Monday, 25 October 2010

Is Cameron also signalling a shift in our defence policy?

The recently announced 8% cuts in the defence budget have brought out a raft of ideological commentary across the media. The Mail frets about the danger of a ‘fresh Argentinian invasion’ of the Falklands following the downsizing; the Guardian heralds the end of Tony Blair’s liberal interventionism doctrine with barely disguised glee.

The 8% cuts at first glance seem small compared to the slash-and-burn other government departments have been subjected to, but in context they are not insignificant. The UK will now be spending a lower percentage of GNP on defence (just under 2%) than at any other time since records began, and will have the ability to deploy about two thirds of the troops committed by Blair to Helmand and Iraq. In that context, it’s unsurprising that reactions have been mixed.

Whatever your position, one thing is clear - the defence cuts mean that the UK will have to reappraise its role on the world stage, and the interventions which characterised the Blair years will become much less viable, at least with the UK leading the charge. It’s the liberal philosophy of localisation writ large - overseas problems will no longer be our burden to bear.

Is this a good thing? Many on the left were unanimous in opposition to Blair’s wars, but as Nick Cohen has argued, progressive values are not geographically or culturally limited, but universal. This was always the moral foundation of Blair’s liberal interventionism. It’s all well and good for progressives to argue for improvements in the UK democratic system, but surely that carries a duty to spread democracy in those places in the world that have none?

I think yes, you may disagree. But the self-perception of the UK as a major global power needs to be put to bed, and that’s one good thing that could come out of these cuts. If we are going to influence global events in the future, and I believe we should aspire to do so, then we need to do it as a part of a more integrated Europe. The aim of interventionism is to spread progressive ideas in places where they haven’t taken root organically, so the best way to do that (within the new fiscal constraints) is in concert with other states who share the same ideas.

As ever, these natural allies are to be found not over the Atlantic but across the channel. The Liberal Democrats may seem neutered in this government, but they remain the most intuitively pro-European political force in the UK. That’s why Clegg should use whatever remaining influence he has to leverage the unease around the defence cuts into an argument for greater EU integration - you know it makes sense, Nick.

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