These are serious concerns. Despite the new government having ring-fenced the defence budget for a year, the country's fiscal position means that in the longer term significant cuts are almost certain to be made.
The last defence review took place at the end of the last millennium. The triumph of liberal democracy then seemed assured, underpinned by American hegemony, a project in which Britain was a steadfast partner and a bridge to her less consistent European neighbours. This was an important role as both Nato and the EU expanded to fill the vacuum in Europe left by the end of the Cold War.
The nature of the threats facing Britain and the definition of a global role have become considerably more complicated after almost 12 years at war, shown during the leadership debates in the run-up to the May election. There was unsurprising consensus among the three main parties that Britain's prominent position on the international stage be maintained. However, the underlying strategic issues informing Britain's stance in the new international environment received almost no attention at all. Our desire to be able to operate as an independent military force, our readiness to intervene in conjunction with the United States, the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, the defence of our security interests against wildly divergent threats, including piracy, challenges to American unipolarity and the rise of China, India and Brazil, should all have provoked serious questions about what sort of military force will best serve our interests. These questions cannot now be avoided for to do so would be calamitous.
A military force predicated on the campaigns of the past decade would be a significant folly. The Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns have led to considerable debate about the shift in modern combat towards asymmetric warfare. There is nothing new about such combat because irregular warfare is fighting's oldest form. However, it would be a major intellectual error and probably a tragic policy mistake to discount the possibility of war between the international community's larger actors. Those who point to the declining frequency and changing nature of interstate wars seem to forget that such conflicts have rarely been numerous or of a predetermined nature. A young Winston Churchill could have made a similar observation about the rise of insurgency warfare during the second Boer War, but just over a decade later it would become apparent that the prevalence of interstate wars matters less than their severity once they do unfold.
The recent sinking of a South Korean naval vessel by the unpredictable but large North Korean forces and the 2008 South Ossetian conflict are the most recent reminders that conventional conflicts persist in the post-Cold War environment. After nearly two decades of double-digit military spending by China, the balance of power in Asia appears to be shifting and Beijing's military strength is likely to undergo a continued transformation over the coming decades. In part due to China's rise, America's strategic priorities have shifted away from the Euro-Atlantic Nato heartland of the Cold War to the Middle East and Asia. America's shift in focus makes our ability to act independently all the more crucial.
Asia contains a hotbed of disputes, some of direct, some of indirect import to Britain. But the strategic consequences of China's rise, although largely ignored in Britain, are not limited to Asia. Beijing's growing influence in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East has the potential to spark conflict with any number of rivals, in which Britain might become embroiled.
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