Ed Davey: Georgia shows need for liberal foreign policy, not McCain-Cameron doctrine

Russia’s actions in the Caucuses found the West asleep and ill-prepared. It ought to precipitate an urgent reassessment of foreign and military thinking that was already looking dangerously complacent. Yet the calls by neo-Cons, from Dick Cheney to David Cameron, to respond by fast tracking Georgia’s membership of NATO, and thus to continue the existing strategy, reveal an alarming lack of reality.

For whatever the immediate catalyst for the fighting in South Ossetia, the truth is Putin has played his cards brilliantly. With the armed forces of the US and the rest of NATO seriously over-stretched by a combination of Iraq, Afghanistan and a myriad of peacekeeping missions, he could be supremely confident the West would not respond militarily. A relatively small demonstration of Russian force was sufficient to show the world – and more importantly former Soviet satellites – that Moscow was back. Emboldened by oil and gas wealth, a volley of warning shots have been fired, whether over the security of Russia’s smaller neighbours or of the security of the West’s non-Russian energy pipelines.

A response that criticises Russia for her attacks into Georgia’s sovereign state territory is both necessary and valid. Russian leaders are brutal bullies and the international community must condemn such disproportionate action. Yet these ex-KGB are also hard-headed and calculating. They know NATO is in no state to offer Georgia membership – and the defence guarantees that comes with membership – at least on current levels of military spending. Russia might be more impressed by macho talk from Dick Cheney and the Conservative Leader if it was accompanied by pledges to return defence expenditure to Cold War levels and introduce conscription. Yet the cold logic that led Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher also to propose major rearmament seems to have passed the neo-Conservatives by.

So how do we impress Putin and Medvedev, so that they are deterred from such aggression in the future? How do we reconstruct our defence and foreign policies so we regain the priceless weapon of credibility? For whether the threat comes from Moscow or from mullahs, from terrorists or tyrants, the best way to prevent an attack is for the enemy to know and believe they will pay a heavy price – militarily, economically or both.

The answer will partly depend on the decisions of the next occupant at the White House. Yet if our “special relationship” is to mean anything, we now need to be influencing the thinking of the Presidential contenders and their advisers – not least, because neither candidate has yet to provide any real detail.

Barack Obama of course looks the more promising of the two, since his candidacy if not yet all his policies embody a rejection of the instincts of Bush-Cheney: he would not have fought the disastrous Iraq war which has so weakened the power and authority of the US; he would talk to Tehran; he could more easily mend the fissures with America’s European and Muslim partners. He offers change from the failed past. Regrettably, both Brown and Cameron seem wedded to that past – whether it’s Iraq, Iran or now Cold War rhetoric over Russia – and so would seem more comfortable with a McCain victory.

Yet for Britain to influence seriously the next US President, we have to be clear on our own strategy, and through that, help build a clear European strategy too.

I believe the strategy Britain needs must include three key changes.

First, we have to move back from the breathless rhetoric of American and British leaders in recent years, that implied any one country or a small group of countries could legitimately police the world. There remains a case for liberal interventionism, and the emerging new doctrine of responsibility to protect is one I support. Yet unilateral actions or “coalitions of the willing” are less likely to deliver it. Giving up on the United Nations as many on the right would have us do, is a recipe for more of the same. Instead, we could perhaps make the UN work rather more effectively when we need it, if countries like Britain and the US fully backed the UN with cash and resources when it engages in missions like the peacekeeping operation for Darfur.

Second, we must re-visit defence expenditure. We need a Strategic Security and Defence Review, to ask the searching questions about our foreign policy objectives, and which we can afford. This should include an urgent review of our nuclear weapons programme, where spending is rising above Cold War levels thanks to the crazy joint Labour-Conservative decision to renew Trident – taken, unbelievably, ahead of a global disarmament conference in 2010. We are entering an era where nuclear disarmament has the potential not just to free up money for the defence spending we really need, but to make us more secure, not less – if we can persuade others to give up the bomb and stop the imminent dangers of widescale nuclear proliferation, in a world of failed states and terrorists. Yet instead of using this opportunity, and engaging Russia and China in a multilateral anti-ballistic missile system, to protect from such attacks, the US has forged ahead with its own system, deliberately excluding and antagonising the Russians.

