John Redwood: Our energy policy should start with keeping the lights on and the factories powered up

20 Sep

Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

We are living with a desperate shortage of energy. Successive governments and Ministers have ignored the need to ensure adequate supplies of electricity and primary fuels in their passion to close down and move out of coal, oil and gas as quickly as possible. Now we are caught up in a worldwide gas shortage, with fertiliser factories closed – and a Business Secretary summoning a meeting to ask what can be done to limit the spreading damage.

The Business Secretary knows enough economics to understand that, if gas is in short supply, the last thing that would help the UK procure more of it would be a series of price controls over those who dare to buy it on the world market and could sell it here.

We will not like it, but these now unruly global gas markets are controlled by Russia, the USA, and various Middle Eastern countries that have a surplus to export. They do not currently have a big enough surplus to need to take low bids.

The EU is already complaining that Russia is driving prices higher by restricting her large export supply. Why, then, did Germany make the world gas position worse by deciding to centre their energy policy on a further major addition to their pipeline capacity to import gas from Russia, ensuring their reliance on this source? They were warned by both Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden, as well as other alliesm not to make this obvious mistake.

The UK, too, has made itself far too dependent on energy imports. I have been warning government for years that we need to do more to generate additional power and extract more primary energy at home, endowed as we are with liberal reserves of oil, gas and coal and with access to water power and biomass.

The Business Secretary could do more than pose as concerned at his meeting if he puts in train work to find longer-term solutions to our chronic dependence on unreliable overseas sources of energy. He could ask why the Rough Field gas store was closed down, greatly reducing our stocks of gas which we now need. He should bring in more gas storage. He could review North Sea oil and gas policy, and see how the industry can be encouraged to tap more reserves from our own fields. He should keep the remaining coal power stations available with secure coal supplies for them, until there is sufficient greener power available to replace them on a reliable basis.

He should know that, at exactly the same time as we hit a world gas shortage, the UK electricity supply is under extreme stress. The remaining three coal power stations have been fired up, because there has been a marked shortage of wind for some weeks.

In recent years I have been wearing my keyboard out raising with Ministers and the wider public the issue of our need for more reliable electrical power to keep the lights on. The overriding preference for wind power was bound to leave us vulnerable to periods of calm weather.

If these coincide with cold winter days, the consequences could be disastrous. A modern sophisticated economy needs electrical power for most things. How would food factories keep working, vulnerable people stay warm at home, hospitals look after patients without sufficient power? It is particularly worrying that the current shortage takes place against a background of limited demand thanks to mild weather. The cool summer in the south did not help, as heating thermostats were triggering as late as May and even in August, needing more gas-fired power even then.

The UK’s passion for imported electricity has further weakened our position. The French interconnector in Kent was badly burned this week, taking out a potential imported supply of top up power which we rely too much on. We may discover soon that, if the shortages worsen, overseas suppliers will see exporting to us as an easy cut to make to husband their own limited supplies for domestic use.

When electricity was first privatised, we made security of supply the prime issue in the new system. There was a substantial margin of extra domestic capacity available to bring on stream if one or more of the baseload generating plants had problems. We did not need imports.  We made price the second important issue, with a system which always ensured the next cheapest power was brought on stream as demand picked up. In the early years of privatisation we both had plenty of capacity at home, and experienced falling prices. The dash for gas, with many new combined cycle gas plants going in, took feedstock from a healthy UK North Sea and replaced some older less fuel efficient and dirtier coal capacity, so the policy was also green.

Today, the Business Secretary needs to review the complex mesh of subsidies, regulations, penalty taxes and import arrangements that passes for an energy policy. It is delivering a shortage of power. It is holding up a good industrial strategy, as industrial expansion needs access to plenty of reliable competitively priced anergy. It is now threatening consumers with much higher electricity and gas prices.

He should order changes that will open up more UK primary energy for us to use. He should want an electricity system that has more reliable renewable power which may take the form of hydro, pump storage and battery, but which also has enough back up capacity from biomass or gas, so we can be sure to keep the factories powered up.

Elimination of our dependence on imported electricity and a substantial reduction in our dependence on imported gas should be a minimum objective. The market would do this if it were allowed to function but, because of the comprehensive muddle of government-inspired past interventions, it now needs dramatic government action to put it right for the future.

In the meantime, we rely on the goodwill of the gas and electricity exporters and will have to pay up to secure supplies. It is the perfect storm, with both gas and electricity scarce. At home, an absence of wind leaves us short, and abroad Hurricane Ida closed down some important US gas capacity. Relying on the wind is a dangerous way of living.

AUKUS and the Indo-Pacific. A tilt to it, yes. A lunge, no.

20 Sep

In a chapter of their book on Britain’s defence capability, White Flag, our proprietor and Isabel Oakeshott describe “Operation Tethered Goat”.  It sets how in the event of a Russian incursion a small NATO force would attempt to defend a 65-mile stretch of the Polish-Lithuanian border “straddled ominously by Kaliningrad to the west and the Russian satrapy of Belarus on the east.”

“If Russia were to attempt to close the gap, NATO’s only option would be to punch north with the US-led brigade based here. Until then, it would be up to the Baltic states to hold their ground, supported by small detachments of NATO forces stationed inside their borders.

“One of those forces would be headed by a small but fierce battalion of UK troops stationed in Tapa, Estonia. Some 800 troops from the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh are here, supported by smaller deployments from other member states”.  The isolation and vulnerability of our troops gives rise to the operation’s grim nickname.

This is the background against which to see the Americo-British-Australian deal over nuclear-powered submarines, the wounded reaction of France, and the new security pact between the two countries: AUKUS.

Further war in eastern Europe is relatively unlikely, for all the recent tangle between Russia and Ukraine.  But were it to happen, it would directly affect Britain and the alliance on which our security has depended for the best part of three-quarters of a century: NATO.  It would be war in our back yard.

Conflict in the South China is perhaps more likely, but would affect the UK less directly.  We wouldn’t be bound by our NATO obligations to participate.  And whatever may be said of the South China Sea, it is not in our neighbourhood.

None of which is to say that either the new deal or the pact is a bad thing.  Their core for us is the transfer of material – including in “cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and undersea capabilities”, as Boris Johnson put it last week – not that of troops, for all the recent journey of the Carrier Strike Group to the South China Sea.

