Just don’t mention the ‘war’ (in a speech)
It’s a shame Jason Burke went to RUSI to get an opinion on the FCO’s recent suggestion to Cabinet Ministers that they should no longer mention the phrase – the ‘war on terror’ because it was liable to anger British Muslims and increase tensions more broadly in the Islamic world. A shame because a recent Demos publication Bringing it Home by Rachel, Catherine and Hannah made a rather more comprehensive argument for changing the British Government’s approach both in terms of strategy and content.
However it is worth noting that some senior officials have long made private their disdain for using the military terminology to describe the strategy, though I always found it rather amusing that in speeches or seminars they would pepper their arguments with the phrase but with the qualification, ‘I hate that term’.
I wonder how significant the consequences of this shift will be. In a prophetic article for the journal International Affairs, Paul Rogers (Professor of peace studies at Bradford University) noted how the US Government is beginning to shift their rhetoric to incorporate a new phrase – the long war, in a conscious echo of the paradigm it was seen as replacing - the Cold War. Other academics have suggested that the war on terrorism will be the defining paradigm in the struggle for global order, while Government officials can be sometimes heard talking about a new normality.
Our search for a concept, a phrase, even a description to illustrate the current security environment is not, however, simply a superficial endeavour. If we are not fighting a war on terrorism what are we actually doing? How are we trying to achieve our aims? And perhaps even more important when will it all end? The FCO was right to suggest that the concept of war should be avoided as it could be counter-productive but in deleting it from the lexicon of politicians it will have to find a suitable replacement to describe the threat of international terrorism and what everyone’s role is.
By the way – in the Observer article Burke suggests that neither Blair nor Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, has used the term 'war on terror' in a formal speech since June. True - but Tony Blair referred to the war against terrorism in a Q&A session at the NATO summit in Riga last month…