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 situation in Syria is appalling, but it truly isn’t in Britain’s interests to intervene

Aaron Ellis 10.38amimage

Britain should help topple brutal regimes only where it is in our interests to help and our help ought to be proportionate to those interests.

I thought up the 'Ellis Doctrine' for humanitarian intervention in response to David Cameron’s justification for intervening in Libya, oft repeated by the war’s supporters.

“Just because you can’t do the right thing everywhere doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the right thing somewhere”, argued the Prime Minister.

But by what criteria had he judged Libya to be “somewhere”? Why was intervention the “right thing” for us to do, as opposed to other forms of help? For years, the Conservatives had said that British foreign policy under them would be “strategic”, yet Mr Cameron’s justification for the Libyan campaign was extraordinarily non-strategic. The Ellis Doctrine offered a framework with which to think about a future crisis.

Given the crisis in Syria is far more complex than the one that confronted us in Libya, British policy needs to be appropriately nuanced. There are many reasons why Britain should help the Syrian people topple Bashar al-Assad, but we ought to limit our involvement as much as possible. The risks of too big an investment outweigh the rewards. We must limit ourselves to containing the spillover from the conflict into neighbouring countries.

Yet our policy is trending in the other direction. The Prime Minister has suggested arming the rebels. The Chief of the Defence Staff warned recently that troops may intervene if the humanitarian crisis worsened. And the ‘National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’ (NCSROF) has been prematurely recognised as the “sole legitimate representative” of the Syrian people.

If Britain is to surmount the challenges of the twenty-first century and re-climb the greasy pole of international affairs, we need a prudent foreign policy. The country must sort out its finances, build up its resources, and think carefully about where in the world it gets involved in and how.

David Cameron used to recognise this, and, in recent months, seems to have rediscovered his ‘grand strategic’ ambitions. At the Conservative party conference, he declared that “[e]very battle we fight, every plan we make, every decision we take” was designed to help the United Kingdom “rise” amidst the decline and fall of other Great Powers. “I am not going to stand here as Prime Minister and allow [us] to join the slide.”

As welcome as his rediscovery of ‘the vision thing’ is, he has also consistently fallen short of realising it whenever put to the test. Unless Mr Cameron wants Britain to become a hegemonic power in the eastern Mediterranean, then our deepening involvement in Syria is part of this disappointing trend. Involving us in a fourth conflict in a decade – with little at stake and with no coherent political-military strategy – will hasten our fall, not reverse it.

British policy must focus on stopping the civil war from spreading into the lands of close allies like Jordan. There are nearly 200,000 refugees there. Speaking in August, when the number was around 140,000, King Abdullah said: “We can’t afford anymore Syrians coming through because of the load it is on the system here.”

In October, the New York Times reported that the United States had sent military personnel to the country to help the Jordanians handle the crisis. Given our long history with the Hashemite dynasty, this is what we ought to be doing.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronHEllis

Argentina and the Olympics sports equipment crisis

Alexander Pannett 10.30am

The point when cereal becomes too soggy to eat and all that can be done is to create sludgy mounds in a homage to a Steven Spielberg film.

That’s generally how I view the Argentine president’s persistent attempts to annoy with petty stunts about the Falkland Islands.

It is a predicament that cannot be helped and says more about the deleterious solidity of President Kirchner’s domestic policies than her success in being the toast of South American diplomacy.

Her latest gambit has been to smuggle the Argentine hockey captain, Fernando Zylerberg, on to the Falkland Islands and film him carrying out a Rocky-style training montage next to some of the island’s iconic sites, including performing step-ups on a war memorial.

I personally do not have a problem with foreign professional sports players using our country’s facilities to train for a sporting event that has often been used to make infantile political gestures.

My concern is that Mr Zylerberg conducted no training exercises with a hockey stick. Surely this is a vital piece of equipment to hone up with before a major hockey event?

The BBC bitesize website has an excellent training session for improving stick skills.  I am sure that we could send a delegation of celebrities to Argentina to carry out hockey drills with sticks around deserted Argentine landmarks to help out our Argentine fellow sporting aficionados before the Olympics proper. Ant and Dec could present it.

Then there is the statement that appears at the end of the video: “To compete on English soil, we train on Argentine soil.”

Is the Argentine government complaining about the training facilities available to their Olympics team in London? Do they only ever train on soil that has been imported from Argentina? Do other countries also insist on such strict training requirements? (The recent hilarity that is BBC’s Twenty Twelve might hold some clues.)

This could potentially be a massive disaster, overlooked by Lord Coe and LOCOG. We should immediately send a container ship on a world tour to gather soil from each participating country so that each can have a little bit of home turf in Britain on which to practise.