As he went on to say, “this project will create hundreds of highly skilled jobs across the UK, including in Scotland, the north of England and the midlands,” including perhaps the Red Wall-ish areas of Barrow and Derby.

The deal also shows how fast time moves and frail attention spans can be.  Only a month ago, Joe Biden’s sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan raised the prospect of an isolationist America withdrawing into itself.  Any prudent British government should be alert to the possibility and what it could mean for the future of Europe.

AUKUS is a sign that, whatever else might happen elsewhere, the United States is commited to the Indo-Pacific and that, as in Afghanistan, there is continuity between what Donald Trump did and what Biden is doing.

There has been a startling shift there in attitudes to America within the last five years or so – just as there has been one here since David Cameron declared a new “golden age” in Anglo-Sino relations.  That was before Brexit.  Of which there is a point to be made about the pact and the deal.

In the wake of Biden’s Afghanistan decision, Remain obsessives raised our exit from the EU, suggesting that it was responsible for Johnson failing to persuade Biden to delay the withdrawal, because Washington no longer listens to us.

Never mind that Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel took much the same position.  The boot is now on the other foot.  Some of our fellow Leavers argue that were it not for Brexit, Britain would never have abandoned France for America and Australia – just as, were it not for our exit from the EU, the Government wouldn’t have summoned up the nerve to get on with our own Covid vaccine programme.

Like other counter-factuals, this one is unprovable.  And the lure of new jobs, plus the tug of Anglo-American and Anglo-Australian relations, might have been enough to lure some other Prime Minister in an EU member Britain to make the same decision.

What can safely be said is that our relationship with America carries on as before, regardless of Brexit, and that Britain remains a member of the UN Security Council, the G7, NATO, the Commonwealth, and is one of Europe’s two armed powers, a top five aid donor, and in the top ten influential nations list on any reckoning.  All of which Leavers spelt out during the referendum campaign.

The Global Britain slogan has been ridiculed but, whatever one’s view of leaving the EU, it touches on a fundamental reality which AUKUS, that G7 membership, that Security Council presence and all the rest of it helps to illustrate.

Liz Truss is straight out the traps banging that drum, but it is worth pondering Global Britain, as suits that spherical image, in the round.  Europe is part of the globe.  It is a lot closer to us than Australia, if not in kinship than at least in distance.  And, as we have seen, a conflict in our continental hinterland would disturb us more immediately than one in an Asian sea.

Which takes us to France, and an entente that at present isn’t all that cordiale.  It’s scarcely unknown for Macron to withdraw its ambassadors when piqued: in recent years, they were brought home from Italy and Turkey.

But he will be very bruised, not least because the deal and the pact seem to have been firmed up in private between the three powers during the recent G7, while he was talking up France’s relationship with America (plus its interests in the Indo-Pacific), and taking potshots at Britain over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The real-life cast of The Bureau – i.e: the French intelligence services – may have been asleep on the job, and there is certain to be an inquest.  British crowing at the Gallic cockerel’s embarrassment is inevitable.

But while your own neighbour next door may eventually move out, France won’t be going anywhere, and it isn’t in our interest for this complex relationship to cool further.  France is our only major military partner in Europe (and elsewhere: see Mali), a top five trading one, home to up to 400,000 Brits, the source of most of those channel boats, and tortously intertwined with our culture and history.

Nord 2 has brought Germany closer to Putin’s orbit.  The former’s election takes place soon.  Whatever the result, France will feel the tug from Germany, as will the whole EU.  We don’t want to see the latter plump itself up as a potential rival to NATO.  But it would help us, America, and Europe itself for our neighbours – bearing that Russian presence in mind – to spend more on defence.

Their unwillingness to do so (Mark Francois recently set out the figures on this site), Germany’s passivity and a certain strain in French thinking suggests a drift into the Russian orbit.

De Gaulle’s ambivalence about the old Soviet Union, on which he blew cool post-war and warmer later on, had its roots in a French cultural antagonism to America and periods of alliance with Russia.  The ghost of the General will believe that AUKUS proves him right: that when push comes to shove, Britain will always throw its lot in with its American cousins.

We should turn a new page with France, or at least try to  – and remember that while a tilt to the Indo-Pacific is a one thing, a lunge there would be quite another.  Putin hasn’t “gone away, you know”. And Islamist extremism hasn’t, either.

Terry Barnes: The significance of this new U.S-UK-Australia security pact – and Johnson’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific

17 Sep

Terry Barnes advised Tony Abbott when he was a Cabinet minister in John Howard’s government.

It may have been missed in Britain midst the excitement of Boris Johnson’s reshuffle and the attention-greedy Sussexes making the cover of Time, but this week’s announcement by Boris Johnson, Joe Biden and Scott Morrison of a ‘trilateral security partnership’, to be known as AUKUS, is hugely significant.

It is to be a relationship of defence, technological and security cooperation. While it essentially formalises existing exchanges between three traditional allies, that in itself has historic strategic and geopolitical implications.

Here in Australia, this announcement is huge news. Not only is Australia formalising a security pact with her two greatest and closest traditional allies, but she is also being admitted by the US and UK into a very select club: countries operating nuclear-powered submarines. Morrison’s government is thereby walking away from a costly but irretrievably dysfunctional contract with the French to co-build a dozen conventional next-generation submarines, exposing itself to billions of dollars in termination costs.  But this hasn’t been a deal-breaker.

That AUKUS was announced, within eight months of the next Australian general election, is even more significant. It’s one thing for a conservative government to sign such a security agreement and pursue nuclear submarines. It’s quite another for a traditionally anti-nuclear and US-skeptical Labor party opposition to endorse such a radical reshaping of Australia’s national security framework. Yet it has – today publicly committed itself to the agreement should Labor win next year’s election, a possibility if opinion polls are right.

Furthermore, just weeks after marking its 70th anniversary, the joint announcement confirms that the ANZUS alliance of Australia, New Zealand and the United States is officially dead.