Third, we must respond enthusiastically to the strong leadership shown by President Sarkozy, not just over Georgia, but in his historic revision of Gaullism, with his proposal for France to join NATO. With Europe’s other major military power for the first time in decades prepared to join the defence pact we have with the US, surely we should be setting aside the lingering doubts some have over the place for the EU’s Defence and Security Policy. After all, unlike Bush-Cheney, both Obama and McCain have robustly called for a stronger, more united European defence effort. When better co-operation on defence in Europe could lead to more cost-effective procurement and even to a new deal on the cost-sharing of armed deployments, this should be central to our strategy.

The tragedy is that neither Brown nor Cameron have the courage or the belief to argue for anything European. Brown’s absurd decision to jilt Europe’s other 26 leaders, and sign the Lisbon Treaty alone, is only matched by his weak grasp of our strategic interests when compared to Sarkozy: the President of France cannot understand why Brown has not responded more positively to the new French policies on defence. Cameron is, if anything, in an even weaker place to make the case for a stronger European defence policy. Indeed, one of the Tories’ key criticisms of the Lisbon Treaty was its rather limited but entirely sensible ideas for future defence collaboration. Cameron’s photo opportunity in Georgia must be embarrassing many Conservatives, since his position on both NATO and EU are so devoid of any content or credibility – with his unwillingness to argue for rearmament only matched by his opposition to anything labelled “European Union”.

Churchill and most Conservative leaders who followed him saw a strong, united Europe as crucial for Britain’s future security, not least against any Russian threat. They knew that Britain alone couldn’t afford Europe’s defence bill, that conscription in peacetime wouldn’t work in Britain and that the US couldn’t always be counted on to come to the rescue. South Ossetia ought to mark a new shift in British foreign policy, but I fear it will not.

Ed Davey is the Liberal Democrats’ Shadow Foreign Secretary.

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40 Comments

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 17th Aug '08 - 1:34pm

    The paragraph on nuclear disarmament seems terribly incoherent.

    “Let’s have a review” is scarcely an inspiring rallying call. Apart from the fact that in Davey’s eyes the Russians are “brutal bullies” one minute, and have been “deliberately excluded and antagonised” the next, it’s not at all clear who he sees our nuclear weapons as protecting us against, or in what circumstances he would renounce our own nuclear weapons.

    And if you say that “the cold logic that led Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher also to propose major rearmament seems to have passed the neo-Conservatives by”, doesn’t that imply that you support “major rearmament”? Puzzling.

  • “Second, we must re-visit defence expenditure.”

    Frighteningly, the UK spends more than Russia on its military, yet is not a fraction as capable. Where does all the money go? Heck, we’ve barely got enough infantry.

  • I find this argument wholly in agreement with my own judgements.

  • Mark Williams 17th Aug '08 - 7:42pm

    These 2 statements made me laugh and cry:

    “Russia might be more impressed by macho talk from Dick Cheney and the Conservative Leader if it was accompanied by pledges to return defence expenditure to Cold War levels and introduce conscription.”

    “This should include an urgent review of our nuclear weapons programme, where spending is rising above Cold War levels thanks to the crazy joint Labour-Conservative decision to renew Trident”

    I laughed because taken together they show that you can’t string together a logical argument, and more fool the Lib Dems for having you as their Foreign Affairs spokesman.

    I cried because as a tax payer I have to pay part of your parliamentary salary.

  • This article does have some sensible suggestions within it, but its overall tone and message is muddled.

    I’m not at all sure whether Ed Davey’s is arguing for us to prevent conflict by having a less antagonistic foreign policy or for us to face the Russians down with rearmament, presumably paid for by scrapping Trident. If it is both, he has not adequately explained how those two strands relate to each other.

    A better line in my view is to focus on the need to reinvest in our convention forces, and leave out the figleaf for the United Nations which is in any case powerless against Russia due to the Russian veto.

    In his foreign policy, Theodore Roosevelt commented that one should “speak softly and carry a big stick”. If Ed were to confine his arguments to the idea that McCain and Cameron are failing to do either of those things, that might well be more effective.

  • Peter Bancroft 17th Aug '08 - 9:18pm

    I think this is a great article. An understanding both of the issues behind and in front of the Georgian conflict and (which is rarer) an understanding of our constaints and potential options that we’re free to take.

    And I say this having started the article expecting to disagree with a large part of it!

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 17th Aug '08 - 10:09pm

    Surely Britain is justified in maintaining an independent nuclear capability only to the extent that it deters the possibility of a nuclear attack on us.

