Sarah Ingham: With our closest NATO ally leaving us high and dry, it’s time to re-assess the pieties about Britain’s role in the world

3 Sep

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.

America 1) Bim Afolami: Yes, the United States is withdrawing from its role abroad. So we need to reinvigorate our alliances.

23 Aug

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

Does “The West” mean anything any longer? Over the past week, we have watched the 20 year old US-led invasion of Afghanistan come to an inglorious end, with the final exit of US military forces in a way that was visually reminiscent of the American exit from Vietnam in 1975.

This has not just been an American story. Four hundred and fifty-seven British troops lost their lives there, as did over 600 soldiers from other allied countries. As a result of this shared investment in trying to save Afghanistan from the Taliban, the departure from Afghanistan has been met with much hand wringing and emotion in the UK and much of Europe, with much criticism of Joe Biden for both the fact and manner of withdrawal.

At the time of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, we knew what “The West” was. Broadly speaking, it was a collection of like-minded, democratic countries – a long term partnership between the US and Western Europe which had eventually won the Cold War.

NATO was its core infrastructure, largely funded and buttressed by the America, supplemented by the European Union and different bilateral partnerships. The US acted as a superpower and often acted selfishly in its own interests (lest we fool ourselves otherwise), but it retained a sense that the unity, purpose, and values of the West meant something, and that it was America’s responsibility to lead it. Isolationism was still a dirty word.

Henry Kissinger wrote: “torn between nostalgia for a pristine past and yearning for a perfect future, American thought has oscillated between isolationism and commitment”. Isolationism has always been a recurring force in US foreign policy. In his famous Farewell Address, George Washington warned against what he called “entanglements” and against permanent foreign alliances, and regarded Europe as having “a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relationship. Our detached and distant situation invited and enables us to pursue a different course”.

America was extremely reluctant to enter both world wars, and were late in doing so. After 1945, the Cold War saw a renewed American commitment to engagement on a global scale, but after the fall of the USSR and the resultant ideological “End of History” of the early 1990s, the oscillation that Kissinger talked about remained through the controversies of Bosnia, Afghanistan and then Iraq.

Anyone watching President Biden’s speech last week would have noticed that the Trump “America First” stance is alive and well. If this stance is the new normal for the US, at least for the foreseeable future, what does this mean for Britain? It appears to me that there are three potential strategic futures for the UK.

One option is for us to shrug our shoulders and accept the current situation as the new reality. The West’s period of dominance cannot last for ever. China is on the rise, the US is in decline, and therefore we – as part of the old “West” – will decline along with it. We should focus on our domestic problems, and be highly pragmatic with our international relationships to keep us out of entanglements as much as possible, ignoring much of the value-driven approach that we have championed over the past generation.

The second option is for us to try and reinvigorate our existing alliances and institutions, and somehow find new strength, unity and purpose to tackle the pressing challenges we face. Unless faced with a changed approach from Washington, this will mean a significant investment in military and diplomatic power from European powers.

To achieve this would require much better relations with them, and improving our defence and foreign policy cooperation. Do they really want to partner with us fully with Brexit, still an open wound for them? Is Europe really willing to improve its NATO contributions, and explain to its electorates that there is the need for less butter and a more guns?

The third option is perhaps the most radical: a fusion between these two. We need to breathe fresh life into the phrase “Global Britain” and rethink our foreign policy not in the world we would like, but in the world we actually live in. America is no longer likely to act as the “leader of the free world”, in the short to medium term. The Chinese are increasingly willing to flex their muscles in foreign affairs (only hours after the Taliban overran Kabul, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said Beijing was ready for “friendly cooperation with Afghanistan”), and India is not far behind.

Yet in the UK our values matter to us, and our partnerships with the US and Europe are not just historical: they are based on fundamentals of our culture and shared understandings in the modern day.

I believe that the UK can help play a truly global role by seeking a more independent route in foreign affairs, by leveraging our strong relationships all over the world and our soft power. We should act as a global convenor – a trusted and safe network hub in which all the major powers wish to operate, and bring our positive influence to bear in this way.

This could be in areas as diverse as international finance (e.g. rules on international tax), diplomacy (e.g. reforming the UN and WTO), humanitarian assistance (i.e: ensuring more vaccines are sent to the developing world and tackling climate change). Not to act as a bridge between the US and EU, but to continually act as several bridges between many more powers – the US, EU, China and the Commonwealth.

Thereby, we could play a central role in reshaping the global institutional framework of tomorrow – one in which China, India, and many in the developing world feel that their status is more fairly represented. A retreat from a unipolar world into a multipolar world does not necessarily mean chaos if we have the institutions to manage that new reality.

Whatever one’s view of the right path forward, it is my strong belief that in Britain we need to shift gears. We need to accept that American power is waning, and they are no longer interested in using its blood and treasure in faraway countries of which they know little. We can either just accept this reality and continue pretending that the West’s dysfunctional institutions and military weakness doesn’t matter, or we can reinvigorate our alliances, reshape the international system, and work much more closely with the new ascending powers to try and adapt to the new multipolar reality.

The China genocide amendment. Our politicians should decide our trade policy – not our judges.

18 Jan

There is no trade deal negotiation between the UK and China.  And the way the world is changing, there isn’t going to be one.

That being so, why has an amendment been tabled to the Trade Bill, which will be considered in the Commons tomorrow, that would empower our courts to consider claims of genocide and revoke trade deals with countries found guilty of it?  The amendment is aimed fairly and squarely at China over its treatment of the Uighurs.

