(Mostly) Not Empty or Futile – the European Parliament calls for an embargo

With the news that the European Parliament has voted to back an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia following widespread allegations of IHL violations in its war in Yemen, even more pressure is being put, in particular, on the UK’s seemingly untenable military relationship with Riyadh.

The vote was celebrated by groups such as the Campaign Against Arms Trade, who are obviously long-standing critics of UK arms export policy, and particularly British support for the Saudi war. It seems to point towards a long over-due change in policy.

However, as past experience has shown, it takes a lot to get governments to seriously consider the ethical implications of their arms export licensing decisions. In this post, which I’ve been considering so long I had assumed events would have overtaken me by now (which says it all), I’ll try and assess the likely impact of the vote.

The text adopted on Thursday is long and written in that strange voice that only two years of MUN could adequately have prepared me for. In amongst the expressions of grave concern and the reminders and stressings to all parties in the conflict, this is the key paragraph:

7. Calls on the VP/HR to launch an initiative aimed at imposing an EU arms embargo against Saudi Arabia, given the serious allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia in Yemen and the fact that the continued licensing of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia would therefore be in breach of Council Common Position 2008/944/CFSP of 8 December 2008

Looking at the actual language here, two things are striking. As imposing an EU-wide arms embargo is not one of the Parliament’s competencies (not 100% certain, but I believe that’s up to the Commission), the action language is very weak – they’re “calling for […]an initiative[…]aimed at” an arms embargo, which sounds like at least two layers of processes. On the other hand, that second clause is strong. There is no hedging around the rights or wrongs of continued sales to the Saudis. Rightly so! The Council Common Position referred to, available here, contains eight criteria by which member states should assess arms export licence applications. By my count, Saudi Arabia definitely doesn’t satisfy Two, Four or Six (it probably passes the rest, tenuously).

This is significant. Weasel words and obfuscation are generally the weapon of choice for governments who want to license arms exports to war criminals – ‘if evidence, clear evidence, is shown of these allegations, we would re-evaluate our positon’. Clear language like this is useful.

Useful, but limited. Again, this resolution has no legal force. Even if it did, it is hard to be optimistic about a change in policy. After all, British arms exports to Saudi Arabia have always been extremely sketchy under British law, even more so since the beginning of the war in Yemen. One of the foreign policy goals of the first Blair government was getting an “ethical arms export criteria” into law – this became the Export Control Act of 2002. The popular phrase used by policy-makers from Robin Cook through to Sajid Javid is that weapons would not be licensed where there “is a clear risk that it could be used for external aggression or internal oppression”. This includes provisions on respect for the laws of armed conflict, adverse effects on peace, security or stability, and breaches of human rights. By any reasonable standard, there is not just a “risk” that British weapons are being used in ways that don’t meet these criteria, it is arguably a matter of fact. So there should have been, at the very least, a pause in exports weeks ago.

It’s kind of spectacular, then, that at the same time as this resolution was being voted on, Prime Minister Cameron appeared at a BAE Systems factory to celebrate their work, particularly in selling to Saudi Arabia! When I was writing my dissertation, I thrived on these anecdotes that showed the futility of it all. From the MP who seemed to suffer a minor breakdown in defence of Saudi Arabia, to the shameless support of a policy that has already caused so much suffering, these are not the actions of a government wary of being forced into a change of policy. The government has continued to license exports to Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the war, including an urgent transfer of precision-guided munitions intended for the RAF.

That’s not to say this was empty or futile. The fact that Riyadh lobbied against the vote suggests they feel affected by it somehow, if only in terms of image. This (slightly fatuous) Vox piece compares the decision to U.S. policy as a critique. These aren’t negligible impacts, but they’re not likely to amount to much, unfortunately.



if you think this was bleak, try spending two and a half years writing a dissertation on it

The War That Wasn’t


Of the many distortions and falsehoods that comprise ‘debate’ over Syria in the British press, I think the one that comes up most is the 2013 Commons vote on launching punitive airstrikes on Assad following his illegal use of chemical weapons. As apparently no-one remembers, when Assad crossed Obama’s ‘red line’ on using chemical weapons on civilians, there was a Franco-British-US rush to an ill-defined war. There were no objectives or long-term plans to this, it was a really strangely incoherent plan. It wasn’t a no-fly zone, or a full-on humanitarian intervention, it seemed to literally just consist of chucking some missiles at some command centres and chemical weapons facilities to chastise Assad for being a knob (which, tbf).

