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Dodging the Bullet and Ducking the Question: British Defence Policy and its Post-Imperial World Role

Commentary, 19 August 2010
Defence Policy, History, UK Defence, Europe
Britain's imperialist mentality is outdated and overambitious: viewing the country as a global power is damaging, rather than benefiting, current defence policy.

Britain's world role and defence policy has since 1948 been premised upon Churchill's 'Three Circles of Power', placing Britain in a central role in international relations. Unfortunately, this outdated perception of the country as a global power needs urgently to be reassessed by current policy-makers. That tired notion has created an overstretched and overambitious defence policy, making Britain less, rather than more, secure.

By Dr Oliver Daddow, for

This article is part of the Military History and Policy Series
Series III: Reforming Defence - Learning lessons from past Defence Reviews

Winston Churchill

'The image he left was huge, the mark modest. Little in post-war Britain, save lingering imperial illusions, is traceable to him.'[1] This was Perry Anderson's dismissive description of Winston Churchill and his legacy after the Second World War. It seems, however, that  Churchill's 'imperial illusions' may be rather more than lingering:

The 'three circles' model

Perry Anderson rather understates the impact Winston Churchill has had on the ideational context within which British politicians and civil servants have devised British foreign and defence policy since 1945. Churchill's imperial mindset has not malingered on the fringes of British thinking about the nation's 'world role'; it has been fundamental to the ways in which the Establishment (incorporating policy-makers and elite commentators in the media, academia, lobbyists and think tanks) has constructed the idea of Britain as a global actor for over sixty years. Churchill's legacy has principally been felt through the easy acceptance and lazy reproduction of his 'three circles' model of British foreign policy. Elaborated at the Conservative Party conference in 1948, Britain, the former Prime Minister said, was positioned - uniquely in international affairs - at the intersection of three circles of power and influence. The first circle was the British Commonwealth and Empire; the second circle was 'the English-speaking world in which we, Canada, and the other British Dominions play so important a part'; the third, and tellingly, last on his list was the 'United Europe' circle.[2] 

This article will suggest that the uncritical Establishment embrace of Churchill's 'three circles' model has encouraged British politicians of all ideological hues to avoid making what Christopher Hill has recently identified as long overdue 'tough choices' about British foreign and therefore defence policy.[3] The argument is made in two stages. The opening part considers the manifold reworking of the Churchill model from 1948 to the present, suggesting that new modes of describing Britain's role in the world have not flowed from any novel thinking on the subject. The second part puts the case that, ironically, given the kudos around the idea of foreign policy-led defence reviews, foreign policy thinking in Britain has lagged behind defence policy thinking in terms of an appreciation of what Britain is able to achieve in the world. Even defence reviews such as the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) which made great play of the foreign policy-led element have remained mired in 'great power' thinking. In this context, the article is not optimistic that the 2010 Conservative-Liberal Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) will either break free from the Churchill model or take a nuanced approach to appreciating the values and interests that should inform a consideration of British foreign policy today.

Circles, bridges and hubs: the veneration of Churchill

The three circles model was a geo-strategic account of the global power networks through which Britain could exert the necessary influence to achieve its foreign policy goals. In Churchill's vision, the nation's external action had to be dictated by a consideration of the power Britain could exert through, firstly, bilateral relationships with high profile players such as the United States (US) and secondly, its involvement in formal and informal networks of influence such as the Commonwealth. Churchill's three circles model was, in short, an unashamedly structural, proto-Neorealist account of Britain's place in the international system, privileging power and alliance patterns as the determinants of the nation's foreign policy orientation.[4] Three examples from across the post-war period will illustrate how Churchill's emphasis on Britain's international relationships has prolonged the illusion that Britain is a 'great power', whichever party has been in government and whatever the scale of the defence and foreign policy crises in which Britain has found itself embroiled.

