and when digging deeper into the Review, this understanding becomes more pronounced.
This essay therefore undertakes three tasks. First, it presents two case studies of the UK relationship with small states explicitly mentioned in the Review (the Netherlands and Norway) to highlight the way these actors support or challenge the declared defence and security priorities. Second, it widens the scope to consider the broader strategic implications of two of the most prominent emergent themes in the document; namely, nuclear proliferation and sustainable development. Finally, it identifies areas where the UK can afford to be even more ambitious in pursuit of its goals by learning lessons from innovative small state proposals that, contrary to Wilson’s misperception, will bolster its efforts to be a world power and world influence today.
UK-Netherlands Relations: Close Partnership with a Small State
To begin by considering small states that have been afforded explicit attention in the Review, the Netherlands is notably mentioned twice, and with good reason. Its trade relationship with the UK spans 400 years, and today it is both the UK’s fourth largest trading partner and its largest importer of UK oil (accounting for 41% of all exports in the first half of 2020). However, it is not only economics that drive the close ties between the countries. Former Dutch Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Simon Smit, poignantly explained that, ‘Culture plays a pivotal role in bridging the narrow sea that divides us’. There is much in common between the two ‘North-Sea Neighbours’, both of which are constitutional monarchies, liberal democracies (albeit with a long and contentious history of imperialism), founding members of NATO, naval powers with overseas territories in the Caribbean, and proponents of common values. The latter were encapsulated by former Dutch European Commissioner, Frits Bolkestein, as, ‘long-standing and deeply-rooted democratic tradition, the Atlantic outlook, the free market orientation, and two large multinationals, Shell and Unilever, with a common Dutch-British origin’.
Given the close relationship between the two countries, bilateral cooperation remains important for both economies, as well as their defence and security interests. Exemplifying this fact, in 2017, the UK and the Netherlands signed a joint vision statement pledging enhanced cooperation on security and defence policy, including addressing hybrid threats, cyber security and counter-terrorism efforts. To enable tactical and operational effectiveness at the joint level, the armed forces continue to work closely together. For instance, the Royal Navy and the Royal Netherlands Navy are continually involved in joint exercises, training and professional exchange programmes, share and standardise equipment, and align doctrine to enable interoperability. This is not only set to continue, but the importance of the Netherlands to future UK ambitions, particularly the Review’s ‘tilt to the Indo-Pacific’ (p.60), has gained greater prominence with the integration of a Dutch Frigate into the UK Carrier Strike Group’s first deployment, which embarked from the North Atlantic in May 2021, and is currently on route through the Mediterranean and Indian Oceans, then onwards to the Indo-Pacific. The inclusion of the Dutch – the only foreign ally, apart from the United States – is a testament to the close defence relationship between the two countries. As articulated by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace: ‘Our NATO, JEF and European Ally’s commitment signals the Carrier Strike Group’s contribution to collective defence and credible deterrence. This joint deployment will offer a unique opportunity for our forces to integrate and operate together in support of truly shared global defence and security challenges’, thereby signalling the importance of smaller partners to realise the ambitions of ‘Global Britain’.
At the same time, the picture is not entirely rosy. Whilst the Integrated Review’s references to improving interoperability with Euro-Atlantic allies through multilateral groupings such as the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force, to which the Netherlands contributes actively, and the reaffirmation of UK commitment to leadership in NATO (p.72), are welcome signals of commitment to the collective security that small states champion, this has not wholly cushioned the sore blow dealt by Brexit, the long-term repercussions of which are yet to play out. The Netherlands was particularly disappointed by the Brexit referendum outcome, given that the first Vice-President of the European Commission, Dutch politician Frans Timmermans, had fought hard to prevent the departure of a European Union member state whom the Dutch relied on to counterbalance the federalist and integrationist inclinations of the French and Germans.