Ed Miliband, bless his soul, dared to demand some clarification on this plan. NB: he didn’t at the time oppose striking Assad [not gonna lie, lads, I’ve had to Google this bit because I’m a bit shaky on the details. So this post is immediately going to be 2x as factually based as anything on Comment is Free]. As it became clear that there was no support for this bad plan, even Tory MPs started rebelling, and Cameron lost the vote, leading him to rule out military action against Syria.

Summed up quite ably here, tbh:

This has since been recharacterised in the most dramatic and apocalyptic terms possible (including, to his discredit, by Miliband himself – “facing down the leader of the free world” indeed, Ed). It has become the marker of Britain’s retreat from the world stage, evidence of Miliband’s fundamental unseriousness, and a just sort of general decision by the UK to condemn the people of Syria to their fate.

More than that – it was a Chamberlain moment. As the Ukraine crisis kicked off, apparently-not-stupid man Sajid Javid* argued it was this vote that emboldened Putin to invade Ukraine. And so, gradually, the significance of this vote escalated to the point that now it can be used as shorthand for whatever the author wants it to.

I just re-read the article that really set off this rant and I’m fuming again.

Apparently-lucid-political-commentator Matthew D’Ancona thinks this is a good paragraph:


It isn’t.

In order to keep this slightly unhinged rant of a post on-track, I’ll ignore most of it, as it’s all speculative, baseless drivel of the sort that apparently you get paid for if you once edited The Spectator.

That first sentence though. I’ll refer us to past-me for this one:

It’s breath-taking. For a ‘faction’ that is so relentlessly keen to proclaim its readiness to face reality and take tough decisions they seem consistently delusional.

To be plain.

This was not Iraq (for all the British press’ tedious desperation to make everything about Iraq). This was not even Libya. The goals of whatever operation had been planned in the summer of 2013 were not about “levelling the playing field”, or “getting Assad to the negotiating table”.

They were a lot more limited, and a lot less coherent. Counterfactuals are obviously a mug’s game but I think you have to stretch yourself into some really shaky mission-creep arguments to try and claim that the operation being proposed in the summer of 2013 would have led to any substantial improvement in the situation in Syria**.

So it probably didn’t matter that much in the grand scheme. I know writing is hard*** and that Syria is really complicated and really depressing but can we just… let go of this particular form of shorthand.

It’s bad.

More on this sort of thing to follow, I think.



*I was talking about this with a friend the other day – it is a bit baffling that such an apparently brilliant and successful bloke says such stupid shit

**there’s also the sort of still-inconclusive fate of the OPCW deal that in theory deprived Assad of all his chemical weapons. For a while that looked like a real triumph of diplomacy, but there’s consistent reports of chemical attacks in Syria, though I’ve read that they are using cruder and less lethal toxins as the worst stuff was dismantled. So there’s that too.

***this post has taken me about five tins of Stella, four hours, three rewrites, two listens to Sia’s album and one very patient [redacted], so I know all about how difficult writing is tbh

Punching Above Our Weight?

Often, complaints and worries about the United Kingdom’s diminished military role in world affairs seem a bit of a stretch. This is, after all, a P5 state, one of a handful of nuclear powers, with the fifth-largest defence budget in the world. Other times, however, you begin to think the delusions stretch to the top.

image from the Guardian

image from the Guardian

Sending eight fighter jets, a handful of spy planes, and a couple of hundred trainers to Iraq is many things. According to Dave, it makes the UK the second-largest contributor to the war on ISIS.  What it probably isn’t, however, is an effort on par with one of the most pivotal air wars in history, a moment where the UK faced a literal existential threat. Comparing the war on ISIS, Operation Shader, to the actual Battle of Britain would be absurd. It would sound like a desperate attempt to clothe today’s conflicts in uncontroversial past glories to shield them from criticism. An actual government minister wouldn’t make that comparison.

