"Mission accomplished" in Afghanistan? For the Tory Party, yes.

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Aaron Ellis

On Monday, the Prime Minister declared that Britain had accomplished its mission in Afghanistan. A “basic level of security” had been achieved there meaning our troops could come home with their “heads held high”. Mr. Cameron has a weakness for hyperbolae (e.g. GCHQ searching for online paedophiles is comparable to the Enigma code-breakers…) and he was criticised for making such a sanguine statement. The conflict is far from “mission accomplished” – though as far as the Tories are concerned, it has served its purpose.

Afghanistan is more important to David Cameron than most people, he included, probably realise. It is the source of his contradictory foreign policy and it was crucial to the rehabilitation of our Party as a responsible alternative government to Labour.

In his handling of foreign policy, Mr. Cameron is torn between idealism and realism – and Afghanistan is the source of these conflicting impulses. He believes that al-Qa’ida used the country as a base because it was a failed state and it was a failed state because the West abandoned it after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. For him, it “is a great example of a country that if we walk away from and if we ignore and if we forget about, the problems will come visited back on our doorstep.” Had the West somehow ended the civil war and helped it with development assistance, then ‘just think what might have been avoided.’ This conviction lay behind the interventions in Libya and Mali. When justifying Mali, the Prime Minister argued that if Britain did not “make the world safe all over the place”, then the threat from militant Islamists would only grow and “we will face it” eventually. Yet this limitless interventionism jars with his efforts to portray himself as a prudent realist.

We are running a global race for power and influence, according to Mr. Cameron, necessitating a strategic foreign policy which focuses on our national interests. “If our influence is under challenge,” as William Hague believes it is, then we must “make the most, systematically and strategically, of our great national assets.” This is especially true when it comes to the military. Whereas Labour “made too many commitments without the resources to back them up”, the Conservatives would be more discriminating. Afghanistan is the perfect example. In 2006, Tony Blair authorised troops to go into Helmand in insufficient numbers for the goals he had set them. Just a few years later when Gordon Brown wanted to send in more, Tory support was conditional on a “tightly defined” strategy “backed up by extra equipment”. In Mr. Cameron’s view, we simply can’t afford anymore these wars to build perfect societies in inhospitable places. “Every battle we fight” must help Britain “rise” amidst the decline and fall of other Great Powers.

Underpinning this contradictory foreign policy is the way he thinks about globalisation; it justifies both his idealism and realism. For almost two decades now, many in the West have been in thrall to an idea which I call ‘the internationalisation of the national interest’. It is the belief that the world has become so interconnected that crises in developing countries threaten our own security and therefore we must resolve them pre-emptively. Mr. Blair once argued that if governments are ultimately concerned about protecting their own people, as realists argue, then “the new frontiers for our security are global”. The Tory leadership buys into this idealistic worldview, but it also believes that globalisation has created the global race, which demands a realist response. Mr. Hague once tried to square the circle: “We should never be ashamed of saying we will promote our own national interest,” for it “is no narrow agenda”.

Even though the Prime Minister thinks about international crises like Libya and Mali in Blairite terms, as Leader of the Opposition he often attacked Labour for its allegedly idealistic and astrategic foreign policy. These criticisms, especially those about Afghanistan, helped rehabilitate the Conservatives as a party of government.

By supporting the war in principle but attacking Labour’s handling of it, David Cameron could portray himself as a responsible and “hard-headed” statesman, dispelling fears that he was not up to the job of running the country. Since the mid-1990s, the Tories had been dogged by a widespread belief that they were too irresponsible to hold office. Britain is in an era of ‘valence’ politics, it is argued: voters value ‘competence and credibility over commitment to a cause or class’ according to Tim Bale. It was essential, therefore, for Mr. Cameron to portray the Party as ‘a proficient alternative administration’. When it came to Labour and Afghanistan, he used a tactic that has always worked well for us in the past: claiming our opponents were too weak or incompetent to be trusted with the serious business of war. This tactic was an important part of the long campaign to force out Gordon Brown.

