The dangerous illusion of British strategic autonomy

When you have been “Top Dog”, it is psychologically hard to cope when you are not. It is even harder for a country, when for well over a century it was the most important and powerful country in the world, the first industrial power, with a massive empire.

With the rise of the USA, the UK stopped being the most powerful country in the world in the late 19’th century even though the British Empire only empire reached its largest extent around 1920 after gaining extra territories in World War I, primarily from Germany.

Even a century later, it is hard for many Britons to be objective about its true global ranking.

By population, Britain is the world’s 21st largest country. That is not bad given that there are over 200 countries listed. However, the two largest, China and India, each have over 20 times the population of the UK.

When it comes to GDP, Britain is ranked sixth, just ahead of France, and just behind India. This relatively high ranking reflects the fact that Britain is still one of the richer countries in the world per capita.

By coincidence, Britain’s global ranking in nominal GDP per capita according to the International Monetary Fund is also 21st. However, many of the countries which are richer per capita are relatively small, for example Ireland, which is why the UK as a reasonably large country manages to come sixth when ranked by aggregate GDP.

While Britain has the sixth largest GDP today, this ranking will inevitably go down. That is only fair. Britons have no divine right to be richer than other human beings, and as other large population countries such as Indonesia, Nigeria and Brazil (to pick one from each continent) improve their economies, the size of their GDPs will inevitably surpass that of the UK.

In any event, what matters for our well-being is how rich we are per capita, not the UK’s global total GDP ranking. Britons today are incomparably better off than we were when Britannia ruled the waves.

What does this steady decline in the global weight of the UK mean for our politics?

National sovereignty

Legally, every single country has equal national sovereignty. Legally, the USA and Vanuatu are equally sovereign. For example, each has one vote in the United Nations General Assembly.

Obviously, the legal equality of Vanuatu and the USA is pretty irrelevant in practice.

Even in the structure of the United Nations, the USA is a Permanent Member of the Security Council; Vanuatu is not. Should Vanuatu start presenting a problem for the USA, there are many measures that the USA can take short of war to impose its will on such a small and weak country.

Setting standards

The French invented the metric system after their revolution. Because it was so obviously better than the many national measurement systems scattered around Europe, it rapidly achieved near universal acceptance. Britain, as the most important country in the world, was able to ignore it as were its American colonies.

The American colonies, in the form of the USA, have largely continued to ignore it apart from goods manufactured for sale overseas. (Obviously, American scientists use it 100% of the time because science is international.)

Meanwhile, both because of its adjacency to Europe, and then its membership of the EU, Britain has adopted most of the metric system apart from psychologically important measurements such as road miles and pints in pubs.

There are of course many other standards apart from measurement standards; for example, standards for food hygiene, standards for industrial products, standards for data protection; the list is endless.

There are only two standard-setting regimes that matter: the European Union and the USA. While China is now a very big and important country, other countries in practice do not follow Chinese standards.

The rest of the world has a simple choice, follow US standards or follow EU standards. The idea of any other country setting its own standards is “for the birds.”

For example, while in the EU the UK was part of one of the world’s two largest markets for medicine, namely the USA and the EU. The EU evaluates and approves medicines, and once it has done so, the supplier has access to the entire EU market.

Post-departure, the UK is no longer part of the EU’s medicines approval system. It plans to carry out its own approvals. The problem is that the UK is a relatively small market and pharmaceutical manufacturers will defer spending money on obtaining UK approval until well after obtaining USA and EU approval.

The UK does of course have one available strategy for ensuring that the latest medicines are available in the UK as soon as they are available in the USA and the EU. That would however require abandoning the concept of independent UK approval, and simply automatically authorising any medicine approved by the EU or any medicine approved by the USA.

This illustrates the more general point above. Once outside the EU, the only real choice the UK faces is whose standards to follow.

Strategic autonomy

Strategic autonomy means being able to do what you want to do, for things that really matter to you, without being dependent upon others.

Strategic autonomy is expensive. For example, France has it in military matters. The cost is designing and building its own aeroplanes, although it seeks to share costs with other European countries. France builds its own nuclear missiles.

