Island Power – What Different Approaches To Geopolitics By Ireland And Britain Tell Us About Security

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MARCH 17: The Empire State Building displays St. Patrick’s Day colors on March … [+]

Two of the important events last week were St Patrick’s Day, which saw Joe Biden and other senior American politicians devote most of their day to teleconferences with their Irish counterparts, and then the release of Britain’s strategic defense review (with an army upgrade plan coming on Monday), the headline item of which was an intention to increase Britain’s nuclear weapon stockpile.

These two islands off the western coast of Europe offer a lesson in the multiple forms of power. Britain is trying to recalibrate its place in the post Brexit, post globalized world order.

Ireland has been described by the Economist magazine as a ‘diplomatic superpower’ – I think ‘micro power’ is a better term. For example it now has a UN Security Council seat, runs influential economic roles in the EU and there is an Irish American in the White House.

Micro Power

For its diplomats, Brexit has been a success, if one thinks of the effort and guile they put into that process, and the resulting solidarity across European states on Brexit. They are talented in projecting Ireland abroad – for example a St Patrick’s Day promotional video featured President Biden, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Princess Tamakado of Japan and other notables.


This stock of soft power will come in useful, because militarily Ireland is very exposed. It thinks of soft power globally, but of security in a very limited sense geographically. Uniquely amongst small, developed neutral states like Finland and Switzerland, it cannot defend its neutrality (its army is made up of very capable though unhappy soldiers who are not well supported in terms of hardware), and that neutrality is compromised by Ireland’s ties to the US, to an extent its historical ties to the UK and the growing need for a fully-fledged EU army.

RAF to the rescue

Indeed, when Russian jets fly into Irish airspace, they are sometimes tailed by RAF fighter planes. When Russian submarines enter Irish waters, there is little that can be done. Ireland’s defence strategy is predicated on the fact that it is located in a quiet part of world.

In contrast, the British navy is still more than a match for that of Russia, and with France it has Europe’s best military force one under-remarked fact is that on 23 October 2019 whilst Brexit was being voted through, the British and French land, air and sea forces staged their closest cooperative exercise – Griffin Strike). In contrast to Ireland, Britain thinks of its security in a global, geographically ambitious way, but increasingly seems to conceive of its soft power in a local and more limited way.

The point of contrasting the cases of Britain and Ireland is not to say that one is safer or better than the other (not to mention Saturday’s rugby match), but rather to illustrate the way the debates on power and defence are changing. There are maybe four or five points to stress.


The first relates to how rigid or path dependent defense strategies are. Ireland never had an empire, has no ‘known’ enemies and has not been involved in major wars, and as such has no heavy defense infrastructure. Britain is quite different and like France has acquired a range of military competences and commitments (i.e. NATO, military alliances with Commonwealth countries) that are hard to cut back. Some of these competences such as codebreaking (Christopher Andrew’s ‘The Secret Game’ is excellent here) will provide the backbone for future capabilities.

This leads to the second point, and one emphasized in the British defence review (also worth mentioning a few good recent books on the British Army – Simon Akam’s ‘The Changing of the Guard’ and Ben Barry’s ‘Blood, Metal and Dust’), that while the nature of war continues down one existential (nuclear) path, it is becoming more ethereal (cyber and information wars) and less bounded in the sense that laws do not exist to cover cyber-attacks. This is exacerbated by the fact that many nations are pushing the boundary between agitation and outright conflict (such as Russia along its border with Norway, and the activities of Pakistani militants on India’s borders).

In the league table of cyber capabilities Britain ranks third after the US and China, and ahead of Russia and the Netherlands according to the Harvard Belfer Centre, and Ireland unlike say Estonia and Sweden, has little cyber capability. This field of conflict will grow in importance, and the implications of recent cyber infiltrations such as the Solarwinds attack (check out Nicole Perlroth’s new book) are not fully evident, nor can we rule out a high profile retaliation by the US for this (against Russia perhaps).

Cyber world

The USA is still the dominant power militarily and financially. That both Ireland and Britain have very close ties to it will complicate their respective diplomatic strategies in the sense that they will feel that they have to choose between the US and the EU in Ireland’s case (the optimal strategy for Ireland is to bridge them) and between the US and China in Britain’s case, with Hong Kong illustrative of this tension. Britain’s defence review names China as the most significant single state threat to it, but Boris Johnson has also pronounced himself as an enthusiastic Sinophile (some British companies, notably HSBC and Standard Chartered, are being forced to take sides).

If Britain still has heavyweight military capabilities, Brexit has left it with a soft power deficit – most visibly with its close European neighbours. In contrast Ireland is a soft power player that faces a largely unacknowledged need to upgrade its hardware deficit in the areas of drone capacity, military aircraft, cybersecurity and financial infrastructure security to name a few areas.

There is much I have not covered in this short note, such as the areas where the security of Ireland and Britain are intertwined – fighting organized crime and gang activities, their joint stewardship of the Good Friday Agreement, and the implications of potential events such as Scottish independence – much of the delivery capability of Britain’s nuclear deterrent is based in Scotland (much of the SNP are anti-nuclear), not to mention a range of airbases.

Further afield, the issue of security will become more prominent – with issues such as the future role (or not) of Germany as a security power, food security, the cyber vulnerability of South America and the rise of new military tactics (such as drone warming attacks on naval vessels) becoming more widely discussed.

Time to fasten your seatbelts as they say

follow me on @levellingbook

I am the author of a book called The Levelling which points to what’s next after globalization and puts forward constructive ideas as to how an increasingly fractured


Recommended Articles