WESTMINSTER REFLECTIONS: With regards to Afghanistan, Sir Bernard Jenkin MP asks what is the task that now falls to democratic nations?
As I write at the end of August, our national media and many of our politicians are expressing many stages of grief about Afghanistan, but few yet reflect the depth of concern that democratic nations should feel about how this leaves global security. It is the most grotesque and graphic emblem of the potential for the decline of democracy and Western influence.
Listening to the former NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson on BBC radio in August, he evoked a lost world of sober reflection and international coordination, which followed the invocation of Article 5 of the Atlantic Treaty after 9/11.
After that, President Bush unilaterally announced a Global War on Terror (“GWOT”). 20 years on, how has it been going? Should we not be interested in a careful consideration of what has been achieved, what we have got right, what has got worse and what mistakes we have made?
If only the key governments were as adept at such reflection and learning from experience, as China and Russia clearly are! Now that the last UK soldiers have left Kabul, UK politics is descending instead into a welter of recrimination.
Some say that the ill-judged retreat from Kabul is the worst failure of intelligence and assessment since the invasion of Iraq failed to expose any chemical or biological weapons. Some say it is the worst since 9/11 itself. Some even draw parallels with the state of Europe in 1938.
The public hope that fears about increasing Russian and Chinese global influence will not affect their own freedoms and prosperity. They may fear that most of what the West has done since 9/11 has failed, but they do not have confidence in their governments to do better. We cannot accept that this is what our peoples really want. We should speak more openly about the consequences of Western political and security fragmentation, of Western profligacy and short-termism, and more about what we can and must do about it.
Democratic nations must individually and collectively accept that we have not succeeded even in the narrowest terms as we had hoped after 9/11. We have not secured our home bases from terrorist attack and some now say the threat is even higher. We have failed to deny the jihadists their own safe havens and many of our actions have funded and armed them. Far from resolving legitimate grievances upon which extremism feeds, many of our actions have fuelled them.
We ourselves have too often failed to uphold the very rule of law and international standards that we use to justify our own actions. Our adversaries hear our protestations about democracy and human rights as hollow rhetoric. The West’s policies have too easily resorted to force, before the alternatives are exhausted.
Members of NATO need to rediscover unity and purpose and to co-opt others to join in NATO’s projects. There is hope that this is starting to happen, but NATO needs to re-write its entire strategic concept to reflect what its constituent nations and others are prepared to do, not what it hopes they will do.
There needs to be a complete reassessment of UK grand strategy, which goes beyond soundbites about ‘Global Britain.’ The government’s Integrated Review of Defence, Foreign and Security Policy is a step in the right direction. The Treasury, the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence now agree on the Defence budget. But the team who drafted the document lacked the necessary support across government to change broader policy. Nor does it explain how all these capabilities will be delivered and how they serve an integrated strategic concept.
Take the discussion of climate policy, a central component of the Integrated review. The Treasury is set to release a report challenging the Climate Change Committee’s optimistic estimates of the “costs of net-zero.” If we pursue our net-zero target without decimating domestic industry, the UK will have to introduce a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism. This would undermine a Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the United States. The Integrated Review could not hope to resolve this trade-off while the government remains divided. There are also lessons to learn from the initial failure to grapple effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The MoD, the FCID and the National Security Secretariat should start to formulate a grand strategic concept for the UK. COBRA (at present, the UK government’s emergency response committee) should operate more like the JIC, regularly meeting to re-evaluate the national and international situation to adjust policy, recognising that the UK and the West are now involved in several continuing campaigns. These must cover the spectrum of the international competition we face, including the economic, the technological, the cultural and the political.
Too often, foreign policy is seen in isolation from broader policy. The failure in Afghanistan should encourage the government to pursue a coordinated strategy and resolve the contradicting goals of different departments.
Then we need to bring this fresh perspective and coherence to bear on the policies of allies, who will readily grasp solutions which help them explain to their voters how we can better provide for their physical and financial security. This is not a choice, but an imperative for all nations who believe their interests are bound up with the international system of laws, trading and institutions we evolved after World War II.