The United Kingdom ranked second most powerful country in the world


The ‘Audit of Geopolitical Capability 2019‘ reveals that, aside from China, the major Western democracies – not least the UK and US, as well as France, Germany and Japan – still hold a substantial lead over their emerging competitors.

Building on the ‘Audit of Geopolitical Capability’ from September 2017, the new studyfrom the Henry Jackson Society provides an assessment of the geopolitical capabilities of twenty major countries, drawn from the G20, with the addition of Nigeria. The organisation say that as more countries have been added, the original framework and methodology have had to be refined, all the data can be found here.

The Henry Jackson Society say that this updated Audit reorders geopolitical capability – the ability to overcome the ‘tyranny of distance’ and influence physical space, including counterparts located within that space – into a framework with four central attributes: ‘national base’, ‘national Structure’, ‘national instruments’ and “national resolve’.

According to the author James Rogers, the audit is a deliberately comprehensive study that measures the geopolitical capabilities available to the world’s major powers. It differs from other ranking systems in several ways:

  1. It includes a broad spectrum of capabilities, across several areas of national capacity, from the capacity of each major power’s projection forces to the scale of its sporting prowess (it does not only measure “soft power”, or global presence, etc.);
  2. It is not necessarily a ranking of countries’ warfighting capacity, even assuming that the major powers – especially those armed with nuclear weapons – could engage and prevail in such conflict. Rather, the Audit assumes prevailing geopolitical circumstances, where the major powers compete for influence in the “grey zone” between “peace” and “war”.
  3. Unlike other ranking systems it seeks to avoid ‘double-counting’ by including indices that overlap by using the same base data.

The result, say the Henry Jackson Society, is a model involving four attributes, 33 indicators and 1240 potential data observations, which offers the most comprehensive picture of the major powers’ geopolitical capabilities.

What are the results?

The headlines results are similar to the 2017 Audit, the US remains ‘by some margin the world’s only superpower’: it maintains the largest national base, the most extensive national structure, and has access to overwhelming national instruments, not least awe-inspiring military might says the study.

The key difference is that China has leapfrogged France to become the world’s third strongest power.

The audit also shows that once again that the UK – though far behind the US – still enjoys a lead over China (albeit less than in 2017), despite having access to a far smaller national base.

“Indeed, in 2019, the UK remains second only to the US in terms of overall geopolitical capability, with a particularly strong performance in relation to diplomatic leverage and national resolve.”

Branding the UK “a truly global power”, the rankings find Britain retains its “unique capacity to project and extend itself around the world”.

The audit also claims that Britain’s fundamental capacities have faced no “discernible impact from Brexit”.

“Boosted by its overseas investment, aid and military, the study ranks the UK ahead of both China and Russia; despite the respective regimes’ expansionist foreign policies. The audit finds that UK retains a military might greater than that of China and technological prowess far in advance of Russia.” 

However, it attributes much of the UK’s comparative power to its diplomatic, financial and cultural capabilities and links around the globe.

“Of the report’s nine key sub-categories, the UK is a top-five power in eight spheres. It is second in the world in five of those categories. Britain’s standing qualifies it as one of just three ‘global powers’, the second highest grading, according to the audit’s methodology. A ‘global power’ means that the UK is capable of projecting itself and defending its own interests anywhere on Earth. Russia meanwhile is a ‘regional’ power meaning it can only prosecute its objectives within its own regional surroundings.”

However, the study’s Chief Analyst, James Rogers, warns that this position may now be under serious threat from China. He warns that, by as soon as next year, China’s economic growth and naval investment could see it overtake the UK as a global power.

Just 0.4% separates the two nations after China added approximately 65,000 tonnes of large new warships to its fleet since 2016, comparable to around one fifth of the mass of the Royal Navy combat fleet.

HMS Queen Elizabeth, HMS Sutherland and HMS Iron Duke.

The study identifies a particular weakness in China’s five-point lead over the UK in “technological prowess” warning that – in the absence of “urgent remedial action” to boost Research and Development spending – the UK risks falling dangerously behind, warns the audit.

