Riots and unrest have a way of concentrating the attention of policymakers. Suddenly expending blood and treasure to defend peace and freedom in foreign lands seems far less important. In the aftermath of the violence that swept through London and other British cities this past week--with many pointing the finger at budget cuts that have drastically reduced all sorts of social services from youth clubs to police training--will there be any effort to re-examine the position of the defense and national security budget?
Over at World Poltiics Review, I observed:
The notion that the British army might be called in to help secure the country from internal unrest was not on the agenda even a few months ago. And yet this week, Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged, "It is the government's responsibility to make sure that every future contingency is looked at, including whether there are tasks that the army could undertake that might free up more police for the front line."
But John Schindler, a colleague here at the Naval War College, isn't so sanguine about the British military's capability to act as a panacea. "The U.K. is in a very tight spot here," he told me. "Having reconfigured the force for expeditionary warfare, plus the drastic Cameron cuts, the British army is caught. Since the U.K. lacks any paramilitary force like France's gendarmerie or Italy's carabineri, this [function] by default falls on the army. And the number of infantry battalions at home is now so small, I doubt the army actually could restore order in more than one or two cities at a time."
With the Olympics a year away, the British government will be anxious to prevent any repeat of this week's violence from flaring up. So will we see 1) a shift of funds away from the defense budget back into social spending and 2) a shift of emphasis within the defense establishment, away from expeditionary forces towards forces better equipped to handle internal security.
In the short term, this also increases the pressure on the government of David Cameron to 1) wrap up the Libyan operation and 2) continue the departure from Afghanistan.
My concluding thought is this: "If the riots in Britain cause the Cameron government to revisit its spending priorities, and this, in turn, has a ripple effect through the rest of Europe, that will be bad news indeed for a U.S. administration that has been pressuring its allies to concentrate more efforts on developing expeditionary capabilities in order to "share the burden" with Washington."