Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Something in the water?

On the same day that Max Hastings in The Daily Mail expresses his views so powerfully on the special relationship" (no longer), up pops Irwin Stelzer in The Daily Telegraph with what seem to be some similar thoughts. Is there something in the water?

"Unable to afford being a first-rate power while expanding the welfare state," this government has chosen "to retreat from world influence, ceding increased power to the UN and other toothless international institutions," the man writes.

The focus of his attack, however, is "defence cuts", where he argues that there the obligation of the government on defence issues is clear: to provide the means to achieve the ends it selects.

Therein lies the problem, then argues Stelzer with something of a non sequitur, declaring that the government has not made it clear just what it thinks Britain's role in the world should be. That seems to be the primary problem, with the second-order handicap being that the choice is made more difficult because the nation is strapped for cash.

We are then asked to "consider the signals", but it is not clear (to me, anyway) whether those signals relate to the inability of the government to make clear our role, or our cash shortage.

The first "signal" is Gordon Brown ordering the military out of Basra, claiming that its mission is complete and that the maintenance of security has been turned over to the Iraqis. Like so much else of what comes out of No 10, writes Stelzer, this is not quite true: the handover was to the Americans. Britain's soldiers, once proud of their ability to translate to Iraq their experience in Northern Ireland, were ordered out, mission unaccomplished.

Then, he adds, there is Afghanistan, where the government deployed troops it was unwilling to support with the necessary kit. American soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan tell tales of turning over used boots and other equipment to the brave British soldiers so sorely lacking in the proper equipment. The Government willed the ends, sort of (clarity of purpose was not a feature of policy). But it did not provide the means.

Eventually though, Stelzer seems to settle on the cash shortage. After the Second World War, the depleted state of the nation's finances required the famous retreat from empire. Now, he says, if the UK – for financial reasons – decided to abandon Trident and continued to pull-back from the war on terrorism, this would signal a further retreat down the league table of nations with a credible military capability.

Here though lies the particular similarity of view with Hastings: "As a conversation with leading Pentagon figures makes clear, that credibility is already damaged." This means that America no longer counts on Britain as it once did, and is in the market for other allies who can and will assist it in the post-Bush age, when trouble strikes.

However, while Stelzer asserts the obvious, that "There is no question that Britain's weakened financial position makes the allocation of resources extraordinarily difficult," it is difficult to accept his underlying thesis that Britain's obvious retreat from the world stage is entirely due to funding difficulties. After all, in Afghanistan, military spending is set to double the level spent the year before last.

That said, what Stelzer is picking up seems real – that our presence on the world stage has diminished and may well diminish further. Hastings points to our lack of military prowess – our defeat in Iraq and our lacklustre performance in Afghanistan. There are many other reasons but whatever they are, the reality is certainly spelt out by Stelzer: "We shall miss Britain on the world stage. We did, after all, accomplish a great deal together."

Reputations are hard to build and easy to destroy. Recovery is going to be extremely difficult.