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26 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:54pm

How British foreign policy lost the art of grand strategy

As the UK emerges blinking into an uncertain post-Brexit dawn, what is its role in the world?    

By Peter Ricketts

In February 1960 the British cabinet secretary, Sir Norman Brook, sent the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, a densely argued 50-page document. This, the Future Policy Study 1960-70, was the result of eight months’ work by senior civil servants and military commanders, and set the standard for assessing the UK’s role in the world.

Having spent 40 years as a senior diplomat and ambassador for the British Foreign Office, I am sceptical about the capacity of modern governments to produce grand strategy, such as that seen in the 1960 study, amid the maelstrom of contemporary politics and the new media. 

Today’s pressures push ministers to short-term crisis management. Policies are sound-bite simple, while deferring awkward choices has become a more tempting option. The distinction between campaigning and governing has all but disappeared, reducing the space for longer-term thinking. 

But as the UK emerges blinking into an uncertain post-Brexit dawn, and Whitehall prepares to release its third strategic review in a decade, the 1960 study has three great strengths as a role model. 

The first is that it was honest. Ministers do not like uncomfortable truths. When I was coordinating the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review for the Cameron-Clegg government, I was told there was to be no drop in the UK’s ambitions, despite cuts to defence spending. 

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Norman Brook and his team were blunt; they emphasised that, regardless of the Treasury’s growth forecasts, the UK’s relative economic position vis-à-vis the US and western Europe would decline. They judged that the new European Economic Community (EEC) was of “immense potential importance”, could become a new world power and might even “replace us as the second member of the North Atlantic Alliance”. They warned that an “Anglo-American partnership is not a law of nature” and that the UK would sometimes have to subordinate its interests to US sensitivities. 

The report was unflinching about the risk of fiscal overstretch. The “inescapable conclusion” was that, in order to maintain its external commitments, the Macmillan government could not reduce its defence spending – then 7.9 per cent of the UK’s GDP – despite the consequences for domestic programmes. If resources were too thinly spread, Brook and his team declared, “we may fail to preserve our most important interests”. Foreshadowing the retreat from East of Suez in 1968, the study raised the possibility of withdrawing UK forces from Singapore.

The report’s second great strength was that it risked making predictions. Some were wrong, but the most significant forecasts were right. The panel judged that global war would not happen, but that if a crisis arose in eastern Europe, the Russians would successfully suppress it (as duly happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968). They predicted that the military struggle between the Soviet bloc and the West would not slacken, that Russian foreign policy would become more aggressive (not a bad call, given the Cuban missile crisis in 1962) and that the main US-Soviet struggle for influence would happen in areas such as south-east Asia – a premonition of the Vietnam War. 

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Third and most crucially, Brook and his team identified priorities. Foremost among these was a classic formulation of the two-pillar British grand strategy, which continued to apply right through my career and only now needs revisiting:

“One basic rule of British policy is clear: we must never allow ourselves to be put in a position where we have to make a final choice between the United States and Europe. It would not be compatible with our vital interests to reject either one or the other and the very fact that the choice was needed would mean the destruction of the Atlantic Alliance.”

Other priorities included accepting the burden of high defence spending and encouraging the Europeans to spend more since “the disparity of burdens endangers the political health of the Alliance” (yes, that was already an American complaint in 1960). 

It also meant spending wisely and not, for example, putting excessive investment into the nuclear deterrent to the detriment of a well-equipped armed forces and of diplomacy, which “has an importance out of proportion to its size” (another theme that echoes down the decades). 

The Future Policy Study was a good example of grand strategy because it shaped policy priorities for the decade and beyond. Macmillan brooded on the study’s messages and towards the end of 1960 he incorporated them into his Grand Design.

It was this memorandum – sent to key ministers – that triggered the long campaign to get French president Charles de Gaulle to agree to British membership of the EEC. Although Macmillan failed to do so when the two met at Rambouillet in December 1962 (Edward Heath succeeded a decade later), he did have some success in that week. It was then that he put in place the other component of the grand design, when he met with US president John F Kennedy in the Bahamas and persuaded him to share with the UK the Polaris nuclear weapon system. 

The twin pillars of British strategy as defined in the 1960 study – European and transatlantic – today look shaky. The framers of the 2020 version will not have the luxury Brook enjoyed of giving ministers hard truths in the privacy of a secret document, and they have the challenge of aligning the vague rhetoric about “Global Britain” with the country’s limited means and diminished influence. 

But it is a real moment of opportunity for the UK to decide if it still wants to act as a major international power, and to set new priorities and the narratives to explain them. If Mark Sedwill, the national security adviser, and his team who are writing this year’s review can provide a similar honesty, insight into future developments and sense of priorities that Norman Brook and his panel achieved, they will have shown that the art of strategy has not been lost.

Peter Ricketts was UK national security adviser 2010-12.

This article appears in the 26 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy