Britain is still the world’s second naval power, and it is up to us to uphold the law of the sea
The UK’s presence in the Black Sea isn’t a provocation, but defence of the international order
Daniel Hannan 26 June 2021 •
Britain has a permanent interest in open sea-lanes. We live on a set of islands, and depend on the constant flow of containers through Felixstowe, Grimsby, Belfast, Southampton and Liverpool. We have a permanent interest, too, in the principle that borders should not be altered by force.
That is the short answer to those who ask why we sent a Royal Navy vessel to the waters off Crimea – a territory occupied by Russia, but considered Ukrainian by the rest of the world.
Russia responded to the presence of HMS Defender with predictable bellicosity, buzzing her with jets and lobbing ordnance nearby. The presence of British journalists on board the warship prompted some commentators to ask whether the whole exercise was a set-up, a flaunting of our machismo, an exercise in Johnsonian jingoism.
In fact, it was an assertion of the right to free navigation from which all countries benefit, Britain more than most. It was a defence of the international order, a reminder that facts on the ground do not automatically trump the rule of law, and a sign that Britain is still prepared to act as a global adult.
When critics complain of jingoism, they possibly speak truer than they know. The word has its origins in Russo-Turkish war of 1877, which provoked widespread concern in Britain that the Tsar would seize the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, turning the Black Sea into a Russian lake and closing it to international shipping.
Those concerns found expression in a popular musical hall song:
“We don’t want to fight, but by Jingo if we do,
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too.
We’ve fought the Bear before, and while we’re Britons true,
The Russians shall not have Constantinople!”
The song, in other words, is about deterrence: about being ready to make a proportionate show of force so that you don’t actually have to fight. Which is broadly what happened. As the Russians marched on Constantinople in 1878, Britain sent a fleet. The Russians duly halted their advance, and the straits remained open to international shipping. Jingoism, if you like, worked.
The fact that it worked for Disraeli does not, of course, automatically make it the right strategy today. There are several questions to consider. Should we still think of Russia as an adversary? Do we continue to have interests in the Black Sea? Are we, these days, in a position to police the world’s oceans? Might some other country or coalition of countries do the job better?
Let’s take those questions in order. First, Russia. These days, there is no geostrategic reason to treat Russia as a threat. We need no longer fear a Russian attack on India, the menace that haunted our Victorian ancestors. In the mid-twentieth century, AJP Taylor argued that Russia, because it was also a semi-European country, was Britain’s natural partner, a theory advanced in a slightly different form by Enoch Powell.
What both men failed to take into account was the nature of the regime in the Kremlin. Although Russia qua Russia might have had no quarrel with us, Soviet Communism most certainly did. So, sadly, does Vladimir Putin, whose agents have twice killed people living here under the Queen’s peace – technically an act of war.
Putin’s goals are not the same as Lenin’s. He does not aim to replicate his regime around the world or to spread revolution. Although, like most Russians, he feels the phantom pain of the amputated republics, Putin’s revanchism is limited and local.
His goal is not to re-establish a Russian presence in Afghanistan or East Germany. Rather, it is to pick regular fights with the West so as to keep his people in a state of constant anxiety and wounded patriotism. Even autocrats depend on a measure of genuine public support, and Putin knows that a naval clash off the Crimean coast boosts the siege mentality on which his regime rests.
So why give him what he wants? Because our elemental interest in maritime freedom matters more than whatever propagandist use RT makes of the encounter.
It is fair to point out that we became sticklers for marine laws only as our power grew. In the sixteenth century, we were privateers, cheerfully disregarding the international agreements negotiated by Continental states. In the seventeenth, we sought to wrest naval supremacy from the Dutch arguing, among other things, that their ships should salute ours in acknowledgment of our “sovereignty of the seas”. But by the eighteenth we had worked out we would benefit from a global order in which civilian shipping went unmolested and trade flourished.
Since then, we have been the foremost defenders of the laws of the sea and other maritime conventions. If any country can be said to have written the rules, we did.
It is true, of course, that we are no longer the blue-water power we once were. But let’s not lose our sense of perspective. When it comes to the ability to project naval force, we are second only to the United States.
When you tot up all the overseas territories that make up our extended archipelago, we are responsible for 4.2 million square miles of ocean – an area around twice the size of India or 30 times the size of the UK. With global insurance, law and shipping headquartered in London, we have an obvious interest in maintaining a peaceful international order.
We are not alone in wanting peaceful commerce, obviously. Most Western countries share that objective. And, indeed, France and Germany occasionally make a point of sending one of their warships along vital shipping routes.
But France and Germany were even last week seeking to draw the EU closer to Russia, to the consternation of its more easterly member states. When Germany decided to go ahead with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, to the horror of the United States, it signalled that, when it comes to containing Russia, the Anglosphere must take the lead.
Let’s be clear about what is involved. Whether it is sending HMS Defender to Crimea or HMS Queen Elizabeth to the South China Sea, we need to be prepared to follow through. Regular and repeated voyages signal strength. A one-off journey signals weakness. Restoring a presence in distant oceans represents a return to our traditional blue-water vocation.
After 1945, we had good reasons to focus on Western Europe. But that era was, in the run of our history, highly unusual. As we turn our eyes once more to the high seas, we should be aware of the responsibilities and of the costs. But, if not us, who?