Labour’s defence policy review: responsibilities beyond our borders

by Jim Murphy

Yesterday the shadow defence team launched Labour’s defence policy review with five specific areas of work. Dramatic events around the world and the deployment of UK armed forces make this an important time for debate on defence policy.

For the country, it is a moment to decide on the nature of our involvement in causes beyond our borders in our national interest or for humanitarian ends. For the Conservatives, following the exposure of a weak, narrow foreign policy and a rushed, widely criticised defence review, it is a moment to reflect on whether they remain the natural home of the forces. For the Left it is a moment to decide whether we are bound by the legacies of Iraq or whether we can learn the right lessons and now help shape defence policy around our values.

We all know that the security landscape is fast changing with a myriad of fresh and well-established challenges. The most immediate is Libya. The UK government was right to take the action it did. As internationalists we had both the responsibility and the opportunity to help enforce international law and save innocents from slaughter and have therefore backed the UN decision. But in doing so we will keep asking the questions the country wants answered.

The bravery of the Libyan opposition is not in doubt. What are unclear are their long-term motives. It is crucial that we better understand who they are and their wider ambitions so we can begin to envisage the post-conflict peace. This is vital in light of their reportedly having a “flicker” of Al Qaeda among their ranks.

It was important that there was support from the arab league for establishing the no-fly zone, but regional partners now need to also play a significant role in diplomatic efforts to determine Libya’s long-term political future, which is why yesterday’s conference was so welcome.

In Afghanistan, we face a similar challenge to foster political reconciliation and sustainable stability in a nation with shallow democratic roots. Afghanistan remains a vital operation in the interests of national security, but we have to be clear about how we are getting out. There are, I believe, five areas central to achieving this: the legitimacy of the government; overcoming fear and enforcing the rule of law; understanding and overcoming grievance by tackling social and economic failure; establishing alternatives to the poppy trade; and an internal and external political settlement.

These major challenges for defence policy sit alongside emerging threats. Globalisation is diffusing power amongst many different actors. The growing global population and the threat of climate change will exacerbate the drivers of state failure. The advance of information technologies and biotechnologies threatens international security infrastructure, while nuclear proliferation and cyber attack pose potential for mass destruction. These trends will drive state-on-state conflict but also internal conflicts between peoples.

And there is a critical new threat to global security that has been proven through events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya: the internal oppression of people. Many of those nations which suppress the rights of their people to take advantage of civil society, free markets, democratic expression or the rule of law can no longer be considered stable nation states. The denial of democracy has been exposed as unsustainable and the drive for self determination has shown itself to be more powerful than the clasp of autocratic control.

In today’s interdependent world these risks are increasingly shared and interconnected, and therefore the solutions must be too. As I outlined yesterday, that demands of us a new multilateralism in defence.

That means forming new defence partnerships, strengthening multilateral institutions and a new approach to conflict resolution through regional political reconciliation, such as that which is so important in Libya and Afghanistan.

But while conflicts will be inter-state, they will also be intra-state and new multilateral engagement between states will therefore only succeed if coupled with a parallel process between states and citizens and greater internal democratic reform. Part of that project requires better co-ordination of defence and development, recasting our notion of intervention so that it is about building capacity. And not in a way that leaves Western-created administrations dependent on overseas aid, but by enabling effective national and local governance, frameworks for civil justice, the functioning rule of law and a legitimate civil police.

This outlook for defence is threatened by wider attitudes to defence policy and what I have previously termed a “state of ambivalence”, in which the legacies of Iraq and Afghanistan mean the notion of acting upon responsibilities beyond our borders is permanently unpopular and will lead the UK to believe in core values but be less prepared to stand up for them. This has not been the case in Libya, but public opinion is split and we must continually make the case for a proactive defence policy.

Labour’s policy reviews will aim to be part of the answer to these challenges. Russell Brown will examine the future security landscape to identify the threats of the future.  Kevan Jones will look at the future force structure and how we can configure our services to ensure the UK is best equipped to project force overseas. Michael Dugher will look at defence procurement, key to ensuring a strong defence industry supports our national security needs and that the equipment programme is to time and budget. Gemma Doyle will look at how we support our forces and their families. I will work with each of the team on their areas and also look at international defence institutions and whether their decision-making processes can be improved.

The lesson of recent weeks is that you cannot duck out of global events and that national interests transcend national borders. That demands an essential internationalism, which starts with the right domestic industrial, welfare, equipment and structural policies to support our unsurpassed Forces, enabling them to promote and protect our values and interests around the world.

Jim Murphy is Labour MP for Eastwood and shadow secretary of state for defence.


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One Response to “Labour’s defence policy review: responsibilities beyond our borders”

  1. Thanks for this post. I enjoyed reading this (I’m an American who is obsessed with British politics) mainly because of our two nation’s shared commitment in both Afghanistan and Libya. I’m a lurker here but I thought I’d post because (1) this peice was both relevant and interesting and (2) you’re one of my favorite British politicians. I think you have a lot of good ideas and some good insights. Your position on Libya has been the closet to President Obama’s. And I have to say that while I don’t agree with the Bush-Blair Doctrine, I do agree with the Obama-Jim Murphy Doctrine.

    I wholeheartedly support the intervention in Libya (I was not a supporter of the Iraq War, it was a mistake). I think there are two reasons why public opinion is split in the UK and why there is far less public support for the intervention in Libya in the U.S. than there has been for other conflicts. The first reason is that Iraq has created a great deal of skepticism in foreign military interventions, especially in the Middle East. People see superficial similarities between Libya and Iraq and get queasy about it. The second reason for opposition is that people look at a conflict in a far away land, look at domestic problems at home, and say “why are we getting involved in another conflict and spending our tax dollar on this?”

    I think you (and Obama) are right to point out that (1) this situation, however distant it may appear, is in fact our problem, (2) it’s legitimate to intervene to prevent the slaughter of civilians, and (3) the intervention in Libya is not being carried out in the same way or for the same reasons as Iraq. When you have an imminent threat to a civilian population and/or imminent threat of genocide, there is a legitimate reason to intervene. From just a humanitarian perspective, we were right to intervene. It costs a lot of money but so do a lot of things that are neccessary. When it comes to democracy in the Middle East, I agree with Congresswoman Maxine Waters that you can’t tell people to be democratic and impose democracy on them (that’s kinda the antithesis of western values). But I’ve always felt that the converse is true too. If people demonstrate they want democracy and are forced into fighting against a repressive authoritarian regime, they could be helped. I think the Libyan rebels meet this definition.

    It is important for longterm global stability to have successful democracies in the Middle East. Democracies tend to get along and rarely fight wars against one another. Britain and France are the prime example (once bitter warring rivals for centuries during times of monarchy, now close allies). It’s not surprising that after the Great Land Reform Act of 1832 (as well as successive reforms that made the UK more democratic), relations between the UK and the U.S. transformed from one of hostility and suspicion into great friendship and unshakeable alliance. Successful democracies in the Middle East have the potential to act in the same way. We can’t impose them or create them ourselves (it’s much better when Thomas Paine and John Locke are translated into Arabic or Farsi and are accessible on the internet) but we can do what we can to support and encourage them.

    Afghanistan is another can of worms but I appreciate reading your insights and your suggestions. It’s nice to get different perspectives. Hopefully when you’re back in power and are the Defense Secretary, you’ll be able to help bring a successful solution to the table.

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