New Zealand suspended ANZUS almost 40 years ago, because it refused to allow US nuclear-powered ships into her ports: this week, Jacinda Ardern insisted that this bar would apply to nuclear-powered Australian submarines as well. Since New Zealand’s inflexible opposition to nuclear-powered ships sits with Ardern’s refusal to join any Five Eyes strategic arrangements that might antagonise China, AUKUS effectively kills off whatever vestiges of ANZUS are left.

Australia, on the other hand, has been increasingly vocal about the Chinese regime’s geostrategic muscle-flexing, as well as its internal behaviour. Morrison was the first world leader to demand that China account for the origin and escape of Covid-19 from Wuhan, and has given his MPs free rein to criticise China’s strategic ambitions and human rights record – despite the regime’s wolf warrior bullying diplomacy and trade retaliations. AUKUS reminds Xi Jinping that ‘little’ Australia has great and powerful friends, and that she does not stand alone in calling out his bullying.

Jinping certainly should sit up and take note of this critical new development. The two great Anglosphere powers are joining a third, Australia, in making it emphatically clear to China and the world that the Pacific and Indian oceans are not Chinese lakes. The UK and US giving Australia nuclear-powered submarine capability – with the speed, endurance and stealth that this capability ensures – means that there will be a local nuclear-powered, if not nuclear-armed deterrent straddling the approaches to busiest blue water sea-lanes in the world running through the South China Sea.

But from Britain’s perspective, this is a truly remarkable strategic development, the significance of which may not be immediately realised outside Whitehall.

AUKUS is not just sending HMS Queen Elizabeth through the Indian and Pacific Oceans to make an important but nevertheless symbolic freedom of navigation gesture to demonstrate Britain’s resistance to China’s increasingly bellicose aggression. For the first time in the half a century since she withdrew a standing presence from east of Suez, the United Kingdom is joining a formal geostrategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific.

That sends not only a starkly clear message to China: it reassures the entire Indo-Pacific region, and especially India, Japan, and South Korea – and Hong Kong and Taiwan – that their security interests are also British interests. Johnson, Ben Wallace and Liz Truss – fresh from negotiating, with Australia, Britain’s first post-Brexit free trade deal – have grasped the importance and necessity of the UK re-engaging in the Indo-Pacific strategically as well as economically.

And the United States benefits, too, in that strengthening the offensive as well as the defensive capability of a key regional ally in Australia will, in time, ease the burden of what Paul Kennedy years ago called ‘imperial overstretch’. Biden may have forgotten Morrison’s name in the leaders’ announcement hook-up, but surely realises how strategically important a politically stable, but strategically-strengthened, Australia will be to the overall peace and stability of the entire Indo-Pacific region.

To be sure, in Britain this announcement was overshadowed by other events. But in the longer term, AUKUS may well be part of any tangible and lasting legacy of Boris Johnson’s premiership.

Robert Halfon: America has abandoned the Afghans. But we must stick with the Kurds.

8 Sep

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Western withdrawal from Afghanistan has jangled nerves in allied nations. One such place is the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

The situation in Kurdistan and Iraq is quite different from Afghanistan. American armed forces
 in Iraq and Kurdistan will end combat operations by the end of the year. But Iraq and America 
have recently agreed that 2,500 American troops will stay to assist, advise, and train.

The Americans stress the continuing importance of their strategic relationship with Iraq and are
 building the single biggest consulate in the world in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan.

The UK
 supports a strong Kurdistan Region in Iraq and also has a sizeable diplomatic presence in Erbil.
The presence of American troops and bases in the Kurdistan Region is certainly desired by its
 people and government. American, British, and German soldiers are providing invaluable training to the Peshmerga, and
 are seeking to unify it under the authority of the government rather than the two main parties – a
 legacy of the past.

A strong Peshmerga is ever more necessary, as the fall of Kabul to the Taliban will embolden 
what Tony Blair calls Radical Islam elsewhere. The Peshmerga have proved a dedicated and capable ally in resisting such extremism. They held
 out almost alone for several years after ISIS took Mosul, and then attacked Kurdistan in 2014.
 Eventually, the Peshmerga and the revived Iraqi Army dislodged Daesh from its genocidal
 caliphate. RAF jets were essential to this achievement.

But it is not complete. Isis is smaller, but regrouping in the gaps between the Iraqi Army and the
 Peshmerga. Erbil and Baghdad are building better relationships, but judicious American and 
British engagement can help them to do so more quickly.

Of course, we should carefully examine the experience of Afghanistan, but my great fear is that 
isolationism on the left and right could take root.

Friends of the Kurds can say that there are times when there’s one thing worse than a Western 
intervention – and that’s no Western intervention.

Not all interventions have been disastrous, let alone about imposing our values. John Major’s
 no-fly zone and safe haven for the Kurds in 1991 averted certain genocide, and helped the Kurds
 create an autonomous region that increased health, education, living standards, stability, and
 opportunity. Our jets saved Kurds from ISIS in the last decade.

Such interventions are the baby that should not be thrown out with the bathwater amid any
 isolationist backlash. They go with the grain of change desired by our partners and enable their self-defence, with
urgent and direct aid in existential emergencies, and self-improvement.

The need to deploy military muscle in extremis is on the spectrum of liberal intervention, and
 provides the solid assurances without which other engagements are more difficult.

Our wider range of cultural, commercial, and political engagements clearly say that the fate of the
 Kurds remains important to the West. It also gives them the confidence and stability to further
reform their institutions.

The Kurds are an ancient people, but they have only had a coherent and recognised near-state in
 Iraq for a generation. They have come far in that time but have much further to go. From my visits over many years, I can testify that they welcome our involvement in ventures as
varied as training MPs and judges, measures to advance transparency and tackle corruption,
boosting agriculture, and film, for example. I suspect many films about Afghanistan could be 
produced in Kurdistan.

A major imperative close to my heart is their desire to modernise their education system and
 encourage new thinking in a more vibrant civil society as they reduce their reliance on oil and
 state employment while designing new futures in technology, tourism, and light industry.
One of our country’s great soft power offers in higher education. My predecessor as MP for 
Harlow, Bill Rammell has recently become Vice-Chancellor of one of their prestigious English 
language universities.

Another such university in Kurdistan has just taken in female students from Afghanistan. It
illustrates the deep generosity of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan, so often exiles and refugees from 
injustice themselves.

Iraqi Kurdistan also continues to host nearly a million refugees and displaced people from Syria 
and from the areas once occupied by Isis to which they cannot yet return. That has been an
 enduring and willingly given duty for them.

Their respect for religious and national minorities as well as improved women’s rights powerfully 
defy Radical Islam. All countries act in their own national interests and not just for altruistic reasons. American and
 British engagement is both. The fall of Kabul highlights how much more we need Iraqi Kurds as 
allies and partners, and vice-versa.

John Redwood: Lorries, Brexit – and the truth about how to keep on trucking

30 Aug

Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

My comments the other day about business needing to pay truck drivers more and improve their conditions of employment have apparently upset some people.

It is a curious but now deep-rooted view of many on the Left that the UK should have remained in a free movement of labour zone with the EU. They favour us attracting skilled people from the lower-paid parts of the European Union to fill our job gaps instead of putting the pay up for UK residents, or training more home talent.

Since the per capita income of the eastern parts of the EU remains at about one third of UK levels, there is still plenty of scope, as they see it, for us to bid people away from these lower pay countries whilst keeping well beneath  our own current pay bounds.

I have some moral as well as economic and political issues with this approach. Should we denude Poland of truck drivers, or train more of our own?  I read industry reports that Poland has an acute truck driver shortage at the moment. Should we plunder the lower income countries of the world for trained nurses, or step up home education to nurture our own?

Importing so-called cheap labour is not  a cheap solution. Whilst it is clearly cheaper for the company recruiting, the new migrant employee may well need and qualify for state financial help with housing costs, a range of free public services and pay top-up in some cases. If we recruit someone who already lives here, we are covering their public sector costs already.  The cheap labour system  sounds like the caricature of capitalism of old. We have figures on the Left encouraging businesses to scour the world to keep wages down.

Some of my critics cannot get over the decision of a majority of the UK voters to leave the EU. They blame Brexit for most things they do not like. The truck driver shortage is no exception.

I find this a difficult argument to believe, as there are similar truck driver shortages in Germany and the USA. Neither of those countries changed its relationship with the EU at the beginning of this year. I also remember articles being written and the industry complaining of the driver shortage before Covid and well before we left the EU. Again, this calls into doubt the anti-Brexit soundbite.

So why are several important economies and countries facing a truck driver shortage at the same time? Why has this problem been building for some years?

It does come down to terms and conditions. Truck driving the larger vehicles over the longer distances has remained an employment dominated by older men. The industry has been failing to attract women and younger men to it in sufficient numbers for a long time.

Gradually the older men reach retirement, and the shortage grows. When you ask people why they do not want to  be truck drivers, they often cite the poor conditions overnight and the low esteem for the profession, as well as the pay and hours. Even in the richer countries of Europe and the UK, there is a shortage of good overnight stopping places where a driver can be safe, find a meal and a shower and get sufficient sleep for the next day.

The economics of long-haul trucking is competitive, but the main costs are not the driver. The capital and maintenance cost of the truck, and the fuel cost of the long journeys both usually exceed the drivers rewards by a substantial margin. The trucking companies could help themselves and their drivers by being willing to enter a compact with drivers over training, conditions, style of driving and reward.

Drivers who are well-trained to drive with fuel economy in mind can save their employers a lot of money. There should be sharing schemes for good fuel economy. Drivers who keep out of accidents and look after the truck help keep insurance, repair and maintenance bills down. Again, this can be shared with the drivers to mutual advantage.

Years ago, I helped Margaret Thatcher to sell National Freight, a nationalised trucking business. It was bought by its employees, who understood  how a change of attitudes could help firm and driver. I remember interviewing one driver and part-owner after the event. He told me that when he drove a nationalised lorry, he was not that attentive to the wellbeing of the vehicle or even concerned if it would work each morning. But once he became a co-owner, he took a great interest in ensuring that it was looked after and would earn its living every day. The truckers of National Freight did well with their business as a result.

As someone who believes that free enterprise brings many advantages, I see the driver shortage as an opportunity to put right some of the problems of the industry here in the UK and get more people into better paid and worthwhile jobs. There need to be more training courses, linked to employment packages for those that stay the course and pass the test.

The industry needs to work with government over better facilities for long-distance drivers, and could profitably explore with them how there could be a profit-share for the fruits of good driving. The model of keeping wages down is a bad one. I have always favoured training and productivity-enhancing improvements in jobs so that employees can be better rewarded whilst leaving the company money to invest and to reward the savers who have invested in the improvements.

It is time my critics thought more about the needs and potential skills of people already living in the UK and less time dreaming about bringing in many more people from overseas. Better qualifications can  bring better pay and a richer working experience. It also brings more respect from society. I remain grateful to the truckers who deliver the food to my local supermarkets and the parts to UK factories. We need them and should value them more.

America 2) Michael Fabricant: No, the United States isn’t withdrawing from its role abroad. We’ve been here before and it will be back.

23 Aug

Michael Fabricant is MP for Lichfield.

It’s fashionable right now to write off Pax Americana and the influence of the West.  Comparisons have been drawn with the decline of Britain in those dark years following World War Two. These point to impotence abroad and division at home.

The commentariat is wrong. Some members of it are wishful thinking. America remains deceptively strong, and the foundations of its global dominance unshaken.

Of course, it would be absurd to deny the seriousness of the current moment. Joe Biden’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan represents America’s most humiliating moment on the world stage since the 1979-81 Iran Hostage Crisis.

However, what we are living through right now is not the twilight of American hegemony, but simply the nadir of a regular cycle of American self-doubt and renewal.

Our cousins across the Atlantic have been here before. During the 1970s, America faced a similar period of malaise and weakness. The decade that saw the Fall of Saigon is ubiquitous with political instability, rising crime, a sluggish economy and intergenerational strife. Then as now, pessimistic predictions abounded about the health of the nation and its place in the wider world. Enter Ronald Reagan, George H.W Bush and resounding victory in the Cold War.

Even if there is no Reagan-esque figure waiting in the wings to take over from the Jimmy Carter-like President Biden, reports of America’s death are premature. Proponents of American decline have yet to provide an answer to the following conundrum: who can match, let alone surpass the United States?

