Speaking at the recently concluded NATO summit in Warsaw, Barack Obama insisted that the U.K. would retain its central security role on the European continent and in NATO regardless of Brexit. Obama is right, and his statement points to a wider disconnect: while the British public might have voted for a more insular U.K., many leading figures behind British politics and foreign policy still ascribe to a worldview where Britain is an internationally-minded power.
Despite defense spending cuts and a greater reluctance to use military force following the publication of the scathing Chilcot report, Britain still has a powerful military and is a key player in international security. The fact that the country has decided to go its own way and thumb its nose at the EU is not going to change that, despite the “Little Britain” scaremongering of some.
While pundits’ attention is bewitched by the procedural nitty-gritty that follows Brexit, and the Leavers are rejoicing for “taking back” their country, British diplomats and soldiers are still actively engaged in the Middle East and other parts of the world where the country maintains strategic interests. Indeed, the U.K. is part of the international coalition against ISIS, and has targeted the group with numerous airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. In Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, British special forces are working on the ground to counter Islamist militant groups alongside American troops and other allies. While British officials insist that their special forces are not involved in combat roles, some reports suggest otherwise.
Beyond the Middle East and Africa, Britain is also militarily active in Europe, as a key member of NATO. What’s more, the U.K. is NATO’s second largest contributor and its military budget constitutes a quarter of all defense spending in Europe. Even during the NATO Warsaw Summit, the U.K. took a hawkish line and agreed to deploy 500 troops in Estonia and 150 and in Poland, on top of running a standby NATO force of 3,000 troops in the UK and Germany. Given the U.K.’s military power, its contributions to such missions are significant.
The U.K.’s continuing military prowess is also evident in its arms sales. Gulf states especially have gone out of their way to maintain security ties with the U.K. and Britain’s BAE Systems, with Saudi Arabia (the company’s third-largest customer), Oman, and Kuwait all buying Eurofighter Typhoon jets. Saudi Arabia has also purchased 22Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer aircraft from BAE Systems. Close security ties have also led to a booming bilateral trade relationship; Saudi Arabia is London’s biggest partner in the region and British investors are permanently seeking new ways to tap into the Kingdom’s riches through the 6000 joint-ventures already operating there.
In addition to arms sales and military campaigns, the U.K. is expanding the reach of its military with the construction of a new military base. The Royal Navy base currently being built in Bahrain the country’s first permanent base in the Middle East (“east of Suez”) for 40 years. That is hardly the behavior of a country in military retreat.
The U.K.’s behavior on issues of defense stands in stark contrast to its more feeble European counterparts. In many ways, there has always been a disconnect between the U.K. and continental Europe when it comes to military posture. While the U.K. has scaled back its military in recent years, other European countries have done so to a far greater extent. U.S. officials frequently criticize other NATO members for neglecting their militaries. Many NATO countries spend far below the alliance’s target of two percent of GDP on military expenditures. Italy, for example, spends only 1.3 percent of GDP on its military, while the Netherlands, Spain, Germany and Denmark spend only 1.2 percent. Countries like Germany, haunted by memories past, have long refused to reconstruct military capabilities.
Outside of Britain, the only European power that has retained real expeditionary capabilities is France. In a sign of how much London has valued its independence in issues of defense, British objections have helped prevent the development of a common European defense policy up until the present. Such objections, of course, were based not on a desire to withdraw militarily from the international stage, but from concerns over sovereignty and a preference for NATO as the chief guarantor of Europe’s security.
All that being said, Britain’s foreign policy has of course become smaller in scope over the past few decades. The recently released Chilcot Report, highlighting the missteps of Tony Blair’s government in the lead-up to the Iraq War, is sure to strengthen anti-interventionist forces in British politics. The report concludes that the U.S. rushed into war and dragged the U.K. with it. Despite dire warnings from the U.K.’s intelligence community, Blair followed Bush’s lead, not wanting to jeopardize the country’s special relationship with Washington.
As the world still struggles with the bloody aftermath of the Iraq invasion, Britons have become significantly more skeptical of military intervention. Such reluctance is evident in parliamentary debates over recent military campaigns, with much of the opposition to intervention focusing on the Iraq debacle. With that still fresh in mind, parliament voted against intervention in Syria in 2013 and supported only a limited campaign in Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2015.
Ultimately, even despite such skepticism, the UK remains a key player in international security and there is little indication that that will change anytime soon. While Brexit opponents and others have voiced concern over the U.K. withdrawing from the world, its arms sales and continuing involvement in military campaigns around the world suggest those concerns are overblown. The U.K. is still a great power, and the world is a safer place as a result.