First, the 1957 Sandys Review, written in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis. Despite the shock of having to cede to American influence and recognising how prohibitively costly an expansive defence policy had become to the nation's budget, Andrew Dorman has argued that the impetus to a radical rethink was sapped by Whitehall's global power pretensions. Sandys 'did not consider abandoning commitments. ... the government still wanted to maintain the world role and the review focused on the implementation of existing policy.'[5] The cuts might have been 'regarded as drastic at the time', concurs Michael Dockrill, but 'no thought at all was given to reducing the considerable array of commitments with which Britain had been encumbered since 1945.'[6] The switch from a Conservative to Labour government in 1964, coupled with yet more debilitating domestic economic travails,[7] might have precipitated fresh thinking about Britain's world role, but this opportunity was missed because Harold Wilson's foreign policy thinking was as 'soaked in Empire' as that of Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan.[8]

In power, as he had through his career, Wilson consistently maintained that 'we cannot afford to relinquish our world role'[9], and in this context, Minster of Defence Denis Healey's decision to withdraw from British commitments 'east of Suez' in 1968 was propelled by economic exigency rather than a rational debate within government about the merits of pursuing a European-focused foreign policy. Again, defence policy realities were ahead of foreign policy illusions. As Wilson and Healey well recognised, Britain might not have been able to afford to do much in the late 1960s, but these 'special relationship' men clung grimly to the rhetorical remnants of Britain's world role throughout Labour's period in office. Even when the Wilson government tried - unsuccessfully - to join the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1967, the pill was sweetened by depicting the move as 'an effort to strengthen the base from which we exert world influence'.[10] Any turn to 'Europe' on the part of British policy-makers has tended, like this, to be treated as a short-term palliative aimed at propping up the nation's global ambitions over the longer-term, with London's reluctance to embrace the realities of playing a regional role seeping through in official foreign policy discourses from the 1960s to the present.

A third period which displayed Churchill's hold over British foreign policy thinking came during the New Labour years, 1997-2010.[11] Two facets of the eulogy to Churchill we witnessed in these years were remarkable. First, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown led the country in a vastly changed international system compared to that prevailing during the Cold War, when we might have expected to see more of an accent on the 'power' needed to uphold British interests. Second, the reworking of Churchill ran alongside a thoroughgoing pledge to remould Britain's image on the world as a post-imperial, values-based 'force for good' in the world, 'charting a new course for British foreign policy' and working especially closely with European allies.[12] Those pretensions aside, however, New Labour looked unashamedly to Churchill for its foreign policy inspiration and we can detect this through a study of the spatial metaphors Tony Blair and Gordon Brown used to describe Britain's place in the world.

The most popular and frequently deployed metaphor, used especially by Blair in the pre-Iraq years, was that Britain could act as a 'bridge' between the US on the one had and the EU on the other.[13] After June 2007, Prime Minister Brown was ably supported by the pro-Blair Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, in describing Britain's world role was as a 'hub', (a term first used by Blair in June 2000).[14] An exasperated Blair gave the game away in November 2004 when he said: 'We have a unique role to play. Call it a bridge, a two lane motorway, a pivot or call it a damn high wire, which is often how it feels; our job is to keep our sights firmly on both sides of the Atlantic'.[15] With all the new metaphors, however, came little in the way of a deconstruction of the Churchill model, even to this avowed Europe-leaning government pursuing a values-based foreign policy.[16]

Linking foreign, defence and security policy?

Analysts of British defence policy since 1945 frequently make the case that it has been divorced from foreign policy thinking, to its detriment.[17] The two principal drivers of defence policy have been identified as, on the one hand, the Treasury and, on the other, bureaucratic politicking between the three service branches. The latter was particularly marked in the early decades after the Second World War when ministerial control was weaker because of a fragmented department. New Labour set about aligning foreign and defence policies more closely by incorporating the Foreign Office closely into discussions that led to the 1998 SDR. Even then, argues Colin McInnes, its actual 'involvement was limited' for two reasons. First, the Foreign Office was simultaneously handling other delicate issues, notably the handover of Hong Kong to China and Britain's presidency of the EU. Second, after the foreign policy baseline was set it was down to the Ministry of Defence to dominate the crucial second stage of the process, concerning resource allocation and force structure.[18]

On top of all this, it was clear that New Labour 'did not start with a clean sheet of paper. Rather, certain assumptions were made which went unchallenged: that Britain would play a leading role in the world and that its military forces would be an important element in this position.'[19] For all its diagnoses of how the modern world had changed and how the government would adapt the British defence posture accordingly, what Labour in fact did was embark on a typically Churchillian blueprint for global leadership. Such was the fate that befell New Labour's flirtation with 'Cool Britannia', which even at the time was widely written off as an ephemeral, faddish exercise in re-branding the nation. Yet, it at least indicated a willingness to rethink the national identity for the twenty-first century. Like so many New Labour ruses, however, it was never followed through to the degree necessary to alter the Establishment mindset or wider public traditions of thinking about Britain as an idea, or how this idea of the nation could inform external action.

