The Gap in British Defence Geography

British Defence Deployments (2010)

By Benjamin Sacks

The definition of relative power in international relations has always been a contentious issue. The term “superpower”, in particular, is far overused by Western media and governments. Generally speaking, at present the United States is the sole superpower, and the United Kingdom, the French Republic, the Russian Federation, and the People’s Republic of China are “Great Powers”, with significant international influence in defence, socio-economic, and cultural spheres. From an initial glance, topographical geography certainly does not favour Britain; the British Isles comprise a negligible four percent of the world’s total landmass. In political terms, nonetheless, British influence is still vital for international security. It is a point often ignored by British politicians and practitioners.

Travis Sharp, a research associate with the Centre for a New American Security, recently argued that Britain remained the United States’ most important strategic partner, adding that, “The UK also must recognize the influence it wields as an international regulator”. Her Majesty’s Armed Forces maintain significant foreign interests, with large operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Sierra Leone, and military bases in Kenya, Belize, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, Germany, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, and the British West Indies. Geographically then, HM Forces are globally distributed.

The geopolitical relationship between British overseas deployments and Parliamentary policy is, at best, strained. At worst, the relationship is nearly non-existent. Contemporary, strategic international knowledge has often been a weak point among British politicians. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, signalled last week that, “The world has changed and if we do not change with it Britain’s role is set to decline with all that means for our influence in world affairs.” Acknowledging the need for a new, energized understanding of British foreign policy, Mr Hague added that, “We will deliver a distinctive British Foreign policy that extends our global reach and influence.” Hopefully that will be more than an empty promise.

The disconnect between geopolitical affairs and government reaction is by no means a new issue. In a 2003 Transactions of the British Institute of Geographers article, Felix Driver (Royal Holloway, University of London) attacked Western governments’ apparent ignorance of global strategic knowledge. In invading Iraq, Mr Driver argued,London and Washington  had entirely forgotten the importance of geographical and cultural information in the conduct of foreign policy and the execution of defence operations.

For further information regarding great power alliances, refer to Sonali Singh and Christopher R. Way, “The Correlates of Nuclear Proliferation: A Quantitative Test,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 48 no. 6 (Dec., 2004): pp. 859—885.

Travis Sharp, “An International Regulator: A US View on Future UK Defence Plans,” Royal United Services Institute, http://www.rusi.org/analysis/commentary/ref:C4BD7D5F88D18A/, accessed 30 June 2010.

“Overseas Deployments,” The British Army, http://www.army.mod.uk/operations-deployments/overseas-deployments/default.aspx, accessed 30 June 2010.

William Hague, “Britain’s Foreign Policy in a Networked World,” The Foreign & Commonwealth Office, 1 July 2010,  http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/news/latest-news/?view=Speech&id=22462590, accessed 4 July 2010.

Felix Driver, “Editorial: the Geopolitics of Knowledge and Ignorance,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 28 no. 2 (Jun., 2004): 131—132.

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