  • Superpower (80%-100%) – A country with a vast national base and enormous national structure, from which to generate overwhelming national instruments and resolve to project and extend itself and its interests – often comprehensively – around the world.
  • Global Power (50%-79.9%) – A country with a large national base and/or structure, from which to generate extensive instruments and resolve to project and extend itself and its interests – sometimes selectively – around the world.
  • Hemispheric Power (40%–49.9%) – A country with a significant national base and/or structure, from which to generate substantial instruments and resolve to defend itself and its interests, primarily within its own hemisphere.
  • Regional Power (30%-39.9%) – A country with a moderate national base and/or structure, from which to develop modest instruments and resolve to defend itself and its interests, primarily within its own region.
  • Local Power (below 30%) – A country with a lacking or unharnessed national base and/or structure, from which only weak or uneven instruments and resolve can be generated to try to defend itself and its interests, primarily within its own neighbouring areas.

The study advises that despite its smaller national base, the UK is the most ‘geopolitically-capable and well-rounded’ of the European major powers.

HMS Albion arrives in Oman.

“It has a robust capability portfolio from which to draw in the years ahead, particularly as it navigates withdrawal from the EU. In terms of national instruments – in which it leads overall – it has the largest diplomatic leverage and second-biggest military might (after Russia).

It has the largest military budget in the EU, while the Royal Navy, in terms of total displacement of large warships and auxiliaries, is larger than the navies of France, Italy and Germany combined. However, despite its inherent strengths, the UK needs to concentrate on developing a robust strategy in the years ahead to cultivate and mobilise its overall capability.”

A Vanguard class nuclear submarine carrying Trident nuclear weapons.

Other Western powers – France, Germany, Japan, Canada and Australia – score prominently, as the world’s fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth geopolitically most-capable countries, respectively. India – the world’s ninth leading power – has greater geopolitical capability than Russia, which in turn is only marginally ahead of industrious South Korea.

A closer look at the UK’s capabilities

The British Armed Forces comprise the Royal Navy, a blue-water navy with a comprehensive and advanced fleet; the Royal Marines, a highly specialised amphibious light infantry force; the British Army, the UK’s principal land warfare force; and the Royal Air Force, with a diverse operational fleet consisting of modern fixed-wing and rotary aircraft.

The country is a major participant in NATO and other coalition operations and is also party to the Five Power Defence Arrangements.

Recent operations have included Afghanistan and Iraq, peacekeeping operations in the Balkans and Cyprus, intervention in Libya and again operations over Iraq and Syria. Overseas defence facilities are maintained at Ascension Island, Belize, Brunei, Canada, Diego Garcia, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Kenya, Bahrain and Cyprus.

The UK still retains considerable economic, cultural, military, scientific and political influence internationally. It’s a recognised nuclear weapons state and its defence budget ranks fifth or sixth in the world. The country has been a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council since its inception.

The British Armed Forces place significant importance in the ability to conduct expeditionary warfare. While the armed forces are expeditionary in nature, it maintains a core of “high readiness” forces trained and equipped to deploy at very short notice, these include; the Joint Expeditionary Force (Maritime) (Royal Navy), 3 Commando Brigade (Royal Marines), 16 Air Assault Brigade (British Army) and No. 83 Expeditionary Air Group (Royal Air Force).

Typhoons in the Middle East.

Oftentimes, these will act in conjunction with a larger tri-service effort, such as the UK Joint Rapid Reaction Force, or along with like-minded allies under the UK Joint Expeditionary Force. Similarly, under the auspices of NATO, such expeditionary forces are designed to meet Britain’s obligations to the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps and other NATO operations.

In 2010, the governments of the United Kingdom and France signed the Lancaster House Treaties which committed both governments to the creation of a Franco-British Combined Joint Expeditionary Force. It is envisaged as a deployable joint force, for use in a wide range of crisis scenarios, up to and including high intensity combat operations. As a joint force it involves all three armed Services: a land component composed of formations at national brigade level, maritime and air components with their associated Headquarters, together with logistics and support functions.

What about Russia and China?

While you may have noticed their scores above, many will fail to and have only read the headline of this article. In 2017, we published an article regarding a previous report and were inundated with comments asking ‘What about Russia and China?’ as if the UK could only place so high with their omission (Seriously, have a look at the comments and tweets in response to this article being published)

“Since the last audit China has leapfrogged France in the ranking, and it has done so at the same time as its leadership has reaffirmed its commitment to being a one-party state. not yet a superpower alongside America, China’s trajectory is nevertheless clear, assuming growth is sustainable. Russia on the other hand, for all its military capability, languishes behind Canada and India.”