The UK abandoned military autonomy many decades ago, in the early 1960’s, when Harold Macmillan entered into a deal with the USA to buy Polaris missiles, later replaced by American Trident missiles. The UK has a policy of dependence on the USA combined with some areas where it seeks to preserve a small measure of autonomy.

One of the great challenges facing the member states of the EU is strategic autonomy. They recognise that individually, each of them is too small. However, strategic autonomy for the EU as a whole is something that is increasingly at the forefront of EU debate.

In some areas, the EU has successfully accomplished this.

It was the Americans who invented satellite navigation with the Global Positioning System. That was created for military purposes, to enable US aeroplanes and missiles to be more effective. Initially, the signal made available to civilians was much less accurate than the encrypted signal used by the US military. From the very beginning, the USA has always had the ability to switch off all access to GPS apart from the access of its own armed forces.

Recognising the impact on its strategic autonomy, many years ago the EU chose to build its own independent satellite navigation system, Galileo. Full access to Galileo, equivalent to the US military access to GPS, is entirely at the gift of the EU and reserved for its member states, even though in normal times civilians anywhere in the world are able to access the Galileo signal.

After departing from the EU, the UK was “shocked” to find that when it was no longer an EU member state, it would no longer have the top-level access to Galileo.

Ever since, the British government has been floundering. There was initially talk of building a purely British equivalent to the GPS and Galileo, until it was recognised that for a small country like Britain the costs would look ludicrous. Other face-saving alternatives such as buying into another commercial system have been attempted without achieving very much.

What are the prospects for the UK?

The UK has plenty of scope to be rich. For example, there are many rich countries much smaller than the UK.

The UK also has plenty of scope to be influential. In their own way, each of Switzerland, Luxembourg, Israel and Singapore are influential countries.

What the UK cannot be is powerful.

While it is still one of the more powerful countries in the world militarily once you look outside the really powerful ones, namely the USA, China and Russia (which has great military power despite an economy the size of the Netherlands), the UK’s ability to project military power around the world is steadily declining.

Political implications

Political problems arise when politicians peddle illusions of importance and strategic autonomy. That inevitably leads to quixotic wastes of money (such as the search for a British satellite navigation system) and to self-harming policies (such as setting up a UK medicines approval system).

Strategic autonomy is something better left to bigger countries to worry about. Ultimately, peddling illusions about such matters leads to political disillusionment.

It would be much better if politicians were frank with the public about the real choices open to the UK.

What the UK needs to decide between

The UK has three realistic options for the long run.

Alignment with the USA

This means following the USA on all important questions of standards and strategy.

Of course, following without having a say in decision making is the essence of being a “vassal.” The logical end point of this approach is that the UK either as one country, or more appropriately as a set of sub-units, should apply for statehood. We would add much to the USA.

Of course, unlike joining the EU, becoming a US state is irrevocable, as the American Civil War demonstrated.

Alignment with the EU

This would be the mirror image of the above strategy. Given the geography, it seems more sensible to me. Furthermore, despite our sharing similar languages (English and American), the UK has far more in common with the social democracies of Continental Europe than it does with the USA.

Of course, the “vassal” complaint is just as relevant here, with the logical solution being to rejoin the EU. When we were in the EU, we were the joint second most important member state along with France, with Germany slightly ahead as number one. That status would return on re-entry, although I don’t have much hope for restoring the UK’s rebate or opt-outs from Schengen or the euro; nor do I consider such opt outs desirable.

The “Swiss” option

Switzerland follows the EU for practical matters, such as regulatory standards, while not being a member of the EU. Instead, it charts an independent path, being sufficiently well armed to defend itself, while avoiding the illusion of seeking to be a global power.

By doing so, it makes itself an attractive home for multinationals and for global finance. London could play that role very well, as a form of “Global Britain”, but only if the UK stops trying to act as if it were a world power.

Mohammed Amin is a former Conservative Party member and is now a Liberal Democrat. He writes in a personal capacity.