Tough Times: The New British Security Strategy and the Lessons for U.S. Policymakers

“The days of British military power appear to be ending,” Max Boot lamented in the Wall Street Journal. Another columnist at The Economist weighed in that Great Britain is at best managing its “relative decline.”

That was likely not the reception that U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government was hoping their new National Security Strategy would receive from such traditionally conservative outlets when it was released Oct. 18. Coupled with the Security and Comprehensive Spending Review released days later, the critics worried that these documents were merely written justifications of the end of Britain’s military footprint in the world.

Yet it is odd that a conservative government was lashed by fellow travelers for the very reason of making strategic decisions based on realism. That is, the security strategy, titled “A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty,” can be read as a realistic blueprint for tough times, reflecting the priorities of a new government — chastened by what it says is the overreaching of its predecessors, but which nonetheless continues to endorse a global role for the U.K.

Even more, the documents may have some lessons for leaders on the other side of the Trans-Atlantic “special relationship.” As Cameron noted, “We have inherited a defense and security structure that is woefully unsuitable for the world we live in today. We are determined to learn from those mistakes, and make the changes needed.” Cameron’s statement was more than just putting a brave face on grim news. It was an illustration of what a government sometimes has to do when facing tough circumstances. And, given current circumstances and trends for the United States, the British document may well provide some inkling for how an American president and defense secretary, Democratic or Republican, will likely respond in 2013 and beyond as the United States wrestles with its own “age of austerity.”

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