By seizing the Crimea, Russia has threatened the international community

Aaron Ellis

As the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine escalated over the weekend, many in the West showed an embarrassing lack of character. Seemingly contemptuous of its international obligations, a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council seized the territory of another country, justifying its actions on the same grounds as Hitler when he demanded the Sudetenland. Rather than appreciate the potential awfulness of the crisis and summon up their courage, however, Westerners reacted to it parochially and with snark.

“It’s Europe’s problem, let them sort it out,” declared many Americans, “we don’t have any interests there”, whereas various Western Europeans commented that, “We cannot be dragged into a war because of Russophobes in the East.” Those on the right of the political spectrum in both Britain and the United States blamed the supposedly ‘weak’ President Obama. Sajid Javid, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, claimed that there is ‘a direct link’ between Ed Miliband’s opposition to intervening in Syria last summer and Moscow’s actions now, making the Labour leader unfit to be Prime Minister. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy: Who gives a shit about all this? Russia is invading Ukraine.

The Allies fought a world war for, and built an international system on the principle that states must not be allowed to forcibly redraw their borders – no matter how much the people in the annexed territories ‘like’ their occupiers. We enshrined it in the UN Charter: ‘All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity…of any state’. The system that was created by the Allies (Russia amongst them) was designed to help countries find “the surer ways of preserving peace”, as Margaret Thatcher once said, ways enabling “the peoples of each sovereign state to lead their lives as they choose within established borders.”

When President Putin seized the Crimea, Ukraine became a vital interest of Britain, the United States, the European Union, and indeed anyone else interested in maintaining world peace. Mr. Putin’s actions struck at the foundation of a global order that has, in his own words, ‘underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.’ We simply cannot allow the challenge to go unpunished.

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Let’s be honest, quitting the EU would harm our foreign policy

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Aaron Ellis

Speaking at Chatham House the other day, Senator Marco Rubio declared that it ought to be up to Britain to decide its relationship with the European Union regardless of transatlantic considerations. “[Y]our American partners should respect whatever decision you make. Our alliance, our partnership, and our affection for your nation will continue regardless of the road you choose.” The reaction of many ‘Europhobes’ highlighted again why I would probably vote for us to stay in the EU if the referendum was held today – the better-off-out position exists in a foreign policy vacuum.

Typically, whenever Europhobes stray outside the national sovereignty vs. supranational governance debate into the wider world, it is to try to outflank the Europhiles. For example, the claim that the Commonwealth can be an alternative trading bloc is an attempt to undermine the economic case for staying in the EU. Yet the hysterical reaction to critical comments made by U.S. officials, amongst many others, shows just how isolated they are from foreign affairs.

Many seized on the words of Mr. Rubio, contrasting them with those of Obama officials. When Philip Gordon, the Assistant Secretary for European affairs, said that he wanted to see “a strong United Kingdom in a strong European Union”, it was part of a pattern of ‘bullying’ according to Tim Stanley. John Redwood wrote that the United States wanted us to be ‘subservient’ to Brussels, betraying the values that underpin their hard-won republic. Nile Gardiner, who advised the Romney campaign, claimed that this would never have happened had his candidate won the White House last year – even arguing that ‘Britain’s policy on Europe is none of President Obama’s business.’ If increasing tension between close U.S. allies is none of Mr. Obama’s business, then, by implication, he shouldn’t involve himself in the Falklands dispute – a regular bugbear of Mr. Gardiner’s…

Rather than simply a restatement of a position that the United States has held for decades, all this is a further manifestation of the visceral hatred that Mr. Obama supposedly feels for our country.

Yet had Tim and others looked more closely, they would have seen that both Gordon and Rubio more or less said the same thing. Like the former, the senator emphasised that he wanted a strong EU, which he sees as both “a stabilizing force on the continent” and “an effective [American] partner on key international issues”. Like Mr. Rubio, Mr. Gordon emphasised that Britain’s relationship with Brussels was ultimately a matter for us to decide. He is a Democrat, of course, whereas the senator is a Republican, which for some on the right makes a world of difference.  

Europhobes’ hysterical reaction to the foreign policy implications of withdrawal makes me reluctant to buy into the Better Off Out campaign. They have no real alternative for the influence that Britain currently enjoys due to its dominance of the European External Action Service (EAS).