    The idea that Britain individually has any clout in dealing with Russia – with or without a nuclear capability – is a fantasy. The only clout we have is collectively, through organisations like the EU, Nato and the UN.

    And I really don’t believe that collective strength is increased at all by Britain having an independent nuclear capability. Would the EU/Nato really have more influence if Germany had its own nuclear weapons? Or Italy? Or Spain?

    I find it difficult to believe we are under any threat of nuclear attack that could be deterred by a replacement for Trident. Where is this threat of nuclear war supposed to be coming from?

  • Mark Williams 17th Aug '08 - 10:41pm

    Andrew “Mark, I wouldn’t say that the two statements are illogical. Surely in the first, if you read it within the paragraph, says that the language from “neo-cons” is pure rhetoric,”

    I think the specific use of the words “Conservative Leader” in the first statement is the one intended to have political impact. I doubt that Dick Cheney reeads Ed Davey blog posts. He has probably never heard of Ed Davey and maybe he has never heard of the Liberal democrats. And probably never will.

    I also take issue with 6the same point as Morus on the French and Nato (I think this was raised on Iain Dale’s blog a few hours ago). The French have always been an ally within NATO, and there has always been extensive liaison between NATO-commanded and French forces even if they don’t share joint command. To misunderstand the military relationship with our closest neighbour is lamentable in any senior party spokesman. From a so-called Foreign Affairs spokesman it is truly pathetic.

  • On Trident, I agree it is non-sensical for the government to make a decision to replace it before the 2010 talks.

    I also take issue with the idea of an ‘independent nuclear deterrent’. Either our forces have independent weapons systems or we have nuclear weapons, however in neither case would this amount to an effective ‘deterrent’.

    Possession of nuclear weapons only amounts to an ability and incentive to enforce global defence coordination, because any non-cooperation is the initiation of an arms race where all sides are railroaded into confrontation which will escalate to the point of terrifying destruction unless PREVENTATIVE action is taken (pre-emptive intervention is the last resort on the highway to calamity).

    Possession of nuclear arms does not indicate any legitimacy of dissent, but an acceptance of the duty to reach agreement.

    In this the only logical and coherent course of action is our pro-active and progressively integrationist policy towards the EU and the UN – nothing else either attempts or is capable of healing the divisions which exist currently across the world.

    The Georgian conflict highlights how the UK government has sat on its hands for 17 years and let this festering wound turn septic. For David Cameron to make a visit to the region suggests the onset of gangrene.

    We don’t need another internal departmental review, we need a real opportunity to debate the consequences of failed Labour and Conservative policy in order to show that we have the solutions.

  • Neil, we integrate Russia more fully into world institutions.

    We impress upon them how our shared prosperity is aided by mutual trade which requires normalised, cooperative and peaceful relations.

    We restrain ourselves from throwing insults around, whether deserved or not.

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 18th Aug '08 - 12:40pm

    One other thing that disturbs me about this piece is Davey’s identification of the “mullahs” – together with “Moscow”, “terrorists” and “tyrants” – as a source of “threat” to this country.

    It’s clear from the painful experience of reading his prose that Davey needs to choose his words with more care, but to see him use this sub-tabloid anti-Islamic language is very dispiriting.

  • Oh dear another thread hijacked by the mouthpiece of Russia Today…

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 18th Aug '08 - 3:01pm

    Ed Davey wrote:
    “On our attitude to Russia abnd [sic] Georgia, I have carefully not attributed blame, as its [sic] likely that both sides share responsibility.”

    This goes from bad to worse.

    How on earth can someone claim on Monday to have carefully avoided attributing blame, having written the following on Sunday?
    “A response that criticises Russia for her attacks into Georgia’s sovereign state territory is both necessary and valid. Russian leaders are brutal bullies and the international community must condemn such disproportionate action. Yet these ex-KGB are also hard-headed and calculating.”

  • Alix Mortimer 18th Aug '08 - 3:40pm

    [Technical intermission]

    Some browser set-ups do not seem to support our comment form properly and omit the lines inserted between paragraphs by commenters – I’ve had this problem before. That may be the case here.

  • Wow, thanks for coming back to repsond Ed. It’s good to hear your thoughts in a more discursive format.

    It is heartening to hear a major figure interact in this fashion and it makes me reconsider signing that membership form which has been hanging around.

    I’ve been a supporter and deliverer for a while now, but I’ve been wondering what the benefits of joining are, so I hope the Bones report and your commenting here are a sign demonstrating our willingness to reconnect the top of the party with the grassroots is something which will continue. It is most welcome.

