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How can Britain pursue strategic advantage?

Last week the Council on Geostrategy released a new paper which refined the definition of strategic advantage first put forward by the Integrated Review of 2021, and expanded upon in its 2023 refresh. It is argued that strategic advantage should be seen to sit between the ways and means of strategy formulation, rather than as pre-existing national strengths of a state or the outcome of a successful strategy. Moving forward, how can Britain best pursue strategic advantage moving forward to secure its national objectives? The Council on Geostrategy asks six experts in today’s Big Ask.

William Freer, Council on Geostrategy

The first step Britain can take to pursue strategic advantage is to conceptualise it as something a state does, as opposed to an outcome which a state has. Seen this way, strategic advantage encourages the continual seeking of better ways to use scarce resources, rather than achieving comparative advantage against an adversary and then stopping there. This enables states to ‘punch above their weight’ – which is particularly relevant to wealthy, concentrated powers (such as the United Kingdom (UK)) who lack the sheer volume of resources superpowers (such as the United States (US)) or near-superpowers (such as the People’s Republic of China) can call upon.

Based on this understanding, there are a range of options Britain could pursue. When thinking of past or recent examples of strategic advantage (such as Bletchley Park or Operation Interflex) it becomes clear that bolder, more aggressive thinking is needed, reflective of the era of heightened systemic competition we are in. This is true for both domestic and foreign policy. 

Abroad, Britain should further explore minilateralism to replicate promising programmes such as AUKUS and Tempest – wherever Britain can burden share and pool resources with likeminded nations, it should. At home, the UK should aim to get more ‘bang for its buck’. One area to focus on would be defence procurement, which is in dire need of reform. An economising review should be undertaken, particularly to look at establishing a system for when contracts should be cancelled to save money. Had this been in place before, billions could have been saved on the Ajax and reinvested in a different, off-the shelf option – less bespoke but more affordable. In the past (e.g., the TSR2 aircraft), governments had not been scared of cancelling big programmes when necessary; this is an advantage Britain needs to reacquire.

Robert Johnson, Secretary of State’s Office for Net Assessment and Challenge

Conceptually, Britain’s strategic advantage is defined under three factors. One, position; two, resource; and three, leverage.

Position is defined by themes such as investment, geography, and the existence of allies. Resource refers to the volume, scarcity, and distinction of areas such as trained personnel, shipping, wealth generation capabilities, military forces, or a nuclear arsenal. Leverage is the active development of a position and resource with other factors, including the utilisation of one’s allies and partners in an active coalition, the ability to pivot or regenerate, and the willingness to exercise power. These are the standard metrics of strategic advantage, with Michael J. Mazarr, Senior Political Scientist at RAND, adding a further societal version of strategic advantage which corresponds to some extent with Joseph Nye’s idea of soft power but also resilience. Each of the elements leveraged can be further subdivided into their functions as well as the willingness of the state to employ them.

One can place on these bones assessments of economic and financial position, resources, and leverage, for example. The use of sanctions, legal authority, and the competitiveness of commerce all have a part to play. In military terms, the possession of nuclear arms, a positional expeditionary capability, and the willingness to exercise power through one’s armed forces would confer advantage. A unified diplomatic campaign, political cohesion, a strong sense of national mission, and the resource of a highly qualified workforce, could all also be arrayed as forms of strategic advantage. Naturally, against this list, one would also need to identify where there are weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and to address them, suggesting that some form of resilience and preparedness is also important to one’s advantage.

Alexander Lanoszka, Council on Geostrategy

As is the case for any country, British foreign and defence policy-making is often subject to criticism. Analysts may point out the gap between means and ends. Alternatively, they might take issue with the chosen ends themselves. Yet the Integrated Review of 2021 and its Refresh in 2023 demonstrate the UK’s capacity to think publicly about national security problems in a way that many other countries do not. This ability to evaluate, and then re-evaluate, its posture – even within a relatively short time-frame – in international politics is admirable. It is evidence of a certain adaptability which is itself a form of strategic advantage.

