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

Sigh.

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

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….

13th of July: They Think It’s All Over

And, mercifully, it almost is. It’s been a wonderful Cup but I’m ready for the footballing humiliation to end and the irritating coverage of Brazil to go away. That means it’s the last of the Brazilian choices. To suit the mood, the beautiful “Tive Razao” by Seu Jorge. Come for the effortlessly cool video, avoid weeping over the Brazil team’s goal difference in the last two games, and stay for Jorge’s gorgeous voice.

With that, off we go. One thing: I forgot how publishing works when it’s not just me alone in my room pressing “post”, so the next NATO Council piece will actually be up this week, maybe.

  • Somewhat reassuring look at how the USA will retain the capacity to deter Chinese expansion until domestic factors make China less of a threat
  • Then again, with the continuing absurdity that is the F-35 program, maybe the optimism is misplaced…
  • Analysis of the different possible motivations and strategies behind IS(IS?)’s violence
  • Great piece for the IR nerds by Adam Elkus on the “state of the state”. His “ISIS as Jay Gatsby” analogy is my favourite thing
  • Consideration of the pro-Russian narrative in Ukraine on Kiev’s atrocities
  • Bit glib, but within this comic there’s a really interesting story of the AU peacekeeping mission in Sudan
  • Charlie’s blog is really hitting its stride – I’m actually starting to get the hang of the complexity economics thing he keeps going on about
  • I snark enough about reporting on Brazil here, so only fair to highlight – this is a good piece on the World Cup serving as an introduction to Brazil for the world and vice versa*, this is a sweet piece on kids who won tickets to the final (Charlie Bucket eat your heart out), and this is both snark on crappy reporting and a nice look at Brazilian’s reaction to the Mineiraço
  • 😦 **
  • While it is all a bit obvious, this is a useful reminder that everything is fucked in case you’re also struggling to find a job and hating everything – it’s not all your fault***
  • Brilliant little Civil War story
  • Occasionally I think I might stop dodging the draft and go and do my Brazilian military service. This piece, on Royal Marine Commando training, was a nice deterrent. It’s also interesting to note how sophisticated it all seems compared to the “Curahee” episode of Band of Brothers
  • The Emmy nominations were this week, and I saw a lot of “OMG why didn’t X get a nod” stuff circulating. This is a good Voxplainer on the process behind the awards that goes some way to explaining all the anomalies, like Jon Hamm not winning all the awards ever.
  • I like Mindy Kaling a lot, The Mindy Project a lot less, but it’s great that it exists as a show if it inspires these sorts of conversations. Article itself is a bit flabby – it’s one of those Buzzfeed “roundtables” that gets too rambly. A lot of interesting stuff about second-generation immigrant alienation, among other things.
  • This is stunning – behind-the-scenes footage of the VFX work on Game of Thrones work
  • Looks like this could be an interesting series on Lana del Rey. Could also be tossy and dull of course, because it’s the New Inquiry, so one to watch
  • Super exciting news about a republication of The Sun Also Rises, along with a lovely collection of all the covers through the years

Finally, it’s back. I’m trying to be a more positive, professional voice here, but I made the mistake of reading this and ugh. I should have known better – king of the smug interventionists John Rentoul linked to it on Twitter, and the title itself is a warning as to just how smug it’ll get, but god. In response to all the sneering, let’s just take a whistle-stop tour through all the problems with it; massive public opposition to further intervention in the Middle East is dismissed as “cheap campaign promises”; the Iraqi government’s agency in refusing to sign the Status of Forces Agreement is dismissed in favour of scoring cheap shots at Obama; “an attempted détente” with Iran is pitched as a bad thing; the excellent Daniel Drezner is smeared as “one of the administration’s “realist” apologists”…. I mean I could go on, this is just me scrolling through and letting the irritation take me. There is only one thing left to say:

tumblr_mshgsbUsd61qfkqupo1_500

Enjoy the final tonight, and have a lovely week, guys xx

 

*of course if the introduction happens via shitty sensationalising and “oooh how exotic” reporting then….

**unless if you’re spending most of your day playing Skyrim and Crusader Kings… then it’s kind of your fault

***this is a link, in case it isn’t clear