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Simon Jenkins and Disarming Britain

June 9, 2010

From the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins, a provocative fix for Britain’s budgetary woes:

I was content to be expensively defended against the threat of global communism. With the end of the cold war in the 1990s that threat vanished. In its place was a fantasy proposition, that some unspecified but potent “enemy” lurked in the seas and skies around Britain. Where is it?…

There are many evils that threaten the British people at present, but I cannot think of one that absolutely demands £45bn to deter it. Soldiers, sailors and air crews are no protection against terrorists, who anyway are not that much of a threat. No country is an aggressor against the British state. No country would attack us were the government to put its troops into reserve and mothball its ships, tanks and planes. Let us get real.

It is tempting to nitpick this argument (Simon’s objection to noisy planes flying low when modern bombs are so advanced ignores the prudence of training to avoid getting shot down) and dismiss it as sheer naiveté, but it deserves serious treatment. The central proposition of this piece is that Britain has no necessity or duty to maintain anything approaching the 45 billion pounds spent on defense. It could survive without a military or a nuclear deterrent. Iceland and Costa Rica do not have military forces. Of course, they have also been in the “sphere of influence” of the US military. Britain, by similar geographic happenstance, shares a similar isolation from major external threats without lying out of reach of the US.

Costa Rica and Iceland, however, are not major players in the international economy, nor do their citizens travel all across the globe. Foreign countries can capture or kill British citizens and diplomats, or seize British property. They can threaten British economic interests. Of course, the argument to protect economic and political interests abroad with military force does not always work well elsewhere in Europe, and I cannot imagine Jenkins is willing to pay very much to use military force as a dubious deterrent against an ambiguous and, in the cost-benefit analysis, relatively minor threat.

Despite Jenkins’s dismissal of NATO operations, there are times when it is logical to use military force to secure international obligations. Jenkins may very well not care about the UN and advocate disarmament on the basis of pure British self-interest. Nevertheless, there is still a liberal internationalist argument for defense capability. Even if one does not live on the sharp end of international anarchy, there are countries, such as Kuwait, which do. If Britain wishes to maintain even the most basic credibility of the United Nations or any liberal principle, particularly given its Security Council seat, it is wise to maintain sufficient power to enforce a core principle of international law: invading and annexing other countries is intolerable. Now, I am not British, and American troops were over 70% of the coalition for the Persian Gulf War, and it is obvious Britain was not going to lead the effort to expel Saddam from Kuwait. Were a similar situation to arise today, Britain could decide that it was not its problem. But Britain would have to vacate its seat on the Security Council, or else bury the idea of international obligation, and international law with it.

Again, perhaps the idea of British interests beyond its shores or international laws worth British lives or money are too nebulous to justify anything less than gutting the MoD. The defense budget likely needs cutting in the UK – but to what extent is probably better left to a more nuanced discussion of what military power is good for.

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