Cameron's security gamble: Is Brexit a strategic risk?

21 December 2015

Alongside the Strategic Defence and Security Review, UK airstrikes in Syria may be a signal of renewed British involvement in international affairs – but the continued risk of Brexit hangs over the country’s relations with its allies.

Last month in Washington, a former senior US official said privately that people like him were weeping over the state of the 'special relationship' with the UK. Another, from the opposite political party, spoke of American "disdain" for the current state of UK foreign policy. Officials in the Obama administration were no more diplomatic: one asked "What the hell is the UK doing, going from a referendum on Scotland to a referendum on the EU?". In Europe, French officials have grumbled for months about France's "strategic solitude" and Britain's absence from European foreign policy decision-making.

These criticisms should sting UK politicians: Britain has traditionally prided itself on tackling international problems, rather than pulling the covers over its head and hoping that others will find solutions. Two recent events, the publication of the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), and the start of British airstrikes on Syria, may have repaired some of the damage to the UK's image. But a third, the inconclusive European Council discussion on December 17th of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s ideas for reforming the EU, is causing new angst among Britain’s allies and partners. Cameron spoke for longer on 'the British problem' than on terrorism or the refugee crisis, underlining the extent to which his priority is managing domestic politics, not tackling external challenges.

The House of Commons vote on Syria on December 2nd showed that in the right circumstances, Britain would still use military force as a tool of policy. By contrast, in August 2013, after Syrian president Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against civilians, the Commons voted not to take military action against him. That vote showed the long shadow cast by the UK's involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. This time, even after the November 13th attacks in Paris inspired by the Daesh terrorist group and a direct appeal from the French President for British support, the government delayed the parliamentary debate until it was sure of a solid, cross-party majority for action. The delay was a symptom of the government's continued nervousness about public opinion, much of which saw British intervention in the earlier conflicts as an expensive failure. 

Britain's allies may be happy with the symbolism of the RAF joining in coalition strikes in Syria, but the bombing campaign only makes sense as part of a strategy to protect the UK. To know whether there is such a strategy, one must turn to the new SDSR. There is much to welcome in it. In the foreword, Cameron justifiably trumpets the fact that the UK is the only major country meeting both the NATO target of 2 per cent of GDP spent on defence and the UN target of 0.7 per cent of GDP spent on development assistance. The 2015 document suggests that the government now realises that the 2010 SDSR was (as yet another US official put it) "a disaster", with policy decisions driven by the desire to cut costs rather than by real-world challenges. 

On the military side, the SDSR foresees a modest increase in military manpower –enabled by a significant cut in Ministry of Defence civil servants. There will be a larger number of rapidly deployable forces, more strike aircraft, more equipment for special forces, new capabilities for countering hybrid warfare (of the sort employed by Russia in its intervention in Ukraine), more drones and new maritime patrol aircraft (to replace those scrapped as a result of the 2010 SDSR – before the Russian navy began testing the UK’s maritime defences).

The SDSR recognises (better than its 2010 predecessor) that Britain’s diplomatic service makes an important contribution to the UK’s security by building “alliances and partnerships on which we can rely in times of crisis”. For a decade, diplomats have had to be ready to deploy to any trouble-spot, whether or not they knew anything about the country concerned. Now the SDSR promises to “extend deep country expertise to wider areas that are vital to our security and prosperity”. As part of this new approach, the Foreign Office will invest in improving the language skills of its staff (strongly criticised by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in February 2015), particularly in Arabic, Mandarin and Russian. 

But for all the good things in the SDSR, it raises two important questions. The first is whether the UK now has a strategy, in the military sense of something which links ends and means. The second is whether the government’s approach to relations with the EU is consistent with its national security strategy. Unfortunately, the answer to the first question is ‘up to a point’; to the second, it is 'no'. The last SDSR was too focused on cuts to care about coherence. The new one is haunted by the ghost of the EU referendum-yet-to-come. 

Chapter 3 of the SDSR, 'The national security context', comprehensively sets out the complex set of risks that the UK faces: terrorism; instability abroad, and the migration that it drives; organised crime; epidemics; Russian aggression towards its neighbours and towards NATO; cyber attacks; weakness of the rules-based international system; energy insecurity; global economic problems; and climate change. With the exception of terrorism related to Northern Ireland, none of these threats is unique to the UK; all of them affect the UK's allies and partners, in Europe and beyond. The means for achieving the UK's objectives in each of these areas should therefore presumably be based on co-operation with others.

