What are we for in the world?

Foreign Affairs & Security
Friday, February 26, 2016
James Gray MP


James Gray considers the lack of a British ‘Grand Strategy’

That Defence of the Realm is the first duty of any Government is a bit of a Conservative truism. Nothing worth happening can happen unless we get defence right. Without defence we would be a cinder. Yet ‘getting defence right’ is an easier soundbite than to deliver. What should our defence priorities be?

Is Mr Putin’s threat to the Baltic States, for example, of great concern to us? It may after all come in the form of cyber warfare, or unconventional war - men in green suits occupying an overwhelmingly Russian town in Latvia, for example. Would that be an Article 5 moment requiring a collective response from NATO, or not? Do we as a nation have an appetite for expeditionary high kinetic warfare in defence of a remote Russian town we have never heard of?

What should we do about Daesh (the socalled Islamic State)? Our eight Tornadoes based in Cyprus are doing great work in Iraq, alongside various other military assets. But what about Syria? If Daesh are our enemy, then why should we turn back as they cross the imaginary Sykes-Picot line, the wholly porous border with Syria? And will we really destroy Daesh from the air? There are at least some bold voices calling for a ground war.

The tens of millions of displaced people from Syria, Iraq and across North Africa are the largest human tide in the history of the world. How do we stop it? What do we do about it? Is it a military problem? Or one for DFID? Increasing pressure on water and food in much of the developing world will mean proportionately increasing disturbance in those countries, but an exponential increase in that tide.

Climate Change can but make that worse. Is there a real military threat to our peace and security in the prosperous Northern Hemisphere as a result? And what military steps can we take to counter it? Do we have a continuing military role to play in North Africa? Why should Daesh in Libya, for example, evade our action? They are arguably a greater threat to Europe than their Middle East counterparts.

And what of the rest of the world? The South China Sea is riskier than ever; parts of central and South America in turmoil. We ignore Russian adventures in the High North at our peril. Have we now discharged our duty in Afghanistan, and what can we do to prop up the close to failed state in neighbouring Pakistan? Will Trident deter an Islamic State with nuclear weapons? And if not, what then are they for? How can we justify the massive expense of renewing the four Vanguard Class submarines to ensure a continuous at sea deterrence? Will détente with Iran survive, and will it lead to Shia dominance of the region, with potentially lethal Sunni reaction to it?

Behind all of these questions lies a fundamental lack of ‘Grand Strategy’. We really are not sure what Britain is for in the world. Are we the world’s policeman? Do we punch above our weight in global peacekeeping? Or are we simply guardians of our own peace and security? Do we just retreat to these shores, pull up the drawbridge and hope like heck? These and a great many questions like them lie unanswered (perhaps unasked) on the table of the National Security Council.

If there were any logic in current discussions, the National Security Strategy would first of all be fundamentally rewritten. We need to know what we are for in the world, and what our strategic aims are. The Security and Defence Review would then follow, presumably quite some time later. It would lay out the military plans and equipment needed to achieve the aims and strategy clearly laid out in the National Security Review. The Comprehensive Spending Review would then follow to ask how we should pay for the capabilities and mechanisms laid out in the SDSR. That would be a wholly logical sequence, and would enable us to have some degree of certainty that we are getting our defence and security policy and our military planning right to meet whatever challenges may lie ahead.

I fear, however, that that logical sequence of thinking, spread out over a lengthy period of time, is unlikely to occur. If the 2010 experience is anything to go by the NSS, SDSR and CSR will all happen at the same time and therefore be inextricably linked up. The problem, I think, is that there is a large disconnect between our very high regard for the armed services, and a widespread lack of understanding about what they are actually for. We feel uneasy about any kind of expeditionary warfare, scarred as we are by the Iraq and Afghan experience. Yet we call for greater defence spending, despite our having little clue about what we are going to spend it on.

I am very glad that the Government have now committed to 2% of GDP for the rest of this decade. They could not reasonably avoid doing so having shouted at the other NATO members to come up to the mark. Yet it is an arbitrary figure, and may well be subject to a degree of manipulation by MoD accountants to make it look better than it really is.

So the National Security Strategy will not be truly strategic. (The PM is said to have opined that the 2010 one “needs tweaking”, apparently ignoring the fact that in 2010, Daesh did not exist, the Crimea and Ukraine dispute had not occurred, and we were still active in Afghanistan. The world has changed unrecognisably since then, and our NSS needs a little more than “tweaking”). The SDSR will therefore be a pragmatic stumble in the dark, driven not by a radically rethought NSS, but by the simultaneous Comprehensive Spending Review. As usual the Treasury will win out.

The world is a more dangerous place than it has been for decades. We cannot know what horrors lie around the corner, nor what military strength we will need to deal with it. Yet our Army has been cut by 20,000 under this Government, the Navy and Air Force are shadows of their former selves. Is it an action replay of the ‘thirties when we disarmed at precisely the wrong moment? Hitler’s rise was the consequence then. Mr Putin, and no doubt the thinkers behind Daesh will similarly be watching the SDSR with interest.

Defence of the realm is indeed the first duty of any Government. It should overwhelmingly be the preoccupation of a Conservative Government. The armed forces have traditionally done much better under Labour than under we Tories. The sole exception to that was in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher boosted defence spending, and servicemen’s pay, as one of her first acts in office. Now is the time to repeat that Damascene conversion, follow through with our commitment to 2% of GDP, and show that we Conservatives are the true champions of our nation’s security.

James Gray is Member of Parliament for North Wiltshire, a Member of the House of Commons Defence Committee, Chairman of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust and Author of ‘Who takes Britain to War?’

This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Autumn 2015 on 11/11/2015. Published online 26/02/2016