Find any blog, any forum, any news article or any ministerial speech related to defence these days, and I practically guarantee you that you will see the word “influence” crop up at some point. This is especially the case with the United Kingdom, as we seek to maintain our “influence” on world affairs despite a declining budget and the rising cost of military equipment.
The problem I have with this is how easily the term “influence” is thrown around nowadays. It almost seems like “influence” is the new “effects”, “warrior”, or “war fighting”. At every turn the word “influence” pops up and is bandied around like it were some quantifiable item, like money or gold, that can be easily measured and then valued.
Discussion about ships? No problem, they’re off influencing all the far corners of the world as we speak. Aircraft? Them to, influencing everybody that sees them land and take off, even influencing the people they fly over. Soldiers? They’re accumulating influence as well, more and more by the hour.
Now the trouble is that to a degree, all of the above do have some influence on those they come into contact with. The problem is trying to establish how much of an influence they have. The way some people talk you’d be mistaken for thinking that many countries bow down in awe at the mere sight of a Royal Navy vessel slipping into port, or a Royal Air Force fighter roaring over head.
To understand the nature of influence we need to start by looking at a hypothetical office. In this office we - you and me - are mere goons, slaves to “the man”. That man happens to be sitting in an office at the end of the floor, locked away in his decadent cubby hole of modern business. Out on the office floor we toil away, accompanied by a number of other goons (white collar wage slaves just like us) all under the watchful gaze of the ever present big brother; the Man’s right hand, um, man.
All of these people have a degree of influence over us. The nature of that influence varies wildly however.
Our co-workers can make our time in the office unpleasant or pleasurable, depending on the relationship we have with them. They can even do things that interrupt with our work. In reality though, their influence is somewhat limited to a nuisance level that has certain boundaries.
The supervisor, right hand man to the boss, has much greater influence. He or she is likely required to fill out performance reviews of the staff amongst other tasks and could potentially impact our ability to achieve promotion and/or pay increases, including bonuses.
Ultimately though the greatest influence lies with the boss, who has the power to hire and fire us. He or she can even influence our future ability to gain employment, by offering a glowing reference or indeed refusing to offer one (which by default is a way of saying that they weren’t impressed). Thus not only can they influence our immediate work life, but they can also influence our personal life as well.
What we learn from this hypothetical office is that influence varies in its degree of impact; it can be severe or a mere nuisance, it can be short or long term, can be very narrow or very broad in its reach, and much of it stems from where we stand in a certain pecking order. This is similar to how influence works on a nation-state scale.
The key attribute for me is the pecking order. The impact that nations have on one another, their ability to “influence” each other, is often tied to how they match up in certain areas. Poorer nations tend to look to richer nations for financial support and assistance. Weaker nations (from a military standpoint) tend to look to stronger nations for training and mutual security cooperation. Less advanced nations look to more advanced nations for help with solving complex technological problems.
Fundamentally what we’re talking about here is the ability of one nation to either help or hinder another, where the magnitude of the aid or hindrance determines the level of influence. However there is another, additional, complication with influence.
Or in other words, the ability of one nation to help or hinder another is irrelevant with regards to influence if it cannot convince the intended recipient of its capabilities. Nation ‘A’ may very well have an ultra super secret laser gun hidden in a cave somewhere that can bounce laser beams off satellites and destroy whole cities in a single blast. But if Nation ‘A’ cannot convince Nation ‘B’ that it actually possesses this weapon then it has no influence on Nation ‘B’.
On the contrary a bit of bluff and a few smoke and mirror tricks can have the opposite effect, leading Nation ‘B’ to over estimate the capabilities and value of Nation ‘A’, giving Nation ‘A’ an unwarranted level of influence.
It’s against this very cloudy and murky back drop that we have to try and figure just how much “influence” the UK can exert in the modern world. We’ll start with a slightly odd example.
