hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Brexit Withdrawal Agreement: Analysis, Assessment and Reflection

A frictionless future?

Alphen, Netherlands. 20 November. At last, something Brexit to analyse, so I will analyse! The Draft Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and European Atomic Energy Community.

The draft Withdrawal Agreement implies delivery at some point (but no more than that) of many of the Brexit promises made although not in full and not immediately.  The Agreement will at some point end unfettered freedom of movement, there will eventually be an end to large annual British payments to the European Union, and Britain will in time cease to be a member of the Single Market and THE customs union, although London will almost certainly remain part of A customs union. There will also be a formal end (of sorts) to Britain’s membership of the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy.

However, a significant problem remains the status of Northern Ireland and the so-called ‘backstop’. During the transition period which is currently scheduled to end on December 31st 2020, and which Prime Minister Theresa May prefers to call the ‘implementation period’, the whole of the UK must remain within the EU customs territory. Any disputes would be settled by a joint committee but any issue relating to EU law would be settled by the European Court of Justice of which the UK would cease to be a member come March 29th 2019.

The treaty agreeing a future relationship is wholly dependent on there being a technical solution found to enable frictionless movement of goods, services and people across the inner-Irish border for fear that a restored active border could endanger peace in Northern Ireland and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that sealed it. Both the EU and the UK have committed to ‘best endeavours’ to find such a solution within the timeframe of the transition. However, if no solution is found the British face the prospect of being locked into a permanent customs union on Brussels’ terms with a high level of regulatory alignment with a whole host of EU rules and regulations without limited influence over them. Alternatively, the British could step outside of the customs arrangement but would be required to establish an implicit border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland thus weakening the integrity of the UK (and the Good Friday Agreement if hard-line Unionists resist).  

The critical issue is that the Agreement locks the backstop into legal perpetuity once it is established, which is of dubious legality under public international law.  One very senior British lawyer, Remainer and former Attorney-General Lord Falconer claims there is no legal basis for a treaty which denies a party that has given reasonable notice the right to abrogate an instrument that affects its borders in such a way. Therefore, it is quite possible that a legal challenge could be mounted against the Agreement and without some softening of the language it is very hard to see how Parliament or future British governments can or would accept it. 

The Political Dividing Lines

May’s treatment of the Irish question also reveals her attitude towards the kind of full sovereignty Brexit Boris Johnson and other Brexiteers want. In international relations, very few states enjoy full sovereignty as most are constrained by a complex web of treaties and agreements. However, faced by a divided Cabinet and Party and under pressure from big business and HM Treasury May effectively scrapped what might be termed a strategic and political Brexit in favour of a narrow, technical Brexit and in 2017 effectively handed over ‘competence’ for its negotiation to the civil service with instructions simply to get a deal. Given that Britain was from that point on the demandeur the negotiations effectively boiled down to the actual political and financial price Britain would pay for access to EU markets.  And, as the Treasury and big business strengthened their respective grips policy issues were subordinated to supply chains. The result is that Brexit has become precisely that; a supply chain Brexit. 

It is May’s shift from Brexit means Brexit to the preservation of supply chains at almost any cost which has exacerbated the political divisions that now exist.  By abandoning the commitments she made in the Lancaster House and Florence speeches, as well as her so-called ‘red lines’, she has reinforced a sense amongst many that promises have been broken. This makes it unlikely that May will succeed in getting the Agreement through the House of Commons (at least in the first instance). Full sovereignty Brexiteers believe she has betrayed Brexit, whilst the ten MPs of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) upon which her minority government depends for survival are likely to withdraw their formal support under the so-called Confidence and Supply Agreement if Northern Ireland is treated differently from the rest of the UK. On the Remainer side, there is disquiet that the Agreement fails to commit Britain to the Single Market.   Her parlous political situation has been created by the promises she made in the immediate aftermath of Brexit and before she lost her majority in the House of Commons which implied a hard or ‘clean’ Brexit.   

May has also failed to communicate effectively the sheer complexity associated with disentangling 45 years of deep statutory engagement in the EU. One problem she faces is that the extent of Britain’s entanglement in EU law went far beyond what most British political leaders were ever willing to admit to the British people.  The EU’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier has suggested that the transition period will now need to be extended to December 2022. This is almost certainly correct. Unfortunately, May continues to deny the length of time it will take for Brexit in any form to be realised.

A fait accompli

In essence, Britain is now faced with a fait accompli because foolishly (or deliberately) there are insufficient plans in place to deal with a 'no deal' scenario.  Without an Agreement in place, Britain’s formal departure from the EU next March generate real friction at the UK’s borders with profound implications for the vital relationships upon which Britain’s trade depends.  The paradox is that Britain now has little alternative but to rely on an Agreement that will please no-one and which future British governments will doubtless seek to overturn. As such this agreement reflects May’s singular political talent for delaying the consequences of hard choices until a later date.   

The Agreement effectively leaves Britain in a strategic no man’s land between two extremes. Those who envision Britain becoming a ‘Singapore of the Atlantic’, which is highly unlikely and those who simply seek to cancel Brexit. What the Agreement will ensure is that Brexit will remain a toxic issue in British politics for the foreseeable future as it leaves Britain’s relationship with the EU wholly unresolved.  

