A Power for the future? Global Britain and the future character of conflict

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This article explores how the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence's (MoD) institutional vision of the potential future character of conflict is reflected in current defence policy decision-making and future force development planning. On the face of it, institutional arrangements in the MoD suggest that the results of ‘horizon-scanning’ and ‘futures’ analysis guide long-term defence planning in the design and development of the UK's future military roles and force structure. Our analysis points to the opposite. It suggests that it is the unchallenged assumption that the UK will remain a ‘Tier One’ defence power capable of deploying military power on a global scale and the MoD's long-term planning cycle that shape long-range forecasts of the future operating environment, rather than the other way round. Our explanation for this inversion is derived from the ‘New Institutionalism’ approach to public policy analysis. In taking this approach, we suggest that the outcomes of UK defence policy formation are strongly influenced by path dependency in the form of baked-in institutional ideas about the ‘appropriate’ role of Britain as a military power (‘what should be done’), along with historical capability investments underpinning UK defence that are costly to reverse (‘what can be changed’). By extension, we argue that if these embedded path dependencies explain the development of previous and current UK defence policy, then it should come as no surprise that the current ends, ways and means in UK defence are projected forward in the MoD's institutional view of potential future operating environments, resulting in limited change within established paths.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)801-816
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Affairs
Issue number4
Early online date7 Jun 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2019


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