The phrase, in different forms, is as familiar as any in politics. “The first duty of government is to protect the security of the country and its people.” All prime ministers of all parties say words of this kind. All of them mean it. And in most cases the words weigh on them, too, because however pompous they sometimes sound, they are true.
What are the threats to that security, now and in the future? Defence ministers, officials and experts are gathering in Munich this weekend to wrestle with the issue. Politicians cannot predict the future. But they know there is stormy weather ahead, in the shape of the threats from Russia, Islamist terror, cyber-attacks and the new uncertainties in Washington.
Theresa May is no different. But her speech to the Republican party in Philadelphia last month set out some clear markers on her defence thinking. The speech was widely reported as a break with the nation-building of the Iraq war era, and thus with the liberal interventionism of Tony Blair. Her words were juxtaposed with Blair’s support for intervention in his speech in Chicago in 1999.
Yet more careful reading shows that it celebrated engagement with the world, not retreat from it. May’s view of the world is not isolationist, as Donald Trump’s is. On Islamic State, Israel, Iran, the Baltics, Poland, Afghanistan, Kosovo and South Sudan she made clear her commitment to staying engaged. She even said that “we cannot stand idly by when the threat is real and it is…