Strategic Defence and Security Review: Britain faces impossible choices in an uncerta

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    Strategic Defence and Security Review: Britain faces impossible choices in an uncertain world

    The Strategic Defence and Security Review is being conducted against a backdrop of bitter arguments between the Services and the threat of cuts of up to 20 per cent, yet it is meant to define Britain’s place in the world and our foreign policy and defence priorities for decades to come, says Professor Michael Clarke

    By Michael Clarke
    Published: 11:00AM BST 13 Sep 2010

    The Strategic Defence and Security Review is being driven by some powerful imperatives that make the choices facing the Coalition Government appear pretty dramatic.

    The Armed Forces are clearly overstretched. They have been deployed more often, more concurrently and for longer than was ever envisaged at the time of the last defence review in 1998. Fighting two long and overlapping counter-insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan was not anticipated in the 1990s and the forces need time to re-organise and re-orientate themselves. Nor was the “security” part of the SDSR remit – responding to terrorism, building up national resilience and cyber-defences – recognised before the September 11 attacks of 2001, but it is now regarded as an intrinsic part of the job.

    In addition, the defence establishment has recognised that the current programme is simply unaffordable. The National Audit Office was not alone last December in calculating that if the whole defence programme up to 2020 was delivered as planned, it would leave a black hole of up to £36 billion that could not be funded. Too many “big ticket” legacies of the Cold War were still in the pipeline; something significant would have to give.

    The last thing the new Government needed was the knock-on effect of the financial crisis and uniquely high levels of public debt. It is a political judgment how quickly that indebtedness must be reduced, but it is apparent that this review will involve cuts in the defence budget of between 10 per cent and 20 per cent in real terms, on top of any other necessary restructuring.

    But, dramatic as all these immediate pressures are, none is genuinely strategic. However, the defence of the UK has arrived at a “strategic moment”. Even if the assumptions underlying the 1998 review had not been exceeded; even if the Iraq and Afghan wars were unambiguous triumphs; even if the defence programme was not unaffordable and the economic crisis had not materialised, the United Kingdom would still face strategic choices unprecedented in modern times.

    More than most of its Western partners, the UK is vulnerable to global strategic change. Not since the early 1930s has the country faced a range of developments that generate as much political uncertainty. From the late 1930s to the 1990s, it was not difficult to decide which international developments most threatened this country. That is no longer the case. It is more than 75 years since our politicians had to confront a world that offered so little firm indication of what was strategically best for Britain; and this time we have far less global power to wield in response.

    The “post-Cold War” era is well and truly over. There is surprisingly little we can take forward from the Cold War years, despite all the legacies – and weapons – it bequeathed. Nato is not an efficient diplomatic instrument. Nor is the European Union’s fledgling defence arm. These organisations can provide useful cover for national policies; they create some legitimacy and act as a focal point for the smaller nations. But defence and security in Europe are now essentially ad hoc, driven by shifting coalitions of the willing and able. And in truth, the willingness and ability of the European nations as a whole to commit to defence or security has been on a downward curve for two decades.

    The UK and France spend around 2.3 per cent of their GDP on defence, against a European average of 1.6 per cent. The UK used to derive great diplomatic leverage from Nato and from being a military lynchpin of the Western alliance in general; but that lever will only bear a small load these days. New crises in Europe are unlikely to be handled by a reversion to any of the old routines.

    In the past, these weaknesses have led us, time after time, to try to galvanise European security co-operation by creating a step change in our defence relationship with France. We did it cautiously in the mid-1980s, enthusiastically in the late-1990s, and we are doing it again now. It always works – more or less – among the politicians and leads to some useful arrangements that make for greater efficiency. But down at the industrial and military levels, the grand designs always run out of steam; certainly there has never been anything resembling a military step change. And if it is different this time, it is still not clear that the rest of Europe is in a mood to be prodded, even by a dynamic London-Paris defence axis.

    This might not worry us so much if our relationship with the United States was still essentially what it had been since 1941. But it obviously is not. The United States is a continental power with an Atlantic and a Pacific front. It was an extraordinary act of strategic vision on Washington’s part in the 1940s, having been attacked in the Pacific, to respond by sending most of its forces to the Atlantic theatre. We took for granted that the US was a “Europe first, Pacific second” superpower, but with the demise of the Soviet Union that assumption is effectively reversed.

    The collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s probably marked the last time the US would be prepared to get involved in any European crisis unless its own global interests were genuinely threatened. And these days, its global interests don’t generally involve Russia. For all its huffing and puffing, Moscow is in no position to threaten Western Europe, and though it might be an edgy neighbour, and a brooding power for those countries that were formally part of the Soviet Union, it is hard to imagine the United States putting much of itself on the line for a European crisis that involved present-day Russia. There is no question that the United States retains major interests in Europe, but it is difficult to see which combination of them the US would feel compelled to defend with the hard power of military force.

    The strategic game-changer in the world is not Russia, but China. Second to that is China’s relationship with India. If the UK is to make a really strategic common cause with the United States – something that echoes the special relationship of the last century – it must somehow bring influence to bear on US concerns in Asia, or at least help hold down Washington’s security interests in the Gulf, while the US worries about Asia.

