23 May 2015

British withdrawal from the world stage worries friends and allies


The deepening sense of frustration many Americans feel for Britain’s withdrawal from the world stage under David Cameron’s leadership was made abundantly clear to a delegation of Britain’s most senior military officers during a recent visit to the Pentagon.

Headed by General Sir Nick Houghton, the head of the British Armed Forces, and including the heads of the three Services – Army, Navy and Air Force – the party had travelled to Washington for what ostensibly should have been an enjoyable social event, namely the unveiling of a statue to Winston Churchill, Britain’s greatest wartime leader, at the Pentagon.

But rather than dwelling on the high point of Anglo-American military cooperation – the defeat of Nazi Germany – the British contingent found themselves subjected to some hostile questioning from their American counterparts about Britain’s dwindling political and military leadership in coalition operations, such as the U.S.-led air campaign against Islamic State (Isil) fighters in Iraq. While the Americans rely on their state-of-the-art F-22s to target Isil positions, the Royal Air Force, which in Churchill’s day ruled the skies over Europe, is being forced to rely on 30-year-old Tornado bombers, which are often unable to fly combat missions owing to a serious shortage of spare parts.

The reason Britain finds itself in this unfortunate position is that its Armed Forces are still reeling from the effects of the draconian defence cuts Cameron implemented when he first became Prime Minister in 2010. His argument at the time was that restoring the nation’s finances to good order was a more pressing national priority than sustaining the ability of the Armed Forces to defend Britain’s shores, with the effect that, in the interests of balancing the books, vital military capabilities, such as aircraft carriers and maritime patrol aircraft, were sacrificed.

A recent assessment by the prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies in London concluded that the 10 percent cuts made to the defence budget “has led to a 20-30 percent reduction in conventional capability”.

But while Mr Cameron might argue that, in such circumstances, prudence is a virtue, critics point out that his decision to protect the foreign aid budget has resulted in billions of pounds being squandered of overseas projects that could more usefully have been spent on resourcing the military.
The Prime Minister’s assault on the military establishment, moreover, has coincided with Cameron displaying a marked reluctance to provide leadership on the world stage, whether it is dealing with the Isil menace or confronting the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Discussion of foreign policy issues was virtually non-existent during the recent general election campaign, which resulted in Cameron winning a second term in office, while attempts to raise concerns about defence spending were allegedly dismissed by Philip Hammond, the former Defence Secretary, with the patronising remark: “there are no votes in defence.”

Nor is there any suggestion that, now that Mr Cameron is no longer tethered by the demands of his former Liberal Democrat coalition colleagues, the Prime Minister has any intention of changing his seemingly nonchalant disregard for Britain’s place in the world. Earlier this week George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, revealed that Greg Hands, the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, had written to all those departments not ring-fenced from future cuts – including the Ministry of Defence – asking them to find a further £13 billion in savings. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates this could result in a further 18 percent cut in defence spending in real terms.

Not surprisingly this dramatic change in Britain’s global standing has not gone unnoticed by long-standing allies such as the U.S., as well as the Gulf states, several of which are now seriously considering negotiating multi-billion arms deals with France because there is a growing sentiment that Britain can no longer be trusted to protect their interests.

The mounting concern about Britain’s withdrawal from the world stage is best articulated in a Washington Post article by the foreign affairs commentator Fareed Zakaria, who argues that America relied on Britain because “it has a voice that is intelligent, engaged and forward-looking.”

But if Cameron persists on his present course of disengagement, then it will be a voice that increasingly will become more muted.

Con Coughlin is Defense Editor for the Daily Telegraph