Safeguarding the Waters
Christian Le Miere, of the Fabians’ Defence & Security Policy Group, outlines the crucial contribution of the Royal Navy in our economy, diplomacy, and manufacturing industry
In March, the government released the first Integrated Review of Security Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. Designed to present a view of where the UK should position itself post-Brexit, it provides the perfect opportunity for the opposition and the Left to also define its vision for the UK’s external policies. (The Fabian Defence and Security Group published several pieces responding to the Review.)
Key to the process is to identify the fundamental goals of any external strategy, which must necessarily be based on the values of the Left. Although there is a wide range of opinions on the Left about how internationalist the Labour party should be, with the Brexit debate a clear indicator of the level of discord and disagreement over this issue, the movement has a strong history of supporting international engagement and involvement. A willingness to play a positive role in the world is therefore a fundamental principle to a future strategy.
In addition, there is broad agreement that defence, security and foreign policies should take into consideration ethical concerns. Entanglement in overseas conflict without a clear exit strategy or moral underpinning should thus be avoided.
Finally, a policy of the Left should aim to uphold basic principles and values of the rules-based order. The post-war international order, which the UK has helped to construct over nearly eight decades, provides a framework to govern relations between states and allows nations to arbitrate disputes without resorting to conflict. It underpins global trade and relations between different countries.
There is one particular domain where a strategy that encapsulates these principles is best implemented: the maritime. The provision of maritime security is the backbone of a functioning global economy, underpinning trade and security. Underlining the UK’s support for freedom of navigation and the global commons can be a fundamental principle of a foreign and defence policy that prioritises ethical internationalism. Moreover, the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea is a broadly accepted (although not yet universally ratified) instrument that governs activity in the maritime space, and the UK can play a crucial role in encouraging states, such as Israel and the United States, that have not yet signed or ratified UNCLOS.
Prioritising the maritime domain will also enable the UK to maintain a global presence without entangling itself in land-based quagmires such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Those two conflicts, which have dragged in UK forces for two decades, have cost immense blood and treasure. Eschewing such unending conflicts with unattainable or vague goals has been a central plank of the Left’s policy.
Providing maritime security is not a task that is easily achieved alone. The UK no longer has the means to maintain a global naval presence, and thus must work with allies in Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa to do so. This can not only be done with partners on a bilateral basis, but through multilateral networks as well. It therefore presents an opportunity for the UK to join, build and solidify those multilateral groupings that further buttress the rules-based order and enhance cooperation in security.
Finally, a focus on the maritime domain fulfils a further goal of the Left of supporting a vital UK manufacturing industry. Shipbuilding has a proud, centuries-long history in the UK, but has suffered from whittling government budgets and cheaper overseas competition. Nevertheless, the industry still provides stable employment for tens of thousands of people in locations throughout the country, in exactly the sort of unionised, manufacturing industry that the Left should support.
A strategy with a clear focus on the maritime could form the backbone of a coherent, clear, internationalist and ethnical foreign and defence policy, one focused not only on investment at home, but also on helping to support a stable and secure world. Britannia no longer rules the waves, and nor should she, but she could help making sure the global commons are safe and free.
Christian Le Miere is a foreign policy adviser. He is the founder of Arcipel, a strategic consultancy. He has worked as a senior government adviser and was formerly a senior fellow at the IISS, a London-based think tank, and the editor of various publications for Janes, a global defence intelligence firm.