Re-thinking UK Defence and Security Policies

This project aims to stimulate a renewed debate on UK defence and foreign policy through timely, evidence-based interventions. It examines ways in which the UK could act as a responsible global citizen and pursue an international strategy that addresses the root causes of conflict, environmental degradation and social injustice, including marginalisation, competition over resources, militarisation and climate change. Such a transformation in policy would, for example, entail the UK moving away from using force in illegitimate, illegal and immoral ways and making progress on conventional and nuclear disarmament, nationally and internationally.

Sustainable Security’s flagship project focuses on generating original, evidence-based thinking on how UK policy can best be reshaped to face the real threats to people’s security, both in the short and long term.

The UK is currently going through a period of turmoil, at home and abroad. New political movements inside and outside parliament, the impact of austerity and the decision to leave the European Union are interacting with an increasingly complex global security environment. Whilst this is undoubtedly a challenging situation, it provides an important opportunity to rethink the direction of the UK’s defence and foreign policies.

As the long, hard war in Afghanistan transitions to stealthier interventions in Iraq, Syria and Libya—and a renewed nuclear stand-off with Russia—major constraints on public spending also sharpen questions about who benefits from the UK maintaining one of the world’s largest defence budgets and significant power projection capabilities.

This project proposes that, rather than unaccountable economic and political elites determining the UK’s international policy, it should be based on a long-term, democratic plan that prioritises mitigating the existential dangers of climate change and nuclear war. This new approach should also seek to prioritise democracy, human rights and international law and address the underlying drivers of conflict. These drivers include environmental degradation, increasing competition for resources, the dangerously widening gap between the rich ‘minority world’ and the poor and marginalised ‘majority world’ and the proliferation of deadly military technology.

Publishing reports and briefing papers:

  • Brexit and the UK’s Uncertain Nuclear Future (July 2016) assessed how the fall-out from the Brexit vote – financial, constitutional and political – might impact on the British Parliament’s rush to authorise a new generation of nuclear weapons.
  • Brexit: Whither UK Defence and Foreign Policy? (July 2016) analysed the implications of the referendum vote for the UK to leave the EU, and the formation of Theresa May’s initial government, for British defence and foreign policy.
  • Rethinking Security: A Discussion Paper (May 2016) was produced by the Ammerdown Group, in which ORG participates, to explores the security strategies of Western States and propose principles for a more effective approach to security, one which works in the common interest.
  • SDSR 2015: Continuity, Control and Crisis in UK Defence Policy (January 2016) explored some of the key structures defining current and historic UK security policy, considering areas of continuity and change including strategic dependence on the US, maritime security, growing energy insecurity and the commitment to further militarising the Middle East.

  • The 2015 SDSR: The Strategic Issues (November 2015) summarised the key issues which the Review must address if it is to present a strategic and sustainable approach to improving UK, regional and international security.
  • The Politics of British Nuclear Disarmament (October 2015) examined recent debates on nuclear disarmament and argued that the UK’s role in NATO and close relationship with the US are often overlooked but essential elements of the discussion.
  • We Need to Talk About NATO (September 2015) posed questions around NATO’s role, expansion, and spending commitments, considering how these might be brought into British public discourse in the context of intra-Labour Party and national policy debates during the 2015-2020 parliament.

  • Beyond Deterrence: Rethinking UK Security Doctrine (July 2015) argued the case that the greatest barrier to improved UK security is the continued role of nuclear deterrence in British security thinking, assessing the counter-productive effects of deterrence doctrine, its opportunity costs, and alternatives to it.

  • Conservative Defence Policy: Five Knowns and Ten Unknowns (July 2015) examined the trajectory of UK defence policy under the new Conservative government as the SDSR began, highlighting deficiencies of strategy, transparency and accountability, and growing Scottish opposition to Trident renewal.

  • Cutting the Cloth: Ambition, Austerity and the Case for Rethinking UK Military Spending (May 2015) looked at UK military spending in the context of NATO, Europe, global democracies and current security threats. Ahead of the 2015 SDSR it made five recommendations for rebalancing UK security spending and putting conflict prevention at the heart of British foreign policy.