Our diplomats were instrumental in drafting the 2010 declaration that made the Service subservient to the foreign policies of the Member States – effectively, the foreign policies of Britain and France. As of last year, six of the most senior positions in the EAS are held by British diplomats on temporary secondment. Given our large foreign policy apparatus and expertise in a wide range of international issues, Britain is best placed to occupy the one-third of EAS positions that are reserved for the officials of Member States and use them to push the EU in directions we want it to go.

This will be important to Mr. Rubio should he become either President or Vice-President after 2016. EAS currently controls the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which tries to bring those on the continent’s periphery into the EU’s orbit – like Ukraine. In his speech, the senator argued that both Brussels and Washington needed to “ensure that those on Europe’s periphery who still desire to join the Western community of democracies retain the option if they meet the entry requirements.” Yet if it was not for Britain, the union might not be as large as it is today, and a Christie-Rubio administration would want us to stay in it in order to continue pushing back Russian influence.

In his speech, Mr. Rubio also emphasised the importance of NATO and yet without Britain to keep the EU committed to the Alliance, then it might, as David Cameron once warned, just “fade away.” With Britain gone, there would be renewed effort on a specifically EU security arrangement, which would duplicate the work of NATO and dissipate the energies of both organisations. In my mind’s eye, I can see a very serious-looking Vice-President Rubio standing next to Deputy Prime Minister Ed Davey, telling the assembled journalists that Britain in the EU was vital to American interests.

Leaving the European Union would negatively affect our foreign policy, but rather than offering any alternatives or explaining why taking this hit to our influence is a necessary price for our freedom, the better-off-outers act like Scottish nationalists and attack anyone who criticises them. They attack not only namby-pamby Europhiles, but also the likes of Sir Geoffrey Howe and Radoslaw Sikorski – neither of whom are Britain-hating, probably Kenyan socialists.

The greatest historian of our Party, Lord Blake, once wrote that a characteristic feature of successful Tory governments is ‘a “patriotic” foreign policy…judiciously tempered by liberal internationalism.’ Perhaps trying to emulate our Republican cousins, some Conservatives have spurned international institutions like the EU and the UN; seeing them as threats to be countered, not tools to be used. Rather than emulating the Austrian statesman Metternich – reforming the EU from the inside, as Mr. Sikorski argues – they would rather we left it entirely. That is a reasonable position for them to take, but if Europhobes are going to push for our withdrawal then they need to man up and smarten up on foreign affairs.

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If Cameron wants to rebuild British influence in the Gulf, he should be Tony Soprano, not Edward Woodward…

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Aaron Ellis

Both David Cameron and William Hague like to think they’re ‘grand strategists’ preparing our country to run the so-called “global race” for economic and political power, yet it’s tough figuring out how Syria fits into their big picture vision for Britain’s foreign policy. Last October, at the Conservative Party Conference, the Prime Minister declared that “[e]very battle we fight” and “every plan we make” helped us “rise” amidst the decline and fall of other Great Powers. Over two years before, Mr. Hague boldly stated that the Tories had “not waited thirteen years to return to office simply to oversee the management of Britain’s decline in world affairs.” As Foreign Secretary, he would create “a legacy in foreign affairs…that will be the strongest possible framework for the pursuit of the prosperity and security of the British people.” With Mr. Hague meeting opposition figures today, it’s worth asking how our involvement in Syrian civil war fits into all this.

For years now the Tory leadership has advocated rebuilding Britain’s position in the Persian Gulf, and I’ve been wondering recently about the extent to which this ambition is driving our Syria policy. Ever since Mr. Cameron and Mr. Hague took charge of the Party in 2005, strengthening relations with the Gulf States has been a prominent feature of speeches and policy documents. And it is interesting to note that the most prominent features of the Prime Minister’s approach to Syria – arming the rebels, conducting airstrikes against the al-Assad regime – are supported by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. During the build-up to his parliamentary defeat last month, Mr. Cameron said that Britain must not contract out its foreign policy to dodgy countries like Putin’s Russia. Ironically, though, he is contracting it out to the Saudis – apparently the Swedes of the Middle East…

If our Syria policy is being driven by our Gulf policy, then it’d at least imply that there is some kind of grand strategic logic to what I think is an unnecessarily large degree of British involvement in the civil war. We should be wary, however, of becoming so enmeshed with the mini-potentates of the Gulf that we find ourselves their client state rather than them being ours.

