Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
“America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home”.
In June 2011, announcing a cut in troop numbers of 10,000 personnel, President Barack Obama anticipated Joe Biden’s speech in Pittsburgh which marked the end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan.
A decade ago, the 44th President’s enthusiasm for a continuing military presence in Afghanistan was lukewarm at best. Back then, a mere $1 trillion had been spent. Given America’s crumbling infrastructure and rising social problems in the wake of the global financial crash, Obama wanted more homeland bangs for his huge number of bucks.
Another $1 trillion later, on Tuesday the 46th President gave the speech that Obama probably wishes he had made back in 2011. Alluding to the country’s “corruption and malfeasance”, Biden was clear: “We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries. We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it.”
For a man allegedly in his dotage, Sleepy Joe delivered an admirably clear-sighted statement of future American national security policy based on vital national interest. As well as ending the forever war, the President pulled the trigger on 20 years of meddling in the affairs of other sovereign states – also known as nation-building.
If American policy is now also about “ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries”, exactly where does this leave Britain and our Armed Forces? After all, ever since the end of the Cold War, successive governments have sent Britain’s Service personnel overseas on all manner of Operations Other Than War, as our people in khaki with the SA80 A3s like to call them.
The impulse to save lives was used to justify a number of military interventions since the beginning of the 1990s, including policing Iraq’s safe havens and in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya. The Rwandan genocide – about which the outside world did too little far too late – is a permanent reproach to those who consider state sovereignty paramount.
The successful humanitarian-based military operations in Kosovo and Sierra Leone appeared to vindicate the Blair government’s much-mocked pursuit of an “ethical” foreign policy, together with the Prime Minister’s Doctrine for the International Community.
Set out in Chicago in April 1999, it suggested five guidelines for intervention. They chimed with the Strategic Defence Review of the previous year which had declared that Britain would not stand idly by and watch humanitarian disasters or the aggression of dictators go unchecked. “We want to give a lead; we want to be a force for good.”
Ever since, subsequent Defence Reviews have all been the heirs to the Blairite sentiment that the British military are an instrument for global wellbeing, just as Britain should get stuck in and tackle the world’s problems.
As the Coalition’s 2010 Review stated, “Our country has always had global responsibilities and global ambitions.” Similarly, in 2015, Britain was “strong, influential, global”. In setting out his vision for Britain in 2030 in the recent Integrated Review, Boris Johnson foresaw “a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation with a global perspective”.
The unforeseen American withdrawal pulled the rug out from under not only Afghanistan but also from assumptions about Britain’s defence and security posture that were made in the Integrated Review less than six months ago.
With our closest NATO ally leaving us high and dry, it is now time to re-assess the pieties about Britain’s place and role in the world that, mantra-like, are repeated and have gone unchallenged in all of 21st century Reviews of the country’s defence and security.
The Blairite approach to foreign policy – “which should reflect our values” according to the 1998 Review – should have been shattered in Iraq. A war of questionable legality and zero legitimacy made a nonsense about ethical lodestars.
Equally, Labour’s view of the role of British soldiers in Afghanistan as globe-trotting, nation-building do-gooders – armed Mrs Jellybys – has surely had its day. The Coalition’s disastrous intervention in Libya in 2011 was nothing if not Blair-lite. Thankfully, the same itch to intervene was thwarted when it came to Syria.
For all policymakers’ non-stop talking up of Britain’s continuing interventionist global role, the public might well be sceptical. Over the past decade we have become ever-more culturally heterogenous and less happy with the concept of “white saviours” parachuting themselves into the world’s benighted regions and bossing the locals about.
In 2001, the UK’s Muslim population was 1.6 million; by 2018 it had reached 3.4 million: do these voters back Britain’s instinct for involvement in the problems of, say, the Middle East? Equally, the issue of this country’s colonial past is surely the most toxic on any syllabus – and very much at odds with any present-day neo-colonial nation-building.
Almost 30 years ago, another Foreign Secretary was in hot water. Sceptical about intervention in the civil war in former Yugoslavia, Douglas Hurd dubbed those who demanded action after the media spotlight fell on any particular trouble-spot as members of the “Something Must Be Done Club”. He could have observed that Pen Farthing’s dogs would bark, but before too long the media would move on.
Like its predecessors, the Integrated Review invokes the values of liberal democracy. After almost 18 months of government by ministerial fiat in the name of public health, with Parliament side-lined, the media suborned and Police over-reach, we should perhaps be focusing on renewing those values here at home. The defence of the West begins in Britain.