Worse, there is now every possibility that some EU member-states will seek to change the terms of the Agreement or at least insist that so-called ‘side agreements’ are tacked on. France, Spain, the Netherlands and Denmark have expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of a British commitment to permit their respective fishing fleets to access British waters. Spain has expressed deep concerns about the status of Gibraltar.  


There was a certain symmetry reading some of the details of the Withdrawal Agreement in Rome on a seat overlooking the ruins of the Circo Massimo and Nero’s palace.  History has been in full flow this week with anaemic analogies all over the place.  Dunkirk? Suez? In fact, one need look no further than Brexit I for an appropriate analogy. In November 1534 King Henry VIII of England began in earnest the first Brexit by breaking with Rome and the Catholic Church. To suggest that the first ‘withdrawal agreement’ was a tad complicated is perhaps a masterclass in English understatement. It was probably not before Cromwell won the English Civil War in 1649, or even the Glorious Revolution of 1689 before Brexit I was finally concluded. Brexit II?  

Whilst it is unlikely to take that long to confirm Brexit II reading the draft Agreement confirmed to me that this flawed deal marks only the end of the beginning not the beginning of the end of this new schism. Such moments are times for pragmatism and it would be useful if all parties to this conflict took a step back and saw Brexit in its wider strategic context. Europe stands on the verge of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and a revolution in civil-military technology that imply as much threat as opportunity. It is vital Europeans stand together in the face of such change.  

The exercising of statecraft imposes discipline and at this moment of fracture, it is to be hoped that the relationships therein are maintained and that the very process of transition/implementation introduces some much-needed calm. And, that the process itself will also lead responsible figures on both sides to recognise that the Agreement on offer will simply not stick if it continues to create resentment on both sides of the Channel. Finally, a real, equitable and sustainable political settlement will need to be fashioned.

Personal reflection 

Some months ago I was asked by someone in Downing Street very close to May for ideas. My answer was simple and to the point: Prime Minister May must show some bloody leadership, Prime Minister. In the email to Downing Street, I also suggested that there was no way out of the Brexit trap in which Britain is currently enmeshed without a major political and constitutional crisis,. That crisis is not breaking.  My specific advice was that whilst I might not like everything she does I would accept her leadership if I felt she was acting in the best interests of the country. It is my contention that given the circumstances Prime Minister May is providing such leadership.

Having dissembled for two years for the past six months she has done exactly what I asked – lead (and no I am not claiming it was my influence). She has also done things I do not like. So be it. She is the prime minister and I am not.  She also continues to infuriate me at times with her lack of trust in the British people and she has made some egregious political errors which have made an already hard mission nigh on impossible.  There is no other option but to give May and the Withdrawal Agreement the benefit of my very considerable doubt. There is no sensible alternative. Equally, my faith in May and the wider British government (the Mediocracy?) has been much undermined by what can only be described as strategic and political incompetence.

Julian Lindley-French

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Armistice, War and Peace

“When eleven o’clock came, all was silent: not a gun to be heard, nor any other sign of war. It seemed almost uncanny. The war – that long and bloody and ghastly war – was over! Not only over, but it had been won – decisively won – by us and our Allies”.

Lieutenant Edward Allfree, 111th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, British Army

The fog of peace?

Alphen, Netherlands. 11 November 2018. What did the Armistice of 11 November 1918 really teach Europeans about war and peace? When the guns on the Western Front finally and suddenly fell silent on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 the shrapnel of Europe lay strewn across the Continental battlefield and far beyond.  The war to end all wars was over. Of the ‘main’ power players of World War One on that November day a century ago Britain and France appeared triumphant and restored, whilst the dark, grand ambitions of Imperial Germany lay in shards of hot, angry denial across a battlefield and a country that stretched from Belgium to Berlin.  In fact, all was not as it seemed. Broke Britain and broken France were just beginning a precipitous fall from the pinnacle of power, whilst for the Germans, the ‘war’ would continue via Versailles, Weimar, Hitler and the Nazis until 1945 and again engulf Europe in another cataclysm of violence.  Only relatively untouched America, America the Banker, really gained the prize of strategic power for which the Kaiser had fought the war.  But, Woodrow Wilson’s America neither wanted nor accepted a particularly European idea of power as prize. For over twenty years thereafter America turned its isolationist back on the ‘prize’ it had won and in so doing helped condemn itself and others to a repeat of rapaciousness.

It was a particular honour and privilege for me to be in Berlin this past week at the appropriately timed, named and placed conference Europe’s Strategic Choices jointly hosted by Britain’s Chatham House and Germany’s ISPK. Why? War and peace are the most strategic of choices and we must work hard together never to have to make that choice again. Berliners understand that more than most because History (with a hard capital ‘H’) hangs over Berlin like one of those heavy mist shrouds that the city’s many lakes and rivers regularly spawn. If those with a penchant for stereotypes wished to be disabused of their prejudice go to Berlin and speak to senior Germans. It is almost galling at times how determinedly reasonable and respectful they are, and why I so value and appreciate my friendships with them.