It is strange to think now just how tough an adversary Mr. Brown was, especially when you examine the popular image of him as ‘substantial’ in the context of the Tories’ perception problem. Labour capitalised on this with the ‘Not flash, just Gordon’ advertisement campaign. His popularity proved short-lived, as we all know, but the financial crash could have been for him ‘what 9/11 was to Blair.’ These crises engaged their respective skills, ‘fitted into [their] worldview, and saw [them] acting in a bold and confident fashion’, writes the politics scholar Stephen Dyson. And just as the War on Terror strengthened the image of Mr. Blair as a responsible guardian of Britain’s safety, Mr. Brown’s handling of the crash had the same potential. If he was to be forced out of office, the Tory leadership would have to play on an alternative perception of him – an incompetent leader whose actions were motivated by concerns that had nothing to do with the national interest.

The Conservative critique of Afghanistan reinforced this perception. Labour had insufficiently ‘realist’ aims (“creat[ing] Switzerland in the Hindu Kush”) and they lacked the commitment needed to fight, denying the military the resources it needed to win. In July 2009, Mr. Brown was thrown off guard when the then Chief of the Defence Staff claimed that more helicopters in the country would save lives. Mr. Cameron took advantage of the subsequent uproar, arguing Labour “have got to realise we are fighting a war”. It was not simply about money, but “about commitment. About rolling up your sleeves and realising we need more of what we’ve got actually on the frontline.” By focusing on these arguments the Tory leadership maintained their overall support for the campaign, while also playing on both popular mistrust of Blairite interventionism and a belief that the worsening military situation was entirely Mr. Brown’s fault. “We always support our troops, but we have not shied from criticising the Government’s conduct of the war,” William Hague once explained, “when we have felt we must speak out.”

Of course, the critique was only partially true; some of it downright misleading. Mr. Brown framed the campaign in the same ‘realist’ terms used by Mr. Cameron: “We are in Afghanistan as a result of a hard-headed assessment of the terrorist threat facing Britain”, he once stated. Success would be achieved by “enabling the Afghans to take over from international forces; and to continue the essential work of denying [their] territory as a base for terrorists.” Yet he had lost perhaps the most important asset of any politician, the right to be heard, as the Conservatives had already managed to portray themselves as the party of the national interest.

The historian Hew Strachan has argued that the Tory leadership were ‘reluctant to join the dots’ between the public’s support for the military and ‘the lack of [it] for the missions’, but withdrawing from Afghanistan may not have led to a landslide. They had to not only win votes, but also appear to be responsible. Michael Howard revoked the Party’s support for Iraq, one of the most unpopular wars in Britain’s history, but it was seen as opportunistic and irresponsible. However, the problem that David Cameron and William Hague created for themselves when they inherited Afghanistan was maintaining their “hard-headed” rhetoric at the same time as pulling out the troops.

Mr. Cameron’s announcement, just a month after becoming Prime Minister, that we would be out by 2015 caused a disparity between his words and his actions. Those fighting were “defending our freedom and our way of life as surely and as bravely as any soldiers” in our history. Britain could not abandon the Afghans as we had to save them “from a return to the brutality of the Taliban, who handed the entire country to Al Qaeda [sic] as a base for logistics and training”. If they came back, then “the terrorist training camps [would] come back”, which would mean “more terrorists, more bombs and more slaughter on our streets.” The rhetoric suggests Afghanistan is a war of necessity, but the deadline implies it is a war of choice. As Tory backbencher John Baron once pointed out to the Foreign Secretary: If we want to “deny al-Qaeda a base from which to operate and pose a threat to [our] streets”, then “surely we should stay there until we have achieved that objective”?

When he was pressed on whether or not British combat troops would be out by 2015 regardless of the conditions on the ground, Mr. Hague emphasised: “I do not want anyone to be in any doubt about this: we will be fulfilling the Prime Minister’s commitment.” Given that ‘the war will be lost’, according to one study, if the development of the Afghan National Security Forces is rushed ‘beyond what is possible’, the deadline contradicts Mr. Cameron’s claim that we would only leave once the job was done. The situation today is far from “mission accomplished”.

