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Is the UK a Global Military Power?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: International Relations
Wordcount: 3212 words Published: 12th Apr 2019

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The answer to the question ‘Is the UK a global military power?’ depends on the theoretical lens through which one analyses the UK’s military power. The theoretical perspective affects the definition of ‘military power’ that is used and therefore the answer to the question. At the beginning of this essay I will discuss a prominent school of thought within International Relations, Realism. I will argue that examining the UK’s military power through this theoretical approach provides the conclusion that the UK is not a global military power. This is because realism considers power as a zero-sum game based on material capabilities. The UK’s material capabilities are weaker when compared to that of other states and therefore if power is zero-sum the UK loses power as other states gain it. I will then argue that the UK is in fact a global military power when factors other than material capabilities are analysed. Factors such as the UK’s membership of security institutions, the implications of these memberships and the UK military’s global reach and influence. I will use Hedley Bull’s defining characteristics of a global power to examine the UK’s military strength. This requires an English School approach, which I believe to be more appropriate than the Realist approach as it takes into consideration the role of the military in a changing global environment e.g. The importance of international institutions, the role of humanitarian intervention and emerging security challenges that require British military influence abroad.

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Defining what a ‘global military power’ is fundamental to answering this question. The literature often conflates military power with the status of a global power more generally. For example, military capability and thus power, is a country’s ability to defend itself against threats, both foreign and domestic, as well as pursuing interests despite competing interests from other actors (Tellis, 2000).  Military power is considered in this instance as the product of national power, hence the status of global power being synonymous with military power. This can make it difficult to distinctly define if a state is a global military power therefore it is simpler to measure military power rather than to define it. As previously mentioned measuring military power depends on the theoretical approach taken. This is why I will be using two different notions of military power. I will begin by discussing the realist approach.

 Mearsheimer, in his book ‘The tragedy of great power politics’, states that global powers have offensive military capabilities and that military power is measured in relation to the weaponry a state possesses (Mearsheimer, 2001). Immediately, the material military power a state possesses is an indicator of its status as a global military power. Therefore, I will use the assertion by Mearsheimer that ‘a state’s effective power is ultimately a function of its military forces and how they compare with the military forces of rival states’ (Mearsheimer, 2001, 55) as the key indicator of military power from a realist perspective. The international relations scholar Kenneth Waltz also asserts that a great power is one which holds material superiority over others, reasserting that material military capabilities are an important indicator of power status (Morris, 2011).

The ‘Global Fire Power’ website provides a ‘power index’ whereby countries are given a score as a result of their; air, sea and land forces, strength of infrastructure, resilience of economy and defensible territory. This rating provides an indicator of where the UK ranks in terms of its potential to ‘wage a prolonged campaign against another’ state (Globalfirepower.com, 2017). Much of this score is based upon numerical data relating to physical capabilities such as total aircraft strength, total naval assets, army personnel as well defence spending and natural resources (petroleum). The UK ranks 6 in the world on this index below France, China, Russia, India and the United States (Globalfirepower.com, 2017). Maintaining a realist perspective indicates that the UK is not a global military power in comparison to the five states which supersede its power. This is because power that is acquired relatively is more significant than absolute gain (Waltz, 1959). In other words, analysing the UK’s military power in relation to other states is more indicative of its global position than if it were to be analysed in isolation to other states, according to realist theory. This is the assertion that power is a zero-sum game, which means as one actor gains power other actors immediately lose power. Therefore, as other states rank above the UK using this power index the UK is immediately rendered weaker than the states above it (Powell, 1991).

Significantly, the power index does not include the UK’s nuclear capabilities which are part of its military power as nuclear weapons spending falls under the defence budget of the UK. The Royal United Services Institute claimed in 2013 that the UK’s submarine and deterrent spending would account for 35% of defence spending by 2020/21 (Chalmers, 2013). The UK’s nuclear capabilities are significant as the UK is one of only nine countries in the world that possess nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, if the UK’s military power is relative then the fact that the UK as of March 2016 only possessed 215 nuclear weapons in comparison to Russia’s 7000 and the US’s 6,800 (Ploughshares Fund, 2017), proves that the UK is powerful due to its nuclear capacity in absolute gain but is not powerful relatively.

