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The strategic challenges facing the UK

Article by Rt Hon Tobias Ellwood MP

March 3, 2020

The strategic challenges facing the UK

The United Kingdom emerges from a decisive election victory with a Prime Minister enjoying the rarest of political phenomena: a Brexit-fatigued nation – wanting clarity about where Britain now goes – and a fresh, energised Government armed with a significant Parliamentary majority, providing the time and space to potentially define a decade of centre-right politics.

Whilst a feeling of cautious optimism may have returned to the UK, security-wise the next decade will be no walk in the park. We raise our head up after three years of Brexit distraction to find a world getting more wickedly dangerous than at any time since the Cold War. Only two months into the New Year, we have had worrying demonstrations of the so-called great power competition that on current trajectory will characterise the next ten years: near-conflict with Iran, terrorist attacks in London, international discord over Libya’s future, climate change consequences in Australia, the Five Eyes row over Huawei, China’s secrecy over the coronavirus, and Putin’s attempt to illegitimately extend his presidency.

This progressive demise of our international security is often summed up as the erosion of our international rules-based order, blamed crudely on China, Russia and Iran writing their own rules, the continued threat of jihadi extremism, and the proliferating consequences to stability from climate change. In establishing what our own strategic security response is to these and other regional and thematic challenges, we must first ask the fundamental yet awkward question as to how international standards that have served us relatively well since the end of the Second World War are increasingly becoming obsolete.

This was the focus at the recent Munich Security Conference, which debated the ‘decay of the Western project’ – a loss of common understanding as to what it means to be part of the West and the need to redefine our purpose and resolve in defending what we stand for.[1] Far from being a geographic collection of states, this has developed into a collective commitment to liberal democracy and human rights, and to a transparent, accountable, market-based liberal economy with a wider commitment to collective responsibility. Since WWII and the advancement of an international economy, there has been a hopeful but often naïve assumption that Western values would take root and mature across the globe, with Russia, China and Middle Eastern states developing into responsible stakeholders in a Western-led liberal world order.

Today the opposite is happening. The Western world has not only reached its limits in shaping events; it is under attack and on the retreat. Not only is the world becoming less Western – the West is too.

From the strategic issues – such as what next for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) addressing the Iran nuclear issue, Russian sanctions, honouring the Paris Climate change accord, and the potential dangers of Chinese tech companies such as Huawei – to the more tactical problems such as protection of international shipping in the Straits of Hormuz or allowing the UK continued participation in the Galileo GPS project, there are deep divisions as to how the West should or could speak with one voice.

Several factors are at play here.

Firstly, global institutions, once the core pillar of international order, have been neutered. United Nations Security Council resolutions are constantly vetoed by China and Russia, and the United States is blocking confirmation of the World Trade Organization’s appointments, hampering its ability to arbitrate in trade disputes. NATO is failing to deal with a member state procuring air defence systems from Russia, and the European Union is coming to terms with losing a key member.[2] In addition, there is disagreement between Germany and France over where this consensus-driven institution goes next. The abject failure to modernise these critical but dated international organisations has left the West without any club rules. And this has fuelled the rise in populist and isolationist national policies, illustrated most strikingly by the US.

Secondly, poorly administered military interventions such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to haunt Western contributors to this day. The cost in allied lives and resources has been staggering and both countries are far from stable. Western parliaments are understandably hesitant to repeat the same mistakes. Consequently, the pendulum has swung the other way – against any major military intervention. But the obvious reluctance of the West to step forward does not make conflicts or disharmony disappear. It does, however, leave a vacuum for other states to step forward and pursue very different agendas, as seen with Russia in Syria.

Thirdly, there is the changing character of war. Advancement in the digital world continues to complicate the battlefield as our increasing reliance on technologies in how we live, work, travel and communicate makes our economy ever more vulnerable to cyber interference. Another illustration of how our international institutions have failed to keep up with a fast-moving world is that there are no rules or Geneva Conventions on how we fairly administer the cyber world across borders. The same applies to space, where there are even fewer rules. Space is now seen as the ultimate high ground and its weaponisation continues.

Given the demise of the Western project, it is easier to appreciate the latitude that has been granted to the ‘non-West’ to pursue its own agenda. Both Russia, China and to some extent Iran have upgraded their own military might and are now too big to punish. As illustrated by China’s advancement in the South China Sea, Russia’s incursion into Crimea and eastern Ukraine and Iran’s proxy involvement across the Middle East, the West has become too risk-averse. Fear of escalation prohibits both sides from wanting direct action. President Trump’s climbdown after the Iranian retaliation to the Soleimani drone strike is a case in point. We have moved from the Cold War scenario, where the threat of retaliation for errant behaviour was very real, to attempting to deny our competitors the ability to occupy the space (digitally or physically) in the first place. Thus, we place NATO troops in Latvia and Estonia to stop Russia and ban or limit Huawei in building our 5G infrastructure networks.

Whilst the West now punches below its weight, Russia is certainly punching above and is our most immediate and blunt challenge. However, growing discontent with its failing economy means there could be internal challenges for Russia ahead.[3]

The major strategic challenges worth expanding upon are climate change and the rise of China.

Efforts to cap the global temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels have failed. With no prospect of this being reversed we will soon reach the point of no return, where the damage done to our sensitive ecosystem will lead to rising sea levels, extreme weather changes, failed crop production, mass migration and increased conflict over sparser resources – bringing untold misery to millions around the globe.

