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.

Allan Mallinson: What is the army for?

30 Aug

Allan Mallinson is a former soldier, novelist and writer. 

So it leaked out that the MoD is considering scrapping its tanks. And Tobias Ellwood, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, says it would be better if the MoD waited for the strategic direction to emerge from the Cabinet Office’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.

They’re both right. Logically, decisions about tanks – the heavy end of army business – ought to follow from how the Review sees the future. On the other hand, the MoD has a budget to manage and can’t assume it will get bigger. They’ve been looking at options for a “strategic pause” in procurement for the past two years. That’s what staff work is about: possibilities, options, risks. Besides, they’ve been asked specifically by the Review “What changes are needed to Defence so that it can underpin the UK’s security and respond to the challenges and opportunities we face?”

I know this because I’ve been asked the same. Last week I received an invitation from the MoD to enter a submission. It was no particular honour. Everyone is invited: see the link here.

We’ve been here before. In 1998 the new Blair government had celebrity focus groups for its Strategic Defence Review. It made participants feel important. They bought into the outcome, which by and large they agreed was a good one, which it would have been if only the premises had held good, which they didn’t, and if Gordon Brown’s Treasury had funded it, which they didn’t. Perhaps this time things will be different.

The Integrated Review intends to “define the Government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade”. It will set “the long-term strategic aims of our international policy and national security, rooted in our national interests, so that our activity overseas delivers for the British people.”

It will “re-examine the UK’s priorities and objectives in light of the UK’s departure from the European Union and at a time when the global landscape is changing rapidly.” For it foresees “increasing instability and challenges to global governance”, adding that last year witnessed the highest number of state-based conflicts since 1946.

In the last decade it estimates that “more than half the world’s population lived in direct contact with, or proximity to, significant political violence”, and that by 2030 some 80 per cent of the world’s extreme poor will live in fragile states.

It’s not all bad news, though. The Cabinet Office believes that in 2030 the UK will be “stronger, wealthier, more equal, more sustainable, more united across nations and regions.”

In asking what changes are needed to Defence, the Review adds that submissions “focusing on the changing character of warfare, broader concepts of deterrence, technological advantage and the role of the Armed Forces in building national resilience are particularly welcome.”

So, not exactly blue-sky thinking, but certainly not (too) constrained. My inclination, however, as I was first a soldier, is to leave vexed questions such as Trident replacement, the superiority of land-based airpower, and the vulnerability of our “carrier-strike”, and instead ask rather more basically “What is the army for?” (Not “will be for“, because that implies it has no enduring purpose).

For the army is in a very present predicament. According to one former Chief of the General Staff, the robustly pragmatic Sir Mike Jackson, the army is probably no longer capable of war because it is simply too small, a “shadow”, he says, of what it was just a few decades ago.

Too much of it is part-time, with all that that means for quality and readiness. At the end of the Cold War the regular army was more twice its present size, and the Territorials were 80,000. Now the regulars can barely muster 80,000, and the Reserve 30,000.

How did it happen? The answer could be instructive.

John Major cut numbers drastically at the end of the Cold War – his “peace dividend”. The then CGS, Sir John Chapple, argued in vain that the army needed the dividend more than the Treasury because the future was so uncertain. Indeed, at the time the army was still liberating Kuwait. But as William Cecil, Lord Burghley, wrote, “Soldiers in peace are like chimneys in summer”; and Major saw that the future was peaceful.

Blair and Brown, despite their interventionist appetites – Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan – cut troop and equipment numbers even further, justified by novel doctrines of limited scale and “fast in, fast out”, as if the enemy had no vote.

Worse still, in 2010 the Coalition government all but emasculated the infantry and armoured corps, even while fighting continued in Iraq and Afghanistan. The chancellor, George Osborne, anticipating the end of both campaigns and the coming of the elusive “summer”, demanded more chimneys be blocked up. Both Iraq and Afghanistan had been policy mistakes, ran the logic; policy mistakes could be avoided, and “winter”, if it returned at all, needn’t be too severe. Indeed, if there were a smaller army there’d be less incentive to use it.