But the government's response to these threats, set out in subsequent chapters, suggests a haphazard approach to working with allies and partners. The tone has changed for the worse since the 2010 SDSR. In 2010, it was explicitly internationalist: "Alliances and partnerships will remain a fundamental part of our approach to defence and security". In 2015, it has added some unilateralist bravado: "We must work with others, not because we cannot work alone, but because the threats and opportunities are global". In 2010, the UK was ready to accept that it might rely on other nations to provide particular capabilities, and vice versa, on the basis of binding mutual guarantees; this idea does not re-appear in the 2015 version. In 2010, the UK's role in NATO was defined by its commitments to its friends: "our obligations to our NATO allies will continue to be among our highest priorities"; in 2015, the emphasis has shifted to what NATO does for the UK: "we are ... protected through our membership of NATO".

But the biggest difference between the 2010 SDSR, adopted by the coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and the new one drafted by the Conservative government, is the changed view of the EU. In 2010, the focus was on how the EU could help the UK pursue its international goals: UK membership of the EU was described as "a key part of our international engagement and means of promoting security and prosperity in the European neighbourhood". The UK had a long agenda of things it wanted to do internationally through the EU.

Five years later, the focus has narrowed from what the EU can do for the world (with a nudge from the UK) to what the EU can do for the UK: “a secure and prosperous Europe is essential for a secure and prosperous UK". But even that modest endorsement of the EU's value is called into question by the UK's negotiating tactics ahead of the planned in-out referendum. The European Council discussion has confirmed that David Cameron has considerable (though not unanimous) support for most of his proposals, on issues such as making Europe more competitive, or giving national parliaments more say in EU matters. But in talking to other EU leaders, before and at the European Council, Cameron suggested that if he did not also get his way on cutting the in-work benefits available to EU citizens working in the UK, then he would not rule out campaigning to leave the Union. 

That argument, presumably made for tactical purposes, undermines the government's stated strategic interest. After all, the corollary of the statement in the SDSR is that if Europe is less secure and less prosperous, so will the UK be. If the UK destabilises the EU by leaving it, both will be poorer and less safe. There is a striking imbalance between the relatively trivial effect of the change the prime minister has demanded on the flow of EU migrants that it is supposed to address, and the immense damage that Britain would both cause and incur if it left the EU. 

The international damage would not be limited to the EU. At a CER event on December 14th, the former UK defence secretary, Liam Fox MP, described the development of the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) as "a direct threat to the supremacy of NATO", arguing that it was the "elephant in the room" in the EU debate. Eurosceptics see the CSDP as the foundation for a European Army and an EU military headquarters that would undermine and ultimately replace NATO. As long as the UK remains in the EU, that will be an exaggeration: Britain has a veto on the future development of CSDP, and has consistently ensured that it remains compatible with NATO. But if the UK left the EU, few of the remaining major nations would be as Atlanticist, and the eurosceptics’ fears might become a reality.

The British government's obsession with the details of its relationship with the EU has led it to lose sight of the big strategic picture and of the EU's role in managing the national security threats identified in the SDSR. The European Council discussion of Cameron's proposals resulted only in an agreement to keep negotiating until the next European Council, in February. But every hour spent debating whether Britain should be exempt from the commitment to "ever closer union among the peoples of Europe" in the preamble to the EU treaties is an hour not spent debating how to improve co-operation between European police and intelligence services in the fight against terrorism; or how to increase the chance of a peace deal in Syria and thereby slow the flow of refugees across the EU’s porous external borders. Every moment devoted to crafting a deal to enable groups of national parliaments to block EU legislation is a moment not spent thinking about how to block Russia's efforts to threaten its neighbours and divide the West. 

And at the end of all the negotiations, Cameron cannot guarantee that he will win a referendum, even if he gets everything he asks for. What frustrates the UK’s allies is the sense that, regardless of its stated strategy, the British government is ready to gamble away its membership in one of the fundamental elements of Europe's security and stability.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform.