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To say that this is a negative development for Western security would be putting it mildly. The Free World is losing one of only two countries that had any real ability to generate effective combat power at long distances. As useful as a battle group from Canada or Australia might be, there are still things that only a true global military power can do, and while much smaller than the United States, Britain had that ability. It didn’t just join coalitions, it could lead them, as it did when it commanded coalition troops in the south of Iraq after the 2003 invasion. At the height of its commitment there, soon after the initial invasion, 46,000 British troops were fighting in Iraq, a truly enormous effort.
Going forward, Britain will only be able to be part of a team, whether under the flag of NATO, the European Union or United Nations. That will leave Britain’s remaining military capability at the mercy at the slow pace of international diplomacy. As has been shown repeatedly, by the time these organizations are ready to commit to a military operation, the crisis has either passed or been dealt with by a country capable of acting alone or with a few select partners… like Britain used to be. (A recent example would be the virtual flood of U.S. and Canadian soldiers that essentially took over Haiti after the devastating earthquake there last January.)
Or perhaps it will continue to fight, along with the other smaller English-speaking powers and motivated allies such as Poland and the Netherlands, under overall American command. Such is likely how Britain will fight future wars, while committing itself to collective European security through the EU and international humanitarian relief through the UN. That raises the question of how much additional burden the United States could possibly take on. Today, with enormous numbers of troops still in Iraq, a hot war in Afghanistan and tension in Korea, the U.S. military is stretched thin. This is a very difficult time for the United States to lose its most powerful ally.
But there are lessons here for Washington. The American economy is in no better shape than Britain’s, and a fiscal reckoning is in its future, as well. And yet America continues to rush towards a fiscal cliff at maximum speed. So while the loss of British military strength will hurt the United States in the short term, if Americans take the appropriate lessons from the fall of Britain from the top-tier of global powerhouses and begin to get their own financial house in order, future cuts that could gut America’s military might yet be avoided. If that’s the case, then the sad decline Britain, one of the greatest nations the world has ever known, will not be in vain. It would be instead a final sacrifice to help prop up the very Western world that Britain created.
Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @mattgurney.
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