In the 1970s, it was supposed to be Japan, now the commentariat prophesy that it’s China’s turn.  (Russia doesn’t get a look in. Its economy is weak with a GDP only just over a half of that of the UK.)  But while the Chinese economy is an undoubted juggernaut, its GDP is just two-thirds of that of the United States, and it has juddered to a crawl.

And while our undignified retreat from Afghanistan has posed questions over the West’s determination to fight future wars and defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression, China’s military spend at over $200 billion is dwarfed by the US, which stands at around $715 billion.

That is reflected in the available hardware of war.  While the US currently has 20 aircraft carriers currently in service, with a further three in reserve and three under construction, China has only three, with another three on the way. This disparity is reflected in other areas too, from fighter jets to nuclear weapons. The only arena where China has a definitive edge is in terms of total military personnel, but infantry-based battles will not win wars.

With this yawning gap in military capability which already exists between the two countries, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that China cannot realistically hope to catch up in the foreseeable future.

Demographically, China faces a ticking time bomb of stagnant birth rates and an aging population, with the median age in China projected to far surpass the US in the coming decades. Like Russia, it is bordered by large states that are friendly to the US, and China’s actions in Hong Kong and against the Uighurs have only served to push developing powers such as India and Vietnam further into the arms of Uncle Sam.

And this is without even mentioning the West’s cultural dominance, which is stronger than ever. If China is second to the US in economic and military might, in cultural terms it would probably struggle to crack the top ten. The entrenchment of English as the world’s lingua franca further guarantees American cultural hegemony.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students flock to the US and Britain every year to study at our world class universities, with very little movement going the other way.

And while many see the current social conflicts in the US as evidence of weakness, it’s actually a strength, a sign of a society that is constantly striving to better itself one way or another. It is this introspection which wards off complacency. After all, America is an empire of immigrants, constantly renewing and rejuvenating the nation, in stark contrast to the rigidity of China

There is no “Chinese Dream”, no lofty ideals for its people to aspire to, merely communist dogma and imposed cultural homogeneity. What many see in the West as order and self-assurance is simply a charade; a result of China’s closed society. We can only see what the Chinese Communist Party want us to see.

While the horrific scenes of desperation at Kabul airport shames the US, they are also a reminder of something else: for all America’s warts and problems, people still risk their lives to try their hand at the American Dream.

That – more than anything else – is why American dominance will continue long into the future. And, inevitably, why this debate will crop up again.

Michael Nazir-Ali: After the betrayal of democracy in Afghanistan, will other countries in the region ever trust the West again?

22 Aug

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali was Bishop of Rochester for 15 years. He is originally from Southwest Asia and was the first Diocesan Bishop in the Church of England born abroad.

I was born and brought up in neighbouring Pakistan and ministered up and down the land during the first civil war in Afghanistan, when five million Afghans took refuge in Pakistan. I was involved in the Church’s efforts to relieve their sufferings and to provide educational and medical facilities for them.

As Bishop of Raiwind, though, I warned both Pakistan and the West that the arming and training of extremist groups, from within Pakistan and Afghanistan and from the wider world, to fight the Soviet presence in Afghanistan would lead to the emergence of groups like the Taliban and would internationalise extremist Islamism.

This is, indeed, what happened. The Soviet threat was contained and, in fact, led to the dismemberment of the Soviet Union itself but, since then, extremist Islamism has flourished both in the region and more widely than that.

As General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), I worked closely with the local churches in supporting the vital work of hospitals, founded by CMS, all along the long Pakistan-Afghan border serving the neediest people of both countries. They will, undoubtedly, be needed again.

From such a long association with the region, what has struck me most forcibly this time is the way in which the American-led West has simply abandoned a society it has helped to create. The oft-heard nostrums of politicians, that the West had gone in simply to avenge Al Qaeda’s attack on 9/11 and to make sure it never recurred again, ring hollow. The establishing of a culturally appropriate form of democracy, encouraging and funding civil society, female education and much else besides was not extra to the task of eradicating the threat of regional and international terrorism from the soil of Afghanistan, but integral to it.

Will nations, for example in the Indo-Pacific area, even now being garnered to protect the West’s interests there, ever again be able to trust the West? When, they will ask themselves, will they be told that Western self- interest no longer needs their friendship? The unilateral American decision to withdraw all troops is morally irresponsible, as is collusion with it by other Western powers, even if some, like Britain, had reservations about it.

It seems to me, that the least that could have been done was to have made withdrawal conditional on a comprehensive peace agreement between the government in Kabul and the Taliban. Without such an agreement, withdrawal is tantamount to handing over large sections of the Afghan people to the whims of a movement known for its past and present brutality.

Sensing blood, the vultures are circling: ISIS is active already, and not only in the remoter parts of country. We can be sure that others like Al Qaeda and the notorious Haqqani Group, for long allied with the Taliban, cannot be far behind.

The resurgence of extremist Islamism on Afghan soil has significant implications for the region. The Central Asian nations, consisting of the former Soviet republics, are terrified of Taliban infiltration, and will become even more draconian in their determination to stamp out what they see as extremism. Most of them remain within the Russian circle of influence and Russia also needs to make sure its own southern flank is not radicalised further.

China, similarly, has become alarmed at what it sees as extremist influence permeating its Western region of Xinjiang and we can expect a further tightening there of the plight of the Uighur ethnic group. The security situation in Pakistan has greatly improved of late, but the Afghan Taliban owe a great deal to safe havens provided by radical groups in Pakistan. There will certainly be ‘quid pro quo’ demands for them now to find hospitality in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. What will be the implications of such cross border bases for security in Pakistan? I am not holding my breath.

Within Afghanistan itself, there is the possibility of civil war with Northern Dari speaking tribal groups and their leaders( sometimes misleadingly called ‘warlords’ in the West) likely to resist the Pashtun-led Taliban and their interpretation of Shari’a. Civil and military chaos, if not Taliban complicity, will surely result in the country, once again, becoming a base for extremist violence not limited to the region. If and when this happens, the West’s decision to withdraw unilaterally and unconditionally will begin to look not just morally weak but strategically foolish.

