The most obvious is the US, whose willingness – often aided and abetted by the UK – to ignore any international agreements or institutions which stand in its way makes it very much harder to insist that other countries should obey the rules which it rejects. Another is Russia, and having watched what the US has done in recent decades, it shouldn’t really be any surprise that Putin thinks it appropriate to behave in similar fashion.
This week, a former head of the army called for the deployment of more UK troops than currently planned on the European mainland to “send a message” – one of my least favourite political clichés – to Putin that he “should think twice before he considers any further expeditions and expansion”. And perhaps we should send a gunboat or two as well, because this sounds like something from the imperial era.
Using the presence of troops to warn another state not to take a certain action is credible only to the extent that that other state believes that those troops will be sent into battle against them. And given the difficulty that the UK Government has had in identifying even a few minor little sanctions which make it look tough without actually achieving very much, waving a big stick in the air doesn’t look terribly credible to me. And I have more than a sneaking suspicion that it won’t look very credible to Putin either.
History should teach us that threatening military action is a course of action which can develop a momentum and a ‘logic’ of its own. “Messages” can get misunderstood all too easily (particularly if the quality of intelligence available to those making the decisions is as poor as the example I referred to yesterday). The challenge is to de-escalate the tension which is building, not escalate it further in response. The idea that negotiation isn’t possible unless backed up by big sticks and threats of military action belongs to the past, but still seems rife in military circles.
International security depends on creating and strengthening international institutions and agreements, not on flouting them.