  • East of Suez, West from Helmand: British Expeditionary Force and the Next SDSR (January 2015) analysed the trend in UK defence policy towards relocating equipment withdrawn from Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa as an integral part of the expeditionary forces concept that dominated the 2010 SDSR.

  • Beyond Crime and Punishment: UK Non-Military Options in Syria (August 2013) assessed the ways short of military intervention in which the UK government could usefully respond to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

  • Reviewing Britain’s Security (May 2010) analysed the transition between the Labour and Coalition governments in relation to the UK’s National Security Strategy as well as discussing options for the three controversial issues of Trident replacement, the aircraft carriers and procurement policy.

Holding policy workshops and conferences:

  • ORG supported the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on its work on the international diplomacy around climate and resource security, including the major conference held in March 2012.

  • With the support of the Network for Social Change, ORG held a workshop on 13 September 2011 on the role of the UK defence and security community (including policymakers, analysts and journalists) in responding to the security implications of climate change.

  • With the support of the Dulverton Trust, ORG held a workshop on 16 September 2010 that brought together senior figures from the civil service, the military, industry, academia, think tanks and NGOs to engage in creative but focused thinking on how the concept of sustainable security can begin to be operationalized in UK defence and security policies.

Engaging and advocating with political parties, politicians and special advisors:

  • ORG led other civil society organisations, academics and former military and political leaders in July 2016 in sending an open letter to the Prime Minister urging her not to rush parliament to reach a final decision on the Successor nuclear programme during the post-Brexit political turbulence.
  • Following the 2015 general election, ORG engaged with the Scottish National Party’s new influx of MPs on foreign and security policy and was consulted closely by the Labour Party on its Defence Policy Review, especially alternative options to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in UK defence policy.
  • ORG engaged with the major political parties during review processes of party defence policy between 2010 and 2015 and was invited to input to the Labour Party Shadow Defence Review (2013) and the Green Party election manifesto (2015).

  • ORG joined other civil society organisations in April 2014 in sending an open letter to the Prime Minister and the leaders of the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats calling for a rethink of the way that the next NSS and SDSR were conducted.

  • Sessions of ORG’s UK Policy Group were held in the lead-up to the release of the NSS and SDSR (July 2010) and in the aftermath of the first nine months of the Arab uprisings (September 2011).

Submitting written and oral evidence to parliamentary enquiries:

  • Written evidence to the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy inquiry into the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 (March 2016). The Committee cited ORG’s evidence and endorsed many of its recommendations.
  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee inquiry into Russia: Implications for UK defence and security (February 2016).
  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into the UK’s relations with Russia (January 2016).
  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee inquiry into UK military operations in Syria and Iraq (January 2016).
  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee inquiry on Iraq, Syria and ISIS (November 2014).

  • Written evidence to the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (September 2014). The Committee’s report supported several of ORG’s recommendations.

  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee inquiry on Future Force 2020 (September 2014).

  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee inquiry on Intervention: Why, When and How? (October 2013). The Committee endorsed many of ORG's recommendations.

  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee inquiry into preparations for the next SDSR (May 2013). The committee specifically endorsed several of ORG’s recommendations in its report.

  • Written and oral evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee inquiry on the UK's response to extremism in North and West Africa (April 2013).

  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee inquiry on the NSS and the SDSR (September 2010).

  • Written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee inquiry on the SDSR (September 2010).


Richard Reeve

Richard Reeve is the Director of Oxford Research Group's (ORG) Sustainable Security Programme and ORG Coordinator. Richard has particular expertise in Sub-Saharan Africa, peace and...

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Tim Street

Tim is the Senior Programme Officer on the Sustainable Security programme, with a specific focus on the UK’s defence, security and conflict prevention policy.

Tim’s previous work has...

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Dr Benjamin Zala

Benjamin Zala is a Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Leicester, UK, where his works focuses on great power diplomacy, rising powers in the global order and global security...

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