Leader: This should not be the start of a new age of British isolationism

In refusing to grant a majority for early military action, MPs were rejecting not interventionism per se but a particular – and unwise – intervention.

After an era of interventionism, stretching from the bombing of Iraq in 1998 to the Libya mission in 2011, the vote in parliament on 29 August against military action in Syria is being portrayed by some as the birth of a new age of isolationism. The morning after the government’s defeat, an anguished Paddy Ashdown wrote: “We are a hugely diminished country this AM. MPs cheered last night. Assad, Putin this morning. Farage too as we plunge towards isolationism.” For him and others, “All is changed, changed utterly.”
 
Beyond the parliamentary theatrics, however, it is doubtful whether the vote will prove the defining moment that some suggest. The narrow defeat of the government by 13 votes was more by accident than by design. Labour, which did not oppose military action in its amendment, failed to anticipate the result or David Cameron’s abrupt decision to rule out intervention. Of the 577 MPs who took part in one or both votes, 492 supported the potential use of force. Yet, for largely political reasons, it is in the interests of both Mr Cameron and Ed Miliband to avoid a second vote and the party divisions that would result.
 
In refusing to grant a majority for early military action, MPs were rejecting not interventionism per se but a particular – and unwise – intervention. It is just two years since parliament voted by a majority of 544 to support military action, in that case against Libya, with just 13 dissenting voices. In similar circumstances, it would undoubtedly be prepared to do so again.
 
That Mr Cameron lost the vote was a result not of his failure to assert the moral case for intervention against the Syrian regime, but his failure to address adequately the practical and strategic concerns expressed by MPs of all parties. It was never explained how limited missile strikes would prevent the further use of chemical weapons or other arms against civilians by Bashar al-Assad’s administration or his opponents, nor was it made clear how Britain would avoid being drawn into a wider and more dangerous regional conflagration.
 
If devoid of the significance that some have attributed to it, the Syria vote provides a moment to reflect on the purpose of British foreign policy. Dean Acheson’s gibe in 1962 – “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role” – continues to resonate. Having gone to war so often in the past 15 years, we feel a sense of impotence when we do not. This is exacerbated by an increasingly powerful isolationist tendency, most visible in the form of the UK Independence Party, which combines an aversion to foreign entanglements with hostility to the European Union, open borders and overseas aid.
 
Yet between the poles of intervention and inaction, there is still much good that the UK can do. It should work with others at the G20 in St Petersburg to address the shortfall in humanitarian support for Syrian civilians, four million of whom have been displaced internally, and the two million who have fled the country. The Syria Regional Response Plan for refugees, which has called for funding of $3bn, remains 60 per cent short of this total.
 
In addition, Britain should intensify efforts to reach a political settlement, including greater engagement with the newly moderate Iranian leadership, as advocated by the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, and some Conservative MPs.
 
Policymakers must reject the false choice between a neoconservative adventurism that disregards the limits of military force and a parochial isolationism that seeks refuge in the pursuit of narrow national interests. The priority remains to craft a multilateral approach that combines a commitment to ethical principles with an awareness of the gulf between the desirable and the possible. If the Syria vote encourages greater reflection on this task, then it could yet prove a significant moment in the search for a consistent post-imperial foreign policy.
A Stop The War campaigner holds up a placard outside Parliament on August 29, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Trident is dangerous – and not for the reasons you think

Fixating on Trident is like replacing the guest bathroom while your own toilet flush doesn't work. 

Backing Trident is supposed to make a politician look hard, realistic and committed to Britain’s long history of military defence.That’s why the Tories delighted in holding a debate on renewing the nuclear weapons system in June 2016.

But it was the Tory Prime Minister who floundered this weekend, after it emerged that three weeks before that debate, an unarmed Trident missile misfired - and veered off towards the United States instead of Africa. Downing Street confirmed May knew about the error before the parliamentary debate. 

Trident critics have mobilised. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, called the revelation “serious”. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a longstanding opponent of nuclear weapons, said the error was “pretty catastrophic”. 

The idea of a rogue nuclear missile heading for the White House may have fuelled the disarmament movement. But even if you enjoy the game of nuclear poker, fixating on Trident is dangerous. Because while MPs rehearse the same old Cold War arguments, the rest of the world has moved on. 

Every hour debating Trident is an hour not spent debating cyber warfare. As Peter Pomerantsev prophetically wrote in April 2015, Russian military theory has in recent years assumed that it would not be possible to match the West militarily, but wars can be won in the “psychosphere”, through misinformation.

Since the Russian cyber attacks during the US election, few can doubt this strategy is paying off - and that our defence systems have a long way to catch up. As shadow Defence secretary, Emily Thornberry described this as “the crucial test” of the 21st century. The government has pledged £1.9bn in cyber security defences over the next five years, but will that be enough? Nerds in a back room are not as thrilling as nuclear submarines, but how they are deployed matters too.

Secondly, there is the cost. Even if you back the idea of a nuclear deterrent, renewing Trident is a bit like replacing the guest bathroom when the regular loo is hardly flushing. A 2015 Centreforum paper described it as “gold-plated” - if your idea of gold-plated is the ability to blow up “a minimum of eight cities”. There is a gory but necessary debate to be had about alternatives which could free up more money to be spent on conventional forces. 

Finally, a nuclear deterrent is only credible if you intend to use it. For this reason, the British government needs to focus on protecting the infrastructure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, now under threat from a US President who declared it “obsolete”. Eastern Europe has been nervous about the bear on its borders for some time - the number of Poles joining the country’s 120 paramilitary organisations has tripled in two years.  

Simply attacking Trident on safety grounds will only get you so far - after all, the argument behind renewing Trident is that the status quo will not do. Furthermore, for all the furore over a misfired Trident missile, it’s hard to imagine that should the hour come, the biggest worry for the crew of a nuclear submarine will be the small chance of a missile going in the wrong direction. That would be missing the rather higher chance of global nuclear apocalypse.

Anti-Trident MPs will make the most of May's current embarrassment. But if they can build bridges with the more hawkish members of the opposition, and criticise the government's defence policy on its own terms, they will find plenty more ammunition. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.