Do we need an African NATO?

Paul Collier's argument that the continent needs a common standing military force that can be deployed against rebellions is a persuasive one.

Oxford academic Paul Collier is well known for his book The Bottom Billion in which he maps the links between the world’s poorest people and the world’s most war-torn countries. In a chapter in a new book for IPPR, edited by Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, Collier argues that what Africa needs is an "African NATO".

He writes that the international community oscillates between "pusillanimous passivity" and "gung-ho intervention". He puts Kuwait '91 and Somalia '93 in his gung-ho category, with Rwanda '94, Ivory Coast '99 and Somalia post-'Black Hawk down', into his passivity category. Although he sees Sierra Leone '02 as gung-ho, he also describes Britain’s intervention as "spectacularly successful", and he’s not the only one. I was chatting to a security guard in London the other day who told me that he and his family were alive today "thanks to Tony Blair".

Not surprisingly, Collier puts Afghanistan and Iraq into his gung-ho category and connects the backlash against them to passivity over Syria. But, for me, it is when considering conflict in Africa that his analysis is most interesting. He says Mali could have been "another Somalia", by which he means it could have been a conflict which lasted two decades had the French not intervened when the Americans stood back. The African Union’s inability to establish a peace for their mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to keep without American help and the humiliation of the American standing force devoted to Africa (AFRICOM) in Mali, are further examples of the Washington phrase "leading from behind".

A senior Foreign Office official once jokingly told me that if we bought aeroplane tickets for every teenager in your average London FE college, and then bought them each an AK-47 in the local market, we could take and hold Mogadishu. He wasn’t serious, of course, but his point was that a little money goes a long way in the developing world, and that a small number of people can make a big difference.

The Westgate shopping mall siege put Somalia back into the British spotlight in a way for the first time since the Chandlers were taken hostage. The British couple had been holidaying on their sailing boat a thousand miles away from the Somalia coast but they still fell victim to kidnap and ransom. Previously, Somalia had been known for widespread piracy of commercial vessels, but all of these incidents that affect British nationals are symptoms of a toxic mix of state fragility, conflict and poverty. Without alternative livelihoods, teenagers turn to criminality. In the new Tom Hanks movie, Captain Phillips, the pirate played by Barkhad Abdi makes this very point.

In Uganda, Sudan and Congo, the African Union estimates that the Lords Resistance Army has been responsible for over 100,000 deaths. Only this week, the US warned that M23 rebels could cause a "cross-national war". But most of the British public would be completely unaware of this, and no 'red line' has been crossed for the international community.

So, Collier argues that "West Africa, and perhaps Africa as a whole, needs a common standing military force that can be deployed against rebellions." He describes it as an "African NATO". The reason this makes sense in Africa is that the kinds of conflicts that occur are ones where a few thousand gunmen with small arms can be relatively easily out-gunned and out maneuvered by well equipped and professional forces. That’s not the same in many other parts of the world, but in Africa the practicalities of military interventions are relatively simple, it’s the politics of intervention that’s the problem.

Influencing Tomorrow, by Rt Hon Douglas Alexander MP & Dr Ian Kearns, is published on 7 November 2013 and is available from Guardian Bookshop

Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) arrive on September 22, 2013 at the Westgate mall in Nairobi. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

Photo: Getty
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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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