Boris Johnson undersold his security review

18 March 2021

7:00 PM

18 March 2021

7:00 PM

It was the political equivalent of Halley’s comet. On Tuesday, Boris Johnson underestimated his own achievement. He claimed that the review of defence, security and foreign policy was the most wide-ranging study of those topics since the end of the Cold War. That was being too modest. It is the most important contribution since the Duncan Sandys Defence White Paper in 1957, which set out Britain’s strategy for the Cold War: rethinking and re-organising our capabilities and commitments in order to contain and counter the Russian threat.

But the latest review is even more radical. The Sandys paper rested on one assumption which is, alas, no longer true: that Britain was a superpower – if not a full member of the Big Three, still clocking in at two and a half. Sandys was also Eurocentric. It has taken Boris, a classicist, to acknowledge that the Mediterranean is no longer the centre of the earth. The centre of geopolitical gravity has moved to the Indo-Pacific Region.

The PM could have boasted of another achievement. I cannot think of a more powerfully-argued, intellectually coherent and intellectually self-confident Government document in recent times, possibly indeed since the Northcote/Trevelyan Report of 1854. This review will be read and re-read in serious universities, staff colleges and foreign offices throughout the world. Its principal begetter, John Bew, had already established his academic reputation with two outstanding biographies, of Castlereagh and Attlee, plus a study of realpolitik. He has sat at Henry Kissinger’s feet and his world-view is a blend of Kissingerian realism and a younger man’s optimism.

Professor Bew was brought up in Northern Ireland, which has a piquant Kissingerian relevance. Apropos Castlereagh, another Ulsterman – the much younger Kissinger wondered how it was that a squire from some Irish backwater had been equipped to dominate the councils of the great in 1815. He later came to acknowledge his error. The SAS toughen themselves in the Brecon Beacons. The dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone are an equally good training-ground for geopolitical special forces. John Bew’s father Paul (now in the Lords) did a great deal to assist the Irish peace process. The son will have – indeed already has – a broader canvas. He occasionally expresses nostalgia for the tranquillity of academe. But he would have to reconcile that with a growing role as one of the major foreign affairs intellects of our time.

This review goes far wider than a traditional security agenda. It discusses climate change and biodiversity, as well as the threat of future pandemics. It also contains a tour d’horizon,covering every region of the globe. Rarely has a 100-page document contained so much meat for discussion, and controversy. It helps that the prose is clear as well as authoritative.

‘What do they know of England who only England know?’ wrote Kipling. Bew the younger could expand that to ‘what do they know of Europe who only Europe know?’ In some quarters, this review has been interpreted as post-Brexit triumphalism. Not so. It would be as relevant if we were still in the EU, if harder to implement. Although there are continuities, especially on Russia, this document has a wholly post-Cold War mindset. George Bush, not a man given to naivete, lapsed into that error when he spoke of a ‘new world order’. New world disorder would have been more accurate. In recent years, many policy-makers have expressed nostalgia for the certainties of the Cold War and the central front. This review does not look backwards. Nor does it deal in certainties. With a global perspective, it sets out to analyse the nature of the threats facing the UK and the possible means of dealing with them.

These include increasing the size of our nuclear insurance policy, but its comments on China seem to have attracted most attention. Some Tory MPs came close to using the word ‘appeasement’, taking it for granted that David Cameron and George Osborne were wrong to work to build good relations with China. But what is the alternative? One might have hoped that as the Chinese economy strengthened, there would be increasing pressure on the authorities from below and the Chinese public would start demanding political rights.

Thus far, this has not happened, which is not to say that it will never happen. The world would be far more stable if the Chinese could be persuaded to join the international economic order, stop stealing intellectual property and also stop trying to bully or bribe any other nation which they wished to bend to their will.

The review is in favour of a twin-track approach to China. Although the door would be open to rapprochement, there would also be Plan B. The UK would do everything to encourage China’s neighbours to cooperate and form joint security arrangements. To assist in this process, we have already applied to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But let us avoid imitating George Bush’s naivete. There is a limit to our ability to influence internal developments in China. We cannot rescue the Uighurs, any more than we could prevent the despoliation of Tibet. We cannot even rescue Hong-Kong. Perhaps the most we could achieve would be to persuade the Chinese to stop intimidating their neighbours. But given their military resources, that will not be easy. Denunciations of China in the House of Commons or newspaper letter columns may make those who deliver them feel better. They will not provide any starving Uighur with another mouthful of rice. The strategy for China outlined in the review is cautious. It makes no claims to moral grandeur, or short-term success. It is realistic.

The need to stand up to Russia is also discussed: an easier problem than China. But many of the most interesting sections of the document deal with the threat from non-state actors, principally terrorists, and with the UK’s ability to deal with this. That brings us to a problem: the two do not balance. There is plenty of optimism about British assets. The vaccination triumph reminded us how good we are at many forms of scientific innovation. This review insists that increased funding for some university research should virtually be treated as part of the defence budget. As a nation, we cannot spend our way out of every difficulty. So we have to think our way through them. The review deals with those numerous hazards without ever indulging in gloom. Yet there is a growing realisation of just how extensive and unpredictable the threats we face are.

There is one throwaway comment which could be used to frighten the children to sleep: that by 2030, a terrorist group is likely to have launched a successful chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack. This need not necessarily be directed at Britain. Then again, it might. There only two possible counter-measures. The first is vigilance. Every form of scientific advance which could give us the edge over the terrorists will be encouraged and funded. Curiously enough, the review does not mention the second one, which is at least as important: luck.

Science will also help to deal with related threats: from space and from cyber warfare. Every advanced society is increasingly dependent on the cybersphere, which in turn draws heavily on satellites. The Chinese already have the ability to knock out every American satellite, which would bring chaos to the entire country, including the armed forces. The British defence budget will be finding the money to defend ourselves from cyber attack.

This takes us to the space age, which will require extensive funding. It appears that this will mean cuts to the army: fewer boots on the ground or tanks to protect them. Is this wise? We shall have to see how the forthcoming report on the future defence budget argues its case. But at present, it is hard to understand why the threats so elegantly described in the security review obviate the need for high-intensity warfare, and its attendant capabilities. We shall have to see whether the Ministry of Defence can convince us to the contrary.

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