Prof. Julian Lindley-French is one of the world’s foremost British and European strategic thinkers. He has written a ream of articles and book reviews on strategic affairs, the United Kingdom’s (UK) and France’s position in the world, and European military cooperation more generally. He also posts regularly to his personal blog – his ‘blog blast’ – which is often very assertive and has acquired a reputation of leaving no stone unturned. His latest book – Little Britain: Twenty-first Century Strategy for a Middling European Power – is in the same tradition.
It has been some time since an academic broached the UK’s role in the world in a book of this nature. For many, the UK is just an old European power, in terminal decline, despite the fact that it still has one of the world’s most technologically sophisticated economies, enormous cultural attraction, diplomatic and intelligence reach and military clout. Given the venom frequently espoused by many who discuss the UK’s place and role in the world, it would seem many actually revel in the prospect of the British simply fading away into obscurity. Not Lindley-French. Despite the title – which is perhaps more of a warning than a reflection of the topic of the book itself – he does not fall into the pitiful camp of ‘declinists’.
Indeed, given its title, anyone thinking that Lindley-French’s book is about the further decline of Britain is in for a surprise. This is a book about strategy, about ensuring that ends, ways and means are properly calibrated. Lindley-French believes that further British decline is possible, but only if London does not get its act together and think strategically in what he calls the ‘big power’ world of the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, he thinks that this requires a complete change of strategic culture in Whitehall, away from a foreign policy based on management and status-quo, and towards one based on asserting the UK’s national interest, to maximise the potential, security and prosperity of the British people in a world full of uncertainty.
Lindley-French rightly lambasts the British government for failing to understand strategic dynamics on the European mainland. Over the past decade, successive British governments have come to see ‘Europe’ as a bothersome place, hardly worthy of serious engagement. Consequently, as he rightly points out, British influence on the European mainland has waned – meaning the UK has become more of a ‘middling power’ in a European context rather than the leading power it could easily be.
But he is perhaps too hard on British strategists overall. He is right to point out the weaknesses in London’s approach, which are most acute in relation to the European Union (EU) and its constituent countries. In other areas, though, British strategic policy has been sophisticated, particularly in relation to London’s renewed and growing focus East of Suez. The Indo-Pacific maritime crescent is likely to become – if it has not already – the geostrategic centre of gravity for the twenty-first century. Britain has already penetrated this region, with new agreements signed with Japan, Australia and the Gulf states. Indeed, it is probably the only European country that matters in this region in a strategic context.
Yet, in spite of these issues, the book is a must-read for anyone wanting an easy-to-digest contemporary book about British foreign and strategic policy options in a world of flux. Every British academic, policy-maker and government minister should take a look: it serves as a warning to a country with the resources and culture to continue to lead in the twenty-first century. A ‘Little Britain’ will become the future only if the British people and their leaders close in on themselves, break apart, endorse some form of wishy-washy internationalism, or fail to adapt to new strategic trends. In Little Britain, Lindley-French offers a terrifying vision of what that might look like.
Vol. 6, No. 41 (2014)
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