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Our society must be equal to the threats ahead

Liam Fox says that the geopolitical landscape is fraught with danger, not least the risk of an arms race in the Middle East and nuclear terrorism. We shall need much greater resilience

1 April 2009

12:00 AM

1 April 2009

12:00 AM

There seems to have been a view developing in recent years that defines peace simply as the absence of war. If only we can avoid armed conflict, the argument seems to say, then we will live in a more peaceful world. But peace is not simply the absence of war. Real peace is accompanied by an unavoidable set of values. Freedom from tyranny, freedom from oppression and freedom from fear are essential for real peace, and unfortunately we sometimes have to fight and even to die to defend these freedoms.

This is where our social attitudes, our political direction and our national security converge — in the crucial question about the state of our national resilience. For it is our resilience, our political and social fortitude, which will determine whether or not we are able to deal with the threats and challenges which lie before us.

Our current enemies answer to no public caucus, no court of electoral legitimacy. The need to maintain public support for the conflicts which are sometimes required to ensure our freedom is a burden which democratic states have to carry but many of our enemies do not. The absence of a clear and rational argument for the necessity of military action in certain circumstances can hand the advantage to those who wish to undermine our democratic systems and, indeed, our whole way of life.

It is we in the conflict-averse West who carry what can be a fundamental weakness. We must make it a strength if we are to prevail. And the threats we face are many, diverse and imminent.

Beyond the credit crunch, there is a big bad world out there: the twin threats of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism; a resurgent Russia; a violent Islamist fundamentalism; an emboldened Iran and the global threats of climate change and pandemic. This is why one of the most important meetings scheduled for the G20 summit was one which drew the least attention: that between the American president and the Prime Minister of Russia.

Russia is not a failed state but it looks increasingly like a gangster state: fattened by hydrocarbon wealth but unable to translate this into shared prosperity or political stability. It is probably not a direct threat to this country, but it threatens our interests abroad and our allies. Its swift and strategic invasion of Georgia last August highlighted the stark reality of energy geopolitics in Eurasia. Aside from the objectives of scuttling Georgia and Ukraine’s hopes of Nato membership and demarcating a clear sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, Moscow intended to send a message to the broader West. The Kremlin wants us to know that it takes the competition over control of energy resources more seriously than any other player in the game.


As the whole world watched what looked like a juggernaut roll into Georgia, Russian officers on the ground witnessed a poor fighting force using out-of-date equipment with huge deficiencies in night-fighting capability, communications, and supply and maintenance. It has learned from these errors, and is working hard to strengthen its military machine. The Kremlin intends to spend more than £140 billion over the next five years upgrading its forces.

We now have Russian strategic bombers probing British airspace again, as they did during the Cold War. There are reports of similar activity by the Russian navy inside British territorial waters. The cyber attacks in Estonia, Georgia and most recently in Kyrgyzstan, where the finger still points at Russia, is another reason why we must maintain our vigilance and invest in the technology to deal with future threats.

While in Britain some debate the merits of building two new aircraft carriers, the Russian navy is pressing ahead with six nuclear- powered aircraft carriers, eight ballistic missile submarines, and the largest nuclear icebreakers in the world to pursue its growing ambitions in the Arctic.

Russia may be building from a low base, given the degraded state of its conventional forces, and it may not pose a direct threat to the security of this country, but the Russian leadership has shown in Georgia how it could destabilise our allies and indirectly threaten our security through its stranglehold on energy supplies.

But the most immediate threat is of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons — an event which is certain to lead to an arms race in the Middle East. There are those who say that we must accommodate Iran as a nuclear state. But those such as President Ahmadinejad who talk about wiping Israel ‘off the map’ simply do not belong in the civilised family of nations. Iran has already proven itself one of the world’s main exporters of terror and destabilisation. Do we really want to see nuclear weapons added to this mix? Do we really want to see Hamas or Hezbollah able to make a dirty bomb?

Hamas, the first Sunni group to be successfully penetrated by Shiite Iran, are currently trying to acquire new missiles from Tehran which could hit Ben Gurion airport or Tel Aviv if launched from within Gaza. Do we wish to see fissile material added to this mix? And one need not dwell on Israel’s reaction. If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, then Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt will be next in the queue. After all that we went through in the Cold War, is this a legacy we are willing to leave to the next generation?

I am afraid that many decision-makers in the West wish to ignore the issue of nuclear terrorism, hoping that by doing so the threat will simply disappear or at least not happen ‘on their watch’. This is both naive and dangerous.

Much has been written and discussed on what form a nuclear terrorist attack may take. It is generally accepted that there are three distinct possibilities: an attack on a nuclear installation, for example, a nuclear reactor; a dirty bomb using radioactive material to contaminate a wide area; the explosion of a nuclear device itself, with mass fatalities and potentially catastrophic economic circumstances. Of these three, it is the second, the detonation of a dirty bomb, that concerns me most. While it may be regarded by terrorists as the poor man’s nuclear bomb, a dirty bomb attack could be socially and economically devastating — while relatively simple to carry out. The creation of a nuclear bomb itself would require access to uranium or plutonium, but a dirty bomb could be made out of radioactive materials of the sort found in a range of hospital equipment or even discarded on industrial sites.

The struggle against nuclear terrorism can only be won outright by taking preventive and pro-active measures. If terrorists are able to detonate a nuclear device in one of our cities or major shipping lanes, we’ve already lost the battle. Regardless of the damage done, after the attack the physical, psychological and economical effect would be catastrophic.

And then there’s the ever-present threat of Islamist fundamentalists. There are those in the Islamic world who dislike us for what we do — our involvement in Iraq or our close ties with Israel. Their resentment is a reaction to our deeds but our differences are largely containable. But there is another group who hate us not for what we do, but for who we are. They hate our culture, our way of life, our history and our traditions. They cannot be reconciled to our political system and our values. They will have to be confronted as they have already decided to confront us. We must not make the mistake of thinking that everyone is amenable to dialogue and reason. The 1930s should have taught us that lesson.

Terrorists make an intention assessment, not a capability assessment. They do not focus on the fact that the state is stronger, which it clearly is, but on what it is willing to do. The asymmetric advantage for the terrorist depends on the fact that the state will adhe
re to legal and ethical international norms while they have no requirement or intention to do so. In the Cold War, when faced with a nuclear threat we responded with a nuclear deterrent of our own. This was in the classical mould of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. When dealing with terrorism, it is essential that we speak loudly and clearly and also be willing to use, not just carry, the big stick.

The threats I have outlined are both real and imminent. Immersing ourselves as a society in celebrity headlines and trivia and pretending the dangers don’t exist would be irresponsible. Politicians need to be frank with themselves and with the public about the risks we face. Both politicians and the media need to get away from the bad habit of saying what people want to hear and tell people what they need to hear, to help them confront the inevitable. As a society we have to find the resilience to deal with the challenges of our generation as previous generations dealt with theirs.

Liam Fox is shadow secretary of state for defence. This is an extract from his Spring Address to Politeia.


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