Leading Article: The capability to intervene . . .

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THE question at the heart of yesterday's Defence White Paper is: what role in the wider world does Britain wish to fulfil? For reasons of history and national temperament, this country has a wealth of military experience and a range of armed services disproportionate to its economic weight. In the Cold War era, they were primarily at the disposal of Nato, within which they were inevitably overshadowed by the military might of the United States on the one hand and of the Soviet Union on the other. In the new post-Communist age, their professionalism, versatility and suitability for peace-keeping roles assume a new significance. Coupled with Britain's place as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, they amount to a substantial political asset.

Britain's forces are, furthermore, of major benefit to the UN, the Western European Union or any other body involved in defusing crises within or beyond Europe's borders. The Government would run the risk of weakening Britain's international status if it substantially reduced them. That is the positive side of the case argued (or implied) in this thoughtful, cogently written and commendably open White Paper, which bears signs of the Defence Secretary's lucid intellect.

The negative side derives from the changed nature of the geopolitical landscape. For four decades Nato faced a single, overwhelming threat. That has now disappeared, to be replaced by a multitude of potentially destabilising ethnic conflicts in Central and Eastern Europe; and by the acquisition of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons by dozens of countries, some of whose governments are not much less dangerous than Saddam Hussein's. Recent history - in South-east Asia, southern Africa and in the Gulf, for example - shows that serious local conflicts are regionally destabilising. Yet none of them is likely to pose as obvious and immediate a threat to life in this country as did the nuclear weapons of a hostile Soviet Union. The present situation, in which almost anything, but also very little, might happen, creates considerable difficulties for a defence minister seeking to defend his overall budget and to justify big projects: as the White Paper candidly comments, 'even where a defence need is clear in a general way, the requirements in specific force terms are rarely obvious'.

Moreover, not every possible need can be catered for - hence the debate about the European Fighter Aircraft, a logical addition to Britain's armoury if it wishes to maintain a high international profile, if not to a unified Germany with domestic priorities and strong political constraints on its military role. The difficulties of predicting needs are compounded by the likelihood of the unexpected occurring; by the growing importance of voluntary contributions to multinational efforts; and by the slow-moving nature of defence contracts.

During the Cold War the only serious threat was from the East. Nato members were allocated specific sectors to defend. Now lesser dangers threaten from many sides, and 'out of area' actions are possible. Britain's armed services are not just, in the White Paper's words, 'our insurance against the uncertainties of a rapidly changing world', but are one of the means by which we define our role internationally.