Saudi Arabia’s recent temper-tantrum has shown how our relationship with them ought to work. On Saturday, after deliberately campaigning for the position just so they could turn it down, the Saudis rejected a Non-Permanent Seat on the United Nations Security Council. Though they claimed it was in order to protest its ‘failure to respond decisively’ to the Syrian conflict, many believe the Kingdom wanted to show its anger with President Obama for thawing America’s relations with Iran. When I read about this unprecedented action, it brought out my snarky side…

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One author who predicts the coming collapse of the Gulf monarchies commented that ‘[t]his is not how a protection racket is supposed to work’, referring to the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Yet the whole point of a protection racket, as anyone who’s watched Boardwalk Empire or The Sopranos knows, is to protect the client from the racketeer himself. My ‘blogeague’ Dan Trombly puts it best:

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By frustrating the Saudis’ regional policies vis-à-vis Egypt, Iran, and Syria, the United States can start acting like a good racketeer and use Riyadh’s utter dependence on Washington to compel greater compliance to American foreign policy. If Britain wants to get into the same racketeering business in the Gulf, our role model shouldn’t be Edward Woodward in The Equalizer – helping out unfortunate Arab despots in trouble/a geopolitical rival’s civil war – but Tony Soprano.

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A restless, ambitious China needs careful handling

Jenny He

Visible military presence in China is not unusual; but in my experience it has been limited to fairly disorganised lines of privates carrying milking stools from one end of the street to the other for some sort of daily briefing.  Nanjing has been awash with soldiers these past two weeks, however, as college and university students embark on a pre-term course of military training akin to national service. All day long the choruses of nationalist lyrics can be heard; an easy method of advertising the same values to the wider community, who also received a barrage of recruitment text messages before the summer. 

But this instilling of patriotism is at odds with the mentality of the current government. Many young people in China perceive the contemporary Party to be weak compared to the ideal established by Chairman Mao.  The posturing and threats against Japan and the Philippines in reaction to territorial disputes in the South China Sea are seen by many as not going far enough. “I would like action to secure Chinese territories such as the fishing island”, says university student Michael, who like many of his age group would also be in favour of expanding the military to protect these interests. 

The government make threatening statements – most recently against perceived British interference in Hong Kong where the UK intelligence agencies are accused of widening infiltration and strengthening surveillance since it became a special autonomous region in 1997 –  but young people see the outcome as mute: “I don’t think Chinese military is as strong as the US”. The actual ability to mobilise against opponents, who would quickly find strong allies, makes military action more of a wish than a policy. The friendship between the USA and Japan is seen as unfair to China and a barrier to dealing with the territorial disputes. This is reflected in British policy also. William Hague’s visits to Asia in 2010 featured discussions on regional security in Japan, whilst China was the scene for discussions on business, climate change, and cultural exchanges. The same year did, however, see a meeting of senior military officials in Beijing.

Public desire for China’s involvement in international campaigns is mixed. The USA is often described by young people as ‘wanting to be the world policeman’ with France currently branded as ‘[Obama’s] small dog’ for supporting the campaign in Syria. Many people, infact, are unaware of the large numbers of Chinese engaged in UN missions and continue to see their country as isolated from a very foreign community.  Meanwhile others see it as a welcome and inevitable progression for China to become the new world policeman.

The FCO website lists four military areas in which the British and Chinese governments are cooperating. The first is to ‘counter the proliferation of conventional and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons’ in which China’s influence in North Korea has been useful. The second ‘is to reduce regional tensions by working for openness and understanding across borders’ – that fishing island is a diplomatic minefield. Thirdly ‘contribute to conflict prevention and supporting conflict resolution in fragile states’ which China has upheld by committing 21,000 people to 30 UN peacekeeping operations – the figures stated by Cai Yong, Chinese Defence Attache, as evidence of China’s efforts to maintain “world peace”. The fourth mission statement is to ‘deal with non-traditional security issues such as cyber crime, international terrorism, disaster relief, water and food security, and resource scarcity’ where it becomes difficult to assess the impact of the current cooperation. 