A Fateful Day
November the 22nd, 1963. To some, that date will be immediately recognisable, even if you can’t remember why. It will certainly be recognisable to everyone as I fill in the details. Because on that day something extraordinary happened that shocked the entire world and quite accidentally opened the door for Britain to extend its influence.
On that fateful day a former US Navy Lieutenant, John Fitzgerald “Jack” Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States of America, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. This happened despite him being surrounded by a motorcade of police officers and Secret Service agents. As the world held its breath in stunned horror at the news, there was a small, highly select group of individuals who were a little more anxious and horrified than most, and understandably so.
For these select few looked around them… and all they could see were American trained bodyguards.
Sheiks, Princes, Kings and Presidents, all of whom had opted to side with America in the global cold war. Their lives were in the hands of men who had been trained by Americans to provide close protection the American way. Well the American way had just failed in a spectacular and very public fashion. ‘Maybe this wasn’t such a clever idea after all?’ was doubtless a thought that crossed many of these leaders minds.
The timing could hardly have been more fortuitous for the UK. Kenya had just achieved Independence and Prime Minister (later President) Jomo Kenyatta had won the countries first election in May of the same year. As he was sworn into office there stood in the background a number of Kenyan men who were noticeable only for the fact that they were the only people in attendance not staring at Mr. Kenyatta, who was otherwise the centre of attention.
Instead these men were visually scanning for signs of potential danger. Well trained and armed, they were the Prime Ministers new personal security detail, courtesy of the British government that Kenya was now separating itself from. They had been trained by members of the Special Air Service (SAS) who had been responsible for putting together not just the close protection unit for the new Prime Minister, but also training some police and army units for various tasks.
This was to serve as the model, the example that the British government and its various representatives could point to of how effective British trained body guarding teams could be. Over the years the list of clients thus grew; Oman, Abu Dhabi, Jordan and Iran are just some of the names that crop up on a regular basis among written accounts.
What’s most interesting about these names is that arms deals followed and all maintained good relations with the UK with the exception of Iran after the revolution of 1979. Understandably there is a significant degree of “influence” to be gained by ensuring the security of a head of state, along with gaining access to that same individual and/or his high level ministers for Foreign office personnel.
This is the sort of influence that a visit by a flight of Typhoons or the docking of a Type 45 cannot hope to match.
The Captain’s Table
Now the current trend that really itches for me is all the talk about South East Asia and how many people believe the Royal Navy should be deploying vessels to make port visits on a regular semi-basis. The main reason offered up for this otherwise somewhat inexplicable action appears to solely revolve around the idea of how much influence we could gain by doing so.
“Think of all the trade deals that could be signed over dinner at the Captain’s Table!”
Well, as impressive as the Captain’s Table undoubtedly is, what is more impressive is dinner at a five star restaurant or a party at the local British Embassy (Ferrero Rocher presumably replaced with Cadburys Flakes or Roses). Tack on to that the fact that modern businessmen can travel on these things called “airliners” and routinely do much of their business at trade fairs and other showcases such as the Paris and Farnborough air shows, and frankly the Captain’s Table looks a little underwhelming by comparison.
Then of course we come back to those more fundamental of issues; who is it we’re trying to influence, why and is it even possible? South East Asia is a growing market and certainly there is lots of money to be made there in everything from finance to telecoms, but where does the military fit into this? Those are really commercial interests, best dealt with by private companies with support from government departments such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and/or UK Trade and Investment. It’s not really in the scope of the Ministry of Defence.
“But Chris, along with including too many quotation marks in this article you’re also missing the issue about building alliances with these South East Asian countries!”
To which I would say; stop making me laugh. When Malaysia turns around and starts looking for partners to help it man the ramparts against the hoard of Chinese warships that everyone seems to think are always a few weeks away from sealing off the Straits of Malacca (why China would choose to close its key supply lane is beyond me), I get this gut feeling that the UK will not be on the top of the list of countries to call.
