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Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Safe from external attack but be prepared for perpetual warfare

According to a recent report, a certain country is today safer than it has been for decades yet must be prepared for future conflicts arising from a myriad of “threats”. Those threats, including terrorism, climate change, failed states, among other things, require ever more knowledge of the world, and ever better technologies to deter, contain or defeat them. Constrained by the global economic crisis, this nation – a “Force for Good” in the world (in its own words; p.12) - has to be even better at getting more out of less, militarily engaged as it is in 100 separate operations worldwide. Unlike some countries, however, which choose to prepare against threats by securing their own defences at home, on their own territory, this country must remain a global military power, capable of meeting threats as they arise and, even better, of preventing threats from arising in the first place. At the core of this country’s strategy lies the unshakeable alliance with its cousin across the Atlantic over which the Report brooks no debate. The cousin states, with appropriate roles played by the EU and through NATO and the UN, preside over a rules-based global order, ensuring the free flow of goods, people, ideas, money, and services, upon which their economies depend. Anything that threatens those flows must be prevented and, failing that, defeated. This country, however, should not rely simply on military power: it should also maximise its “soft power” (p.26). It is through complex and sophisticated combinations of soft and hard power, carrots and sticks, scholarly knowledge and coercive action, that these countries will ensure world peace and stability, and the continuation of global flows.

You may think that the certain country referred to above is the world’s lone superpower but you would be mistaken: the Report is about Britain and was issued last month by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). It is entitled Adaptability and Partnership: Issues for the Strategic Defence Review (Cm. 7794, February 2010; available at The Report is based on consultations with opposition political parties, other departments of state, and some university academics. It probably commands broad support within the foreign policy elite. Hence, it provides a valuable insight into the official “mind” of that elite as we approach the next General Election, in which the two main parties will “clash” over who has the best plan as “Britain Must Be Defended”.

“We conclude that there is currently no major conventional threat to the UK and its NATO allies and no single, overwhelming threat against which we should shape our Armed Forces. But the development of a number of major trends will produce a wider range of potential threats to stability than we have previously faced, many of them transnational in nature. It will be harder to predict which threats will emerge as the most significant, leading to a future international context characterised by uncertainty” (p.15). This paragraph unwittingly says a great deal that undermines current discussions about threats to Britain. Basically, the defence establishment – out in the world defending global flows – is searching for monsters to destroy or pre-emptively to abort. And billions of pounds will be expended in the process which, at this time, the country can ill afford.

On the previous page, the Report reiterates that “In the foreseeable future, no state will have both the intent and the capability to threaten the independence and the integrity of the UK.” It then goes on to argue that such threats may “re-emerge” so Britain must be prepared to face down potential “hostile states”.

Interestingly, neither the behaviour, motivation nor provenance of “hostile states”, “terrorists”, and other “non-state actors” that threaten Britain are discussed or even mentioned in passing. They have no cause as such – for example freedom, nationalist aspirations, etc… for which they might struggle. The conclusion is implicit: since Britain is a Force for Good, its “enemies” must be Forces of Evil. This sounds eerily like the language of George W. Bush’s National Security Strategy of 2002 – a Manichean division of the world into friends and foes, the language of the wild west law-man.

Yet, the Report calls for greater study of potential threats and the “drivers of conflict” – including expanding academic study of the subject – as well as of the peoples of various regions and zones of turmoil. This suggests even greater and deeper levels of intervention and penetration of other nations and societies, something which has already backfired in the case of embedded anthropologists in the US military in Afghanistan.

More later…

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