Page last updated at 00:52 GMT, Sunday, 1 November 2009

Britain 'faces world role choice'

British soldier reconnoitring in Helmand
Britain's commitment to Afghanistan may affect its choice of world role

Britain still has a taste for being a world power - and a determination to be a key influence on the United States, a senior defence analyst has told the BBC.

But it faces a choice on how to play out that role, says Michael Codner, head of military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute.

"It's really a matter of what the British people feel they are as a nation and what they really want to do," said Mr Codner.

"If they want to be an ordinary European power - and that would be a perfectly sensible option, to be a bit more like Germany or Italy," Britain could spend less on defence.

Strategic raiding

The UK could go for a policy in which it simply contributed to multi-national forces - or a "little Britain" stance in which the forces were only used for defending these islands.

But if we stay the way we are, accustomed to the British armed forces being dispatched for campaigns around the world, and with a sizeable ability to act on our own, the choice must be made, he said.

One policy, which Mr Codner favours, is what defence experts call "strategic raiding" in which British forces are able to intervene swiftly and with a high degree of independence. It places a high value on naval and air forces for "theatre entry and sea basing", and specialist light infantry.

New Royal Navy aircraft carrier; (inset: Typhoon eurofighter)
New aircraft carriers and the typhoon eurofighter are the subject of debate

The classic "strategic raiding" operation, he says, is the successful British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000.

But with Britain seemingly committed to Afghanistan for a long time, the balance may have shifted to the other option - "global guardianship" or "continuous counter-insurgency", focused on a land campaign with supporting services.

In Afghanistan, he says "Once one has to occupy a country, the building up of good governance, the rule of law and all of that is problematic - and you can't walk away, for reasons of responsibility.

"It becomes a garrison that you have to put there to keep things going, or what the Army starts to call 'putting it on a campaign footing'.

"This all relates to the issue of why we support the United States and the presumption that by doing that we achieve influence over the one nation that can really influence the world, by our support."

And, he added: "There is reputation at home. If we are seen to fail badly at anything - and we haven't really done that in a very obvious way as far as the public's concerned since Suez in 1956" - people might think "Well, why do we bother to spend money? Why don't we just forget about the special relationship?"

Major projects

With a general election approaching, both major parties are promising to hold the first Strategic Defence Review since 1998.

In the background are the debates on major defence projects - especially two aircraft carriers costing £5bn - and the future of Britain's nuclear weapons.

The aim of influencing America will be central but will not always be stated publicly, said Michael Codner - who has lectured at the US Naval War College as well as many other institutions in Britain and elsewhere.

"More and more, you hear politicians and policy makers talking about routes to a better world for the United Kingdom through modifying United States behaviour."

But the ability of Britain to alter US policy was "very much challenged" over the Iraq war, Michael Codner goes on.

"The conduct of war itself and certainly the preparations for occupation, all of that - I'm sure that if we had real influence, that we thought we ought to have, that would have been done better."

Nor are the Americans very interested in the preservation of Britain's nuclear deterrent, he thinks.

Michael Codner
The UK are in Afghanistan, and we were in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, East Timor and Iraq, for reasons that relate to the nation's perception of itself as a great power
Michael Codner

But do we see ourselves as still a major power, equal to France, say?

"If it was put to a referendum and phrased in a neutral way I suspect that perceptions of ourselves as a great power have been sustained," Mr Codner thinks.

A hung parliament might be interesting, he said. A bloc of Labour and Lib Dem MPs might arise "to the extent that war powers became seriously under scrutiny again... so that we could start to slip into more of the normal European model."

In the 1960s and 1970s "our perception of the nation as a great power was pretty undermined - we really were starting to see ourselves as rather a footling nation," Mr Codner told the BBC.

But from the 1980s things changed, partly because of a recovery in Britain's economic fortunes.

The 1982 Falklands war was also important, he adds. "Who else has won a war so convincingly, against such odds?" he asks. "The respect we got from the United States military over the Falklands was extraordinary."

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