openDemocracyUK: Opinion

New security report shows UK government is content to swim in delusion

As Britain grapples with its worst national crisis for 75 years, ministers are busy creating propaganda that serves no one

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
20 March 2021, 10.00am
Boris Johnson’s government is incapable of today’s much needed global approach
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WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved

The UK’s new security review was propounded to be a comprehensive and helpful analysis but it has turned out to be an utter waste of resources in the midst of a global crisis.

‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’ no doubt consumed a huge amount of government time during the worst human security crisis the country has faced for 75 years. This time would have been far better spent concentrating on tackling the pandemic and preparing for its fallout, both for the country and the world. COVID-19 has already killed twice as many people in the UK as the six years of the Second World War, as well as 2.7 million people worldwide, yet in the whole 111 pages of the review published this week, just a page and a half has been devoted to future health resilience.

There is some coverage of biosecurity and the need to learn lessons, but it is minimal in the context of the whole document, even though the UK is the worst major country in the world for per capita COVID-19 deaths, presently exceeding both the United States and Brazil.

Mixture of illusion and delusion

And as for the rest of the review? It turns out to be a curious mixture of illusion and delusion. The element of illusion is there because it presents the UK as the nearest you can get to a great power without still claiming superpower status, and the delusion stems from the suspicion that the government may actually believe it.

On the basis of the review, ‘Great’ Britain is going to have as little to do with its biggest trading partner, next door neighbour Europe, as it can and will instead connect far more to the Indo-Pacific. It is as if the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier will soon set sail, taking the whole country in tow, and reposition it somewhere in the Western Pacific – ready to remind China who won the Opium Wars.

Reading the review in detail, I was struck by the persistent difference between claim and reality. On page 46, for example, we are told that the UK’s overseas aid budget is “increasing our impact as a force for good” just weeks after a substantial part of the aid budget – over £4 billion a year – was redirected to the military, yet being a “force for good” is proclaimed without a trace of irony.

The report is self-centred and state-centred in failing to recognise that the main threats for the future go far beyond state level

Page 44 claims that the UK “remains deeply committed to multilateralism”, while page 84 says “countering proliferation is integral to the UK’s security and prosperity”. This statement of policy was published on the very day that the government announced a 40% increase in its nuclear force, running a coach and horses through its commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and going directly against the spirit of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which came into force in January.

On the issue of human rights, page 44 declares; “Our first goal is to support open societies and defend human rights, as a force for good in the world…” and “…the international order is only as robust, resilient and legitimate as the states that comprise it” – a claim that hardly fits in with arming Saudi Arabia to kill civilians in Yemen.

Moreover, page 73 outlines the plan to “…invest around £60 million in expanding and improving our global network of British Defence Staffs, increasing it by nearly a third”. Since British defence staff are normally attached to embassies and high commissions and have a major role in facilitating arms exports, increased sales to the likes of Saudi Arabia are to be expected. So much for defending human rights.

Ignoring four failed wars

Perhaps most glaring of all is the claim that the UK has prowess in conflict resolution and is (yet again) a force for good in the world, yet nowhere in the report is there acknowledgement of the country’s role in four failed wars so far this century.

Twenty years after the UK became involved in Afghanistan, the Taliban is poised for power and the Iraq War has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and millions of refugees, while Libya remains a deeply unstable and insecure country.

After the intense 2014-18 air war against Isis, the group is entrenched once more in Syria and poised for a Ramadan surge, extremists have increased in number and impact across northern Mozambique, and across the Sahel there has been a steady surge in paramilitary activity for the best part of a decade.

The CIA is opening a new base in Niger, while that country suffers yet more extremist violence made worse by the displacement of thousands of people fleeing from increasingly insecure north west Nigeria.

One of the core problems with this review is that it comes from a mindset of old thinking on security that is both self-centred and state-centred, failing to recognise that the main threats for the future, such as pandemics and climate breakdown, do not lie at the level of states but require global cohesion. In some sections, the review does acknowledge the need to think globally, but does so from a state perspective rather than a global one.

Freedom from fear

It also fails to address security from a human perspective. In the UK presently, the greatest security fears for people lie in the impact of the pandemic and its economic consequences, while longer-term fears increasingly relate to climate breakdown.

As the conflict researcher Richard Reeve argues in ‘Human Security and the Integrated Review’, published earlier this month, a human rights approach should be rooted in three types of freedom to be upheld by the UN and national governments. These are: freedom from fear, including protection from violence and its threatened use, as well as from the existential threats of weapons of mass destruction, and climate and ecological collapse; freedom from want, including provision of decent food, housing and healthcare, and freedom from other forms of physical deprivation; and freedom from indignity, including human rights abuses and other forms of humiliation, such as autocratic rule and racial, religious or sexual discrimination.

This is a very far cry from the government’s review, which only boasts minor merit in that it makes a (faulty) attempt to approach security in a broader sense than usual. This, at least, is a start, but breaking through the old state-centred control paradigm that is so deeply embedded in the military-industrial-academic-bureaucratic complex would be an extremely tall order that is far beyond the likes of the current Johnson government.

The Rethinking Security group is seeking funding for a full-scale Alternative Security Review for the UK. If it succeeds, this will increase pressure on future governments to carry out the comprehensive and honest security review that is so sorely needed for Britain, and the impact it creates on the rest of the world.

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