It’s been obvious for a while that the Prime Minister is exasperated by the way American and other allied officials – including President Obama himself – keep expressing concern about Britain’s rapidly shrinking defence capabilities and the prospect of yet more defence cuts.
David Cameron also dislikes being reminded that he lectured other Nato leaders about meeting the alliance’s minimum of spending 2 per cent GDP on defence, when by any honest calculation the UK is not going to meet that target.
He hasn’t responded directly to the multiple warnings from Washington. This is presumably because overtly contradicting the President, the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defence of the United States could raise the profile of an issue that he’d prefer to go away as quickly and as quietly as possible.
Instead, both the PM and his defence secretary have given irritable interviews proclaiming that neither Britain’s global influence nor her military capacities are shrinking in the least. They have also dismissed critical articles by various former heads of the UK armed forces.
In those interviews Cameron and Michael Fallon trotted out dubious or misleading justifications in almost identical terms, garlanded, of course, with ritual praise for the courage of the armed forces.
The UK has the fourth or fifth largest defence budget in the world, they claim. Our flagship is saving lives in the Mediterranean. Our nuclear submarines are providing a deterrent 365 days a year. Our aircraft are flying sorties over Iraq and some will go to the Baltic to protect those countries against a threatening Russia.
The reality is that we have sent a force of just eight creaking Tornado warplanes to carry out airstrikes against Isis, fewer than the Dutch, and far fewer than the French. The four Typhoons we hope to send to the Baltic will hardly have Putin shaking in his boots. HMS Bulwark, an amphibious landing vessel that became a flagship of our shrunken, feeble 19 warship Navy after the premature retirement of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal in 2011, is only doing what all ships are expected to do when confronted by sinking boats crammed with passengers. And because we don’t have maritime patrol aircraft to protect our submarines when they go in and out of port, their deterrent effect is very much diminished.
As for the defence budget, which the government has variously claimed to be the world’s fourth or fifth largest in the world (but is actually the 6th largest according to the reliable Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) the sad fact is that Israel, France, India and other countries with smaller defence budgets have considerably more combat power than we do.
So far, so misleading, albeit in a traditional way that is par for the course for governments engaged in cutting any departmental budget, and which should certainly be familiar from the past Tory governments that have treated the forces as a soft target for cuts.
But Cameron and Fallon have recently engaged in a form of disingenuousness about defence that is new and different and oddly ideological. For them British defence policy is peculiarly and inextricably linked with aid policy. As more experts at home and abroad have questioned the wisdom of cutting further Britain’s already crippled and demoralised armed forces, they have talked more and more about aid as if it were a clever modern substitute for military strength.
This was merely a rhetorical gambit until last month when Fallon suggested that the UK’s aid spending could be reclassified as defence spending so that the UK could then, theoretically, meet its Nato obligation to spend a minimum of 2 per cent GDP on defence.
To characterise this as ‘sleight of hand’ as some outraged backbenchers did is perhaps too kind. Fallon was advocating an act of dishonesty, the purpose of which was itself sleazy: to enable the government to escape a commitment to its allies and to provide PR cover for more crippling cuts to the armed forces. You could call Fallon’s suggested ruse ‘Potemkin defence spending’, after the fake villages erected in Crimea to give the Russian Empress a false impression of prosperity, except that unlike Potemkin, Fallon sees no reason to keep his planned deception a secret.
Unfortunately this dishonourable suggestion did not provoke as much opprobrium as it should have because it was misread by many commentators to imply precisely the opposite of the defence secretary’s plan: namely that the aid budget would be used to compensate the armed forces for their use of very expensive people and equipment in humanitarian missions.
That would actually be a very sensible and fair proposal.
Naturally the idea provokes paroxysms of rage among an aid lobby dominated by DfiD contractors and left-leaning large NGOs like Oxfam. But it would solve three problems at once: DfID’s inability to spend its vast budget effectively, the political damage caused by the Prime Minister’s fanatical refusal to cut that budget, and the armed forces desperate shortage of money.
Moreover, many big-ticket military purchases, like helicopter carriers and hospital ships are very much ‘dual-use’ in that in practice they are more frequently used in humanitarian missions than they are for warfare. If DfID were to contribute to their cost it would be a rational and effective use of the aid budget even though it would upset some of the purists and pacifists in DfID and the ‘aid community’.
Sadly, this is unlikely to happen given the apparent determination of the government to spend even less on the armed forces, regardless of international commitments or the damage to their capabilities, and given its notion that foreign aid is an effective substitute for spending on defence or diplomacy.
According to the PM, our £12 billion aid spend will prevent terrorism and mass migration, presumably by bringing even more stability and prosperity to troubled countries than achieved when the aid budget was only £9 billion four years ago.
Last week the Defence Secretary echoed this notion in a conversation with the BBC’s Andrew Marr. It was strange enough that the Defence Secretary should trespass on the bailiwicks of the Foreign Secretary and Secretary for International Development by giving on the benefits of foreign aid. (You might after all assume he is an especially busy minister given challenges like Isis, Russian adventurism in Europe, an imminent Defence and Security Review and collapsing morale in the UK military.) It was odder still that the man whose job it is to fight on behalf of the armed forces seems to believe that aid magic is so powerful it renders conventional armed forces all but unnecessary and obsolete.
A few days later he proudly announced that, although the UK isn’t really spending the 2 per cent GDP on defence obligated by Nato membership, he has found a way to declare to the world that it is exceeding that minimum. The trick was to recategorize some of the spending of several other government departments as defence spending. From now on, all or part of the £1Bn cross-departmental ‘Conflict Pool‘ – which includes contributions from the Foreign Office, DfID and the MOD, would count towards defence spending.
The Conflict Pool is a relatively sensible joint venture. In theory it brings together the expertise of all three departments in a combined effort to try to prevent conflicts flaming up abroad. But it’s essentially a foreign policy and aid talking shop. There’s nothing about it that even remotely relates to the mission and needs of the forces or the UK’s military obligations to its allies. That doesn’t matter though, because the government has clearly been preparing the ground for this fudge since before the election, and is committed to pretending that aid spending can substitute for defence spending.
I say pretend because it’s hard to believe that Fallon genuinely believes that ‘well-focused aid’ can stabilise countries torn by civil war or wrecked by corrupt and incompetent regimes, and even, ‘prevent conflict breaking out’.
To do so he would have to be almost completely ignorant of the real history of five decades of aid and to have confused heart-tugging Oxfam advertisements with reality. No intelligent or informed person thinks that aid might have prevented or yet might fix the chaos of oil rich Libya, the savagery of civil war in Syria and Sudan, the Russian-sponsored conflict in Ukraine, the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Islamist violence in Nigeria and Mali or the devastating endless warlordism of the Congo.
Moreover, even in the aid industry, serious people admit that aid can sometimes keep conflicts going or actually make them worse, as it did at various times in places like Ethiopia and Sudan.
Fallon may not have read Linda Polman’s devastating ‘War Games’ or be familiar with other modern critiques of international aid, but by all accounts he’s not a foolish or stupid man. When he makes absurd claims on behalf of aid spending, and employs them in support of a dishonest scheme to hide defence cuts, he is not doing so out of ignorance. He is merely being a good apparatchik and putting loyalty to the Prime Minister before duty to his office and his country.
Jonathan Foreman is a Senior Research Fellow at Civitas and author of ‘Aiding & Abetting’