Does it matter if defence spending falls below two percent of GDP?

Much is being made at the moment of NATO’s “2-20” goal: that members ought to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defence, with about 20% of that figure going on equipment – the argument being that if NATO underspends on defence then a) the deterrent effect is undermined, and b) NATO countries will find themselves outgunned if it does actually come to war.

I say ‘at the moment’ but the issue was raised last year at the NATO summit in Newport, Wales. Barack Obama and David Cameron, in a joint article in The Times, criticised members who were not meeting the 2% target and thus not carrying their weight – their weight defined not in absolute terms but in terms relative to their national wealth, which seems a fair way of going about things.

Michael Fallon, Secretary of State for Defence, made a similar point: ‘US taxpayers won’t go on picking up the cheque if we choose to prioritise social welfare spending when the threats are on our doorstep.’

But this has been the case for decades, has it not? It’s not something EU members like to admit; they prefer the conceit that the cause of post-WW2 peace is largely down to the existence of the EU and its former institutions rather than other factors: War weariness; German pacifism; nuclear deterrence; NATO-Warsaw Pact balance; and above all US military and diplomatic power.

Only the USA (4.4%), UK (2.4%), Greece (2.3%) and Estonia (2%) met the target that year – the USA understandably well ahead of the others. We know why Britain is one of the four, but the inclusion of the last two is interesting for different reasons: Greece is skint and so one might excuse them for not hitting the target unlike, say, Germany (1.3%), which is loaded; and Estonia shares a border with Russia and has living within its borders a 25% Russian population and so perhaps might feel a vested interest in spending more on defence.

All other member states fell someway short, Iceland managing a seemingly unfeasible figure of 0% of GDP. But maybe this is a rounding error; it’s difficult to believe they don’t have at least one coastal patrol vessel. Though whatever the particulars of this example, it seems that the majority of NATO countries are not pulling their weight.

So it would be embarrassing, would it not, if the UK fell below the spending target of 2% of GDP. It certainly would, especially after all that finger pointing. Yet this is what is being reported: that George Osborne has told the Prime Minister that on current projections spending will dip below the threshold sometime by 2017.

Personally, I’m not a fan of arbitrary spending targets: if a department is instructed to spend a certain amount of money simply in order to hit a target, the chances are that a good proportion of that money will end up being spent on things we neither need nor want.

‘Don’t worry, Minister, we’ve hit the target,’ is not a comment I want to hear coming out of any senior civil servant’s mouth. Unless, that is, he’s reporting on some sort of recent military engagement. In that case, hitting the target is entirely appropriate.

But if ministers make a big thing about a target, then they really ought to meet it – otherwise they’d be better off not having it; hostage to fortune etc. We can see how the arbitrary 0.7% target for overseas aid has become a political football. If you question it, you are guilty of wilfully killing babies; and if you are for it, you are guilty of high-handedly redistributing money from the poor in Britain to the rich and corrupt in various foreign countries.

The arbitrary target, therefore, can skew the business of government – despite best efforts, I’m sure. For the example of overseas aid, political action becomes less about the rightness and practicality of a particular scheme to help less fortunate countries, and more about the political imperative to meet the target come what may. Success should be defined by its outcomes on the ground, not by reaching the arbitrary target.

How useful are these goals anyway? Why spend 2% of GDP on defence? Why not 1% – or indeed 4% like the USA?

Perhaps the numbers themselves are irrelevant. Military people talk about defence capabilities – naval fleets, air force squadrons, army battalions and formations. What will be – and should be – exercising the minds of defence strategists is not so much the target, but the outcome of the spending each NATO member allocates to defence and how each component part might be brought together as a whole.

NATO itself has recognised that fiscal constraints perhaps necessitate a new approach – or at least a modified one. Smart Defence, for example, encourages member states to cooperate: not just in the development and acquisition of capability, but also in its operation – in cyber defence, missile defence and joint intelligence for example.

But whatever this capability looks like and however it is distributed between member states – it costs money. In these cash-strapped times (last year’s UK budget deficit was £100 billion) it is understandable that governments will be tempted to let defence spending slide: especially because politicos tend to see few votes in defence.

Even so – resurgent tensions with Russia and surging instability in various Islamic countries suggest that defence, though perhaps an unpopular way to spend money, remains essential. Or not, as our politicians will decide?

