Britain’s future strategic direction #8 – Lib-Dem policy, taking another look

In the previous article in this series this blog was somewhat critical of the Lib-Dems for the apparent absence of any serious Foreign Policy, or any guiding light that would govern its direction and thus inform Lib-Dem Defence policy, but it would appear that this blog spoke too soon.

On the 30th of April Lord Wallace of Saltaire addressed the Royal United Services Institute where he outlined his party’s Defence policy in advance of a Strategic Defence Review. This is a little tardy to say the least, six days before a general election, but what does the speech tell us?

So let me start by reminding you about previous strategic defence reviews, the assumptions on which they rested, and the way in which successive Labour and Conservative governments have drifted back to illusions of great power status and what Nick Clegg has called ‘default Atlanticism’.  I want to underline that not only in 1997-8, but also in 1966-7, the conclusions that the FCO and MoD reached were closer to the Liberal Democrat approach now than to the nostalgic visions of the two other parties.

This might be considered an inauspicious start, if only because this blog prides itself from working from first principles, and as RUSI have already determined Great Power status is desirable for the following reasons:

a) Thucydides wisdom – all nations seek power for reasons of fear, interest and honour

b) The Strategic Bargain – where we work with partners to ensure collective security

c) National Obligations – Uninterrupted access to economic recourse & Defence of the Realm

d) Military Aid to Civilian Authorities – a resource to resort to in times of natural disaster

Still, the point might have merit were Britain incapable of justifying or supporting such Great Power ambitions, but wait, wasn’t the very idea challenged and debunked but a few weeks ago:

The idea that Britain remains nothing more than another medium sized country rings hollow, and by the same token it is clear why even the major nations in EUrope are keen to band together; to preserve their rapidly declining influence in world affairs. Britain clearly could be just another medium sized country, but it should be apparent that this is a choice and not an inevitability, at least over the course of the next quarter century.

So, we must all ask ourselves why the Lib-Dems are so keen to disavow the active pursuit of the British national interest……………….?

Ah, europe, the Lib-Dems continue their myopic fascination with ever-deeper-union:

12 years ago, as a logical follow-up to the defence review, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac at St.Malo launched ESDP: a Franco-British initiative. Ming Campbell and I were fully briefed by Robin Cook and George Robertson beforehand, and gave it our full support. The ESDP initiative has so far led only to limited results – partly because of German and Italian lack of interest, but partly also because the UK government ceased to provide political leadership, either within the EU or within our domestic debate. It’s now clear that further progress has to be built around renewed leadership from the UK and France, and close partnership between them.

Two questions:

1. Why is this necessary when we have NATO, and now have France in NATO?

2. Why is this necessary when we have NATO, and now have France in NATO?

Seriously, what additional utility does this provide to achieving the British national interest, or is it just a mechanism to help achieve a european national interest, whatever that might be?

A full generation earlier – before most of today’s British population were born, when both David Cameron and Nick Clegg were babies – the 1967 ‘East of Suez’ defence review had recommended a similar shift in Britain’s self-perception of its international role.  We retreated from the Indian Ocean and the Gulf, to focus our defence efforts primarily on the European region.

We did this because we exist on the european periphery, and we were in direct ideological opposition to a super-power that threatened to engulf that periphery thus leaving all our neighbours under the sway of that enemy influence, it demanded our attention. This is no longer the case, we are no longer a lamed David stood before Goliath, thus we are free to ask the question; “what part should Britain play in world affairs?”

The size of the navy was reduced – let me remind you in particular that it was decided to phase out aircraft carriers, since the government had accepted that it could no longer project air and sea power at oceanic distances from the UK.

A decision that has forever afterwards been deemed a foolish move.

Storms of protest from the right-wing press greeted these moves, sharply attacking an FCO report’s suggestion that we should now regard ourselves as a major power of the second rank’, rather than as a first-rate global power.

This is the language of ‘managed decline’, it is the language of defeat and fear, and its purpose is to influence domestic opinion rather than effect international policy. This regurgitation of nineteen-sixties mantra’s such as; ‘a major power of the second rank’ and ‘first-rate global power’ fails to address the question being posed by RUSI today, namely; does Britain wish to wield sovereign power to strategic effect, and thus retain significant influence in shaping world affairs in the 21st century?

What Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats are saying about Britain’s realistic global role is thus precisely what intelligent and realistic policy advisers have been arguing since I was a student in the United States.  Dean Acheson had spelled out the logic of Britain’s untenable position in December 1962, as Harold Macmillan scrambled to rescue the British nuclear deterrent by obtaining missiles from the USA.  The second half of the paragraph, less often quoted than his remark that we had ‘lost an empire and not found a role’, stated bluntly that the special relationship on which we relied was ‘about played out’ and that we could no longer stay aloof from Europe.

What strikes this blogger most prominently, is that for all the Lib-Dems talk of building a Foreign Policy and Defence apparatus suitable for the post cold-war world, they are incongruously fixated on a political solution to the european origin of the world wars (the EU), and to the rhetoric of the cold-war era. This is nothing new, it is merely repackaged dogma to justify a political project that does not advance British security, given that we exist within NATO, and only makes sense if one cannot conceive of a peaceful europe unless it bound in iron to act as one creature.

Tony Blair tested the ‘Special Relationship’ to its limits, committing the UK to the invasion of Iraq in the expectation that we would therefore gain influence over US Middle East policy once the war was over; and discovered that our influence was very slim.

What, I thought the Iraq war was all about the oil, and it must be noted that Britain has secured contracts to supply on nearly 19% of Iraqi output, more than twice as much as the rest of europe combined. In a future where the struggle for energy will define conflicts the British national interest appears to have been well served.

So – to coin a phrase – there is no alternative.  There is no alternative to closer cooperation with our European partners and neighbours, and to making the best of that partnership.  There is indeed some common ground between the three parties on this: with the sharp difference, however, that Labour is ambivalent, the Conservatives reluctant, while Liberal Democrats want to make the best of it.  Liberal Democrats agree with Recommendation 21 of last year’s IPPR report, chaired by Lords Robertson and Ashdown – a non-partisan group which also included Professor Michael Clarke – that the UK government should support, fully engage in and possibly lead moves to create permanent structured defence cooperation among a pioneer group of EU countries.

At what point has anyone suggested that Britain should not cooperate with europe to achieve shared aims? The problem lies in the occasions when we don’t have a shared interest, should we retain an ability to act independently, the Lib-Dem answer would probably be “no” given that “we must make the best of that partnership.” The mention of the IPPR report, covered by the blog here already, is also a telling clue as to the Lib-Dems enthusiasm for the Contributory doctrine centred around the EU.

In recent months I’ve heard politicians from Bob Ainsworth to Malcolm Rifkind talk about Britain’s particular commitment to global trade, and our particular dependence on global sea lanes to maintain the sinews of British global commerce.  That’s part of the nostalgic myth of our imperial past.  We share an interest in secure sea lanes with other major economies, and we should work with them to keep them open.

This is a fairly clear indication that in a future where cuts will need to be made to preserve strategic capability, the Lib-Dems certainly don’t see Strategic Raiding as a favoured method of achieving influence in international affairs.

One of the many failures of our Labour government has been its reluctance to tell the British public that a substantial part of the contribution we have been making to the EU budget in recent years – alongside such other net contributors as Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and France – has been an investment in the economic and political stabilization of the former socialist countries of eastern Europe.  That productive investment demonstrates how non-military spending can strengthen our security.

Again, a party this is both fixated with cold-war realities whilst blaming other parties for doing exactly that.

It makes little sense to maintain the defence budget if the FCO budget is cut by 20-30% – as it has been over the past 2-3 years

This blog certainly agrees with the point, but would advocate taking Foreign Policy seriously rather than chopping Defence to match, however, it is clear that the Lib-Dems swing in the other direction.