My argument is that the English School approach is a superior lens through which this question can be answered. This is because it not only acknowledges the importance of power and how it is distributed but it also brings attention to other factors (Morris, 2011). In this section I will examine the UK’s military power using the definition of a great power put forward by Hedley Bull as well as the concept of ‘legalised hegemony’ and the UK’s global reach and influence.  This definition and other considerations allows for a more holistic approach for examining the UK’s position as a global military power.

Hedley Bull in his 1977 book ‘The Anarchical Society: A study of order in world politics’, describes the role of great powers and thus what makes them ‘great’. It is important to note that the application of the various aspects of this definition to characteristics of the UK’s military power overlap with each other in terms of where they fit into the definition. Firstly, he states that the country must be one of a collection of states of comparable power (Bull, 1977). The UK’s membership of NATO is an indicator of its comparability with other military powers in the world. The UK is one of the 5 of the 28 countries in the alliance that meets its defence spending target. NATO members are required to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defence, the UK spent £60.3 billion on defence in 2016 (Economist.com, 2017). This is similar to the spending of other European states that met their 2% target e.g. Germany, France and Greece (Economist.com, 2017). This indicates that the UK is economically capable of funding its military to similar levels as other states which have a similar size and GDP. NATO states that for a state to become a member it must be in position to ‘further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.’ (Nato.int, 2017). This indicates that the UK has both the political but most importantly the military capability to contribute to NATO’s aim of maintaining the freedom and security of the North Atlantic area. This is a symbol that the UK is of comparable military power to other member states within this powerful alliance. The next two aspects of Bull’s definition, when applied to the UK, reiterate the point that the country is of comparable military power to other global powers through its membership of highly influential institutions and ability to reach and intervene in a majority of conflicts across the globe.

Secondly, Bull asserts that the state should be in the top classification of states in terms of military strength to be considered a global power (Bull, 1977). This is when the realist perspective, in terms of material capabilities, comes into play within the English School perspective. As previously noted, the UK is number 6 on the power index according to Global Fire Power (Globalfirepower.com, 2017). Most notably, a recent article published by the UK Defence Review stated that a study carried out by European Geostrategy characterised the UK as a ‘Global Power’, only second behind the US which was labelled a ‘Superpower’ (Allison, 2017). The article references military capabilities and operations as the cause of the classification.  Not only does this categorise the UK as a global military power it also places it in the top rank of countries in terms of military strength. The study claimed the UK is a ‘A country lacking the heft or comprehensive attributes of a superpower, but still with a wide international footprint and [military] means to reach most geopolitical theatres, particularly the Middle East, South-East Asia, East Asia, Africa and South America.’(Allison, 2017). The article also referenced the UK’s membership of NATO and the United Nations Security Council, as well as military interventions and operations carried out by the UK such as operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Allison, 2017)

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Thirdly and most significantly, Bull claims that global powers have certain rights and duties that are internationally recognised by other states and actors but also by their own leaders and citizens (Bull, 1977). The most recognisable manifestation of this characteristic, in the case of the UK, is the state’s permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC primary aim is to deal with threats to peace. The council has various means of doing this including diplomatic and economic solutions, but it also issues directives for peacekeeping operations, accommodating ceasefires, dispatching military observers and initiating collective military action (Un.org, 2017). The UK’s ability to veto and vote on the council is a right, as described by Bull, that is unique to only the permanent five members of the council. This has given the UK influence over key military decisions allowing for the expansion of influence and power. For example, in 2011 the UK voted in favour of conducting airstrikes against the Gaddafi regime in Libya. This was a call for military action within a sovereign state, a crucial indicator of the UK’s military power through intervention.