The main problem of forging closer links with China is that we don’t want to be too closely associated with a government known for human rights abuses and rife corruption. Although China is an economic powerhouse vast swathes of the country remain undeveloped and inhabited by peasant farmers; the border regions are hazardous; and cultural norms can be very different to what we consider ‘civilised’. We’re more comfortable in a relationship with a culturally similar state where we can trade off any dodgy practices with more common ground.

Premier Li called for closer ties between the UK and China on international and regional affairs at the Davos economic forum last week in Dalian. His statement that it is “in both countries’ interests to deepen bilateral cooperation and to strengthen communication and coordination on international affairs” is a positive sign for the UK after David Cameron’s ill-advised May meeting with the Dalai Lama provoked outrage in China and resulted in Cameron being banned from future visits to Beijing.

Increasing numbers of Chinese nationals go overseas to work and study (many in Britain whilst their European counterparts are living the expat lifestyle all over China), Chinese investors are buying foreign homes (including prime London real estate), and Chinese companies are expanding all over the world (China’s largest company, Sinopec, has offices in Paris).  China needs to protect all these newfound interests, whilst the UK needs to maintain a good working relationship with a government to whom we are already bound.

In arguing over Snowden, pundits should not lightly disregard the complexities of national security

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Louis Reynolds

The recent detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda at Heathrow Airport by Security Service officers is, unsurprisingly, a more complex event than most of the media has acknowledged. At both ends of the British political spectrum the series of events from the release of Snowdon’s stolen information to Miranda’s detention can be easily explained. To some, Greenwald stands as David to the state’s Goliath, the champion of journalistic freedom, fighting against a bullying security apparatus keen to use the necessity of secrecy as an excuse to crush personal liberty. To others, Miranda could be regarded as the naive puppet of a sanctimonious, short-sighted and self-interested liberal media outlet, pursuing profit and the advancement of its political agenda.

This binary perception of events fits conveniently into the timeless antagonism between liberty and security, that problem which troubled the Athenian empire of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and still troubles post-industrial states today. For Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society Douglas Murray, Julian Assange, Snowden and Greenwald are ‘saboteurs’ working towards an ‘increasingly clear and specific anti-Western agenda’. In Janet Daley’s opinion, national security concerns cannot compensate for the fact that the destruction of hard drives at the Guardian looks ‘on the face of it, like something out of East Germany in the 1970s’; Daley has even gone as far as to earnestly warn that ‘once you hear the jackboots, it’s too late’.

Despite the strong convictions of these opposing camps, this most recent incident cannot be explained in such a simplistic manner. The voluntary surrender of The Guardian’s hard drives to British intelligence officers and their subsequent destruction might seem like state intimidation; in reality it was the logical escalation of a series of requests by government officials to have the sensitive information destroyed. Miranda was not merely an innocent victim, detained because of his relationship with the man who broke the Snowden story; Miranda, whose plane ticket was paid for by The Guardian, was carrying sensitive documents on Greenwald’s behalf. Greenwald himself is not merely a champion of freedom, but a complicated actor who recently declared that the he was going to ‘publish things of England too’, that he had ‘many documents on England’s spy system’ and that they would be ‘sorry for what they did’ to his partner. Such a statement hardly echoes with the idealism of ‘give me liberty or give me death!’, and suggests motivations beyond public interest.

Yet it remains true that, if the detention of a journalist and the destruction of a newspaper’s hard drives had occurred in the same manner in Russia, the British government may well have expressed outrage and incredulity. Even Washington has felt the need to publically distance itself from events, perhaps self-indulgently given that US interaction with British security policy is far from that of a detached observer. Indeed, while this drama plays out in London and Heathrow, the real scandal remains curiously under-examined in the US, where alleged abuses of power and apparent mismanagement by the National Security Agency increasingly appear to pose a threat to the security of the US and her allies in a manner that threatens to dwarf the Snowden affair itself.

This leads us to contemplate the ‘security’ aspect of the debate. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger dismissively remarked in a recent editorial that the destroyed computers had to be thoroughly inspected ‘just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents’. Such flippant comments reveal how little such factors enter into the consideration of those at the centre of this media circus. That foreign nations or non-state actors might take advantage of intelligence leaks in order to damage our national security or that of NATO is a pressing danger, particularly given that the extent of the leaked information is uncertain. It is even clearer that these leaks are damaging to British foreign policy.

