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Smart muddling through: rethinking UK national strategy beyond Afghanistan



    1. Professor of International Security at the University of Bath.
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    1. Professor of International Security at King's College London (Joint Services Command and Staff College) and is an Associate Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House.
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    • The analysis, opinions and conclusions expressed or implied in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Joint Services Command and Staff College, the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence or any other government agency.

  • This is the fifth article in a series for International Affairs by Paul Cornish and Andrew M. Dorman commenting on UK national strategy. The previous four were: ‘Blair's wars and Brown's budgets: from Strategic Defence Review to strategic meltdown in less than a decade’, International Affairs 85: 2, March 2009; ‘National defence in the age of austerity’, International Affairs 85: 4, July 2009; ‘Breaking the mould: the United Kingdom Strategic Defence Review 2010′, International Affairs 86: 2, March 2010; ‘Dr Fox and the philosopher's stone: the alchemy of national defence in the age of austerity’, International Affairs 87: 2, March 2011.


One of the first steps taken by the newly elected Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government was to initiate a review of the national strategy of the United Kingdom. The review culminated in October 2010 in the publication of a revised National Security Strategy as well as a new Strategic Defence and Security Review. With the benefit of over twelve months of hindsight, this article is concerned with the formulation, the implementation and the longer-term implications of the 2010 strategy review. The first part of the article assesses the review as a national strategic plan. What were the strategic challenges addressed by the review, what decisions, judgements and misjudgements were made, and what was overlooked? In part two the authors turn to operational matters: how far was the UK's post-review strategic experience (i.e. in Afghanistan and Libya) consistent with the decisions and promises made in 2010? Part three discusses the review as a public statement of national policy, gauging the impression it has made on the national strategic narrative since 2010: how was the review received, what reputation has it acquired and what was/is the quality of the debate surrounding it? Finally, in part four the article asks what the 2010 review and its aftermath reveal of the formulation and implementation of national strategy in the United Kingdom. Was the 2010 review simply the latest in a long series of attempts by government to find a convincing and durable compromise between security challenges and national resources? Or was the review the beginning of something different altogether? Could UK national strategy henceforth be more of an adaptive, iterative process than a compressed period of analysis and reflection followed by the publication of a policy statement with an inevitably brief shelf-life?