United Kingdom Report


Policies Developed

The initial steps in the establishment of WGA in the UK were taken with the publication of the Strategic Defence Review (SDR) in 1998 (Ministry of Defence 1998). Both the process of that review and the objectives set within it were viewed as means through which the newly elected Labour Government could reposition itself in terms of defence and the UK could assert itself within the post-Cold War order. Historically, the Labour Party had been perceived as weak on defence, given that it wished to withdraw from NATO and dismantle the nuclear deterrent. Tony Blair, as leader of New Labour, was an internationalist who sought to revise the party’s image. In successive speeches and in the party’s manifesto, he stressed the importance of the UN, NATO and the EU, and Britain’s leadership role within them, for stability and peace in Europe and the world (Labour Party 1997; Kampfner 2003).
Although produced within the Ministry of Defence (MOD), the SDR was very clearly foreign policy led. The ministry, then led by Secretary of State George Robertson, had adopted a more open and consultative approach during the review process, conferring with other departments of state, allies, CSOs, service personnel and thinktanks. As a result, strategic priorities were derived from and set within a broader strategic context, rather than solely being determined by costs and affordability. It was recognised that national security and prosperity were dependent on the promotion of international stability, freedom and economic development. The government declared its intention that the British Armed Forces should be a “force for good in the world” (Ministry of Defence 1998).
The review acknowledged that Britain no longer faced an existential threat, but that state fragility and conflict in other parts of the world could impact on its security. Thus, if the Armed Forces were to achieve their aim, they would need to act in concert with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DFID), which had been newly established in 1997. As will be discussed below, a number of pragmatic institutional reforms were taken to encourage WGA, however the overarching national policy framework under which that occurred remained the 1998 SDR and its 2002 update titled ‘Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter’ (Ministry of Defence 2002).
The publication in 2008 of the UK’s first National Security Strategy (NSS) (Cabinet Office 2008) marked a step change in terms of the way in which the UK conceptualised, assessed and provided security. While previous government policies had acknowledged the changed threat environment post-Cold War and the requirement for interagency cooperation for effective response, the 2008 NSS made that case far more explicit. It recognised that globalisation and greater political, financial, social and technological interconnectedness made it increasingly difficult to differentiate between purely domestic and foreign policy.
If individuals rather than states are the referent objects of security, then a fundamentally different approach to providing that ultimate public good is required. The 2008 NSS outlined a more systematic approach to the assessment and management of risk, and it argued that partnerships across government and between government and the private and third sectors would be necessary to ensure national security.
The 2008 NSS reflected lessons learned over a decade. Specifically, it acknowledged the growing complexity of the global security environment and noted that if the UK wished to tackle problems at source, then it would have to operate in coalition with others and employ WGA. Afghanistan had illustrated that stabilisation operations had a higher chance of success if a comprehensive approach was adopted. That approach would need to draw on the full range of capabilities across government and within NGOs. Two key enablers were to ensure that activities were demand- rather than supply-led and that there were links between the strategic, operational and tactical levels of a campaign (Baumann 2010).
Having waited 10 years to update the WGA policy framework, subsequent changes occurred quite rapidly. In 2009, following the start of the global financial crisis, the government published an update to the NSS titled ‘Security for the Next Generation’ (Cabinet Office 2009). This document outlined in greater detail the risk assessment process being employed, looking at “threat drivers, threat actors and threat domains”. Again, the importance of WGA was acknowledged, but in this instance the government went beyond referencing the big three (MOD, FCO and DFID), acknowledging the contribution of the intelligence services, Home Office, cabinet committees and cabinet secretary to the delivery of security at home and abroad. The 2009 NSS detailed which ministries would lead in responding to which threats and outlined how parliament would conduct oversight of these activities through the establishment of a new Joint Committee on National Security Strategy.
This process of creeping centralisation was given further impetus when the coalition government published its own NSS in 2010 (HM Government 2010). Widely criticised at the time for being a rushed affair in which inadequate consultation took place, the 2010 NSS is viewed as significant because of the legal and institutional changes that accompanied it.
Prime Minister David Cameron sought to address perceived strategic deficits by creating a standing National Security Council (NSC), formalising the National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA), establishing a Joint Forces Command (JFC) and ensuring that, in the future, quinquennial strategic defence and security reviews (SDSRs) would align with the five yearly general election cycle (Thompson and Blagden 2018). In so doing, the coalition government sought to formalise the approach to security, avoiding the accusations of adhocism, adventurism and creeping incrementalism made against the preceding government’s conduct of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The aim was to ensure that the government pursued an evidence-based, strategic and comprehensive approach in the future.
Although this was the aim, it has not been fully achieved in practice. Political posturing in advance of the 2015 NSS and SDSR (HM Government 2015) placed in question the extent to which discussions were held across government on strategic priorities (Thompson and Blagden 2018). Subsequent events have raised further doubts regarding the UK’s strategic priorities. The 2016 Brexit referendum, Prime Minister Cameron’s resignation, the succession of Theresa May, and her decision to call a snap election in 2017 played havoc with the newly established fixed-term parliament and quinquennial security review. The government’s response was to publish a National Security Capability Review in 2018 (HM Government 2018), which assessed the capabilities without addressing the National Security Risk Assessment (NSRA).
The development of a WGA within the UK has been primarily driven by internal considerations regarding operational and cost effectiveness. A desire to promote peace on a global stage and a firm belief in the utility of the comprehensive approach have led the UK to champion the adoption of this method within the UN, NATO and the EU. It has done so by leading debates in the UN Security Council on how to improve the coordination and effectiveness of assistance to countries emerging from conflict. Further, as an advocate for the universal adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN’s 2030 Agenda, the UK has been keen to demonstrate the application of WGA at home and abroad.
Within the EU, the UK sought to accelerate the conceptualisation of and planning for a comprehensive approach through the provision of support from the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, the Permanent Joint Headquarters and the Stabilisation Unit, all of which were also engaged in knowledge transfer with NATO (House of Commons Defence Committee 2010). As one of the ‘Big Three’ foreign policy leads in the EU, a member of the UN Security Council, and the holder of the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR) post in NATO, the UK has been able to influence the agenda in these institutions so that they are mutually reinforcing (Lehne 2012). In turn, the evolution of WGAs within international organisations has led to further refinements of the UK’s own approach. This demonstrates that the more one engages in multinational operations, the greater the potential to learn and improve.
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