Tony Blair was right about one thing in his speech on defence today. Britain does face a fundamental choice about the future of its great power aspirations.
Before we know it and without anyone ever really deciding it, in a
strategic way, the "hard" part of British foreign policy could be put
to one side; the Armed Forces relegated to an essentially peacekeeping
role and Britain’s reach, effect and influence qualitatively reduced.
irony is: the one group of people who I am sure do not want this to
happen, are the men and women of our Armed Forces. They would be
horrified by such a thought. The important thing for public opinion
and therefore for politicians is at least to comprehend the choice.
is a case for Britain in the early 21st Century, with its imperial
strength behind it, to slip quietly, even graciously into a different
role. We become leaders in the fight against climate change, against
global poverty, for peace and reconciliation; and leave the
demonstration of "hard" power to others. I do not share that case but
there is quite a large part of our opinion that does. Of course, there
will be those that baulk at the starkness of that choice. They will
say yes in principle we should keep the "hard" power, but just not in
this conflict or with that ally. But in reality, that’s not how the
world is. (number10.gov.uk)
Blair is right about the starkness of the choice, although he is wrong about the answer. The very fact that he feels the need to articulate the case for a global military role, reflects a crisis with a number of aspects:
‘Saddam was removed within 3 months,’ notes Blair ‘by the exercise of overwhelming military firepower.’ Yet that exercise of firepower paved the way for the expansion of the ‘terrorism embedded in failed or failing states‘ which the Prime Minister regards as the main threat in the twenty-first century. It has also destabilised the Middle East, contributing to the conflicts in Lebanon and Palestine, and a growing danger of a regional conflagration. Some of Blair’s recent statements about Iran suggest that British hard power would not stay on the sidelines if that danger is realised.
‘In October 2001, the Taleban in Afghanistan was subject to military
action. Within two months by the use of vast airpower, they were
driven from office. In military terms the victory seemed relatively
easy. The cost to our forces was minimal.’
Five years later, the Taliban is resurgent, thanks in part to bases in Pakistan, where Islamic fundamentalism and nuclear proliferation will remain beyond the reach of British hard power.
Britain’s ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent is highly dependent on American technical co-operation. Blair’s attempt to rush through an early replacement of the system, costing £15-20 billion on the Government’s own estimate, would cement this dependency and Britain’s commitment to a global military role, yet Trident has little relevance to non-state terror threats.
4. The SNP challenge
The fate of Trident and the Faslane base is bound up with the debate about the future of Scotland. Indeed, the union itself has historically been a platform for a wider global role. The SNP is the one party consistently advocating an alternative to that role, an option which is becoming more relevant than ever as the Holyrood elections approach.
5. BAE and the Arms Trade
The scandal around the blocked fraud investigation into BAE’s dealings with Saudi Arabia goes to the heart of Britain’s defence policy.
Britain’s armed forces are not large enough to support the industrial base they require on their own. Hence, the requirement to support exports even when they end up being used against British troops with monotonous regularity.
The commitment to a sector dominated by often corrupt state-to-state relationships also crowds out investment into more productive industries. The ‘increased expenditure on equipment, personnel and the conditions of our Armed Forces’ which Tony Blair promised today will only exacerbate that problem.
Paul Kennedy explained the dilemma best 20 years ago, when British imperial overstretch was already an old story:
As the Sunday Times has put it ‘unless something is done soon, this country’s defence policy will increasingly consist of trying to do the same job with less money, which can only be bad for Britain and NATO.’ This leaves the politicians (of any party) with the alternative of reducing certain commitments, and enduring the consequences thereof; or of increasing defence expenditures still further – and Britain spends proportionately more (5.5 per cent of GNP) than any other European NATO partner except Greece – and thereby reducing its own investment in productive growth and its long-term prospects for an economic recovery. As with most decaying powers, there is only a choice of hard options. (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers)
Tony Blair presented a stark choice today, and for all New Labour’s rhetoric of modernity, he recommended the well-worn path. The SNP are offering an alternative for Scotland. Who will speak up for England?