THE UK DEFENSE DEBATE: A PLACE IN THE WORLD OR BY ITSELF?

Photo: http://www.independent.co.uk/

By
Harry C. Blaney III

London Dateline

I had the opportunity to attend an on-the-record “research” meeting at the Chatham House looking at UK defense policy and the presentations and discussions only reinforced the sense of a listlessness and disarray that characterizes much of Prime Minister David Cameron’s international policies and Britain’s role in the world. 

Two issues exemplify this. The first is Cameron’s foolish commitment to the right wing Tory MPs to a vote on UK membership in the EU, thus forever forfeiting Britain a role in European policy and decisions. The second, is on the UK defense budget and strategic stance which foresees cuts in funding which will weaken Britain’s ability to act as a major force on security issues in Europe and globally.  That means a diminished role in security matters with allies, and not least, to effectively defend British interests in conflicts abroad and in Europe.  It will further weaken NATO’s capability as the UK has been the second largest contributor to NATO overall defense resources. 

Over the decades I have been witness to many discussions and debates about NATO, UK and American defense issues both within and outside of government. This session was among my most disappointing, not because the speakers were bad, but because they were very frank on the implications and inevitability of long-term decline in UK “hard power” reach. 

Further, it was clear that despite many governmental and non-governmental studies some of their thinking was declared by participants to be somewhat limited and often too driven by bureaucratic and ideological and budget forces. They were not always driven by good strategic perspectives. Also one speaker reflected that the influence of the disastrous participation in the Iraq war had also installed among the public and politicians distaste for further military action abroad.

All of this retreat from defense engagement is worrying in the face of a series of uprisings, conflicts, the Arab Spring and its consequences, ISIS, Putin’s aggression, China’s military buildup and South China Sea adventures, and not least, the spread of terrorism and civil and ethnic war.

One commentator said that NATO was looking petty shaky after the UK budget cuts were fairly well known. Clearly Britain’s voice in the halls of EU and NATO defense decisions has been weakened and it was acknowledged that such decisions will diminish UK’s influence in America, noting that France seems now to have the ear of Washington. 

This is especially the case since Prime Minister Cameron at the earlier NATO summit in Scotland had criticized other NATO countries for not meeting their 2% NATO commitment to military budgets and is now in danger of missing this benchmark.

One commentator said basically that Britain had resigned as “a great power” while another phrase used was “giving up as a “world power” in foreign policy. Yet conversely the concept of being a world power had not yet been given up by Cameron. The other view was Britain is still playing a “supporting role.” The implication was that Britain could no longer act on its own. 

There was very little discussion of Britain’s nuclear force which is being questioned as being useless by some and as a “necessity” by others. Trident’s future still has not been finally decided but some feel this capability is losing its attractiveness. 

In my own intervention, I asked why the larger strategic geopolitical assessment had not played a bigger role in either the discussion or in the new government. Clearly it was a case of the “Emperor having no clothes.” Asking these key questions in drawing up the budget would undermine the decision to cut the UK defense budget willy-nilly. Clearly it was overall political budget cuts that ruled. All this was a result of a promised “forever” budget surplus by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Mr. George Osborne, a strident advocate of austerity and right wing causes and possible future Prime Minister, and not of honest strategic assessments. The political decisions were all that mattered.

The real need for a hard look at the strategy and then shape the budget was urged and priority should be the need for UK military’s to aim for “adaptability.”  This approach was argued due to the reality of still unknown risks and opportunities. The point was made to the hard fact of the actually realities at existing “mid-level” strategic situations, not just at uncertain long term theories and projections, which can never be fully known or accurate. In short, keep open your options and prepare for the unexpected.   

In the end, it was real flexible capability not just grand strategy that Britain needed to achieve. So the real question is what is Britain’s role in the world?  What are its fundamental interests and what are the risks it faces now and in the near future? 

A question that I also asked was if there was any thought of not just conflict responses, but looking at playing a larger role in conflict prevention and “soft diplomacy” and peacemaking/peacekeeping which requires an adaptable force, that would help make Britain be again a useful payer on the global stage. Some liked the idea, but there is not much defense industry interest in this more human level capability verses profits of large weapons systems. 

As one speaker said we need to ask “what are we?” The answer is sadly diminished, inward looking, greedy for the interests of the rich and damn the poor, and now equally damn national security or our alliances, if we can lower the taxes on the rich and create a surplus and stay in power.  The right wing is in the ascendency here for the moment and it is ironic that it is the Tories, that in the past and until now, have claimed the role of guardian of national security and global reach, that now have sold that honor down the river of expediency and concessions to misguided Euro-skepticism  and “Little England” isolationists.

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