The answer is that campaigners against genocide, or the Chinese Communist regime (or both) are frustrated twice over.

First, there is no way that a case against China would be heard by an international court.  It can block hearings both by the International Court of Justice, since these need the consent of the parties concerned, and to the International Criminal Court, as a member of the UN Security Council.  And it would smother any special tribunal plan at birth.

The second is that, when campaigners seek to evade that obstacle by finding ways of taking cases to domestic courts, the Government replies that these shouldn’t rule on them…adding that they must therefore be considered by international courts, such as the International Criminal Court of the International Court of Justice.

This circular logic infuriates campaigners, and their anger, as expressed by David Alton recently during the Lords’ consideration of the Bill, is understandable.  However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the Government’s position is wrong.  What are its main arguments?  Essentially, there are three.

First, that our own courts are unwilling to hear genocide cases, being nervous of rushing in where international ones are wary of treading.  (Only some of the Rwandan and Bosnian killings during the 1990s have been so designated.)  But it may well be that our judges have a duty to consider such cases whether they want to or not.

Second, that UK courts are not in a position to act as international ones would: in other words, gather and consider evidence. Perhaps – though there is video evidence; there are witness statements.  Furthermore, if the co-operation of China’s regime with genocide claims against it is considered indispensable, there will never be any trials at all.

Third, that it is for the Executive and the Legislature, not the Judiciary, to determine the conditions for trade deals: that these are a matter for politics – not the courts. This is a more powerful point.  Furthermore, as Ministers point out, if judges were to be empowered to rule on such deals, why set a bar for investigation as high as genocide?

Why not also allow our courts to rule on claims involving war crimes, torture, slavery, imprisonment without trial – and other offences that, while heinous, nonetheless fall short of attempts to elimate a national, ethnic, racial or religious group?  And what of positive as well as negative rights?

What about countries that allow the segregation of students based on disability, or discrimination against gay people at work, or suppress information about abortion?  Ministers worry that this amendment suggests a further extension of judical power, as dramatically highlighted last year by the Supreme Court’s ruling on prorogation.

When the Trade Bill was considered in the Lords, anti-genocide campaigners made it clear that they aren’t opposed to our courts ruling, if necessary, on those other major human rights abuses: as good and humane people, why would they be?  And amendments had indeed been tabled which sought to allow our judges to hear such cases.

Mull the implications for a moment.  No country in the world is incapable of being dragged before the bar of a human rights claim – including, by the way, the UK itself: for example, Human Rights Watch says that “the government refused in 2019 to order a fresh public inquiry into alleged UK complicity in rendition and torture”.

If you think that example is what a lawyer would call argumentative, return to the matter at hand: trade deals.  Liz Truss has rolled over more than 60 of these (it is hard to keep up).  More or less off the top of our heads, we zoom in on three of the trading partners involved: Egypt, Peru and Vietnam.

“Security officers routinely commit serious human rights violations, including torture, disappearances and extra-judicial executions, in near-absolute impunity,” Human Rights Watch says of Egypt.  “Under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government…it has been experiencing its worst human rights crisis in many decades”.

Of Peru, it writes that “threats to freedom of expression, violence against women, and abuses by security forces are …major concerns”.  “Vietnam’s human rights record remains dire in all areas,” it says. “The Communist Party maintains a monopoly on political power and allows no challenge to its leadership.”

It isn’t hard to see grounds on which a British court might wish to strike down all three of these deals, were it empowered to do so.  Would the UK be a hero or a mug to put itself in such a position?  A hero, blazing a trail for justice worldwide?  Or a mug, handing over jobs to less sentimental competitors at the bang of a judge’s gavel?

The more one thinks about it, the more one sees that anti-genocide campaigners, in search of a vehicle to take them to their destination, have boarded the only one available, suitable or not – the Trade Bill.  But empowering our courts to make a determination of genocide is one thing; giving them the right to rule on trade deals in so doing is another.

For once that say is granted in principle, why deny it in practice? If China really is inflicting genocide on the Uighars – and so it seems to be – why not let our courts rule on whether UK firms should be trading with it at all?  Do our present exports to China really come with cleaner hands than the future ones that would follow a putative trade deal?

MPs’ assessments of how to vote on China, genocide and the courts will be influenced as much by Parliamentary tactics as by political principle.  Would opposing the amendment send a signal of weakness to China?  Maybe.  But what will happen next if enough MPs make that calculation, back the amendment, and it passes?

A Government concession could be on the cards.  In the Lords debates on the Bill, Ministers argued that they agree with action on trade deals over human rights, and that they are already acting anyway – “we seek to ensure that human rights are recognised and protected in all our free trade agreements,” as Lord Grimstone, the Minister, put it.

With the China Research Group on the case – plus the Board of Deputies of British Jews, ever-active when genocide claims are concerned – the scene may be set for Ministers tightening up their human rights’ tests for trade deals.

If so, they will try to balance justice concerns, British business interests and Parliamentary accountability in such a way as to persuade Tory supporters of the amendment to abstain, and those MPs who are preparing to abstain to go through the Government lobby instead.

Looking wider than the context of a trade deal that won’t happen anyway, Dominic Raab says that China’s treatment of the Uighars amounts to torture, and that companies profiting from it should be barred from business in the UK.

Ministers also have the option of discouraging investment in China, cracking down on its subversion, influence-peddling and espionage here – and even imposing sanctions, if that’s a route voters and MPs are willing to pursue. Unlikely?  Perhaps.  But less problematic than extending judicial power to trade policy.