Blame the policy, not the army

As the British Army?s problems deepen, Nick Witney blames a defence policy too fixated on the US

This week’s edition of The Economist (a magazine) dilates on the sorry state of the British Army. Embarrassed in Iraq, it is now under “unacceptable” strain in Afghanistan. What has gone wrong? 

The Economist notes the mismatch between the politicians’ ambitions, and the resources they provide for their armed forces. It notes, too, the cost of past complacency (the British disease). But perhaps most debilitating of all is the lack of clear policy or strategy. 

This is obvious in Afghanistan. It is bad enough that the Western allies do not know how to achieve their aims there (the new recognition that military means alone are not enough is little help unless translated into a viable action plan); much worse is the disarray over what those aims should be. There is consensus that a key purpose is to deny the use of Afghan territory for Al Qaeda training camps (their displacement into Pakistan counts in this context as an unintended consequence). But after seven years – longer than the Second World War – there is still no real agreement about where, if at all, the heroin issue sits amongst the campaign’s objectives. And as for what is achievable, or even desirable, under the heads of ‘democracy’ or ‘human rights’ or ‘stabilisation’– what sort of end-state in the country would permit Western forces eventually to withdraw with honour satisfied – such questions it seems have not even been asked by Western leaders, let alone answered. (President Obama’s recent musing over the unlikely achievability of “Jeffersonian democracy” in Afghanistan may finally herald a readiness to confront the issue.) 

So the British are absolutely not alone in having pursued their Afghan involvement with eyes tight shut (though they are readier than most to press on regardless, and to castigate their more circumspect allies for lack of enthusiasm). Where they are uniquely undone is in their continuing inability to reconcile themselves to the loss of Great Power status. How many more times will British leaders refer to the need to maintain the country’s position at the ‘top table’, before they realise that globalisation, not to mention the worldwide economic crisis, has dismantled the old table and taken it away? In the days when Prime Minister Thatcher had real influence with President Reagan, British officials were under orders never to refer to the ‘special relationship’; today the phrase is back, and on the Prime Minister’s lips, redolent with plaintive hope.  

Ever since Harold Macmillan dreamed of Britain playing Athens to America’s Rome, the British have hoped to use the US to amplify their own declining influence. This hope is at the heart of the UK’s defence policy, which in its most recent full restatement makes explicitly clear that the overall national defence effort should be sized and shaped so as to allow Britain to make a “significant” contribution to a major US-led operation – ‘significant’ meaning on a scale which could be expected to buy influence over the campaign, “including during the post-conflict period”. Not a noble aim – less Athens to Rome than Robin to Batman – but arguably a pragmatic one when it was formulated, in 2003. Unfortunately, Iraq provided a simultaneous opportunity to test the theory – as it turned out, to destruction. Yet the policy remains unaltered, and the British continue to strive for the role of first lieutenant in Afghanistan. 

The armed forces are not blameless, either. For the British military, the US is the Premier League – and every opportunity to train or play with them is to be seized. It is American good opinion which counts above all – and a sense of losing it that has precipitated the latest round of self-doubt. Military leaders have readily connived at the disastrous over-loading of the Ministry of Defence’s forward equipment plans; First Division powers must aspire to aircraft carriers and scores of combat aircraft, even if they are unaffordable and block the purchase of more immediately useful equipments. The Army runs around in armoured vehicles dating from the 1960s in large part because, like Aesop’s dog, it has never been content with the replacement it has currently got its jaws around; the most recent attempt to buy new vehicles (American, predictably) collapsed last November. 

What is sad about this failure of policy is not just the uncertainty over whether the human cost currently being incurred in Afghanistan is ultimately going to be justified, but the way in which an extraordinary national asset is being wasted. The British have a penchant for disciplined violence; and regardless of whether recent engagements have or have not shown them at their finest, anyone who has seen anything of the British armed forces in operation will know that the young men and women in the field are exceptionally committed, and exceptionally good at what they do. For their part, the British public are always ready to get behind ‘our boys’, and to fund a bigger-than-average defence budget. 

These are powerful levers of leadership and influence – as Tony Blair recognised when, in those early happy days before Iraq, he co-sponsored with the French the development of European defence. This initiative combined with a positive British attitude towards bringing the Central and Eastern Europeans into the EU to establish Britain for a few short years in a position of real influence in Europe. Then came the Iraq crisis, and two long wars which have exhausted not only the Army but also the bureaucracy. Leading in Europe is now just too much effort – and the Old Adam of striving for America’s favourable regard has reasserted itself. 

Britain’s current defence policy is not just grinding down its army – it is moving the country towards strategic irrelevance. Meanwhile, President Sarkozy has been giving master-classes in how to advance the national interest through the medium of Europe. It is past time for the British to take a realistic view of their interests in the world, what sort of an international actor we can afford to be, and which partners we should work with. Like it or not, the route to real influence in Washington (or Moscow, or Beijing) now increasingly lies through leadership in Europe. 


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.