Similar posturing on the foreign-defence nexus has been evident in the build-up and early stages of the 2010 SDSR. For example, in a pre-election speech at the Royal United Services Institue (RUSI), the current Minister of Defence Liam Fox said the SDSR must 'have a logical sequence. It must begin with our foreign policy priorities'. Fox identified foreign policy as being all about defence against perceived 'threats posed' to the national interest, speaking of Britain, predictably, as 'an international hub' through its economic and diplomatic involvement in international organisations and the Commonwealth.[20] Identifying threats is not the same as seriously evaluating what kind of foreign policy one wants to have. The latter entails a more thoroughgoing conceptual appreciation not just of Britain's spatial positioning within the international state system, but more urgently, the values leaders want Britain to express informed by an appreciation of the identity they wish to construct for Britain as a global actor.[21]


In flattening the textual landscape of recent British foreign policy discourses, this article has flagged up the poverty of official thinking on a whole series of questions related to Britain's role in the world. The conclusions we can draw about the SDSR in light of the preceding discussion are twofold.

The first is that it promises, like its predecessors, to be a cosmetic exercise. Around the SDSR, the Conservative-Liberal coalition is erecting a host of discursive ploys to convince the public that this will be a truly 'new approach' to defence policy thinking. It has coupled this with a policy architecture drawn straight from the US, such as a National Security Council, a National Security Strategy (NSS) and the idea of quadrennial defence reviews.[22] These features give us cause to be suspicious about any potential for radicalism, over and above the fact that it will be Conservative ministers who will likely hold the whip-hand in the review discussions. Michael Codner got to the heart of the issue when in May 2010 he pointed out that: 'There is a very reasonable alternative military strategy that none of the political parties have adopted. Reinterpret world status and influence in terms of moral standing.' This would involve abandoning Trident, drastically cutting the defence budget and reorganising the armed forces to specialise at humanitarian operations along similar lines to the Canadians and the Scandinavian countries.[23] Put another way, it would entail asking: 'What sort of country do we want to be?' If the answer is that Britain is not a superpower but that it should 'make a difference',[24] then what kind of difference, why, to whom, and in which areas of national and international life is the country best placed to act to make its mark?

The second conclusion is that the assimilation of defence with security creates pressure for an 'all risks' strategy (as we see in the existing NSS)[25] that will reinforce the all-too-evident 'be everywhere, do everything' approach of the New Labour government. When international terrorism, cyber attacks and climate change are all classified as threats to the national interest, it compels the 'responsible' leader to make the case for entanglements the world over. Rightly so, one might say, but resources are limited and the UK armed forces are chronically over-stretched and under-equipped on existing missions, especially in Afghanistan. They might not even be that useful for tackling many of the 'newer threats'.[26] Perhaps the responsible leader should, in fact, admit to the public and more significantly to him or herself that 'punching above its weight' has not helped Britain become more immune to, or secure against, some of the most pressing security threats in recent years. There is no silver bullet solution, but surely deeper conceptual reflection on British identity and values might have gone some way to mitigating some of the less helpful of Britain's recent military engagements. One thing is surely beyond doubt, it is time to stop devising foreign and defence policy on the back of the cognitive frame provided by Winston Churchill, in 14 lines of a 500 line speech delivered over 60 years ago.  

Oliver Daddow is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics, History and International Relations, Loughborough University. In 2010-11 he is Visiting Research Scholar at the Center for British Studies, University of California at Berkeley. His research interests are in British foreign policy, discourse analysis and historical theory. He is the author of New Labour and the European Union: Blair and Brown's Logic of History (Manchester University Press, 2011), International Relations Theory (SAGE 2009) and Britain and Europe since 1945: Historiographical Perspectives on Integration (Manchester University Press, 2004). With Jamie Gaskarth he is the editor of British Foreign Policy: The New Labour Years (Palgrave, 2011) and previously edited Harold Wilson and European Integration (Frank Cass, 2003). With Mark Webber in 2009 he co-edited the issue of International Affairs on Operation Allied Force, contributing the article on Britain's Kosovo policy.