As far as the Tory leadership is concerned, Afghanistan has served its purpose: the Conservatives can now demonstrate their fitness for office by actually governing. Yet its continuing influence on David Cameron’s foreign policy has the potential to undermine his hard-won image as a prudent, responsible, strategically-minded statesman.

If the clamour for intervention in Syria continues, as well as for action in any other country that descends into civil war, the Prime Minister will be increasingly torn between his limitless doctrine of preventative action and his ‘realist’ ambitions for British foreign policy. One of these will have to be sacrificed eventually or the Party will make the choice for him – as happened when MPs rejected his call for airstrikes against Syria. Like his old Labour adversaries, he may come to be seen as a weak leader frittering away Britain’s scare military resources in idealistic wars-of-choice. 

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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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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.

Britain cannot afford to abandon Trident

Louis Reynolds

Danny Alexander, discussing his recent policy review of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, sought to highlight the need to ‘move on from the Cold War postures of the past’; unfortunately, it seems that the senior Liberal Democrat apparatchik is forgetting the lessons of history. Mr. Alexander’s recent foray into the perennial nuclear weapons debate suggests that his party’s proposals can only be the product either of ignorance or, as Liam Fox alleges, politicking of the worst sort; that which compromises the long-term interests of the state. Certainly, they are not based on a holistic, historically-minded or even realistic assessment.

The nature of state on state conflict is that it is often unpredictable. Major wars can and have in the past come about due to, in various assortments and to varying degrees, diplomatic misunderstanding, mismanaged gun-boat diplomacy, foolish posturing, poor leadership, and a myriad of other factors. As the International Relations scholar Christopher Coker recently pointed out in a sober lecture on the possibility of a major conflict involving China in the twenty-first century, previous conflicts have come about with very little warning. Even the argument commonly made today, that our intermeshed global economic system would prevent state conflict from taking place, has historical precedence. The same arguments were made concerning the supposed peace-keeping effect of the gold standard and the international credit system in 1913.

When one makes the judgement, as Mr. Alexander has done, that Britain must reduce its nuclear deterrent’s effectiveness in order to save a few million pounds over a decade - 0.17% of the overall budget to be precise - one puts a low price on national defence indeed.

Simultaneously, one puts a huge amount of faith into the ability of politicians to make accurate, long-term calculations regarding future needs. Danny Alexander’s vision of Britain’s nuclear deterrent is fundamentally based, and can only be based, on his long-term vision of a world in which inter-state conflict will not take place. To confidently assert that major interstate conflict - of the kind relatively historically common up to this point - is no longer a threat, one must not merely be assured of the inherent goodness of modern states and the unprofitable nature of modern war. One must also be assured that states always make the most logical decision, always act in the most intelligent manner and always function as a comprehensible, cohesive whole. This is folly.

The Liberal Democrat’s half-baked idea that there should be a ‘surge’ capacity betrays their awareness of their own dangerous optimism and highlights their lack of serious strategic consideration. A ‘surge capacity’ – as if such a thing were possible in the context of nuclear weapons – is exposed as lunacy given a moment’s thought. What might be the effect, I wonder, on an already tense international political landscape, if the United Kingdom were to decide things had become dire enough to initiate a nuclear weapons surge? I would argue that attaching such a function to our nuclear weapons policy might be more than counterproductive.

The Liberal Democrats’ apparent awareness of the limitations of their proposals, combined with the utterly trivial amounts of money that could be saved by a reduction in the Vanguard fleet or a conversion to cruise-missile deployed weapons has lead some observers, including former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, to suggest that the their stance on this issue has more to do with internal politics than national defence. Whether or not this is the case, these musings on nuclear deterrence represent a familiar beast; the reasonably unrealistic and realistically unrealisable Liberal Democrat pet policy. Thankfully, such policies are generally harmless, though there is the potential that similar views, if they became Labour policy, might be very damaging to the United Kingdom’s interests indeed.

