Britain must figure out its place in the world before intervening

Taking a breather. EPA/Anja Niedringhaus

Britain’s combat operations in Afghanistan are due to end completely this year, and along with them a century of continuous UK involvement in foreign conflicts. But ever since the HMS Ark Royal sailed into the sunset last year, Britain has had no serving aircraft carrier. And by the time the House of Commons voted not to join a then-expected US action in Syria, it seemed that Britain had fully exhausted its zeal for overseas intervention.

But the truth is more nuanced than might appear. According to a report of the House of Commons Defence Committee, the government should state a “strategic and well-articulated vision of the UK’s position in the world.” With an eye to influencing next year’s defence and security review, the report seeks to highlight the “when, why, and how” questions of future UK foreign intervention.

What’s most striking about the report is not so much the answers it provides, but the things it reveals about the doubt and uncertainty that undercuts Britain’s strategic decision-making. And while the report is thoughtful and moderate, its central call of a “well-articulated vision” will not be easy to answer.

Uncertain outlook

Clearly, the committee has taken Russia’s annexation of Crimea to heart. The report warns of “the likelihood of a return to an increased threat of state versus state conflict”, and calls for the next defence review to give this threat due emphasis.

Yet only a few days before the report was published, Tony Blair used a heavily covered speech to point to one of the “defining challenges of our time”: the threat from Islamic extremism. He urged the West to prepare again for intervention in the Middle East, but a very different kind of intervention – one geared more towards influencing whole societies and populations than defeating hostile armies.

Rumbling away in the background, meanwhile, is a fierce debate about whether any military intervention can be justified unless specifically authorised by the UN Security Council (UNSC). The committee refrains from judgement, but notes that the government’s current position – that military action in the absence of a UNSC resolution is permissible under international law on humanitarian grounds, providing that certain conditions are met – is highly controversial.

Despite recognition of a global “responsibility to protect”, and the problem of the permanent members’ veto power, there is some way to go until intervention without a UN mandate is widely accepted to be legal – although some would argue that it might nevertheless be legitimate.

If the international context the UK will face in future decades is not easy to predict, neither is the attitude of parliament or the public to the use of force (which has come at a reported cost of £34 billion since the Cold War). Last August’s vote against military action in Syria was widely seen as evidence of what the committee calls a “lack of appetite for military operations given the experiences and tensions of … operations in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Although intervention fatigue is real, and the Iraq intelligence furore has seriously damaged future governments’ credibility, it would be unwise to over-interpret the Syria vote. That arguably had as much to do with the way the case for military action was presented as with a broader aversion to intervention.

And this is where the committee makes perhaps its most persuasive recommendation: that the government should consider including in the next National Security Strategy “a statement of the criteria for when and whether to intervene”.

This is essentially an attempt to return to a “pre-Iraq” state, in which intervention might be defended on humanitarian grounds, subject to certain conditions. As the committee notes, Blair famously laid out five tests for humanitarian intervention in a speech to the Chicago Economic Club in 1999. Reviving this approach (if not Blair’s tests themselves) would not just make decisions on intervention easier: it would force us to lay down a statement of British foreign policy values.

A statement of conditions for intervention would have other crucial benefits. It would enable public debate on the intervention issue before another crisis emerges; it would provide a decision-making aid to leaders in times of extreme pressure; and it would allow future governments arguing for an intervention to make the case to parliament and the public, providing a framework for informed scrutiny.

Means and ends

As one submission to the committee noted, the UK’s decisions on intervention have been different from those of most other countries because its military forces are large enough for genuinely ambitious action. This ability to project and sustain power has allowed the UK to intervene where others could not, and many would argue it is at the heart of Britain’s close military relationship with the United States.

But the UK’s armed forces are subject to the same pressures as other areas of British public spending, and the first stages of military restructuring and reductions under Future Force 2020 have been accused of undercutting the UK’s ability to protect its national interests. It is here that the report is most critical, decrying a “lack of realism in the government’s assertion that there will be no shrinkage of UK influence when resources are still being reduced”.

For now, the UK’s military assets are probably capable of supporting most direct interventions they are likely to perform. A more difficult question is whether Britain’s indirect influence can be wielded to make up for future losses in hardware, as the Government suggests. That effort will still involve some “hard power”, through deterrent deployments, joint exercises and defence engagement; but as the report points out, there is room too for non-military conflict prevention.

And what about intervention with less overt capabilities, such as special forces or unmanned aerial vehicles? As the environments in which the UK might intervene become messier, these methods’ appeal will grow. But their practical advantages – that special forces can be deployed covertly, or that drones can be used with minimal risk of friendly casualties – are precisely those qualities which raise significant political, legal and ethical questions.

These issues are left unaddressed in the committee’s report, as too are the possibility of intervention in the Arctic or Antarctic and the potential implications of Scottish independence.

Tough choices

The report pays close attention to the US “pivot” to Asia, which it sees as grounds for increased UK attention to its own regional concerns. In some ways, the UK is in the same boat as many other countries. It fears abandonment by its superpower ally, it is working with limited resources, and it often learns through strategic trial and error. But Britain’s advanced capabilities and historical inclinations mean it has more options than most states.

This is a moment of acute uncertainty in British strategic decision-making. Unfortunately, decisions have to be made, and the stakes for those decisions are high. That being the case, the defence committee is right to argue that the basis for good decisions is a clear vision of the UK’s position in the world. In the aftermath of so many recent traumas, settling on that vision will not be easy.