Skip to main content

The political shock of the West’s defeat in Afghanistan has hammered home the truth that we can no longer take for granted some of the key assumptions that have underpinned much of the public and parliamentary thinking about our country’s security. 

First, the international order established after the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union is visibly and rapidly fraying. 

Putin’s Russia occupies parts of Georgia and Ukraine, seeks to subvert democracy in Eastern and Central Europe and has used both radiological and chemical weapons to kill people in the United Kingdom. 

China not only rails against the ‘unequal treaties’ imposed on it during its period of weakness in the nineteenth century – about which it has a reasonable point – but also exults in the erosion of Western influence and presents its own system of authoritarian rule coupled with the ruthless use of surveillance technology to identify and suppress dissent as a model for other nations to follow. 

Second, the United States is questioning its own international priorities. ‘America First’ is a slogan associated with Donald Trump, but the idea predates his presidency. President Obama insisted that Britain and France had to take responsibility for leading allied action in Libya, and now President Biden has decided to stick with his predecessor’s commitment to a speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan, with scant regard paid to the views of coalition partners. 

This is not isolationism, but rather a ruthless focus on those things that matter most to US interests. Allies, especially those in Europe, including the UK, are expected to spend more on their own security and take responsibility for leadership in regions like Africa and the Balkans, which are a lesser priority for Washington. 

Third, it is becoming more difficult to define a neat boundary between peace and conflict. Our adversaries deploy hard and soft power together to promote their strategic objectives. The Belt and Road extends China’s strategic as well as its commercial influence. Russia deploys troops in Georgia, Crimea and Transnistria; mercenaries in the Donbass, Syria and Libya; cyberattacks, economic muscle, information warfare, and cultural organisations to advance its interests.

Fourth, there is no longer any demarcation line between domestic and international security. The Salisbury attack was the most stark recent illustration of this, but any chief constable will tell you that there is now almost no serious and organised crime that lacks an international dimension. Digital communications enable the transfer across continents of extremist doctrines, laundered money, and nuclear and biological know-how. 

Our security is threatened by criminal enterprises, from terrorists to cyber-gangs to drug and people traffickers, which are every bit as professional and well-organised as any legitimate transnational business. As I learned when in government, criminal gangs may also have close connections with hostile states and serve, in effect, as surrogates for them. 

Fifth, our security will depend in large part on whether the democratic world can renew its capacity for innovation and technological advance. China is openly aiming for a leading position in all the key twenty-first century technologies, from synthetic biology to quantum computing, by 2025. It aspires to global dominance in those markets by the centenary of the communist revolution in 2049, with the geopolitical clout that that would give. 

This is not about Huawei or TikTok – the Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of Jack Ma, and now of China’s online education sector, shows that it cares little about individual companies. Rather the challenge is whether, by mid-century, the UK, the US or any other democracy will have any choice other than to rely on Chinese suppliers of advanced telecoms, robotics, or AI. 

So, what is to be done? We face hard choices. The UK will need to modernise its hard power – spend more on robots, drones, cyber, and space – and maintain, rather than cut, our soft power capabilities like our aid programme and the British Council. 

Alliances and international institutions can amplify Britain’s influence, but there will still be limits to what we can do.

The Government’s Integrated Review, published earlier this year, identified technology as key to our security interests. We now need the leadership and the difficult, detailed work to turn its ambitions for a new technological revolution into a strategic plan to implement the necessary policy reforms on education, skills, and industrial development. 

We have to keep persuading the US that it should continue to see the security of Europe, including the UK, as a vital national interest of the American people. That means maintaining the quality of our armed forces and intelligence agencies and their relationships with US counterparts and also showing that the UK can be effective in convening and leading groups of allies to defend Western, including American, interests through both diplomatic and military means. 

The UK is a European power with global interests and a global outlook. We should work more with countries like Japan, Australia, and South Korea, but also build a new strategic security relationship with our European neighbours. Some of that can be done through NATO, for example through the UK’s leadership of the Northern Group. Outside NATO, the E3 diplomatic network of UK, France, and Germany has continued to function well throughout the travails of Brexit. 

Alongside our bilateral relationships we will need to rebuild a strategic security relationship with the EU as an institution. Even France and Germany seek to influence and are in turn influenced by European Union decisions. The EU has responsibilities under its treaties for police and justice cooperation, for data sharing, sanctions policy, and a lot of soft power capability – from development spending to police and military training. An effective set of security relationships with our European neighbours is an integral part of Global Britain, not an alternative to it. 

I hope that defeat in Afghanistan will spur a willingness to make a reality of the vision embodied in the Integrated Review and make the hard policy choices that that will entail. We have no time to waste.

The Rt Hon Sir David Lidington CBE is the Chair of the Royal United Services Institute and was de facto Deputy Prime Minister under Theresa May. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Target secured?. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Royal Navy]