Tag Archives: NATO

Ireland: The value of foreign and security policy quirk

4 Apr

The war on Ukraine has left Ireland’s foreign and security policy looking exposed. While Ireland has been strong in its condemnation of Russian aggression, and has accepted a good number of Ukrainian refugees, the European security response has left Ireland looking lonely. Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO (Finland joins today!), and European states have sent large amounts of weaponry, but Ireland has traditionally had an ambiguous neutrality policy that means it has not joined military alliances. Nor does it send weaponry abroad. Debates on Ireland’s security stance are now becoming more pronounced with some arguing that Ireland needs to step up, take its own defence more seriously, and align militarily with its European allies. Public opinion, however, is still firmly supportive of the tradition stance of ambiguous neutrality and military non-alignment. The Government has announced that it will undertake a review.

Let’s take a step back and tease out a three strands of this. The first is ‘neutrality’. Ireland has never been neutral and indeed the former foreign minister said that Ireland was not neutral in relation to Ukraine: it condemns Russian aggression wholeheartedly. Ireland was quietly pro-Allied in WWII and anti-communist in the Cold War. Debates on Irish ‘neutrality’ are misplaced. Rather than neutral, Ireland is militarily non-aligned. It is not a member of NATO, and for historical reasons has been shy about joining a military organisation in which the UK play a prominent role. Its armed forces are not geared up for offensive action or anything other than small-scale operations.

Indeed, the organisation and posture of the armed forces is a second strand worth teasing out. The Army, Naval Service and Air Corps are small and under-funded. They struggle to recruit. Over the past week, two Russian ships have been acting suspiciously off the Irish coast. The Irish Naval Service has been unable to put any ships to sea this week because of crew shortages. It is a shocking indictment of decade after decade of under-funding, mainly in relation to pay. Government after government has been unwilling to pay members of the armed forces a salary that would tempt a young tech-savvy population to forgo the high earnings found in IT or construction. The posture of the armed forces is also uniquely Irish. The Air Corps and Naval Service are essentially fisheries protection and search and rescue units. The Army is hugely oriented towards United Nations peacekeeping, and has a justifiably proud record in this regard. All three wings do other things, of course, but the organisation is simply not set up for offensive warfare or interoperability beyond UN peacekeeping. The country also is also very vulnerable to cyber attacks, with the health service IT system being paralysed in 2021.

There is no doubt that Ireland is a free-rider on NATO, and benefits from its geography on Europe’s western periphery. There is a lobby that calls for Ireland to step up its defence capability and purchase weapons systems that would genuinely allow it to defend itself. The cost would be enormous. NATO recommends that its member states spend 2% of GDP on defence. Ireland spends 0.26%. It is simply not at the races. It is very unlikely that a public that is content with the status quo would stomach a significant increase in defence spending. It is worth remembering that Ireland suffers a very real housing crisis. It is the number one political issue. Ireland that has failed comprehensively to address a basic human need: shelter. There is a political commitment to spend more on defence, but a radical increase seems politically unlikely.

And this brings us to the third strand: Ireland security and foreign policy posture. The State is a full and enthusiastic member of the European Union (and many of its security protocols). It is culturally Atlanticist in its outlook, and has a reasonably good record on overseas development and humanitarianism (more could always be done). Ireland has one crucial characteristic that gives it a foreign and security policy edge. For want of a better word, let’s call it ‘quirk’. Ireland does not fit with the NATO herd. The country has a history of what many believe to be ‘neutrality’ but really is military non-alignment. It had a proud tradition of speaking out on nuclear weapons (of which it has none) and on injustice (of which it has a fair degree of experience). That tradition of speaking out has largely been lost, and is a real missed opportunity. By not being a member of NATO, Ireland has flex, the ability to speak out, to be a go-between, to float ideas, and be creative. It does not use this flex (an under-valued weapon for good) nearly often enough. Ireland has a cultural value that operates far beyond its GDP or whatever conventional weaponry it can muster. For some reason, (let’s call it the Riverdance-effect) a lot of people like Ireland. In any review of security and foreign policy, this quirk or flex needs to be a centre-piece. This ability to mediate, to scope out, to be different, to not be armed to the teeth and to not have a ‘military wing’ in government is a real strength.

Every so often, Ireland serves on the UN Security Council and congratulates itself on doing “a grand job”. Certainly it is keen and proud. But it does not use these opportunities nearly often enough to speak truth to power, to innovate, to provide work-arounds for seemingly intractable international problems. This is a missed opportunity and a defence review that does not include a wider foreign policy review would be another one.

All communities – even communities of states – need that charismatic individual that can act as a go-between, serve as an example, and show that being different is useful. We can get too hung up on a word – like ‘neutrality’. More important is an active stance that is outward-looking, pro-peace, able to weather shocks, and useful to the international community. Another NATO member – cookie-cutter style paying its dues, in hock to arms manufacturers, and in alliance with states with truly dreadful human rights records like Turkey – is not in the interests of Ireland, Europe or the wider international community. What would be useful is a debate that values Ireland’s difference, and neutral spaces that allow for alternatives, questions and reflection.