“Today, with more warnings of threats to our citizens in Tunisia following the horrific events of two weeks ago, I believe we’re fighting a new Battle of Britain.

Once again, against a fascist enemy, an enemy prepared to kill enemies and opponents alike, our RAF are again spearheading our defence in the counter attack targeting the terror menace in Iraq. Flying missions and launching strikes day and night, using precision weapons including Brimstone for surgical strikes.”

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, 16/07/2015


So look, this is kind of very transparent. The coalition strategy in Iraq and Syria is not working as spectacularly as we might have wanted. The USA, which is doing the most, is facing calls to do more, bomb more, send more troops. These calls, as predictable as they are, are at least based on some sort of reality – the USA probably could (but shouldn’t) do loads more, which is just one of the benefits of spending 40% of the world’s entire military budget. Even if this nebulous “do more” weren’t a bit of a non-starter, it isn’t enormously clear how much more the UK could be doing with its limited power projection capacity.

Faced with the awful attack in Tunisia, the need to be seen to be doing more is understandable. Absent this possibility, absurd rhetorical escalation is… also good? Like if pretending we are fighting WW2 again does enough, electorally, to obviate the need for racist and ill-thought out counter-terrorism initiatives then that’d be good, right? Oh.

The only obvious immediate step to take would be authorising the UK to officially join strikes across the Syrian border1 (such at it is). That wouldn’t have much effect but sure. We aren’t doing much, and we’re not likely to do much more, and we probably shouldn’t. Fine.

What I’d like to look at it2 is where this constant demand for us to do more comes from.

As I pointed out earlier, the UK claims to be the second-largest contributor to the war on ISIS. The Defence Select Committee, in its call for us to do more, disagrees:

The Secretary of State for the Defence has insisted that the UK operations in Iraq are ‘major’. The Prime Minister implied that the UK contribution was second only to that of the US:


But, in reality, the UK contribution so far has been—in comparison to actions taken between 2003-06 and even in relation to other coalition partners—surprisingly modest.

The situation in Iraq and Syria and the response to al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq al-Sham (DAESH)

Numbers are difficult to find, as the UK government announces data weirdly and periodically, but it is very worth noting that the Select Committee cites the Defence Secretary in early December

“In the House on Monday 12 December, the Defence Secretary announced that only 99 air strikes had been carried out since the UK started flying missions.”

Meanwhile, from the French, probably our closest peer in terms of size and capability:

“In total, then, as of the 1st of July 2015, French aviation carried out 964 sorties over Iraq, and made 162 strikes.3

I’m no mathematician, but the numbers here don’t really suggest what the Select Committee imply. The French and British air-strikes started fairly concurrently, across about a week in late September. That leaves the French having conducted about 15-20 a month since September. If in December, after two and a half months, the British had carried out 99, that’s closer to 30 a month. Since then, the Ministry of Defence website appears to indicate about one strike every other day, although some of those entries include more than one mission.

Regardless, if we’re doing similar amounts to France, a country that, depending on who you ask, spends more or less the same as us on defence4 then is there a problem here? Beating the French is a noble pastime if you’re a Top Gear presenter, but unless you want us to compete with the global hegemon in military capacity, which would be silly…

It is, I think, telling, that this was basically the essential justification for the above criticism by the Defence Select Committee:

“This amounted to fewer than one a day. Six days prior, US CENTCOM (which is coordinating strikes) announced that 1,676 strikes have been carried out, meaning that the UK is responsible for just 6% of the strikes carried out so far.”

Basically, “punching above our weight” is a silly ambition. We seem to be punching about as hard as we should be, and that should do. We aren’t going to be able to go toe-to-toe in terms of strike tempo with the US Air Force any time soon because of course we aren’t.


Technically there should be another three paragraphs here to make this a more convincing argument but I’ve already gone over a thousand words and I want to play some Civ 5. x


1 state of this outcry over the embedded pilots taking part in US missions against ISIS as if a) the border means anything b) we aren’t already bombing them elsewhere c) those pilots are anything other than exchange students. and also I’ve just gotten annoyed about the continued misinterpretation of the 2013 Commons vote on airstrikes on Syria again.