The motivations of The Guardian are principally pure, a genuine concern for personal liberty mixing with the pursuit of profit and publicity, and driven by a few significant egos. But while purity of intention confers morality on our deeds, it does not grant us special insight. Snowden betrayed the US security apparatus thanks to a schoolboy’s understanding of civil liberties; the result of his efforts to evade American justice was his courting of nations with a significant disregard for the individual freedoms and liberties. That The Guardian might through damaging the British and American states bolster opponents of liberty abroad is a clear danger. The Guardian has acted unilaterally, and judging by Greenwald’s latest outburst, driven by motives as crude as the desire to ‘stick it to the man’.

The risks of this media project are significant, and disregarded far too readily by those involved. The necessity of secrecy in intelligence work combined with the need for oversight means, as I have argued in these pages before, that we should trust in the Intelligence and Security Committee’s judgement or even perhaps seek to further bolster its powers. What is clear is that newspapers and private individuals are not more qualified to decide what is in the interest of the United Kingdom. Those involved in this media saga flippantly undertake actions with grave potential consequences. The media companies and individual ‘leakers’ involved might feel that they have a responsibility to champion civil liberties and inform the public about our security apparatuses. However, they also have a significant responsibility to consider the real repercussions of their actions in terms of the national interest, and to think more carefully before they act.

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Britain ‘pivots’ to Asia on a Japanese-made hinge

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Louis Reynolds

At first glance the twin trade and cooperation agreements signed by William Hague and His Excellency Keiichi Hayashi in London last week were a positive yet unremarkable contribution to the Coalition’s ambitions regarding the expansion of Britain’s international trade relations and the promotion of Britain’s defence industry. In actual fact, the new pact represents a broader fulfilment of the Government’s strategic vision.

The basic substance of these agreements in itself, while ground-breaking, is rather reserved. The UK-Japan Defence Equipment Coordination Framework will facilitate joint research projects within the defence industry, while the Information Security Agreement outlines the rules regarding the sharing of classified information necessitated by the cooperation effort. Initial collaboration efforts will centre on chemical, biological and radiological protective equipment, with engagement expanding to anti-air defences and similar projects at a later date.  

While this Anglo-Japanese agreement is important in simple economic terms, in the manner of previous large-scale Coalition trade agreements such as those arranged with China, or India, it crucially also has specific value in and of itself. The collaborative potential for two nations with such exceptional high-tech industrial bases and pioneering technological expertise is extensive, and the pact has the added attraction of relative exclusivity; the United Kingdom is now Japan’s only defence research and development partner with the exception of the United States.

Furthermore, the agreements fulfil a significant part of Hague’s vision, as set out in his July 2010 speech Britain’s Prosperity in a Networked World,of an increased focus on new, tailored partnerships with a broader range of global powers. This is in turn part of the Coalition’s divergence from Britain’s previous (perhaps antiquated) foreign policy set around traditional alliances. Cameron and Hague are seeking to establish Britain as an innovative power capable of diplomatic flexibility in a multi-polar world.

Considered in the context of the UK’s recent activities in the Far East - her opposition to the removal of the EU arms embargo on China, Cameron’s tour of other Asian states, her expressed desire to see an augmentation of the military capabilities of China’s neighbours and finally the ‘Vietnam-UK Plan of Action - it would require little imagination to view these latest agreements with Japan as part of a broad attempt to increase Britain’s profile as a power-player in Asia.

Yet while these agreements are indicative of important cultural shifts in British foreign policy – shifts away from traditional alliances, away from Imperial baggage and away from a Eurocentric understanding of foreign policy – it is important to maintain perspective. Britain is not in a position to directly influence trends and events in Asia. Reduced military power, economic ailments and the continued decline of comparative European power in general limits Britain’s capability to act independently in such a critical region so far from home, in terms of hard or soft power. Yet Britain has unique strengths and capabilities and remains a powerful international actor as well as a highly desirable ally. For Britain to make best use of the opportunities of Asia in the twenty-first century, it is necessary that she applies her distinctive skills within the context of cooperation with other powers.

