Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
Vladimir Putin regales a conference with another tirade against the West. Estonian airspace is violated by Russian jets. A missing Russian submarine lurks in the Baltic sea as though following the script for an indifferent sequel to The Hunt for the Red October, subtitled The Gothenburg Mission.
Yet more about ISIS’s barbarity emerges: public executions, the bodies of the beheaded on the streets; institutionalised sex slavery enforced by, among others, young Western women who have travelled to Syria to do their bit for “the cause.” Their barbarism is scarcely mediaeval — there is a case to suggest that calling it so gives the middle ages a bad name — but recalls the dystopian horror of one of Margaret Atwood’s novels.
Meanwhile the leader of the free world appears lonely and paralysed, incapable of more than the most minimal activity required to frustrate, but not thwart, his opponents. Barack Obama is guided, it would appear, by the anti-interventionist Prime Minister in Douglas Hurd’s The Shape of Ice.
The gloom feeds upon itself. As the West turns inwards, it leaves the initiative to its enemies. But it has talked itself into this superficial depression that is not justified by the facts.
So when you feel the funk rising up, remind yourself that the 1970s were much worse. Terrorism in Europe was more lethal. Soviet tanks idled in Prague while the American army struggled to put itself together after Vietnam. Israel came alarmingly close, in 1973, to being wiped off the map.
Now ask yourself whatever happened to the “BRICS?” Brazil is deeply divided and may well have just elected a president unable to maintain the simultaneous confidence of the markets and her own supporters. Russia, though militarily aggressive, is in financial trouble because low oil prices are emptying its treasury. India, though never a threat in the way Russian and China could be, turns out to have an awful lot to do. Narendra Modi has his work cut out. Ignore the breathless predictions that China’s economy will outgrow America’s based on “purchasing power parity.” That comparison is meaningless. Purchasing power parity, which takes living costs into account, is the right tool to compare living standards in different countries, but it doesn’t make sense as an overall measure of economic power. America’s lead in GDP at market exchange rates is still sizeable.
Economic growth is returning to the West. It already has in the United States, Britain and Spain. Even in Italy, the signs are reasonably good. The trade unions’ demonstration against labour market reform only attracted a third as many people as it did in 2002. Even Germany will eventually find a way to stimulate growth. Angela Merkel is like Churchill’s description of America: she always does the right thing, after trying everything else.
The recovery in fact allows Britain to maintain suprisingly high levels of international expenditure. As Nick Herbert has shown in his new book, Why Vote Conservative, if defence and overseas aid spending are added together, the UK devotes $74 billion to international affairs, the third largest amount of money in the world after the United States ($631 billion) and China ($137 billion), but ahead of Russia ($68.8 billion), Saudi Arabia ($65 billion), France ($64 billion), Japan ($63 billion) and Germany ($58 billion).
What matters is how those resources can be used to take the initiative in international affairs instead of seeking to manage an illusory decline. Here are five things we can do to take advantage of our strengths:
1. Policy in Iraq and Syria needs to begin with an acceptance that accept that the Kurds are the only party whose interests and, up to a point, values, make them viable allies. They need to be reinforced with weapons, air strikes and state building assistance. And since ISIS don’t recognise the border between Iraq and Syria, neither should we in our selection of targets. Calls to ally with Iran and Assad against Sunni extremism must be rejected, and pressure maintained to prevent Iranian nuclear proliferation maintained.
2. Ukraine’s elections have decisively shown that its people prefer a Western-oriented future. The immediate task there is to ensure that Eastern Europe can withstand a reduction in Russian gas flows. Longer term, NATO’s Eastern members need reassurance. Britain could start by offering to station troops in Poland permanently. If this is too difficult to do as part of NATO, it could still be done bilaterally. Patching up relations with Warsaw could also help the Prime Minister’s European renegotiation.
3. The Foreign Office needs to be beefed up once more and focused on international security and diplomacy rather than trade promotion and consular services. The government’s decision to have them focus on drumming up exports was a serious error that has to be corrected; important as consular services are to Britons abroad, preserving their security at home requires greater diplomatic effort and resources.
4. DfID has achieved considerable success in alleviating poverty but needs to focus more on institutional development. Promoting the rule of law, what is known as “security-sector reform” (i.e., developing police forces and armies that focus on solving crime and on national defence, and are not engaged in corruption and coup-plotting), and the development of institutions is the most efficient way to spend aid. Had more been done building up public health institutions in Sierra Leone and Guinea, the ebola outbreak would have been much easier and an awful lot cheaper to contain.
5. Because international circumstances have changed so much since the government took office, they should not wait until the election to begin a new Strategic Defence and Security Review. It should start next January and work through the election period, with civil servants co-operating with Labour as necessary, to ensure that the new government is equipped with the evidence it needs to make decisions in the national interest.
Britain can make a difference. Time to get to work.