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Of Gavin Williamson + Atlantic Council Speech By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

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As if to confirm some of the more gory details of the various rows that have taken place between the MOD, Treasury and Cabinet Office in respect of attempting to agree ‘Modernising Defence Programmes’ Review process and particularly in regard of future defence funding requirements, this morning I note that ‘The Times’ reports that the Prime Minister was apparently forced to intervene in a squabble between Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson and Liz Truss, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

The Times article author, Oliver Wright states that:

“Following a particular debate between the Gavin Williamson and Liz Truss over expanding the defence budget had become ‘heated’, Ms. Truss contacted the Prime Minister to ensure that she had her backing.”  An unnamed source is quoted as saying: “Gavin became very animated and demanding and it made Liz feel threatened.  It soon got back to Downing Street and Liz sought assurances that she had No 10’s support, which she received personally from Theresa May. Mr. Williamson’s public lobbying on the defence budget has been widely perceived as [being] unhelpful and some have suggested that Mr. Williamson has been purposefully leaking damaging information about the state of the armed forces in an attempt to exert political pressure on May to increase the budget.  Truss’s office declined an opportunity to comment on the matter, while a spokesman for Williamson said: “We do not recognise that course of events”.

Whilst I am sure that those of us engaged in and around defence absolutely admire Mr. Williamson’s genuine effort and determination to secure increased funding for defence and also, his desire to push defence and security further up the list of government priorities, he needs to recognise that in challenging Mrs. May he is battling against a prime minister who will do nothing in regard of increasing the defence budget further than already planned without having been advised to so do by her National Security Advisor, Mark Sedwill.

As garnering of support from Mr. Sedwill for increasing the defence budget appears to me to be very unlikely, Mr. Williamson might do better to move the direction of his lobbying toward press and media. It is they rather than politicians these days that tend to lead public direction and, as was always the case, if the public is on side then governments are forced to listen. That said, Mr. Williamson does need to ensure that achieving greater efficiency in defence is as much a part of his plan as pushing defence higher up the political agenda where it needs to be.

And so to that speech given by Mr. Williamson in Washington DC last week to members of the Atlantic Council and his separate meeting with US Secretary of Defence, James Mattis. Full marks for platitudes and pretence but when it comes to realities, I am bound to wonder who on earth we are trying to kid. Of course, I would love to believe that every word of what Secretary of State for Defence told his audience was right but in the knowledge that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is but a shadow of what it once was and also that the world no longer looks up to Britain for its diplomacy skills as it did not so very long ago, talk of unfunded ambition to redefine our place in the world cuts little ice with me.

That said, there were many truths in what Mr. Williamson told his audience as well but talk of ‘Grand Strategy’ and of the UK remaining a ‘Tier One’ military power when our resources and our capacity are so weakened and stretched leaves me cold. I wonder what Mr. Mattis is really thinking when he talks with Mr. Williamson……!

So, here is some of what was said by the Secretary of State for Defence, the Rt. Hon Gavin Williamson to the Atlantic Council in Washington DC on August 7th:

“Brexit is Britain’s moment to look up, be more ambitious and redefine our place in the world” Seeking to reassure his audience that those worrying about Brexit and what role Britain will play in the world [in the future] Mr. Williamson said that the UK will “remain a nation that champions those fundamental values of freedom, democracy and tolerance”.

In what was clearly meant to be a powerful speech written for him no doubt by one of his top SPADS, Mr. Williamson set out to defuse criticism that the UK’s pending withdrawal from the European Union would weaken Britain’s influence in the world with the retort “never underestimate my nation”.

Defending the UK’s decision to leave the EU, Mr. Williamson said that “in some ways the EU has limited our vision and discouraged us from looking at the horizon. “Now” he said “we are being freed to reach further and aim higher.” Pushed by the event moderator, Deborah Lee James, former Secretary of the US Air Force, to say whether Brexit would have a negative impact on London’s ability to act as a security actor, Williamson said that Brexit would have “no impact in terms of the security and defense of Europe,” or Britain’s position as a global power.

