The politics of security: beyond militarism

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
2 July 2009

Much of the increase in the world's military spending in the 2000s is connected to the escalating costs of the George W Bush administration's "war on terror"  throughout the decade. This rapid and continuing rise in military spending - charted by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and analysed in the last two columns of this series - was always a diversion from the needs of the planet and the majority of the world's population; this becomes even more evident during a period of financial crisis, food insecurity, dislocation, and severe climate change (see "Iraq, AfPak, beyond: the global cost of war" [18 June 2009] and "A tale of two paradigms"  [25 June 2009]).

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studiesat Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

Bradford's peace-studies department produces frequent podcasts on its work, including a regular commentary from Paul Rogers on international-security issues. Listen/watch here

The pressing social realities of (for example) hunger and unemployment may not be enough to persuade governments to refocus energy and resources away from wasteful military spending. But the  global financial downturn has put heavy pressure on government budgets, and as a result military expenditure is being scrutinised more coldly than has been the case for several years.

This may not be a "progressive" way of making hard choices about public needs, but the effect can be to open up debate about what kind of "security" it is that countries and their citizens - and the world itself - now need. 

The project of power

The case of Britain - a nuclear-weapons power, a member of the United Nations Security Council, a leading participant in the G8 and G20, and a major player in international security - is an interesting study in how the issue of military expenditure is becoming  entwined in these larger arguments about security needs.

Three factors are especially relevant in the current British context. First, a painful recession involving cosmic levels of debt in a globally exposed financial economy entails cuts in public spending that will last until at least the mid-2010s. Second, a general election must be held by early June 2010, and whichever party wins power will be obliged to conduct a defence review which will include substantial savings. Third, two very big projects that will dominate the equipment budget for until 2020 and beyond must be addressed as part of the military-spending plans - projects that are particularly interesting for what they say about how Britain views itself and its role in the world. If either or both of them were to be cancelled, this could provide real potential for a positive rethinking of Britain's whole approach to international security.

The first of these two projects is the plan to replace the Trident submarine-launched nuclear missile system by the mid-2020s with a broadly similar system. Most of the construction expenditure will go on four very large new missile-submarines; but far more of the overall cost will be consumed by the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, west of London, where the nuclear weapons are researched and built.

Aldermaston alone costs around £1 billion ($1.65 billion) a year, a figure which is rarely included in the cost of the new weapons. But if it is included among all the other costs over the lifetime of the whole Trident replacement system, the total planned spending on this project is around £50-£70 billion - far greater than most official figures, and with much of it "frontloaded" in the 2010s (see "Britain's nuclear-weapons fix", 29 June 2006).

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's books include Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed. A third edition of his Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009) is forthcoming

The second project is the plan - already delayed - to build two huge new aircraft-carriers. These will be very much larger than any warship ever deployed by the Royal Navy, much bigger even than the second-world-war battleships. They are designed to fly off the new American F-35 advanced multi-role warplane, which is greatly more costly even than the carriers themselves (see "Gordon Brown's white elephants", 26 July 2007).

The plan, even taking account of recent delays,  is to build the carriers by the mid-2010s and deploy them at sea with the squadrons of F-35s by 2020.  Along with Trident and its replacement, they are expected to give Britain a worldwide military capability, not least in the energy-rich waters of the Persian Gulf (see "British sea power: a 21st-century question" [13 July 2006] and "Britain's 21st-century defence" [15 February 2007]).

These project fail to address the core strategic question of whether they are relevant to a world in which irregular warfare seems much more likely than major state-on-state conflicts. More immediately, however, the money to furnish them will simply not be there unless major (and almost certainly unpopular) cuts are made in other public-funding streams.

In principle, the Labour government led by Gordon Brown could cancel the carriers in favour of much smaller and more versatile warships; and/or scale down Trident and its replacement to a much more minimal force. In practice, it is unlikely to make any such changes before the (probable) May 2010 election (see "Two steps to zero", 17 July 2008).

An emerging opportunity

A new report from the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) is significant  here, even more for its provenance: it comes from a centrist think-tank with a modestly progressive tinge, is prepared by a commission whose members ended up being drawn from the establishment (including former ministers and retired soldiers), and it is in part funded by defence companies.

At first glance, the conclusions of Shared Responsibilities: A national security strategy for the UK on the matters of Trident replacement and the aircraft-carriers are mild - the report questions their relevance rather than condemns them outright. But two things give the report more bite than may appear. The first is that impeccably elite figures - with hundreds of years of political, military and diplomatic experience between them - are asking these questions in a manner which legitimises them in terms of wider debate.

The carriers, as currently envisaged, will give Britain a global power-projection capability superior to any country except the United States; and the Trident replacement will be versatile and multi-purpose - much more than a last-ditch deterrent. Many independent analysts have challenged these "givens" of British defence policy - and scarcely been noticed within the dominant political culture (and where noticed at all, often dismissed in a word). This commission cannot be so dismissed - and even its modest interrogation means that others can press further.

The second point is that Shared Responsibilities does begin to look at international security in a manner which goes beyond the "control paradigm" - maintaining the status quo - that still underlies Britain's defence outlook, despite the manifest problems in Iraq and Afghanistan (see "Global security: a vision for change", 12 April 2007).

The IPPR report recognises that new issues are emerging - among them climate change, global poverty and inequality; and that these increase the risk of conflict stemming from fragile and unstable states. There are, too, new vulnerabilities being created by advances in bio-technology; security problems in the world's mega-cities; and the risk of slow but steady slippage towards nuclear proliferation.

Again, none of this is new for the readers of this column in openDemocracy, or for some small independent think-tanks such as the Oxford Research Group. Indeed, what the IPPR report does is to inject a dose of legitimacy into a debate on these much wider security issues that is normally consigned to the margins of official strategic analysis.

But that in itself is a sort of breakthrough - and it will have a particular salience in the post-election period in Britain in mid-2010. The rising security significance of the global socio-economic divide, plus environmental constraints such as climate change, are at last becoming recognised; the inability to pay for the defence shopping-list beloved of Britain's major arms industries completes the double-whammy.

In consequence, a period is approaching when Britain may have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to wean itself from its "delusions of post-imperial grandeur". Farewell Trident, farewell aircraft-carriers: and towards a security policy that is in tune with the real and emerging international-security issues of the next decades? The prospect is far from certain, but at last it is being put on the agenda of those near the heart of power.

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