THE UK is in a state of utter confusion about its role in the world – drifting, since the Cold War ended and Margaret Thatcher stepped down, through a succession of governments which have avoided the necessary political leadership.
We are, at present, within the European Union and co-operate closely with the armed forces of other EU states. But the Ministry of Defence still judges itself against Washington first and foremost, and Conservative politicians and the media look to the USA more than our neighbours on the continent.
Michael Fallon, the current Defence Secretary, has spoken of our “commitment to a strong defence”, but did not explain why the UK should contribute more than others to combatting indirect threats; Labour’s spokesman Vernon Coaker proclaimed that the UK must continue to “project global power”, but did explain why that is necessary.
Liberal Democrats welcome Labour’s recent recommitment to EU membership, though without an explicit recognition so far that the EU is – and has always been – a security organisation as well as a single market and a developing economic union.
As we withdraw from Afghanistan there are those who are determined to build up our forces in the Gulf, to ensure that we remain, alongside the Americans, a power with global reach – 50 years after a Labour government took the strategic decision to withdraw from East of Suez.
Some still talk about Britain as uniquely a global trading power, with a responsibility to keep open the sea lanes – regardless that those sea lanes now carry Chinese exports in Korean-built ships, or that German trade with Asia is four times that of the UK.
Liberal Democrats within the coalition were unable to persuade the Prime Minister to open a public debate before the election on future security and defence priorities, by publishing a Green Paper; No 10 held to the line that we are still focussed on pursuing the priorities set out in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. The question of Europe has, of course, been the elephant in the National Security Council room. Without a European policy, the UK has neither a security policy nor a defence policy.
The Conservative manifesto writes about the trans-Atlantic alliance and Nato as an alternative to European security commitment – in terms that would have been familiar to British politicians of 50 years ago. But in Washington the term “Nato” is used almost as a synonym for America’s European allies, and the expectation that those allies will get their act together better in terms of co-operation.
Liberal Democrats have been repeatedly frustrated by the refusal of our Conservative partners to publicise more widely – let alone celebrate – the extent to which our armed forces now co-operate with our European partners, above all the French. Fear of disturbing the nostalgic vision of the Telegraph and Mail-reading public trumped consideration of where Britain’s long-term security interests lie. Sadly, our Conservative partners have fudged this fundamental question – and their internal divide – by promising a referendum without indicating which answer they would recommend.
Liberal Democrats welcome, and have actively supported, the development of closer European military co-operation, with the Nordic and Baltic states as well as with the French, Belgians, Dutch and Italians.
We welcome the commitment to a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force to reassure our East European allies, but we deplore the absence of an international strategy to justify and support this developing co-operation.
It makes no sense for the UK to claim to be America’s leading European ally, to spend more than any other European country on defence, and yet to leave the management of Europe’s security relationship with Russia to Germany and France, as we have done in the response to the Ukraine crisis.
And it makes no more sense to leave the management of migrant surges across the Mediterranean to Italy and others. Our shared intervention in Libya contributed to the problem; and many of those who succeed in reaching Italy hope to move on towards the UK.
Liberal Democrats see Britain’s international role as rooted in European Nato. These are the countries with which we most closely share political and security interests and values. We also share these values with the United States, Canada, Australia and other liberal democracies, though their interests and priorities differ.
We accept that the UK shares with its partners an active and continuing interest in state-building and socio-economic development across the African continent, and political and social transition across the Middle East. But we do not anticipate that the UK will wish to be involved in major expeditionary forces in these regions.
We have learned, from Afghanistan and Iraq, that Western intervention too often provokes greater resistance than co-operation; that local conflicts require local resolution; and that Western assistance, and training, to local forces is more constructive than in-your-face Western leadership.
I have deliberately not answered the question of the size of the defence budget over the next five years. It is up to all of us, including the defence establishment, to justify to the British public the cost of defence and the objectives it serves, in a situation where the public appear to support the Armed Forces but do not want them to venture very far abroad, and show no enthusiasm for paying more for them if that means either higher taxes or cuts in domestic programmes.
And we will only succeed in persuading them if the process starts from a considered debate on the threats we face and the share of international responsibilities we are willing to shoulder, with others, in responding to them.
* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Lib Dem defence spokesman who gave a policy speech to the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall. This is an edited version.