He went on to say that the UK will always be a ‘Tier One’ military power and that “Western nations need to start thinking about the big picture and that not enough is being done to plan for long term efforts by them to counter the potential threats posed by Russia and China”. Mr. Williamson went on to suggest that “the debates about grand strategy among the West and among our friends and allies [NATO partners] – there’s not enough talk about it and that you want to be having that conversation because if we do not have that conversation, if we do not start planning for it, we will be ill prepared for it”.

If you are slightly confused or perplexed by such posturing, particularly from a relatively new Secretary of State, one who is clearly still learning the ropes, you should not be alarmed. It seems that a great many in the audience and in the outside world were as well.

On the subject of ‘Grand Strategy’ and which many are perfectly entitled to have concluded Britain abandoned year ago Mr. Williamson compared the situation among Western powers to that of China, noting that “they do have that grand strategy, they have that plan for the future. And we have to deliver that as well.” He also suggested that the US and its European allies should be looking at ways available now to work with China, as opposed to against them saying that “We have to be thinking about how we make sure China plays an important, valuable and positive role on the world stage. That is something I believe they want to do, they want to see themselves playing that role. And part of our grand strategy would be to encourage them and deliver them into that positive role,” he said.

Playing down any tension that might have emerged between the Trump administration and NATO by confirming his belief that the US remains incredibly committed to its allies. Citing defence budget increases in the UK over the past two years together with such efforts as the US-led European Deterrence Initiative, Mr. Williamson may a plea to “Judge a nation on its actions,” adding that “the U.S. has been the most reliable partner for us and many other nations and I have no doubt that will continue to grow”.

Mr. Williamson argued that the United Kingdom remains one of the world’s most powerful actors, and that its “willingness to act” will allow it to not only sustain, but also build its global influence after Brexit. Britain’s armed forces “are ready to respond to any situation, at a moment’s notice” and have a “willingness to operate where others cannot or will not go”. He also highlighted the gap between the UK and its European counterparts in terms of hard power assets (such as strategic lift and military helicopters) and forward deployment capabilities in its overseas territories as evidence of the value a post-Brexit Britain will still offer the United States and London’s other allies. He specifically focused on Britain’s track record of actively contributing to global security, saying that when the United Kingdom “realises that it is in our interests or when it is right we as a nation always act”.

He went on to say that the UK’s continued partnership with the United States will be key to Britain’s future global ambitions and he argued that the “United States has never had nor will have a more reliable ally than Great Britain. Others may pretend – but you will find no greater ally than us”. He went on to point out the many benefits that the UK will still provide the United States after Brexit, especially in terms of hard power saying that “while some mistakenly believe that only America can develop cutting edge technologies or capabilities, that has never been and never will be the case and that the UK has always brought something to special the table.”

Mr. Williamson told his audience that the “British defence industry creates more than one million jobs for American citizens and that the UK “is the biggest offshore supplier to the US military”. He said that the US is London’s “greatest ally” and that “we will always be the most natural of partners together”. He noted that the UK/US ‘special relationship’ was rooted deeply in the transatlantic alliance and that with NATO being “the greatest guarantor of security in Europe” that “just as the UK helps the US shoulder the burden of international security, so does NATO.

In praising what he described as “new contributions European allies were making towards common defense” he stressed the point that “European nations are not [NATO’s] sole beneficiary.” Asked about the US president’s commitment to NATO, Mr. Williamson pointed to the significant American financial and military support for the Alliance, saying “you judge a nation on their actions”

Many will no doubt be somewhat surprised that Mr. Williamson should express that he was “profoundly optimistic about our future” particularly when he is clearly struggling to win additional funds for defence from the Treasury. Was this a precursor to Mr. Williamson challenging for the Conservative Party leadership? I doubt that it was but it was certainly a speech that was well written b whoever wrote it albeit a touch over ambitious just as it was economical with the truth.

But then, Mr. Williamson is known to be an ambitious politicians and if an when a stage is made for him he uses it well. But even I, a recognised optimist and positive thinker, find his remarks suggesting that the UK has a track record of “changing the world time and time again” and that “we will [continue to] change the world in the future” rather at odds with the realities of the day.

CHW (London – 13th August 2018)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



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