This was nothing new. Writing of the Duke of Wellington’s struggle with the Whig government in the 1830s, the historian Sir John Fortescue concluded “Wellington’s care was less to improve the army than to save it from destruction.”

The same could be said of all army chiefs since the end of the Cold War. With no threat of invasion, no threat to internal security requiring a military response, and little need to defend overseas possessions, all that they’ve been able to do is point to residual Nato commitments, “defence engagement” (working and training with local forces in areas of instability) and peacekeeping.

But in auditing the manpower bill for this, the Treasury has always been able to find further economies because they’re good at measuring finite things. More cuts followed in 2015. Consequently there are now more postmen than regular troops.

The problem is that the MoD is always made to answer the wrong question. Or chooses to.

The Greeks had a word for it. They called their army stratos, “a body of men”, while the Romans called theirs not by what it was but by what it did: exercitus – “practice”, “training”. Both took for granted the fundamental need for a body of men that trained constantly.

When in 1906, however, Britain’s great reforming war minister, the philosopher Richard Burdon Haldane, famously asked “What is the army for?” he posed a different and existential question. Did the army, like the Royal Navy, have a specifiable purpose that not just determined its form but justified its very being? 1914 rudely interrupted the discussion.

What answer should the Integrated Review expect of the same question today? The Royal Navy is responsible for the strategic nuclear deterrent, and minds Britain’s trade routes as advocated by Sir Walter Raleigh. The Royal Air Force exists for the air defence of the United Kingdom, for which it was founded in April 1918, the air arms of the other two services having been judged not up to the task.

These functions are 24/7. But the army has no comparable purpose. Not, at least, one that justifies its existence beyond its original purpose in 1660: a few guards and garrisons. It should therefore refuse battle on terms of mere accountancy.

Trotsky explained why: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Only during the Cold War has Britain had remotely adequate defence insurance. Instead it has preferred to pay ruinous repair bills. In 1985, at the height of the Cold War, defence spending was 5.1 per cent of GDP. At present, as a Nato member the UK is committed to just two per cent of GDP.

In real terms, this will not fund armed forces capable of full-spectrum war. Can it really make sense for post-Brexit “Global Britain” to be paying an insurance policy comparable to those of Belgium and Luxembourg?

Indeed, rather than insurance, shouldn’t the Defence budget be regarded as infrastructure investment, like HS2?

Rather than trying to justify itself by specific tasks, which come and go at a whim, the army should insist on funding for its fundamental, enduring purpose: to be ready for war, war that cannot be foreseen or its character predicted – even, paradoxically, by the army itself.

That, ultimately, is what the army is for.

Roderick Crawford: We have interests in the rest of Europe, but must be free to run our own foreign policy

6 Jul

Roderick Crawford works on conflict resolution in countries such as Yemen, South Sudan and Iraq, and on Brexit-related matters. He is a former editor of Parliamentary Brief.

One could be forgiven a sense of déjà vu as we enter the second round of accelerated talks, this time in London. The high hopes of breakthrough at the start of last week’s talks were dashed as they broke up on Thursday last. The same sticking points remain: the legal structure of the agreement, level playing field commitments, including state aid, and of course fisheries. Specific details have not been released, so it is hard to comment on why the progress on getting agreement on underlying principles has failed to materialise.

Though working through the underlying principles of the agreement should help identify where the barriers to agreement lie, a look at the overarching principles of the negotiating positions of the two parties may throw better light on the lack of progress.

Last month, Der Spiegel ran an interview with the Anglophile former German Ambassador in London, Peter Wittig; he provided a revealing glimpse into the EU’s perspective on the negotiations. Asked whether, in effect, the EU should accept a hard Brexit and let the UK go, he says, no:

‘We should continue to endeavour to tie Britain as closely as possible to the European Union. Europe can only survive in the competition between the USA and China if it is strong and united. I always thought it was good that the Federal Government was the voice of pragmatic reason in all these difficult negotiation phases. I advise everyone not to think about the short-term effect, but to keep a strategic eye on where Europe should be in five, ten or 15 years.’

