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Britain needs a National Strategy Council to drive our global interests

Britain needs a National Strategy Council to drive our global interests

For the last the few decades the UK has been too reliant on American hard power and European trade power, writes Bob Seely MP. | PA Images

4 min read

Currently UK foreign policy lacks clarity and coherence. A National Strategy Council would look ahead to see both threats and opportunities, building a long-term global strategy for the UK.

The Foreign Affairs Committee, on which I sit, recently released a report saying that the UK’s foreign policy lacked clarity and coherence. How can we improve that?

We have reached a crossroads. For the last the few decades the UK has been too reliant on American hard power and European trade power. Our relationship with both is changing. This is happening as the world undergoes a profound power rebalancing, from Atlantic to Pacific, and from democracies to authoritarian states.

There are many potential individual ideas we can adopt to drive constructive change, but for me, the single most important ingredient is to relearn the art of strategy and strategic thinking. To institutionalise that new thinking at the heart of Government, Britain needs a National Strategy Council to complement the already existing National Security Council.

Strategy is the reconciling of ends, ways and means: or to put it another way, what are our goals, what are our methods and what are our resources.

According to Henry Jackson Society’s annual Audit of Geopolitical Capability, the UK remains one of a small number of genuinely global powers. We are a major power if not a superpower. We have remarkable influence through, in no particular order: one of the largest diplomatic networks in the world, formidable soft power through language, higher education, culture and law; ethical power through our championing of liberal democratic values; development power through our aid budget, a reduced but still powerful Armed Forces and the considerable abilities of the secret agencies, including GCHQ.

The UK has lost the art of strategy

However, we sometimes seem to be less of the sum of our parts. To use a card playing analogy; we have a strong hand, sometimes played badly.

The UK has lost the art of strategy. The Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu wrote that tactics without strategy is noise before defeat. Whitehall is beginning to realise this; hence the ‘fusion’ doctrine, an outcome of the Iraq War Chilcot inquiry and developed in the 2018 National Security Capability Review. The ‘fusion’ doctrine seeks to pull together the economic, security and influence capabilities available to the British state.

Until March this year, Britain’s foreign policy was divided between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Development (DfID), the Department for International Trade, No. 10, the Cabinet Office, and even the Home office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industry (BEIS). The merger of the FCO and DfID will provide greater integration, but it is the start of a process, not its culmination.

The National Security Council does good work, but it is reactive not proactive. It is designed to cope with issues once they become crises, not beforehand. There are some limited examples of the National Security Council looking forward, but this is still the exception to the rule. In the past decade, we have reacted belatedly to the new threats from both Russia and China, whilst the failure to foresee the coronavirus is painfully obvious compared to other states.

A National Strategy Council will complement the work of the National Security Council. Where the Security Council deals in current threats, the Strategy Council will permanently look forward and see both threats and opportunities, building a long-term global strategy for the UK. In the process it will help to mould and integrate the work of Government departments.

Long-term strategy, aiming for a decade or two ahead, will be set by a National Strategy Council, with annual updates on that strategy, indicating where it needs to undergo significant change or minor modifications.

The new Strategy Council would be chaired by the Prime Minister, with key input from not only Foreign and Defence Ministries but also trade, environment and culture. It would be answerable to the Foreign Secretary on a day-to-day basis.

We are at a turning point: in the UK, in Europe and the wider world. Whatever the future holds, I believe it is in our interests to be able to use our influence most effectively to promote our values and interests. To do that, we need to think strategically. My proposed National Strategy Council will drive that process.


Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight and a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

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