In coordination with the Cabinet Office, the Centre for Grand Strategy commissioned a second series of reports to help inform the United Kingdom’s 2021 Integrated Review. These reports build on an earlier series of case studies which examined how major strategic ‘resets’—i.e. significant redirections and realignments of foreign policy—have been developed across a range of historical and contemporary contexts. The purpose of this second round of reports was to understand how, once a new national strategy has been decided, governments can best implement it. By examining specific historical instances in which countries, including the United Kingdom, have sought to deliver a new strategic realignment, the papers presented here offered valuable insights for policymakers developing the Integrated Review.
Select findings include:
- The importance of leadership: a number of case studies stress the importance of a Prime Minister and senior Cabinet ministers being consistently engaged and interested in delivering strategy across government departments and parliament. When this kind of leadership is absent, issues are left to drift as departmental rivalry and opposition grows.
- The importance of structure within the national security establishment: several reports emphasise the need to design effective and efficient bureaucratic structures to help implement and sustain a strategic realignment.
- The importance of so-called ‘agents of change.’ The implementation of a grand strategic change is dependent to a great degree on the ability of senior officials to deliver clear and sustained guidance on the nature, direction and pace of strategic change.
- To have lasting impact, policies need to be ‘mainstreamed’ across the policy machinery. Training and secondments can alter organizational culture, but these effects are weaker across government as a whole.
- Effective communications and feedback mechanisms inside government can help to ensure that strategy is being delivered as it was intended.
- Bureaucratic resistance can represent a serious challenge to the implementation of strategy. This is a product, in part, of an existing foreign policy establishment—made up of individuals and institutions inside and outside of government—which might favour certain ingrained policy priorities.
- A new national strategy can attract less criticism if it is bipartisan in tone; and policy changes should be framed as building on the work of predecessors.
- ‘Budget documents are strategy documents’, and as the implementation of a particular policy continues, the management of budgetary items can serve as a powerful lever of control.
- Communication with allies about a new strategy is essential; and closely related is the need to manage allies’ expectations.
- The notion of ‘national’ or ‘grand’ strategy conveys a sense of agency that is not always reflected in practice: parliamentary politics, public opinion, and a host of other constraints—sometimes referred to as ‘domestic veto players’—limit the extent to which government can deliver ‘revolutionary’ strategic change.
- The efficacy of a grand strategy is largely dependent on the proximity and intensity of external threats. Implementation of strategy can be easier in periods of perceived crisis, as opposed to more relatively benign periods.
- Existing national security policies have a sustainability factor within society. A strategic realignment can thus be more difficult to implement if the public perceives an existing policy as fiscally affordable and strategically necessary.
- Policy commitments involve difficult decisions down the line, and if government departments are not prepared to pay the ‘cost of implementation’, this can lead to contradictory policies and harm the government’s diplomatic reputation.
- When delivering on a grand strategic realignment, it is necessary to embrace inherent uncertainty. It is essential that ministers and officials always remain responsive and open to revising and re-inventing elements of a new strategy where necessary to meet new challenges.
Case Studies Part II:
Strategy by Committee: The Birth of British Grand Strategy c. 1900-1914 (pp. 9-13) Dr David Morgan-Owen
Stuck: “America First” and the Middle East (pp. 31-36) Professor Patrick Porter
Editor: Dr Andrew Ehrhardt, Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for Grand Strategy, KCL
2 December 2020
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