Late last year, with the pandemic in full, brutal swing, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government in the U.K. announced a nearly 17 billion pound (what was then $21.9 billion) increase in military spending. The increase, spread over four years, represented the largest hike in “defense” investments since the end of the Cold War, and, while it was a tiny fraction of what the U.S. spends annually on defense, made clear Britain’s ambition to be seen as a global military superpower once more. In an era of escalating tensions between a U.S.-led NATO and Russia, and during a period in which economic competition between China and the West is increasingly morphing into a high-stakes arms race, Britain’s move to ramp up military spending made clear that the U.K. won’t be sitting out these new global struggles.
In fact, the U.K.’s decision to escalate military investments was based on an evolving military doctrine of “constant competition” with adversaries that would keep opponents such as China and Russia off-balance while, hopefully, staying just clear of provocations that could lead to war.
The U.K. government — heir to a party that, like the Republicans in the United States, has not hesitated to cut social infrastructure spending and to impose austerity budgets on the poor in recent decades — promised to soup up spending on everything from cybersecurity to nuclear weapons. In March, the government announced it would raise the cap on the number of warheads the country possessed by a staggering 40 percent, and that it would no longer make public the number of operational nuclear weapons that it controlled. Critics argued, to no avail, that this would undermine the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to which Britain is a signatory.
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Folded into the new, more aggressive military posture, were changes that went far beyond the nuclear arsenal. Johnson’s government unveiled plans for advanced new naval systems, set up a new space command and committed to large investments in futuristic artificial intelligence research.
As a part of this new posture, in which post-Brexit Britain, isolated from its half-century-long relationship to the EU (or what was formerly known as the European Economic Community) and the power-brokers on the continent, takes on increasingly confrontational military policing roles globally and regionally, the U.K. recently sent an aircraft carrier and broader naval strike group into the South China Sea. The vessels, part of an international effort ostensibly designed to preserve freedom of navigation in contested international waters, sailed between Singapore and the Philippines, deliberately coming within a few miles of contested islands claimed by China in the region.
This follows on the heels of another venture, in which the U.K. sent a navy strike force into the waters off Crimea — territory illegally annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014. In that instance, intended to show Britain’s sympathy for Ukrainian claims to sovereignty over Crimea, the confrontation came horrifyingly close to going hot, after Russia scrambled fighter jets and navy vessels and reportedly fired warning shots at the approaching British ships.
One can well make the claim that both Russia and China are taking deeply irresponsible actions on the world stage. Yet acceptance of that critique is different from acceptance of the desirability of giving Boris Johnson’s government carte blanche to launch whatever military adventures it chooses to embark upon.
In fact, Johnson’s government, seeking to shore up its right-wing populist credentials, seems now to want to reach for military solutions even against recent allies. This spring, in one of the stranger post-Brexit moments, the Brits began scrambling up naval vessels against French and other EU fishers in the English Channel. The vessels were rushed off to the island of Jersey and were apparently aimed at breaking a “blockade” of the local waters by fishers from the continent irate that their long-standing right to fish these waters had now been terminated. In the end, both sides stood down, but the very notion that the U.K. and France could come to the edge of a naval confrontation over fishing rights — with the British government egged on by a snarling, far right, flag-worshipping tabloid press — is simply astounding, and shows exactly how far Britain has veered off-course since the Brexit vote of 2016 set in motion the years-long process of divorce between the U.K. and its erstwhile partners within the European Union.
French fishing vessels haven’t been the only targets of the British military in the seas abutting Britain. For much of the past year, as Johnson’s government has ramped up its rhetorical and legal campaigns against asylum seekers, ultra-sophisticated military drones have patrolled British waters, looking for migrants desperately trying to enter the country’s waters on rafts.
The arms build-up, and Britain’s growing willingness to needle opponents militarily, is, to say the least, disconcerting. Yet it isn’t exactly a development out of the blue. For while Britain has, for most of its modern history, steered clear of maintaining large standing armies during peacetime, it hasn’t hesitated to use its naval assets to secure global influence.
In fact, in many ways, the U.K.’s new doctrine of constant competition and ongoing military assertiveness is a souped-up version of a mid-19th century imperial doctrine, “gunboat diplomacy,” perfected by statesmen such as Lord Palmerston as a way to realize British ambitions around the world without actually triggering war with other behemoths on the global stage. Palmerston was a master of the art of military populism; he routinely sent gunboats to potential flashpoints while talking about the military muscle-flexing as simply being a defense of British values of liberty, democracy and freedom. The press and much of the British public relished these shows of force, and for many years, Palmerston bestrode the halls of Westminster, first as foreign secretary, and then as prime minister. He relied on Britain’s raw power to impose his views, but, as importantly, he relied on bluster, in the sense that he was just gung-ho enough, just trigger-happy enough, to follow through on his threats, to convince opponents that ceding to Britain would serve their interests better than forcing an actual fight.
Today, Johnson is reimagining British diplomacy in a similar way. His government pledged to cut international aid from 0.7 percent of the gross national income to 0.5 percent, and recently won a parliamentary vote on the issue, despite former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May joining with a group of rebel members of parliament to vote against Johnson’s plan. Yet, even as his government slashes overseas aid in a cruel effort to balance a budget following stimulus measures designed to counter the economic impact of the pandemic, it increases military spending.
Britain is now the only G7 country cutting rather than increasing its international aid commitments. It is, at the same time, spending more on its military than any other G7 member apart from the United States, making it the fifth-highest military spender on the planet. In 2020, Germany spent 1.4 percent of its GDP on its military, and France, itself in the middle of a significant military build-up, spent 2.1 percent. Britain, by contrast, spent 2.2 percent. The current round of military spending increases will further widen the gulf.
This combination of withdrawal from non-military international obligations and high-profile military spending speaks volumes for the priorities of post-Brexit Britain. Moreover, it speaks volumes about the values underpinning Johnson’s particularly noxious brand of right-wing, nationalistic populism.