Forget Iraq or Afghanistan. British foreign policy must fix its own backyard firstby Anatol Lieven / June 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
Keeping our own house in order: British troops in Kosovo 1999
On a recent, endlessly delayed rail journey to Oxford I passed a military train loaded with jeeps and armoured vehicles—pretty inadequate ones too, to judge by the news from Helmand. It reminded me that Britain will soon have two aircraft carriers of impressive bulk and uncertain purpose, at a cost of £4bn. Their purpose is mystifying. The US doesn’t need us to have them; it has far more, and far bigger ones too. If they are to allow Britain to fight independently, then where and against whom? Rumoured scenarios range from the highly unlikely (a military occupation of parts of Nigeria) to the ludicrous (a British war with China). Certainly, the two carriers will not help in Afghanistan—the last time I looked at a map it does not have a coast.
The new ships will be named the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales. Given that no one seems clear how they will be paid for, or how we can afford the aircraft that sit on them, it might have been better to name them after their predecessor as the Royal Navy’s largest ship, HMS Vanguard. First designed at the start of the second world war to fight the Bismarck and Tirpitz, by the time it was finally commissioned the war had ended. It was scrapped ten years later. Today’s carriers come from the same mixture of imperial nostalgia, blind attachment to the US alliance and failure to decide on strategic priorities. None of this mattered much in an era of economic growth, but it does when British funds are in short supply—as demonstrated by the agonised debate over whether to scrap our remaining order for £1bn Eurofighters. And if we do face a depression comparable to the 1930s, its effects are likely to throw up severe security challenges, which in turn means that Britain will have to ruthlessly prioritise its security commitments—or risk becoming irrelevant everywhere, and frittering away effort, money and lives on half-baked operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to which we can make no real contribution, and which stand no serious chance of success.
British military spending should be reduced by some 10 per cent to bring it in line with France (still leaving it far above Germany and other leading European states as a proportion of GDP). Much more importantly, however, it should…