National Security Strategy – or selling British business

Beyond sharing the ‘age of uncertainty’ title, the UK’s new national security strategy overlaps considerably with the Chatham House report on British foreign policy that Alex and I published just after the election.

The Cameron/Clegg introduction is based on the same understanding of global challenges as set out in the first chapter of our report. The strategy is based on a risk management approach (good) and a wish to build resilience (even better – the Conservatives were exploring resilience as a theme during their time in opposition).

But where we diverge from the government is in the proposed response. Like the government, Alex and I are interested in countering direct immediate and direct threats to British citizens (the core national security agenda). We are also keen to support the weak links in the global system – fragile and failing states (the core development agenda).

But our third area of strategic focus centres on an attempt to persuade others that urgent efforts are needed to rebuild the global system itself – rather than to try and wait out globalization’s ‘long crisis’. For us, this is the heart of modern foreign policy.

Although the NSS talks a good game about preventing risks before they hit the UK, it does little to flesh out what it means by ‘shaping the global environment’ to manage risks. And the FCO seems to be fast losing interest in this agenda. Instead, we are promised that foreign policy can be turned into a money-earner and that “the [overseas] networks we use to build our prosperity we will also use to build our security.”

The implications of this commercial focus aren’t spelled out in the strategy, but what it means in practice is that Embassies are going to be judged increasingly by the time they spend trying to win contracts for British businesses. My reaction to this prospect is visceral (lots of swearing and Basil Fawlty-style leaping around). Here, though, are some more measured objections:

  1. I don’t think it works – big business has sophisticated networks overseas and there are many private sector providers of risk and political analysis. Why on earth would the Ambassador be decisive in sealing the deal – let alone one of his lesser minions? And if our Ambassadors are such commercial whizzes, why on earth wouldn’t businesses want to pay for their services (or for that matter, poach them from their poorly paid jobs)?
  2. It’s an essentially zero-sum activity – pitting the UK against its allies precisely in those parts of the world where we need to forge a common cause. Partnership gets fairly short shrift in the NSS – but the UK’s most pressing problems will only be solved through collective action. Try and wish that away if you like, but it’s a cold, hard fact.
  3. Business objectives will always clash with other more important goals. Business lobbies trump free trade agreements, financial regulation, climate deals, tough lines on corrupt states etc. As we have seen, many boards would happily screw the global economy if it meant meeting the next quarter’s targets. Thatcher did sterling work getting the state out of business. Some day we need a PM with the guts to prise business out of the state.
  4. Scandal is inevitable. The NSS can talk about British values as much as it likes, but, soon enough, politicians and officials will start to cross ethical lines. Before you know it, the Conservatives will have another Arms to Iraq on their hands – or be embroiled in a BAE-style mess. Try telling us that ‘our core values are not open to question’ then.

I expect the commercial focus will prove to be a fad – to be swept away when the next big international shock hits our shores. But the diversion is damaging, because it has stopped the coalition getting serious about global issues. And that, I predict, will prove to be a big mistake…