    Getting more involved has been a desire which I’ve so far resisted based on these doubts, so a bit more of this and they’ll be dispelled.

  • No-one in this thread so far has actually alluded to the CAUSE of the present conflict in the Caucasus; namely the continuing attempts by the US military-industrial-petrochemical complex to help itself to Russia’s oil and gas.

    The first attempt was the Oligarchs. The alcoholic idiot, Yeltsin, was persuaded to flog off Russia’s energy reserves at a song to a group of crooks assembled by Boris Berezovsky, a US placeman. These oligarchs would then sell their assets to the Americans, it was hoped. But the plot failed. Putin intervened and put a stop to it just in time.

    So then came game-plan No 2. Move into the former satellite Caucasian and Central Asian states, set up puppet governments, and pump the oil they can get their hands on out through Georgia and Afghanistan (hence the continuing conflict in the latter country).

    What Cheney and his neocon chums didn’t bank upon was the sheer maniacal ruthlessness of Putin and his allies.

    There are a number of ways forward:-

    (1) Accelerate the construction of nuclear power-stations, and the development of hydrogen cars, so we never have to rely on Putin’s oil and gas.

    (2) Dump Trident, which is and has always been a US operated weapons system designed to protect the United States, which we pay for.

    (3) Engage with Russia constructively, but with caution. Russia is now a capitalist country and will need foreign investment. Such investment requires a legal and institutional stucture that a semi-dictatorship is unlikely to provide.

    (4) Ask the necons outright: do you want war with Russia? That seems to be the logical consequence of their bellicosity. Trouble is, when fighting actually breaks out, neocons tend to make themselves scarce and the “poor bloody infantry” gets slaughtered at their behest.

    There has been mention in this thread of conscription. Actually, I don’t think conscription is a threat in this country, as much as the moral youth-hating right would love to have it. The armed forces don’t want it, it would reduce effectiveness, and it would be very expensive.

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 19th Aug '08 - 12:17am

    “Credit to Mr Davey for coming on to the blog to defend his article.”

    Am I the only one who thinks it might be better for the party if our shadow foreign secretary didn’t have to defend something so half baked, badly written and ill thought out?

  • Jo, on point 4 – isn’t trust a two-way thing? and isn’t the only way to build trust by being open about things?

    Wouldn’t international relations benefit from more openness on behalf of Russia?

  • Mark Williams 19th Aug '08 - 3:13pm

    To the clown Davey who wrote: “On France and NATO, of course the sentence should have read ‘join NATO’s integrated military command’.”

    Well let’s look at what you actually wrote:

    “Third, we must respond enthusiastically to the strong leadership shown by President Sarkozy, not just over Georgia, but in his historic revision of Gaullism, with his proposal for France to join NATO. With Europe’s other major military power for the first time in decades prepared to join the defence pact we have with the US, surely we should be setting aside the lingering doubts some have over the place for the EU’s Defence and Security Policy.”

    Did I read that correctly: “Europe’s other major military power for the first time in decades prepared to join the defence pact we have with the US”?

    In view of the 10 French soldiers who were reported killed this morning while on a NATO mission in Afghanistan, I suggest that you owe an apology to those soldiers, their grieving families and the entire French nation.

    It is laughable that anyone should take your opinion as a foreign affairs spokesman seriously when you don’t even know who our allies are. You may be an MP but you are clearly a twit.

  • No Mark, you and Iain Dale owe an anapology to those French soldiers. As an ex-serviceman I find people using these deaths to score cheap political points sickening.

    When I was at RMA Sandhurst, a senior officer said France was not in NATO, everyone knew he meant not in the military command.

  • All this shows is how pathetically weak Britain and our (the Lib Dems’) defence policies are. Russia has always wanted a defensive belt of satellite states. The end of the cold war released a large number of subject nations from Russian Oppression, now at the first test of our commitment to freedom we are found about as firm as the French in the face of Nazi re militarisation of the Rhineland.

    Ed along with most of our party you totally miss the point. British Nuclear weapons were and are required not to deter Nuclear attack on our country but to deter conventional attack from a more powerful neighbour.

    With Russian forces now regularly probing our Naval and air defences in the North Sea and North Atlantic the complacency of the party and the nation is tragic.

    There are only 3 coherent positions to hold on deterrence and our party holds none of them.