[1] Perry Anderson, The New Old World (London and New York: Verso, 2009), p.141.

[2] Winston Churchill, speech to Conservative Party Conference, official proceedings of Conservative Party Conference, Bodleian Library Special Collections, shelf mark NUA 2/1/56, pp.149-56 (p.153).

[3] Christopher Hill, 'Tough Choices: British Foreign Policy Priorities', The World Today, April 2010, pp.11-14.

[4] Neorealism in the study of International Relations would find its most powerful expression in Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (London: McGraw-Hill; New York: Random House; Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1979).

[5] Andrew Dorman, 'Crises and Reviews in British Defence Policy', in Stuart Croft, Andrew Dorman, Wyn Rees and Matthew Uttley, Britain and Defence 1945-2000: A Policy Re-Evaluation (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2001), pp.9-28 ( p.12).

[6] Michael Dockrill, British Defence since 1945 (Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988), p.69.

[7] Philip Alexander, 'From Imperial Power to Regional Powers: Commonwealth Crises and the Second Application', in Oliver J. Daddow (ed.), Harold Wilson and European Integration: Britain's Second Application to Join the EEC (London and Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2003), pp.188-210 (pp.190-91).

[8] Matthew Broad and Oliver Daddow, 'Half Remembered Quotations from Mostly Forgotten Speeches: The Limits of Labour's European Policy Discourse', British Journal of Politics and International Relations, vol.12, no.2, pp.205-222 (p.210).

[9] Wilson to House of Commons, 16 December 1964, cited in Dockrill, British Defence, p.86.

[10] Sir Con O'Neill, paper on 'The politico-military implications of EEC membership', July 1966, cited in Alexander, 'Commonwealth Crises', p.192.

[11] An argument well expressed by Anne Deighton, 'The foreign policy of British Prime Minister Tony Blair: Radical or Retrograde?', Centre for British Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin, 11 July 2005,, last accessed 3 March 2009.

[12] Tony Blair, speech on foreign affairs, 15 December 1998,, last accessed 2 September 2005.

[13] For example Tony Blair, speech at Lord Mayor's Banquet, 10 November 1997,, last accessed 1 September 2005; Gordon Brown, speech to CBI Conference, 1 November 1999,, last accessed 4 July 2006.

[14] Gordon Brown, Lord Mayor's Banquet speech, 12 November 2007,, last accessed 30 April 2009; David Miliband, speech, 'New Diplomacy: Challenges for Foreign Policy', 18 July 2007,, last accessed 30 April 2009.

[15] Tony Blair, speech at the Lord Mayor's Banquet, 15 November 2004,, last accessed 15 September 2005.

[16] For a critique of this tension within British foreign policy thinking after 1997 see Oliver Daddow, New Labour and the European Union: Blair and Brown's Logic of History (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2011).

[17] For instance Dockrill, British Defence, p.11.

[18] Colin McInnes, 'Labour's Strategic Defence Review, International Affairs, vol.74, no.4 (1998), pp.823-45 (p.831).

[19] McInnes, 'Labours Strategic Defence Review', p.831.

[20] Liam Fox, 'The Strategic Defence and Security Review: A Conservative View of Defence and Future Challenges', RUSI, 8 February 2010,, last accessed 5 July 2010.

[21] Accented in Oliver Daddow and Jamie Gaskarth, 'Introduction', in Oliver Daddow and Jamie Gaskarth (eds), British Foreign Policy: The New Labour Years (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming in 2011).

[22] Claire Taylor, 'Strategic Defence and Security Review', House of Commons, SN/IA/5592, 15 June 2010.

[23] Michael Codner, 'The Defence Review: Capability Questions for the New Government', RUSI Working Paper No.6, May 2010, p.13,, last accessed 5 July 2010.

[24] General Lord Guthrie, 'The Defence of Britain: What Can We Do?', Centre for Policy Studies, 10 March 2010, p.3,, last accessed 19 July 2010.

[25] Tara McCormack, 'From "Ethical Foreign Policy" to National Security Strategy: Exporting Domestic Incoherence', in Oliver Daddow and Jamie Gaskarth (eds), British Foreign Policy: The New Labour Years (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming in 2011).

[26] Paul Rogers, 'Defence review must have global vision', Channel 4 News,, last accessed 19 July 2010.

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