As the ramifications of the Brexit vote continue to unfold, many areas of our everyday life are called into question. What does our national future look like and how do we negotiate a path towards greater prosperity and security? Defence and national security are two particularly pressing areas of debate given the Brexit vote, the advent of a new administration in the United States, the threat of terrorism and the recent findings of the Chilcot inquiry. We face challenges and difficulties, made more urgent by uncertainties over the policies of the Trump administration and growing tensions with Russia, but in the midst of uncertainty and difficulty there is opportunity.
Many would argue that the UK’s status as a genuine global power has been eroded over recent decades, and others would suggest that leaving the EU will only compound that. But the fact remains we are still a founder member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and one of the five permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council. We continue to be a major international power, and that importance may well have to grow. Brexit means that the UK has to play a world role, instead of a more narrowly European role and, depending on the policies of the Trump administration, the British Government may well have to shoulder a heavier burden in upholding the values of an international system on which the success of the British economy will depend.
So how do we go about maintaining global influence in the interests of the economy, moving away from the UK being no more than a middle ranking power with a regional focus on Europe? And in doing so, how do we ensure Britain continues to make its presence felt along the trading networks on which the nation’s post-Brexit prosperity will depend? As an island nation we need to import the vast majority of the food and goods that fill our supermarket shelves. We also need to export the manufactured goods that allow us to pay our way in the world, which create jobs and, in turn, funds the NHS and pensions via taxation.
While we will continue to retain links with Europe, Britain’s vital national interests will, in a post-Brexit world, extend around the globe from Asia to Africa to South America and beyond along the trade networks. In a post-Brexit future, any threat to the world trading networks on which the British economy will increasingly rely is a threat to national security. As we expand our trading network defence co-operation needs to underpin trading links, and the UK needs to work with existing partners, to reforge historic links with Commonwealth partners, and to found new relationships with emergent powers.
It is naval power which can most effectively and unobtrusively police and defend Britain’s post-Brexit trading links since it is the sea which carries the vast majority of our imports and exports. Ships can move unobtrusively and quietly through international waters. They don’t generate awkward and costly issues to do with basing, or overflying rights. Sea power can provide the cost effective means to quietly protect Britain’s trading and overseas interests.
So UK defence policy should rest on key capabilities for the Armed Forces to provide UK home defence, in particular the ability of the Royal Navy to defend British territorial waters, to defend Britain’s global trading network and to police and, if need be, to project combat power (carrier-based airpower, amphibious operations) over large parts of the earth’s surface.