Whilst a significant part of any government’s role is foreign policy (or international relations) it rarely figures highly in the build up to a general election. Domestic issues trump the international in the eyes of both the electorate and politicians. This is why recent coverage of statements from the likes of former Defence Minister Dr Liam Fox and the US Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno is of particular interest and frustration. Not only is it unusual for foreign affairs to gain traction within an election saturated media cycle, it is also unusual for international figures to chime in on UK domestic affairs.
Odierno has publicly voiced his “reservations” about the capability of the UK to carry out the sort of military operations that they have in the past. More specifically, Odierno was expressing doubt surrounding the UK’s ability to fulfil its commitments to the US as an ally. These concerns were raised again by Ed Balls as he attacked Conservative spending plans, stating that the UK would have “the smallest army since Cromwell”. Dr Liam Fox also expressed these anxieties on the BBC’s Week in Westminster podcast, stating that in the face of a deteriorating global security environment defence spending is not discretionary, and that the defence of the realm is any Government’s first duty and as such there was an obligation to prioritise it. Fox went on to call for the forthcoming Strategic Defence review to be “based on the realities we find around us, not short term considerations”.
Such comments put pressure on David Cameron to guarantee the UK’s 2 per cent of GDP on defence spending as required by NATO membership, by suggesting that to do otherwise is merely playing party politics. The recent backbench business debate on the matter compounded matters further as MPs voted to keep defence spending at the desired 2% by 37 votes to 2. Sir Peter Luff stated that “There is no more important role than to keep those who elect us safe from our enemies”. Such calls sound reasoned and reasonable, however this is not necessarily the case. Such jingoistic pressure represents a biased representation of the international strategic environment, and presumes that the military is the best way of dealing with the threats that surround us.
Whilst it is certainly the case that recent attempts to reduce government expenditure have been felt by the Armed Forces, should we be concerned? There are a plurality of voices attempting to point out how dangerous the world is, with threats emanating from Russia, ISIS, transnational terrorism, and other of Donald Rumsfeld’s ”unknown unknowns”, we need to ensure that we have the military capacity to resolve these issues. However, these voices are arguing from a couple of false premises.
Firstly, it is important to question the nature of the threats that the UK faces. If one were to pay too much attention to the mainstream media, one might imagine that the UK is facing an imminent and existential attack from either Russia and/or radical Islam. However, whilst the reporting and coverage of incidents involving these actors has intensified, this does not necessarily mean that there is an increase in activity, or that we are the intended recipient of such threats. For example, the incursion into British airspace by Russian aircraft is not as alarming as some reports would have us believe. Whilst there has been an increase in such activities in the past year or so, the question is how we interpret such behaviour. Whilst it may be couched in terms of them testing defences, it is hawkish naivety to suggest that this represents a realistic threat to the United Kingdom. The intended audience for this manoeuvre is not London, Washington or Brussels; rather this is speaking to a Russian domestic audience, and their near neighbours. That Poland desires reassurance from its NATO allies is understandable, that the UK should feel pressured to shoulder more of the burden is not.
Secondly, there is an unfortunate habit of conflating military and defence. With respect to Isis, whilst their organisation and tactics make for shocking headlines, one needs to question the nature of the threat that this poses the UK, and how best to fight this extremism. The failure to deploy a military solution to tackle this issue is not solely down to a lack of capacity or capability; indeed when facing the likes of Isis and Boko Haram it is also questionable whether military action is likely to offer long term solutions. In much the same way as academic international relations has moved away from narrow, military-focused readings of security, so too (and so should) our governments’. This is a position that can be demonstrated by the decline in defence expenditure by most NATO members and the Coalition’s continued commitment to international development expenditure. By seeing UK defence as being merely a military problem (with solely military solutions) one misses the multitude of issues that a modern nation state must address and navigate in order to be truly secure.
American concern over the UK’s “diminished” defence capability is due in part to them seeing the military as being the primary tool at their disposal to “fix” the world’s problems. As such they neglect the other tools in the toolbox. To paraphrase Johan Galtung, America sees all problems as military problems as it has the military to utilise. This empowers a military-focused agenda, resulting in the military being the first choice, rather than the last resort. The UK by contrast does not have the military capacity of the United States. It is therefore prudent to look for other solutions to problems. Whilst this may be perceived as weakness by some commentators, a non-military approach to the defence and security of the UK is more sustainable, and breaks the cycle of violence and extremism of the post-9/11 world. By utilising the development budget, and other forms of international aid, it is possible to address problems with a carrot rather than a stick. Whilst it may seem unorthodox, the money spent in aid and development is as much a part of defence expenditure as that spent on arms procurement. It is important that it should be argued as defence spending too, alongside other non-military spending like intelligence. This is not an example of what James Gray MP claimed to be “fiddling with accounts” it is showing a real understanding of our strategic environment, and that defence and military are not the same thing.
The clamour to challenge Osborne on his reluctance to ring-fence defence expenditure is unsurprising when one examines those doing the clamouring. It should not come as a surprise that military personnel, alongside former Defence Ministers, and their counterparts overseas, would be calling for more spending on “defence”. However, it is important to put forth a counter argument, and it is paramount to appreciate that “defence” is secured by far more than troops on the ground and expensive weapon systems. Whilst it is important to ensure the UK has the capacity to secure international interests and meet treaty obligations, it is also necessary that it does so holistically. As the British electorate prepares to select its next government, it is more important than ever that worst case thinking and scare mongering do not exaggerate the strategic situation, offering solutions that will not secure the UK’s position in the world, and create threats where there were none. As Labour MP Paul Flynn stated recently with respect to the UKs record of “punching above our weight” in military affairs, “[punching] above our weight has meant in the last 20 years, that we spend beyond our interests and we die above our responsibilities.”
Whilst it is interesting to see international relations being so openly discussed in the lead up to the election, it is concerning that the discussion is uncritical and the opinions expressed are not debated the same level of scrutiny, as decisions made today will have ramifications for years to come.
Dr Liam McCarthy
Lecturer in International Relations
School of Social Sciences
Nottingham Trent University
This article originally appeared on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog