony Brexit has caused, Britain, by expanding its military strength, can demonstrate that it still remains committed to defending Europe’s interests.