From the May 6, 2009 Daily Telegraph
May 6, 2009
by Irwin Stelzer
Britain retains a nuclear deterrent. Their role is to decide what form of military establishment Britain must have to maintain the place in the world that its political leaders decide is appropriate to the nation's economic strength, its priorities, and its role in the world.
If the experts decide that only a nuclear deterrent can meet the goals set for them by their civilian masters, then such a deterrent they must be given. The obligation of the Government is clear: provide the means to achieve the ends it selects.
And therein lies the problem. The Government has not made it clear just what it thinks Britain's role in the world should be, a choice made more difficult because, for as far ahead as the eye can see, the nation will be strapped for cash – recovering from the spending binge that preceded the recession, and is continuing now.
Consider the signals. Gordon Brown orders the military out of Basra, claiming that its mission is complete and that the maintenance of security has been turned over to the Iraqis. Like so much else of what comes out of No 10, this is not quite true: the handover was to the Americans. Britain's soldiers, once proud of their ability to translate to Iraq their experience in Northern Ireland, were ordered out, mission unaccomplished.
Then there is Afghanistan, where the Government deployed troops it was unwilling to support with the necessary kit. American soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan tell tales of turning over used boots and other equipment to the brave British soldiers so sorely lacking in the proper equipment. The Government willed the ends, sort of (clarity of purpose was not a feature of policy). But it did not provide the means.
All of this was emphasised at the recent G20 and Nato summits. President Obama, carrying none of the baggage of George W Bush, begged his allies for more troops to match at least a portion of the increased American deployment needed to increase the security of all western nations. After hinting that Britain would be of assistance, the Prime Minister backed down, and offered a few hundred temporary poll watchers. To top it off, he announced that British troops already in Helmand province would be withdrawn from front-line service and redeployed on "nation-building" projects. Obama, who is accustomed to having his way, must feel quite disappointed, if not betrayed. After all, he played along with Brown's game of seeming to be at the head of the free world by gathering other leaders in London under his chairmanship. They say in Washington, "If you want loyalty, buy a dog", which is just what the President did when he returned to Washington.
One decision facing Britain is the extent to which to develop a force built around what we might call heavy-duty hardware – think Trident and Eurofighter – or around the concept of mobility: whether to concentrate on deterring Iran from targeting the UK, or preparing to flush out the caves of the Swat Valley. America faces the same choice, and the President and Robert Gates, the secretary of defence, are trying to dissuade Congress from funding the job-creating heavy weapons systems so beloved of politicians, who view the military budget as a sort of welfare system for constituents.
The more important decision concerns Britain's place in the world. After the Second World War, the depleted state of the nation's finances required the famous retreat from empire. Now, a combination of a decision to abandon Trident and to continue the pull-back from the war on terrorism would signal a further retreat down the league table of nations with a credible military capability. As a conversation with leading Pentagon figures makes clear, that credibility is already damaged, which means that America no longer counts on Britain as it once did, and is in the market for other allies who can and will assist it in the post-Bush age, when trouble strikes.
There is no question that Britain's weakened financial position makes the allocation of resources extraordinarily difficult. The Prime Minister does want to strut on the world stage as the leader of a major power – more satisfying than reviewing MPs' expenses chits. But he also wants to continue to expand the welfare state: more for the NHS, more for Ed Balls's centrally directed education system, more for the mounting number of men and women too stressed to enter the workforce.
Just as the American Left has always regarded the military budget as a deduction from the funds available for its favourite domestic programmes, so the British Left sees every pound spent on military kit as a pound not available for a needy recipient at home. Add to the naturally pacifist inclinations of many on the Left, the Obama-esque fantasy that soft power not backed by hard power will persuade the North Koreans, the Iranians and other bad guys to change their ways, and you have a prescription for a shrunken military. Unable to afford being a first-rate power while expanding the welfare state, the chosen policy is to retreat from world influence, ceding increased power to the UN and other toothless international institutions.
We shall miss Britain on the world stage. We did, after all, accomplish a great deal together.
Irwin Stelzer is a Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Policy Studies for the Hudson Institute. He is also the U.S. economist and political columnist for The Sunday Times (London) and The Courier Mail (Australia), a columnist for The New York Post, and an honorary fellow of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies for Wolfson College at Oxford University. He is the founder and former president of National Economic Research Associates and a consultant to several U.S. and United Kingdom industries on a variety of commercial and policy issues. He has a doctorate in economics from Cornell University and has taught at institutions such as Cornell, the University of Connecticut, New York University, and Nuffield College, Oxford.
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