Well, I’ve decided to list their summaries below.

Russia – Although holding the largest national base and strongest military might – courtesy of the biggest defence budget in Europe and the world’s leading nuclear arsenal – Russia performs below the European average all other areas, apart from diplomatic leverage. Due to a lack of economic diversification, Russia’s economic clout – heavily dependent on the export of energy and raw materials – is smaller than that of Italy and only marginally better than that of Turkey, two countries with substantially smaller national bases. Meanwhile, it terms of cultural prestige and national resolve, Russia’s performance is dire, not least because the country’s authoritarian regime is corrupt, unruly and unresponsive. Without progressive political change, Russia is unlikely to reach the potential its national base could unleash.

Russian carrier Kuznetsov in the dry-sock that was recently heavily damaged.

China – With the world’s largest population and a national base second only to the uS, China has the potential not only to leave the uK trailing, but also to reach the top spot. However, China still has a long way to go: lacking in cultural prestige and national resolve – namely, the established freedoms needed to unleash and sustain a creative economy, combined with effective government – the country will be forced to confront an array of problems over the coming years if it wants to get its foot in the door of the superpower club.

A Chinese aircraft carrier, a converted Soviet vessel.

Why does the UK place ahead of both Russia and China in military terms in this study?

The key in this matter is that while countries like China for example have a larger military than the United Kingdom, it does not have the logistical capability to deploy, support and sustain those forces overseas in large numbers.

As the report outlines, raw manpower is not a particularly useful indicator of military capability or power. Without access to overseas military bases, warships, logistics vessels and transport aircraft, and so on, it would be hard to move military personnel beyond their respective homelands, rendering them all but useless except for national defence.

Professor Malcolm Chalmers, director of UK Defence Policy Studies at the renowned Royal United Services Institute, says Britain would have a clear advantage in a straight fight at an equidistant location. This was described in a 2011 Briefing Paper:

“The UK will never again be a member of the select club of global superpowers. Indeed it has not been one for decades. But currently planned levels of defence spending should be enough for it to maintain its position as one of the world’s five second-rank military powers (with only the US in the first rank), as well as being (with France) one of NATO-Europe’s two leading military powers. Its edge – not least its qualitative edge – in relation to rising Asian powers seems set to erode, but will remain significant well into the 2020’s, and possibly beyond.”

According to Business Insider, Chalmers has since expanded on this:

“I think my 2011 comment remains valid. If you take individual elements of front line military capability – air, sea, land — the UK armed forces continue to outmatch those of China in qualitative terms by some margin. The UK also has greater capabilities for getting the most out of these forces, through key enabling capabilities (command and control, intelligence, strategic transport).

Not least, the UK has greater capability than China for operating at range. China (and even more so other Asian powers) remain focused on their immediate neighbourhoods, with limited capabilities for power projection. This is likely to change over the next decade. For now, though, China would still be out-matched qualitatively in a ‘straight fight’ with the UK in an equidistant location (the south Atlantic? The Gulf?), and would be unable to mobilise a force big enough to outweigh this quality gap. China’s quantitative advantages would come into play in the event of a conflict in its own neighbourhood – and its qualitative weaknesses would be less important, though still significant. So my statement was never meant to imply that the UK could outmatch China off the latter’s own coastline.”

How does this compare with other studies?

The United Kingdom also scores highly in the Chinese ranking system called ‘Comprehensive National Power’, this is a putative measure, important in the contemporary political thought of the People’s Republic of China, of the general power of a nation-state.

In addition, a recent report titled ‘word’ report measuring economic, diplomatic and cultural clout has named the United Kingdom as the worlds top soft power. A copy of the report can be found here.

The ‘Soft Power 30’ index, first launched in 2015, measures a country’s soft power via objective data on six categories, such as government and culture, and international polling on seven other indicators. It was produced by communications consultancy Portland in partnership with the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy.

The UK was followed by France, Germany, the United States and Japan. Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, Netherlands and Australia rounded out the top 10.

The UK’s first-place finish was a “surprise” given how the negotiations for Brexit has had “little tangible progress”, the report wrote. As such, there are “huge question marks” over the UK’s future relationship with the European Union, its long-term global influence and its role in the world.

“Moreover, should the exit be a chaotic one, it is hard to see global public opinion on the UK remaining buoyant,” it added.

“The UK edges out France – only just – to take the top spot in this year’s Soft Power 30 index. The UK’s return to first place will no doubt come as a surprise to many analysts, commentators, and diplomats.

The past year has seen Brexit negotiations dominate headlines and consume virtually all of the government’s bandwidth with
little tangible progress made. As a result, there are huge question marks over the UK’s future relationship with the EU, its long-term global influence, and its role in the world. However, as of July 2018, the UK remains a member of the European Union, and thus nothing has changed in the objective data with respect to the
UK’s position in Europe.

For the UK, this year’s results are an encouraging sign that the nation still commands significant soft power clout. The UK’s soft power strengths continue to sit across the Engagement, Culture,
Education, and Digital sub-indices.”

Regarding the UK position, the report concludes:

“Where the UK goes from here is anyone’s guess. It is not clear if HM Government has a compelling vision for what Britain
will look like in five years’ time. Much remains to be done if the calls for “Global Britain” are to amount to anything more than a slogan. Intent must be matched with sufficient funding and resources, lest it become an empty branding exercise.

The UK can only rely on the success of the GREAT campaign for so long. As we approach March 2019, all of the as-yet-tobe-
answered questions on the UK’s future relationship with Europe and its role in the world will have to be addressed.”

Meanwhile, the US slipped one spot to be ranked fourth, due to “detrimental effects” of the Trump administration’s protectionist and nationalist approach to foreign policy, the report said.

“Last year, a very sharp decline in global perceptions of the US was reported in the polling data whereas this year objective metrics have also registered the erosion of American soft power,” the media release wrote, citing an “obvious fall” in the government category from twelfth to the sixteenth position.

Conclusions of the audit

Although the Audit is not intended to provide an instrument to ascertain the major powers’ ability to prevail over one another in a major military confrontation – insofar as direct armed confrontation between those that are nuclear-armed is even possible – it does offer an instrument to identify their various strengths and weaknesses, both in an internal and external context, under prevailing conditions.

Indeed, due to its unique framework and methodology, the Audit is constructed to account for the increasingly comprehensive nature of geopolitical competition, waged in the “grey zone” between “peace” and “war”, utilising a wide array of national capabilities.

James Rogers, the Audit’s Chief Analyst commented:

“The pervasive spread of neo-declinism in Britain is wholly without foundation. Brexit has had no discernible impact on the UK’s fundamental ability to apply itself around the World. Although the UK is likely to retain its leadership role in Europe, it is also increasingly wedded to the so-called ‘Anglosphere’ – further investment in groupings like the Five-Eyes could help cement its successes.

China’s rapidly expanding geopolitical capacity poses a serious challenge to the West. Over the past year, China has added tens of thousands of tonnes to its Navy and if current trends continue – it will overtake Britain as a global power by as soon as next year. If the rules-based order is breaking down, the UK should urgently invest in its armed forces’ projection capacities forward basing – not least in the Indo-Pacific region – if it seeks to halt this shift.

Urgent remedial action is also required – in 2019 – to secure Britain’s continued economic, industrial and technological leadership. Without significant new funding for Research and Development, the UK risks falling dangerously behind in the new technological race.”

The audit has shown that the UK – for all the difficulties thrown up by the intricacies of withdrawal from the EU – is still richly endowed with geopolitical capability across many different sectors.

“Because of its well-developed national structure and instruments, it still remains the world’s second-most capable power. Combined with its strong national resolve, it has the potential – at least – to be able to weather whatever political storms that come its way. The key questions are: does the UK have the vision, and strategy, to transform its capabilities into effective power, both during and following EU withdrawal?

In particular, does Britain have the will to allot more resources to research and development to uphold its innovativeness? Does it have the national resolve to allocate more to defence spending to maintain its status as a military power, not least as the international environment becomes more volatile and competitive?

And can the UK find a greater level of symbiosis between its cultural prestige – underpinned by a vibrant and independent civil society – and its national priorities and interests, particularly as command over strategic narratives has become central to the new age of global competition?”

Finally, the audit also shows that China – uniquely among the major powers that were trailing their Western counterparts only twenty years ago – ‘has caught and leap-frogged almost every other major power except for the UK and US (and it has even leapt over them in some areas)’, a copy of the report can be found here.


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