In a new article for RT (which you can read here), I discuss the adventures of the British warship HMS Defender off the coast of Crimea. In essence, I argue that while the British action was probably in accordance with the international law of the sea, it was strategically foolish. The British imagine that they are sending certain signals to the Russian Federation, but the signals Moscow is getting are almost certainly very different. Consequently, the Russian reaction is likely to be one that the Brits don’t like very much. In short, the action will prove counterproductive.
All of this raises an important issue – why don’t the Brits get it? For the past 20 years, I’ve been arguing incessantly that British defence policy needs a radical rethink, because the country’s endless military meddling in other parts of the globe is doing the United Kingdom no good and quite a lot of harm, as well as wasting national resources which could much more productively be used on other things. Yet it doesn’t seem to matter how many times things go tragically wrong – the invasion of Iraq, the failed British campaign in Helmand province in Afghanistan, the continuing disaster that is Libya, the mess the Brits are supporting in Yemen, the growing confrontation with Russia, and so on – they fail to draw the pertinent lessons. The attitude seems to not be – ‘well that didn’t turn out so well, let’s not do it again’ – but ‘let’s do again, just better next time’. As a collective failure in lesson learning it’s quite remarkable.
So what’s going on?
It’s hard to say for sure, but various answers present themselves.
The first and perhaps most obvious is that the British ruling class is trapped in a sort of imperial nostalgia, yearning for better times when ‘Britannia ruled the waves’ and all that. The UK feels that it ‘ought’ to be a great power, that it is right and natural for it to be dictating to other pars of the world what they should do, and that national honour requires an assertive foreign and military policy. Brexit hasn’t helped with this, as it’s been accompanied by a lot of ‘global Britain’ guff, but it’s a problem that long predates it. The Blair government had its equivalent with its ‘force for good’ slogan for the British armed forces. It’s all a dangerous illusion, but a powerful one nonetheless.
The ‘force for good’ stuff (which the Johnson government has to some extent revived) also reveals another problem: moral arrogance. The ‘victory’ over the Soviet Union in the Cold War convinced the USA and UK that History, with a big ‘H’, had proven them right. Consequently, anybody who continues in any way to resist them is not mistaken, but profoundly Wrong, as proven by History. By contrast, Britain is Right. There can be no moral doubt. Again, it’s an extremely foolish attitude, but all too prevalent.
A third element is a rather exaggerated belief in the professional magnificence of the British armed forces. Brits really believe that their military is the best in the world. Somehow, the total hash the British army made of Basra and Helmand seems to have slipped them by. But that’s by the by. The belief is strong. Governments also like the military because it’s obedient and responds rapidly to commands. The rest of the ship of state is a horribly immoveable beast, which resists instructions in all sorts of frustrating ways. But when you tell the military to do X, it salutes, about turns, and does X (not always very well, but at least it tries). Politicians therefore end up rather liking it.
Fourth, there’s the whole ‘military industrial complex’ thing. The United Kingdom is the sixth largest exporter of arms in the world. It’s big business. This week’s escapade in the waters of Crimea was preceded by a visit by HMS Defender to Ukraine during which British and Ukrainian officials signed a deal for the UK to produce warships for Ukraine. So you see the logic: Ukraine pays the UK a bunch of money: the Royal Navy then pokes the Russian bear – quid pro quo, you might say.
Fifth and finally, foreign policy is always domestic policy. Because of Britons’ exaggerated sense of their importance, it pays British politicians to strut the world stage and engage in muscular moral posturing. Poking the bear might be stupid from the point of view of British foreign policy interests, because it provokes an unwanted response, but it sells well with the public. The UK doesn’t benefit from worsening relations with Russia, but British politicians benefit from being seen to stand up for Good against Evil. And so it is that the national interest suffers for the domestic political interests of our politicians.
‘Twas ever thus, alas, and doubtless ever will be. But it’s long past time for Brits to put aside their delusions of grandeur and their faith in military power. To quote Kipling:
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!