Part 3 – A post about how the UK sees itself
Many people seem to have a polarised view of our position in the world, we are either a small insignificant nation that should retreat from the world stage and others think we are an important world power with a proud history and a deserved place in the top tier.
Recent events have given our world image a serious battering, everything from the Royal Navy hostages to our parlous performance in Iraq to the current economic issues have reduced our status. The gradual sublimation of sovereign power to the EU, the overweening nanny state and obsession with political correctness has also resulted in a sort of national loss of self esteem and inability to take bold, strategic decisions.
We simply muddle along, whilst our politicians and the establishment simply manage decline as if that is the only option whilst strutting around pronouncing how great we are and making grandiose statements.
This bleeds through into the armed forces we seem to be afflicted with the same mixture of haughty arrogance on one hand and fatalism about what we can realistically achieve.
Read any policy papers from the MoD and you will find the words ‘force for good’ liberally sprinkled throughout. This might be a trivial point but it is indicative of the baseless arrogance that has infected the institutions of the UK.
A healthy dose of realism is in order but we also need to recognise that we are not Belgium either.
The UK has a proud history in commerce, engineering, culture, sport, academia, and almost every other sphere of human endeavour.
Membership of the G8, EU, NATO, the Commonwealth and UN Security Council contributes to our influence
These combine to create a significant amount of soft power.
Our military has an incredible reputation (despite recent failures) and most nations know that whilst we may seem a little soft on the outside we are not to be messed with. Trident, a large conventional military force and a capability honed in numerous conflict means that despite recent problems it would be a very brave nation that took us on directly.
The UK, therefore, has a deep well of hard and soft power from which to draw.
Like Turkey is caught between the East and West, the modern UK is caught between the US and EU, unable to commit fully to either. There should be no illusions about either, both will seek to exploit us and both will always put their interests before ours so whilst recognising our limitations we should simply realise that the only nation or grouping of nations that has our interests at heart is the UK.
Therefore, a degree of honesty is needed.
Iraq was not in our national interest because of the threat of Mr Hussein but because of our strategic relationship with the USA. If we spend billions of developmental aid we should be quite clear that it should be linked to the national interest.
In short, we need to behave more like China, only in our national interest and stop trying to be a force for good because, well, we can’t afford it.
Is it in our national interest to stay in NATO or some EU force?
That is a difficult question because both have proven relatively ineffectual in meeting the challenges of recent times. The original threat for which NATO was formed to counter is now largely non-existent and an enlargement actually increases risk of conflict. The recent problems of NATO countries being somewhat less than willing to take part in operations in Afghanistan has also exposed fault lines although they are acting in their national interest and according to the wishes of their people.
Equally, the EU may have pretensions to be a great power but at each difficult decision point national interests have hove into view. Witness the embarrassing EU mission to Darfur (EUFOR) where yet again a set of over ambitious grandstanding aims were simply not matched by resource commitment, a handful soldiers, ill equipped and with a woolly headed set of objectives quietly failed. As a result of this the French set greater EU force integration as a precondition to rejoining NATO, national interests at play yet again.
So in terms of international organisations I think we need to completely withdraw from any EU defence capabilities apart from the normal interoperability activity that exists at a tactical and technical level.
Continuing participation in NATO should be conditional on serious reform and a clarification of its mission. This might mean NATO changes to include nations such as Australia and other Commonwealth nations with a more realistic definition of what it can do.
On a practical level; participation in these groups absorbs a great deal of personnel, academic and planning resource, more chiefs leads to fewer Indians. Pooling resource looks good on paper but the reality is, as stated above, national interests prevent cohesive planning and execution. For operations where the threat is anything less than a direct attack the chances of this happening are, let’s be frank, zero. Wishful thinking is not a sound basis for a strategy.
This might seem like a lukewarm approach to the traditional institutions such as NATO and the EU and it is but is not a lukewarm approach to coalition operations in general. We already recognise in all our defence planning assumptions that large scale all arms operations will only be undertaken in conjunction with others and this is a sensible and realistic position but we should be less tied to the notion of coalition operations conjunction with a predefined list of nations.
Coalitions can be generated dependant on need with whatever nation or group is necessary.
In these coalitions we should ensure we play to our strengths and ensure that we offer a genuinely deep range of capability rather than a thin veneer of everything.
Whilst we should maintain a flexible attitude to coalition the reality means the US plus the UK plus an assorted collection of others.
This has implications for future structures and equipment programmes.
The execution of certain missions in response to existing and emerging threats should remain a sole national responsibility but some we have little option to scale back capabilities in order to reinforce others. Call it a rebalancing of priorities if you like but it is a fundamental reorganisation based on three things; the changing face of emerging risk, political reality and our resources.
A few quick ideas;
Have some pride and recognition that we possess real power but realise we have limitations
Staying in NATO must be dependent on reform and clarity of mission
Withdraw completely from EU defence integration
Continue to be prepared to operate in alliance with others
Reorganise based on likely partnerships and need
Above all, align our defence and security to real national interest and be a little more hard nosed
The next post in this series will examine a possible response to these threats, risks ambitions and realities.