Analysis & Opinions - The National Interest

Déjà Vu? 'Global Britain' Versus the Continental Commitment

| Oct. 01, 2018

Overstretch and European obligations suggest it is time to rethink a return "East of Suez."

On September 25 while visiting Madrid, British Home Secretary Sajid Javid  reiterated that the government is " unconditionally committed " to the security of the continent. At the same time, ministers remain wedded to the  vision of "Global Britain," even after one of its most vocal advocates, Boris Johnson, resigned from government in July. However poorly defined this concept remains, some ministers  envisage Britain playing an enhanced role beyond the continent, particularly in the Gulf and the Indo-Pacific. As the former foreign secretary  put it  in December 2016, "Britain is back East of Suez."

The trouble is that trade-offs inevitably arise for a state of Britain's size. Only superpowers can simultaneously play meaningful roles in several regions. The debate between a European and a world role—once dubbed "East of Suez"—is not new. In fact, history suggests that May's government might wish to reconsider the compatibility of its stated goals.

Just over fifty years ago, a Labour government wrestled with Britain's external obligations as it tried to reduce defense expenditures, running at just under 6 percent of its gross domestic product in 1964. When Harold Wilson came to power that year, the United Kingdom was shedding its colonial commitments in Africa but retained a substantial presence elsewhere. For instance, this included in the Gulf and in the Far East, where British and Commonwealth forces were defending the newly-federated Malaysia from Indonesian communists. The United Kingdom also had a permanent force of fifty-five thousand troops stationed on the European continent, as part of its treaty obligations to the Western European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance.

Initially, ministers tried to cancel expensive defense projects while retaining the country's alliances and obligations. Over the course of two years, fighter jet and bomber programmes were canceled, and a replacement aircraft carrier was also shelved.

Eventually, however, it became clear that these savings would be insufficient, and the government had to scale back its ambitions. Ministers ultimately placed western Europe above the country’s commitments "East of Suez." Withdrawal planning began in secret after the "confrontation" between Indonesia and Malaysia concluded in August 1966. In July 1967, the announcement was made—to the consternation of the United States, as well as Britain's allies in the Far East—that Britain would withdraw from the region in the mid-1970s. The drawdown was ultimately accelerated to 1971 by ministers in January 1968, following the devaluation crisis of late 1967. Britain left its staging posts and bases in the Gulf at the same time. The British world role was sacrificed at the altar of the country’s obligations to NATO and European security....

 

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For Academic Citation: James, William.“Déjà Vu? 'Global Britain' Versus the Continental Commitment.” The National Interest, October 1, 2018.

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