Britain isn’t engaged in the Cold War, a major world conflict is not imminent, and defence policies should not be maintained solely on the basis of possibilities; what really matters in international defence are probabilities. Yet it is not ahistorical to suggest that today’s political landscape is particularly uncertain, and as such inevitably to a degree unstable. Furthermore, the Trident programme is already the perfect size for the United Kingdom. A four submarine fleet allows for a constant deterrent, with sufficient training, refitting and rest capabilities, at the lowest possible cost. The UK Trident programme is powerful and limited in scope, it is effective and it represents ultimate security at low cost in an uncertain world; one that is not disarming, in nuclear or even general terms. The Liberal Democrats think that their nuclear policy would represent a step forwards for Britain; in reality, it would represent a foolish and unnecessary leap.


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The SNP’s defence strategy is neither strategic nor about defence

Louis Reynolds

The recent publication of the Henry Jackson Society’s assessment of SNP Defence Strategy, ‘In Scotland’s Defence, has brought fresh attention to the nationalist proposals for the defence of an independent Scotland.

Despite assurances to the contrary from the report’s author George Grant in a recent Scottish Affairs Committee meeting, the report does occasionally dip into simple pessimism. The idea that any future Scottish Defence Force would have to acquire brand new fighter-jets because the Eurofighter would likely be too expensive and complex is quite a causal leap; the inadequacy of Britain’s aeronautic hand-me-downs would probably not be so great that Scotland would need to immediately buy a brand new air force. Furthermore, though in the report’s foreword Colonel Stuart Crawford sagely argues against predicating defence policy on civilian employment in related industries, the report goes on to argue against the removal of Trident from Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde partially on this basis. Despite its simplicity and occasional (and not unexpected) flashes of partisan rhetoric, the report usefully adds inches to the mountainous pile of evidentiary documents that show, quite simply, that the SNP’s vision for an independent Scottish Defence Force is wholly inadequate.

The argument against the SNPs vision with regards to defence – insofar as such a vision is existent – is not difficult to make. The SNP’s argument that it could retain a foreign intelligence service in addition to a domestic security service is hard to substantiate when one considers the intelligence capabilities of other similarly-sized nations. While an independent Scotland might not share the inevitable blowback from future British foreign policy decisions, its intelligence and security apparatus, robbed of institutional experience, resources and credibility, would be notably less able to defend the interests of the Scottish people. The initial start up costs would be vastly more than the SNP is (publically) prepared to accept, even if one ignores the fact that the proposed annual costs have very little relation to the capabilities that the SNP has considered.

Even assuming that the budgetary magic the SNP promises to work was rather astoundingly carried out, there is doubt as to whether or not the nascent Scottish nation could find enough British soldiers willing to accept the significant drop in career prospects, overseas deployment opportunities and resources that joining a brand new military would entail. Indeed, experienced Scotsmen formally employed by the British Army would be the indispensible midwives of an independent Scottish force if it were to maintain even basic functionality, given the highly sophisticated nature of twenty-first century armed forces.

And yet even the end product of this fanciful process, the new force that the SNP confidently asserts it can create, is nothing short of fatally flawed. The incongruous nature of the relationship between what on the one hand an independent Scotland would need, and what on the other it would inherit and indeed purports to want is clear. For example, the SNP has expressed a desire for new frigates and submarines as part of its naval flotilla, when it would not have the sophisticated support mechanisms required to sustain the minute high-tech force it would be likely to inherit. It would also lack the strategic need for such a force, given its priorities would shift from conventional warfighting and international operations to fisheries protection and border control, limited objectives that would require an increased number of small ships. Even the rather unambitious humanitarian goals that the SNP has decided upon would be challenging for such a small, highly technical force.

It is certainly the case that this mismatch between future needs and resources is in part the inevitable by-product of a sudden change of strategic priorities, though whether in practical terms that is a tolerable defence is highly doubtful. Yet there is a greater cognitive dissonance at work.

Clausewitz held, from the inception of his life’s work investigating the nature of warfare, a central, important comprehension, a great strand that would run through his work. Military manoeuvre is pointless unless it is designed to culminate in battle, and battle is pointless unless it is designed to serve the ultimate purpose of a given war. The SNP’s defence policy is flawed because it is not designed to serve any strategic purpose.

