The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Saturday, 20 November 2010

UK-France cooperation on nuclear warheads

Given the theme of this blog, it is worth highlighting the recent defence cooperation agreement between the UK and France. On 2 November, an overarching agreement was signed outlining a package of initiatives that will result in greater interoperability between the two countries' conventional forces. In a subordinate treaty, the two governments also agreed to cooperate in the stewardship of their nuclear warheads. It is this latter accord - including motive and effects - that I will focus on here.

Under the agreement, a joint simulation facility will be constructed in Valduc, France, where scientists from both countries will conduct work on the safety and security of their respective country’s nuclear warheads. In addition, a joint Technology Development Center will be established at the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment, which will develop simulation technology for the center at Valduc. Construction costs will be split equally between the two governments.

Just to unpack this a second: the moratorium on testing under the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) means that nuclear weapon states have to find other ways to ensure the viability of their nuclear warheads. This is done through advanced facilities that use computer simulations to test various components and implosion capabilities. Needless to say, such facilities are expensive. In a bid to save money and pool resources, the two countries will share a single facility without exchanging sensitive information regarding warhead design. In other words, they will work independently instead of actually assisting one another.

Although the timing of this agreement is certainly down to money, it is worth looking at it from a slightly different angle as well. Engaging in defence cooperation with France at this time is (perhaps) a way for David Cameron to outflank some of the more Eurosceptic members of his own party. He can display his European credentials while arguing the decision's merits solely from an economic standpoint. While this is unlikely to have been the motive, it can certainly be used as an example of his government engaging constructively with France in an area where the Labour Party ultimately failed to deliver.

There is, however, one interesting consideration regarding this agreement: the potential effect it will have on the special nuclear relationship between the UK and US. Of course the term "special" is overused when it comes to US-UK relations, but in the context of nuclear weapons the relationship certainly is special. Weapon designers from both countries exchange a range of information, ideas and materials. Best practices in terms of warhead design are frequently discussed in a series of joint working groups that date back to the 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement.

Given that the 1958 agreement strictly limits the sharing of information with third parties without the other's consent, what effect will the UK-French agreement have on UK-US cooperation? Under the current agreement the answer is not much. However, David Cameron did state that "this is the start of something new, not an end in itself." So the question is, how far can the UK and France go in this area before officials in Washington start shifting awkwardly in their chairs? The answer probably lies somewhere between nowhere and not very far at all.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

EU budget fiasco

This story is not one that would be immediately associated with the subjects usually covered by this blog but, ultimately, money has repercussions on everything.

In a nutshell, the European Parliament had requested a 5.9% increase in the European Union's budget for 2011. Many countries opposed this - notably the Netherlands, Denmark and Britain (David Cameron being especially vocal) - which, frankly, is understandable in these hard financial times. Nations would find it extremely difficult to justify to their electorates how the EU can be granted a 6% budget increase while domestic budgets are being slashed across the board, while individual nations are being bailed-out and while unemployment figures remain high.

It was therefore agreed to compromise at 2.9%. However, as a trade-off for accepting 3% less, MEPs demanded a greater role in talks on future spending, including finding new income for the EU budget.

What is most striking in this whole affair is the political ineptitude of the Europeam Parliament and its Members. Firstly, to ask for a 5.9% budget increase in the current climate simply defies belief. Of course, as in any negotiation, the likelihood is that they demanded an exaggerated increase in the full knowledge that they would have to compromise. However, that in itself demonstrates either a lack of political nous or, simply, a complete disconnect between the Brussels bubble and the people they claim to serve. In this financial climate, any demand for any sort of budget increase is inappropriate and unacceptable to the vast majority of voters across the continent.

To ask for a 0.59% increase would have been unrealistic while Ireland (and perhaps soon Portugal) is due to follow Greece in being bailed out by the EU. To ask for 5.9% is downright insulting to electorates who feel disconnected from faraway institutions in Brussels at the best of times, let alone in the current climate of financial hardship.

In that light, to 'accept' a compromise of 2.9% while insisting on a greater decision-making role is simply naive, in fact shockingly so. It basically presented Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden with an open goal to torpedo the whole exercise and keep the budget frozen at 2010 levels. The Parliament has achieved none of its objectives but still appears out of touch and intransigeant, whereas the member States have achieved more than they hoped to while still appearing flexible and willing to compromise.

In short, the European Parliament has shown itself to be very far removed with the people it claims to represent and, furthermore, tactically incompetent in terms of basic negotiating skills. If the European project is going to make progress then we need at least a semi-decent legislative branch. This is not it.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Hillary misspeaks on AfPak

Hillary Clinton has made some interesting and fairly forthright statements on Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, most notably on Islamabad's use of proxies against hostile regimes in Kabul and New Delhi. (the interview was originally given to ABC but, not surprisingly, was quickly picked up by Indian media).

Of particular note is her seemingly candid assessment that similar use of proxies by the US against the Soviets during the 1980s had backfired, the less-than-subtle implication being that Pakistan should learn from American mistakes and not do likewise.
“Part of what we are fighting against right now, the United States created. We created the Mujahideen force against the Soviet Union [in Afghanistan]. We trained them, we equipped them, we funded them, including somebody named Osama bin Laden. And it didn't work out so well for us.”
It's an interesting statement: honest and circumspect. The one problem is that it isn't actually true.

While it is undoubtedly true that America's covert action towards the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s created blowback, her very specific claims that the US trained, equipped and funded Osama Bin Laden's network are not accurate, if we are to believe the evidence presented by Steve Coll in Ghost Wars. Coll states that Bin Laden (who at the time was a financier and not an operator) never received money from the US, or from Pakistan for that matter. Indeed, he had plenty of his own.

In fact, Coll's research makes it very clear that the US funnelled its cash and weapons through Pakistan - more specifically the ISI - rather than directly fund and equip mujahideen units, bearing in mind that this was after all a covert war. Over time the CIA would begin to directly supply certain mujahideen - notably Ahmed Shah Massoud - who were marginalised by the ISI but Coll presents no evidence that the US directly funded Arab jihadists generally, or Osama Bin Laden specifically.

However, the trade-off for running a covert war through Pakistan was that the ISI decided which muj received the money and arms. These were invariably the most radical Islamists in Afghanistan, as the ISI argued they were the more effective fighters. Not only did this empower the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, it also meant that the ISI itself - and hardline elements within it - were empowered and emboldened to pursue their security interests through proxies in Afghanistan and in Kashmir, the result being the major instability we see across the region today.

In short, the US may not have directly supported Osama Bin Laden but they did help create a situation where he and other equally malign - if not more so - elements were radicalised and strengthened during the war against the Soviets and its aftermath.

Why is this distinction important? Taking Hillary Clinton's statement at face value, we might conclude that the US was simply careless and/or misguided in choosing the wrong ally against the Soviets. The truth is both more complex and more serious than that and it would be both deeply disappointing and (potentially) highly dangerous if that important lesson were lost.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Achilles in the trench

By Patrick Shaw-Stewart

I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die;
I ask, and cannot answer,
if otherwise wish I.

Fair broke the day this morning
Upon the Dardanelles:
The breeze blew soft, the morn's cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells.

But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean Sea;
Shrapnel and high explosives,
Shells and hells for me.

Oh Hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?

Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese;
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days' peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knowest, and I know not;
So much the happier am I.

I will go back this morning
From Imbros o'er the sea.
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.