Our army and our aid workers are both essential to the UK’s security
Heads of state from Europe and North America are gathering in Brussels for the NATO summit. With increased threats from Russia and cyber terrorism, ongoing conflicts on Europe’s periphery, and mounting tensions between founding members of the alliance, this is a crucial moment for an organisation that has protected us for over 50 years.
In the UK, where public spending is under pressure and under scrutiny, the summit has prompted some to call on the Government to cut development spending in order to fund defence. At first glance this looks attractive. Those in favour argue it will help to shore up strained relations with the US, give our armed forces better equipment, and protect us at home in an increasingly dangerous world.
Unfortunately, it is not that simple. I agree with many of those arguing for more defence funding: security of the nation should be the first priority for government. Britain has a great tradition of defence and is rightly proud of its armed forces. And we can do nothing unless we can protect our citizens, our laws, our peace and our democracy. Having come from a family which has served in our armed forces for generations, I want to ensure that people who serve this country have the resources that they need.
However, the threats Britain faces today are multidimensional. They come from state and non-state actors, from strong, belligerent aggressors intent on doing us harm, and from weak, fragile, and failed states whose destabilisation incubates terrorism and conflict, destroys economies, and forces people to flee their homes and migrate across borders.
We also face threats that recognise no geographic boundaries: terrorist cells, online hackers, and epidemics like Ebola, Zika, and MERS that can strike unannounced at any moment.
Meeting these threats requires a combination of hard and soft power: a strong and well-resourced military, an effective diplomatic and intelligence service, and the strategic use of development assistance to treat problems at source. Development and defence have been set up as rivals, but in fact they are two sides of the same coin. If we want to keep ourselves safe from the increasing array of global challenges, and maintain the UK’s role in the world as we leave the EU, then we can and must fund both defence and development.
When spent well, aid allows us to tackle problems before they escalate into crises that require military interventions. General Sir Peter Wall, the former head of the Army, was absolutely right when he said, earlier this year:
“Whether dealing with migration crises, conflict over natural resources, or pandemics, aid can be a truly strategic asset, augmenting and sometimes avoiding the need for hard power… we should not think of hard and soft power as competing for resources, but as complementary tools to help promote a more stable, secure and prosperous world.”
It is precisely because I agree with this view that I disagree with recent military voices arguing that we should cut the aid budget to fund defence.
I saw strategic UK Government spending in action when I visited Lebanon on the border of Syria last year. There I met with British army officers training Lebanese troops to fight Isis and also learnt how overseas development assistance is being provided to the British Policing Support Programme to improve key capabilities and analysis to police in Beirut.
This is exactly the type of smart development spending that supports our security strategy. It is also extremely cost-effective. As General Paul Selva, the US’s second highest-ranking military leader, said last month:
“…dollar for dollar… diplomacy and development… are immensely more effective than having to deploy soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines to a crisis where we have to fix a problem.”
As the NATO summit begins, and ahead of the spending review next year, the key question for the Government is how to ensure our foreign policy budgets support each other. The Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence often operate in the same parts of the world, tackling many of the same problems, with the same long term objectives. But they don’t always work well together.
To her credit, since she became Development Secretary, Penny Mordaunt has advocated tearing down those Whitehall silos, and working on a joined-up strategy to protect and promote Britain’s interests abroad. She is absolutely right to do so. As we redefine our international role post-Brexit, now more that ever we need to be clear about Britain’s place in the world and the values we espouse. And as we navigate a world of mass migration, deadly pandemics, cyber-terrorism and extremism, we need to have more than just weapons at our disposal.
If you really believe that security is the Government’s first primary commitment to its citizens, then instead of having a Whitehall turf war let’s use the Brussels summit to talk about how we will use all the budgets at our disposal to project our values and promote our interests. Ensuring freedom, security and prosperity is a big job. Let’s make sure that our army and aid workers can both do their bit.