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Leading Article: Putting defence cuts in context

YESTERDAY'S Defence White Paper was delivered within a rare historical context. Never before in this century, and rarely in preceding ones, has this country faced so little external threat to its security. For the first 45 years Germany was the potential or actual aggressor, bent on changing the status quo. Twice it was defeated, only to be succeeded by the Soviet Union for the second 45 years. Now the Soviet Union is no more, undone from within. With the likelihood of Russia reverting to militaristic expansionism fading, the only power with sufficient military capability and grievances to shake the status quo would be a China whose products were kept out of world markets.

It is true that Britain's interest in an orderly international system may be threatened by conflicts in the Balkans, the former Soviet Union or in the Middle East; but there is no discernible menace to the nation itself from air, land or sea. The world may be more unstable, and bloodier. But the Government's primary responsibility of defending these shores could be achieved with forces reduced well below those laid out in the White Paper.

As in Options for Change in 1991, the Defence Ministry's analysis makes numerous generally sensible recommendations for cuts, and even for some additions. Thanks to the reduced threat from the former Soviet navy in the North Atlantic, the Royal Navy's hardware and manpower are being significantly trimmed. To help meet demand for infantry the projected size of the Army is being increased by 3,000 men, and a helicopter carrier is being built to boost their mobility.

Such moves deserve a more reasoned response than the Pavlovian hostility evinced yesterday by some Tory backbenchers. But they beg the large questions posed by today's wholly changed geo-strategic situation. It is illogical to attempt to adjust the nation's force levels to a changed world without at the same time reviewing the foreign policy assumptions on which our military commitments are based.

Some resources might be better spent, for example, finding diplomatic alternatives to our military presence in Belize, Gibraltar and the Falklands. The biggest distortion of all is created by the need to keep 20,000 troops in Northern Ireland: an apparently insoluble problem crying out for a political solution.

As for Britain's nuclear deterrent, in an era of nuclear proliferation in which the member states of the EC are striving to form a coherent security policy within the Western European Union, there is a good case for retaining it. But that too, given the changed circumstances, deserves proper debate - even if, given Labour's past traumas, it is unlikely to get it.

There is a strong case for a review of how this country's national interests can best be projected abroad, taking in the subjects of overseas aid, the British Council, the Foreign Office, the BBC's External Service, MI6 - and the armed services. To argue, as the Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind does, that such reviews are always condemned as out-of- date when they are published, is pathetic.

One important item in that debate would be the benefits and obligations of Britain's permanent membership of the UN Security Council. If the conclusion is that this is of considerable benefit to the country, then the case for having the military capacity to boost Britain's contribution to actual UN peacekeeping operations should be examined. That would bring out the value of Britain's permanent membership, which some critics consider anachronistic. To the Ministry of Defence, these forces are 'discretionary'. Yet to many people, they seem a much more desirable recipient of tax revenue than defence measures based on a worst-case scenario that is ever more improbable. Seen from almost any angle, the case for a comprehensive reassessment looks overwhelming.