Is Cameron also signalling a shift in our defence policy?


6:29 pm - October 23rd 2010

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contribution by Ivo Petkovski

The recently announced 8% cuts in the defence budget have brought out a raft of ideological commentary across the media. The Mail frets about the danger of a ‘fresh Argentinian invasion’ of the Falklands following the downsizing; the Guardian heralds the end of Tony Blair’s liberal interventionism doctrine with barely disguised glee.

The 8% cuts at first glance seem minor compared to the slash-and-burn other government departments have been subjected to, but in context they are not insignificant.

The UK will now be spending a lower percentage of GNP on defence (just under 2%) than at any other time since records began, and will have the ability to deploy about two thirds of the troops committed by Blair to Helmand and Iraq.

In that context, it’s unsurprising that reactions to the cuts have been mixed.

Whatever your position, one thing is clear – the defence cuts mean that the UK will have to reappraise its role on the world stage, and the interventions which characterised the Blair years will become much less viable, at least with the UK leading the charge. It’s the liberal philosophy of localisation writ large – overseas problems will no longer be our burden to bear.

Is this a good thing? Many on the left were unanimous in opposition to Blair’s wars, but as Nick Cohen has argued, progressive values are not geographically or culturally limited, but universal. This was always the moral foundation of Blair’s liberal interventionism.

It’s all well and good for progressives to argue for improvements in the UK democratic system, but surely that carries a duty to spread democracy in those places in the world that have none?

I think it does, you may disagree. But the self-perception of the UK as a major global power needs to be put to bed, and that’s one good thing that could come out of these cuts. If we are going to influence global events in the future, and I believe we should aspire to do so, then we need to do it as a part of a more integrated Europe.

The aim of interventionism is to spread progressive ideas in places where they haven’t taken root organically, so the best way to do that (within the new fiscal constraints) is in concert with other states who broadly share the same ideas.

William Hague is a known Euro-sceptic, as are many in his party. However their instinct to pull up the drawbridge may be compatible with further EU integration in the context of defence – Europe has shown it is much less gung-ho than our partners over the Atlantic, which means that British involvement in far-away conflicts becomes less likely the closer we are to the EU.

Also the cost of any intervention would be spread across the much wider base of the EU member states.

Lastly, within the EU the UK can be on an equal footing with the other participants, something which can never be possible in the partnership with the USA. This would position us to better influence the agenda and execution of any future foreign intervention.

The Liberal Democrats may seem neutered in this government, but they remain the most intuitively pro-European political force in the UK. That’s why Clegg should use some of the remaining influence he has to leverage the unease around the defence cuts into a strong argument for greater EU integration – you know it makes sense, Nick.

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Reader comments


This all begs two questions:

1. That intervening in places is the best way to create democracy in those places.
2. That if it is, Britain or Europe are the best people to do it.

I disagree with both. I’m not sure about 1. because I don’t think the empirical evidence suggests its true- most democracies in the world arose because the people of a particular place wanted democracy. Sure we can advise on how best to implement it, how to run elections etc but we should stay out otherwise. 2. I’m definitely unsure about this- I think we have to avoid the image of British troops surveying a mandated territory from their tanks- we’ve been there and done that in the 1920s and 1930s, it didn’t work for us or for them.

The best way to promote democracy is to do what we are doing righ tnow- have visible conversations on the internet and through other media, encourage people to participate, even make use of BBC world service to stream news into places which don’t get it, to support people who want democracy in their own countries, provide them with refuges etc. Defence policy should be just that- DEFENCE policy- which means that yes a higher priority should be given to the protection of the Falklands than the destruction of Robert Mugabe. Ultimately the UK should outline what it thinks are its major threats and think about how to deal with them and retain capacity, like nuclear weapons, to deal with issues that we don’t yet know might arise. Apart from that, lets trade adn communicate with the world, but leave invading it as the quixotic attempt to revive past imperial glories that it is.

If Europe is code for recreating Britain as a world power, then I can’t think of anything worse for the UK than that fate.

…as Nick Cohen has argued, progressive values are not geographically or culturally limited, but universal. This was always the moral foundation of Blair’s liberal interventionism…

I’m not big on “progressives” but I don’t think that torture was one of their “values“, was it?

The Iraq logs, Shiner said, indicated that UK as well as US commanders were likely to have ignored evidence of torture by the Iraqi authorities, contrary to international law. He said: “Some of these deaths will be in circumstances where the UK have a very clear legal responsibility. This may be because the Iraqis died while under the effective control of UK forces – under arrest, in vehicles, helicopters or detention facilities.”

(Sorry to be snarky but I really can’t see how or why they’d spread “progressive values“, however much I, you or ol’ Nick Cohen might want them to.)

The cuts in military expenditure are the best thing the coalition has done so far.

‘This all begs two questions:

1. That intervening in places is the best way to create democracy in those places.
2. That if it is, Britain or Europe are the best people to do it.’

Damn straight. The question isn’t whether other people deserve the same rights as we do – of course they fucking do – but whether a tiny country with a history of imperial wars is best placed to spread those rights, by massive military force.

4 Shatterface

The logic of what you are proposing however amounts to so much hand wringing that democracy, whilst nice for those of us fortunate to already have it, is something which those living under authoritarian or despotic regimes can go whistle for; the best they can hope for is incremental change, diplomatic pressure and the hope that consumer boycotts will make their oppressors see sense.

Pull the other one.

No doubt the benighted inhabitants living under odious regimes as varied as those in Burma, Zimbabwe, Sudan and others like them might have a slightly different perspective.

I haven’t heard anyone in the deomcratic “camp of the saints” advocating that we march in and “impose” democracy on a whim, whether in failed states like Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan under the Taliban, or in states like Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea etc.

The fact remains however that few states retain the capability to project force over long distances, and being able to do so presupposes having the right force structure and systems in place. Such forces have a number of potential roles: humanitarian intervention such as Bosnia, Kossovo and in aid of the Kurds (however late), in conflicts such as the First Gulf War to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait, or in some future crisis to protect vital national interests.

It’s true that in recent times the growth of democracy (in the Eastern and Central Europe and Latin America for instance) hasn’t been at the point of a gun, but it’s alos undeniable that it HAS happened as in Germany, Italy and Japan post WW2.

I’m not saying defence cuts shouldn’t be part of the overall CSR, just that they have to be done more sensibly, and that there is a rationale for the UK retaining a viable force projection capability.

steve,

If Europe is code for recreating Britain as a world power, then I can’t think of anything worse for the UK than that fate.

I don’t see it as code for recreating the glory days, but I do think that the UK along with other European nations has a duty to promote liberal democracy abroad. It can’t arise organically in, say, a military dictatorship regardless of how much information is disseminated via the internet. The choice is whether to see that as ‘our’ problem, or to turn away from it. Either choice is valid, but I’d argue that the moral choice is to do something about it. Since the UK doesn’t have the capacity for that sort of intervention by itself, I think further EU integration is the way to do it.

shatterface,

whether a tiny country with a history of imperial wars is best placed to spread those rights, by massive military force.

Course we are. It’s not about the UK’s history, it’s about what we represent in the world today – and that’s one of the most developed democracies around.


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Is Cameron also signalling a shift in our defence policy? http://bit.ly/d0TQeA

  2. conspiracy theo

    Is Cameron also signalling a shift in our defence policy … http://bit.ly/9wWnyH

  3. David Wearing

    Even after latest gruesome Iraq revelations http://t.co/4RVSPfR some think West should continue "promoting democracy" http://t.co/wirNooR





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