Boris Johnson Wants to Make British Imperialism Great Again

Boris Johnson wants the UK to spend more on arms and reassert its "global role." Along with a government clampdown on anti-racist organizing, his strategy is clear — imperial grandstanding and the crushing of dissent.

People wave as the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth leaves Portsmouth Naval Base as it sets sail for flight trials. (Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Integrated Defence and Security Review (IDSR), leaked in March, has been crowded out of recent British political debate. Often, we have been rather more preoccupied by government proposals to ban protests that cause “annoyance,” or its decision to give nurses who’ve battled the pandemic a paltry £3.50-a-week pay raise.

But IDSR deserves more attention — and it’s more than just a matter of defense spending. This is a stimulus program that aims to divert the country’s productive capacity to a sophisticated new war machine — and shore up Johnson’s fragile domestic coalition by using that machine to grandstand on the world stage. It forms the nucleus of a grand plan to reshape Britain and the world in Johnson’s image.

The Men Who Would Be Kings

Boris Johnson’s political divining rods appear to be Winston Churchill, Roman statecraft, and vast white elephants. He has assembled a court of mavericks with similarly grandiose visions. The IDSR is part of a Global Britain agenda being fashioned by historian John Bew. Bew is no committed Tory; he is broadly center-left, albeit a firm warmonger internationalist. He also directs the King’s College London Centre for Grand Strategy, concerned with no less than why states succeed or fail. His appointment bears similarities to Johnson’s erstwhile controversy-courting aide Dominic Cummings, also a non-devout Tory with an idiosyncratic worldview belying a technocratic centrist approach. Both are preoccupied with the work of military thinkers from Clausewitz to Boyd, and fixated on subordinating everyday politics to ambitious future-craft. The IDSR gives shape and structure to these dreams.

The Johnson camp also believes — even if they would never use such terms — that neoliberalism has failed. The operation teems with advisers railing against globalization. This is a choice six years in the making. In siding with the Brexit wing of his party, Johnson chose domestic capital over finance capital, Wetherspoons publicans over Goldman Sachs bankers. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s March budget, with corporate tax hikes opposed by Keir Starmer’s Labour and subsidies for “productive” business, redistributes wealth among elites along similar lines. Johnson is also an obsessive free marketeer, to the point of advocating deliberate laxness to profit from COVID-19. But he is serious about solving the post-2008-crash malaise of a stagnant economy, declining communities, collapsing trust, and a crisis of national purpose. He wants to use a strategic state and capital investment to drive growth. This is essentially the McDonnell-Corbyn program with less funding. But the hopeful political content of climate action and universal public services has been scooped out and discarded, leaving us with a Trojan horse full of war machines.

Britain’s domestic crises necessarily possess international dimensions. The country was created out of its constituent nations to form an entity fit for global power. It is still in the long tail of imperial decline, suffering Dean Acheson’s diagnosis after the 1956 Suez fiasco that it has “lost an empire but not found a role.” The postwar consensus of 1945–79 and Thatcher’s bankers’ economy of the 1980s both failed to deliver sustainable revival, and so existential questions returned in 2016’s EU referendum.

Remainers and Leavers both hoped to make a stagnant Britain great again, either through leading Europe or leaving it. This is the context to the Johnson Grand Strategy. In the government’s account, the country is blessed with outsize international clout, a world-class military, and skills in research and high-value manufacturing. It exists in a world that has broken the Cold War duopoly and will be defined by multiple major powers. It will use its new war machine as the centerpiece of a hybrid approach to becoming one of those major powers.

War Becomes Everything

In November, Johnson announced an £80 billion defense-spending uplift, the biggest since the Korean War of the early 1950s, and dwarfing all other new capital spend. The IDSR puts vision behind the spending spree. The first plank of this strategy is literal war machines. Alongside conventional plans for a new air-combat system and main battle tank, there are plans for a British DARPA capable of carrying out twenty-first century Manhattan Projects. Advanced drone systems, like Taranis, capable of delivering devastating first strikes, AI-powered autonomous weapons, and military space capability are intended to allow the UK to expand its military commitments while preventing future Iraq-style quagmires. They are also intended to jump-start growth in deindustrialized regions, binding together the Brexit voter coalition and providing material grist to a patriotism offensive. This is also a bid to make the UK economy further dependent on its arms industry; the country continually breaks its own rules to outfit the Saudi war in Yemen, which has cost a quarter of a million lives.

The IDSR plans to reduce the size of the armed forces by ten thousand, and of course says nothing about soldiers’ hideously low pay. But it is not just about new tech; it makes clear its commitment to more, longer, and bigger permanent overseas deployments of British forces, from Kenya to Korea, to aid with “regional security.” The armed forces — including the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Pacific in some good old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy — are central to Johnson’s Indo-Pacific tilt, a plan to plant Union Jacks across Asia. The militarized aspect to this tilt may well also be designed to avoid splitting the Brexit camp’s free marketeers and globalization skeptics over the economic aspect, such as involvement in free trade partnerships like CPTPP.

