UK Should Maintain Commitment to Long-Standing Grand Strategy

The United Kingdom and her Western allies must ‘brace themselves’ for the possibility of worsening crises, argues a new RUSI briefing paper.

The paper, entitled ‘A Force for Order: Strategic Underpinnings of the Next NSS and SDSR’ by RUSI’s Professor Malcolm Chalmers, explores strategic choices facing the next government as it  formulates the next National Security Strategy (NSS) and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) later this year.

201505 BP A Force for Order cover

The paper suggests that the starting point for this year’s NSS should be the grand strategy on which UK foreign and security policy has been based since the late 1940s. It argues that ‘the fundamental – or ‘grand strategic’ – objectives that underpin UK foreign and defence policy remain as valid as ever. But their application needs to be adapted to changing circumstances.

‘The UK's ability to maintain its favourable strategic position’, Chalmers suggests, ‘is now facing a level of strain not seen since the end of the Cold War. Together with its Western allies, it is facing multiple challenges from rising levels of instability and conflict across the wider Middle East, increasing levels of Russian assertiveness in its European neighbourhood and the possible implications of the continuing rise of Chinese economic power. Not least, the extended after-effects of the financial crisis mean that political developments in NATO and EU member states (including in the UK itself) could themselves be a source of geostrategic risk.’

To respond to these crises, Chalmers calls on ‘the Western alliance needs to hold its collective nerve, adopting a robust but calm approach to each new challenge, continuing to be the key anchor around which international order is maintained, while seeking to build the new partnerships that will be needed in response to the continuing shift of global economic power towards Asia.’

‘Most of all, the UK needs to work to maintain and strengthen the European partnerships on which its security and prosperity depends. The grand strategy which it adopted in the 1940s, anchored on a community of fate between the countries of Europe and North America, remains the right one for the country today. Those who argue for a return to nationalism, and for a fragmentation of European institutions, remain on the fringes of politics. As long as they remain there, there is every prospect that the UK and its allies can come successfully through this difficult period.’

For British policymakers, ‘One of the important strategic judgements for the NSS and SDSR …    will be whether the right balance has been struck between national protective capabilities and the UK’s contribution to international peace and security. Some of those involved in the SDSR debate are already arguing in favour of devoting more resources to protecting UK-based individuals and assets against serious sub-conventional threats, including terrorism, organised crime and state-sponsored cyber penetrations – if necessary at the expense of military capabilities for power projection.’ Those decisions will impact on capability planning, and the kind of military the UK chooses to maintain.

The paper suggests six principles that should drive the NSS and SDSR:

  • Be a ‘Force for Order’
  • Help to Build Peace in the Wider Middle East
  • Contribute to Deterrence of Russia
  • Be Cautious about a UK Military Pivot to Asia
  • Maintain a Broad Spectrum Force and Invest in Quality even at the Expense of Mass
  • Develop a New Approach to NATO Burden-sharing

With the UK General Election campaign having featured a debate on defence spending and the UK’s NATO commitments, the paper calls for a ‘mature burden-sharing debate within NATO’ that ‘cannot be based primarily on crude top-down numerical targets. Rather, it must be based on a more ‘bottom- up’ approach, in which all member states have an obligation to take part in all significant NATO operations, but in which the specific nature of their contribution beyond this should be sensitive to their own national situation.’

‘For the UK, the size of its defence budget, together with its broader geopolitical aspirations, means that it is able to make a more potent and flexible contribution to NATO than any other single European country (though France runs it close). With its resources limited, however, the next SDSR will need to ensure that effort is focused in those areas where they are needed most, not least in those where there are few other European states able or willing to help.’

Download the paper at:

Notes to Editors

  1. 1.‘A Force for Order: Strategic Underpinnings of the Next NSS and SDSR’ is a RUSI briefing paper published by the Royal United Services Institute as part of its SDSR 2015: Hard Choices Ahead series.
  2. The paper’s author is Professor Malcolm Chalmers, Research Director and Director UK Defence Policy at RUSI.
  3. More information and analysis around the Strategic Defence and Security Review can be found at 
  4. RUSI is an independent think-tank for defence and security. RUSI is a unique institution; founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington, it embodies nearly two centuries of forward thinking, free discussion and careful reflection on defence and security matters.
  5. Any further enquiries, please contact : Saqeb Mueen / +44(0)20 7747 2618 / +44 (0) 7917 373 069 /

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