Royal College of Defence Studies course

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Speech delivered by Sir Nick Harvey, Minister for the Armed Forces.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

It is a privilege to be invited to speak at the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS), here in the heart of London.

Many of you are from overseas, and I welcome you to these shores.

When you return to your countries to continue your careers, you may well have occasion to draw on the practical skills you learned at RCDS.

If you do, I am sure that these skills will serve you well, and that you will look back on your time in the UK with fond memories.

I am also conscious that sat before me are future chiefs of staff, senior officers, and senior civil servants.

Some of you are from other high profile walks of life, so I am speaking to future ambassadors, police chiefs, and CEOs too.

Speaking to such a broad, international audience presents an excellent opportunity to share British government thinking on key issues.

Some of you may not agree with our views, or even share our fundamental assumptions.

But I want all of you to leave here with one clear message, and it is this.

The world is changing and Britain is changing with it.

To allow maximum time for your questions, I’ll spend the next 15 minutes or so describing what that means for our approach to defence.

I will do so in 3 ways.

First, the changing world has caused Britain to take a new approach to foreign policy.

I want to set out our foreign policy baseline, and its impact on defence.

Secondly, we continue to deal with the strategic shock of 9/11, whose anniversary we marked last weekend.

I therefore want to spend a little time on Afghanistan.

Thirdly, all of us who are in positions of leadership are having to deal with the changes brought about by the fiscal crisis.

Both in terms of the prospects for the world economy, and in dealing with the repercussions for our domestic economies, particularly the requirement here in Britain for reducing deficits.

We face this fiscal tightening at a time when the international outlook is sobering, the environment challenging, and the potential threats growing.

In Britain, we must seize the opportunity to ensure that our armed forces are able to meet today’s challenges and, at the same time, prepare for a range of challenges that we may face in the future.

So I will spend a little time describing Britain’s approach, principally through our strategic defence and security review (SDSR).

There is an additional change in Britain, namely, coalition government, and I am proud to be a Liberal Democrat defence minister in that government.

Although it is second nature in many of the countries that you represent, we have not experienced coalition government here for several decades.

As we face a difficult few years with these key challenges before us, we do so here in Britain while we also adapt to a new type of politics.

This will not be easy.

But there is a powerful tradition of pragmatism in this country, shared by the political parties and the public, which I have faith will pull us through.

Particularly when it comes to providing for the security of the nation, and playing a responsible and active role in the international community.

That active, principled, internationalist approach, rooted in the rule of law and the values of democracy and dialogue, and a strong and firm Liberal Democrat tradition, is the foundation of the foreign policy that this coalition government will pursue.

And so, my first topic,

The world is changing and Britain is changing with it.

The Foreign Secretary expanded on that earlier this year when he said, “put simply, the world has changed, and if we do not change with it Britain’s role is set to decline with all that that means for our influence in world affairs, for our national security, and for our economy.”

Economic power and opportunity are shifting with new powerhouses of regional development emerging and increasingly driving the global economy.

The circle of international decision-making is widening, and with that we need to share the burden of international security as well.

Protecting our own national security and balancing sometimes competing requirements to produce a stable international order will be increasingly complex.

The nature of threats and the character of conflict is changing too.

We do live in a period in which direct conventional military threats to British territory are low, but the security environment can change rapidly.

For Britain, the strength of NATO and the political resilience of the trans-Atlantic alliance is how we mitigate the risk of the emergence of old or new regional powers, and the risk of a return to state-versus-state confrontation.

But we face an increasingly diverse range of security risks.

With the emergence of a networked and interconnected world, the turmoil that emanates from ungoverned territory and failing states has further reach than in previous decades.

This can create new focal points for instability, as we have seen in the Gulf of Aden and the Malacca Straits when it comes to lawlessness on our high seas.

And it can create a new focal point for transnational terrorism.

Those who practise and preach transnational terrorism are less susceptible to traditional responses and strategies; they demand an updated concept of deterrence and containment.

We have to demonstrate that our response to any attacks is measured and targeted, will reduce their ability to operate, and take them further from their goals.

And we need different approaches to containment, when those who would threaten us have access to all the tools of our networked and globalised world.

We could face a nuclear-capable or nuclear-armed Iran, destabilising Shia-Sunni and Arab-Persian fault lines, as well as those with Israel and the rest of the world.

All of these factors make a strong case for a new approach to British foreign policy.

Equally, as the Foreign Secretary will say in a speech later today:

It is not in our character as a nation to have a foreign policy without a conscience; and neither is it in our interests…

Our prosperity is linked to that of others…

We cannot achieve long-term security and prosperity unless we uphold our values…

Where human rights abuses go unchecked our security suffers, as we see in Afghanistan…

And our international influence requires us to maintain our international standing and cultural influence as a vital component of our weight in the world.

So our focus will be on our national interest, but this will be an enlightened national interest which recognises our response to the risks and threats we face will necessarily require us to operate as part of the wide international community, using all levers at our disposal, in NATO, in the EU, in the Commonwealth, and with partners far and wide.

That is why some of what we in defence do will take on a new salience, and we will work even more closely with our diplomatic and development colleagues.

