The UK government’s security review, published back in mid-March, was touted as the first wide-ranging analysis of defence challenges facing the country which, unlike earlier straightforward defence reviews, would bring in many other issues from climate change to pandemics.
As it turned out, most of these issues received little more than lip-service, with the core of the review being focused on a traditional assessment, mainly from a military perspective.
In many ways, it is the first word of the title that sets the scene: Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.
The intention, which permeates the whole document, is that the UK is now, and must continue to be, a world power of note, implying that it is, at least in some senses, a ‘Great’ state.
Some of the more specific policy changes that have surfaced confirm the direction of travel.
Military spending will be boosted by £4bn a year for the next four years, in addition to already intended increases, while foreign aid will be cut by a similar amount.
Britain’s nuclear arsenal will increase, at least on paper, by over 40 percent and, much more significant, details of the stockpile and its make-up will no longer be released.
Potential first use of nuclear weapons will now extend to other possible threats, including not just chemical and biological weapons but cyber attacks as well.
There is a strong suspicion that a reason for future secrecy is the likely development of the new Trident warhead with a low explosive power version that could be used to fight small nuclear wars in far-off places.
Meanwhile the new aircraft carrier will set sail on a global deployment accompanied by a fair chunk of the navy’s most capable destroyers, frigates and auxiliary supply ships – as well as US and Dutch warships. Most of the planes on board the carrier will be US (from the US marine corps), not British (from the RAF).
In any case, as Clive Ponting famously put it, the primary function of a royal navy aircraft carrier is to have a flight deck big enough for the band of the royal marines to beat retreat at sunset in a tropical port.
Force for good?
The whole review stems from a military emphasis on security.
On page 46, for example, we are told that the UK’s overseas aid budget is ‘increasing our impact as a force for good’ – just as we divert a quarter of the aid budget to the ministry of defence.
Page 44 tells us that the UK ‘remains deeply committed to multilateralism’ and page 84 that ‘countering proliferation is integral to the UK’s security and prosperity’.
This firm statement of policy was actually published on the very day that the expansion of Britain’s nuclear arsenal was announced, running a coach and horses through the UK’s commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – besides being directly against the spirit of the new Treaty on the Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons.
“Britain’s nuclear arsenal will increase by over 40 percent.”
On the issue of human rights, we are told, also on page 44, that: ‘Our first goal is to support open societies and defend human rights, as a force for good in the world…’ and that ‘the international order is only as robust, resilient and legitimate as the states that comprise it’. A claim that hardly fits in with arming Saudi Arabia to kill civilians in Yemen.
Moreover, on page 73, we learn that we will ‘invest around £60 million in expanding and improving our global network of British Defence Staffs, increasing it by nearly a third.’ Since British defence staffs are normally attached to embassies and high commissions and have a major role in facilitating arms exports, we can confidently expect increased sales to the likes of Saudi Arabia.
So much for defending human rights.
Four failed wars
Perhaps most glaring of all is the claim that we have prowess in conflict resolution and are (yet again) a force for good in the world.
Nowhere is there to be found any acknowledgement of our role in four failed wars so far this century.
Twenty years after we started our involvement in Afghanistan, the Taliban is now poised for power, with all the likely consequences.
With tens of thousands of people killed and hundreds of thousands displaced, Afghans now face further violence and the high probability that the Taliban will take over, with all that means for women’s rights.
The Iraq war cost hundreds of thousands of lives and led to millions of refugees, but the US eventually withdrew in 2011, only for another war, this time against ISIS, to start three years later.
That intense, if little-reported, air war of 2014–2018 cost at least 60,000 more lives, yet ISIS still has 10,000 or more paramilitaries in Iraq and Syria.
The fourth failed war, in 2011, in Libya, left a wrecked country that has still not recovered and has since served as a focal point for extreme Islamist paramilitary groups to link with others in Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Nigeria.
These may link with al-Qa’eda or ISIS and some extend their influence right down eastern Africa in Somalia, the DRC and Mozambique.
As conflicts intensify, the US, France and the UK are involved in further conflicts. The CIA is even opening a new base in Niger while that country suffers yet more violence made worse by a surge of many thousands of people displaced from increasingly insecure north west Nigeria.
What is security?
Little appears in this ‘comprehensive’ review to acknowledge these deep failures.
An even deeper problem is that this review comes out of a mindset of old thinking on security that is both self-centred and state-centred. It fails to recognise that the core issues for the future, such as pandemics and climate breakdown, do not lie at the level of states.
In some places, the review does acknowledge the need to think globally, but it does so from a state perspective and not a global view.
It also fails to address security from a human perspective. In Britain just now, the greatest security fears for people lie in the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, and their longer-term fears are increasingly going to relate to climate breakdown.
Instead of the state-centred military-focused approach of the review, non-government groups like Rethinking Security argue for a human rights approach that is rooted in three types of freedom which should be upheld by the UN and national governments:
- Freedom from fear – including protection from violence and its threatened use, as well as from the existential threats of weapons of mass destruction, and climate and ecological collapse;
- Freedom from want – including provision of decent food, housing and health care, and freedom from other forms of physical deprivation;
- Freedom from indignity – including from human rights abuses and other forms of humiliation, such as autocratic rule and racial, religious or sexual discrimination.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has already killed twice as many civilians in the UK as were killed in the six years of the Second World War. It has killed over three million people worldwide. Yet, in the whole 111-page review, just a page-and-a-half are devoted to future health resilience.
The government talks big on green issues but much of that is straightforward PR in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow which will do little to prevent an accelerating downhill slide to climate breakdown.
At least the Rethinking Security group is seeking funding for a full-scale Alternative Security Review for the UK. If it can pull that off, then the chance of a future government doing the kind of comprehensive and honest review that is so sorely needed could be increased, not least by providing an alternative approach to current thinking.
Even now, there is little realisation that you can’t nuke a virus and aircraft carriers are pretty useless at preventing climate breakdown. There is a long way to go.