It is, at its heart, cobbled together mainly on the vague understanding that nations have armed forces, and that an independent Scotland would on that basis need one. To this is added an understandable desire to take a share of the existent British Armed forces. National pride is an important motivator, a point evidenced by the SNP’s ludicrous, populist focus on the idea that an independent Scottish Army would bring back historic Scottish regiments, something that in real terms could only mean an army-focused Scottish Defence Force when a maritime focus would be the strategically more sensible option. Amongst the only parts of the SNP’s strategy that displays any ambition are those concerning the size of the future force and the resources that it would command.

Tellingly, the single aspect of defence policy seen to warrant any extensive official comment from the SNP is economic impact. This attention has centred on the (implausible) nationalist argument that independence would not harm the Scottish defence industry, parallel to the declaration of their intent to situate future naval bases in accordance with economic, not strategic considerations. That this is the SNP’s only clear defence goal betrays the insularity of nationalist thought. More than that, it helps explain why their plans for the defence of an independent Scotland are, in actuality, neither plans nor concerned with defence.



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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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Hello Grayness, My Old Friend…

Louis Reynolds

The recent rumours of Philip Hammond’s leadership ambitions have brought renewed (and perhaps unfamiliar) attention to the Secretary of State for Defence and his accomplishments since his appointment in October 2011. Yet Hammond’s tenure is a difficult one to judge, not least because of the fact that to him more than any other minister an enduring political truth applies:

Ministers are not omnipotent.

The final Minister of Defence and first Secretary of State for Defence, Peter Thorneycroft, not only played a major role in the most significant post-war reorganisation of Britain’s defence apparatus, but also contributed heavily to the development of the nuclear policy of the United Kingdom and NATO as a wider whole. Yet while Thorneycroft was an intelligent and ambitious man, his tenure in charge of British defence policy was shaped largely by forces outside of his control. Unforgiving economic necessity brought forth the Mountbatten-Thorneycroft reforms, seismic developments in the global political landscape drove the hasty advancement of British nuclear policy and acute political embarrassment forced through the establishment of the UK Polaris programme.

The myth of the Minister as the master of a department’s destiny obscures the more nuanced truth. Events, expediency, context and any number of other unseen forces conspire to steal direction away from Ministerial agency.  As was the case with the dramatic tenure of Peter Thorneycroft, so it is with the perhaps equally historical if less vivid stewardship of Philip Hammond.

Hammond was perhaps created for the role he currently performs; a fiscal golem to carry out the unforgiving cuts that political necessity has forced upon the Ministry of Defence. A competent, prudent administrator, it is fair to say that before Liam Fox’s fall from grace Hammond had been characterised by quiet efficiency. Andrew Grimson recently opined, with regards to the rumours of Hammond’s leadership ambitions, that it would be far easier to see Hammond as an able Chancellor than a Prime Minister. Certainly Hammond has not captured the hearts of the people, being apparently easily confused with Julian Assange in the eyes of the general public.

But what can be expected? Hammond’s job has been to downsize the MOD significantly, and the scale and grim nature of the task drains both popular-political capital and attention from other endeavours. Moreover Hammond, despite recent and much misunderstood protest, is guided (or dragged along) by the weighty hand of the Chancellor, and perhaps more importantly the internal dynamics of the Coalition. All the significant facets of recent military reform have been shaped almost wholly by fiscal requirement. Surely no one can seriously contend that Future Force 2020, under which not-yet-fully-existent TA soldiers will perform critical front-line duties to make up for a dearth of full-time professionals, does anything but critically undermine British capability to save a few billion in the short term?

If Hammond is necessarily more a Chief Financial Officer than a visionary Minister, he performs admirably in that function. His planned reforms to the defence procurement system are long-overdue and bold, while the cuts already undertaken have been managed well and applied intelligently. The foundations laid by Liam Fox can be regarded as critical to the overall process of bringing martial law to Britain’s belligerent defence ledgers, but it was Hammond who in 2012 presided over the first balanced MOD budget in a decade.

The context of Hammond’s career as Secretary of State for Defence has been the Government’s policy of drastic reductions in state spending, and the accompanying reality has been the ring-fencing of large sections of the overall budget, as well as the spirited defence of Welfare by the Liberal Democrats. Controversial cuts to Defence have been the result, and financial pressures have, in the eyes of the Coalition, trumped military requirements. In such a situation expediency requires a loyal, competent, financially astute and trustworthy manager to preside over a difficult department. All the better that such a man, with an awkward and potentially volatile brief, be rather grey.