We are making language a battleground

Another forced apology. Cathy Newman, newsreader at Channel 4, has done what increasing numbers of people are doing – grovelling and apologising because of something they have written on Twitter, the micro-blogging site everyone’s talking about. But at least she still has her job, for now, which is more than some people can boast.

What seems to have happened is this: The Muslim Council of Britain organised something called #VisitMyMosque after becoming distressed that the British people might be getting the wrong idea of their religion because increasing numbers of its adherents are murdering people in the name of that religion.

The idea was to show, by inviting non-Muslims into local mosques around the country, how they and the religion of Islam were not fomenting unrest and hostility towards long-held British principles such as freedom to speak one’s mind without being shot. Indeed, freedom to speak one’s mind full stop.

The corollary was to confront the supposed epidemic of Islamophobia sweeping the country. If the mosques could just show how peaceful and contented Muslims were with Britain, just as she is, then non-Muslims would be less inclined to assume that all Muslims are violent, rampaging psychopaths just because some Muslims are violent, rampaging psychopaths.

It’s easy to be cynical, but this is probably a good idea, even though one might argue it is based on a false premise. There is a growing sense of separateness between the Muslim population of Britain and the rest, so anything that connects the two or breaks down the walls of separation is probably a good idea.

So what could Cathy Newman, a woman who seems to lean leftwards and support the general thrust of feminism, have done to require an apology? It can’t have been her leftish sentiment, which is at one with Muslim sentiment and grievance, so it must have been her feminist outlook. After all, we know the Muslims don’t like women much, so women flaunting their independence from and their equality with men is not going to go down too well, is it?

Well, who knows about that? And who knows why Cathy Newman chose to go along to the local mosque in Streatham? Her reasons are her own, but perhaps, as a journalist, she simply wanted to see what this MCAB initiative was all about; or perhaps she thought the #VisitMyMosque campaign to reduce Islamophobia was just the sort of thing to appeal to her progressive instincts. As I say, her reasons are her own.

So she went to the mosque; and then she left the mosque almost immediately, commenting on her #VisitMyMosque experience in terms that seemed disparaging, saying that, despite covering her head and taking off her shoes and not carrying the flag of Saint George in an offensive attitude and not crying death to the non-infidel, she had been ushered back onto the street.

Soon afterwards, and perhaps unwisely when the benefits of hindsight are factored in, she took to Twitter, that conduit of measured debate. She said she had been ‘ushered’ out of the building by a ‘man’ despite being ‘respectfully dressed’.

This was construed as her saying she was treated badly by a Muslim man because she was a woman and why oh why won’t these Muslim men learn how to treat women with respect – thus conforming to the ‘Islamophobic’ narrative these #VisitMyMosque visits were designed to confront.

She was duly found guilty of the newish and pressing crime of Islamophobia, with all the judicial efficiency only Twitter can offer. After all, justice delayed is justice denied. The obligatory apology soon followed.

Twitter fulminations tend towards the irrational, but in this instance it seems Cathy Newman really did have something to apologise for. The Huffington Post has since acquired CCTV footage of her arrival and departure, and it gives the distinct impression that the things she suggested happened in her tweets did not in fact happen. She arrived, took off her shoes, spoke to someone, put her shoes back on and then left with no sign of any sort of ushering taking place.

So, of course, it is right that she apologised. But for what? The relevant tweets are now deleted, but those captured by the Guardian newspaper suggest she was simply commenting on what happened.

First she tweeted, ‘Well I just visited Streatham mosque for #VisitMyMosque day and was surprised to find myself ushered out of the door…’ Then she tweeted, ‘I was respectfully dressed, head covering and no shoes but a man ushered me back onto the street. I said I was there for #VisitMyMosque mf’ And finally she tweeted, ‘But it made no difference.’

By your words will you be convicted. I have it in mind that someone famous said something like that, but I could be mistaken; might just be my words, but they seem apt. Those are the things she said on Twitter (assuming she didn’t delete other comments). But in a letter of complaint later released by the mosque she was accused of ‘suggesting she was forcibly ejected from our mosque for being a woman’.

Now, the word ‘usher’ is certainly on the same spectrum as ‘forcibly ejected’, but it is not quite the same thing: not by a long way. In fact, to be ushered somewhere is decidedly not to be subjected to force of any kind. Yet she was denounced for saying she was ‘forcibly ejected’ from the mosque. It doesn’t appear that she said this at all (again, unless there are other incriminating tweets).

