Shrinking UK Army Equals Reduced Power And Influence – OpEd


By Mohamed Chebaro

Could Western countries fight in a major new war? Could their populations stomach conscription or national service? Comments made last week by the retiring head of the UK’s armed forces cast a heavy shadow over the future of the West’s ability to remain able to democratize, deter and, if need be, defend.

“As the prewar generation, we must similarly prepare,” Gen. Sir Patrick Sanders said, claiming that it is a “whole-of-nation undertaking.” Sanders went on to explain that “Ukraine really matters. It is the principal pressure point on a fragile world order that our enemies wish to dismantle.” Sanders alluded to the enormous influence of China, as well as Iran’s destabilizing and ascending influence, making it feel like the battle lines are being redrawn. He added that it is not overstating the situation to say that “ours” is a prewar generation living in a prewar world.

His words must surely have sent shock waves through British society and the wider Western world of democratic nations, which have enjoyed peace and catered for it through an international rule of law — which critics say has been upheld by inbuilt double standards — for the best part of 80 years.

This is not to say that the world has been completely peaceful in the past few decades, but at least the prospect of war has continuously ticked a bit further away from British shores and other Western countries’ borders. Hence the public debate, government outlook and assessments have repeatedly delivered strategic defense reviews that have called for a slimmed-down armed forces, with reduced investments in hardware, readiness and, above all, human capital.

So, it is no surprise that the UK armed forces have been struggling to recruit and retain troops. Adequately maintaining reserve forces has long since ceased to be a UK priority, amid talk of plummeting morale among the army’s ranks, low pay and a dominant sense of the armed forces being involved in unjust wars. This has kept the youth away, eroding further the UK’s long-held reputation of having one of the world’s most professional and skilled armies.

A YouGov poll published last week reported that 38 percent of under-40s in the UK say they would refuse to serve in the armed forces in the event of a new world war, while 30 percent say they would not serve even if Britain was facing imminent invasion. This age bracket of 18 to 40 years old is similar to the part of society the UK government initially used for conscription in both the First World War and the Second World War.

The same poll also found that one in 14 (7 percent) say they would volunteer for the armed forces if a world war broke out, rising to 11 percent in the event that the British mainland was under threat.

Great catastrophes, it is said, often seem unthinkable until they happen. I am sure this reluctant attitude toward joining the armed forces in the UK would change more rapidly than what is estimated and what studies suggest once society faces an existential threat. The hostilities in Europe, Africa and the Middle East that we are witnessing today seem to tip the balance once again in favor of a return to the drawing board to redesign state and society, especially in the West, to meet the renewed challenges.

The Cold War ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but new challenges have crept up since, from geostrategic adversities posed by a rising China and posturing Russia to the increasingly pointed divide between Global North and Global South. This is a vulnerable planet with demand outstripping supply, with poverty creeping up and state resources not stretching far enough, especially in the Western world, to cater for the welfare state and its growing social care bills thanks to increasingly aging populations in times of austerity and shrinking resources.

But Western societies have veered toward an extreme form of individualism, fueled by a greedy, laissez-faire capitalism that has driven the economic, political and social architecture of Britain and eroded the communal fabric and concepts of service, whether in the armed forces or the numerous public and civil institutions.

Above all, embracing privatization and a form of capitalism with a capital “C” to turbocharge the UK’s economy and growth, as witnessed since the mid-1980s, has no doubt wiped out the sense of service with a capital “S” that is crucial to a society preserving its sense of community, civic responsibility, social cohesion and duty to fight for the common good. Capitalism has inflated the sense of extreme individualism and has rendered cost central to any activity, big or small, and confined the concept of selflessness to narrow and obscure corners of our everyday existence.

As a result, Britain woke up last week to ask itself, what is conscription? Why is armed forces recruitment falling below its intended level? What is a citizen army? Would the sons and daughters of the UK be ready to fight — to answer the call to prepare, train and mobilize? And at what cost?

After years of cuts and retreating investment in education, coupled with a less than adequate political leadership, it has become increasingly clear that young people in the UK and some other European nations see as alien any values that promote a sense of conformity or patriotism. Just look at what happened in France when President Emmanuel Macron tried to introduce voluntary national service for youths in the hope of fostering the country’s dwindling patriotic spirit — hardly anyone answered the call.

It seems that society has lurched increasingly toward a simple equation: everyone for themselves and everything comes at a price. And before efforts are spent to review the social contract between the ruled and their rulers, people are unlikely to be wowed into a U-turn and to again believ

e in selflessness and upholding the common good — values that are essential to potentially persuading people to serve. Until then, states will reap what they have been sowing: poor yields from poor seeds. A shrinking UK army will remain a reflection of a society in disarray and that has, in recent decades, made choices that could only manifest in reduced power and influence.

  • Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.

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