2 talk about burying the lede

« Au total, donc, au 1er juillet 2015, l’aviation française a effectué 964 sorties au-dessus de l’Irak et procédé à 162 frappes »

4 and gets a lot more for it, see my previous work, and also see the fact that the French are conducting missions against ISIS from an actual aircraft carrier

Put BAE in the bin


A very interesting article showed up in The Telegraph last Monday. Headlined “Break up the RAF and stop buying British”, it seems like an article that the sub-editors have sexed up2 but it actually follows through. It’s worth reading, so I’ll give you a few seconds.

As I write this, I’ve started to see some flaws which I’m sure, if they’re reading, the more military-minded of my readers will be able to pick apart 3 4.

But basically, it’s good. I wrote about several of the issues he raises during my time with NATO Council – the F-35 here, the aircraft carrier here, the troop number cuts here, and the impact of all the cuts on the fight against ISIS here.

here’s a picture of some BAE products from the Daily Mail

What had somewhat eluded me was the overall impact of all this.

Perhaps because I’m so on the fence about all this I had only seen the opposing positions of the left (the UK military budget is too big and needs further cuts) and the right (the British military is too small and needs a bigger budget), missing the actual disconnect between budget and capability that renders both positions almost moot.  Solving the problems identified in this article would probably enough to satisfy both sides, which sort of points to how major the problems are.

The arguments in this piece undermine some of the key defences of government support for the arms industry. This is generally either legitimised through its provision of industrial jobs or, in the case of export support, through the fact that exporting weapons helps keep costs down for domestic procurement, giving the armed forces security of supply. As Page points out – BAE is cutting jobs all the time, and as the Campaign Against [the] Arms Trade shows every few years, for every British job created by the arms trade, the government gives thousands of pounds in subsidies. Meanwhile, even with this support and subsidy, military procurement is still obscenely expensive, and still isn’t independent. The complex web of beneficial side-effects used to justify government policy collapses entirely and an overhaul seems like a no-brainer.

It isn’t going to happen though.

There are fairly dispiriting but obvious reasons for this. They don’t even all require buckets of cynicism to accept.

For one thing, the arms industry is corrupt as hell, both overtly and also in terms of the general dodgy practices that keep big business big. They’d presumably fight quite hard to keep afloat.

For another, this is the sort of radical change that requires some concerted effort behind it to actually get anywhere. Insofar as corporate power is likely to be opposed, that leaves the people. In terms of being better protected, having our taxes better spent, less of our fellow citizens killed for lack of equipment, etc. etc., “we the people” would benefit from this sort of change. Unfortunately, it’s your classic collective action problem – the minority who stand to lose from this proposal would lose a lot, while the majority who would gain would only gain a little, and as I wrote in what feels like eight very boring essays this term, those are difficult to overcome 5.

The bright side, though.

When placed under scrutiny for its fuckery, the arms industry and its advocates point to hard-nosed self-interest. First time I’ve done this, but from my dissertation:

“On one occasion, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, when questioned about Britain selling arms to the “murderous dictator” Suharto (HC Deb 12 January 1993 vol. 216 c749), outright stated: “The point of selling Hawk aircraft to Indonesia is to give jobs to people in this country” (HC Deb 12 January 1993 vol. 216 c749). This quote highlights two things – first, that the primary motivation expressed by policy-makers for the Hawk sale to Indonesia was economic […] The second is that the economic argument was used as a direct response to criticism of the human rights implications of the sale.”

Researching this was an infuriating process because where the government could, they would outright deny, in the face of all evidence, that British weapons were used in human rights violations 6. Where this was impossible, they’d do it anyway, and obfuscate a bit (see also: the coalition waiting until Israel was basically done bombing Gaza to threaten sanctions if they carried on, and then ignoring the fact that they carried on). Finally, if their backs were up to the wall, they’d yell “jobs!” and hide.

