The phrase, in different forms, is as familiar as any in politics. “The first duty of government is to protect the security of the country and its people.” All prime ministers of all parties say words of this kind. All of them mean it. And in most cases the words weigh on them, too, because however pompous they sometimes sound, they are true.
What are the threats to that security, now and in the future? Defence ministers, officials and experts are gathering in Munich this weekend to wrestle with the issue. Politicians cannot predict the future. But they know there is stormy weather ahead, in the shape of the threats from Russia, Islamist terror, cyber-attacks and the new uncertainties in Washington.
Theresa May is no different. But her speech to the Republican party in Philadelphia last month set out some clear markers on her defence thinking. The speech was widely reported as a break with the nation-building of the Iraq war era, and thus with the liberal interventionism of Tony Blair. Her words were juxtaposed with Blair’s support for intervention in his speech in Chicago in 1999.
Yet more careful reading shows that it celebrated engagement with the world, not retreat from it. May’s view of the world is not isolationist, as Donald Trump’s is. On Islamic State, Israel, Iran, the Baltics, Poland, Afghanistan, Kosovo and South Sudan she made clear her commitment to staying engaged. She even said that “we cannot stand idly by when the threat is real and it is in our own interests to intervene”.
That comment reflects what seems increasingly to be the key to everything about May’s worldview, from bad business practice to Brexit: her desire to act responsibly, as she sees it. Many will dismiss that as a banality. But don’t do that if you want to understand her.
In international affairs, May is firmly a traditional multilateralist. She is not, as Brexit might imply, a go-it-aloner. In every other context she thinks alliances matter. Her principal goal when she met Donald Trump in January was to get him to commit to Nato, which he did, sort of.
Her Philadelphia speech stressed the need to rebuild confidence in global institutions such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, which she takes seriously. May even went out of her way to say she wants the European Union to succeed, not unravel, which is not the view of Trump and some fanatical Tories.
A properly functioning Nato is central to May’s view of British security. And this is a pivotal week for stabilising the post-Obama politics of Nato, with defence ministers meeting in Brussels and G20 foreign ministers in Bonn; and both the US defence secretary, James Mattis, and the vice-president, Mike Pence, scheduled to attend the Munich security conference. Every US visitor’s words will be carefully monitored, not least because Trump himself is now scheduled to make his own first presidential trip to Europe in May to attend the NATO summit.
May will have watched with approval as, in comments in Brussels, Mattis rehearsed the administration’s commitment. His view that European allies must spend more and commit more, that Nato was nevertheless a “bedrock”, and that the US will meet its responsibilities – which include 70% of Nato’s budget – is May’s view. It has been Washington’s stance for some years now, though it has been decked out more garishly in the Trump era.
It also happens to be both right and pressing. The age of the large, supposedly one-off intervention, the brief post cold war template that evolved after the tragedies of Rwanda and Bosnia in the 90s and that led directly to Iraq and Libya, is clearly over now. Public readiness across western Europe for such interventionism is low, as Syria showed.
Yet Russian assertiveness is a real and present threat to the continent, and only an alliance can diminish it. In the past three years Russia has annexed Crimea; promoted a civil war in Ukraine; threatened the Baltic states; outmanoeuvred the west in Syria; tested western defences with planes, ships and, above all, cyber; and may be meddling in national elections in Europe, just as it almost certainly did in the US last year in support of Trump.
Russia’s assertiveness is based more on a desire to restore its standing than to dominate the world. But the distinction makes little difference to the threat. And the threat requires a coordinated investment by the alliance. Nato’s 2% of GDP spending target on defence is in some ways a perverse measure – on one reading this week Britain missed the target last year despite being one of Europe’s heavier defence spenders. But more, better coordinated and more effective defence investment is an unavoidable collective responsibility. In that sense, Mattis and May are right.
However, here’s the crux. May is the leader of a government whose most important European policy is withdrawal from Europe. Yet at the same time she is also the leader of a government that wants a stronger and more unified Europe, this time in the shape of Nato, to stand up to Vladimir Putin.
Politically, this is a rotten hand to play. Whenever May meets the leaders of Europe in an EU context she is firmly telling them that Britain is walking away, scrapping EU rules, spurning their single market, refusing to pay a financial penalty, perhaps even setting the UK up as a low-tax offshore threat to the EU 27. Yet whenever she meets these selfsame leaders in a Nato context she is just as firmly telling them that they must spend more on defence, commit to compatibility of military kit and stand together against common challenges from Russia.
As a strategy for winning friends and influencing people in Europe, it could hardly be clunkier or more self-destructive. Why should Angela Merkel, facing a tight election in September, want to do May any favours right now on Russia? It is hardly surprising that Emmanuel Macron, who may be president of France in less than three months, dismisses Britain as a “vassal state” of Trump’s America.
Trump makes all this more difficult. Partly that is because he is so destructive. Jeb Bush’s remark about Trump in 2015, that “he’s a chaos candidate – and he’d be a chaos president”, looks prophetic now, as the Washington Post’s EJ Dionne pointed out this week. Partly it is also because Trump may prove to have been Putin’s candidate. The issue cost Trump his national security adviser and may ultimately bring down the president himself.
May talks bravely about Brexit Britain being outward facing and engaging with the world. But there is a real danger that this largely imaginary Britain simply looks to others like an irrelevance. The elites meeting in Munich this weekend arrived studying a pre-conference report titled: “Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?”
In that kind of dystopian world Britain will seem an important country, with major security assets ranging from nuclear weapons to powerful intelligence services – but failing now more than ever to play a serious role.
Martin Kettle is an associate editor of the Guardian and writes on British, European and American politics, as well as the media, law and music