The afternoon session of 'YouGov-Cambridge Forum 15' turned to foreign policy, beginning with a keynote on Britain's changing role in common European security by Dr Jamie Shea (Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges, NATO).
We no longer have the luxury of dealing with one issue at one time. Now we have to deal with multiple threats from multiple directions. Different allies have different views as to what the priority should be. Russia is a real threat for some, the South is a very real threat for others. If you look at the recent Polish defence whitepaper – 57 pages and only one sentence on the South. I won’t even ask you to guess how many sentences there were on Russia. There is obviously a danger of a lack of a clear sense of priorities.
In the 80s – and to some degree of 90s – we lived with a kind of “reversed Marxism”; we hoped that the global forces of change towards democracy, the opening up of markets, the creation of middle classes around the world, the interdependence of the great powers would do our work for us. We would have to intervene here and there on the margins. Essentially, the cosmic forces were blowing in our direction. Soft power ultimately would replace hard power.
Very few people think that today. You may disagree on how we should defend something but you won’t, I think, disagree that everything we have now needs to be actively defended. Everything.
The question is: What is the most intelligent way of doing that?
Thirdly, no more quick fixes – no quick air campaigns, no single interventions – will fix the problem. Whether you look to Russia or ISIL, these are 30-year efforts, probably, at minimum. It’s probably going to involve doing lots of the wrong thing, maybe, before we hit on the right thing at the end of the day. But these are going to require considerable efforts and resources, and maybe even sacrifice along the way as well.
Look at ISIL – it combines four elements in a way we have never seen before. It combines ideology, the aspiration to exist as a state, really hard core military capabilities. If it even suffers major losses – for example 20,000 ISIL soldiers have been killed on the battlefield already over the past two years, it’s lost whole layers of officers and it’s able to keep going and reconstitute. And, of course, it has a large recruiting and social media network, and an overseas projectability which means that if it is removed from Iraq or Syria it could easily, almost overnight, reconstitute in Libya or even in Afghanistan.
The threats that we thought could be contained can no longer be contained. The ones that we thought were latent are here already. If we don’t deal with them – as we see with migrants – they will spill over on to our continent. Therefore, security policy is back.
The UK kicks-off in this kind of new environment with a number of major advantages over other EU countries. Number one: the advantage of geography. It has saved us in the past and it still plays a role today. The UK is not located in Eastern Europe with a very complicated history with Russia, which is the case with Poland and the Baltic states. The UK is not located in the Mediterranean – an obvious but very important thing. The Channel and the Channel Tunnel gives us an ability to handle the migration traffic much more easily than it is the case with Greece or Italy. We can still play on the geographical factor, to some degree, to shield ourselves.
The second main advantage that the UK brings to the table: To some degree we got into some of these issues before many other EU states. For example, terrorist attacks, the whole cyber spectrum, particularly in the commercial banking sector; the notion of resilience; the notion of improving our security services and investing in them to do a better job of data fusion and tracking; the comprehensive approach in spearheading the relationship with industry; the whole-of-government approach; the creation of the National Security Council.
So, to some degree the UK started earlier and has done much of the homework in terms of formulating a coherent security approach and the ability, if not to prevent crisis, then to handle them swiftly and successfully when they occur.
The third major advantage that the UK has to some degree, particularly if you compare the situation France now has in the wake of Paris, is that after Afghanistan and Iraq we have been in a sort of quiescent phase of our military commitments. Some hoped it would actually be some kind of a strategic holiday after ISAF in Afghanistan. Of course, with the Syria discussion, this could rapidly be changing now and I personally think it will.
France has been very much in the line of fire of terrorists because it has been using air power in the Middle East and has been confronting some of these groups in Mali, Chad, elsewhere, it has a deployment in Lebanon.
It’s clearly the case that the more you roll them back in the region, the more they are likely to lash out against us in their home countries.
That said, the UK faces threats and does not have immunity from this environment. The security services claim that seven major attacks have been prevented over the last year. They say they are permanently tracking about 3,000 individuals. The terrorist threat remains very real.
Russia is increasingly flying very near British airspace. Hence the decision made by the Government at the beginning of the week to invest once again in P8 maritime patrol aircraft, buy Boeings. We got rid of this capability at our cost during the last Strategic and Defence Security Review. Russian ships appear very close to our shores as well. There is also the cyber issue, particularly given the incredibly important role of London in handling about three to four trillion dollars of finance per day in terms of transaction volumes. So, the UK is still very much in the front line.
Of course, as the UK also increasingly depends on imported oil – it will go up from 40% to about 75% over the next 15 years – therefore sea lines of communication and global networks clearly suggests that maritime security is going to be increasingly important.