This was particularly infuriating, because, again, the non-moral arguments are just as bad as the moral ones. In fact, I reckon you could make better economic and strategic cases against government support for arms exports than any of the moral arguments that get made on a regular basis7.

Bright side is coming, I promise.

First – the CAAT’s latest campaign, Arms to Renewables (explained in catchy infographic form here) places a stronger emphasis on a) the economic arguments and b) the positive alternatives to the arms industry – instead of swords to ploughshares it’s APCs to solar panels or whatever. Not only is this set of arguments much stronger on their own merits, it also connects the CAAT to zeitgeisty campaigns like fossil fuel divestment.

Second – that the article which kicked this all off was written by a veteran and published in the Telegraph offers the possibility that anti-arms industry campaigns don’t necessarily have to be of the left and run by students and Owen Jones. Obviously, the CAAT is honourably anti-war, while Page and the Telegraph seem mostly concerned that the current system places constraints on our ability to solve policy problems with precise application of high explosives. They are unlikely to become bosom buddies. As I said earlier, however, solving the problems Page identifies goes some way to resolving both left and right’s issues with defence spending. There seems to be potential for the sort of non-partisan campaign that could create a broad coalition and ultimately produce some sort of Review of policy which would implement superficial change while leaving the rotten edifice largely intact.

Didn’t say it was going to be a proper bright side, did I?

1 among all this company’s many crimes, it’s ever-changing acronym over the past twenty years has to be up there – throughout my dissertation it went backwards and forwards from BAe to BAE to British Aerospace Systems. Evil.

2 admittedly a very limited and tedious definition of “sex” here

3 Robert Farley, who is excellent and makes similar arguments across the Atlantic, centres his case in Grounded (which I haven’t read, so pinch of salt) around both the inter-service redundancies and tensions caused by the air-force (similar to Page, here) but also the inherent limitations of independently-operated airpower to win wars. Page lacks this second component, and based on the force makeup he argues for (the Navy as a helicopter launch platform, the Army centring on air support, etc.) he doesn’t seem to believe in it, which surely has some implications for the coherence of his position

4 for one thing, the French don’t buy American and they seem to do all right

5 This has actually become my favourite explanation for Why Things Are Bad.

6 still a bit annoyed I didn’t get to use this quote from Mark Phythian’s The Politics of British Arms Sales Since 1964  in the final draft but it is gold: “The possibility of their being used in East Timor prompted MPs Bob Parry and Bernard Braine, and Lord Avebury, to write to the FCO. The FCO reply to parry stated that the vehicles ‘can only operate on roads and in reasonably dry, open country. Their usefulness in the jungle and difficult terrain of East Timor would therefore appear to be limited.’ This was a dubious assertion, as it was far from obvious that the vehicles could operate only on roads, and seemed to assume, in any case, that there were no roads in East Timor.”

7 the latest one seems to be that we should cancel billion-pound contracts with Saudi Arabia because of their cruelty in the case of Raif Badawi. While this is undoubtedly Bad, it is very hard for me to understand how a momentary interruption in Riyadh’s supply of fighter jets (momentary because Dassault and Boeing would obviously be there in a heartbeat to replace BAE) would do anything to help Saudi victims of human rights abuse. There’s a stronger case, admittedly, regarding the war in Yemen, which arguably places sales to Saudi Arabia in contravention of UK rules regarding not selling weapons “which might be used for internal repression or external aggression”.

Is the Pax Anglo-Saxonica worth defending?

Recently, expressing opinions, let alone writing them down, has felt like wading through mud. Given the absolute flood of bad, unfounded, wrong, nonsense opinions that is The Internet, one less take is not necessarily a bad thing. Still, if I want to become a white middle-aged male columnist paid absurd sums to write vacuously on topics I have no real expertise on in The Guardian, I need to get the practice in.