Of course, the nagging question which looms large relates, as ever, to domestic politics. With a general election scheduled no later than January 2025, the much expected change in government could disrupt any deliberate pursuit of a perceived strategic advantage. However, this author’s wager is that, if strategic advantage indeeds sits between the resources of a country and the strategy chosen for realising its objectives, sufficient political consensus exists on the need to invest in science and technology and to work with likeminded allies and partners to help ensure that Britain will remain secure and prosperous in the future.

James Rogers, Council on Geostrategy

Strategic advantage can be pursued at different levels. It increases the efficiency of national means, meaning that more can be, at least potentially, squeezed out from less. Britain should aim to focus on ‘big ticket’ initiatives, especially in science and technology (i.e., AI and fusion power). These are more risky, and could incur higher costs, but have the potential to maximise strategic impact and effectiveness. 

In addition, Britain needs to leverage its alliances and partnerships more robustly. Alliances and partnerships should not be seen as goodwill measures, but as ‘multipliers’ for the UK’s national interests and ambitions. Allies and partners which do not make good on their promises or those that do not pull their weight should be pressed, unrelentingly, to step up and deliver. For example, next year will mark the 10th anniversary of NATO’s 2014 defence investment pledge, when all allies committed to spend closer to 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence, as well as 20% of their budgets on modernisation and new equipment. While some allies have exceeded the target by some margin – such as Poland and the Baltic states – others have not made good on their commitments. 

The shirkers are sapping NATO’s collective strength, which generates a strategic disadvantage for custodians of the alliance such as the UK and US. Given the worsening international situation, particularly on the European continent, it is time for the UK to press poorly performing allies to make good on their commitments. Apart from making the burden of collective defence more equitable, it will allow the UK to focus on the development of genuine strategic advantage.

Kevin Rowlands, Royal Navy Strategic Studies Centre and Council on Geostrategy

Let us borrow from a different field in addressing this issue. The author is a school governor, and we spend a huge amount of time in ‘strategic’ education leadership talking not about grades and qualifications, but about ‘Progress 8’. In essence, Progress 8 is a tangible measure of the value-added benefit a school gives to its raw ingredients, i.e. its students. It takes starting positions such as standardised assessment tests (SATs) and an individual’s socio-economic background and compares end-of-school results with those of other, similar students and schools. So, it balances out inherent comparative advantages such as wealth or parental engagement and focuses instead on what a school can do with all children of all abilities to outperform peers. A school adding extra value, i.e. a high Progress 8, will take an ‘average’ pupil expected to gain General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) grade 5s and get them to achieve grade 6s or more. In an average school that same pupil would get 5s. In a poorly performing school they would get 4s or lower. The ‘best’ school is using a curriculum design and teaching methods to achieve strategic advantage over its competitors – for every child.

If we apply this to defence and security, we begin to see how taking tactical decisions regarding the ways and means of business can have significant strategic effect. Geography and a high GDP are still crucial, but we do not have to be limited by them. We can do more with what we have if we are disciplined and focused.

Viktorija Starych-Samuoliene, Council on Geostrategy

Strategic advantage is a concept the UK should embrace to enhance its success in the 21st century. It will help accomplish British objectives across the world by catalysing the state’s means to do so. It will also allow us to become more efficient in comparison to competitors and rivals and ensure that Britain is able to successfully compete, protect our way of life and shape the free and open international order in an increasingly fragmented and contested geopolitical landscape. 

In order to achieve it, the UK must develop a more competitive mindset and deeper understanding of the scale of the challenge posed by our authoritarian rivals. Firstly, we must acknowledge the importance of defence and not shy away from strengthening the deployability and lethality of our armed forces. Secondly, we need to get to grips with the paramount importance of strong domestic foundations and state autonomy. This includes having a laser focus on the range of areas from emerging technologies – artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, synthetic biology, and so on – to generating energy from greener sources and reinvigorating our transport and communications networks. Finally, we need to be proactive and bold in initiating new minilateral partnerships, in addition to deepening the existing ones, with likeminded nations to reflect new geopolitical and geoeconomic realities and better meet the challenges posed by our competitors.

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