Bernard Jenkin MP (Shadow Defence Secretary 2001-3, and Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee.
Paul Goodman responded to my piece at the end of last week with an assertion: “we should stop fighting major wars outside the European theatre”. This misrepresents what I said. He is attacking a different concept of what “defence” is, and what the armed forces are for. This is a vital debate, but he should stop putting words into my mouth.
I do not advocate “fighting wars”. You only start fighting a war when everything else has gone wrong. This is why the doctrine of “liberal interventionism” is mistaken. Military intervention as deliberate a tool of foreign policy might have suited the Romans, but it tends to madness in the modern world. It is fraught with risk. As the great German General Von Moltke commented, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. The question is not “whether or not to fund major wars outside Europe”. The whole point of possessing defence capability is to be able to deter aggression without fighting: not to make war, but to keep the peace. And the point is: it is so much cheaper to do that, than to get it wrong and to have to resort to force.
So, to answer Paul’s questions directly: “do they [people like me] believe that we should maintain a major military presence in Afghanistan after 2015?” Answer: no. “Do they foresee us increasing our footprint in Iraq now that we have decreased it to a bare minimum?” Answer: no. “Are they willing to go further than tightening sanctions on Iran – which certainly should be done – by putting British boots on Persian soil?” Answer: no. “Do they think that if Libya deteriorates we should contribute to ‘an occupying force’?” Answer: no. We should not be contemplating any of these things – nor are they remotely affordable.
But it is wholly wrong to conclude from this that expeditionary capability at scale (that is, the ability to operate without host nation support, with all three services and, say, 10,000 personnel) has no utility. Defence capability is not just about having an “insurance policy”. It is about who we are as a nation, how determined we are to use our influence to advance our interests, and how we as a nation project our values and aspirations. Our Armed Forces are one of the best things about the UK. They embody our history and resilience and represent our confidence and determination to succeed in the world, not by bombing and shooting, but just by being the best in the world. They are admired. They are also feared: they deter. But only because, ultimately, they can fight.
In a world where so few democracies have this capacity, and in which the UK continues to play such a disproportionate role in global stability and security, the question is not whether we can afford to sustain this role, but whether we can afford to abandon it, without real taking real risks. Which nation fills the void that we leave? If we continue to cut back the Royal Navy, who will mount the naval anti-piracy patrols off Africa? Who will protect our shipping? If we cut our commitment to NATO, who will lead in NATO? Why should any other member state cut as well? You see, Paul, as Leon Trotsky put it, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
Paul is right about one thing: I cannot predict future threats. But when was the last time the UK was involved in a war which was predicted? World War I was known as the “war to end all wars”. It was not. In 1927, Winston Churchill claimed that war with Japan would be “unthinkable”. It only took 13 years to prove him wrong. It was erroneously believed in the 1930s that the UK would have at least three years’ notice of any major war. That was wrong. Even in 1939, there was denial there would be another war with Germany. We failed to anticipate the invasion of the Falklands until it was happening, and the invasion of Kuwait.
One of the failures of SDSR is that it assumes that threats can be known in advance. And they pretend to understand the known unknowns. And what about the unknown unknowns: the wicked threats, which come out of the blue? If history was predictable, then defence would be easy and cheap. In today’s world of such complexity, and social, political and technological change, defence must be about being prepared for what we don’t expect and cannot anticipate. When something happens, you have to make do with what you have got. Hopefully, by being better prepared, we make the unexpected less probable.
The MoD must learn to operate in a much more flexible and agile manner. Douglas Carswell has a point about buying much more off-the-shelf: getting what we need when we need it, instead of these interminable, long and hellishly expensive procurement projects, particularly as technology today moves so quickly – though it is not about beating up the defence industry. They are as exasperated with the MoD as anyone.
But the MoD is already suffering a 17 per cent cut in funding over the CSR period, because it must not only absorb the eight per cent reduction in Treasury funding, but must claw back the £38 billion overspend inherited from Labour. It is already clear that the “Force 2020” goals set out by SDSR are unachievable even with an increased in budget after 2015 (which is by no means assured. This is not an argument to cut even more. A mere 2.0 or 2.5 per cent of GDP for defence is a very small price to pay to protect the freedom, security and prosperity that we too easily take for granted.