Saturday, 27 February 2021

British strategic policy: Interview with Tom Tugendhat MP

In this interview, James Rogers, the Editor-in-Chief of The British Interest, talks to Tom Tugendhat, Member of Parliament for Tonbridge and Molling and Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, about the future of British strategic policy…

JR: In a speech you gave to the Conservative Party Spring Forum earlier in the year, you argued that Britons should: ‘ignore the doom-mongers’ and ‘ignore those who keep talking us down.’ In the media and elsewhere, ‘declinism’ – as it is sometimes called – has become increasingly popular, despite the fact that the United Kingdom (UK) is richly endowed with national capabilities. What do you think causes this disconnect?

TT: I think there is a huge challenge for many people in the UK to realise that relative changes in stature are not the same as absolute changes. So of course it is true that the UK has become relatively less influential than China over the last 20 years. China has grown more prosperous and more powerful and the UK has therefore relatively lost influence. But, the idea that this is true in an absolute sense is simply false. The UK still has reserves of both soft and hard power greater than almost every other country. Fundamentally we are still at the heart of a global network. The report that you produced at the Henry Jackson Society demonstrated this extremely clearly. Actually, some of the absolutes – our essential nature as part of the rules-based system, the fact that our treaty networks and our alliance networks are wider and deeper than almost anybody else’s – do demonstrate an absolute power that would otherwise not be real.

JR: One of the issues you seem to be interested in is the rise of authoritarianism in other countries, not least Russia but also China. Why is the rise of autocracy an important strategic trend in the early 21st century and what do you think the UK should do about it?

TT: The rise in autocracies comes back to a theme that many of us have seen over recent years, which is the simple truth that many people are finding that the liberal order that they thought was becoming more normal is, in fact, under threat. We see this in various countries where the norms are reversing; indeed, even in some European countries we are seeing the established rule of law, civil rights, and property rights being challenged by increasingly difficult – to use the term politely – governments. Then, we are seeing it more widely when we see that some large states are actively and deliberately breaking international rules with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and so on. So this is simply a reality that we have got to look at, look at what is changing in the world, and then as democracies, decide what we are going to do about it.

Because the truth is that democracies, though they always appear weaker than autocracies, actually have reserves of strength that are much greater than any autocracy. Autocracies are by definition much more brittle and likely to fracture, and democracies –  though they can be hard to mobilise – once they are mobilised, have a depth of resources that no autocracy could ever match. So the UK really can, and this is where the UK again is a premier world power in a way that few others can be, link up with other democracies to create networks to become self-supporting. That is the essential aim. The obvious one is of course with the United States (US), but we should build on many more with countries like India, Japan, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. We should demonstrate areas where history, culture, and a shared sense of values really can link us to democracies around the world.

JR: In recent months, a number of ministers – Tobias Ellwood and Jeremy Hunt most recently – have argued quite forcefully that Britain’s defence and diplomatic budgets should be increased. With such strong political support from within the Conservative Party, why is British military and diplomatic spending as a proportion of national economic output at such historically low levels?

TT: That is an excellent question! The truth is that Britain’s military spending should be matching the challenges we face. Now, I am not particularly a believer in financial targets; I am a believer that we should cut our cloth according to our need. So if we could get away with spending less that would be fine. If we need to spend more, then we should spend more. The reality is that, with the challenges we are facing today and the growing uncertainty, I do not think that we are spending enough. The reason I say that is because I do not think we can currently equip enough vessels for the navy we require, I don’t think we have enough soldiers for the army we need, and I think the air force also is not able to deploy to a wide-enough area at the moment. Now, the requirement for change is not therefore a financial one; it’s a capacity one and if that has financial consequences, we must assume them. So I am not wedded to the financial target; I am wedded to the delivery.

JR: With the rise of China over the next 20 years, it seems almost certain that the US is likely to focus more on the Indo-Pacific region. How do you think that the UK, as America’s leading ally in Europe, should position itself as a European power, particularly in the context of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)?

TT: I think that the UK is obviously and clearly a European power but we have connections around the world. One of the essential things that we offer European nations and the US is the ability to act as a cog between the two. Anybody who has worked for the US military knows that it is both an enormous privilege and also a challenge, because it is a massive organisation and working with it is very difficult because of that. It is hard enough for the UK, which can afford technology required to operate and to integrate; for smaller countries, it can be really hard and that is where the UK can provide the bridge, the link, and the interface between smaller countries and the US hegemon. We can do that around the world, not just in Europe.

JR: As or if Britain leaves the European Union (EU), how much effort do you think it should place on forging new relationships with countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, as well as others like India, Japan, Brazil, Chile and South Korea? Should the UK be prepared to propose new alliances and groupings to serve its needs and interests, as well as the interests of others, in the 21st century?

TT: Yes! I think that there are some real opportunities that I would like to see developed in which the UK could, I hope, play a serious role in bringing nations together who share values. As you rightly identify, both I and the Foreign Affairs Committee have been focusing a lot on autocracies and democracies. Because, it is easy to envision a world in which we need to support ourselves and support each other in order to resist what would otherwise be pretty aggressive pressure. So I think increasing our influence – or, better, presence – in places like Chile and Japan would help both those governments to resist what might otherwise be foreign autocratic pressure. This would also extend our ability to defend each other, and I think that is something that we should be really looking at. Now, with many countries, we are not talking about new relationships; we are talking about deepening existing ones. The truth is that we have an extraordinarily close relationship with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. We also have relationships based on extraordinary warmth with Chile and Japan. The proximity of our nations is very great and we just need to build on it.

JR: And finally, a bit more closer to home, you have stated that you are ‘more minded’ towards Michael Gove to become the next Leader of the Conservative Party. What do you like about his vision or approach in relation to the future of Britain’s foreign and defence policy?

TT: I think Michael is two things: one is he is a unionist, by which I mean he respects and values all parts of the UK, Great Britain, and Northern Ireland. He does not reduce things to an English perspective – an English nationalist perspective – but actually understands the strength in the whole. The second is: he’s an internationalist. Though we disagreed on the EU question, his vision and mine of Britain playing a major part at every table we can get ourselves at is one that I think we both share. So, I think that he offers an extraordinary ability and voice for us in the UK to promote the interests of the British people around the world. It is often forgotten that the whole purpose of foreign policy is the happiness and prosperity of the British people. Yes, that demands alliances, and yes, that means that we have to encourage the happiness and prosperity of, for example, the American people, the French people, and others. But, the fundamental purpose is the happiness and prosperity of the British people.

JR: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions!

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