30 July 2018

It’s time to relearn the geography of British power


Whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, the UK will retain its capacity to act as a global power. Over the past year alone the Royal Navy has deployed three warships to the Pacific Ocean to support the rules-based international order and its regional allies – the United States, Australia, Japan and South Korea.

While there have always been potentially powerful countries, very few have really managed to spread their influence over long distances to shape the ideas and preferences of the wider world. The ability to influence the world – or specific regions – is not necessarily related to size and mass: the largest, most populous or wealthiest countries are not always the most powerful or dominant.

Influence results from a country’s ability to push its “culminating point” far away from its capital city. The term was popularised  by Carl von Clausewitz to describe the maximum distance a military force can operate without becoming over-extended.

At this point, command and control, and communications and logistics break down, leading an army, naval group or air force exposed and vulnerable. When over-extended, such a force has two options: withdrawal, or the mobilisation of additional resources to sustain it in theatre. If it fails to do both, and meets hostile opposition, it risks defeat.

Countries also have culminating points, although they tend to involve the full plethora of national power. It is at these “points” where the struggle for power and influence between nations can be seen. Most countries have very limited “culminating points”, normally coterminous with their national borders. Beyond those, their influence is very weak.

Others have much greater reach, and – in the right circumstances – can potentially encompass the entire world. Arguably, the UK had a global culminating point throughout much of the nineteenth century, while the US held one in the late 1940s. At their respective apexes, both countries could have overwhelmed any conceivable opponent, military or otherwise.

Of course, resources matter in allowing nations to extend their culminating point across vast distances. What matters more, though, is the ability to “process” those resources and use them for geostrategic effect. Consequently, small but astute countries can punch far above their weight, pushing their culminating points far out from their homeland.

Meanwhile, the largest and most populous countries often have only regional influence because they lack the ability to fully exploit their national capabilities and project their power beyond their own borders.

The UK is the archetypal example of a country that has been able to pack a formidable punch despite its small size. One of the elements that has historically given the UK the upper hand is an acute understanding how power can spread over geographic space. While many continental powers see themselves as radiating out of a central point of control, the UK – as a maritime island nation – came to see itself as part of a vast maritime network.

By controlling key spaces on the Earth’s surface, including “choke points” such as maritime straits, the British realised that they could constrain their competitors’ capabilities. Moreover, by building naval bases at key locations, the UK realise it could vastly enhance the Royal Navy’s strategic mobility, and simply “manifest” itself wherever it wanted. British forces could be everywhere, almost simultaneously.

As the Henry Jackson Society’s latest Global Britain Programme video shows, Britain’s ability to project itself around the world remains extensive. Only the US has a greater capability, often helped by using UK overseas territories, such as Diego Garcia and Ascension Island.

The UK still retains two “arrays” of overseas territories that extend like long tentacles –  one stretches down the Atlantic to the Antarctic, while the other links the British Isles to the Mediterranean, and then on to the Gulf and the Far East. These are not throwbacks to the age of empire: the UK recently enlarged its maritime facility in Bahrain, while a new Joint Logistics Facility is under construction in Duqm in Oman.

Taken together, these facilities provide the UK and its allies with the ability to deny access to the world’s most important maritime choke points, including the Strait of Magellan, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, the Bab-el-Mandeb, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Strait of Malacca.

It is this Anglo-American geography of power that underpins the rules-based international order. Consequently, if the UK wishes to uphold this order, which it has done so much to generate and spread, it needs to re-emphasise geostrategy in its overall foreign policy. It needs to reappraise the significance of its geographic reach, and provide the resources to uphold it, not least a larger naval fleet.

For, make no mistake, the revisionist continental powers, not least Russia and China, have been busily reviewing the way that the British (and the Americans) gained ascendancy over the world – just look at China’s establishment of a base in Djibouti as an example.

If the UK gives up on what has made it a true global power, it risks looking on as its competitors slowly and surely learn from Britain’s strategic history, before they mobilise their resources to reshape the international order in line with their own priorities and preferences.

James Rogers is Director of the Global Britain Programme at the Henry Jackson Society.