As the Financial Crisis Deepens, Can Britain Maintain its International Security Obligations?

The US Director of National Intelligence is right, it’s not just protectionism that we need to worry about; the financial crisis could contribute to  global instability as key actors focus less on international security.

By Dr Ian Kearns for

In recent weeks political leaders across the world have been warning against the dangers of protectionism. Our hope now must be that their actions are a match for their rhetoric on this crucial issue. But another challenge now looms large and there is precious little recognition of it even at the level of rhetoric. That challenge is of a significant worsening of the international security environment as economic conditions negatively impact weak and fragile states while strong wealthy ones turn inward in the face of tight fiscal conditions at home. The implications were highlighted on 12 February 2009 by the US Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair in his Annual Threat Assessment to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He not only cautioned against the destructive wave of protectionism, but also warned that its ‘political fallout for US interests will involve allies and friends not being able to fully meet their defense and humanitarian obligations.’

This is going to be a large scale problem. In its recent interim report, the IPPR Commission on National Security in the Twenty-first century, co-chaired by George Robertson and Paddy Ashdown, used a matrix of fourteen risk indicators to identify twenty-seven countries at acute risk of state failure or conflict in the period ahead. Economic risk indicators such as high levels of unemployment and a sudden severe worsening of economic conditions were identified as important drivers of conflict, and many of the states on the Commission’s list from Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa, to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan in central Asia are already seeing conditions against these indicators worsen.

Dealing with more violent conflict with fewer resources

Clearly this is going to create problems in areas where the UK is already heavily involved. But the problem goes much wider and, as we ought to know only too well by now, it will affect countries well beyond those directly involved. As economic conditions drive some weak states and divided societies over the edge, we should expect more violent conflict and politically destabilising spill-over effects on countries neighbouring those in most distress. There will likely be population displacement and further human suffering on a large scale, as well as reduced overall economic activity and lost opportunities for productive world trade. We should also expect a growth in the ungoverned spaces that can be exploited by terrorists and a swelling of the ranks of those willing to turn to transnational crime, principally through trading in drugs and weapons, as a form of economic survival. As some of these situations go critical moreover, there will rightly be pressure for the international community to act in defence of the defenceless and to try to contain the consequences of failure. As a relatively wealthy ‘do something’ country rather than one with a tradition of doing nothing in such circumstances, the UK will inevitably be drawn into response activities either through provision of people on the ground or through financial and logistical support to others, or both.

None of this is good news for either the UK or for many of the countries with which we trade or share alliances. Yet against this backdrop, the UK government is already taking decisions of major concern. As the recession worsens, the Treasury has decided to pull back from the funding of any unexpected costs associated with the country’s commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving an already strained defence budget to pick up the slack in future years. Whatever one may think of the current distribution of defence expenditure or of the potential to distribute it more wisely, this has been a purely financial decision, not one based on a rethink of strategic conditions and defence requirements for the years ahead. At the same time, officials in the Department for International Development are being asked to cut conflict prevention budgets in a bid to make good on the already agreed dollar contributions to UN peacekeeping funds, the latter having been badly hit by the weakening of the pound in recent months in the international currency markets.

The danger of cutting back

Both of these developments are warning signs of a short-sighted and bureaucratic response to economic conditions. They are short-sighted because the evidence shows that when the international community has both the capacity and the will to act, the effects on conflict can be real and positive. Despite the often excessive cynicism and pessimism attached to UN and other activities in this field, international activism has been working to bring conflict numbers down in recent years. Even more important however, is the fact that we also know that waiting for trouble to break out is not only more costly in terms of loss of life but also hugely more expensive than early preventive action. One study estimated that a package of intervention measures adequate to the task of preventing conflict and genocide in Rwanda for example would have cost under $1 billion in 2004 prices rather than the subsequent $5 billion spent by the international community trying to deal with the effects afterwards.

Cutting back on international security commitments and preventive action now therefore, will almost certainly contribute to international instability, help to reduce long term global economic growth, enhance the danger to our national security from the transnational threats of terrorism and organised crime, and end up costing more in the medium term than it saves in the short. It is not only protectionism that we must resist, but the bean counters tendency to know the short term price of everything and the long term value of nothing.

Dr Ian Kearns is the Deputy Chair of IPPR’s Commission on National Security in the Twenty-first century.

The views expressed above are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of RUSI.



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