Thursday, 19 May 2016

The Excessive Power Doctrine

The other day I ended up disappearing down a rabbit warren of twitter feeds until I ended up coming across this article entitled "The Fate of Britain: offshore balancing and Brexit".

It interested me predominantly because I'm familiar with the concept that they referred to as "offshore balancing" (and no, it has nothing to do with accounting), except that the idea was introduced to me as the "Excessive Power Doctrine". I forget precisely when this happened, but I think it was about ten years or so ago. I also forget precisely where I was introduced to this idea. It might have been through the excellent book "The History of the British Navy" by Michael Lewis, though I confess I haven't re-read it in years (copies running second hand on Amazon right now for as little as 33p. Easily worth several times that. Mine's a 1962 original, former library copy, so you can guess what sort of state it's in).

In a nutshell the Excessive Power Doctrine has a simple aim; to prevent any one country - or alliance of countries - on the European continent from achieving a position of "excessive power" which could threaten the UK and its interests.

It interests me for the same reason that I suspect the War on the Rocks site is interested in it, or their "offshore balancing" version of it, that being how the concept would be affected by a UK exit from the European Union. First though we really need to establish what is meant by "excessive power", and how the UK has historically prevented entities from achieving it.

The concept is very similar really to the political fear of a politician or political body gaining a position of excessive power, whereupon either one individual or a group of individuals begin to wield an excessive amount of sway and influence over a country. Or a Tyranny, as its more commonly known. The entire system of US government is built from the ground up to prevent just such an occurrence, with power deliberately divided between the legislative branch, executive branch and judicial branch, allowing these groups to act as natural checks and balances against one another. People often complain that Washington politics is cumbersome and requires a large amount of cross party support to get anything done without realising that that is precisely the result that was desired when the system was first designed.

The excessive power doctrine took a slightly more blunt approach, replacing committees, hearings, vetos and voting districts with powder and treasure. The goal was the same though, to stop anyone or anything from achieving a position of dominance that would threaten the UK. This could be achieved by anything from commercial and diplomatic means, proxy wars, down to outright open warfare involving the UK itself. Whatever the means, the goal was always the same. The target and the allies frequently changed however.

Take France for example. If France and Scotland are the "auld alliance", then the UK and France are the "auld enemies". In the middle ages it was mostly about who owned which chunks of northern and south-western France. From the 1700s onwards it was more about who owned which chunks of the world. Specifically the UK went to great lengths to not only curtail French interests and influence overseas, but also to curtail its interests and influence over Europe. The rise of Napoleon brought about a series of alliances between other European powers, many of them funded by the UK, to try and keep France in check. British soldiers even went to war on the continent to help prevent a French hegemony.

A hundred years after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, French and British soldiers found themselves standing in the mud of flanders once more. Only this time they weren't opposite each other other, rather they were standing side by side against Germany, a situation which would be repeated less than thirty years later. And while the UK had sought out countries like Russia and Austria as allies against Napoleon, against Germany it found an ally in Russia and an enemy in Austria, only for the two to switch places as the cold war descended over Europe. 

It's sometimes said that nations do not have allies, only interests. The UK is probably a prime example of that. Having partnered with and gone to war with all manner of countries over the years, with ally and enemy being frequently interchangeable, the only thing that has stayed constant has been the desire to maintain UK interests. And the need to prevent anyone in Europe from achieving a position of "excessive power" has been dominant among these interests for almost 300 years.

So how does all this relate back to the European Union? Well many believe that the UK will see its influence in Europe wane if we leave, as it essentially opts to sit in its little castle behind its moat and watch as Europe goes about its business. I actually think the reverse might be true. Indeed it might actually be one of the most influential moments in the history of the EU. Because the EU is a club, and like all clubs it can only retain members if they see some advantage to being in it. A thriving UK on the outside, freed from the spectre of ever closer union and with the liberty to cut deals and make laws as it choses could offer a tempting glimpse to other countries about what it would be like if they made their own exit. Portugal, Spain, Greece and Italy among others would surely be paying close attention.

And if we're being brutally honest it might actually benefit the UK immensely if the EU did begin to crumble, at least as a political entity. NATO is, and will remain, the UK's greatest bulwark against the threat of an excessively powerful EU. But I'm interested to see how the UK government will manage this issue in the event of the annoyingly titled "Brexit". Will they leave the EU largely to its own devices, or will we start seeing more and more visits by government ministers and officials to have closed chats with the Prime Ministers of a variety of disgruntled nations?

What interesting times we live in...

(For those that are interested, you can find me on Twitter @defencewithac . I'm off to read the Armed Forces Continuous Attiudes Survey. From the summary it doesn't look like good news).


  1. I read the article and while finding it reasonable well balanced, I have to agree with you Chris and disagree with its conclusion. Personally i think in many respects the fall of the E.U would actually be in the UK's long-term interests and should be their goal, despite the short-term turmoil. My view is that the policies of the E.U have been severely damaging to both European society and economic progress, while due to its undemocratic nature it is not being held to account leading to discontent. For all the talk about the E.U providing security and peace due to the interdependence of the separate national economies this ignores the fact that countries have had civil wars. This risk is massively increased in a undemocratic state where the people can't enact change in another way. I'd also point to the flawed arguement on terrorism and how the E.U is sharing intelligence. If you take a look your see that most of the intelligence is just mass gathering of data on its citizens and not actually effective intelligence on suspected terrorists, are we really to assume that should E.U member states become aware of a terrorist attack being planned in the UK they would just allow it to occur.

    While there is a risk of the E.U using its power against the UK in such a way that is not in their best interest, we must question how much influence that will bring. We should not forget that the UK is a well connected country that has fostered good relations around the world, have a strong military, nuclear weapons and a seat on the UN security council. Assuming there is the appetite within the E.U to bully the UK this would have international consequences and would be frowned upon, everyone loves an underdog! Using the UK's international connections they would be able to mitigate this risk. Also I personally think there is a greater risk of the E.U being able to use its power/influence to take actions that are damaging to the UK, while being a member of the European state due to majority voting(of course by bureaucrats not the people.) Just look at the UK fishing industry as an example.

    Chris if your looking for something to write, why not have a look at the continued expansion of NATO, now 29 members, eastwards and ever closer to Russia and why its they and not the west that have reason to be afraid. Or how we spend millions on building/designing a weapon to fire from a platform and billions building/designing said platform to need to spend millions to put the two together.

    1. Cheers for stopping by and leaving a comment anon,

      As for forthcoming stuff, I have a mountain of old drafts where I kept summarising an idea in one sentence and then not finishing it. And then when I sit down and read them now I often forget what I was thinking about at the time without the context! But I remember enough of them to give me some stuff to work on for a while.

      If you run back through some of my previous articles I've had some procurement moans and agree that NATO has little to fear in general from Russia.