Last week, Hilary Clinton expressed America's fears about the planned British defense cuts.
In the UK, I have long been warning the British political establishment about the dangers of these cuts. Now I am pleased to say that Secretary Clinton has abandoned diplomatic niceties and joined the argument, saying that "the more our allies cut their capabilities, the more people will look to the United States to cover whatever gaps are created."
Nor is she alone in feeling that way. General Casey is a former commander of the multinational force in Iraq, who has commanded at every level from platoon to Division. When I met him a few months ago, he said that in light of future threats to US, Europe and the West in General, he was concerned to see that European countries were reducing their defense budgets across the board.
When you in the States do a Strategic Defense Review, it is a Strategic Defense Review. When we in the UK do one, I'm afraid to say that it tends to be less of a risk assessment, and more of a cost saving exercise.
This year, that was even starker than ever. The UK Treasury explicitly and shamelessly mandated the review to find savings of 20 to 40%, to be completed in time for the Spending Review on October 20th. To make matters worse, it also asked the Ministry of Defense to take into account spending on Britain´s nuclear deterrent, which has traditionally been paid for by the Treasury, not out of the defense budget. No attempt was made, it seems, to even make this year´s Review appear to be an intellectually honest assessment of forthcoming risks to Britain, and what should be spent to defend against them. The Review is, sadly, a cost-cutting exercise masquerading as an assessment of what Britain´s world role should be.
Britain's Defense review is also devastatingly short sighted. It is being conducted seemingly in ignorance of the cuts that British Forces have already suffered over recent years. Real terms cuts have led to insufficient funding for forces' housing; inadequate medical care; cancellation of training exercises; lack of equipment; low pay for the junior ranks; and worst of all: avoidable casualties. Twenty years ago defense spending was 4% of GNP, now it has fallen to 2.6%. This long-term trend has tangible repercussions. In 1964 we had 413 warships. Today we do not have three quarters of that number, not even a half. We actually have less than a quarter.
Underfunding of our armed forces has left a skeleton of what was once a feared and formidable force. Surely this is a lesson to the US about what can become of a force which was once the world's most feared army.
But ultimately, Hillary Clinton and General Casey are right because a decline in military capabilities means a decline in importance in world affairs. For centuries, Britain has been able to stand proud of the strength of her forces. They have been the foundation for our global power and our position as a preeminent power in world affairs. For the last sixty-odd years we have maintained an enviable relative GDP, a seat on the UN Security Council, and nuclear weapons. Cutting the forces cuts our world political clout. Our UN Security Council seat becomes ever less defensible, and we become a less useful ally.
It is gratifying that both Mrs Clinton and General Casey can see that when a country weakens itself militarily, it weaken itself politically. If only our Prime Minister could see that too.
Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.
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