Special duties are another aspect of Bull’s definition. Special duties carried out by the UK include humanitarian intervention. Broadly defined, humanitarian intervention requires the use of a country’s military power in the form of armed force to end a humanitarian crisis in another state (Opil.ouplaw.com, 2011). The modern concept has encompassed other justifications for humanitarian intervention such as the need to bring about peace, stabilise a region and end human rights abuses (Opil.ouplaw.com, 2011). In 2011 the UK was a key supporter of UNSC resolution 1973 which authorized intervention in Libya on humanitarian grounds (United Nations Security Council, 2011). In 2015 the UK began carrying out airstrikes in Iraq and Syria with the goal of defeating ISIS along with a coalition of other states led by the US. A country must have the military capability to intervene in another state on humanitarian grounds as it requires use of material military. This indicates that the UK has the significant material military power to do this.

Gerry Simpson’s conception of ‘legalised hegemony’ reinforces the argument that the UK is a global military power (Simpson, 2004).  Simpson defines legalised hegemony as the existence of ‘an elite group of states’ within international society that have specific rights, duties and privileges distinct from other states which are considered to have less power (Simpson, 2004, pg. 68). The UK’s seat on the UNSC, membership of NATO and involvement in humanitarian intervention are all evidence of the UK having the military power to be considered a part of this elite group of states. Moreover, the UK’s position within Simpson’s legalised hierarchy compliments Bull’s definition of a great power having special rights and duties.

The global reach of a country’s military is a critical variable in assessing military power. The ability for a country to maintain and build a presence in all four corners of the globe is a accurate indicator of its power. The UK has overseas defence facilities in 10 countries across the globe (Allison, 2017) allowing the UK to have a presence in areas of strategic and diplomatic significance e.g. the Falklands, Canada, Brunei, Kenya and Bahrain. This enables the UK to pursue its defence and political interests as well as carry out expeditionary warfare if needed. Moreover, the UK’s overseas territory of the Falkland Islands provides strategic advantage by providing the UK with a military presence in the South Atlantic region. Relatively, the US has defence facilities in 70 countries across the globe but is the only state to have a greater number of overseas defence facilities than the UK (Grunwald, 2015).  The UK’s war in Afghanistan which lasted from 2001 to 2014 is another example of the UK’s ability to maintain a military presence abroad. The UK’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and subsequent presence lasted until 2011 which is significant evidence of global reach. As the threat of terrorism increases the UK is now a member of the Global Coalition, a group of countries pledged to defeat Daesh. The British Army presently has a non-combat role in Iraq, where it trains and provides equipment to the Iraqi Security Forces of whom it has trained 25,000 in various combat roles (Army.mod.uk, 2017), further indicating the country’s global reach and military power. An analysis of the UK’s military power would not be complete without reference to the Commonwealth. The British Empire formally ended with the transferring of Hong Kong to China in 1997. This signified a new era for the UK as a global power. However, the UK’s military presence in commonwealth countries signifies a level of maintenance of the UK’s once powerful empire.  With deployments of British soldiers in Kenya, Canada, Cyprus and Sierra Leone, the UK’s colonial past may have paved the way for a militarily powerful UK in the present allowing for British influence across the globe.

In conclusion, the UK is a global military power when analysed from an English School perspective. When Hedley Bull’s three main characteristics of a global power are applied to the UK the answer is such. Various sources including the power index created by Global Fire Power and the European Geostrategy study claim that the UK is amongst the most powerful states in the world in terms of material capabilities. The UK’s membership of NATO and its seat on the UNSC reiterate its influential position as a military power capable of intervening and being present in conflicts and locations around the globe. The UK’s global reach through its overseas military presence and overseas territories adds further strength to its military. It is evident that when military power is considered from a realist perspective the full range of indicators of military strength are not considered. Focusing on material capabilities exclusively negates the affect intervention, presence, reach and influence have on a country’s military power.


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