Boris Johnson set out the U.K.’s big new defense spending plan in the House of Commons Thursday — but the audience he was really trying to reach was in Wilmington, Delaware.
For the second time in a week, the U.K. prime minister has made a major policy announcement that he hopes will resonate strongly within Joe Biden’s agenda. On Wednesday it was the U.K.’s 10-point plan to help the country hit net zero carbon emissions by 2050. On Thursday, the biggest increase in defense spending since the Cold War, ensuring the budget will be £6.5 billion higher in real terms by 2024 than under existing plans, amounting to 2.2 percent of GDP; comfortably above the NATO target of 2 percent.
Donald Trump may have been more direct (to put it mildly) than any previous U.S president about his desire to see NATO allies pull their weight. But on the substance, it’s one of the few areas that he and Biden broadly agree on. Douglas Lute, Barack Obama’s former ambassador to NATO, told POLITICO before the U.S. election that Biden would want to see the U.K. maintain its status as one of only 10 alliance members to hit the 2 percent target, while also helping to “redefine security to account for new challenges” such as cyber. Biden has also put the revitalization and defense of democracy at the heart of his foreign policy rhetoric.
The defense investment would bolster the U.K.’s “ability to join the United States and our other allies to defend free and open societies,” Johnson said. He formally announced the creation of a National Cyber Force combining intelligence and military personnel, and name-checked plans for a new center for military artificial intelligence and a new RAF Space Command (first rocket launch: Scotland 2022).
Johnson’s overall strategy has been in the works for a while and it’s safe to say that much of this would have happened whoever had won the U.S. election. But the final decision to go for a four-year spending settlement for defense — despite the economic impact of the pandemic and a wider government spending review next week being curtailed to a one-year timeframe — was only taken in recent days, officials said. It seems likely that sending a clear signal to Biden about the U.K.’s direction will have been a factor in Johnson’s thinking.
The scale of the spending plan is — in the words of the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank boss Paul Johnson — “properly big.” Arguably it’s the most concrete expression to date of what the slogan “Global Britain” actually means in practice.
The U.K., cognizant that it is very far from being one of the world’s big powers, still wants to be a power capable of “tipping the scales” to use Johnson’s phrase. The modernization plan is all about being among “the swiftest and most agile nations, not necessarily the biggest,” the prime minister said. A clearer sense of how this strategy will shape U.K foreign policy in the coming years is expected when the government publishes its over-arching “integrated review” of foreign and defense policy expected early in the New Year.
Johnson’s assertion that the U.K. would also seek to “restore Britain’s position as the foremost naval power in Europe” will also be of note to EU powers and strengthen the enthusiasm of some, including France, for the U.K. to be brought into the tent via a future EU-U.K. foreign and policy and defense pact — something London has so far eschewed.
But the announcement is not without its risks, domestic and international. The money must come from somewhere and Johnson pointedly declined to endorse the U.K.’s longstanding commitment to spend 0.7 percent of GDP on international aid — amid reports it is set to be downgraded. That’s something Biden might frown on, particularly at a time when international aid is increasingly seen as a way of serving the climate agenda.
Domestically, as Paul Johnson of the IFS pointed out, cuts to defense in recent years had left room for social security spending. “Today’s announcement could mark significant change in long term direction. If so [it] will make funding health, pensions and social care in face of [an] ageing population even harder,” he said.
Those political battles may be still to come and next week’s spending review from Chancellor Rishi Sunak is expected to set out the worst downgrade in U.K. economic performance since World War II. But Thursday’s statement was about sending a clear message: the U.K.’s “era of retreat” on the global stage is over and it wants to continue to be America’s best friend in a dangerous world.