More Summer Strategy--from the Brits...

This week we turn to Britain...which is an interesting case study...and perhaps a lesson for America?

British Strategy from 1700-1945: Consistency Amid Decline 

The British system of government and political process produced a fair degree of success at planning and conducting grand strategy. Although the British Empire gradually succumbed to the weight of two world wars and the general decline in colonialism, the British governmental system did remarkable job of staving off the fall of Britain from a global power status as long as possible. 
When examining the British success at strategy through the prism of ends, ways and means, it is important to note that the overarching strategic goals or ends of British foreign and military policy were essentially unchanged during all three of the major eras of conflict: the defense of the British Isles, the maintaining of a “balance of power” to prevent any one European power from dominating the continent and the security of British trade and commerce, both within the Empire and with other nations.[1] 

 The way the Britain attempted to conduct this strategy was also remarkably unchanged for the 200 year period: reliance on a strong navy, creation of an alliance structure to prevent any one country from becoming the dominant power on the Continent, development of efficient banking and commerce to provide funding to pay for allies, and the creation of a small but highly professional army that could provide the “tipping point” for the alliance in a time of war. The process by which England came to this strategy was, however, not the product of concerted or consistent strategic thought during any of the time periods examined, and there was a great deal of compromise and political give and take, particularly concerning the size and role of the British Army in foreign and defense policy, but the basic military and diplomatic construct of British strategy also remained very consistent for over 200 years.[2] 

Providing the ends to conduct their chosen strategy was one of the major challenges the British faced and ultimately proved the Achilles Heel to the maintenance of their long-term status as a world power. Until the British developed an efficient central banking system, they rarely had the resources to implement a concerted strategy and were often forced to change their strategy to match ends and means. As the British constantly needed to balance ends and means, the advantage of their governmental system as it evolved from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy, was that discussion and comprise were, for the most part, able to reign in overambitious plans before they dragged the British into unwinnable situations. The British system of government and economy were able to provide the financing to allow Britain to become the premier world power before World War I, far beyond their proportional land mass or population compared to other European powers.[3] 

Unfortunately, the Empire and later Commonwealth that provided the resources to become a major world power also proved a burden to strategic planning and when necessary, war planning, since Britain had to take into account not only the need to defend the British Isles, but far-fling colonies such as India and Australia. As both World War I and World War II would show, the need to maintain the required military power to defend territory across the globe against strong emerging powers such as Germany and Japan would prove too much for British resources to support, contributing to Britain’s decline as a world power by 1945.[4] 

 In addition to their need to maintain their colonies, the British had to make difficult decisions about their alliances that also complicated their strategic planning. Beginning with the War of the Spanish Succession, the British attempted to be the balancing force in European security, attempting to reign in first French and later German hegemony over the Continent. The British had mixed success at controlling the strategy of their many alliances; with British politicians not always understanding that alliances did not mean countries would forgo their own national interests and would not always follow British strategic direction. Britain did have a remarkable influence over strategy during World War II considering the proportionate weight of American power, particularly as the war moved into 1944 and the Normandy invasion. This influence is almost certainly a tribute to the statesmanship of Winston Churchill, the last and greatest in a number of influential Prime Ministers that were able to get the maximum effect from the British bureaucracy and parliamentary system of government.[5] 

However, much like their French and Spanish counterparts, the British did make several stumbles in their strategic planning, particularly in the time between the world wars that had lasting consequences and clearly limited some options for their successors. The most crucial of these decisions concerned the role and strength of their land forces and later, their air forces as well. The desire to avoid a large standing army before World War I left England critically short of divisions when the Germans attacked in 1914 and most of the small, but highly professional BEF was destroyed by the end of the year. By the time the British could field an army capable of large-scale offensive action in 1916, these new volunteers did not have the tactical and operational capability of their German opponents and were slaughtered in the Somme. Between the wars, the British desire for pacifism, combined with a complete misunderstanding of Nazi intentions nearly left Britain defenseless, and only the late mobilization, combined with a good deal of luck, bad decisions by the Germans, and Churchill’s relentless determination prevented a British defeat in the summer of 1940. 
Despite an occasionally halting effort, an unrealistic desire to maintain their Empire after World War I and the occasional misunderstanding of how alliances worked, the British system of strategic planning was reasonably successful through 1914. Although the British, like their fellow Europeans, did not completely understand the implications of the rise of America and Soviet Russia as potential world powers, they were able to achieve most of their strategic goals until they could no longer provide the means to meet their strategic ends. The parliamentary system that evolved from their form of monarchy was far from perfect and often sowed strategic confusion, but it did have one redeeming feature- “…no matter how willfully naïve Anglo-American democracies can be, they do permit the replacement of incompetent leadership.”[6] 

[1] Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox and Alvin Bernstein, ed., The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States and War (New York: Cambridge University Press: 1994), 151, 279-281. 
[2] Ibid., 152, 163, 298. 
[3] Ibid., 154, 159 
[4] Paul Kennedy, ed., Grand Strategies in War and Peace, ed. Paul Kennedy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991), 57-60. 
[5] Kennedy, 21, 45-46; Murray, 165-166, 302, 423-426. 
[6] Murray, 398.