To Stay a World Power, UK Needs France

To Stay a World Power, UK Needs France

Our Armed Forces are not, and never have been, an end in themselves. They have several distinct purposes.

The prime one is, of course, to defend the country and its people if we are subject to actual or threatened invasion. But our Army, Navy and Air Force are also the means by which we can implement our foreign policy, and advance and protect our national interests.

They are not the only means by which we do this. Diplomacy, economic sanctions, trade and cultural activity can, in the right circumstances, have a profound effect. But for Britain, as for other countries, Frederick the Great’s dictum is still persuasive. “Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.”

These considerations are highly relevant to the current enthusiasm for a defence review in the immediate aftermath of the next general election. The reality, however, is that such a review would have little meaning unless it is preceded by a frank and unsentimental assessment of the foreign policy that we wish to pursue over the early years of this century. The crucial question is whether we wish the United Kingdom to continue to have a global role.

To argue that we should does not reveal a yearning for the heady days of the British Empire. Nor does it indicate any enthusiasm for a Blair-style cleansing of the world’s despots and dictators through the force of British arms.

Rather it is a sober realisation that in this dangerous world there are few countries that combine the rule of law with serious military capability and that Britain is one of them. From time to time the use of these assets, or the credible threat to use them, with a clear and unambiguous basis in international law, will be the only way to protect the world from unacceptable aggression.

Many who read this may be unaware that apart from the United States, which is in a league of its own, only the United Kingdom and France have the means to deploy serious military force around the world. Other countries, such as China, Russia or India, have far larger armies but, for the most part, without the technology, the logistics or the experience to contemplate combat operations in diverse environments.

That has been our role until now. The question, quite bluntly, is whether, in future years, we wish to be a country such as France, with a significant, though not a massive, global role or become more like Italy or Spain. They are countries of a comparable size but which limit their foreign and defence policy to their own region.

There would be nothing discreditable or improper about a decision to contract but it would be a strategic change of direction for Britain, inconsistent with the past 500 years of our history. It would enable us to have a much smaller defence budget. It would, however, also end our ability to make a major contribution to global policy and international stability.

But the continuation of our current role and military strength does not come cheap. If we wish to have global influence we must be prepared to pay the price. It is an expensive price, at present running at £35 billion a year. The public finances are in a poor state. In a democracy such a decision cannot just be for politicians and Parliament. It must be for the nation as a whole to decide and the quicker the debate begins the better.

I believe the price is worth paying, and it has to be a price sufficient to enable us to fight and win conventional high-intensity conflicts and not just counter-insurgency such as in Afghanistan.

To say that we do not know what kind of wars we may need to fight in future is not just a statement of the obvious. It is also a reminder of how diverse recent wars have been.

We could not have won in the Falklands without the strength of the Royal Navy and its aircraft carriers, in particular. The Gulf War, to liberate Kuwait, required tanks; Kosovo depended entirely on the air power of the United States and of Britain’s Royal Air Force. In Afghanistan it is helicopters and armoured vehicles, as well as infantry, that have been the most pressing need. That is what makes defence so expensive.

But we must also be realistic. The Ministry of Defence is not going to be exempted from making a fair contribution at a time when public expenditure needs to be reduced.

I suspect, and hope, that my former colleagues in the Ministry of Defence are already identifying major areas of inessential expenditure that can be removed or reduced. It will also be sensible to defer, but not cancel, substantial projects where a delay of three or four years will not create an irreversible degradation in our serious defence capability. Radical improvements in procurement policy, which should reduce some of the massive overspends of recent years, are already being implemented and that can be speeded up.

But there is a further sea change that is required. It is often remarked that, with the single exception of the Falklands, Britain’s wars have been, and are almost certain to continue to be, as part of an international, mainly Nato, alliance.

That should not just mean the continuation of our strategic partnership with the United States but an historic enhancement of our bilateral defence co-operation with France, Europe’s other serious military power.

Britain and France are Europe’s two nuclear weapon states. If closer co-operation and a degree of partnership are on the table, that is to be welcomed. Other expensive military equipment must be harmonised wherever possible. Joint procurement should be more the rule than the exception. Our Armed Forces must work together in peace as well as in war. France’s return to full membership of Nato makes that much easier than in earlier years.

Churchill offered the French joint citizenship in the dark days of 1940. Nothing quite as dramatic is needed now. But radical thinking is required to ensure that our military capability is preserved and enhanced. Serious defence co-operation with France is part of the answer.

A new entente cordiale is required 100 years after the last one.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind was Defence Secretary and then Foreign Secretary in 1992-97. He is MP for Kensington & Chelsea



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