Panel fra IFS-seminaret Great Britain, Small Britain?Panel fra IFS-seminaret Great Britain, Small Britain?

IFS seminar: Great Britain Small Britain?

On 12 January, the IFS-led research programme Security and Defence in Northern Europe (SNE) organised a seminar on the UK as a security and defence actor.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Three distinguished guests offered their views on the question of whether the UK is "back" as a major security and defence actor, and whether it was really ever "gone":

  • Nick GurrUK Ministry of Defence, Director for International Security Policy 
  • Professor Andrew Dorman, professor of International Security at King's College London; and 
  • Tom Holter, Counsellor for Security and Defence Policy of the Norwegian Embassy London. 

They were joined by Håkon Lunde Saxi, research fellow at IFS. 

In his welcoming remarks, Robin Allers, head of the SNE programme, pointed out that the idea to focus on security and defence cooperation in Northern Europe had in part been inspired by the UK's 2010 initiative for what became the Northern Group. Today, Britain's continued interest in strengthening cooperation with allies and partners in the region is visible through strong bilateral ties and initiatives such as the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), also including forces from Norway.  


The backdrop to the seminar was the seeming decline in the UK's willingness and capability for involvement in global security and defence issues in 2010–15. For instance, the 2010 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) led to significant cuts in defence capabilities. In 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron lost a parliamentary vote on military action in Syria. Furthermore, the UK was strikingly absent in efforts to manage the unfolding Ukraine crisis. However, in light of recent developments, not least the 2015 SDSR which sets out the government's national security strategy for the coming 5 years, and how it will be implemented, the four panellists agreed overall that the UK today is both more willing and able, and indeed back as a major security and defence actor.

More capa​ble​


​​Mr Nick Gurr, Director for International Security Policy, UK Ministry for Defence.​According to Mr Gurr, the UK was never gone, but is now certainly back as a major security and defence actor. The British are always those who are most worried about maintaining the country's reputation of "punching above its weight", he emphasised. Gurr argued that the UK is able to do a lot, and highlighted three significant developments in the last six months that has made Britain even more capable than before. First, the budget announcement in July, which committed the UK to continue to meet NATO's 2 % defence spending target, as one of only three allies besides the US. Second, the 2015 SDSR, which according to Gurr has contributed to re-establish Britain's credibility on the international stage through three national security objectives: protecting people and infrastructure at home and overseas; projecting global influence; and promoting prosperity. These objectives have ambitious implications for defence, including significant investments in (global) defence capabilities. The final significant development highlighted by Gurr was the parliamentary vote in December to support airstrikes in Syria. In addition, he elaborated on topics such as high ambitions in respect to Britain's role in counter-terrorism, its leadership role in NATO-Europe and capabilities for high-end warfighting with allies. Thus, he concluded, the UK is very much present and active, and no one should doubt the country's ability to lead.

The good news, and the​​ bad news​

Professor Andrew Dorman, King's College.It seems "the empire strikes back", said Professor Dorman, who agreed that Britain is reengaging on the international stage. But the UK is a status quo power, and its reengagement has to be understood in terms of context, he emphasised: The 2010 national security strategy was made in a much more peaceful world; the new security strategy reflects greater challenges, including the return of state-to-state conflicts. Britain recognises that there are threats out there that it needs to deal with, it is more engaged globally, and is also prepared to use force as illustrated by the December vote on Syria. Dorman also highlighted how Britain in a sense is going "back to basics"; it emphasises NATO and has rediscovered deterrence – although both in a traditional and non-traditional way. While these developments are the good news, according to Dorman, he also argued that there are vulnerabilities and question marks concerning the time ahead. One such vulnerability is the gap between the most pressing challenges to British security and its very heavy investments in future capabilities, such as aircraft carriers and F-35 fighter aircraft, which will take a long time to arrive. The UK also faces a more fragmented domestic opposition and a fracturing of defence consensus; the issue of a potential "Brexit" (British withdrawal from the EU); and unanswered questions concerning defence structure and capabilities, such as were the Army is actually going.  


Mr Tom Holter, Counsellor for Security and Defence Policy of the Norwegian Embassy London.Mr Holter shared some of his reflections after four years in London observing that security and defence policy gained ground during David Cameron's premiership. He contrasted the 2010 and 2015 security strategies, arguing that the latter has a more gloomy (though not alarmist) perspective. The new strategy reflects two main drivers of security policy and defence adjustments: Russia and counter-terrorism. The UK does not perceive of Russia as a direct threat, he emphasised, but worst-case scenarios including war (although unlikely) are not ruled out. He also noted that Britain's development with regard to counterterrorism over the last five years is impressive. According to Holter, Britain intends to remain a major security and defence actor, globally but first and foremost in Europe and its periphery, and through a lead role in NATO. He also noted how the 2015 SDSR confirms NATO as a core priority, that it reflects a refocusing on deterrence, and additionally illustrates that the British are serious on Article 5. In sum, Holter agreed with the claim that Britain is "back", but like Dorman he highlighted some vulnerabilities, such as internal politicking; the domestic political need for a pause in large overseas interventions; and the "Brexit" issue. On a final note, Holter shared his perception that the new National Security Strategy confirms the UK as Norway's most important European ally. There is, however, potential to broaden the bilateral relationship, e.g. through more cooperation in the north and through joint participation in the F-35 program and other capability projects.


Research Fellow Håkon Lunde Saxi, IFSHåkon Lunde Saxi offered three explanations for the emergence of a debate on Britain's supposed absence, and for the widespread perception of a decline in the UK's willingness and capability to engage in global security and defence issues: Firstly, for historical reasons, expectations in respect to the UK as a defence and security actor are very high, both at home and abroad, creating a higher "expectations-capability gap"​ than in most other states. Secondly, there had been significant reductions in Britain's military and diplomatic capabilities over the past five years, and unexpected reluctance to participate in military operations overseas. Thirdly, Saxi noted that Britain's two major continental allies, France and Germany, had strengthened their military and political standing, which had the effect of making Britain's stature appear diminished in comparison. However, with the 2015 SDSR, and decisions to get more involved in Syria and in managing the Ukraine crisis, the UK now appears to be "back" as NATO Europe's and the EU's arguably leading security and defence actor.


The seminar was rounded off with an intriguing Q&A session hosted by Rolf Tamnes, professor at IFS. Among the topics discussed were the UK's geographic priorities, its role in the High North, its leadership role in NATO, and its approach to Russia. The "Brexit" issue and how this scenario would have huge implications for Britain's role in the world, attracted particular attention.

Summary by Ida Maria Oma​

Published 12 January 2016 00:00.. Last updated 27 January 2017 16:21.