There are two kinds of rogue state. There are those that do terrible things. And there are those who go after them as vigilantes, impatient with international law and due process. Those for whom it is better to do something than nothing, even if the very best outcome they can achieve is not to make matters worse. More often than not we have seen how military action without a clear political strategy does anything but that.
Parliament’s rejection yesterday of military action in Syria will not prevent military action taking place. But it does end the assumption that wherever there is a fight to be had Britain will be there, wearing the deputy sheriff’s badge. Is it such a disaster for Britain if this time the US takes France along instead to share the burden of being le gendarme du monde? France is the former colonial power in Syria, as Britain was in Iraq (and had made a few bold attempts to be in Afghanistan). While the mandate may end, the colonists never mentally go home.
If yesterday’s vote marks the turning point in foreign policy that some are claiming it to be, what next for the British lion?
First of all, it really is time for a clean-up of government policy towards the arms trade. The David Cameron who today is licking his political wounds is the same David Cameron who has hawked military hardware all round the Middle East as an unpaid commercial traveller for the death industry. Do British companies not make anything else the Arabs might like to buy? Medical equipment perhaps?
Second, we need to appreciate that projecting British power in the world comes at a cost. Successive governments have met that cost by selling off the family silver. The result is a growing mismatch between the imperial-era rhetoric of being able to influence events abroad and the commercial reality of having lost the ability to influence them at home. Reading the roll-call of vital industries and assets that are now foreign-owned ought to bring into question just how British the hollowed-out British national interest now is.
Third, we really must press for an answer to the question of what the possession of nuclear weapons is supposed to achieve. Are they a cost-effective addition to our security or just a status symbol? Is there any realistic prospect of them being any more useful and relevant in the next 20 years than they have been in the past 20? Do the Swedes or the Swiss lose sleep over not having any?
Finally, can we perhaps remember what the United Nations is for? According to its charter, members reject the use of armed force, save in the common interest, and agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council. Just because the Security Council doesn’t always agree with you doesn’t prove that the Security Council is wrong. Its greatest flaw is of course the position of the five permanent members, who owe their seats – with the right of veto – to the fact that 68 years ago they won the Second World War. It’s an untenable position, one that kicks dirt in the face of any who truly believe in the sovereign equality of all nations, the UN’s very first founding principle.
How to remake the UN for the 21st century? One course of action – cutting the Gordian knot – would be to dissolve it and start again with a new constitution that rogue states can veto only by not re-joining. Another would be for the UK to do the decent thing, abandon its permanent seat and the veto and return the seat to the pool for others to have their chance.
It’s not an entirely fanciful scenario. If Scotland becomes an independent state, what happens to the UK seat? Russia was quick to claim the Soviet Union’s place and England would no doubt attempt to claim the United Kingdom’s. Whether it would get away with that is anyone’s guess. With the nuclear subs based firmly on Scottish territory, and no immediate prospect of being able to relocate them, expect some fine diplomacy, to say the least.