Naked aggregating wasn’t actually a particularly good way to do so, and while I do still occasionally reach for the “add to favourites” button on Pocket like it’s a missing limb, the reading list is ultimately an experiment I’ve moved on from*. I’m not ready to let go of the crutch of other people’s work to buttress my own though**, so I’m going to try something here. Here endeth the navel-gaze, which I’ve put in italics for you. Post begins now.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that an essay by a man who can get commissioned by both the leftish*** New Statesman and the (seemingly) broadly neo-con/liberal hawk American Interest magazines should have such an interestingly broad reach, but there you go. Dr. John Bew’s “Pax Anglo-Saxonica”, published in The American Interest in April 2015, is the rare essay on the special relationship, benevolent hegemony, and the liberal world order that a) doesn’t include a call to bomb a single country (explicitly) and b) might not entirely alienate The Left.

Bew argues that the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the USA is founded not simply on strategic interests so much as a shared set of norms and ideological assumptions, perhaps drawn from their shared sense of relative security:

“Wolfers argued that the distinguishing characteristic of Continental theorists was that they operated in the face of constant external threats to their national existence. Meanwhile, the Anglo-Americans had the advantage of relative security from foreign invasion; they were both islands of sorts. Theirs “was a philosophy of choice, then, which was bound to be ethical, over against a philosophy of necessity, in which forces beyond moral control were believed to prevail.””

The key is Bew’s articulation of the hypocrisy at the heart of what he calls “the higher realism”. Both the British Empire, and in turn, the USA, acted aggressively to maintain the status quo, defending it as a liberal, rules-based international order, “while failing to mention that those laws had been crafted in their image and in their interests.” Both powers created self-serving myths to set themselves apart from each other:

“The British myth is that the United Kingdom wielded a softer, more subtle form of power, replete with a more sophisticated diplomatic armory […] The American myth is that the British Empire of the 19 century represented something immeasurably different from the American Century that followed it.”

This account is helpful for understanding the past two centuries, and the continuities between British and American foreign policy, and like most of what I’ve seen of Dr. Bew’s work, it’s just generally quite interesting in that anecdote/reference-rich way good historians have****. What is, I find, more interesting, is the unspoken assumptions in this:

“the world today could still benefit from a Leviathan with a skin thick enough to bear the allegation of hypocrisy, all in the name of a higher realism. Alas, for that to work the Leviathan must believe in its own benign nature, however self-serving that may be. Too much humility and not enough ethical egoism, it turns out, is not good for international security.”

And it is, of course, here, with the “benign” Leviathan and the “ethical egoism” of the British Empire and the USA, that one must turn left. Not even that far left, really. In the recurrent debates over American retreat*****, a point that the better critics often make is that what the Kagans and Fergusons of the world wilfully obscure is that the golden age of hegemonic stability, while obviously devoid of the horrors of great power war in Eurasia, was pretty grim for lots of people in lots of the world.

There is almost a dishonesty in claims for the benevolence of empire and hegemony that don’t mention the cruelty, violence and aggression they are all founded on. Bew toes this line in this piece, but I think what saves him from the bin Niall Ferguson lives in is that he doesn’t pretend the positive side-effects of British self-interest were the point – he makes a realist case for British foreign policy, not the sketchy case that the Empire and its intentions were noble.

Nevertheless, this problem recurs when you try and extend the logic in this essay to the present. Bew discusses how the German and Japanese challenges to this liberal world order were born of their resentment of their place behind the “noble Anglo-American vanguard”. Particularly in the European context, this is fair enough as an explanation, encompassing strategic rivalries and ideological differences. This has the advantage of ultimately being resolvable by a conflict of arms. Implicit in the idea of benevolent hegemony is that at the end of the day, it’s backed by a big stick.

Bew provides more optimism than most on hegemonic transitions:

“Britain was swift to reconcile itself to the fact that the United States had inherited its role as the strongest nation on earth”

Which invites the possibility that when the United States face the same challenge from China, they might also ‘swiftly reconcile’ themselves to that fact. Except while Britain and the United States shared a culture, history, and interests which helped them through the transition******, it is less clear that the United States and China share anything similar – there is not, to my knowledge, a Chinese Castlereagh.

I’m stretching here, but I can’t help but read Bew as suggesting that the USA either faces, or will face, another situation akin to the World Wars, where it was reluctantly dragged in despite its attempts to stay aloof from the world’s problems. There are about three steps from this argument to the credibility fairy and American support for literally any war that should crop up. Once you concede that the USA can’t “avoid suffering the consequences when [the Anglo-Saxon world order] began to unravel due to neglect” you invite more vigilance for signs of neglect or unravelling.