China’s phenomenal growth over the last decade has allowed the Communist party to quietly invest vast sums of money into its military, technology and economy. It has the largest army in the world, its navy grows by the size of the UK’s every year and its air force is now developing fifth generation fast jets.[4] The display of armaments wheeled across Tiananmen Square for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China was jaw-dropping. Its Belt and Road initiative has lured dozens of countries, mainly in Asia and Africa, into long-term debt, having signed up for infrastructure projects they cannot afford.[5]

The current coronavirus problems aside, China is on course to overtake the US both economically and militarily.[6] And if that is not worrying enough, both Iran and Russia could soon be fully under its economic and technological spell.

Returning to where we started, the Prime Minister’s inbox is increasingly dominated by the now familiar list of non-Western complex threats and what the West should do about them. In promoting ‘Global Britain’, he is aware our international voice will sound hollow without firstly advancing our own defence posture. Given our historical reputation as a nation which steps forward, when others hesitate, to defend our standards and way of life, we must ask ourselves what role we aspire to play as we contemplate the state of the West, the fundamental shifts in power bases and the advancement of technologies all altering the character of conflict.

The Government’s review into defence, security and foreign policy has much to consider. Three fundamental questions must be answered, beginning by asking honestly what our current hard power capabilities are. We arguably retain the most professional armed forces in the world. But for some years, successive Governments have perpetuated the perception that we are able to defend our interests well beyond our shores. The reality is a little different. For example, we boast impressive new aircraft carriers, but without a sizeable budget increase the rest of the surface fleet has been impacted. Likewise, the introduction of the Typhoon and F35 jets shows we have impressive and world-beating kit, but our fast jet capability has shrunk from 36 during the Gulf War to six today.[7] Both our main battle tank and Warrior armoured personnel carrier are over 20 years old and, like so much of our kit, are pending upgrades. The new dimensions of warfare such as cyber and space security demand urgent and significant investment.

Secondly, what repair, upgrade and advancements should be made to our international institutions that would invigorate confidence in a modern, relevant and enforceable rules-based order? Failure to modernise will see the world gradually fragment into a loose conglomeration of Western nations challenged by the ‘non-West’ – led by China, promoting a far more authoritarian outlook.

Thirdly, a sober assessment of the short-, medium- and long-term threats that we are likely to face is needed. The first line of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) 2015 reminds us that our economic security – our prosperity – is ever dependent upon our national security.[8] As the world moves faster and becomes more dangerous, there is a tragic collective naivety about the durability of peace. Our country, our economy and our values are vulnerable to these growing dangers that have no respect for borders.

Finally, we must determine what leadership role Britain aspires to play. The recent absence of any senior UK Government or military figures at the world’s largest security conference in Munich is not a good omen.[9] If we choose, Britain can provide the thought leadership, soft power and occasional hard power that can inspire other nations to work with us. It can help to revive what it means to be part of the ‘Western Project’, as the Munich Conference termed it.

We face a pivotal moment. What sort of nation do we want to be? Do we aspire to influence the world as a force for good, or are we happy to withdraw to a more reactive footing, with all the negative consequences that may entail – not only for our security but our economy too? I choose the former. It has always been in our nation’s DNA to step forward when other nations might hesitate. To do so now will require investment, but the long-term security and economic benefits mean this is a price the nation would deem worth paying.


Tobias Ellwood was elected as Member of Parliament for Bournemouth East in May 2005, and subsequently re-elected in 2010, 2015, 2017 and most recently in December 2019. He was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the FCO with special responsibility for the Middle East and Africa from July 2014, and served as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Ministry of Defence from 2017–2019. He is currently the Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. Tobias was Parliamentary Advisor to the Prime Minister for the 2014 NATO Summit and a member of the Parliamentary Delegation to the NATO Assembly 2014. Before becoming a MP, he spent six years in the Regular Army with The Royal Green Jackets, headquartered in Winchester, and served in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Kuwait, Germany, Gibraltar and Bosnia. On leaving the army, Tobias worked as a researcher for the former Defence Secretary, the Rt Hon Tom King MP (now Lord King) in Westminster, and also in his constituency of Bridgwater. Since being elected as an MP, Tobias has pioneered the concept of ‘social action’ within the Party and the first ever Conservative social action project took place in Springbourne, Bournemouth. The concept of raising funds and rallying MPs and volunteers around an identified community project is now well established and Tobias regularly leads projects both in the UK and abroad, previously joining projects in countries including Bosnia and Bangladesh.

[1] Elif İlhamoğlu, As the 56 Munich Security Conference ends, the Western alliance is at the brink of collapse, United World, February 2020,

[2] Amie Ferris-Rotman and Kareem Fahim, Russia readies S-400 missiles for Turkey amid warnings of US sanctions on NATO ally, The Washington Post, July 2019,

[3] Max Seddon, Vladimir Putin admits to Russian’s anger over faltering economy, Financial Times, June 2019,

[4] Lindsay Maizland, China’s Modernizing Military, Council on Foreign Relations, February 2020,

[5] Public Policy, China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Why the Price Is Too High, Knowledge@Wharton, April 2019,

[6] Evan Osnos, The Future of America’s Contest with China, The New Yorker, January 2020,

[7] Tobias Ellwood MP, The UK must prepare for a dangerous decade and seek a more influential role, The House Magazine, Politics Home, January 2020,

[8] HM Government, National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom, November 2015,

[9] Helen Warrell, Guy Chazan and Michael Peel, ‘Global Britain’ goes missing at Munich security summit, Financial Times, February 2020,

Photo credit: Image by ItNeverEnds from Pixabay

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