Earlier this year I attended the last foreign speech given by Leon Panetta, then United States Secretary of Defence. The address largely focused on the necessity of an American ‘pivot towards Asia’, and framed the European Union as a potential senior partner in such a strategy. Panetta’s argument was greeted with a degree of scepticism – the EU and foreign policy can occasionally seem to be incompatible concepts – but his logic seems clearer today than it did in January. The lack of reference to the United Kingdom as an independent power was prominent in Panetta’s speech, as was the firm focus on Britain’s role within the EU - perhaps more a reflection of changes in the international order than any significant British decline. This Government seems to understand the new reality too; Hague mentioned the European Union twelve times in his Britain in Asia speech last week.

These latest Anglo-Japanese agreements therefore represent much more than an innovative response to economic concerns, though Britain’s economic motivations are prominent in her foreign policy. For the United Kingdom they represent a positive reaction to broader shifts in international political dynamics. For the Coalition these developments demonstrate a positive and proactive attitude to changes which Britain must embrace, and which, if handled correctly, could stand to make Britain stronger.



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Is Hassan Rouhani the Iranian leader that the West has been waiting for?

Giles Marshall

When Iran last held an election – four years ago, as its constitution demands – protests greeted the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmahdinejad which went on for days and even led to some expectation in the West that a long awaited “green revolution” might be at hand. The U.S., under its relatively new and apparently liberal president, played a careful role, keeping public comments low-key in order not to further inflame a clearly delicate situation. President Obama was clear that there was to be no US intervention, and he faced a predictable round of right-wing criticism for his temperance.

Yet there is a case for seeing Mr.Obama’s earlier restraint as a necessary factor in this year’s victory of a would-be reformer in Iran. Using the voting booth – something western audiences could sometimes be forgiven for thinking that Iran doesn’t possess – the Iranians have now given their presidency to Hassan Rouhani, a reform minded cleric.

Mr. Rouhani may seem an unlikely reformer, and there are those in Iran who certainly consider his new, reform mantle to be as yet untested. Indeed, the clue to his political stance lies more in the pragmatism which he embraces than any ideological commitment to reform. Nevertheless, this is as good as it can get for Iran, and Mr. Rouhani came to power on the strength of many of the voters who saw the 2009 election as a fraudulent steal. With both of his pragmatist predecessors – Rafsanjani and Khatami – weighing in to support him, and the late withdrawal of the only openly reformist candidate, no-one can doubt where Mr. Rouhani has drawn the majority of his astonishing support.

The new president has given much cause for optimism, despite the predictably downbeat comments of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, hard-line leader of the region’s only nuclear power. What his election now offers, however, is a real challenge to the policy makers of the West, and in particular to Mr. Obama.

The hostility to Iran has always been led by America, and in Mr. Ahmahdinejad they had a suitably clownish opponent, easily subject to caricature. America’s attitude, however, has not been without its faults. In a new and devastating critique of the West’s attitude towards Iran, Peter Oborne and David Morrison charge the United States in particular with an unwonted hypocrisy in its dealings with the Islamic state, which reach back to the CIA-sponsored coup of 1957. 

Oborne and Morrison’s book, A Dangerous Delusion, should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand the alternative view of the threat that Iran poses towards the West. The authors set out, passionately but in convincing detail, the case for Iran. A power that has abided by the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty despite the provocations and misrepresentations it has been subject to; an essentially peaceful nation which has – rarely for the region – never provoked a war since the end of the Second World War; an intelligent regional power which can justly feel threatened by the lead swinging of its nuclear neighbour, Israel. They point out the baselessness of accusations of nuclear weaponry levelled against Iran, whilst countries who have failed to sign up to the NPT to which Iran is a signatory – Israel, India, Pakistan – have continued to receive substantial US investment. In short, Iran is suffering from a caricature portrayal in the western media that is not born out by its actions.

Iran has entered a new era with the election of Mr. Rouhani. The wrongs of the 2009 election have been righted, and that earlier American caution has paid dividends. However, Iran can only engage practically with the West if there is a similar desire to engage in the West itself. A couple of years ago, Barack Obama might have seemed just the sort of president needed to ensure that such engagement could happen. His international liberalism has taken a few blows recently, but the Iranians have offered him a tremendous opportunity to re-shape the world polity in a positive and less dangerous direction.

