This year the Manama conference celebrates its tenth year anniversary. An anniversary in a year of anniversaries that includes the centenary of the First World War and 70 years since the D-Day landings.
Winston Churchill said:
Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft.
So as we contemplate our future, the rise of ISIL, Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, Iran’s machinations, the spread of Ebola we are bound to ask what lessons history contains.
Complexity has replaced old cold war certainties.
We see weapons proliferation non-state actors pedaling an expansionist global ideology, rogue states and ungoverned space and Russia resurgent. The boundaries between international and domestic threats, military and non-military affairs, are blurring.
And these dangers combined with the willingness of aggressors to as our Prime Minister says “rip up the rule book” make our present situation unprecedented.
The concurrent nature of these threats seems to be the ‘new normal’. And the threats we face are not merely to national security but the international stability on which our trade resources and technology depend, threats to the ‘world order’ that Henry Kissinger has so eloquently described.
I know how essential stability is to economic progress and the advance of democracy here in the Gulf and here in Bahrain. Our appreciation of the value of international stability demands we think hard about how it can be guaranteed in future.
Just 12 months ago some suggested we were entering a new era of contingency post Afghanistan; that our Parliament’s vote last year not to launch air strikes against a Syrian regime deploying chemical weapons marked a more cautious approach to the use of hard power; that the UK would only defend ‘on the goal line’, hoping danger would pass us by.
They were wrong. That is not the British way. It wasn’t in the Falklands. It wasn’t in Kuwait.
The evidence suggests that, far from entering an era in which Britain’s armed forces will be used sparingly, we are well into an age of uncertainty.
Our Strategic Defence and Security Review concluded that we should assume a pro-active role in defending our global rules-based system. Everything that has happened since has reinforced that view and I cannot see it changing in next year’s review.
Yet achieving that ambition means learning 2 lessons from history.
First, liberty is underpinned by credible armed forces. They are our deterrent. Forces not just well equipped and well trained but ready to deploy rapidly, and at scale, but being capable is not enough.
Our friends and our enemies must know we have the political will to act, and to use all the forces at our disposal. And there should be no doubt we do and we will.
Our Parliament voted overwhelmingly to launch air strikes against ISIL in Iraq. Public opinion strongly supported that position. We can act and we will act, when we need to, just as our friends in the Gulf have done. And we will use whichever of our forces are most appropriate.
Against ISIL we are contributing fast jets and surveillance aircraft. We are providing training, equipment and staff officers. We are not providing ‘combat boots on the ground’.
The lessons from our experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere are that defeating insurgencies does require boots on the ground, but the best approach is local forces that are inclusive and enjoy popular support.
That is why we support the Iraqi government’s rebuilding of their security forces, their development of a national guard, and the vital efforts at political reconciliation between Sunni, Shia and Kurd. Iraqi boots must lead.
But that does not mean we would rule out boots on the ground in other situations, where we need to defend our interest and defend our allies.
The second lesson from history implicit in the title of today’s session is the importance of partnerships. Modern conflicts have been defined by great coalitions and the complex nature of our challenges today means no nation can afford to go it alone.
Fortunately, our Afghan experience, 48 nations working together, provides a model for the future. Partnerships underpin our anti-Da’esh coalition, to cut off their funding, stop extremists crossing the border, degrade their capability and discredit their poisonous ideology.
And October’s Kuwait conference showed there is unity from this region, and in countries as far apart as Norway to Australia to tackle violent extremism. We must grasp the opportunity to counter that extremist narrative and all those who propagate it.
As well as combat boots, we need combat diplomacy and combat communications.
When it comes to partnerships the UK starts from a strong base. We have many friends particularly here in the Gulf. Soon will be marking 200 years of friendship with Bahrain.
Yet all friendships have room to grow.
Our relationships with our Gulf allies are no different. Since our decision to withdraw our permanent presence in the Gulf 40 years ago… we have often appeared driven by short term imperatives.
Our commitment has been described to me as “a single year’s engagement, 40 times over”. Old friends deserve better, that’s why engagement lies at the heart of our strategy.
We can already point to strong collaborations the Gulf Initiative, UK UAE task force, Defence Co-operation Accords and Cougar 14, where we deployed our naval task group.
The arrangement we signed here goes further. Not just expanding our Bahraini footprint but considering our defence presence in Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as a strategic whole. Thinking decades not years ahead. That will be a key part of our refreshed strategy for the Gulf.
So as we look towards 2015 I see uncertainty, competition and confrontation, on the horizon. In such a world there is of course a role for soft power, and for the smart power that Joe Nye advocated. But there is no substitute for hard power. And that is not something the UK will forget.
But we will not look to act alone.
International challenges require international solutions and the benefits of co-operation extend beyond improved security and increased international stability.
Over the past 40 years our Gulf allies have conjured economic miracles out of natural resources.
The history of this region has a third lesson for us when you succeed we all succeed.