No permanent threats, only permanent interests

Posted on November 6, 2012


Lord Palmerston: An iconic British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary in the mid-19th Century

A conceptual problem with British defence policy is that it is too focused on deterring threats, not on safeguarding interests – a problem unintentionally highlighted by The Telegraph today. It reports that the United Kingdom may increase its military presence in the Persian Gulf region ‘to counter the growing threat from Iran’, not to protect our interests there, or to project power.

The problem is a consequence of the way that politicians and commentators have understood, and talked about, national security since the end of the Cold War: policies and procurement choices are only valid if they deter a paradigm threat, like the Soviet Union. In the weeks before the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in October 2010, the Prime Minister was the most senior advocate of this kind of thinking in the British government. David Cameron told the broadcaster Andrew Marr…

“What you have to do is look at the threats we face today…We’ve inherited a situation where we’ve got a lot of battle tanks ready to roll into Russia. That’s not what you need today. We’ve got fighter jets that are ready to go into dogfights with the Soviet Union air force. That’s not right.”

He repeated the point when justifying cuts in the defence budget to MPs later that month: “We’ve got to get away from Cold War tactics.” By prioritising threats, however, the current government, and successive ones, risk taking British defence and foreign policy on a wild goose chase. The late Sir Michael Quinlan best expressed the danger of this path:

[Threats] we expect we plan and provide for. What we plan and provide for, we therefore deter. What we deter doesn’t happen. What does happen is what we did not deter because we did not plan and provide for it because we did not expect it.

Safeguarding interests is a better guiding principle for policy-making than simply deterring threats, as it is conceptually broader, and it will also bring a measure of stability: to echo Lord Palmerston, the United Kingdom has no permanent enemies, only permanent interests. If policy and procurement were aligned to the latter, and not the former, then we would avoid the kind of situation that the Prime Minister thinks we are in with regard to “irrelevant” Cold War equipment.

As far as increasing our presence in the Gulf is concerned, the interests-first approach is also sensibly long-term, as it is perfectly possible that Iran could become an ally in coming decades, and our policy would need to be completely overhauled if it was just focused on deterring a (questionable) threat from Tehran.

Update: Since publishing this post this afternoon, numerous people on Twitter have querried the distinction between ‘safeguarding interests’ and ‘deterring threats’, so to save myself continually saying the same thing to different people, I thought I’d make myself clearer. As I wrote above, ‘safeguarding interests’ is conceptually broader than ‘deterring threats’, but I didn’t stress that that means deterring threats also comes under the rubric too. My key point was that deterring threats is to narrow, conceptually.