Sunday, April 08, 2007

John Nott

Gracchi is very impressed by John Nott but I'm not so sure. His position on Afghanistan seems to be "hasn't gone well in the past". He argues that the Russians failed, but they were fighting a far more united body of the Afghan population. He argues Britain failed but it was both facing a united Afghanistan and had none of the logistical capabilities of a modern army. All of Nott's logic relies upon the Afghans necessarily rallying to defeat the foreigners. That may happen in the future but is not happening now and assuming it necessarily will is facile.

Things are hard in Afghanistan. To generalise: things went well initially, poorly last year thanks to poor planning, a shortage of troops and a lack of proper pressure for improvement in Pakistan's border region. This year we have more troops and more resources in general. We face a great many challenges and if we get things wrong and, in particular, if a shortage of troops forces us to do too much harm to civilians things could go badly wrong. However, apart from a bizarre historical determinism there is no reason to think that a positive outcome in Afghanistan is impossible.

His opinions on other issues were equally confused. He seemed to want us to retreat from a global role but also wanted more soldiers (in case the French invade?). A retreat from a global, power projection role is a big issue that I won't address comprehensively right now but his argument for it was unconvincing. He argued that the Americans were the only ones capable of playing the 'global policeman' role.

That implies that we can't replace America, that we will usually be acting with the US. It doesn't imply any diminishment of our global role which has been based on acting as an ally of the US for quite some time. Assuming that as the US has carriers ours are useless would also imply that as America has soldiers we needed none of those. To combine his position on the carriers with a desire to keep Trident is utterly contradictory. The question is whether additional carriers are useful to the US-British alliance. Given how central carrier-based firepower has been to recent deployments abroad it seems pretty clear that additional carriers could be helpful. Whether they are more helpful than alternative ways of spending the money is a matter that requires detailed enquiry Nott does not undertake.

He argues that we should prioritise our own local security services. This implies free-riding off the US in terms of global stability. This is a coherent position although morally and, in the long term, practically a bad idea. Given that Nott was an ardent Cold Warrior, he should look to that conflict and why we made the decision not to free-ride then.

I should finally note on the carriers that last time Nott argued for getting rid of our naval power, and carriers, the Falklands were invaded. As he thinks our victory in the Falklands was a great triumph surely he should be admitting that naval power has at least some important uses to us still.


Vino S said...

I am not sure the situation in Afghanistan is wholly different now from the 1980s - in terms of Afghan support for the foreign forces stationed there. I think lots of Pashtuns, in particular, are probably not very keen on the Khazi government - given that it overthrew the Talbian - a group whose power rested on that of Pashtun chieftains.

Also, I am not sure what the national minorities in Northern Afghanistan feel about the new Kabul government. Perhaps they still feel as neglected as they always have done.

The key difference, to my mind, is that - unlike in the 1980s - there is not a superpower supporting those trying to bring down the government (as the US did when the Soviets invaded) and Pakistan is favourably inclined to the government - which of course it wasn't to the communists.

Gracchi said...

Possibly I just enjoyed the interview- on the navy I can see what he means though- we don't seem to have a very clear idea of our global role and if the question of the carriers is solely abotu the Falklands, could there be less costly ways of defending them, for example setting a large enough number of troops on there to deter the Argentinians or even paying someone else to protect them for us, like the New Zealanders do with their navy. It struck me that Knott was at least thinking about the real issues- and he wasn't maintaining the imperial image, the kind of interventions which we have been involved in and the pretence that we are a great power. He seemed ot me to have digested Suez rather than the Falklands and in my opinion, Suez is much more similar to most situations in international politics than the Falklands.

Matthew Sinclair said...

Why is our status as a great power a pretence? Even if you just stick to plain numbers we're one of the largest economies in the world etc.

It really saddens me that those arguing we should choose not to be a great power always argue in terms of "we can't be" rather than "we shouldn't be". Of course we can be. We're a rich country with a relatively disciplined and effective military and fine alliances. Addressing the question of whether we should be is harder but more important.

Gracchi said...

I suppose there are a couple of thoughts germaine to that- firstly that our relative economic power is bound to decline- with India and China emerging on to the world stage, many South American countries coming up as well economically it can't be long say before we see ourselves in the top twenty economies in terms of size instead of the top ten. Secondly running on from that there is the issue of our aging population- so that we face demographic long term issues- whereas say India's population will continue to rise in the next century ours will fall.

There is more though in the sense that we are no longer an imperial power able to project all over the world- we are able to do things in very small places the Falklands or Sierra Leone but we couldn't say invade and hold Syria. Our main defence tasks seem to be supplemental either in the terms of the NATO alliance or the defence of these islands and possibly Europe (especially with the rising tensions between Russia and the EU say over gas that may emerge over the next twenty years). The next twenty years therefore will almost certainly see a reduction in our relative economic size and quite possibly instability in regions like North Africa and the CIS close to us- I would therefore argue that like Nott spending on Aircraft carriers which are designed to project power into farflung regions might not be a sensible use of spending power given our inevitably reduced circumstances.

Matthew Sinclair said...

In terms of GDP. We'll still be within the top ten for a while. We're still in the top five right now after all.

On demographics India and China both actually have rapidly slowing demographics (the difference isn't that large despite the One Child policy). They'll have a lot more people than us but when has that not been the case? While we could be weakened relatively that doesn't have to be critical.

I don't think our fighting as part of alliances is really new. It was the case in both world wars, the napoleonic wars and most earlier major conflicts. Even the US rarely goes to war without any allies. Certainly not against powers of any substance. Why does needing allies make power projection worthless?