And this is the problem, isn’t it? We are making language a battleground, quite literally in some instances. Just to remind ourselves: people have recently been murdered in Denmark because they attended a debate on art, blasphemy and freedom of expression and in France because they drew satirical cartoons. And there is a connection to Islam, isn’t there, no matter that the majority of Muslims would not murder people for what they say or draw?

But if murder and extreme violence is anathema to the majority of Muslims in the West, not quite the same thing can be said about Muslim attitudes to free speech, the use of language and satirical images. Earlier this month in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders thousands of British Muslims demonstrated in Whitehall and presented a petition signed by over 100,000 people to No 10 Downing Street that says, among other things, ‘I denounce the actions of all these people who are connected with the production of the cartoons of the Holy Prophet Muhammad peace be upon Him’.

Under the guise of a ‘Global Civility’ movement, a sizeable number of Muslims are campaigning to somehow end the rights of people in free countries to draw cartoons. The Muslim Action Forum has even devised a ‘legal strategy’ to ‘prevent the continuous insulting and derogatory publications depicting and abusing the personality of our Holy Prophet Muhammad peace be upon Him.’

They intend to mount a ‘series of legal challenges in the English Court system to establish that such depictions of our Holy Prophet peace be upon Him is the worst kind of ‘Hate Crime’ that can be perpetrated on the 3 million Muslims in the UK and 1.7 billion Muslims worldwide.’

Legal challenges?

This is a clear statement of intent, which should chill the blood of the civilised – even those who have no wish to draw any kind of ‘derogatory’ cartoon. This Forum even says it has plans for a Private Members Bill to bring this into effect.

It’s all linked, isn’t it – cartoons, language and the discussion of Islam?

Cathy Newman, however, finds herself caught in the melee. On the one hand her language was, as she said, ‘poorly chosen’. But her poorly chosen words were not the words for which she was condemned. Her words were distorted and inflated by those who wish to use the incident (such that it is an incident) to further their own authoritarian interests.

As such, her apology was perhaps overdone. She said, via Twitter naturally, that she offered here ‘sincere apologies for tweets she sent in haste’, and accepted her ‘tweets were inappropriate’ and that she had ‘caused a great deal of offence’.

Do some of those words sound familiar? ‘Inappropriate’; ‘offence’; ‘tweets sent in haste’. This is the pusillanimous language of political correctness. Those cartoons, we are told, cause offence. They are inappropriate. They are hate crimes that must be punished with the full force of the law.

So it seems we are at in impasse. On the one hand we have the principle of free speech and free expression, and on the other we have a desire for something they are calling ‘Global Civility’ which isn’t really about global civility at all but rather the introduction of a set of special legal protections for one religion in particular. It is difficult to see how these two positions can be reconciled.

Of course most people want to live in a world without insult or offence, but that world is not a real world. If someone wants to, they will always find offence in what someone else says or does. It’s the way of things. Muslims, above all, should know that the world is an imperfect place. Many of the countries in which they form a majority of the population demonstrate that simple, obvious fact every day.

If we try to legislate offence out of humanity, we will soon find that we are legislating something else out of humanity as well – and that something is freedom. He is offended by cartoons; she is offended by sexist language; we are offended by everything. There is no logical end to it. If we don’t watch out, this will consume us.

‘Seconds away… Round One’

You’ve probably heard a disembodied voice sing the words ‘seconds away’ on a number of occasions: like when you’ve been watching the boxing on the television or perhaps live at the venue. I have, and I’ve never spent much time wondering what they meant.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve spent any time at all pondering their meaning: for the very simple reason that I’ve always assumed they were a reference to the last few seconds on the clock before the bell sounds, Round One begins and the two pugilists are free to punch each other’s heads in.

That’s what I would have assumed you thought, too. But no! Seconds, in the context of boxing, does not refer to a small unit of time before the fighting starts. Something quite different.

It turns out that it refers to the bloke massaging the boxer on the arms, back and perhaps the legs before the fighting starts. We more commonly refer to this chap as the trainer, or the corner man, but he is also the ‘second’. Rather like the duelist’s second.

For this piece of trivia we have P.G. Wodehouse to thank. Well, I do – you may have known all along. And, quite frankly, I’m beginning to wonder if his canon might not be on a par, in so far as understanding English and English custom is concerned, with the biblical canon comprising the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer.