Why? Because other than the Brunei garrison our nearest military contribution is in the Middle East, and that’s seldom a ready to deploy expeditionary task force. It would take us a significant amount of time to mobilise and deploy a force of any real use to the Malaysians or Indonesians, and even then it can never be more (under our current budget outlook) than one task group, perhaps two at a push and with sufficient time.
If Malaysia, Australia or indeed any other country in that region is betting its defence on the UK sweeping to the rescue then I would hasten to suggest that they’ve made a serious error of strategic judgement. The United States is a much larger dog with a much bigger bark and bite, and resides a lot closer to home.
If called upon for the incredibly unlikely event that China and the United States actually decided to start lobbing missiles at each other, doubtless the UK would answer the call. But in reality Britain offers little in the way of long term military staying power in the region and cannot be relied upon by South East Asian and Pacific nations to help them deter aggression.
At best Britain has the opportunity to offer high calibre training opportunities to forces in this region, but even that is of questionable need when US forces are active in the region on a much more regular basis and can offer a similar quality of training. Further, the more cynical amongst us (stop looking at me like that) would ask what benefit does Britain derive from this? It’s all very well to talk about aiding countries in that region, but there has to be some benefit for both parties otherwise there is no point in doing it.
While the cat’s away…
Of course it’s all very well to be negative about these things without offering any alternatives. I’ve always found this to be a poor line of reasoning because what you’re essentially arguing is that submerging ones hand in a bath of acid is an acceptable idea until someone can think of an alternative. But still, I’ll indulge it.
My thinking on the matter is that if you want to spend money and time influencing people, then at least spend that time and money trying to influence people that we have a realistic chance of influencing. If that makes sense.
Or in other words, people seem very keen to try and articulate why we should be trying to bend the political will of countries like India, Brazil and Singapore, without really getting the point that we don’t have a huge amount to offer them.
Again, there’s training opportunities to be had. Alright. But to be honest we simply don’t have a huge amount that we can do for these countries and their broad interests are not especially aligned with ours either. So where then? Who?
My suggestion would be to nip in while the cat’s away and start playing with some of the mice in Africa. As America turns its strategic attention to Asia, naturally it will end up neglecting Africa, at least relatively speaking.
It’s here that the UK actually has a chance of making a difference. We have economic and military value to African nations that compares very favourably with their domestic capabilities. If people want to use the military to make trade links, then here’s your chance. British companies are capable of producing products up and down the spectrum of the needs of most African nations and we’re already friendly with many of them.
The same applies to some degree to the Middle East, where the Typhoon for example has already seen some export success and remains in the running for additional programs. We’ve sold Hawk trainers and custom built corvette ships to the region and we have long standing, relatively close ties with a number of the regimes, as we saw earlier.
The main reason I bring up Africa though is because I desperately want to delineate the arguments about influence from commercial interests which - as I said before - are best served by other departments than the Ministry of Defence and actually turn the debate about influence back to that which has a military context.
Africa is a hot bed right now for groups that use terrorism as a key tool in their policies and could potentially supplant somewhere like Pakistan as a training base for people wishing to commit atrocities here in the UK. It’s a theatre that the UK is much more likely to get involved in from a military perspective than Asia. And when we consider things like Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) from Algeria, it has a more likely role to play in future UK energy security (requiring Maritime protection) than anywhere in Asia does.
I’m not adverse to discussions about influence, but what does trouble me is just how easily that term is banded around at the moment. The modern military has a limited ability to influence the leaders and deal brokers of many foreign nations, especially in richer areas like Asia that are only growing in economic and military clout at a time when ours is waning some what.
If we want to use the military as a tool for trying to influence people to our advantage then we should be focusing on countries nearer to home, countries that we actually can influence, not ambitiously reaching out to the Far East where our impact and influence is in reality quite limited.
And we need to understand that one warship conducting a port visit or a pair of aircraft spending a week on an exercise are not game changing tools of geopolitical strategy. They are no doubt welcomed by the host nation, but their impact on spreading the UK’s sphere of influence is not as grand as some seem to believe.