Britain Must Give the West a Lead on Defense
Strengthening Britain’s defence capabilities is critical in a turbulent world, to protect not only the United Kingdom, but the West and its global allies more broadly. Rather than seeking ever-deeper military budget cuts, the UK – and the US – should be planning on sharp increases in manpower, weapons systems and information technology.
When the Cold War ended victoriously, shattering the Warsaw Pact and the USSR, those who had always opposed strong Western defences hardly paused to celebrate. Instead, they added a new argument to their long list of reasons why safeguarding their way of life didn’t qualify as a political or budgetary priority. Proclaiming “the end of history”, they demanded redirecting the “peace dividend” to social-welfare programmes.
In Europe, this was especially easy to advocate, sheltering as Nato’s members did under America’s nuclear umbrella and massive conventional capabilities. Defence budgets collapsed across the Continent. Since land war no longer seemed imminent, why worry?
This rosy scenario missed the point: Communism collapsed in large measure from the pressure of Nato’s collective deterrent, including the prospect of US missile-defence programmes providing the alliance with yet another defensive shield. Deterrence reduces the risk of conflict, whereas weakness invites it. The last century taught us painfully that reducing our mutual defences simply as a matter of budget mathematics entails extraordinarily dangerous consequences in the real world.
Too many Americans make the same mistake. Burdened by seemingly constant strife in distant lands, many yearn to turn inward. Barack Obama embodies this world-view. He is less concerned with national security than any president, Republican or Democrat, since Franklin Roosevelt. Foreign and defence issues distract from his real objective, which he explained in his 2008 campaign was to “fundamentally transform” America.
Obama invariably turns away from international affairs except when the press of external events makes it impossible. Britain has done the same. Both are wrong, ignoring Adam Smith’s admonition in The Wealth of Nations that “The first duty of the sovereign, that of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies, can be performed only by means of a military force.” It is particularly troubling that, after generally resisting the post-Cold War euphoria to which many Nato allies succumbed, Britain should succumb now. Cuts and proposed cuts in defence spending could not come at a worse time, politically and militarily.
Russia is changing international boundaries through military force, reversing 1945’s resolve never to permit such methods again in Europe; and the West’s response evokes only disdain in Moscow. China is making belligerent territorial claims in the South and East China Seas and stifling the prospect of democracy in Hong Kong, while the West stands idly by. The Middle East is collapsing into chaos as states like Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria disintegrate and become ungovernable havens for terrorism.
The UK and the US are now embroiled in political campaigns. If there were ever a time for citizens to seize the attention of politicians, this is it. In America, six years of Obama’s depredations against the defence budget have gravely weakened our forces. This is increasingly the focus of the nascent campaign for the Republican nomination. In 2016, our election will concentrate more on national-security issues than any sinceSeptember 11’s immediate aftermath. And well it should. All the evidence shows that events will continue to drive this point home, as the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, and the beheadings by Islamic State of Coptic Christian have demonstrated this year. Accordingly, we should be jointly concentrating on reversing the downward spiral of our defence and intelligence capabilities.
None the less, many Britons question what is now only rarely called the “special relationship”. They say it made Tony Blair into George W Bush’s “poodle” and thereby complicit in combating radical Islamism and ousting Saddam Hussein. This is inaccurate and unfair, and trivialises the trans-Atlantic bond. It ignores the vigorous discussions (to say the least!) that US officials uniformly have with UK counterparts. British leaders who embrace “peace through strength” are rare indeed.
The fact remains, however, as for much of the last century, that political and military cooperation between London and Washington is the keystone for defending Western interests and values. Our mutual adversaries immediately assume, all too accurately, that a weakened Britain reflects a weakened America, and they are emboldened. Reduced British defence expenditures also signal to other Nato members that they need not step up either. And especially as Washington has faltered under Obama, the need for London’s leadership role has never been greater.
The Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has shown the way, as has Australia’s Tony Abbott. Even France under a socialist government is outperforming the other continental states. America will regain its footing, but Britain must as well, and do it first since its election is closer. It has often happened that dramatic election outcomes presage what happens in US campaigns. We hope for the same again this May.
John Bolton is a former US ambassador to the United Nations. This article was originally published by The Telegraph.