04 Jun 15. In what will probably be the final commentary for this week I will touch briefly on the above linked issues and that emerge from two separate reported interviews.
The first to which I refer are the reported comments made by the former British ambassador to the US and Germany, Sir Christopher Meyer, who argues that a fresh approach to Britain’s defence strategy would silence the ‘declinists’ together with those that preach what I prefer to term ‘disengagement’ but that he calls ’declinist’. The second issue that I will briefly cover are remarks made by former German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fisher during an interview with the BBC that left me with the distinct feeling that the BBC was determined to turn what had look to most as a positive outcome achieved by the Prime Minister in his recent visit to Berlin to meet Angela Merkel into a negative one.
Sir Christopher Meyer, former British ambassador to the US and Germany and someone who I have had the good fortune to meet in the past is reported this morning as having said that “a fresh approach to Britain’s defence strategy would silence the ‘declinists’ who preach the decline of the country”. He went on to say that “the ‘doom-mongers’ are on more solid ground when it comes to defence and the Government’s refusal to commit to the Nato target of 2% of GDP”, but he also pointed out that this is “only one manifestation of a much deeper problem” in foreign and security policy. “Britain” he says “has not had a discernible [defence] strategy for five years” an issue that he traces back to the Strategic Defence and Security Review of 2010. He is right and I am immediately reminded of the words of wisdom that emanated from the House of Commons Defence Select Committee (HCDC) in the report published on SDSR 2010 which if I recall intimated that they could little actual strategy within it. Sir Christopher concluded by saying that there will be another review soon and that this offers an opportunity to put right the ‘incoherence’ of SDSR 2010.
I completely agree with Sir Christopher’s view although I would have rather preferred that he might also have chosen to place better emphasis on the lack of discernible foreign policy in the UK over the past five years. The following is what I said in a recent piece calling for a new political narrative:
“We remain unsure of where it is and what it is we wish to be in the world and yet our government is very quick to remind that it wants Britain to play an extensive role on the world stage. Sadly in terms of how it is not always prepared to support sovereign capability, we fall well short of putting national interest first let alone achieving what may or may not be our strategic ambitions. Too often we allow policy to dictate strategy as opposed to the other way round. Most of all though it seems to me we lack strategic narrative and it is this above all else that I would like to see the new Government address”.
So it is that I remind again that foreign, defence and security policy are inextricably linked. You cannot really have one without the other and you must also remember that the cart must always come behind the horse.
By way of reminder I repeat here some of the more poignant conclusions that the House of Commons Defence Select Committee in relation to Strategic Defence and Security Review 2010 and also the National Security Review. With a new what I am reliably being told is a new ‘light touch’ SDSR 2015 review on the way we may hope that those in the MOD charged with putting this together with a handful of academics will heed at least some of the poignant recommendations made by the HCDC following its review of both in 2011.
Of the National Security Review the HCDC report concluded:
The latest National Security Strategy is an improvement on earlier versions but we have major concerns regarding the realism of its statement of the UK’s position in the world and its influence. There is a clear contradiction in the short to medium term between the NSC’s statement “that Britain’s national interest requires the rejection of any notion of the shrinkage of UK influence in the world” and the Government’s overriding strategic aim of reducing the UK’s budget deficit. Despite the stated intention of rejecting any notion of the shrinkage of influence, our witnesses have forcefully told us that the UK’s global influence is shrinking. Future National Security Strategies must have as their starting point a policy baseline that is a realistic understanding of the world and the UK’s role and status in it. That said, the UK has demonstrated, and continues to do so across the world, that it has a major role to play in global affairs.
The UK’s national ambition must be matched and constrained by a realistic assessment of the resources available to achieve it. The adaptable posture advocated in the current National Security Strategy is a good starting point, but must not become a hostage to fortune requiring the UK to participate in the resolution of every global security challenge. This policy baseline must be available at an early stage to ensure that the correct decisions are made in the subsequent Strategic Defence and Security Review in terms of force structures and capability and platform decisions.