In other Governments and in other decades, he might have been unsuitable. When Philip Hammond was first appointed as Secretary of State for Defence, Aaron Ellis criticised the decision in these pages and suggested a number of alternative candidates, many of whom would have represented excellent choices if the role had been that of a conventional Secretary of State rather than that which Hammond has fulfilled.

Hammond, more than the distracting and sometimes awkward Thorneycroft, was truly built to meet the needs of his government and of the realities that have confronted him. Hammond has so far played a very straight role from a position of much less power and influence than is often assumed. Serious rebellion against the further MOD cuts was never a realistic prospect, and Hammond took on the task specifically in order to enforce them. Whether the policies that he has so ably carried out are in themselves in the interests of the United Kingdom is a wholly different matter.

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Defence cuts must lead to a limited world role for Britain

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Louis Reynolds

George Osborne has opted to reduce the MOD’s civilian headcount as part of the latest £11.5 billion savings drive implemented across Whitehall departments. While this cutback will certainly be noticed even within the supposedly wasteful MOD, it is an excellent alternative to further cutting H.M. Armed Forces proper.

Cutting the Forces to some degree is also seemingly the only option the Chancellor can decide upon in his mission to further slim down the British state. With Education and the NHS – which will by 2014-2015 account for 43% of spending – totally ‘ring-fenced’, the other departments must inevitably undergo more substantial butchery than would otherwise be the case, especially given Liberal Democrat misgivings about further cuts to Welfare.

The Armed Forces is also an easy target. Despite occasional and brief protests from the Chief of the General Staff Peter Wall or retired senior officers, the military is often the subject of significant cuts because it is in the culture of Britain’s services to make do. Furthermore, since the end of the Cold War the continuing theme underlining British defence policy has been near constant downsizing. Finally defence cuts, while unpopular and often unwise, are felt less directly by the general public than other spending reductions.

The unequivocal necessity of government spending reductions combined with the political inability of the coalition to meaningfully confront the departments with the most substantial budgets has resulted in a 20,000 soldier reduction of British Army strength, around a fifth of its personnel, over the Coalition’s period in government.

Despite this significant reduction, the Strategic Defence and Security Review failed to properly engage with the changes the government has made to the British Armed forces, merely offering a miniaturised version of Britain’s Cold War capability and a more cautious application of force than that used in the Blair government’s unpopular operations.

The British Army was chronically undermanned and under resourced in its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan during the early part of the Global War on Terror. The British Army’s failure in Basra and its severely limited utility in Helmand was the direct result (to a considerable extent) of a chronic lack of resources and manpower as well as a commitment which overreached its capability. Britain’s struggle to amply fulfil her supporting role in both of the major conflicts of the early twenty-first century damaged her reputation and risked significant military embarrassment.

Since the withdrawal from Iraq and the declaration of imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan, the British Army has undergone quickly implemented and very deep cuts. The increase to defence spending that would be required to enable the British Army to successfully enter into two such medium scale military commitments today is, in the intermediate term, unforeseeable. Minor mercies such as today’s announcement make little realistic difference to that uncomfortable and poorly addressed fact.

Where does this leave Britain? Despite Ed Miliband’s recent and uncharacteristic outbreak of pragmatism, the Conservative party is respected as a realistic and frank broker. Sensibly reviewing British defence policy in a manner that the public could understand would lay much needed foundations for British strategy, as well as helping to prevent our ‘can do’ military being overcommitted in future operations. It is in the country’s interest, and the Coalition could do so without alienating core voters; moreover, once a realistic vision of Britain’s hard power capabilities has been established, a less nebulous and myopic foreign and security policy could be shaped.

The Coalition cannot take the easy route and conform to the pattern set by the Blair and Brown governments; continual minimisation of an outmoded and unappreciated fighting force. If we cannot afford to substantially augment H.M. Armed Forces, we must think much harder about what role it must play.

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