Britain stands at a crossroads. And in an ever-changing global environment, it is imperative that she is able to respond, adapt and mould herself to today’s geopolitical world.
This new world is increasingly characterised by multilateralism, cooperation and consensus. Yet it also plays host to vitriolic nationalism, the pursuit of power and a growing thirst for terrorism. These dangers destabilise lives in the UK and around the world.
The challenges facing our world and the nature of conflict and global risk prove more dangerous and unpredictable than we could have imagined even four short years ago. There are increasing attacks on civilians by terrorists, cyber-attacks on states and companies, and countries having to grapple with issues not always thought of in terms of defence and security, such as climate change, poverty, migration, food and water shortages, and economic collapse and insecurity. Yet we find ourselves in the UK with a worryingly isolationist government and with a vulnerable and confused international posture lacking strategic direction.
Whilst Britain must ensure it has the correct emphasis, expertise and capabilities to deal with these new threats, traditional conflicts have not been consigned to history. Russia has shown the world that the defence threats of old – annexation of land and military stand-offs – remain just as dangerous. North Korea continues to develop its nuclear capabilities, the civil war in Syria has long since claimed its 100,000th casualty, Iraq threatens imminent collapse and prolonged civil conflict, and Israel and Hamas embark on a new cycle of violence causing unimaginable suffering. So today’s foreign and defence landscape is harder, not easier, to navigate. The mix of policy prescriptions and capabilities we require are multiple and complex, with the need to respond to and, where possible, pre-empt the actions of both state and non-state actors.
David Cameron’s legacy
A Labour Government in 2015 will have to deal with David Cameron’s foreign policy legacy. The Prime Minister, who never took much notice of international affairs to begin with, has found himself challenged and contested on a range of issues – from how to handle an increasingly belligerent Russia, to how to respond to new horrors in the Middle East. Cameron has failed to engage in Europe to deliver reform, as he has been in hock to those on the right-wing of his own party who wish to see Britain exit the EU, and he has not faced up to a public weary of intervention and sceptical about the benefits of international engagement. This has resulted in a failure to grapple with the most salient challenges of the day and diminishing credibility in the eyes of our key partners.
The Prime Minister’s resistance to the siren voices who wish to see Britain’s international aid budget cut are welcome. However, this has nevertheless been undermined by an abject failure to show the kind of personal leadership and commitment of the Blair and Brown years to tackle poverty and injustice. Aid is now seen as the default response to any international crisis, whatever it may be.
Britain’s place in the world
As a Parliament and an aspirant Labour Government we need to be honest and frank with the people of Britain. There is no getting away from the increasingly interconnected and worryingly volatile world in which we find ourselves. There are hard choices to be made, but creativity in how we deploy our overseas and domestic resources and a renewed engagement with the international community could pay dividends.
Our defence capabilities cannot be compromised in a world where such dangers exist. The Coalition Government made a fundamental error, in their 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), to prioritise balancing the budget over strategic direction and national security. This had disastrous consequences and should not be allowed to happen again.
It is possible to make clear, strategic choices about Britain’s capabilities and to be fiscally responsible. These are not mutually exclusive. The current shambles, overseen by the Ministry of Defence, is an example of what happens when these priorities are not balanced correctly. In recent months, the UK’s Regular Forces have greatly reduced in number while recruitment to Reserve Forces continues to lag far behind, leaving Britain with a dangerous gap in its military capability.
With old and new threats continuing to emerge and evolve, Britain has an important role to play as a protector, not just of her own people, but also of those around the world. This is often a contentious argument: why should we spend our money on protecting citizens of other countries? But in an interconnected world, when populations elsewhere are at risk, then so too are we.
Regional conflicts, global consequences
Fragile and conflict-affected states provide an environment in which organised crime, corruption and terrorism can flourish. This undermines efforts to promote democracy, good governance and economic sustainability, and affects countries around the world. Few would have thought the far away activities of Islamic extremists in small villages across the Durand line would have anything to do with terror on the streets of New York; nor was it possible to foresee that the corruption and wanton human rights abuses of Ukraine’s former Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych, would have had dreadful consequences.
Anyone who dismissed the need for NATO, or for a thoughtful and engaged EU-neighbourhood policy, or for a strategic diplomacy and defence posture in Europe has been disproven by these recent events.
This has been highlighted in recent months by the implications of hundreds of young British men and women who have travelled to fight in a bloody and terrible war in Syria, and the extremist ideology and intentions that they will bring with them upon their return to Britain. Tragically, in some months of this year more Brits went to Syria to fight than joined the UK’s Army Reserve. There is no starker failure of our foreign and defence policy.
Deciding when to act
It is inherent in our Labour Party values to seek dialogue between peoples, peaceful resolution of conflict, and to uphold human rights and social justice for the poor and marginalised. We believe in justice and opportunity for all, not just charity. We are the Party who created the Department for International Development, who signed into law the International Development Act, and who committed ourselves to meeting the Millennium Development Goals agreed by world leaders at the UN in 2000. We believe that we achieve more together than we achieve alone. And we also recognise that we must keenly learn from the errors of the past about when and how to act. We are not the Party who sits back and watches from the sidelines, and we are not the Party who can see wrong being done and do nothing.
That doesn’t mean we always get it right. You can have the best experts, intelligence and equipment and yet it is not possible to know the consequences of every decision. We must be considerate in our actions and convinced of the merits of stepping in. We must learn the lessons of the past, but we must also be prepared to make the case for intervening when it is viable and the right thing to do. An international conflict where lives are at risk should never represent an opportunity for party politics. And whilst Parliament should be consulted whenever possible, in some cases that will not be feasible and government must be able to act as it deems necessary.
History can teach us many things and one lesson is that there are times when it is necessary for Britain to take military action to protect the lives of others. This is not imperialism – it is not the flexing of our military muscle for show. It is an unequivocal commitment to lessen the harm done to others. We did not act in Rwanda and we were too slow to act in the Balkans. In the future we should be confident that where there is a just cause, there is reason to act. We must ensure that our mission is feasible, and we should always seek international support from our friends around the globe. Above all we should remember that there are consequences of action, whether they be diplomatic, military or humanitarian, but there are also consequences of inaction.
An increased focus on prevention and joining up the work of the Ministry of Defence, Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is essential to build a safer world and to reduce the difficult choices that we will undoubtedly continue to face in the next Parliament and beyond.
The world remains a dangerous and volatile place. It is a world that requires leadership, resolve, moral purpose and unity between nations in tackling threats to our national security, such as organised crime and climate change. A One Nation Labour Government in 2015 must show leadership and uphold our values in the world. This matters more than ever for the people of our country and is in the common and moral interest of peoples elsewhere.
While we all aspire for a just and moral world, this is rarely achieved by hope alone. An ill-equipped, vacillating and ‘go it alone’ Britain will have a very limited ability to ensure that this vision is realised and to mitigate the repercussions of any missteps.
If we are able to make the world a better place then we should do so. We should work for international peace and protection, to strive for the safety and security of our citizens and for our international neighbours too. We should commit ourselves to the endless pursuit of the eradication of global poverty and the improvement of peoples’ lives across the globe.
The world is still a fragile and dangerous place, but Britain can work to make it better and, in some ways, we are uniquely placed to do so.