The most alarming element of Johnson’s saber-rattling is a plan — condemned by a UN agency — to raise the cap on British nuclear weapons by 40 percent. In the words of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament general secretary Kate Hudson, “sending a Trident missile through our treaty obligations.” The IDSR explicitly does not rule out nuclear threats against countries signed up to the Treaty on the Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. New warheads will sit alongside continued nuclear commitments like the Anglo-French Teutates program; its macabre name refers to a god who accepts sacrifices submerged in liquid, and the program includes hydrodynamic experiments which force materials to behave like liquids to model nuclear destructiveness. Meanwhile, France’s military is planning for high-intensity war this decade.

The Johnson Grand Strategy brings together diplomacy, technological infrastructure, trade and economic policy, and physical and cyber security together under a military rubric. This should not be a given — there is, for instance, a persuasive argument for putting vaccine supply chain security in the hands of the World Health Organization (WHO). The strategy provides an outsize role for the armed forces — quite probably one they do not want — which imports the logic of militarization and ferocious interstate competition into all arenas of social and economic life.

Domestically, it uses the relatively untarnished reputation of the armed forces (an army which has recently won plaudits for its role in the vaccine rollout alongside the National Health Service, where privateers have failed) to launder Boris Johnson’s reputation. In How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, former Pentagon analyst Rosa Brooks outlines how a similar process happened in the United States. These domestic and international incentives toward making more of public policy contingent on the military are symptoms of a broader and dangerous mindset. This mindset sees national interests as a zero-sum game, and force as vital to securing them.

Real Security

At this point, one might reasonably ask how a country which throws £37 billion at a disastrous test-and-trace system and is barely able to build working railways expects to become a sci-fi superpower. The IDSR boasts of being able to field F-35s, a NATO-wide future stealth fighter project which has been a nonfunctional white elephant of a size Boris Johnson could only dream of. But the Johnson Grand Strategy does not have to work to be dangerous. By existing, it raises the possibility of conflict and escalation. A document that explicitly says “national security is not enough” and gears up for international force projection will trigger new arms races in new spheres, in an already unstable context.

Hybrid tactics of information warfare and economic activity, or “weaponized interdependence,” may be useful in providing outlets for conflicts which are not shooting wars, but at the same time these options reduce the cost of provoking conflict and escalation in the first place. Outside the nightmare scenario of interstate violence (statistically more likely than often assumed), we can expect a depressing drumbeat of low-level operations with little public scrutiny, whether extrajudicial drone assassinations or attempts to control the flow of refugees. Already, forever wars like that in Afghanistan have reshaped international law and norms, as well as political discourse and culture, in ways that are still becoming clear. The IDSR sets out explicitly to define “new rules” while remaining concerningly vague on their content, and of course ignoring that if hybrid warfare is the Wild West, NATO powers have led in making it so.

One could be forgiven for thinking we are not currently undergoing a major crisis which has proved the necessity of both international cooperation and not treating security as a military-first issue. When the coronavirus pandemic struck, Donald Trump spent more time blaming China than protecting America. Within a few weeks, mask piracy was covering for failures of PPE procurement. Currently, national vaccine hoarding and competition is increasing the risk of new and virulent variants emerging in unvaccinated countries. The EU has seemingly been willing to risk confidence in vaccination among its own populations to snipe at Britain. And the EU, UK, and US have united to prevent the Global South from manufacturing its own vaccines, thereby increasing international risk.

Beyond risking new wars or endangering public health, inter-elite competition worsens every other existential and security threat we face. It encourages states to solve climate change through prosecuting resource conflicts, blaming each other’s emissions rather than their own, and developing military capacity to prevent migration. It incentivizes using overblown foreign threats as distraction tactics for domestic problems. It takes human ingenuity and economic capacity that could be building a better world and diverts it onto the battlefield. Already, the success of the UK vaccine rollout is being framed as an asset transferable to building the war machine, rather than building a more functional health care and pandemic preparedness framework. While war gets £80 billion, international development, climate change research, and disease research are being defunded.

Welcome to the Johnson Grand Strategy. It is a plan to continue his record of ignoring genuine existential threats and trading on national pride to ensure a generation of Tory political domination. It is a plan that connects foreign and domestic policy through attempts to reduce accountability for UK overseas military forces and domestic police forces, the current clampdown on protest, and Johnson’s vigorous pursuit of culture wars against critics of racism and empire.

In 2019, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour put a different vision of national renewal before the UK that celebrated and built on British civil successes from the steam engine to the NHS. It pledged a program investment that would create world-class health and education services and lead a Green Industrial Revolution that could allow Britain to lead the world in tackling climate change, not developing arms races, thereby addressing the greatest real threat to global security.

This vision now seems very distant — but it’s not only worth fighting for, it’s essential to keep alive and develop. For the alternative, from Johnson’s Grand Strategy, is a war machine to solve our problems. Its authors need reminding that there is little point dispatching an advanced aircraft carrier to the Pacific while two million children go hungry on our doorstep.