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The difficulties of shaping a stable world

By Julian Richards

As the world wrings its hands at the slaughter in Syria and ponders what, if anything, it can do, the precedent of intervention in Libya constantly raises its head. Why was it right and proper for us to intervene in Libya to prevent humanitarian catastrophe, but we are choosing not to do so now in Syria? The most readily available response is that “Syria is much more complicated than Libya”, but this hardly seems to help our understanding.

For a country such as the UK, these are not only tricky questions of foreign policy; they also serve to throw into the spotlight that most tricky question of all: what sort of player should Britain be on the international stage in the twenty-first century? Are we at the vanguard of the free world, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our American cousins in spreading democracy, liberal values and universal human rights around the world (a process that the UK government calls “Shaping a Stable World”), or are we – realistically – just a medium-sized European power with fairly limited military capabilities? As a Conservative back-bencher described it, in rather discourteous terms, is Britain fast becoming just a “Belgium with nukes”?

Prime Minister David Cameron. Source: number10.gov.uk.
When David Cameron came to power in 2010, one of the first things he did was to set up a National Security Council. This was the first time in British history that such as institution – at least under this name – has been at the centre of foreign policy-making. The origins of the idea date back to the political aftermath of the Iraq War and Tony Blair’s much-derided “sofa politics” style of government, where big decisions (such as committing Britain’s military to a major conflict) were seen to be made as much by unelected special advisers as by cabinet members and Parliament, and the decision-making presented in Dodgy Dossiers. This, claimed Cameron, was no way to deal with major decisions affecting national security, and he pledged to change it as soon as he was in power.

Cameron made good on his promise. He linked the publication of a new National Security Strategy at the end of 2010, with the announcement of the findings of a Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). With the bitter recriminations from the Armed Forces ringing in his ears in the face of the substantial defence cuts announced in the SDSR, the new National Security Council was almost immediately thrown into overdrive as the Arab Spring swept like a tsunami across North Africa and the Middle East. It was time to put the new policy-making process into practice. Within weeks, British fighter jets found themselves operating alongside French and other NATO partners in the skies over Libya. No-one in government would have predicted such a turn of events, and it suggested that Britain does see itself as an essentially interventionist power, at least in some cases.

Decisions about defence structures and restructuring are difficult enough, but one of the features of the post-Cold War world is that the list of top-priority national security threats seems to get ever longer and more diverse with each passing year. The UK’s new process divides national security threats into three tiers of priority. In the highest category – tier one – the threat of involvement in an “international military crisis” (on which the Arab Spring and Libya have quickly made good) is joined by the threat of a major cyber attack; the ongoing threat from terrorism; and the risk of a major accident or natural catastrophe.

The eclectic nature of this list shows that national security policy-making in the twenty-first century can no longer be the job of one minister or department. Ideally, it now needs to be a collegiate effort across many corners of government, and to involve a bewildering array of diverse activities and mechanisms. Cameron’s new process is making a first stab at designing and delivering such a system of government, while at the same time trying to bring the whole process back into a more democratic and accountable orbit. This could be a recipe for diffusion and lacking decision-making, but the Prime Minister himself is standing at the helm and personally chairing most of the weekly meetings of the National Security Council. Only time will tell whether this new system will work, and whether different personalities who follow in Cameron’s footsteps will be willing and able to run it in the way it was intended. Whether we will have better decisions as a result is also open to conjecture, as is the issue of whether we will finally have a good answer for that difficult question: what sort of player should Britain be on the international stage now?

Dr Julian Richards is Co-Director at the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, and was previously a researcher at Brunel University’s Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies. Prior to that, Dr Richards worked for 16 years in intelligence, counter-terrorism analysis, policy formation and training. In 1993, he was awarded a PhD from Cambridge University for his thesis on nationalism in Pakistan, and has since written numerous papers on terrorism, counter-terrorism and security. He is a regular facilitator on joint agency training programmes in the UK on intelligence analysis and terrorism. He has recently published A Guide to National Security: Threats, Responses and Strategies.

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