More Reservist Call-Outs

In what I will now call ‘We need to call out the Reserves for this?’ series of posts, I notice Mr Mark Francois, the Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence, has issued another Call-Out Order for the Reserves.

This time it’s a renewal order, under section 56(1B) of the Reserve Forces Act 1996, to extend authority to send Reservists to the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP).

We are told that over 100 Reservists have been called out for Cyprus duty in the last 12 months, and that we are to do the same for the next 12 months, this order ending in December 2015.

I’m all in favour of Reservists serving with Regular forces, both on exercises and on operations. Many Reservists want to serve, have flexible jobs that enable them to take six months or so off from their day jobs, and many could do with the money. Many of them are also highly competent.

But although these call-outs will only involve volunteers who are ‘willing’ and ‘have the support of their employer’, it is still bizarre that we do not have the Regulars to meet this ongoing commitment. That is the serviceman’s job, it is why he (and she, of course) has made it his full-time job.

This is the thing about the Reserves 2020 plan. On the one hand it does something worthwhile: attempting to make the Reserves more ‘capable, usable, integrated and relevant’. Who could argue against this? But these are virtuous words that are deliberately hard to dispute. Who in their right minds (apart from Islamists and our own domestic Britain-haters; though one might question the soundness of their state of mind) would deliberately set out to lessen the capability of the Reserves?

On the other hand, the plan does something less worthwhile: actually making the Regulars less capable and usable. A reduction in the Army alone of 20,000 soldiers, comprising 20% of its existing strength is staggering when the figures are considered in any detail. The simple maths does not add up. We are recruiting approximately an extra 12,000 Reserves to replace the 20,000 lost Regulars. It doesn’t make sense.

It doesn’t make sense, that is, unless we see it for what it really is. Britain is skint and we simply cannot afford to maintain the force levels of former years. This is what the government had to come to terms with when it achieved office in 2010, and reducing the Regulars is one of the ways they are attempting to balance the books (though not doing a great job; Britain still managing an annual deficit of about £100 billion). They could prioritise spending differently, but they choose not to. That is where we are.

And so we will have to push on with trying to integrate the Reserves with the Regulars and using them a lot more than before. In one sense this is a good thing. The Reserves have a lot of capability. But in another sense it’s a bad thing: a recognition that Britain is on the wane. Sad that. But true. And it is still not clear we will be able to recruit the proposed numbers of Reserves.

Sir David Attenborough in town

In Oxford right now a subdued conga line has wrapped itself around Waterstone’s bookshop on the corner of Broad Street and Cornmarket Street. It’s quite long. It’s got itself at least halfway up Ship Street and seems to be growing. Six feet deep in parts. Thankfully those taking part are not jumping up and down and kicking their feet from side to side and inappropriately touching the hips of the stranger standing in front of them. They have a certain dignity. Several hundred of them, I’d say, though I can’t be sure. But it’s not one of those pseudo ‘protest’ groups, certainly. Which is probably just as well because they are seemingly waiting for Sir David Attenborough who is promoting his memoirs, Life on Air, and is due to arrive at 4.30pm.

Oh, look! Russell Brand is in interesting conversation with Owen Jones

I see from an email that the ‘Guardian’s renowned journalist and commentator Owen Jones’ is going to be talking to Russell Brand, the narcissist, about justice and revolution. They will be exploring progressive revolutionary ideas. As if progressive revolutionary ideas never came out bad. Tickets will cost £15. Up the revolution.

I suppose Russell Brand is renowned like Owen Jones is renowned, in the way Dan Brown’s characters are renowned, and make-believe. Brand is also an ‘incendiary writer and comedian.’

That’s two big names upon which justice and fairness are now presumably dependent – Brand and Jones. But more big names will be dropped into conversation, like the renowned Orwell (he’s a famous thinker, on politics) and the renowned Piketty, whose work inspires Brand.

Personally I find it offensive that this ragtag bunch of callow, pseudo-intellectual, self-regarding, dangerous ‘revolutionaries’ – who, incidentally, are wrong at the most basic of levels – seek to co-opt the likes of Orwell to their pompous, destructive cause. But they have their jobs to do, I suppose – Owen promoting his book, Brand promoting his book as well as his indomitable ego and the Guardian taking the opportunity to promote their equally indomitable sense of moral self-worth.