In the meantime, American female journalists in Afghanistan donning hijab and chador to report is a sign of what is coming for Afghan women and girls. Women have already been told to wear the burqa (the all enveloping veil which covers the face) or to wear the niqab (a face mask) and gloves in any public appearance. They will not be allowed to work with men and their access to education, especially higher education, remains in doubt. All the gains made by them in the professions, in public life and in civil society could be just wiped out as they were when the Taliban were last in power.

The situation of religious minorities is also parlous. The minority, and largely Shi’a, Hazara have already declared that they are facing genocide. My post bag and reports from aid agencies bear witness that Christians, Sikhs and Hindus are desperate to flee and the rich Buddhist heritage of the Gandhara Indo-Hellenistic civilisation is again in jeopardy.

The reimposition of Shari’a penal law could bring us the spectacle of public executions, mutilations and floggings, sometimes for minor offences like violating the strict dress code, petty theft or ‘obscene’ entertainment like mixed dancing, even in private.

Britain, of course, needs to honour its obligations to those who assisted its mission in Afghanistan but, in the face of such an apocalyptic situation, there must be urgent international agreement about the flood of refugees that is likely to result from a Taliban takeover

Europe should not be left to bear the brunt of such a mass movement, as it was with the war in Syria. North America, Australasia and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation must all take their full share of refugees. A condition of any recognition of a Taliban-led government should be respect for fundamental freedoms, especially for women, girls and religious and ethnic minorities. The Taliban should accept UN and other accredited rapporteurs to monitor and report on the human rights situation in Afghanistan from time to time. Such monitoring and reporting will include not only the condition of groups like women and minorities, but also matters like respect for the person in the application of penal law and the withholding of inhumane and degrading punishments. The rapporteurs must have access to the country and to the groups they are monitoring.

Many of these measures, whilst urgent and necessary, are but bandages for a wound which will take much time to heal. In the longer term, the aim must be the promotion of a culturally appropriate democracy, adherence to the UN Declaration on Human Rights, particularly Article 18 which deals with freedom of belief and expression, and guarantees regarding female access to education and employment. We must ensure, now western troops are home, that the world does not forget the vulnerable in Afghanistan and that may mean a majority of the population.

Liam Fox: Why we took action in Afghanistan, the implications of this defeat – and what we should do next

18 Aug

Liam Fox is a former Secretary of State for Defence, and is MP for North Somerset.

Recent days have seen depressingly numerous examples of history being selectively interpreted and rewritten in relation to Afghanistan. At the same time, numerous commentators and politicians have claimed to have anticipated an outcome, a rapid Taliban victory, which they clearly did not.

So how do we make sense of where Afghanistan is today, a tragedy backlit by defeat? Even the name, Operation Enduring Freedom, already exudes a sense of irony. The most obvious place to start is to remember why we went there in the first place.

It was not out of a sense of philanthropy or concern for the well-being of the people of Afghanistan themselves. It followed the 9/11 attacks on the United States by Al-Qaeda who had been given sanctuary in Afghanistan by the Taliban government and was a hard – headed response to threats to our own safety and security, particularly in the United States and its NATO allies.

The first question, therefore, to answer is – are we safer now than we were in 2001? The answer probably has two parts. Certainly, we were successful in deposing the Taliban Government and breaking up Al-Qaeda and its terrorist networks in both Afghanistan and some of its neighbouring territories. To that extent, we have probably been safer over the past two decades than when the twin towers of the World Trade Centre were attacked.

It is also almost certain that this period came to an end last week, and that in the future the risk to civilians in the West will increase, not least because 5000 of our most determined, vicious and extreme enemies have been released from Bagram Prison by the Taliban, including those who have committed beheadings and other atrocious acts of violence. The ostensible aim of the recent US Government policy was to stop Americans being killed.

Time will tell whether these policy decisions have increased or decreased that number, remembering that the total number of American citizens killed in the execution of Operation Enduring Freedom were 24 in 2009 and 11 in 2020. Two thousand six hundred and five US citizens died as a result of the single Al-Qaeda attack in New York in 2001.

Our wider security, too, is impacted by those in Beijing and Moscow who will see the US and NATO as having been defeated, or worse, surrendering in the face of the Taliban advance.

Interestingly, government spokesmen in Pakistan have said that they will not immediately recognise the Taliban government in Kabul, but will wait to see how allies such as China and Russia respond. Their choice of states in question speaks, worrying, volumes. It is hard to imagine the Taliban could have moved so quickly without Pakistani and Iranian help.

Another unappealing sight in recent days has been the number of those who claim that they knew that the Afghan state would crumble quickly. While there may have been a number of security scenarios that considered, at least theoretically, the possibility of a Taliban walkover, there were no serious political or media voices making that prediction a week ago.

There was good reason to believe that the training and equipping of the Afghan forces might produce considerable resistance to the Taliban. Despite Joe Biden’s statement that “The Afghan military collapsed, some without trying to fight”, it is worth remembering that 70,000 Afghan police and military personnel were killed in the battle against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda since 2001, compared to around 2300 coalition troops who sacrificed their lives. It was not just the 2500 troops who were removed under the US policy that caused the collapse in morale among the Afghan forces, but the rest of the 8000 allied forces and the 18,000 contractors who provide them with logistical support. It is this collapse in morale, perhaps even more than reduced capability, that has been the great policy miscalculation.

Quite rightly, given the previous record of the Taliban, many of the fears for the future centre around what the imposition of a hard-line Islamic state will mean for the people of Afghanistan themselves. While the building of a stable and democratic state with improved prosperity, human rights and rule of law were not the initial reasons for the initial deployment to Afghanistan, this became a key element in underpinning public support for the continuation of the mission. It was also a key justification for the sacrifices made in life and limb by the Armed Forces of the coalition, including British forces.

As one of the Defence Secretaries during the Afghan conflict who sent handwritten letters to the loved ones of those killed in action, and who visited many of the severely injured in hospital, including friends, I understand how totally raw their anger and sense of betrayal may be at the events of recent days. They will need additional support in the times ahead.

It is therefore imperative that we try to salvage the best that we can from the current position by putting as much pressure as possible, along with our international allies, directly on the Taliban government and indirectly through their allies. For example, any suggestion that States who are recipients of British aid are giving overt or covert support to the illegal regime should be met with immediate consequences.