And we intend to renew and reinvigorate our multilateral and bilateral defence relationships.

We’ve listened to the charge that British ministers appear to call only when a crisis arises, or a crucial vote is needed.

We acknowledge that such an approach does not provide a sound basis for a proper relationship.

We recognise that we need to strengthen bilateral relations with dynamic and increasingly self-confident countries.

We know that we cannot deliver our new foreign policy in isolation; we need genuine long-term partners.

Turning next to Afghanistan


Afghanistan provides a case in point where the international community as a whole has acted in the interests of global security.

As we marked the 9th anniversary of 9/11 last weekend, it was a poignant reminder of why the international community acted.

It changed the way political leaders saw the world.

In Afghanistan today, the operations of the wide ISAF coalition and the political, economic, and developmental contribution from many more countries are a direct consequence of 9/11.

It was there that the Taliban rulers gave Al-Qaeda sanctuary, allowed it to run terrorist training camps, and made it a base for terrorist attacks across the world.

That is why the Taliban were driven out of power by Afghan and international forces, and it is why Al-Qaeda were forced to flee to the border areas of Pakistan.

In the 4 months that I’ve been Minister for the Armed Forces, I’ve travelled to Afghanistan and seen the real progress that we are making, and the challenges facing our armed forces.

We do not seek a perfect Afghanistan, but one able to maintain its own security and prevent the return of Al-Qaeda from where it could again plan attacks on Britain and our allies.

We will do this by reversing the momentum of the Taliban-led insurgency.

By containing and reducing the threat from the insurgency to a level that allows the Afghan government to manage it themselves.

And by supporting the Afghan government to develop a stable and capable enough system of national security for its people on an enduring basis.

We should also remind ourselves that 9/11 is what failure in Afghanistan looks like.

9/11 is also what the failure to confront transnational terrorism will look like.

The good news is that the last few years have seen the strategic position of the insurgency begin to deteriorate.

The ISAF coalition has increased its commitment to the mission, in manpower and equipment.

The Taliban have lost significant ground in their southern heartland, including the key population centres.

We have been targeting their bomb-making networks, and their leadership and command structure.

Their network is under significant pressure, with the senior leadership isolated, training deficient, and supply limited.

They are incapable of stopping the expansion of the Afghan National Security Forces, which is bringing closer the potential collapse of their strategic position.

And Pakistan is taking the threat seriously, and the safe-havens in their country are being squeezed by the Pakistani security forces.

The Taliban’s only realistic hope is that international resolve to continue the war will collapse before the Afghan government itself is effective enough to stand on its own.

The message we must send as an international community is that this hope is an empty one.

We remember the lessons of 9/11.

We will not let that threat to our people re-emerge; we are committed to finishing the task.

And while our aims in Afghanistan cannot be achieved without the necessary military means, they cannot be achieved by military means alone.

Equally essential are political settlement and a government in which the Afghan people can believe.

Defence, diplomacy, and development are all part of the same solution, and I am delighted that the Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, is speaking to you tomorrow on this very point.

This provides the link to my third point; how will Britain navigate the fiscal crisis and evolve its cross-government security apparatus for the challenges of our uncertain world.

This of course is the aim of the SDSR.

Our National Security Council has agreed that the overarching strategic posture should be to address the most immediate threats to our national security while maintaining the ability to identify and deal with emerging ones before they become bigger threats to Britain.

This flexible, adaptable posture will maintain the ability to safeguard international peace and security, to deter and contain those who threaten Britain and her interests, and, where necessary, to intervene on multiple fronts.

It will also, crucially, keep our options open for a future in which we can expect our highest priorities to change over time.

For Britain’s defence, for all the financial constraints, this means taking strategic decisions for the long-term.

These are the realities we face as we approach the critical decision-making phase of the SDSR.

But the potential prize is great: modernised, well-supported armed forces, ready to defend and promote British national interests.

I say “as we approach” for good reason; we are at a crucial stage in the SDSR and, while no final decisions have been made, the tough choices required are imminent.

So, I am sure that you understand that I am not able to address issues on specific equipment programmes or forces levels.

But I can say that we will strive to take these decisions based on what is right for the country and what is right for defence as a whole in the strategic, and indeed fiscal, conditions we find ourselves in.

We do not take these decisions in a strategic vacuum, but are mindful of our responsibilities to our allies and partners.


And so, ladies and gentlemen, by way of summary:

Britain changes with the changing world around it, our main aim is to put Britain’s defence on a firm financial footing based on a clear policy and strategic framework, shaping our forces to meet the demands of today and the challenges of tomorrow.

Afghanistan and the SDSR are the 2 highest priorities facing us, and I hope I have added to your perspective on these crucial issues.

Because, as I said at the start of my speech, I expect you all to go on to great things.

Doing so, however, means that issues such as these may very well confront you in some form or another.

I hope that how you respond will be informed by your experience here at RCDS in the months ahead; both the knowledge you gain and the experiences you share.

The English thinker John Ruskin once said:

The object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy them.

So, above all, please enjoy your time here at RCDS.

Your very bright futures may very well be instrumental in sustaining both national and international stability in the years ahead.

I have no doubt that you will rise to this significant challenge.