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Britain, bases and Bahrain: a call to arms – or why we must relearn the art of geostrategic thinking

© U.S. Navy

Image credit: U.S. Navy

Last week, the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Philip Hammond, signed a landmark Memorandum of Understanding with Bahrain, as London continues to cement the expansion of the United Kingdom’s (UK) geostrategic footprint ‘East of Suez’. This memorandum provides the foundations for the extension of the Royal Navy’s long-standing presence in the Gulf: it enables the establishment of a formal Forward Operating Base in Bahrain, which – although likely to be quite small for the time being, given the £15 million price tag – could host one of the UK’s future supercarriers, the first of which has already been launched, and a plethora of other warships, as well as military personnel. It will also likely be followed by additional memorandums, particularly with the United Arab Emirates and Oman, which could host additional British military facilities in the future as London ‘fortifies’ the nation’s reach in the Gulf.

Much has been made of the UK’s supposed withdrawal from ‘East of Suez’ since the early 1970s, reflecting the general discourse of ‘decline’, which has become so endemic and harmful in public policy circles. In truth, the UK has continued to retain a significant presence, both in the Middle East and even South-East Asia, with an ‘array’ of military or logistical stations, including facilities in Bahrain, Qatar, Diego Garcia, Nepal, Singapore and Brunei. Permanent Royal Navy flotillas – such as the Armilla Patrol – have ploughed through the Gulf, with as much as half of the operational fleet in the Indo-Pacific at any one time, particularly since the fall of Soviet Russia. The British military footprint is now the second largest foreign presence in the Indo-Pacific region after that of the US, and with cooperation with the Gulf states, Japan, Australia and India gearing up, is likely to be bolstered further still.

What is significant is that many analysts, especially academics, have failed to discuss the UK’s evolving global posture in any depth. Save for some solid analysis from the Royal United Services Institute, as well as European Geostrategy and a splattering of military officers and academics, including myself, there has been hardly any evaluation of the UK’s renewed focus ‘East of Suez’. Indeed, it has been largely overlooked: if it is mentioned, it is seen – or mocked – as an amusing anachronism from the imperial past. Think of it in another way: had China or Russia decided to open a military station thousands of kilometres from their respective homelands, academics from the leading universities and analysts from the best think tanks might well have erupted into a frenzy. Pronouncements would be made and eyebrows would be raised: grave statements about the emergence of new ‘great powers’ and the decline of the Western democracies – especially European powers like the UK – would have gone hand-in-hand. Yet when countries like the UK extend their leverage, hardly anyone bats an eyelid: collective yawn can almost be heard.

Sadly, this is symptomatic of a wider problem. Rather than focusing on the key geostrategic issues concerning Britons and other Europeans in the twenty-first century, many academics, as well as policy analysts, now do little more than churn out endless papers on theoretical abstraction like ‘human security’, comparative politics or normative visions for the European Union’s (EU) Common Security and Defence Policy, often from a so-called ‘internationalist’ perspective. Others seem so transfixed on the power of the US that they lose sight of the wood for the trees. We might ask why these academics and policy analysts have become so disinterested in European geostrategic issues, particularly those affecting their own homelands. Yet this question in many ways is not significant. What is more important is that British and other European academics need to go beyond rudimentary analysis from a seemingly ‘internationalist’ perspective and actively write for their own countries or the EU, offering proposals and recommendations in the same way as many American academics and analysts do.

At one and the same time, the question should not be whether the leading European powers – the UK and France – should focus increasingly ‘East of Suez’, because from a geostrategic standpoint the answer to that question is already crystal clear. European economies are heavily dependent on raw materials, energy resources and manufactured goods from the Middle East and South, South-East and East Asia, so the Indo-Pacific cannot be ignored. Indeed, Europe’s main maritime communication line stretches from Suez to Shanghai, a trade route that has already been jeopardised by the rise of pirate infestation along the Somali coastline, and which could, in the near future, be threatened by regional power struggles, as countries like Iran and China seek greater influence over their neighbours and as US military hegemony is gradually eroded. The closure of this vital European communication line – whether rapid or gradual – especially at strategic chokepoints like the straits of Malacca and Hormuz, could have considerable consequences downstream, particularly for European consumers, and thus their way of life.

Consequently, what is needed today is for academics to engage in serious geostrategic analysis, focused on how European powers like the UK might make themselves heard – and assertively – in the Indo-Pacific zone. Indeed, European Geostrategy was established to stimulate and extend this exact type of debate. Our focus is on the two key geostrategic vectors that Europeans – and especially the UK – must take seriously: one stretches, crescent shaped, from Moscow to Marrakech, while the other runs around the Eurasian rimland from Suez to Shanghai. As these vectors increasingly intersect with one another, we at European Geostrategy believe we must think more carefully about both. After all, in the globalised world, we cannot focus on one rather than the other. A ‘neighbourhood first’ strategy sounds right to many Europeans, but it is dangerous fantasy, much in the same way as ‘Hemisphere Defence’ was proven humbug for the US in the early 1940s. The wider world will not leave Europeans alone, just as it did not leave Americans alone.

Projecting and even extending European military power into the Indo-Pacific will be as important to Europeans in the twenty-first century as deterring Russian aggression in their neighbourhood. Good scholarly analysis will help Europeans to navigate uncertainty, and inform and elevate policy to a higher level of synthesis. In this volatile world, Europeans need more strategic thinking from the academy and it needs to be better, as well as geopolitically informed and politically erudite.

Vol. 6, No. 95 (2014)


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