In particular, we must ensure that the widespread human rights abuses, especially towards other religious groups and to the women and girls that were the hallmark of the previous Taliban government are called out loudly and publicly. This must also include the, often forgotten, broadcast and print media who enjoyed increased, if not complete, freedom under the democratically elected governments that were a result of the international intervention.

It is also our moral obligation to ensure that those who put their lives at risk in order to assist the coalition and build a better future for the fellow citizens (such as interpreters and other public servants) are given full sanctuary in the United Kingdom and other coalition states. That is, if we have not already missed the boat because of the miscalculations of recent days, and abandoned them, albeit unintentionally, to a terrible fate.

There has already been much handwringing amongst America’s allies about the crisis which they perceived to have been made in Washington. However true this may be in the short term, it exposes some other, more uncomfortable truths, for the partners of the US in NATO and beyond. It is particularly galling to hear complaints about being forced to “ride America’s foreign policy coattails” coming from those who have most opposed the build-up of alternative capabilities, within the NATO alliance. Many of the British and European Left who have most opposed increased defence spending and balked at sharing responsibility for international security are the first to bleat about having to follow American Foreign Policy.

The irony seems to be completely lost on them that those who refuse to build up their own security capacity will, in the end, find themselves more dependent on Washington rather than less. The fact that it was virtually impossible for other NATO allies to maintain a viable security presence without America makes it all the more galling that many wallow in high spending “big states” while expecting American taxpayers to fund global security.

What we are witnessing is more than a strategic setback, it is a defeat. We must acknowledge that truth. We must make sure that the Taliban understand that we will respond with military means to any increased security threat against our citizens and be very clear what the trigger points will be. We must ensure that we put in place whatever refugee policy we can to mitigate the damage already done and help those who put themselves in harm’s way for our sake.

And we must spare a thought for all our Armed Forces, their families and other civilians who will feel today that their sacrifices may have been in vain because they were not. For two decades they improved the safety of those at home and improved the lot of the people of Afghanistan. We must ensure that our response to this crisis leads to an increased willingness of leaders in the free world to make the case for spending and intervention in the cause of international peace and security.

That is the least that those who have made such sacrifices deserve.

Jack Richardson: Another Biden policy calamity, and one closer to home. The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

17 Aug

Jack Richardson is a Climate Programmes Manager at the Conservative Environment Network.

The Biden administration’s foreign policy is under intense scrutiny. And while the focus is rightly on Afghanistan now, it isn’t the President’s first strategic misstep. In Europe, his green light for Nord Stream 2 (NS2), a new gas pipeline from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, to go ahead was unpardonable folly.

Many conservatives in the United States and United Kingdom share the view of Poland and Ukraine that the move is a strategic, economic, and political mistake which risks the stability of the European Union and NATO. And, despite Angela Merkel’s reputation as the ‘Climate Chancellor’, NS2 is catastrophic for the environment and damages our efforts to fight climate change.

A warmer world threatens the economic growth and national security of every country. This summer has seen calamitous flooding in Europe and Asia, droughts and fatal heatwaves in North America, and wildfires in the Sub-Arctic. As the recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explained, more frequent extreme weather will hamper our standard of living here in the UK and be costly to rebuild from and adapt to. It will also cause instability and the mass displacement of people abroad, making the world more dangerous.

The politics of a multipolar world combined with grey areas of conflict may yield deadly consequences, as states are forced to compete more fiercely over the earth’s depleting natural resources.

Add a rising global temperature with all its extremities to the mix, and it will be harder to maintain stability in sensitive regions. To mitigate the worst effects of climate change, world leaders agreed in 2015 to limit global warming to well below two degrees celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. This requires the reduction of carbon emissions to ‘net zero’, which in turn means a systematic transition in the technologies and techniques that we use to produce energy, manufacture goods, and manage our land.

The EU is working to establish itself as a leader in the fight against climate change, no doubt partly because of the massive economic gain it can make by specialising in Net Zero industries early. The UK is doing so too, hence the government’s backing of the offshore wind sector and carbon capture and storage in particular. Through NS2, however, Germany is greatly undermining Europe’s energy transition.

Germany’s fear of (zero carbon) nuclear energy, which it lumps in with coal power as a dirty source of energy to discard as part of its Energiewende (energy transition), is partly to blame. It sees gas as a means to ditch these two energy sources because it emits less carbon than coal. This is true, but gas is still a huge part of the climate change problem.

NS2, which costs more than refurbishing the existing Brotherhood Pipeline in Ukraine and Slovakia, is plainly Vladimir Putin’s bid to deprive these countries of their position as a transit country, which serves as their only insurance against Russian aggression. Germany is leaving its Eastern European allies more vulnerable and less well off for its own gain. It’s also undermining its own transition to a net zero economy by making itself and Europe more dependent upon Russian fossil fuels for decades to come.

Russia also has a dreadful environmental record. It is responsible for nearly 15 per cent of global flaring – the controlled burning of natural gas during production. Compare this to its gas-producing neighbour Norway, which banned routine flaring fifty years ago. In 2018, Russia wasted roughly the total annual gas consumption of Poland and Lithuania combined from flaring. Germany is perpetuating this problem by creating more demand with few strings attached, even though it has arguably the most economic capacity in Europe to pursue zero carbon instead.

The Biden administration’s capitulation on the issue is also bad news for climate action. One of his first actions in office was cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline project, continuing Barack Obama’s policy of opposing the oil pipeline due to it undermining Washington’s climate change policy. Biden’s blessing for NS2 undermines his credibility; American politicians are now legitimately asking why Biden appears to support those working in Russian gas more than American oil.

Though supposedly still “opposed” to the deal, the State Department pushed for a deal to “protect” Ukraine by making Russian aggression an automatic trigger for the disconnection of Nord Stream 2 gas. Berlin opposes this, though will contribute to a new $1 billion “Green Fund for Ukraine”, which seeks to compensate the country for leaving it poorer and more threatened, and to make Ukraine more energy independent. It justifiably prioritises maintaining its main protection against Russian invasion over new wind turbines.

A better strategy would be to use combined European and American leadership in zero carbon energy to speed up the European transition from fossil fuels, as well as to push back against China’s strategy of dominating supply chains for future industries. This could be achieved through promoting clean free trade and greater cooperation between democracies, but will require bold domestic action too.