You have to wonder how the Falkland Islanders view all this. They are not even allowed to appear in the video, which has a strange 28 Days Later charm to it. I’m not suggesting that the clip may actually be a trailer for an Argentine Zombie B-movie but, if so, I wonder if the Falklanders will be cast as the antagonists or if the film will centre on flesh-eating penguins. Maybe William Hague could be revealed as the Zombie Lord in chief.

The attribute of this plot is that Zombies do not have a right to self determination under international law. Which will make it far easier to re-patriate the islands once the penguins are convinced of the merits due to the broadcasting of further Argentine training videos that display their athletic prowess (though evident equipment shortages).

The best part of this latest development from Argentina is that it reflects a re-interpretation of the “liberal intervention” doctrine. If only we had filmed the British & Irish Lions rugby union team doing push ups in the Afghan countryside, the Taliban would have clearly fled in awe of our athletic bluster. We should not be using drones armed with missiles but fitness robots, such as this Japanese one, which incidentally looks a bit like a cuddly Michelin Man (above image).

To complete the new fitness revolution in international relations, we just need a catchy soundbite to go with it.

Unfortunately, all I can think of is an instinctive British rural one.

“Get off my land”.

Follow Alexander on Twitter @alpannett

In foreign policy, common values do not mean common interests

Aaron Ellis 11.03am

One of the popular misconceptions in international relations is that countries which share common values automatically possess common interests.

This attitude is historically flawed and a dangerous influence on contemporary policy, pace the attempt to create a European foreign policy. Twenty-five nations with different customs, histories, cultures and economic priorities cannot share a single foreign policy. A series of crises over the last decade from Iraq to the Eurozone are evidence of this fact.

But particularly dangerous is the notion that democracies do not share common interests with autocracies. An example of this kind of thinking is the “league of democracies” idea, advocated by neoconservatives like former US presidential candidate John McCain and the historian Robert Kagan.

Their presumption is that autocracies like China and Russia pose a challenge to western democracies.

“In a world increasingly divided along democratic and autocratic lines, the world’s democrats will have to stick together”, wrote Robert Kagan in The Return of History and the End of Dreams.

This new league would “complement” institutions like the UN, which is to say do things that they can’t do because they can’t get past the Security Council. And it is necessary to do this because, if we don’t, the power of the democratic nations individually will decline and their collective interests will be undermined by stronger, autocratic powers. “History has returned, and the democracies must come together to shape it, or others will shape it for them.”

If their ideas are to be taken seriously, neoconservatives need people to accept that Russia and China pose an existential threat comparable to the Soviet Union and even the rise of fascism in the 1930s.

“The world’s democracies need to begin thinking about how they can protect their interests and defend their principles in a world in which these are once again powerfully challenged.” Robert Kagan’s implicit comparison is wide of the mark, and its dubiousness is reinforced by him and other neocons lumping together the eastern autocracies with Iran and nuclear proliferation and Islamist terrorism and any other evil they see fit to mention.

They also assume that common political values mean common geopolitical interests, which ignores geopolitical realities.

China has as much money invested in the United States as it does in Africa, and Germany has close economic ties with Russia, prompting her to argue against the EU taking an anti-Russian stance. Robert Kagan and others seem to ignore this.

The thinking behind the ‘league’ and similarly grand schemes is that democracies do not go to war with one another, which is taken seriously only by people who don’t know any history.

Both the American War of Independence and the War of 1812 were waged between a republic and a constitutional monarchy with representative institutions. Finland also declared war on Britain during the Second World War after the German invasion of the Soviet Union brought the Russians on to the Allied side.

As a proposition, the “democratic peace theory” also ignores the many times democracies have almost gone to war. Throughout the later 19th century there were numerous occasions when conflict could have broken out between either Britain and the United States or Britain and France. It wasn’t the pacifist will of the people that prevented fighting, rather it was the secret diplomacy of national elites.

Those people who believe that different political systems cannot be comfortable allies also ignore the many instances when they have been. The Allies in the Second World War are often cited, but there are other less-well-known examples like the strong relationship between France and Tsarist Russia and the Anglo-Japanese alliance at the turn of the 20th century.

Lord Palmerston’s line about ‘no permanent friends, only permanent interests’ is hackneyed but nonetheless true. There is no reason why democracies cannot share strategic interests with autocracies, either historically or today.

Neoconservatives pose a threat to world peace by insisting this can’t be the case.

“Great disasters,” wrote the historian A. J. P. Taylor, “are caused by trying to learn from history and correct past mistakes…it is probably best to think about the present, not about the past.”

China and Russia today are not Nazi Germany nor the Soviet Union. To treat them as such would be perilous. Why make unnecessary enemies?

We choose our allies and our enemies according to our interests. To think differently is to go against many of the basics of good statecraft and risks committing us to unnecessary wars.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronHEllis