The UK and the rapid deterioration in global security

Members of the Nuclear Weapons Working Group are presenting their personal views as part of a wider consultation process into the party’s future policy on nuclear weapons. The full consultation paper can be found at and the consultation window runs until 28 October. Party members are invited to attend the consultation session at party conference in Brighton, to be held on Saturday 17 September at 1pm in the Balmoral Room of the Hilton.


UK nuclear defence policy does not exist in isolation. As the Lib Dem’s Nuclear Weapons Working Group Consultation Paper makes clear, nuclear defence policy exists in the context of the UK’s broader policy on defence and foreign policy. Changes to Lib Dem nuclear weapons policy are best seen in the context of a changing defence and foreign policy environment.

From a UK perspective, the key recent shifts in the foreign and defence policy context include the continuing economic and military rise of China (and our Allies’ response to this), the adversarial turn in relations with Russia, and the rise of IS in the Middle East – together with its effects on Western Middle East policy, NATO and Turkey.

The most significant change in the foreign and security policy landscape for the UK concerns China and its relationship with the US. Up until 2013 China pursued what they called a ‘peaceful rise’ policy; rapid economic development avoiding involvements in conflict.

This changed with the new leader Xi Jinping, who, for example, announced the ‘String of Pearls’ policy, otherwise known as the ‘maritime silk road’.  This is a string of Chinese-controlled ports and associated inland infrastructure that dots the world’s trade routes, with economic investment closely followed by military investment; for example in Pakistan/Afghanistan, Djibouti/Ethiopia, and Sri Lanka.

In addition China began its assertive policy to gain control of trade routes and establish military bases in the South China Sea and Pacific Rim, resulting in attrition with the US, Japan, Vietnam and Philippines. There have been other symptoms such as the fledgling military involvement of China in South Sudan and Syria; the latter an indicator of growing military ties with Russia.

Rising tensions between the UK and Russia are rooted in a breakdown of acceptance of a ‘Russian Sphere of influence’ (ie control) and consequent decline in mutual trust. As NATO inched eastwards and the US missile defence shield was built in Eastern Europe, relations declined. The Ukrainian uprising against a secretive elite with Russian support, led to a US-backed anti-Russian regime, a Donbass war, and Russian annexation of Crimea where is has major strategic military installations.

Russian involvement defending the Syrian regime, and to keep Russian bases, has been followed by steps to establish permanent bases in Yemen, Syria, Vietnam and elsewhere.

Relations between Europe and the US on one side, and Russia and China on the other, form the backdrop for the appalling and almost inconceivably brutal wars in Syria and Iraq, where shifting alliances and the deadly miscalculations of all sides make for weak motivations for peace. The war may continue, and the refugees keep pouring into the EU, for another decade or more, even if ISIL is ‘defeated’.

The scope for larger scale regional or global wars involving the UK largely depends on the direction of relations between and among Europe & US and Russia & China.  For the UK, US security policy and intentions over NATO are central. Either main candidate for the US Presidency will almost certainly bring an even more assertive military stance on all these points of conflict.

UK military and security strategy (and resources, including nuclear weapons) will have to be uncharacteristically fleet-of-foot if they are to be fully brought to bear in the UK’s pursuit of its interests, in this context.

During PM Theresa May’s term of office, it is likely that the replacement of the Trident nuclear missile defence system like-for-like will be made at least contractually irreversible.

The test for Liberal Democrat security policy, in that context, amidst the distractions of Brexit, is to harangue the government in pursuit of our national interests as the background of global security continues to worsen.

The UK will have to focus its defence & foreign policy emphasis, and be much more selective in its military and disarmament interventions.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is a member of the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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  • Lorenzo Cherin 24th Aug '16 - 2:04pm

    Paul writes with experience and authority and these contributions are valuable in these difficult times.

    I do not like the perhaps , not meant that way , use of the word , harangue,as the duty of other parties on such weighty issues , surely constructive support and criticism on security matters is better in phraseology and actuality ?!

    One thing I believe , it is essential , even more so , post referendum , that if France has nuclear weapons , this country does. We cannot let France , already having to be in more fear than ever due to its welcome NATO co operation being increased in recent years , be the only seat at the table on disarmament . But we need to be at that table and not merely talk !

  • Nom de Plume 24th Aug '16 - 3:48pm

    Well written article. Nothing I would disagree with here. I would like to add in my opinion a key failure of foreign policy has been a lack of understanding of the cultures into which the governments of the UK and US have decided to engage in military campaigns. I sometimes wonder where the Foreign Office has been for the last 15 years.