Under the thin veil of Ostpolitik (“Eastern policy”), Germany is not only greatly undermining European security and the political integration project it leads, but European energy transition and global climate action as a whole. After the devastation from flooding caused in Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, Merkel should know better.

Afghanistan and America 2) David Davis: The harsh truth is that we had no strategy – and fell back on supporting a corrupt state

16 Aug

David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.

Like many others, I have watched with horror and shame as Taliban forces have seized Afghan regional capital after capital.

Horror, because although I have spent the last few months pressing the British government to help those Afghans who had worked as translators for our Armed Forces, I am only too conscious of the hundreds of thousands of other Afghans who have helped or cooperated with Allied Forces, and who will be waiting in terror as the Taliban forces approach their homes and workplaces.

Shame because this is a huge failure of Western strategy, arms, and principles. Like the American flight from Vietnam a generation ago, it will undermine Western standing, influence, and leadership in the whole world.

The one emotion I have not felt, however, is surprise. This is a failure that has been coming for a long time, and that has been apparent to a lot of people for a lot of years.

Back in 2008, I and a parliamentary colleague, Adam Holloway, went to Afghanistan to have a look at the facts on the ground. When we left London, I rather subscribed to the view that, unlike Iraq, this was a “justified war”, as the Taliban had provided support and succour to Al Quaeda at the time of the 9/11 attack.

Twenty four hours after we returned, I was interviewed by Andrew Marr on his Sunday programme, and told him that if we carried on as we were, we were going to lose this war.

This was not some remarkable demonstration of military prescience. It was a statement of the obvious, after talking to large numbers of people in theatre, including, most powerfully, ordinary Afghan citizens.

The British Ministry of Defence were not helpful when we were trying to organise our trip. Indeed they did pretty much everything they could to obstruct our visit. The British Ambassador – incidentally one of our very best diplomats – was much more helpful, but he actively encouraged us to avoid British officialdom and find our own way. “You will learn much more if you don’t have to travel everywhere in armoured convoys and actually get to talk to real people.” So that is what we did.

In 50 interviews we talked to everybody who would see us, from American generals to British troopers, from the head of the Afghan Security service to the representatives of the Taliban, from the governor of Helmand province to ordinary people who worked in the villages of his domain. The most powerful evidence came from the ordinary villagers.

The most memorable insight for me was during a lengthy discussion with a couple of Red Crescent workers, people who moved unencumbered by either Taliban or Government forces through all of Afghanistan. Their description of the operation of the rule of law in Afghanistan was astonishing.

To take one example: ordinary rural Afghans are often very small scale farmers, making a poor living out of tiny plots of land. With all the changes of regime during the previous 30 years, the title to these little farms was often disputed. These disputes should have been resolved in court.

But to get a court hearing, the farmer would have to bribe someone to get a court date. That date would come in about a year, and then the farmer would have to bribe a court official to win his case.

Alternatively, the farmer could seek Taliban justice. That meant walking to a village under Taliban control – in the case we were discussing about 8 miles away – and ask for a Taliban court adjudication. A date would be set within a few days, and the other party would be summoned to give evidence. Needless to say, they would have to turn up.

Then the Taliban judge would take a few days to establish the facts on the ground, and in little more than a week a ruling would be handed down. And of course the judgement was obeyed by all parties. In effect, the Taliban provided a judicial system that worked better than the official one.

This was not the only part of the rule of law that was bent out of shape. No doubt there were many decent Afghan police officers, but some were little more than bandits in uniform. We heard numerous stories of criminal behaviour by the police, ranging from stealing a families’ entire wood supply – in the harsh Afghan winters an act of savage cruelty – to kidnap of young women for ransom or rape. Afghan farmers trying to take produce to market would be stopped at roadblocks and made to pay a tariff on their goods, sometimes by bandits, and sometimes by the police.

From the point of view of the ordinary Afghan, the official state was just another instrument of oppression and corruption. At the grander end of the scale, government officials and their families became remarkably rich remarkably quickly. No one was ever in any doubt that the Western-installed members of the ruling elite were on the take. But of course no one was charged or convicted. The UK, USA, and their allies have installed and supported a corrupt state.

It’s effects have been felt by every ordinary family in Afghanistan. Even the Afghan Army was misused and mistreated, with its soldiers often going unpaid, unfed, and unsupplied. Its generals are frequently overruled by incompetent palace cliques.

This was why it was plain that this was a war that we would never win – or not until we solved these fundamental social problems. And because the Allied writ never extended more than a rifle shot from our isolated Forward Operating Bases, we were never going to solve them with the strategies that we have adopted for almost two decades.

A British journalist staying next door to me in Kabul told me about an American Marine colonel grumbling about “mowing the grass” – putting down an insurrection with a fierce round of firefights, only to have to come back and do it all again the next year. And he was not the only military officer who understood at that time the futility of the strategy.

This has now all been magnified by a stupid and cowardly withdrawal strategy, leaving even the best Afghan troops without the air support and backup that they were trained to rely on, as Joe Biden ignored his own military advisers.

Now we face an impossible problem. It was probably not always impossible. We could have simply intervened back in 2001/2, and then left, avoiding the sacrifice of blood, treasure, and reputation.

Or we could have designed a counter-insurgency strategy that worked. We have done it elsewhere in the world, but every time it involved as much a campaign about hearts and minds as about bombs and bullets. It would have been much more expensive in the short run, but undoubtedly less costly overall. We almost certainly could not have done it at the same time as invading Iraq. What we did instead was the worst compromise.

The lesson is horribly stark. If Britain, America, and the other Western Allies want to be a force for good in the world, and do not want their collective global reputation to be dictated by Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, then before we undertake any more foreign wars, we need a plan that extends way beyond the initial conquest, and right through the rebuilding of the country, with all the cost and commitment that that entails.

Meanwhile, the Western nations sudden rush to extract their own citizens will undoubtedly cause a panic which may accelerate the collapse. After that, the Taliban, with all its medieval behaviour, will reverse any good that we have done these last two decades. We will see the return of Sharia law, with its dismemberment and stoning. And the new regime will almost certainly exact vengeance on everybody who has helped us in any way. That will undoubtedly prey on our conscience in the years to come. And so it should.