Of the Strategic Defence and Security Review it said:
We acknowledge that it was necessary to undertake the SDSR alongside the CSR. This resulted in a better financial settlement for the MoD than might have been realised if the two processes had been separated. However, given the speed of the review we are not convinced that the best use was made of experts from outside the Department
We are not convinced, given the current financial climate and the drawdown of capabilities arising from the SDSR, that from 2015 the Armed Forces will maintain the capability to undertake all that is being asked of them. We note that there is mounting concern that the UK Armed Forces may be falling below the minimum utility required to deliver the commitments that they are currently being tasked to carry out let alone tasks that they are likely to face between 2015 and 2020 when it is acknowledged that there will be capability gaps.
We are concerned at the lack of information in the SDSR on the levels of funding required to deliver Future Force 2020 and the increase in defence spending that this would represent. The Government should provide an estimate of these in its response to this Report and the figures should be updated in the annual updates on implementation of the SDSR. We regard defence planning and procurement as being of a unique nature, particularly given the long timescales associated with it, and recommend that the Government should initiate ways of allowing the MoD to proceed with implementing Future Force 2020 with budgetary certainty outside the normal CSR timetable
We recommend that the MoD should develop further the concept of a “critical mass” for the Armed Forces and establish a clearer measurable statement of what constitutes “critical mass” to allow verification and monitoring by Parliament. This should include not just the roles and structures of Regular and Reserve Forces but should be expanded to encompass enablers such as DSTL, industry, academia, the scientific and research community and the development of the defence knowledge base especially amongst the military and civil servants…
Our Report outlines some major concerns regarding the capability decisions made in the current Strategic Defence and Security Review. The starting point for capability decisions in future SDSRs should continue to be a consideration of what “sovereign” capabilities are required. The SDSR identified seven military tasks and the Defence Planning Assumptions that underpin them. However it does not set out how capability decisions such as those on Carrier strike and Nimrod MRA4 ensure that the Armed Forces are able to undertake the military tasks. In addition, the measures to be taken to cover the risks that capability gaps engender need to be developed—it is not sufficient to rely on old and new alliances, although these are valuable. When capability gaps occur, concrete plans should be developed to regenerate the capability, including the necessary skills amongst Service personnel. We hope that the plans to redevelop the carrier and carrier strike capability might serve as a model for the future.
More on this anon but I suppose that if there is any good news about the process that SDSR 2015 takes it is that this time it no longer involves Sir Peter Rickets.
Yesterday, in an interview with a BBC journalist, Joschka Fischer, a former foreign minister under Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats from 1998 until his party was soundly defeated in 2005 by Angel Merkel’s Christian Democrats and who at that point announced his retirement from front line politics warned British Prime Minster David Cameron “not to be too sure of German support in his bid to reform the EU”. “Reform” he is reported as saying “was not a priority for Angela Merkel” and that “she would do nothing to endanger the basic principles of the EU”. Stressing that her first priority was how to find a compromise in the currency union with Greece he said that it would be an illusion to think that the UK would get special treatment because it is a major contributor to the EU budget”.
I do not doubt for one moment that some of what Herr Fischer said needs to be taken on board by Mr. Cameron and his team but neither do I think he needs to be told about the need to do that from anyone else. Even so, the natural sceptic in me is bound to question why BBC editors decided that now, ten years after he was thrown out of office, was the time to interview Mr. Fischer.
Was it perhaps in the hope of bringing the PM down a peg or two perhaps following what looked to most like a very satisfactory visit that Mr. Cameron had had with the German Chancellor last week? Was it to try and make a seemingly negative headline story that no-one else would have thought of perhaps? The fact that this interview made it this far was of course only because it could attempt to paint the official British policy in a bad light. There had after all been little doubt that Mr. Cameron’s visit to Berlin had been a success and that to the BBC must have come as both a surprise and disappointment. This it had to be countered by something negative and that might be seen to damage the Prime Minister and the official British Government point of view. What a pity that our own national broadcaster and one that we would love to be able to trust as being impartial cannot bring itself to show any support for the elected authority. And it wonders why so many are clamouring to have the licence system that I operates under abandoned!
So be it – at least Mr. Cameron believes in trying to get things done and when it comes to attempting to change the way things are done in Brussels he deserves plaudit rather than attempted criticism for that.
CHW (London – 4th June 2015)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS