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Defence and security: facing tomorrow’s problems today

Update from Wilton Park CEO Tom Cargill, September 2021

When events like the fall of Kabul intervene, the policy challenge is to quickly mobilise to mitigate suffering, whilst at the same time understand what is happening, what it means and how to respond, all the while dealing with other daily priorities.

This involves hundreds and even thousands of different people. The complexity can appear bewildering, as can the challenge of making the right decisions.

Wilton Park plays a small but important role by shaping the networks of expertise we need to quickly understand and catalyse the next steps, one step removed from the avalanche of day-to-day demands. Much of the immediate work unavoidably takes place offline, but we are already pivoting to bring fresh thinking and challenge to wider global thinking amidst the fallout from events in Afghanistan.

Our past work in this space, some of which is captured below, points to a key aspect of the challenge. Looking back through the reports and insights generated from past work on Afghanistan and the region, a perennial question in our highly complex media environment jumps out. How do we get the right information to the right people at the right time and in the right format to improve policy decisions? This is an increasingly urgent question for many of us, whether thinktanks, NGOs or the private sector.

As we at Wilton Park continue our re-organisation and focus, including evolved regional and thematic prioritisation to sharpen our contribution to policy, these questions of policy effectiveness increasingly drive our work.

Events in Afghanistan and lessons for future Western engagement in conflict-affected states

The establishment of Taliban 2.0 in Afghanistan exactly 20 years after the overthrow of the Taliban 1.0 regime, accompanied by many tragic images and stories, has been a jarring, heart wrenching development. Amongst the many reactions has been an outpouring of questioning over whether, when and how the UK, US and other Western governments should attempt to intervene in conflict-affected states.

These questions have in fact been building for at least the past 10 years as it became apparent that interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and other contexts were falling far short of the hoped for success. Many Wilton Park conferences over the course of the last decade, such as those below, have addressed key questions around conflict, stabilisation, state-building and peace processes, seeking to provide recommendations for more effective approaches.

Our December 2010 conference on Talking while fighting examined lessons for Afghanistan from a number of insurgencies and civil wars, including Nagaland, Nepal, Tajikistan, Darfur and El Salvador. The report recommendations stated, inter alia, that political contacts and discussions between belligerents in Afghanistan had been far more limited than in many other internal conflicts; that it was urgent to stop talking about peace in Afghanistan as an end goal and to put more emphasis on the process; that a strong external mediation team was vital to managing and coordinating such a process, and that new political initiatives should not wait until the point of withdrawal of international military forces.

In December 2013, we organised a conference on Assisting host country militaries. That discussion stressed the critical need for sound understanding of political relationships and power structures in the host nation in order to avoid an overly technocratic approach.

It noted the importance of not building host country security forces based on Western templates, one of the factors to which the rapid collapse of the Afghan army following the withdrawal of US and Allied militaries is now widely attributed.

Rethinking statebuilding, fragility and conflict, held in autumn 2016, examined lessons from Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Somalia and Lebanon. Among the conclusions and recommendations were that more development aid, while beneficial for improving lives, will not automatically lead to more stability, as changes in the use of force, patronage, popular narratives and financial flows will influence conflict more than delivery of public goods; and that planning should take place in a framework of decades rather than years, keeping medium-term expectations focused and real whilst setting bold long-term ambitions that can drive momentum for peace.

There are many ‘what ifs’ that can be asked with regard to Afghanistan and other conflicts, but there is no going back in time to test counterfactuals. Wilton Park is planning a new conference on engagement in conflict-affected states and how the stark failure in Afghanistan may affect approaches to this challenge. One new area of focus will be an examination of the obstacles to implementing lessons rather than just learning and shelving them in many instances, and how those obstacles might be overcome.


In November, we are planning two linked events on ‘Enhancing security to support international collaboration on research – exploring ‘Trusted Research’. The first will be UK-focused and the second with Nordic nations and will focus on how to get the most out of international scientific collaboration whilst protecting intellectual property, sensitive research and personal information.

This week, we are delighted to welcome our first full in-person policy dialogue to Wiston House since the start of the pandemic. Reimagining UK development assistance to 2030 and beyond will start a series of dialogues and builds on the series of virtual dialogues we ran across last year on The Future of Aid. Read our reports from those discussions.

This new series, supported by The Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), brings together stakeholders from across the development and climate sectors for three dialogues over the next year. Today’s global development challenges are increasingly complex, severe, and inter-connected, from global health security to climate change and environmental degradation. To tackle such global challenges, collaboration and coordination will be needed between national systems and with support from international partners. This discussion will explore the role the UK can play as it pledges to remain a world-leading international development donor committed to the global fight against poverty, and to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The discussion will take place in the context of the UK’s Integrated Review, published in March 2021, and the development of an International Development Strategy to set out the long-term approach to aid.


This month we are hosting Conflict and Peacebuilding in Mozambique, a continuation of an annual Wilton Park series on peacebuilding in Africa that started in 2015.

A persistent theme has been the need to move peacebuilding beyond state and elite-centred approaches to encompass the wider communities involved in conflict including, in particular, youth and women’s networks. This event will build on this theme by considering how national, regional, and international stakeholders can better support diversity and inclusion in sustainable peacebuilding processes.

And in October, we will be hosting the Council on Geostrategy’s ‘Extending ‘Global Britain’ through naval diplomacy’ at Wiston House. The event considers the role of naval diplomacy in securing the national interest and shaping an open international order.


Following on from recent cybersecurity events focusing on healthcare and critical national infrastructure, we are exploring options for an event on grey zone conflict and its increasing prevalence in cyberspace.

We already have a strong track record of work focusing on how to prevent the misuse of peaceful nuclear technology, either by proliferant states or terrorist groups. However, there is another conversation to be had about peaceful nuclear technology, one that explores its uses for progressing the UN’s SDGs. Did you know that only 20% of people in Africa have access to radiotherapy for cancer treatment?

And a highly successful meeting in South Africa last year provided the basis for a suite of five meetings run in partnership with the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the US State Department which concluded last month with an international virtual forum, led by UK Minister, Ann-Marie Trevelyan, to develop recommendations towards the forthcoming Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.

As we look ahead to hybrid in-person events, COVID-19 has obliged us to think on our feet and be agile. A meeting in support of the UN expert group investigating the verification of nuclear disarmament has moved to virtual later this month; another assessing nuclear risk reduction will now take place in hybrid format in November. We will also convene a virtual conference with the FCDO in support of UK work on lethal autonomous weapons systems in November.

We are supporting a conversation ‘Challenging Complexity – new tools to tackle tomorrow’s trickiest problems’ at the Royal Society on 12 October. This is an invitation only event for senior leaders considering the challenges of developing strategy in a constantly-changing world, where data is abundant but unmanageable, how best to deal with cascading consequences and improve decision-making.

The annual Wilton Park HMG Futures horizon scanning event is in planning for February 2022. The event will explore implementing the Integrated Review proposal to employ Science and Technology as a strategic advantage in security and defence.

We continue to support Britain’s efforts towards consensus on responsible behaviours in space, with events planned for 2022.


With the increasing focus on both economic crime and illicit finance, we are currently reviewing the destructive influence of both in relation to trade, security and humanitarian arenas, with a view to generating a range of related events during the next six months.

Looking ahead

Over the next few months, we will be refining a new regional strategy to provide a better focus on key geographical centres for the planning of future events concentrating on four key areas: UK-US / Europe / Indo-Pacific tilt / East Africa in the first instance.

We are also establishing a Youth Ambassador Network, as an opportunity for students interested in foreign policy, international affairs and diplomacy to get involved with Wilton Park. Students will have the opportunity to attend select Wilton Park events and network with other Youth Ambassadors, as well as hone their skills by hosting their own Wilton Park style dialogue at their university on a policy theme of their choice. The network will start as a pilot at a select few universities across the UK in coming months.

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