This is where, as much as I like Dr. Bew’s work, and this piece, my wariness leads me to tense up and compose some snarky tweets.

There is a very strong case to be made that despite being driven by elite self-interest in the respective countries, the Pax Anglo-Saxonica has been more benign than it could have been.

It is nevertheless undeniable that the Pax Anglo-Saxonica has been very bad for a really large proportion of humanity. From the Bengal Famine to concentration camps in Kenya to literally any U.S. policy south of its borders until about last week, you don’t have to be Noam Chomsky to concede that the Pax hasn’t been universal.

Again, not the worst. I genuinely don’t know where I stand on the truth of this but I think there is a case to be made that, even accepting the very worst claims made by critics of American foreign policy, you could do a lot worse as far as hegemons go.

But the fact that you could also do a lot better leaves me very uncertain about the implications of this argument for the future. Bew posits some inherent qualities to Anglo-Saxon ideology******* that make it more benevolent, which would then suggest that this particular hegemony is the best we can hope for, and therefore worth seeking to protect, aggressively if need be. This is unclear, at best.

I’ve yet to see challenges to the Pax Anglo-Saxonica that aren’t from that strand of the left that critique the current order without offering anything else. I’m far from convinced a 安******** would be better. Nor am I convinced that it would be so much worse that we should be supportive of future great power (and nuclear) war to prevent it.

I have gotten this far without losing faith in my own words********* and I am not about to pretend I can offer a glib conclusion on the future of great power relations, the Asia pivot, liberal internationalism, the rules of the game as we know them, and imperial power in the 21st Century. This is where I trail ineffectually away in true mediocre columnist style.

You should read Dr. Bew’s essay********************. He’s smarter than me, tbh. I just hope I’ve offered some Food For Thought for when you’re done with it.



*although I did get to use it fairly credibly in a job interview earlier which was interesting – I didn’t mention the Kanye gifs

**which to be completely fucking honest I’m going to put down in the “pro-Gabby_L_M” column, as there are altogether too many amateurs writing authoritatively on stuff they don’t know about and even though I’m mostly refraining out of insecurity, I’m going to reframe it as a moral stand against the student bloggers of the world

***despite its best efforts to drag itself down by standing on all the worst sides of every internet feminism debate going recently

****dude looks young which makes him all the more impressive

*****cf. the grand strategy section in at least one post a month from the reading list

******pretty sure the bit about Britain during the American Civil War is my favourite in this essay just because of Germany being all “SMH England you’re weak man”

*******am I being unfair here?

********this is ‘peace’ in Mandarin and don’t you ever say that I don’t treat you, dear reader

*********at the cost of a bottle of cheap wine and a ton of asterisks

**********once a content-aggregator….

HMS Prince of Wales: Refloated?

Not the HMS Prince of Wales. Artist’s impression of the HMS Queen Elizabeth via militaryphotos.net


Today, in the closing statement of the NATO Summit in Newport, Wales, British Prime Minister David Cameron, among other things, announced that the Queen-Elizabeth class aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, would not be mothballed after all, as had been suggested in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review.

Under severe budgetary pressure, the incoming Conservative-led coalition* sought to scrap the second aircraft carrier entirely, but it was discovered that the contract they had inherited from their predecessors included clauses that made it more expensive to cancel it than to let it be built.

I wrote about the long and winding road to the ocean its sister ship, the HMS Queen Elizabeth has travelled, in one of my first pieces for NATO Council of Canada – you can find that here. A lot of the criticisms levelled at that process apply to the Prince of Wales, though I’m gutted I didn’t make any bold predictions as to its future back in July.

Now, the HMS Prince of Wales will enter service with the Royal Navy when it is complete, giving Britain continuous carrier strike capability**.

The statement was limited in details, so several questions remain – I’ll try and update this post when the government release more information.

UPDATE: Update the post I have, but it’s not for government information so much as Twitter information. A very informative conversation over there cleared up some doubts and confusions I had. I’ve flagged updated bits.

