03/09/2014 |

Nato leaders are under pressure to increase defence spending – but clean water and education for all could prove a powerful weapon against extremism

September 3, 2014 by IPB

By David Williamson, Wales Online, Sep 02, 2014 10:26
Nearly three million Syrians are registered as refugees. The world now has the chance to stop a disaster, win much-needed friends and give them the shock and awe of hope.

When Nato leaders gather in Wales this week many of the statesmen and women around the banquet and negotiating tables will come under intense pressure to stump up cash.

No country can match the military and economic firepower of the United States, but that doesn’t mean the Americans are not growing weary of financing the most advanced defence alliance in human history.

Nato states that have only modest defence spending can expect to be urged to join the US, Britain, Greece and Estonia and commit at least 2% of their budgets to this area.

Supporters of defence spending may find it easier to make this argument when the relevance of Nato membership has been dramatically illustrated by the violence in Ukraine. Would Russia have dared seize Crimea or cross the eastern border if Ukraine had been under the Nato umbrella?

If a new Cold War descends on Europe and states – particularly those that were once part of the Warsaw Pact – face the threat of Russian-sponsored cyber-attacks and subversion, that 2% GDP target may seem a reasonable membership fee.

Many defence hawks who support greater defence investment may resent the fact that the UK invests 0.7% of its GDP in international development. In the Whitehall battle for cash, foreign aid is often seen as an indulgence – particularly in an era of austerity when welfare is under pressure, the cost of new drugs stretches the NHS, and our armed forces routinely face danger overseas.

Rather than seeing international aid spending as an alternative to defence spending, there is a strong argument that such “soft power” can help the UK tackle threats to its security. Access to education does not always stop a person falling victim to radicalism and morphing into a terrorist. Osama Bin Laden did not grow up in poverty and there are plenty of people in vile organisations who have academic degrees as well as pistols under their belts.

But if the West wants to stop failed states turning into rogue states it will need more than fleets of battleships and a new generation of drones.

Nelson Mandela – a true expert on regime change – famously remarked that “education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world”. Extremists recognise this and fear the spread of enlightenment, which is one reason why the odious Nigerian group famed for kidnapping schoolgirls goes by the name Boko Haram – “Western education is a sin”.

Would the ideological ogres find it so easy to recruit followers and seize territory in areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia if both men and women had the highest standards of literacy, if economic development was a reality in their neighbourhoods, if political corruption was stamped out and if clean water and basic medicine were available for all?

The number of registered Syrian refugees has now reached almost three million, the equivalent of the population of Wales. A nation of people who have fled for their lives is spread across countries including Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.

The West has the chance to demonstrate its values by providing these men, women and children with a hope and a future, with education and sanitation. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 proved that we can topple a regime, but what would “shock and awe” look like if it came from the actions of the Department for International Development and not the Ministry of Defence?

There is a regrettable reluctance among governments to write cheques to fund the United Nations efforts to address the needs of Syrian refugees, with the most recent figures showing a 57% funding gap.

This is not just about charity. By investing in the lives of people in countries threatened by extremism we are challenging the narratives of the demagogues who snort at the notion of Western civilisation and point to civilian deaths from air strikes as evidence of mendacity.
It may be more exciting for a Government to authorise the purchase of a jet fighter or a submarine than light bulbs and schoolbooks but this could prove an act of self-defence.

The emergence of healthy and educated young people throughout the Middle East and North Africa can only add to the security of Wales and the UK.
Of course, countries need strong, well-trained, corruption-free armed forces to root out extremist militias and western states need to be able to counter tyrants and terrorists alike. But Nato leaders should recognise that investment in diplomacy and development may do more to protect member states than a hike in spending that will delight the arms industry but do nothing to help those who live under the curse of poverty, disease and ignorance and whose communities are routinely ravaged by extremists.

A joined-up policy will bring the best minds in the MoD, DfID and the Foreign Office together. The challenge is not just to forge a safer world but a better one.