Leading Article: A moral role on the world stage

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The Independent Online
WINSTON CHURCHILL left an awkward legacy to today's politicians. He turned the spirit of national self-preservation into the noblest of causes, the resistance to fascism, and he convinced us of our military prowess. Throughout the Cold War, the period of decolonisation and the adjustment to American power, the memory of Churchill has made straight thinking about Britain's place in the world difficult.

Two obsessions trail in his wake: one of Britain "punching above her weight", the other of the association of British foreign policy with morality. Tomorrow, as he rises to deliver the Winston Churchill lecture, George Robertson needs to face both obsessions squarely. It is said that Tony Blair intends to "rule the country by headline". And the headline on Mr Robertson's speech is: "No peace dividend."

But the smaller print is much more interesting than that. New Labour is beginning to feel its way towards a coherent foreign policy and defence posture. Ever since Robin Cook hung the millstone of an "ethical foreign policy" around the neck of a government that was only a matter of days old, Mr Blair must have regretted such an open invitation to critics. Now, however, Mr Robertson is beginning to use it to advantage.

The instinct to cut defence spending is strong and honourable, and it extends much further than the CND wing of the Labour Party. But Mr Robertson is seeking to set up against it the equally strong and honourable desire for Britain to play a moral role on the world stage. He wants to set out for Britain a mission as a kind of nuclear-tipped Sweden. If Britain has national competitive advantages in security matters, they are the professionalism of its armed forces and the global reach of its post-imperial interests.

Here, left and right can meet. For the left, tomorrow night's dismantling of the RAF's last nuclear bombs. For the right, the prospect of building two big aircraft carriers. Mr Blair's desire to play to the nationalistic gallery - such as his muscular advocacy of the Eurofighter project - can be reconciled with Clare Short's extraordinary ambition to end world poverty.

So, we welcome Mr Robertson's emphasis on Britain's role as a global peacekeeper, while recognising that this is not an ethical ambition that comes cheap. But what the proposers of the annual ritual motion at Labour conferences calling for defence spending to be reduced to the west European average need to recognise is that it has already been cut by more than a quarter in real terms since the recent peak in 1985.

The question is what should happen after the present standstill, which runs up to the end of the inherited spending plans in April 2000. Mr Robertson and Mr Blair seem to be signalling that the period of consolidation will continue.

There is a case for that. It is much easier to achieve a radical re- ordering of defence priorities within a static overall budget. The incentive for internal efficiency is greatly enhanced if mandarins or top brass know that any savings they make will be ploughed straight back into other parts of their empires.

However, we doubt whether Mr Robertson is being radical enough. He intends to cut the size of the British Army in Germany, which is there only to stop the Russian tanks from rolling across the Elbe. But he intends to cut, not pull out altogether, leaving thousands of personnel and tanks there, when the arguments for maintaining any sort of presence in Germany are weak.

One is that it ensures stability in central Europe, a stability threatened, for example, by the break-up of Yugoslavia. But the fact that British soldiers live in barracks in Bavaria had nothing to do with our peace- keeping capability (or lack of it) in Bosnia.

The other argument is that to withdraw entirely would encourage the Americans to go home, too, by reinforcing the strong Congressional sentiment that Europe's defence should be a matter for Europe's tax-payers. Well, if the only way we can persuade the United States to contribute to Nato's commitments in Europe is by pointlessly stationing thousands of soldiers on the territory of a fellow member of the European Union, then there is something wrong with our arguments.

Mr Robertson should recall that Churchill said many things that embarrass those who claim him for Little England about the contribution of a united Europe to the cause of peace. So, while Britain's ambition to keep peace throughout the world might be an expensive one, there is still some of the dividend from the end of the Cold War to be cashed in.