  1. Will the HMS Prince of Wales, as planned, be built with catapults and arrestors (CATOBAR***)? This sounds trivial, but it’s probably the most important question. The CATOBAR system, used on US and French aircraft carriers, would allow the Royal Navy to launch a variety of jets from its decks, including the F-35C. There had been plans to adapt the Queen Elizabeth to a CATOBAR system, but as costs mounted, these were cancelled (I explain it in slightly more depth in the above article). This leaves the carrier unable to fly anything other than Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) jets, which, for the foreseeable future, means the Lockheed Martin F-35B. If the Prince of Wales, as expected, goes with a CATOBAR system, not only would the Royal Navy have more strategic options, but the Ministry of Defence would have more procurement choices – there are a lot more options for fighter jets that can be launched by catapult than there are STOVL ones. EDIT: I may have gotten lost in the twists and (u-)turns of the carrier saga here. I had assumed HMS Prince of Wales was being designed from the ground-up with catapults and arrestors – turns out it’s subject to the same costly modifications that did for the Queen Elizabeth. So it looks pretty likely that it’ll be the exact same model as its sister ship.
  2. Following on from the previous question, and largely contingent on it – what will it fly? Will the government need to order more Joint Strike Fighters, or will it just spread the existing purchase across the two carriers (I suspect the latter, but you never know). EDIT: To be clear, there’s also, I think, a question of what to fly – if they have different launching systems, will they fly different planes? As was pointed out to me in that Twitter conversation, since the carriers are meant to be interchangeable (to ensure continuous availability), it would make most sense for them to have the same air wing, etc.
  3. Where will the money come from? The HMS Prince of Wales was to be mothballed to cut costs. While the government has promised that they have finished their defence cuts, and budgets are set to rise in the next few years, this is certainly a turnaround, and may require extra spending or cuts elsewhere in the armed forces.

This was a surprising announcement, but, generally, a positive one. There doesn’t seem to be much clearer a statement of British commitment to its own defence than ensuring the Royal Navy has the means to project power across the globe, all year round.

PS: In the ongoing tale of my descent into weird military fetishism this past year or so, getting excited over the announcement of a really expensive piece of military hardware may mark a nadir.

PPS: I mean technically I don’t even think the HMS Prince of Wales has been put together or even built, let alone ever floated but this was a far more exciting title than just “removed from hypothetical mothballing”

*these days, I keep forgetting the Lib Dems are even a thing

**with only one carrier, the need for maintenance, training, etc. would mean there would be stretches of time where the carrier was unavailable.

***the most conversational military acronym I think I’ve heard

on Reforms to the British Military

on Reforms to the British Military

The second half of my piece on NATO Council of Canada went up. In my head the second half was more substantial than this. 

Still, very proud of the whole thing and, again honoured and grateful to have been given the opportunity and the platform to ramble on like that. I assume the world’s militaries, governments, newspapers and just general organisations will be scrambling to hire me now.




on Threats to the United Kingdom

on Threats to the United Kingdom

Given my frequent scorn here and in Twitter for the state of foreign policy discourse in the UK, figured it was time I at least tried to contribute. I’m very grateful to have been given the chance to contribute to NATO Council Canada and hopefully you’ll all go read this so they ask me back. Quite proud of how this, and the second part turned out.

Either way, planning to return to this topic over the summer in more depth, starting with a proper look at the 2010 Strategic Defence Review.

Mearsheimer and the Rise of China

The National Interest posted a new chapter from John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, which I am yet to read, on whether China can rise peacefully. It’s up in full, for free, and well worth the read – it can be found here.

It’s worthwhile both for what Mearsheimer anticipates will happen over the next few decades in the Pacific, and for a succinct summary of the tenets of offensive realism. Of course, the problem with reading a succinct summary is that it can feel like important arguments are rushed and assumptions aren’t justified, which does mean The Tragedy of Great Power Politics has jumped its way up my reading list. Still, I’d like to give you my own brief summary of the argument and highlight a couple of interesting points, as well as a few questions that the article left me with.*

Long post after the jump (sorry)