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At this general election, Britain will face a big choice about the future and about how we can put this country back on its feet. We need radical changes right across our politics - in our economy, our society, and in the way our political system works. But we must never forget that the first duty of government is to protect our way of life and provide security for our citizens.
So it is important that people are clear as to how a Conservative government would meet this responsibility. During the television debates, people will have a chance to see Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and I answering questions about foreign affairs and national security. Of course, there will be much that separates us. But I also believe we must be frank and straightforward that, on a number of issues, we agree.
That begins with Afghanistan. Whoever wins this general election will immediately be confronted with the ongoing operations in Afghanistan that are vital to our national security. The strategy which has been in place since the end of last year is, I believe, broadly the right one; we must give it the necessary time and support to succeed. That is how we can continue to reverse the Taliban's momentum, build up the Afghan armed forces, and create the conditions for transition to Afghan control. Where we need to go further and faster is in ensuring the right balance of troops across Helmand and in forging a new political settlement. In so doing, we will help to bring greater security to the wider region - and in particular, to Pakistan.
Alongside this immediate priority, there are a number of other areas where a Conservative government would sustain existing national security goals. NATO must remain the cornerstone of transatlantic defence and security. We need to maintain our independent nuclear deterrent. We must continue to play an active role in international institutions, while pressing for their reform. We need to counter the growing menace of nuclear proliferation - particularly the challenge posed by Iran's nuclear programme. We must provide active support for President Obama's initiatives for a lasting Middle East peace settlement. And we must work to ensure a secure Olympic Games in 2012.
In order to meet these priorities, we must play an active and influential role in the world. Britain at its best has always been an open, outward-looking trading nation. We must never overstate our role, but we do have a position of authority that greatly exceeds our size. It is in our national interest to preserve and extend this influence, because the size of the problems and the scale of the opportunities we face demand our continued active engagement in the world.
Where we differ from the current government is how we should go about these tasks. For years it has been clear that the way the world works is radically changing. We have seen the rise of global terrorism, the spread of pandemics and new kinds of problems in the form of environmental hazards and climate change. Older problems such as piracy and lawlessness have returned with new fury, appearing alongside more modern challenges such as nuclear proliferation, cyber warfare and serious organised crime. In this new age of insecurity, the boundaries between foreign and domestic policy have been eroded. Events in one part of the planet can trigger a crisis in Britain within just a few hours.
But Labour has struggled to adapt to this dramatically altered scene. During the past decade we have fought two wars, been attacked by terrorists, and faced plots connected to Pakistan and carried out by British nationals attempting to blow up transatlantic planes. But we still do not have a fully functioning National Security Council; we have not had a comprehensive Strategic Defence Review since 1998; and we have had four defence secretaries in as many years - including one who was part-time even while we were at war. We will not have an effective national security policy if we carry on like this. So a Conservative government would do things differently. We would bring in a new joined-up way of thinking and a new national security approach.
Part of this is about new machinery. For several years we have been arguing for a proper National Security Council at the heart of government, supported by a full-time National Security Adviser. If we win this general election, such a National Security Council would start to meet from day one of the new Conservative government. The new Council will be responsible for all decisions on national security. It will oversee a long-overdue Strategic Defence and Security Review.
But it is not just new machinery we need. We need a new method which considers the links between foreign and domestic policies, addressing national security issues in the round. And as William Hague has been arguing, in order to do this we also need to rebuild our economy. Unless we deal with our debts more quickly, restore confidence in our economy and send a signal that Britain is once again open to business, we face a future where Britain only looks smaller and smaller in the world.
Four years ago, I set out the vision that would bring all these themes together. It is a philosophy of liberal conservatism. It is liberal, because I believe in freedom, human rights and democracy, and I want to see more of these things in the world. But it is also conservative, because I am sceptical of grand utopian schemes to re-make the world, and my instinct is to work patiently with the grain of human nature - with the flow of culture, tradition and history. This philosophy would guide my approach to national security and foreign policy in government.
A key part of this is about conflict prevention. We need to focus much more closely on the causes of conflicts and the full range of things - such as energy insecurity, poverty, pandemics and state failure - which feed international insecurity. The Foreign Office, DfID, the MoD and other departments across Whitehall need to work together to deliver a well co-ordinated, preventative approach. If we act early to deal with these problems, we can avoid the need to spend vast sums on large-scale interventions and reconstruction later on. This approach is both moral and sensible.
If, however, the situation arises where a foreign crisis breaks out and we do send troops to intervene, we need to make sure that we have the right blend of civil and military capabilities to bring about progress on the ground. The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are that we need to go even further in making sure that as a country we can contribute rapidly and in full measure to stabilisation operations as soon as the intense fighting is over and when the battle for hearts and minds must still be won. That is why a Conservative government will create a Stabilisation and Reconstruction Force that will bring together the skills necessary to carry out this task.
Alongside this smarter approach to international insecurity, we need a new emphasis on our domestic security. We need to involve the military more closely in domestic emergency planning by setting up a permanent military Homeland Command. We need a new dedicated border police force to prevent the entry into Britain of extremists, terrorists, criminals and illegal goods. And we need to pay much greater attention to our critical national infrastructure, and in particular, to what I believe is a growing cyber security threat.
We know that there are hundreds of thousands of cyber-attacks and crimes against British businesses every year. We just have to consider the effect of the electronic attack against Estonia in 2007 for a sign of how serious a major attack on our whole country could be. I want Britain to be prepared, proactive and ready to deal with all kinds of cyber-attacks. So a Conservative government would create a new Cyber Threat and Assessment Centre to provide this capacity.
But above all, in this new approach to national security, we must be true to our values. In an age when many of the biggest threats to our security stem from extreme, illiberal ideologies, we must uphold our own liberal ideals. As William Gladstone put it in the run-up to another general election more than 130 years ago, 'even when you do a good thing, you may do it in so bad a way that you entirely spoil the beneficial effect'. In other words, a moral mission requires moral methods. That is why we would review all anti-terrorism legislation on coming into office to ensure that there is the right balance between security and securing our civil liberties. We would ensure that all government departments and agencies honour our obligations in respect of human rights and the prohibition of torture. And we would stand by our commitment to increase overseas development aid.
By making these changes, we will be able to fix a lot of the problems we have seen in last few years: a failure to weigh carefully the consequences of intervention and plan for the aftermath; a failure to equip our forces properly when we send them into harm's way; and above all, a failure to tackle domestic and foreign security issues in the round. Our national security approach will be a big cultural change from what we have seen over the last decade. By putting it into practice, we can become safer, stronger, more resilient - and together we can make Britain stand tall once again in the world.
These leader statements appear in the April 2010 issue of the RUSI Journal.