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Global Britain and seapower


Basil Germond surveys the message promulgated worldwide by the government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy

The Royal Navy is a national symbol. In collective imaginaries, the Navy has been represented as a cornerstone of British power in the world, and it has traditionally benefited from the support of public opinion, even though the connection between national identity and the Royal Navy is not as strong as it once was. The dissolution of the Mediterranean Fleet in the late 1960s, the decisions in 1981 to primarily assign the Royal Navy with an anti-submarine warfare role within NATO, and the post-Cold War budgetary cuts are but three examples that illustrate the recent erosion of British global naval power as well as political decision makers’ sea blindness.

Against this backdrop, in April 2021, the government published its vision: Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, which stressed that proactively defending progressive values around the globe is key to the UK’s security and prosperity. The concept of Global Britain hints that the Royal Navy is going to be increasingly solicited as an instrument of Britain’s hard and soft power, which means, according to the MoD’s 2021 Defence in a Competitive Age: safeguarding our homeland, Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, protecting the maritime environment, including our fisheries, projecting global influence, boosting UK trade and prosperity, and upholding our values and International law.

The current deployment of Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 21, led by Britain’s new flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, to the Indo-Pacific region illustrates very well the new maritime orientation of Global Britain. The UK is proactively assuming its global responsibilities, and naval power is both a symbol and an operationalisation of the government’s vision, which puts the sea at the forefront of British defence, security and foreign policy.

Global Britain and seapower

Type 45 destroyer HMS Defender at Batumi, Georgia, after taking part in a well-publicised ‘freedom of navigation’ exercise in disputed waters off the Crimea in July 2021, following a visit to Odessa for the signing of a Anglo-Ukrainian naval co-operation agreement. The incident prompted Russian complaints and claims, denied by Britain, that Russian forces had fired warning shots and dropped bombs near the destroyer. Photo: Crown Copyright

Global Britain infers that the security and prosperity of the UK depends on its active and sustained engagement in world affairs. Two underlying principles guide this vision: first, it is intended that the UK will openly and proactively promote and defend progressive, liberal values across the globe and oppose reactionary forces. Secondly, in a multipolar world order, rather than relying on unilateralism, Global Britain rests on an effective cooperation with like-minded states, while the UK will demonstrate leadership whenever possible. The success of Global Britain depends on the successful representation, hence the perception, of the UK as a force for good. Thus, soft power, prestige and diplomacy are as important as hard and military power, if not more so.

The Royal Navy is key to the successful operationalisation of Global Britain via the exercise of traditional naval power: projection, global reach, forward presence, commitment to NATO and other allies and partners, participation in multilateral maritime security operations, and securing sea lanes of communications vital to Britain’s trade and energy security. But the Navy is also crucial as an enabler of soft power: this includes demonstrating interoperability with allies, reassuring partners and asserting the freedom of the seas. In other words, the Royal Navy is instrumental in demonstrating that the UK is ready to lead by example and to defend progressive values around the globe. For example, confidence-building measures and symbolic actions are instrumental in cementing a positive image of Britain as a liberal maritime nation. This was recently demonstrated by the HMS Defender incident in the waters off Crimea, which illustrates Britain’s willingness to defend the freedom of the seas as well as to reassure Ukraine as a partner. Similarly, between June and December 2021 CSG21 is participating in operations and exercises with various allies and partners, including France, the US, India, Japan and Australia.

In fact, beyond the return of the Royal Navy to the forefront of British defence and foreign policy, Global Britain demonstrates that sea blindness is losing ground, creating expectations and opportunities for the resurgence of British seapower. Seapower, popularised by the writings of US Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan at the end of the nineteenth century, goes beyond naval power since it rests on the economic use of the sea at least as much as on the military use of it, and it is relevant in peace as well as in war. Maritime trade generates the nation’s wealth, and the navy protects the nation’s interests at and from the sea. A successful seapower politics relies on the maritime awareness of decision makers as well as citizens and economic agents. Indeed, seapower has a civilian dimension; the prosperity of the UK depends on the achievements and commitment of civilian maritime stakeholders across sectors, including shipping companies, the shipbuilding industry, commercial ports and marine insurances. These actors have economic objectives and are mainly profit-driven, but the Integrated Review stresses that marine environment protection and a sustainable exploitation of marine resources is key to a healthy and ‘resilient ocean’ that will in turn contribute to the UK’s prosperity. Thus, engagement with the fishing sector and environmental NGOs is also crucial to the achievement of the goal of a sustainable ocean.

