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Foreign Policy Garvan Walshe

Garvan Walshe: We may not be interested in ungoverned spaces, but they are interested in us

Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser for the Conservative Party until 2008. He is now studying for a PhD at the University of Manchester, and is managing partner at The Research Department, a consultancy.

Hague’s “dangerous world” warning shows the folly of defence cuts

David Cameron runs his government like a lighthouse. Today’s issue receives the full glare of prime ministerial focus. Yesterday’s and tomorrow’s lie ignored in darkness. So we had, in response to a serious but not unprecedented hostage crisis in Algeria, a call to meet the “generational challenge” of Islamist extremism. Just 24 hours later, Philip Hammond, like a single brave officer ordered to hold an indefensible salient, announces the Army is to be cut by 5,000 men.

On taking office, the Coalition imagined itself as the export division of UK Plc. The foreign office was refocused on trade promotion. Embassies peripheral to this slated for closure. The “Strategic Defence and Security Review” became an exercise in cutbacks. Of the international departments, only DfID expanded. Readers of this blog may not be DfID’s firmest friends, but it is possible to imagine a long term economic as well as political and moral justification: countries that escape the poverty trap will contribute more to global economic growth and be larger markets to which we can export. It was as though Britain had finally reconciled itself to becoming the nation of shopkeepers Napoleon wished it had been.

What’s wrong, you may ask, with this? Labour left us with a vast economic mess. Don’t we owe it to the British people to use all elements of national power to return to economic growth? Wasn’t adventurism in foreign policy, if not entirely wrong, at best another boom time luxury we can’t afford?

Not so fast. Just as a shopkeeper depends on police to apprehend shoplifters, courts to enforce contracts with customers and suppliers, and laws to uphold trading standards, economic growth is fastest when security and the rule of law can be relied upon. Security may appear costly, but insecurity is more expensive still. When a grocer’s daughter led the country though acute economic turmoil, she didn’t stint on the national defence.

Then it seemed relatively simple. The forces needed to contribute to the west’s containment of the Soviet Union could be dispatched to deal with the Argentine junta. It has become commonplace to see major, “industrial” interstate war receding, but remember at the Senkaku islands: it may not have receded enough. Another kind of mission is needed just as much.

Means, Motive and Opportunity

The Prime Minister was right to warn of the ungoverned spaces in which extremists and terrorists can organise, correct to highlight the importance of Islamist ideology in motivating them, and wise to understand that security measures need to be accompanied by a process to establish democracy and the rule of law.

Extremists and terrorists have, of course, been around for ever. Even transnational ideologies are hardly new (there were quite a few Socialist Internationals). Two things are different now. The ungoverned spaces are more numerous and less remote than they used to be; and the means of destruction available to small groups of men reach much farther than they once did.

We made a mistake in imagining that many dictatorships were somehow “legitimate” – that their authoritarian rule possessed at least the stabilising tacit consent of the people subjected to it. Often, they were brittle: their carapace of securocrats disguised a hodgepodge of deals between great families and their retainers. When the security system collapses, those left unprotected have to manage as best they can; those left unoppressed can at last seize the day.

Mali was perhaps an extreme example. Its government had resembled that of Ethelred the Unready, allowed to remain in power in exchange for refraining from asserting their writ over the country’s north. As I write French troops advance from town to town. This will be the easy bit. We can expect the rebels to settle in for a long guerilla war.

It’s yet another counterinsurgency and stabilisation mission. Our militaries, at least in principle, know what these involve, but Western governments shrink from providing them the capability. Traditional security is only ever a small part of the job. Constructing and reforming institutions is most of it. Though dangerous, it’s the work of diplomats, administrators and police more than soldiers. Aid organisations can be persuaded to help with more of this work than they will always admit, but in the end it is being done in the interest of national security, and goes against the apolitical culture of their industry.

The world is indeed more dangerous than it was imagined during the last Strategic Defence and Security Review. Afghanistan and Iraq (after the surge) aren’t aberrations. Long, expeditionary missions like it will be part of Western security policy for the foreseeable future. We had better prepare, in the next spending round, to take part in them. As an earlier international extremist said of war, we may not be interested in ungoverned spaces, but they are interested in us.


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