Allan Massie: Shouldn’t ignore global police role

Russian-backed rebels take up position outside Donetsk in eastern Ukraine earlier this month. Picture: AP
Russian-backed rebels take up position outside Donetsk in eastern Ukraine earlier this month. Picture: AP
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ELECTION may rightly be focused on domestic issues, but politicians should not shirk their duties on the world stage, writes Allan Massie

The world is unsettled, dangerous, more so perhaps than at any time in the last quarter-century, more so indeed, I would argue, than it was in the later stages of the Cold War when some kind of equilibrium has been achieved and was generally accepted. But now there is chaos in the Middle East. Civil war still rages in Syria, with appalling consequences. Islamic State (IS) occupies part of Syria, much of Iraq. Yemen is in upheaval. Islamist terrorist groups are active in Kenya, Libya, Algeria, Nigeria and Chad. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains as ever unresolved. In Europe, we watch developments in Ukraine warily. Russia’s renewed belligerence threatens the precarious stability of eastern Europe. China is probing the defences of neighbouring countries and is in dispute with Japan. Finally here at home we are under constant threat from Islamist terrorism, and prepare nervously for the possible return of radicalised Islamist jihadists from the Middle East. Overall the picture is dark, and should be alarming.

The idea that we can contract out and have no part to play seems deluded itself

It’s not dark or alarming enough to attract the attention of our politicians. Very little will be said about foreign affairs and policy in the course of the general election. This may be for the respectable reason that there is little disagreement between the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties about these matters, while the SNP seems to have no view about foreign affairs except that any British intervention anywhere is a bad thing, to be condemned.

Likewise there won’t be much argument about defence – except for a few mutterings about a replacement for Trident. The last two governments – Labour and the coalition – have cut defence spending and drastically reduced the size of the army, which is now smaller than at any time since the 18th century. Cuts in manpower have been so severe that it would now be impossible to engage in any but a very brief overseas operation without drawing heavily on the part-time Territorial reservists.

Now some of us are doubtless happy about this: stop the world, we’ve decided to get off. My old friend, the historian and journalist Michael Fry, wrote in this paper last year that he supported the “Yes” campaign partly because independence would allow Scotland to dissociate itself from the post-imperial Great Power delusion of the UK establishment. A lot of Scots agree with him, and many people south of the Border take much the same view.

The Iraq war dealt a severely damaging blow to both the idea that Britain was still capable of “punching above its weight” and to the so-called special relationship with the US. The outcome of the Libyan war merely reinforced this: Gaddafi was overthrown and Libya has been in chaos ever since. The refusal of the House of Commons to back intervention in Syria reflected the national disillusion with foreign adventures, all the more so because it wasn’t clear who we would be allying ourselves with if we did intervene.

And, finally, there has evidently been no appetite for challenging president Vladimir Putin over his mischief-making in Ukraine. Quite the reverse. What happens in Ukraine, we seem to think, may be legitimately Russia’s business, but really it’s no concern of ours. It’s a (fairly) faraway country of which most of us know little, and care less; which is more or less what Neville Chamberlain said of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Now this public indifference, which the politicians seem happy to reflect, is understandable. For pretty well all of us the condition of the British economy, the state of the health service and of our schools, colleges and universities, are matters of immediate importance, as the troubles in foreign parts aren’t. Politicians understand this, and so they will talk about these matters throughout the election campaign.

Moreover, it is at least arguable that those who say it is time to abandon our pretension to be a major player in world affairs are right. The idea of the special relationship with the US, arguably of little benefit to Britain since the early years of the Cold War, may be well past its sell-by date, and may serve only to bolster that pretension or delusion. We may still have one of the largest economies in the world, but we are certainly not prepared to spend less on health, social services and education in order to spend more on defence.

So perhaps we should accept that our days as a power in international affairs are over, and should settle for being like Italy or Spain, After all, even Germany, the strongest state and economy in Europe, has no appetite for foreign adventures and is content to exert its influence by trade and investment. “Soft power” is the name of its game, and should perhaps be ours. It’s true that France – even the France of the weak President François Hollande – continues to act robustly and independently in African countries that were once part of its empire, but this may merely demonstrate that France is even more reluctant than our establishment to acknowledge its decline.

And yet and yet, when one looks at the state of the world, the idea that we can contract out and have no part to play seems deluded itself, not only, I would hope, to those of us old enough to remember when we accepted that we had overseas and international responsibilities. We may not be – indeed we can’t be – the world’s policeman. Yet, equally we can’t honourably opt out of policing duties; and it may be dangerous to try to do so. It is surely the duty of our politicians and those who aspire to government to tell us just how dangerous and unstable the world is, and to do so even in the midst of an election campaign that understandably focuses mostly on domestic issues.

As for cutting defence spending, and reducing our capability as drastically as we have been doing, the words of Kipling’s verse on paying the Dane-geld remain to the point: “It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,/ To puff and look important and to say:-/‘Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you./ We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”

The circumstances may be different, but that our mindset is that of “a rich and lazy nation” is sadly undeniable; and dangerous.

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