With the civil war in Syria showing signs of leaking abroad, the need to have a flexible attitude towards Iran that is based on respect towards an ancient regional power rather than the neuroses of decades of hostile reaction, is as urgent as it has ever been. But it doesn’t just require the pragmatic skills of President Rouhani. It requires realism and a willingness to break out of the Washington box from Mr. Obama, and that is still far from assured.

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We cannot both spy on the spies and expect them to keep us safe

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Louis Reynolds

Many have been left horrified discovering that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) operates a sophisticated database, called PRISM, where internet and telecommunications data is compiled for analysis. And even more shockingly, GCHQ has had access to this programme since at least 2010.

Of course, none of this should be surprising.

The US and the UK have been coordinating their signals intelligence efforts since 1941. More specifically, PRISM was authorised by the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, established in 1978 to oversee requests for surveillance warrants on foreign targets within the US, and the programme is legislatively sanctioned by the Protect America Act (2007). It is a legal programme, and GCHQ’s use of PRISM information falls well within the ethical principles laid down to guide British cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies, as the Foreign Secretary has said.

Some specific aspects of the PRISM programme have upset individuals appropriately concerned for their civil liberties. The attention suddenly drawn to the cooperation between private international companies such as Microsoft or Google and American intelligence agencies has worried many. Yet the rules allowing this collaboration were established under the FISA Amendment Act (2008), not in a secret government complex or a democratic vacuum.

While it would be excessive to list them, some of the powers granted by Congress to the US government with regards to the surveillance of its citizens are surprisingly extensive. Any person with an interest in the democratic process in the UK or the US has the opportunity to be well informed, generally speaking, as to the legal limitations on intelligence agencies. There can be no scandal there. But how does one know what the intelligence community actually gets up to?

The U.S. Director of National Intelligence has stated that data ‘accidentally’ collected from American citizens is kept to a minimum, in doing so highlighting the difficulty of not overstepping the legal boundaries which protect the privacy of law-abiding individuals. Participatory democratic process defines the limits of surveillance on private citizens, but what stops these secret programmes from exceeding them? Simply put: oversight. We entrust a small group of our politicians with the duty of preventing breaches of the law and restricting the activities of our intelligence community. The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the more pithily named Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) oversee US and UK intelligence efforts respectively.

Therein, however, lies the rub.

In an increasingly hyper-democratic society, where ever greater transparency and direct public scrutiny form an often unchallenged part of the political zeitgeist, the concept of trusting a secretive cabal of second-home switching, speeding-fine avoiding career politicians with our liberty seems outmoded and impossible. The new demands of the modern age are clearly demonstrated by the fact that since 1995, the annual reports of the ISC have been publicly available.

Yet the timeless – and crucial – need the intelligence community has for secrecy is shown by its heavy redaction. Take this informative jewel of information, taken from last year’s annual ISC report: ‘Describing GCHQ’s monitoring capabilities, the Director said: “***”.’

The attention PRISM has garnered in the press is not revelatory, other than as a tantalising, illicit glimpse into a secretive world which is denied to the great majority of us. It relates instead to the fundamental tension between the increasing importance of intelligence to our security and our demands for direct participation in government and full knowledge of the state’s affairs. This dichotomy, though perhaps more acute that it has been previously, is not new, but is a necessary and longstanding problem inherent to the basic operation of a democratic state – in response to which Parliamentary oversight has been prescribed as the most appropriate response.

H.M. Government’s security apparatus – in terms of legal limitations, budgets and overall purpose among other issues – should be (and is) constantly scrutinised by the public. More than anything, the critical eye of the population at large safeguards our liberty. But we cannot and should not expect to peer into the world of secret intelligence.

If people are worried that PRISM and programmes like it go too far, there is a reasonable case to be made for reducing the legal powers of intelligence agencies. Similarly, the often criticised composition of the ISC as a Parliamentary Committee rather than a Committee of Parliamentarians and the influence of the Prime Minister over their appointment and reporting are reasonable points for concern. However, now that PRISM has attained the status of ‘scandal’, modern British popular  political culture demands that we are told all of the details in full, as an assurance that our civil liberties are not being compromised. Yet this cannot be done while fully safeguarding the security of the United Kingdom, a security we too often take for granted.

The people want answers! That is reassuring. But they should wait for the ISC report.

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