Robert Seely MBE is MP for the Isle of Wight. He served in the Iraq and Afghan campaigns as a reservist solder, and writes academically on war, non-conventional war and Russian war.
For a country that has so many think tanks devoted to strategy and strategic thinking, it’s become a little ironic that we could probably do with more strategic thinking ourselves.
With Brexit looming, Britain needs a powerful security and defence strategy, one that not only projects our identity – our values and our brand, if you like – but provides balanced and comprehensive security. We need more thinking, and probably more cash, devoted to foreign, defence and development.
What’s also true is that we live in a markedly more unstable world than a few years ago. Russian and Chinese military strategies champion integrated forms of conflict; North Korea threatens the US with nuclear Armageddon, chaos in states such as Syria and Libya has put severe pressure on European states.
Don’t get me wrong. We have made great strides since the disastrous Labour years, when DfID burned UK taxpayer cash like it was going out of fashion, when the FCO’s capacity was ignored and undervalued, and when Defence was used as a vote winner before Labour all but abandoned the Iraq campaign.
We need strategy but we seem to have a problem with it. Why is that? I’d suggest the following.
Whilst the US alliance has been very beneficial for the UK, it’s brought problems in recent years. Overwhelming US conventional power has at times blinded it to the need for strategy – how to achieve its major goals. The great Oxford historian Hew Strachen has argued that: “A power which possesses overwhelming force has less need of strategy.” The US’s power has resulted in thoughtlessness, in Iraq and perhaps to a lesser extent in Afghanistan. It has been forced to learn painful lessons. It didn’t focus enough on the political. It thought it could win with military might alone. The UK has been pulled along in that wake, to the detriment of our own strategic thinking.
Added to that, our own strategy sometimes appears to have been little more than to cobble together just enough kit to take part at a meaningful level in any US-led action, so that we can have a political voice at the top table, whilst the US, and specifically the US Air Force, deliver victory. That has amounted to being a great power on the cheap, and has again resulted in a lack of thought.
This strategy is under threat, and not before time. First, we are getting too small to matter due to relentless cuts. Outside key niche specialisations, the imbalance in force is overwhelming and, for the transatlantic alliance to function, we need to have a critical mass of kit.
Second, the US has been slowly disengaging from Europe.
And, third, Russian authoritarianism represents a threat in Europe to which the UK and Europe need to respond.
There is another problem with the direct approach of the US. In Britain, we have often championed the use of indirect power where military force has been used in conjunction with other political and economic tools to deliver effect. Physical defence is important, but it should not be seen in isolation. At times, we can be fixated by so-called heavy metal warfare: ships, planes, tanks and so on.
But we need to think about security and defence in the round. Cyber is seen by our enemies as a useable tool against us, hence the levels of attacks. But we should not be making the choice between cyber or conventional weaponry. We need to have both at a level necessary to deter.
So what is the answer? Here are a few ideas.
We need to accept a certain level of funding. The purpose of an Armed Force is not to use it in war; therefore it needs enough scale and effectiveness to deter. If it doesn’t, then wars, which are breathtaking expensive and high-risk gambles, become more likely and interventions most costly. An Army (partially) in barracks should not be seen as a target for Government cuts. I am well aware of the responsibility that the Treasury has in securing the nation’s funding, and am very respectful of that. But twice last century our unreadiness for war led to near disaster. Even in winning those wars, the costs were staggering in ‘blood and treasure’, to use the MoD terminology. To misquote the famous Chinese military philosopher, the best victories are ones won without fighting.
Next, DfID needs a hard and honest review. It needs to have more effect. It needs to stop spending to reach targets. If it can’t spend the money well, it should stop spending. Some big ticket items, such as BBC World Service radio and TV, the latter of which now competes against generously funded authoritarian state broadcasters, should be funded, adequately and entirely, by DFID. It should also pay for some MoD peacekeeping operations, as it may now be planning to do. All this will need to mean a new definition of how DfID spends money.
Related to this, we need to continue departmental integration. Either put DfID back into the FCO, or ensure a much higher degree of joint working. We don’t want to go back to sleazy aid-for-trade, but we do need to use DfID’s money for UK strategic effects that protect liberal democracy, such as using DfID to offer larger carrots for reform in states such as Ukraine, Moldova, etc. Our greatest defence against Russian authoritarianism is a powerful, independent Ukraine – not 500 soldiers in the Baltic republics.
It’s a great idea of this Government to have ministers shared between DfID and FCO, but we need to start the concept of joint effects teams at an operational level to drive forward working on complex international problems, such as ISIS, or Russia. Joint working is currently arguably too clunky, with everyone working to the pace of the most risk-averse Government lawyer. Afghanistan saw a marked improvement compared to Iraq, but more can be done.
Next, there is a National Security Review. The Government should not have declared that it will be cost neutral before we find what the new threats are.
In general, government needs to act on its priorities, and think through the consequences of its actions. Example: Russia is a tier one threat, but has government tasked the relevant agencies with investigating Russian subversion as a high priority? If not, why not? What is the point of having a tier one threat if the correct action isn’t taken?
Finally, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee should champion the development of national strategy and hold hearings to give a platform to academics, soldiers and politicians to discuss it. I understand that idea may well be in the offing. Good.
Summing up: we need all forms of power for our security and the protection and projection of our values, but most of all we need, within financial reason and respecting our value system, to integrate power. Post-Brexit, Britain needs to be the world’s smart power nation. Let’s get thinking on how to make that happen.