In circumstances where ‘war among the people’ ( to use Rupert Smith’s phrase) is more likely than war between states, the sort of civilian-military Stabilization and Reconstruction Force – on which again there now seems to be an emerging cross-party consensus – deserves investment alongside purely military means. It’s right that the government has massively increased expenditure on the security services in recent years, and that it has created a cross-departmental Conflict Prevention Pool.  The difficult question is how far we should continue to invest against the risk of future state-to-state war, and how far it should be Britain’s responsibility to invest in comparison with other potentially-threatened states.

Now here we come to the crux of the matter, are Her Majesty’s Armed Forces to primarily be war-fighter who are also capable of peace-keeping, or peace-keepers ‘capable’ of fighting wars too? Again the Lib-Dem answer is clear; the UK faces no existential threats, our fortunes are tied in with europes, and our forces need to be peacekeepers, it is clear that neither of the RUSI doctrines Global Guardian or Strategic Raiding are necessary to the Lib-Dems, and that any preference for the Contributory doctrine exists more for an ideological requirement to integrate than to achieve strategic effect.

Since there are almost no conceivable future threats to the UK alone, the distribution of risk and responsibility is one that we should not be ashamed of raising with our partners.  The Conservatives have raised the question of more equitable cost-sharing within NATO; we would wish to raise that question within the EU as well.  There are, of course, real problems of sovereignty and the chain of command once states begin to move from financial contributions to shared roles or specialization.  But that does not rule out further moves towards specialization in such fields as logistics and reconnaissance.  The British Government’s refusal to join in the AWACs programme has wasted large sums on Nimrod, over many years.    There’s more to be done in integrated weapons systems, shared support and training establishments- which come up very quickly, we all know, against entrenched and particularist national traditions.  British armed forces have habits as entrenched as others, which we must be willing to adapt.

So, no sovereign strategic capability, no sovereign security and efficiences produced from joint academies regardless of military tradition, sounds like the kind of thing to make the British Army weep from sorrow!

Defence and security policy should not be about status and national pride, but about the appropriate British contribution to meeting future threats.

Wrong, it should be about achieving the British national interest, and recognising that this is most readily achieved by maintaining strategic capabilities along with the will to employ them.

The starting point for any honest approach to defence policy must be that we cannot afford our current defence ambitions, and must face some very hard choices about priorities.  This is another East of Suez moment: we have to recognise that unrealistic future commitments and unavoidable budgetary cuts now force a step change.

This blog agrees, insomuch as it recognise that the SDR98 was not funded to meet its goals, but that was because labour chose not to fund it rather than because it was unaffordable, again, Defence occupies on 2.2% of GDP and thus a tiny fraction of total annual government spending.

This blog also agrees that this is an east of Suez moment; where we will need to contract the breadth of our strategic capabilities, where it disagrees with the Lib-Dems is their apparent belief that strategic power projection is no longer a desirable capability. Capability + Will = Influence.

Alongside this, we must continue to insure against future unknowns, in cooperation with friendly states which would also be threatened.  But we cannot insure against all risks, and we will not serve Britain’s best long-term interests if we continue to procure the highest-specification weapons systems against the least likely or desirable future conflicts, justified by the argument that our equipment must remain up to the highest American standards

Does Lord Wallace realise that Trident represents exactly this kind of insurance? And does he realise that it is precisely because we maintain such advanced forces that we retain the influence we do; they represent capability not available to other nations, and thus bargaining power in world affairs?

To conclude, the Lib-Dems don’t have a useful or viable vision for Britain’s role in the world, in fact their Foreign Policy appears dominated by the desire to persuade the British electorate that Europe is the place where such matters should be determined, an impression compounded by the fact this talk arrives six days before a general election. Finally, that this blog stands by its earlier evaluation that the Lib-Dems would adopt a lite version of the Contributory doctrine.

Why do the Lib-Dems lack any recognisable quantity of pragmatism, have the wilderness years caused the quality to wither irreparably?

Update – 04/05/10

Don’t just take it from this blog, it looks like various heads of Defence & Intelligence believe that the Lib-Dems lack credibility and will leave Britain diminished on the world stage:

Sir, The national security policies of the Labour Government and the Conservative Opposition are known quantities. By contrast, the Liberal Democrats’ approach to national security has not been subjected to very much scrutiny.

