Following the changing of the guard in the United Kingdom with a new prime minister and cabinet, Downing Street has confirmed that it will join the United States-led naval mission in the Gulf to secure freedom of navigation and to protect vessels from Iranian interdiction and hijacking operations.
While the British announcement will certainly bolster American efforts to increase pressure on Iran, the reality is that it will have minimal impact at sea as the once formidable Royal Navy is exposed as having far too few ships, with far too few of them deployable at any given time.
With Brexit chewing into much of the national will, and Britain struggling to maintain its gravitas and prestige in a changing international system, the “special relationship” between the US and the UK will probably not be enough to adequately police the Gulf without European assistance.
The Royal Navy has seen better days
Britain once oversaw and ruled over an empire “on which the sun never sets”, and much of its success was due to the pivotal role the Royal Navy played. It became the most powerful naval force in the world in the mid-18th century and remained that way until the US Navy eclipsed it some two centuries later.
As primarily a maritime empire, the unquestioned and unchallenged strength of the Royal Navy over approximately two centuries is staggering and impressive, particularly when assessed in light of competing imperial powers who could not keep up. It allowed Britain to influence or outright control territories as far from the British Isles as the Americas to the west and India to the east. This is the origin to the patriotic song “Rule, Britannia” with reference to Britannia ruling the waves.
However, today, we are a long way away from the former greatness of the Royal Navy. Due to intensive cuts that began after the British Empire began to unravel following the Second World War, and Britain’s role as a global power being sapped by the new western superpower, the United States, the Royal Navy is a shadow of its former self. In the present day, it fields six destroyers and 13 frigates, and only a few of them can be deployed at any given time.
Given the escalations with Iran and the tit-for-tat mutual interception and seizing of oil tankers, when the announcement was made that the Royal Navy would be “doubling” its presence in the Gulf to protect UK-flagged vessels, some took this to be a massive escalation.
Britain is indeed doubling its presence, by adding a destroyer, HMS Duncan, to the existing fleet of one frigate, the HMS Montrose. Two ships to patrol the entire Gulf is hardly naval dominance.
I am confident the Iranian navy and vessels operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will be laughing at the relative impotence displayed by what was once until very recently the world’s pre-eminent naval power.
US alliance-building compromised
But this is precisely the point behind Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to get behind US President Donald Trump’s naval alliance to police the Gulf. While the previous British government had floated the idea of a European naval force, the staunchly pro-Brexit Johnson government has made it clear that it will stand behind the White House which has also called upon its other European allies to step up and help secure commercial shipping.
However, this is unlikely to happen in the current climate of Trumpian isolationism and a distinct lack of appetite for military action in Washington. On the one hand, European powers such as France and Germany are still committed to the dead in the water Iran nuclear deal and want to find various ways to sidestep Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign to keep it alive.
On the other hand, these same European powers know that it is highly unlikely that the US will go to war with Iran, which would be a highly destabilising event, and so, therefore, feel comfortable in continuing to pull their policy in the opposite direction.
This push-pull policy dynamic between once close allies has exposed how utterly fragile American alliance and coalition building has become. While it is easy to scapegoat Trump for the present climate of intra-western distrust, this process began in 2003 when then-President George W Bush pushed the western alliance to the brink by pursuing the disastrous invasion of Iraq. While everyone could agree Saddam Hussein was bad news, it was and still is a tough sell to say that an entire country should have been obliterated just to get rid of him.
Bush’s successor, President Barack Obama, then proceeded to alienate regional allies and indeed populations by cosying up to Iran while doing little about its expansionist agenda in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere. He also allowed Russia to get away with bullying Georgia, annexing the Crimea and fracturing Ukraine, and did nothing to support Turkey when it stood up to Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s provocations, forcing Ankara to reorient toward Moscow.
Within this context, Trump is merely a big exclamation mark on more than fifteen years of policy failures leading to an overall American decline. The confrontation with Iran in the Gulf is now highlighting the fissures within the US-dominated international system, and rising powers like Russia and China will be keeping a close eye on how Washington deals with its problem in Tehran.
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