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Journal of Cold War Studies 3.1 (2001) 128-130



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Book Review

The Politics of British Defence, 1979-98


Lawrence Freedman, The Politics of British Defence, 1979-98. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. 259 pp. $65.00.

Lawrence Freedman's book broadly covers the two decades before and after the end of the Cold War. When British defense policy is scrutinized in this way, it is difficult to know whether to be more impressed by the discontinuities or the continuities, given the sharp break that occurred in the middle. With regard to discontinuities, one is struck by the comparative figures: Defense expenditure climbed to some 5.5 percent of Britain's gross domestic product (GDP) during the early 1980s but now stands closer to 3.5 percent; and the number of active service personnel is slightly over 200,000 today, a reduction of more than 100,000 from the typical figure in the mid-1980s. Additionally, Britain's (pre-Trident) nuclear forces in the 1980s included an array of strategic and sub-strategic warheads, deliverable by air, artillery, and sea (both surface and submarine). According to projections in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, the deterrent now resides exclusively in a Trident nuclear force that will carry fewer than 200 warheads. According to the Review, this represents a 70 percent reduction in the explosive power of British nuclear weapons over the past decade.

When we turn to the continuities, however, we cannot help but be struck by how much has not changed. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) remains the centerpiece of British security policy, particularly with the flexing of the alliance's muscles in Bosnia and Kosovo. Even if there is little explicit talk of a "special relationship" with the United States, British officials have--from the Gulf War to Kosovo to the largely forgotten war in Iraq--been careful to nurture Washington's expectation that Britain will "punch above its weight" when the military going gets tough. Similarly, even if the British strategic nuclear force is diminished according to certain statistical measures, it has endured into the post-Cold War world.

So, did the end of the Cold War matter for British defense policy? Although Lawrence Freedman's book does not explicitly set out to answer this question, it gives us many clues as to how best to address it. The book is a collection of articles--some [End Page 128] new, most previously published--written across this period. Freedman has been the most perceptive and articulate British academic commentator on the defense issues of those years. The articles range widely in scope and content: period pieces on prime ministers and their impacts on defense; broad, reflective essays on British strategic thinking; dissections of the government's periodic defense reviews from the early 1980s (just before the Falklands War) through 1998 (just before the Kosovo war); detailed commentaries on British nuclear policy; and explorations into aspects of British defense industrial policy via noted controversies, such as the Westland helicopter affair of the mid-1980s. It is a pity that Freedman has not provided a concluding chapter to pull together the meaning of these reflections for an understanding of the direction of British defense at the turn of the century.

What the collection does do extremely well is to elicit some prominent and recurrent themes from the transient political debates about defense. Of these themes, two in particular stand out in Freedman's analysis. The first, now universally acknowledged, is the mismatch between commitments and resources. Although there is no reason to believe that this is a distinctively British problem, it has been unusually vexed in the British context. This is partly because of the legacy of widespread imperial responsibilities that have been progressively discarded. Nonetheless, the same mismatch has persisted through the 1980s and 1990s, even though British military expenditures have generally averaged well above the NATO norm. Britain tends to do more because it has a history of doing so. But this theme cannot be understood in isolation from the second--namely, Britain's logic...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1531-3298
Print ISSN
1520-3972
Pages
pp. 128-130
Launched on MUSE
2001-01-01
Open Access
No
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