    The Obama administration reportedly takes a cooler and more instrumental view of Washington-London relations. The president is probably reflecting reality; in future there will be a lot less sentiment and more hard thinking to be done between our two countries. This may feel uncomfortable, but it is probably a useful corrective. Casting ourselves chiefly as the “transatlantic bridge” between America and Europe runs the risk of offering the US an elegant structure it doesn’t actually want to send much heavy traffic over. Our strategic instincts may still tell us to stay close to the US, but if so, those instincts direct our gaze once again east of Suez.

    That east of Suez gaze far outstrips our military capacity to back it up in the way we once did. The Government asserts that there will be “no strategic shrinkage” as a result of the present review. The Foreign Secretary laid out our global strategic interests in a series of speeches over the summer. But these were a long shopping list of ambitions, rather than an audit of realistic means to an end. If the UK is to make common cause effectively with the United States in some key strategic areas that matter to us both – regional stability in the Gulf and South Asia, nuclear non-proliferation, a new strategic partnership with India, pressing to keep global trade free and liberal – it will have to play its high-value military cards when and where it can, but constantly back them up with “soft power” – even higher value diplomacy, private enterprise and commercial ventures, cultural entrepreneurship and some good old-fashioned brass neck. It’s a neat trick if you can do it.

    If the Government is serious about keeping the UK in the premiership of global players, there must be some tangible new partnerships with countries that we relegated to “rest of the world” in previous defence reviews. India and Japan are obvious candidates for a new security relationship, as are Turkey and our network of friends in the Gulf. A security relationship with Australia that goes beyond friends and kinship may come to seem important, as will relations with Brazil or South Africa. The previous government’s Green Paper on the defence review spoke traditionally, and somewhat ponderously, of Nato, the EU and the UN as our key partnership frameworks. There is more than a little theology in this formulation. The reality is less tidy and will require the mobilisation of military, non-military, and “defence diplomacy” resources to build the strategic partnerships that could make the biggest difference to us for the coming decades. Ironically, the Commonwealth may come to seem more relevant if we can resurrect it as a strategic framework.

    Globalisation has been one of the biggest, fastest, but quietest revolutions in history. Facebook has only existed for six years, but with 500 million subscribers would be, if it were a country, the third biggest in the world. The present global economy would have been unrecognisable in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. In this still accelerating revolution, the United Kingdom is quite a good player. We accept the costs and benefits of openness, we embrace multi-cultural society, exploit the financial revolution, the hi-tech niches, benefit from advertising, fashion, being socially robust, being “cool”. We benefit more than most when the world economy booms; we suffer more when it slumps.

    No one has yet offered a convincing argument that we have to maintain strong military forces to play in this game. Our military prowess is part of our entry fee to it, but that is our choice. Other players gain entry using different currencies. And other big players find they can be prosperous, free, open, and still militarily weak. No one, certainly not the UK, can police globalisation; it’s a phenomenon, not a political system. Loss of political control is the price we seem happy to pay for the prosperity globalisation brings.

    On the other hand, the globalisation revolution is not uncontested. Anti-globalisation demonstrators may be an irrelevance, but China and Russia maintain that they can play the globalisation game without being liberal, democratic, or even particularly open. They proclaim a model that is attractive to dictatorships in many parts of the world and which may yet bring the major powers into confrontation. How much of a military stake the UK has in the long-term defence of globalisation, as it presently works, is a difficult political judgment. The present National Security Strategy aims to defend the British “way of life” in this globalised environment. But that is a political piece of string which provides little strategic direction.

    So the UK is confronted with a “strategic moment” the like of which we have not faced in three political generations. As in the 1930s, but now for the globalised 2020s, we have to second guess how the United States will interpret its role in the new world. We have to define our relationship to that role, and pay the price to play it. We are not sure how unsafe an enlarged Europe can become. And if it does become a dangerous neighbourhood once again – or a safe neighbourhood with dangerous suburbs – we have to decide how much it really matters to us; and whether to put our faith in Nato-style collective security, or take the consequences of trying to deal with it ad hoc, with whoever will join us. Unlike the 1930s, however, our territory is not under any credible threat, but our complex and open society is vulnerable to terrorism and could certainly be brought down by massive cyber attack.

    Our prosperous and free way of life deserves – and requires – defending. That can only be done with adaptation, new partnerships alongside traditional alliances, a great deal of guile and strong political nerves. The problem is not that our leaders fail to see any of this. They can grapple with the strategic environment and get us to 2020 and beyond with a defence policy and a force structure that fits. The problem is rather that the immediate political and financial imperatives mean that they cannot get us to 2015 in any sort of shape. The long term may be difficult, but the short term is near impossible. Unfortunately, the strategic moment is already upon us.

    Professor Michael Clarke is Director of the Royal United Services Institute
    UK and its Choices

    The important part lies here:
    The strategic game-changer in the world is not Russia, but China. Second to that is China’s relationship with India. If the UK is to make a really strategic common cause with the United States – something that echoes the special relationship of the last century – it must somehow bring influence to bear on US concerns in Asia, or at least help hold down Washington’s security interests in the Gulf, while the US worries about Asia.

    And yet, the UK does not have any capability to influence anything in Asia.

    Russia and China are in the wings.

    Therefore, it is difficult times for UK and yet if it does nothing in conjunction with the US, Asia will be lost to both!

    An interesting situation.

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