The quote is interesting because it is part of an intra-German conversation from a friend of the UK expressing pragmatic views on the big picture in which Brexit sits. While the UK has been caught up in its own arguments and political storms – and of course running ourselves down – we have lost sight of the impact of Brexit on the EU: it has been considerable.

The EU has lost its only global city, its only global finance centre, its most dynamic services economy, 12 per cent of its consumers – more when weighted for income – and its only universities ranked in the world’s top ten. It has lost a major pillar of good governance (the UK was a consistent upholder of the EU’s rules-based system) and a source of sound counsel.

As the EU looks to develop its common foreign policy and defence co-operation, it does so now from a far weaker base. The UK was one of two EU permanent members of the UN Security Council, one of two nuclear powers.

It had the only blue-water navy capable of working with the US; China has just achieved a two aircraft carrier capability – the UK will soon be there, too. It has a battle-tested professional army and air force. The UK alone had the capability of power projection across the world – albeit with limitations – and the will to do so. The Foreign Office, despite its shortcomings, is still world class and the UK’s influence is, arguably, stronger across the world than any single EU member state.

The EU is diminished, while the fault lines on which it sits become more unstable. To its east, Russia is reviving in confidence as its actions in Ukraine, Syria, and its challenges to the West demonstrate. Turkey has become a regional player, outside of the NATO fold, and looks to a future untied to the EU. The Middle East and North Africa are unstable, and a source of potential and probable mass migration to the EU driven by demographics, economic and political failures and climate change.

The UK looks out across the North Sea to Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, and across the Channel to Belgium and France; to our west lie the USA and Canada. It is an envious position to be in, though not one deserving of complacency: we still want a secure and stable EU. We are committed to the peace and security of Europe through NATO; in these respects, our interests and obligation in NATO, we are tied in.

One of the problems in the current negotiations is that the EU has re-written history to build up its own role in keeping the peace of the last half century. One of its foundational myths is that it has been the EU that has kept the peace in Europe. It even claims responsibility for the Belfast Agreement.

But its claims to success are absent of evidence. It is the transatlantic partnership that has kept the peace in Europe; it was the Northern Irish, London and Dublin – with US support – who brought about the Belfast Agreement. The EU forgets its role in the break up of Yugoslavia, and the subsequent wars and civil wars ended only with US engagement. Its diplomatic bungle over Kosovo, when it resurrected the July 1914 ultimatum to Serbia, ended likewise – and at great cost in civilian lives. The EU has not kept the peace in Europe.

The EU’s ambitious partnership proposal is overly ambitious, based as it is on inflated ideas of its own story and present capability; the ideas of uniquely shared values and interests ignore that they are shared with the English-speaking world and beyond. When the myth is removed, and the reality of the EU’s position is seen — its risk levels, its lack of investment in NATO and its own level of defence preparedness, and its poor relations with its neighbours — it is hardly an attractive partner; more of a liability.

The EU, quite understandably, wants the UK as closely tied in as possible to its defence and foreign policy (and economy). The UK, quite understandably, does not. Present commitments through NATO provide sufficient security to the EU’s members and help balance much, though not all, of their security concerns. The UK will do more, through co-operation bilaterally with members and freely alongside the EU too.

The EU and UK can co-operate to secure shared interests, but ultimately, though the UK wants a stable and secure EU and stability and security for its member states, there are differences in interests. The UK must be free to run its own foreign policy, champion alliances that may take precedence over that with the EU and policies that the EU will oppose — even the freedom to support member state interests against those of the EU institutions. It cannot be tied-in to a punitive governance structure to prevent it exercising such choices.

The overarching principles of the EU and the UK as regards governance of the future relationship are in conflict — we can’t be tied-in and free simultaneously; papering over the differences would breed confusion and likely lead to fresh upsets in the future. The UK cannot afford to accept a single overarching governance structure or claims upon it in the field of the EU’s common foreign policy and defence.