    Unilateralist – you think whatever the price they are unjustified – the pure pacifist approach – in my opinion the 20th century has proved conclusively that pacifists and disarmers are dangerous nutters who through their silly opinions contributed firmly to a second world war by naively advocating disarmament in the face of aggressive totalitarian regimes. To be fair to the people of those times they had the tragedy of the great war writ large in their minds – we however with the lesson of appeasement have no excuses.

    Multi-lateralist you believe nuclear weapons are just to deter other nuclear weapons states attacking us. You believe you can trust other nations to honour a deal of getting rid of the risk of nuclear weapons. So we are supposed to trust Communist China, Pakistan, and who knows else as well as the Russians who have just invaded their neighbours. (this is the majority view but is losing ground to the unilateralist approach – prob due to history having been removed from the History National Curriculum)

    You believe in Nuclear deterrence. This is my view – as a child of the Cold War I am grateful for not having had to fight unlike two immediately preceding generations.

    Frankly our armed forces along with most of Europe are not sufficient in size to face the coming times where severe competiton for resources will inevitably cause international tensions.

  • Neil Craig you need to read what I wrote more carefully.

    Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons was predicated not on the need to deter nuclear attack by the Soviet Union but to deter conventional attack by the Soviet Union whose supremacy in conventional weapons we could not, or did not wish to undertake the expense, in manpower and treasure, of matching.

    No where in my comment did I advocate first use or genocide, however it was the case that with ammunition for only a few days fighting NATO would have in the event of hot war been forced to surrender or go nuclear in very short order. All of this is merely a statement of the facts of the cold war.

    The truth of our current position is that it is considerably more vulnerable than it was 25 years ago. With our energy sourced either from the Russian Federation or by sea from Arabia. Whereas 25 years ago we produced our own oil and gas and generated our electricity with our own coal.

    My later paragraph points to the need to rebuild key conventional capabilities neglected in our armed forces over the past 20 years. The most serious of which are the anti-submarine and mine counter measures forces of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.

    This relates to the facts as they are today with the Russian Navy rebuilding its submarine capability and conducting the probing operations I alluded to against our ports which they are doing now as they did in the past.

    It was perhaps confusing of me to mix conventional forces with Nuclear deterrence – however the lack of conventional capability would in the event of hot war bring forward rapidly the point at which a government would have to consider more drastic options.

    I did not anywhere in what I wrote advocate a first use of Nuclear Weapons Iraq, Iran, Russia or China. Frankly you made that bit up for yourself.

    You fail to address my key point which is that our weak response to Russian interference in Georgia will lead inevitably to Russian interference in Ukraine and other bordering states. Our (the west’s) weak response is built on our knowledge of our own weakness, in particular with regard to conventional forces and energy supply.

    The Liberal Party was, along with the Labour Party in the position of calling for disarmament in the face of the rise of Nazi Germany in the mid to late 1930s. We failed to support the Czech’s faced with just the same territorial situation we see in Georgia today.

    If we are not firm then Georgia and Ukraine, perhaps Belarus and Kazakhstan may fall back under the Russian yoke.

  • Ed Davey

    “PQs the Lib Dems asked before the recess revealed that defence spending on nuclear is now proportinately higher than during the Cold War!”

    What a really daft question. The reason is obvious massive (and unwarranted) cuts in our conventional capability is the reason. We are operating a minimum deterrent now so it cannot be cut without abolishing it altogether.

    The problem with a defence review is that it isn’t a policy. Your (our) policy is to think about things? The problems with our armed forces are clearly understood and a review is required only to address the details. The overall problem is to few forces to meet our commitments in peace time let alone in the two wars we are now fighting. You do not need a review to work this out – its in plain bloody obvious.

    To be honest and credible the Lib Dems have to say:

    (1) are they unilateralist or not – our current policy is a pathetic compromise which doesn’t satisfy either faction in our party and doesn’t give us credibility.

    (2) are we infavour of massively increasing expenditure on conventional forces or are we going to cut our commitments massively.

    What we have got to stop saying is that we will through European co-operation get more capability for less. There is little evidence that we are any where near that level of convergence. At the end of the day its down to money.

    We have got to stop placing too much expectation on the EU or UN in the short term. The EU is hampered by lack of capability or preparedness to do what needs to be done, whilst the UN security council cannot act against any state enjoying the protection of a permanent five state.

    The basic problem remains that our party is the resting ground for a large number of pacifists, our country is not.

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