The collective dimension

Many of today’s challenges are global and can only be dealt with multilaterally, especially in the maritime domain where actors and issues are interconnected, e.g. marine environmental protection (which includes dealing with illegal fishing), maritime security (which includes counter-piracy and counter-terrorism), addressing the current migration crisis in the Mediterranean, and opposing geopolitical competitors. Allies must be reassured and partners secured, which calls for a practice of global presence as well as targeted support and engagement. Seapower is not a zero-sum game and there is a collective dimension to it; by cooperating with like-minded states the UK will be in a position to achieve the objectives set up in the Integrated Review.

The challenges of seapower politics

The Type 23 frigate HMS Lancaster returning to Portsmouth from NATO exercises in the Baltic. Some commentators have been concerned that the share of resources taken by the Carrier Strike Group in the Indo-Pacific region has left too little to support lower-level and more local needs of the Royal Navy – a ‘frigate gap’. Photo: Crown Copyright

The success of Global Britain will depend on the extent to which seapower will be nurtured and enacted. The main challenge consists in dedicating enough financial and material resources to sustain the vision elaborated in the Integrated Review. Navies are resource-intensive, and decision makers have to prioritise missions and/or platforms due to budgetary constraints. In summer 2021 commentators claimed that the Royal Navy was facing a ‘frigate gap’, stressing the potential lack of capabilities to fulfil the lower spectrum of missions assigned to the Navy in the short- to medium-term future as a result of the prioritisation of the CSG. Cyber-resilience is another challenge. Indeed, major UK competitors (challenging the preponderance of maritime nations) are likely to favour the use of asymmetrical warfare, especially in space and cyberspace.

Geopolitical challenges should not be underestimated, either. As demonstrated by the HMS Defender incident, we can expect a growing opposition by the UK’s named competitors, Russia and China. Their behaviour indicates that they tend to conceptualise the world as a zero-sum game, and they strongly defend and assert their rights over resources and certain marine areas. Britain’s championing of the freedom of the seas is clearly seen by them as an infringement of their sovereignty and is likely to be opposed. This is why the collective dimension of seapower is essential; Global Britain is a project that will succeed as part of the collective effort of all liberal maritime nations, as illustrated by the AUKUS partnership between Australia, the UK and the US. Seapower has been central to Britain’s rise to power since the Elizabethan era, and Global Britain will frame the UK’s ambitions in a way that highlights the UK’s maritime leadership in a constructive way: flying the flag of liberal values, building a community of like-minded states, and engaging with maritime communities at large, with the aim of securing the prosperity of the UK and its allies, its partners and beyond.

Towards a Global Maritime Britain

Global Britain is a starting point for the resurgence of a positive British seapower politics. Over the past half-century, never has decision makers’ awareness of the importance of the sea for the UK’s prosperity and security been as high as it is today. Last year, in this very magazine, Chris Parry wished for the government ‘to make a conscious decision to turn to the sea as a means of economic growth and political influence’. In 2021 the Integrated Review brings us a step closer to Global Maritime Britain.

However, resources are scarce, and competition for them is intense. Global Britain can only succeed if enough resources are devoted to its maritime dimension, from the Royal Navy to civilian seapower assets. Eventually, collective seapower is key to sharing the financial and operational burden of Britain’s objectives at and from the sea.

Dr Basil Germond SFHEA FRGS is Director of Research Training for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Lancaster University.