All of us have held senior defence and security positions in the post-Cold War era. We worked within a broad, long-standing cross party consensus about national security.

We welcome the Liberal Democrats’ genuine commitment to the welfare of Forces’ personnel. But we have serious questions about other key planks of their programme, which we believe deviate from that broad cross party consensus.

We are concerned that the Liberal Democrats make no mention of Nato in their manifesto. Almost every reference to the United States is accompanied by a call for a much more distant relationship — and this includes the Obama Administration. An enhanced European defence and security posture, however welcome, cannot substitute for American power.

The Liberal Democrats’ leadership have adopted a wide range of positions on whether, and when, they would withdraw our servicemen from Afghanistan. British troops in the front line deserve a much clearer lead.

The Liberal Democrats make no reference to North Korea in their manifesto and pre-emptively rule out military action against Iran, the two greatest threats to the international system today. Cutting off options unilaterally seems to us precipitate.

Several senior Liberal Democrat frontbenchers have indicated that they might want to scrap the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent altogether, a colossal gamble in a dangerous world. This is quite separate from the issue of what kind of deterrent should replace Trident. The Liberal Democrats must clarify the potentially dangerous confusion about where they really stand.

The Liberal Democrats appear shy of putting forward serious new proposals for combating terrorism, the No 1 one threat to the safety and wellbeing of the United Kingdom.

The Liberal Democrats are seemingly willing to expose our intelligence and security services to relentless inquiry and investigation. The agencies must be held accountable. But how this accountability is achieved is critical. The Liberal Democrats’ approach lacks balance. Their way of doing things would further jeopardise the close intelligence and security co-operation of our allies, which is vital to preventing terrorist attacks.

The Liberal Democrats’ unilateral abandonment of control orders, with nothing to replace them, would leave the United Kingdom exposed to some of the most dangerous individuals in the country, who could then be released onto our streets.

The Liberal Democrats need to show that they do not stand outside the cross-party consensus on national security affairs. We believe that they need to clarify their position as soon as possible. All political parties must send the right signals, to friend and foe alike.

Peter Clarke
Former Head, Counter Terrorism Command, Metropolitan Police and National Counter Terrorism Co-ordinator

Sir Richard Dearlove
Former Chief, Secret Intelligence Service

Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank
Former Chief of Defence Staff and ex-Colonel Commandant, SAS Regiment


2 responses to “Britain’s future strategic direction #8 – Lib-Dem policy, taking another look

  1. Let me start by saying I don’t agree with an iota of the Lib-Dem policy as laid out above. BUT are you not being just a little bit hard on them ? I give them 8 out of 10 for honesty at least. They have laid out their vision of what they think the country should do, and if that is Euro-centric contributory policing operations, then fine, you and I would not vote for them. However when you quite rightly state that a pertinent question is:
    ” does Britain wish to wield sovereign power to strategic effect, and thus retain significant influence in shaping world affairs in the 21st century?” we should realistically assess the potential bullshit responses from New Labour and Conservatives. Both will undoubtedly respond that thy do want to retain a significant influence, and then neither of them will do the budgetary prioritization required to finance the capabilities required. I will bet my last (Canadian) Dollar on that fact, and so I give them both 0 out of 10 for honesty where it comes to defence policy.

    So at least the Lib-Dems are being brutally honest, and some people may even agree with their position and arguments. Those that don’t possibly may vote for them based on other issues, but most likely just would not vote for them anyway.

  2. you are correct to point out that their is a greater degree of philosophical honesty from the Lib-Dems, whereas the incumbents argue that ll must await on the defence review conveniently after the election.

    you are also correct to point out that if the public are happy with little britain then the Lib-Dem prescription for a limited role in the world, to be managed by the EU, is the right choice to make.

    i am biased however, in that i don’t see this desire from the electorate at large to become the new Italy/Spain/Germany, and thus I have little confidence that their vision for Britain’s place in the world will be relevant to the electorate.

    i do believe that Britain is a force for ‘good’, and were we not there then the position would be occupied by others, which is not a situation that would lead to a better world IMO.

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