There is no doubting that – internationally – we are in a 1930s moment. The rules-based international order is crumbling, capital is more mobile and volatile than ever, populist leaders are on the rise, a climate crisis is on-going, Russia has a clear European destabilisation strategy, and a China-US confrontation looks increasingly likely. There is the possibility that we are one accident away from a tipping point. This is precisely the moment when we need a non-aligned movement with independent actors who can be peace entrepreneurs. NATO might be the right choice for some European countries, but that does not mean it is the right choice for all European countries.

This is not to say that Ireland should not spend more on defence (especially on pay and cyber-security). It is, however, a way of saying that quirk and flex have value. When everyone else is a horse, be a unicorn.


Let’s talk about peace

15 Mar

Let’s talk about peace

For obvious reasons, there is a lot of war commentary around. Much of it is a bit too interested in military matters for my liking and seems disinterested in wider political and cultural issues that are needed to stop the war on Ukraine and further wars. Stopping the horrific attacks on civilians in Ukraine is necessary and urgent. But can we go further? Can we also ask questions about how it was possible for this war to start in the first place and how we might prevent further wars like this one beginning in the future?

There is – of course – a ready-made negotiating space in place in the shape of the United Nations. But, of course, leading states have worked hard to make sure that the United Nation’s multilateral approach is always subservient to the unilateral solo-runs by those same leading states. That most of us need a few moments to remember the name of the UN Secretary General tells us all we need to know about the current status of the UN.

We seem to be in a 1930s moment: war and militarism raging in Europe and elsewhere; commodity price are experiencing shock after shock; the cost of living crisis is real and fuelled by globalised capital; an ugly populist nationalism is on the rise in many states (including the UK and US); and resurgent states are brazenly upsetting the “international order”. That international order was always precarious and the nostalgia for a “rules-based international order” contains more than a few comforting myths about just how good it was. It was better than nothing but deeply flawed and based on fundamental economic and racial inequalities.

One major difference between the 1930s and the current era is the lack of thinking about peace. The period after WWI saw a number of public intellectuals, many of them personally traumatised by the War, think seriously about peace and an international system that could ensure peace. It is easy to criticise much of this thinking as naïve, too insulated in fashionable literary sets, and removed from the “realities” of the “real business” of statehood. But one thing that was very present in the peace thinking of the 1920s and 1930s was creativity. Initiatives like the Peace Union Pledge, or the thinking behind the League of Nations, required imagination and modes of thinking that were different from the orthodoxy (an orthodoxy that was based on a balance of power and occasional war to “rebalance” the system). What the pioneers of the 1920s and 1930s were doing was thinking about a peace system rather than a war system. Looking around now, it is difficult to hear the public intellectuals who are thinking about a peace system. Those thinkers are there, of course, it just seems that in the midst of war no one wants to talk about peace.

It is particularly worrying to see NATO being touted as the answer to Europe’s problems (there are of prominent voices pushing for Finland and Sweden to hastily join NATO). It needs to be said with clarity that NATO is a nuclear armed military alliance. It is not in the business of peace. It normalises militarism and nuclear weapons (arms manufacturers love it). But the nature of military alliances is that those who feel threatened by the alliance make their own alliance and tool up. It is a classic security dilemma or vicious circle of armament and re-armament. An emphasis on NATO will not lead to peace in Europe. At most it will lead to a militarised Europe subservient to the United States and a hyper nervous Russia and China (anyone relaxing at this thought?).

So is it possible to think of a peace system rather than a war system? Is it possible to think of routeways to de-escalation and mediation? Is it possible to think of systems that do not reinforce the logic of war? In the current situation that is a tall order. The necessity to stop the assault on Ukraine clouds out most other thoughts.

If we were to sit down and think about an international peace architecture, would it look radically different from the United Nations? Any new system would need to be as universal as possible, to set down acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, to have mechanisms for mediation and intervention, to have humanitarian capabilities, and to have its own powers of initiative. So a new system would look a lot like the current one. But, fundamentally, it would need to prioritise peace over ceasefires and humanitarianism. This would mean moving beyond the veto powers held by the “winners” of WWII, recognising that Africa and South America exist, and that many of us transnational lives that have very ambiguous relationships with states. An international peace architecture that reflected realities would be tolerant of the multiple ways that we identify – with families, clans, social and cultural movements, professional associations, sexual orientation, and spirituality etc. It would move far beyond the current state-centric stitch up.

All of this might sound dreadfully naïve, but then those pioneers of humanitarianism, mediation and multilateralism were derided as dreadfully naïve. They started out from a recognition of the horrors of war (many of them experienced it first hand) but needed imagination and creativity to think a-new. Do the men we see in suits in the news have that imagination?