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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 28, July 1998

New Ground, Old Assumptions: Analytical Limitations in the SDR
By Paul Rogers

The Strategic Defence Review sets the seal on the ending of the Cold War, finally giving up the 50-year belief that the centre of Britain's security concerns was the risk of war in Europe. Instead, the emphasis is now on responding to regional crises, especially in the Persian Gulf, and developing versatile power projection capabilities appropriate to an unstable and volatile world.

Thus, the numbers of submarines and escorts are cut, and the RAF loses two Tornado squadrons, but aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships survive, along with an increase in heavy lift aircraft. There is a persistent emphasis on logistic support and the need increased efficiencies across the armed forces, together with a renewed emphasis on joint operations.

In one important respect, though, the Review has been handicapped by the substantial exclusion of two major elements in Britain's defence capabilities, the status of the new Eurofighter and of the Trident nuclear force. Eurofighter is pre-eminently a Cold War project - immensely costly, constantly modified and likely to be as great an embarrassment as the Tornado ADV a decade ago. It should have been quietly put to sleep immediately after the election but, regrettably, it was just too far down the road for the new government to take it on.

Similarly, Trident was excluded from fundamental review, even though a greater transparency and some de-alerting are welcome developments. By co-incidence, the Review was published in the immediate aftermath of the Indo-Pakistan nuclear tests, with renewed concerns over nuclear proliferation. In this context, the maintenance of Trident, albeit with limited changes, will continue to make it difficult for Britain to speak with any authority on issues of proliferation control.

In one important respect, the Review broke new ground, and did it in a way that opens up the possibility of a much more vigorous debate on Britain's security. This was because it was much more transparent than any previous review, with seminars, advisory groups, calls for evidence and many other instruments of discussion opened up. This is in marked contrast to the Options for Change exercise of the early 1990s, restricted almost entirely to a few insiders.

But what of the overall result? In one sense, Britain's armed forces have already experienced considerable cuts, both in budgets and force levels, since the end of the Cold War, so this Review was doing little more than regularise the status of the forces in the new international context. Some further modest cuts are envisaged, but the bottom line is that Britain will still be a major military player on the world stage, a role which is believed to give it international clout, but at the cost of maintaining a pretty hefty defence budget, at least by post-Cold War standards. Perhaps the central problem with the Review is that it barely begins to get to grips with the likely international security problems of the next 30 years, even though it was supposedly foreign policy led. Perhaps this is because British foreign policy itself has not yet woken up to the problems ahead.

While there will almost certainly be particular instances of instability and regional conflict in Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East, the longer term security problems relate much more to environmental and economic trends. There is abundant evidence that environmental insecurity will increase, occasioned both by problems of strategic resource supply and by the effects of climate change.

In particular, it is now thought likely that climate change will have a fundamental effect on rainfall patterns across the tropics, leading to progressive droughts in regions which support most of the world's people. The social and political implications of this, not least as migratory pressures accelerate, are formidable.

These environmental trends will add to fundamental instabilities created by the deepening global socio-economic divide. The wealth-poverty gap is widening, not narrowing, and this is already leading to formidable problems of economic and social instability, with Indonesia and Mexico among the most recent examples.

Moreover, and thanks to globalisation, these are not remote problems but ones that will, as they grow in intensity, readily affect the security of apparently distant states. Even now, a sudden economic crisis in East Asia can affect financial centres in London, Frankfurt and New York within minutes.

It is possible to respond to these problems by seeking to maintain the status quo, a world in which one-fifth of the population is secure, two-fifths are just managing to hold on, and two-fifths are deeply insecure. But such a policy is essentially about preserving deep inequality and injustice, if need be by military force. Keeping the lid on an insecure world, or "liddism", is fundamentally flawed, as the eventual result will be the pot metaphorically boiling over - an uncomfortable result in a world in which biological and nuclear weapons are proliferating.

We have had a Strategic Defence Review which, within its limitations, has tried to do a competent job. What we now need is a vigorous and sustained debate on international security and Britain's potential role in encouraging the evolution of a more just and genuinely secure world. Such a debate will need to go well beyond the confines of the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, involving all those departments which relate to the broader issues of security - development, trade, environment and finance. This is an essential requirement but will not be easy to promote - like most governments, HMG is notoriously compartmentalised, with individual spheres of influence jealously guarded.

Even so, the Strategic Defence Review does start this process. Whatever its limitations, it is a considerable improvement on previous exercises and at least encourages debate on these wider issues. For the moment, the Review is very much of its era, and is only just beginning to look to the new international security context. In the long run, though, it may succeed in encouraging that very process, and, if so, it could eventually be judged a real success. But this will also depend on the ability of policy analysts, academics, campaigners and others to address these wider issues. That is a considerable challenge, but could result in Britain developing a role in promoting international peace and justice which could be remarkably significant in the coming decades.

Paul Rogers is Head of the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, UK.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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