With the UK economy in worse shape than many can remember it is hardly surprising that spending cuts across the government are needed. What is surprising is the short term thinking that has prevailed over one spending cut in particular – defense. The Daily Telegraph reports that the Ministry of Defence will see a loss of 16,000 personnel across all the services, with the RAF taking the bulk of the losses. The Daily Telegraph report observes that "If implemented, the cuts will mean that Britain will almost certainly depart
the world stage as a major military power and become what military chiefs
call a “medium-scale player”."
Any cuts, regardless of their rationale, are unpopular. Yet these cuts seem destined to come back to haunt the British government in years to come. This is because the proposed defense cuts have not been matched by an adjustment of British foreign policy ambitions. William Hague is probably the most intellectually suited man for the job of British Foreign Secretary in many years, and has emphasized emerging powers (the BRICs) as a focus of British foreign policy, as well as a continuing focus on the Transatlantic relationship with the United States. There is much to admire in Hague's foreign policy, though a hint of a deeper strategic malaise is evident in the following quote from a speech by the Foreign Secretary in early July:
Fourth, the nature of conflict is changing. Our Armed Forces are
currently involved in fighting insurgencies or wars-amongst-the-people
rather than state on state conflict, they are involved in counter-piracy
operations rather than sea battles, the projection of force overseas
rather than homeland-based defence. And security threats themselves are
more widely dispersed in parts of the world which are often difficult to
access, lawless and in some cases failing, where the absence of
governance feeds into a cycle of conflict and danger that we have yet to
learn to arrest but are likely to face more often.
This is utter nonsense, and bewildering. First, the nature of conflict has not changed – as any decent strategist from Clausewitz through to Colin S. Gray will tell you. This is not a semantic concern – such a statement implies a fundamental misapprehension about the nature and purpose of war and the underpinnings of the international order. Second, while it is certainly true that UK armed forces are currently fighting insurgencies, it does not mean that state on state conflict has been relegated to the dustbin of history and if the Foreign Office's idea that the future of conflict is basically
that which we are fighting today (and not fighting terribly well, it
might be said), then there are some very worrying assumptions wandering
the corridors of King Charles Street. And third – and bewildering – threats are certainly diffused and emanate from ungoverned/ungovernable spaces, just as they always have (as an aside, it is remarkable that people view the Cold War as the norm in international politics not as the aberration it really was), but it is notable that such threats are on a global scale, thus inferring the continuation of the traditional British global role.
What does all this mean in the face of a large cut to the British defense establishment? When senior politicians, officials and commanders state that somehow the nature of conflict has changed it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of war and statecraft. There is nothing new under the sun, and insurgencies are nothing new in the history of war or the British Army. The nature of conflict is eternal – peoples will fight in order to achieve their preferred political order – yet its character (i.e. how they fight) is forever changing because of changes in societies, technology, culture, and politics. To say that today's insurgencies represent a change in the nature of conflict is to confuse the shifting character of war with its eternal purpose. In the case of today's insurgency in Afghanistan, it is technology and the global political context of that conflict that makes it unique in terms of its character. In practical terms, this view of conflict suggests that senior figures in the British government seem unable to see things for what they really are and are thus primed to violate what is perhaps the most important advice offered by Clausewitz that "the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking."
There also seem to be worrying signs that the British foreign policy establishment has convinced itself that it can discern the future shape of the strategic environment with sufficient confidence, namely the future is like today! This will only mean trouble for Britain's armed forces that seem poised to have any sustained capacity for full spectrum operations decimated. As a result, a number of Hague's foreign policy assumptions will be found wanting at crucial moments. A global British foreign policy will ring hollow without an armed forces able to have the global reach and capacity to back it up.
The austerity measures underway in the Cameron-Clegg government are necessary, and defense should not be exempt. But to perpetrate the notion that an activist, global foreign policy can succeed without a military able to support it in a sustained manner across the spectrum of conflict is a fallacy. If defense spending in the U.K. is to be cut, then there must be a concomitant review and subsequent trimming of British foreign policy ambitions. Anything less will produce a strategy deficit that the British taxpayer will be paying for decades to come, and British servicemen and women will be paying for even more dearly.