The World Crisis Viewed from London

The World Crisis Viewed from London

Washington should look to the UK for an example of bipartisan cohesion and inner-party unity which it needs to confront today’s prominent national security threats.

For our wedding anniversary this year, my wife and I decided to celebrate in the United Kingdom, mostly in London. We stayed at the Royal Horseguards Hotel in the political center of the capital. This afforded an interesting view of the world that compared favorably with the chaos and division back home in the United States. 

A major decision to go ahead with the development of the UK’s largest undeveloped oil and gas field at Rosebank, off the Scottish coast, was announced. Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said it was the "right long-term decision" for securing energy supplies in the UK. This is in sharp contrast to the policies of the Biden administration which has rejected energy independence and condemned fossil fuels. There was opposition to the decision. We could hear from our hotel Green protests at Trafalgar Square (which undoubtedly disturbed the ghost of Admiral Horatio Nelson whose statue looks down on the square. He had given his life to protect his country at a time when Napoleon was trying to cut off vital supplies to England). The opposition Labour Party had been in the Green camp, pledging no more drilling. But the immediate response from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was his party will not block the new oil field if it wins the election next year. He said that allowing exploration to go ahead would provide "stability" to the economy. It will do so by helping insulate the UK from disruptions to the global energy market like those caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or would result from an expanded or prolonged war in the Middle East. The lessons of geopolitics in a contentious world have created unity at the center of government and pushed radicals to the sidelines. 

Our tour guide for the Buckingham Palace Changing of the Guard walk-along was a classic older gentleman who lives at his club and regales his audience with tales of Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill. He was wearing a pin with crossed UK and Ukrainian flags and pointed out several buildings flying Ukrainian flags in support of Kyiv. While we were there, The Economist, The Financial Times, and The Spectator (the leading conservative publication) all ran major pieces advocating long-term support for Kyiv. The eminent International Institute for Strategic Studies hails “the remarkable cohesion and consistency” of the United States and NATO in backing Ukraine, and Chatham House, another leading think tank, awarded President Zelenskyy its 2023 annual award. This is not a divisive issue in the UK. 

The Conservative Party was holding its annual conference in Manchester. In his address, Foreign Minister James Cleverly said “I consider it a personal privilege to have done what I can to maximize support for that courageous country. But never let anyone forget that for almost a decade now, every Conservative Prime Minister has backed Ukraine.” Britain has been one of Kyiv's strongest allies sending anti-tank weapons, artillery, long-range missiles, and armored vehicles (including the first-rate Challenger II tank) to the besieged country as well as training Ukrainian soldiers and pilots. In quality of aid, London has outpaced Washington. UK-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles have wreaked havoc on Russian warships. Cleverly declared the British are not mere "commentators" on world events but "players on the pitch." He declared aggressors cannot be allowed to invade their neighbors with impunity.

On the other side of the aisle, Labour’s shadow Minister of Defense Luke Pollard recently stated “Our commitment to Ukraine must be long-lasting….words do not defeat the tanks of an invader, only weapons, training, courage and determination stand up to them.”  There is thus cross-party unity on issues presenting threats to UK security and a peaceful world order upon which stability and prosperity depend. Encouraging signs of reality in national policymaking, which is inherently a conservative (small “c”) approach.

The UK has also reacted strongly to the terrorist attacks on Israel launched by Hamas from Gaza. Prime Minister Sunak visited Israel just hours after President Biden departed, pledging "We will stand with your people and we also want you to win." A week earlier on the immediate heels of the attack, British warships already in the region sailed for the Eastern Mediterranean. There are nine British citizens among the hostages taken by Hamas and the elite Special Air Service (SAS) has been alerted for rescue missions. On October 9, PM Sunak joined President Emmanuel Macron of France, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of Italy, and President Biden in a statement expressing “our steadfast and united support to the State of Israel, and our unequivocal condemnation of Hamas and its appalling acts of terrorism.” The Western nations pledged to “remain united and coordinated, together as allies, and as common friends of Israel, to ensure Israel is able to defend itself.”

Four days later, Sunak told another meeting of Western allies in Sweden that “terrorism must not prevail” in either Israel or Ukraine. The gathering was of the ten-strong Joint Expeditionary Force, where the wars in Europe and the Middle East both topped the agenda. This was also the case at the NATO defense ministers meeting in Belgium on October 11. A week later, UK Defense Secretary Grant Shapps met with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to coordinate actions not only in Europe and the Middle East but in Asia on “how we're responding together to bullying and destabilizing actions by the People's Republic of China" in concert with Australia.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin has linked the two regional wars. On October 11 he accused the U.S. of inflaming the situation by sending aircraft carrier groups to the region and by accusing Iran “of all sorts of things, as usual without evidence.” He blamed the outbreak of violence on U.S. policy, just as he had blamed NATO for provoking his invasion of Ukraine. Russia presented a resolution to the UN Security Council calling for a ceasefire and aid for Gaza without mentioning Hamas’ initial attack. The obvious aim was to prevent an Israeli counterattack into Gaza to destroy Hamas. China backed Russia, while the UK, France, and Japan backed the United States in voting down the resolution. Both wars mark the return of great power competition to the center of world affairs. 

The attacks on Ukraine and Israel are linked in many ways. Russia has long backed Iran, including conducting air strikes in Syria’s civil war to sustain the Assad regime. Attacks on civilians have been a common tactic in Syria, Ukraine, and Israel. Iran has repaid Putin by sending attack drones and other supplies for use in Ukraine. Tehran has vowed to wipe Israel off the map as Moscow has vowed to do to Ukraine. Both have threatened to use nuclear weapons. Hamas has taken hundreds of hostages. Russia has kidnapped thousands of Ukrainian children for which the International Criminal Court has indicted Putin. Terrorism is deadly, but conquest is even worse because of the scale of the possible genocidal policies the victor may impose. The Israelis remember the Holocaust, while the Ukrainians remember the mass starvation Stalin used to kill millions in the 1930s to “collectivize” and crush Ukrainian society. Both people are fighting with all their might to prevent such horrors from happening again.

The scale and intensity of these new wars have given the United States and its allies a shock regarding the inadequacies of their defense industrial bases. There is a similarity with the British situation on the eve of World War I. Small colonial wars had been common for decades, but these were not large enough to place a strain on industry or the budget. But when the scale of combat jumped orders of magnitude in France compared with the Northwest Frontier, the British army found itself running short of artillery shells and other supplies. There was a "shell crisis” in 1915 which was not rectified until the next year. It thus took two years to mobilize industry to meet the new requirements of modern war. 

The United States has also been fighting small wars since 9/11 but now realizes that these conflicts did not generate force levels or a production capacity that can meet the tempo shown in Ukraine, let alone what would be required to meet the threat China has been building and demonstrating around Taiwan. Fortunately, Beijing does not seem ready for a major war, so there is time for the United States and its partners to mobilize to a level that can deter further aggression both in capability and as an expression of will. But to do this, there must be a reforging in Washington of both cross-party and inner-party unity and resolve on the great national security issues facing America, similar to what I saw in London. 

William R. Hawkins is a former economics professor who served on the professional staff of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. He has written widely on international economics and national security issues for both professional and popular publications.

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