I was, I admit, intrigued by this week’s suggestion by the Secretary of State for Defence that, post-Brexit, we could open military bases across the globe. Guyana, Singapore and Brunei are three of the possibilities floated by Gavin Williamson.
Putting aside the rather brutal truth that we currently can’t afford to put aircraft on our shiny new carriers, successfully recruit soldiers, or even maintain our current capability without sizeable additional investment, it does strike me that the obvious question is, why would we need such things? Of course, I’m not old enough to remember a time when we had a worldwide collection of bases, but the reason for having them was simple - we had a vast empire, obviously, and a need to control trade routes.
In the early twenty-first century, however, I find myself puzzled as to what the purpose would be now. Mr Williamson seems to suggest that we could supply moral leadership, which indicates a degree of obliviousness to the impact our Brexit debate has had on the view others have of us. I find myself wondering what a Trudeau-led Canada would think of such a ‘generous’ offer but suspect that the response might not be entirely positive. And, in any event, you don’t really need military forces to offer moral leadership - and I offer Norway as an example of a country which punches well above its weight in the moral sphere without the need to project its military power.
So, one must ask the question, what does he think Britain’s future role is to be, and what is a modern, liberal alternative?
As a nation, we already (just) meet the 2% of GDP NATO target for defence expenditure, which puts us within a surprisingly select European grouping - Estonia and Greece, from memory - and that doesn’t appear to be enough to maintain our current strength. Hardware and ammunition don’t come cheap, and having soldiers, sailors and pilots without equipment is a futile exercise. So, we need to have a clear set of goals, and an understanding of what is possible and necessary.
An obvious means of maximising our options is to pool resources, but NATO is a military alliance ill-suited to political intervention and is heavily dependent on its American pillar. Some sort of European Union might offer a better medium, but the Government is currently ruling that out - much to my personal regret. That leaves forming some sort of bilateral or multilateral arrangement beyond what currently exists but, for that to really work well, some pooling of sovereignty, apparently out of fashion for now, is required.
And what are the goals to be? Defence of democracy? Humanitarianism? Mutual defence against terrorism? Or simply to ensure a defensive capability against hostile forces?
That’s a difficult choice, if you intend to be consistent, and reflective of your preferred ‘will of the people’ - for all political parties are selective in that sense, consciously or unconsciously.
For me, military resources are, foremost, to defend and protect the citizenry but, when not needed for that, they should form part of a toolkit with diplomacy and development aid, to support administrations who share our values and to promote those values elsewhere. Admittedly, you probably wouldn’t use military force for the latter element.
So, what sort of military do you need for that? Flexible, obviously, with the ability to transfer troops and their support quickly and efficiently, key in delivering humanitarian objectives. And, for me, that doesn’t mean maintaining your own bases. In a world of terrorists who can simply melt back into the local population, permanent bases offer easy targets, aren’t necessarily convenient for where you need them to be, and tie up valuable resources. The ability to work co-operatively with like-minded friendly nations, using their bases as required, taking part in joint exercises to build trust, understanding and easy co-ordination seems to offer a more effective means of operation. In truth, if you can’t achieve that, you probably don’t have the ability to intervene effectively anyway.
Building friendships is easier, more flexible and cheaper than building new bases which give a perhaps unworthy sense of attempting to create Empire 2.0. A surprising number of people, not all ordinary members of the public, seem to think that the Empire is merely sleeping rather than dead, but that doesn’t make the concept anything less than utterly absurd.
Of course, Gavin Williamson may just be posturing for the support of the sort of people who vote in Conservative Party leadership contests, but he might really mean it. And whilst such a strategy offers some potential humour, liberals need to think more closely about what we want from our Armed Forces is we want the United Kingdom to play a key role in building a better world.