Mon, 27 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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I had high hopes for the Integrated Review. Then the wheels came off

Defence secretary Ben Wallace at a Royal British Legion event at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, August 2019 | PA Images

5 min read

If Britain is to project on the world stage and protect at home, the review must be foreign policy led, not Treasury driven

We ain’t seen nothing yet. The huge overhang of debt, the continuing fear of disease and the inevitable anger at the mishandling of the pandemic has all to come. International co-operation is being replaced by narrow nationalism and bitter competition, and it’s soured confidence in our leaders.

Anyone who thinks the security challenge facing us is not as big as the health one is simply deluded.

This global pandemic has shattered so many norms. Just as the collapse of the Berlin Wall led to a bonfire of the then certainties, Covid-19 has opened our eyes to our vulnerabilities. And those vulnerabilities will have been noticed by our adversaries across the world.

From the beginning of this pandemic it was all too obvious that the world would not be the same again. That slow, steady progress since the end of the Cold War – in poverty reduction, connectivity, travel, trade, education and living standards – is now in question. Disorientation is the new normal and it does not produce a stable, safe world.

The rise in unemployment alone, already happening and escalating, will further weaken the robustness of our defences – both in society and to the outside world

It is not so long ago that America’s defence supremo, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said the biggest threat to the US was “the deficit”. The same country’s Intelligence head agreed. Yet that was when the deficit in the US was a fraction of what coronavirus has wrought on the US economy – and that of other countries as well.

The rise in unemployment alone, already happening and escalating, will further weaken the robustness of our defences – both in society and to the outside world.

The colossal sums being conjured out of the air will have to be repaid – and there is no mistaking both the burden on future generations and on what we normally spend on security. If modern democratic societies find it a struggle to maintain defence and security spending in economies which, until last March, were growing, how much more difficult will it be now to find a national consensus for spending more on our national safety?

It is a truism on vivid display that we live in historically volatile times. Events, even before the virus caught us unawares, have produced unprecedented turbulence. And on top of that the sheer velocity of change has compounded that and delivered enormous new dilemmas.

As Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, recently said, “The pace of change has never been this fast, and yet it will never be this slow again.” In computing, agriculture, transport, communications, medicine and many more areas, change is happening at a bewildering pace.

And these changes have highlighted our new vulnerability. The manifest benefits of globalisation have left us prey to broken global supply chains and just-in-time manufacturing. Easy travel has made the transmission of viruses impossible to control. Free trade has inflamed a new protectionism. Donald Trump said it out loud: “The choice is simple: it’s globalisation or America first.”

Our adversaries know that security strategy cannot be written in a one-year envelope

In the security field, arms control is disintegrating and there are no Geneva Conventions or agreed international protocols on drone and space warfare, digitalisation of the battlefield or in the cyber world.

Artificial intelligence is dramatically affecting both the hardware and the thinking around how we defend the country. The new model authoritarians as well as fanatical individual actors look at our democratic societies and, since they are outgunned in the traditional sense, play in the ‘grey zone’.

They watch our societies crack and divide and they step in to exploit it. They use bribery, election interfering, media manipulation and organised crime to weaken our societies and gain advantage. In leaving ourselves so open to these subtle attacks we have become our own worst enemy.

If we allow the value set which has created the modern Western society to erode, we leave an open door to adversaries. The rule of law, an independent judiciary, a mixed economy, the right to vote and change governments, the separation of church and state – all of these are the foundation stones of a free society. If they are attacked – and they are – we are in more danger than from missiles.

The defence of the nation is the first duty of any government. That’s why I welcomed the Johnson government’s announcement of an Integrated Review of not just defence but of foreign policy, intelligence and development. I had high hopes that the review might follow the model of the one I led in 1998. Indeed, I was asked in to No 10 to say what we had done at that time, and I happily agreed.

But then the wheels came off. The first lesson I offered was of inclusiveness and an open processes of consultation and transparency. Instead, we have had secrecy and silence as the debate goes on behind closed doors.

The second lesson I offered was that, like ours, it must be foreign policy led and not Treasury driven. The noises seemed at first encouraging. But then came the chancellor’s announcement that his three-year Comprehensive Spending Review was to be limited to one year. Salami slicing and short-term cuts can be the only outcome of that.

Our adversaries, opponents and competitors know that security strategy cannot be written in a one-year envelope. That’s why they are all investing in defence. Post-Brexit, if Britain is to project on the world stage and protect the nation, we need a comprehensive and long-term idea of our role – and the tools with which to conduct it.

The country’s finances are, because of the virus, damaged but on the road to recovery. That solemn duty to protect our people cannot be a casualty of the new debt.


Lord Robertson of Port Ellen is a Labour Peer, former defence secretary and former secretary general of Nato

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