However, there has been a vogue of declinism about the UK. Some of you may have seen the Anand Menon’s article in the current edition of Foreign Affairs who has sensed that our allies believe that the UK somehow is becoming increasingly self-introverted, isolated, that its overall military effort is less able but also less willing. You have seen that manifested in the declining defence budget, in the major cuts that have affected the armed forces, with the smallest British army since the time of Napoleonic wars and a very small Royal Navy by historical standards.
Secondly, the feeling that Washington would increasingly turn to France as the major European ally to do business. Notwithstanding the way in which France felt very left down when President Obama did not go ahead with airstrikes in Syria after Assad was found to be using chemical weapons. Therefore, our influence in Washington isn’t what it used to be.
The sense of legalism: I am not the first person to argue that any military operation has to be fully consistent with International law. However, after Iraq and the experience with the Blair administration no activity can be launched until all possible objections are first overcome. And the intricacies of this debate is inevitably going to constrain the use of force. For example, even if it’s not constitutionally required we now have the Bundestag-type precedent of seeking parliamentary approval in every case and not been willing to go ahead without it.
I feel that this declinism vis-à-vis the UK has been very much overhyped. From a NATO perspective the UK has continued to be a major actor: very engaged in our readiness action plan in Central and Eastern Europe, recently committing a battalion to the Baltic states, trainers in Ukraine, air-policing in the Baltic states.
The UK maintains considerable HQ level capabilities like the Allied Rapid Reaction core, it continues to maintain the nuclear deterrent which is committed to NATO. It also continues to be very involved in Afghanistan as part of our resolute support mission. So, if you look at the actual evidence there doesn’t seem to be really anything that would quite corroborate the theory of a UK which suddenly wants to become a kind of Switzerland. I really don’t see that.
Obviously, the decision of this week, particularly on maintaining the defence budget on 2 per cent, and the decision on an extra £12 billion on procurement will, I think, go a long way to assuage fears in Washington, Paris or elsewhere.
There are four things where clearly people in the alliance like NATO and the EU will be looking at the UK in the years ahead to see if, to some degree, this new role for security and defence is going to be maintained in the long run.
Number one: it’s no good producing a lot of new equipment if you don’t also invest in the people to be able to use that equipment. For example, a drone requires 200 people to operate where as an F-16 only two or three people. We have to make sure we don’t invest a lot in equipment and cut on the manpower. If you look at what was announced, most of the new people went into security services rather than into the navy where just 400 are going, or into the RAF (350).
Number two: Will there be the willingness to use those capabilities when push comes to shove; what the current head of the UK armed forces Nick Houghton calls ‘courageous instinct’. In the long run the task of any government is that it has to engage the public opinion on the fact that notwithstanding the post-Blair disinclination to do interventions – interventions will continue to take place. There are problems which are going to require boots on the ground and intervention of ground forces which are going to have to use hard power.
The fact that we got it wrong maybe in a place ‘X’ or place ‘Y’ doesn’t mean to say that all interventions are doomed to failure – this month we are celebrating 20 years of the Dayton Peace Accords in Bosnia. And even if they are not ultimately successful, not doing them – as we see in Syria – isn’t an answer either. And, maybe a more Republican-minded administration, or even Hillary Clinton in the White House, would come looking for those kind of contributions than has been the case over the last eight years.
Number three: The commitment to European defence. Not very popular in the UK but ultimately NATO will do the collective defence in Central and Eastern Europe, but the EU will do the crisis management in Northern Africa and in the Middle East. This is not going to work either for the UK or the EU if the UK, after the Brexit referendum, doesn’t become much more involved in these common security defence policies in the whole EU debate.
Germany, France and the UK together are 85% of the defence spending. The UK’s experience in the maritime domain with the EU in terms of piracy, migration has been particularly good. There are things the UK has to do alone, but there is a lot the UK can do in collaboration with the European partners and a lot of things that it can even delegate to other EU partners. Sooner or later in the UK we will have to have a serious discussion on the Euro army.
Finally, as we look at the security aspect in military terms, we must not to get into the syndrome where we feel we can solve issues through defence alone. We need a UK security policy as much as we need a UK defence policy. Greater tension with Russia also shows the need for greater transparency and dialogue with Russia and confidence building measures so we avoid incidents.
We must look at the sources of conflict and not just at the symptoms. The UK has a good track record on it: William Hague in terms of women and security, or Margaret Beckett, who put climate change and security on the UN agenda back in 2008, defence capacity building. We must make sure that these don’t remain simply wishes, but are actually implemented as well.
The UK mustn’t see defence purely as the defence of its homeland and the protection of Brits even if that will always be the first priority.
The UK has to have another track to its policy as well which is to try to make the rest of the world a more orderly and peaceful place.