    The assumption has been that you can force social change by might; not appreciating that a society is a construct of a myriad of cultural factors. Without a deep understanding of these cultures no project is going to succeed. It is particularly true of the Middle East where tradition plays an important role. A society can not be built by force, only destroyed. It is all very well to oppose dictators, but unless you can replace them with something better ( a difficult task), you should leave it alone. The evidence can be seen from every campaign they have engaged in since the start of the century. Paul could have mentioned what is happening in Afghanistan. A waste of time, effort and life?

    I also expect the Americans to continue with their failed policy of aggresive intervention. It has a place, but only within the context of a quite exceptional plan. I wait to hear of one. Obama, in my opinion, has been one of the better US presidents. Politicians should resist the urge to poke things.

    On Trident, I dislike only a few countries having the bulk of the nuclear weapons. No society is eternally stable. I would like Germany to have four nuclear submarines, or some equivalent. And more international cooperation. Brexit does not help. Finally, I would agree that the global security situation is the worst it has been since at least the end of the Cold War.

  • Are you saying the UK needs a nuclear deterrent to target China?

    How do you maintain a submarine on a station where it can target China with a 3 sub fleet (it would be hard to do with a 4 sub-fleet as you’d really need to be in the Indian or Pacific oceans unless you wanted to fire missiles “over” Russia – which is probably not the wisest of moves!)

  • Nom de Plume 24th Aug ’16 – 3:48pm……….Obama, in my opinion, has been one of the better US presidents…..

    In my opinion Obama has been one of the worst US presidents…Bush, at least, had the excuse of being almost 40 years removed from Vietnam but, with the debacle of Iraq so fresh in our minds, trying the same thing (regime change) in Libya/Syria and expecting a different outcome was lunacy…
    Sadly, Cameron was no more able to resist the myth of a ‘Special Relationship’ than was Blair…

  • When he ends his double term in a few months’ Obama will have achieved a remarkable first in US history by becoming the only president ever to have been at war throughout his time in office. Moreover, all his wars are wars of choice, not of defence and this has been when we were supposed to be enjoying a ‘peace dividend’ following the end of the cold war.

    Even more remarkably, although all recent US opponents have been third rate powers (Saddam Hussain) or guerrillas (the rest) and the US ‘defence’ budget accounts for getting on for half of total global arms spending it has lost/is losing all the wars it has fought back to and including Vietnam.

    So what is really going on?

    I submit that there is only one credible explanation – that the point of this endless war is not winning but profit. Wars are always immensely profitable for some, particularly bankers and arms manufacturers.

    This is exactly what President Eisenhower warned about when talking of the danger of the ‘military-industrial complex’ (MIC): “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

    Tragically, that is exactly what has happened. The US political system is highly exposed to lobbying because of candidates absolute need for heavyweight funds to win elections. So, they must look after their funders no matter what with voters only a very secondary consideration and then only if their needs don’t conflict with the lobbyists’ aims.

    So – endless war against external enemies for profit but also, against internal constraints like democratic processes (just as Eisenhower warned) and the constitution which might interfere with the cash flow to arms, all in the name of “war on terror”.

  • I must agree with expats that Obama has been a terrible president. It’s not just the endless wars (see above) or the way he, a constitutional lawyer, has driven a coach and horses through the constitution but who he has governed for – which is the 1%.

    Consider his Obamacare health policy. It was promised that it would reduce health costs but actually they’re soaring. Next year’s premium increases are set to be 20% or more, perhaps not surprising given the law was written primarily by an insurance company lobbyist.

    Overwhelming majorities favour the so-called “public option” but it was Obama that refused to support it (although he tries to blame the republicans).

  • Nom de Plume 25th Aug '16 - 12:39pm

    Criticism accepted. I am not an expert on US domestic politics. The point I was trying to make was that he did not start any wars. Support for the France/UK bombing of Libya excepted. I was thinking of George Bush when I wrote that sentence. He has been relatively reluctant. Played a constructive role in the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons. Much more bombing of the Middle East could have been possible.

  • Nom de Plume 25th Aug '16 - 1:52pm

    Having read a bit more, I modify my previous statement. Libya was a NATO failure, with only Germany calling it correctly. UNSC resolution 1973 was used as an excuse to bomb.

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