My sense of being a ‘fellow’ European is always reinforced when I am in Germany. This is in spite of my being an Englishman who harbours deep concerns about the EU, the championing of order over democracy, the ambitions of a ‘we know best’ Brussels elite to concentrate ever more distant, unaccountable power in their distant, unaccountable hands, and the growing gap between voting and power in Europe. The spiteful curse of history is that Europeans, with Germans to the fore, must eternally and repeatedly forge a balance between power, order and freedom. There is also a certain irony for in a Continent which bloodily rejected three German (1870, 1914 and 1939) attempts to lead Europe by force of arms modern, democratic Germany is unable to provide the leadership Europe desperately needs by a constitution British lawyers helped write, and the very past that today commemorates.

Europeans, war and power

The commemoration of war is itself telling in Europe as it has helped to make Europeans distrustful of the very idea of power itself. Rather, Europeans have re-invented ‘power’ as ‘non-power’, defanging it, imprisoning it within rigid, set in stone EU ‘laws’, containing and constraining it in grand institutions designed to prevent Europeans doing ghastly things to each other, but preventing Europeans from the ghastly doing ghastly things unto them and others.  It is as though Europeans fear the ghost of Marlowe’s Faustus or Goethe’s Faust and that power could once again corrupt the European political soul.  

Such fear of self has been apparent at times these four years past in much of the coverage of World War One.  World War One has been presented as a European civil war with much of the homage to it one of pacifism. It is apparent in many of the books that have been written that have Europeans sleepwalking into World War One rather than being forced towards catastrophe by the outrageous militarism of Kaiser Bill and his Prusso-German cronies. It is apparent in the endless reading of the war poets Causley, Owen and Sassoon who invoke a sense of understandable hopelessness in the midst of carnage when in fact most Frenchmen and Britons who went to war believed their cause to be just. It is as though Sir Edward Elgar’s mournful I Sospiri has been playing on a permanent loop since the commemorations began in August 2014.

With such images repeatedly and constantly invoked it would even be easy to re-imagine the final Act of Brexit Capitulation when it comes being signed in some forlorn Belgian railway siding deep in the woods south of Brussels. In fact, one need only witness the respectful manner in which German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier laid a wreath at the Cenotaph to understand no German with a brain wishes to humiliate Britain a century on from the Armistice. It was wonderful to see such a historic act of reconciliation which brought a tear to my eye. Let’s remember this moment in the coming days, weeks and months.

Democracies and war

At times democracies are faced with a terrifying choice between fighting for freedom or appeasing autocrats. It was just such a choice that faced Britain and France on 4 August 1914. Some historians deny that. For example, Niall Ferguson argues that Britain could have stood aside from the Prusso-German conquest of Europe and have consoled itself with Empire. Really?  Would Erich Ludendorff and Reinhard Scheer have been content with ‘Europe’ as they stood on Cap Gris Nez victorious looking across the Channel at the White Cliffs of Dover?  Would Kaiser Wilhelm II have assuaged his British psychosis without his Imperial Garde marching down Whitehall? Surely not.

Some other historians, Max Hastings to the fore, argue that Britain fought the war incompetently. There can be no question that at times both Britain and France fought the offensive war between 1914 and 1917 incompetently. That is because in 1914 unlike the Kaiser and General von Schlieffen neither power had prepared to fight an offensive grand strategic continental war.  The democracies had first to survive and then learn, and learn they did. Consequently, there can be no comparison between that contemptible little British Army that the Kaiser so dismissed at Mons in 1914 and the massive 6 million strong British Imperial Army that arrived back at Mons in November 1918 triumphant. The force that on 8 August 1918 broke the German Army at the Battle of Amiens and began the crushing One Hundred Day Offensive and which led Ludendorff to describe Amiens as the “blackest day of the German Army”. Or, the Grand Fleet of the Royal Navy that decisively and patiently prevented the Imperial German Navy from breaking the blockade at the strategically-decisive May 1916 Battle of Jutland, or from starving Britain into submission during the U-Boat offensive of 1917.

Contrast that with today. One has only to look at the bonsai militaries of contemporary Britain, France and Germany to see that once again the European democracies are not really preparing to fight any war at all and that to a very real extent the European democracies are once again back in 1910 and 1935. If a major war were to break out in Europe over the next decade, Heaven forbid, the major European democracies would again be pretty much unable to fight it – NATO or no.  But, that is the way of democracies which between major wars tend to purposively forget the lessons of them. Could it be that one-day future historians will look back on this age and ask who made war possible through neglect and weakness? 

The strength of democracies

On 3 August 1914 Britain’s then Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey went for a walk at London Zoo in Regent’s Park. A lover of birds he spent a despairing hour in the Bird House trying to work out how a war might be avoided before concluding it could not be. War for Grey was failure for he foresaw what war between industrial titans would entail. For all that the real, terrifying reality for him was that Britain would have to fight just such a war and the price would be enormous, as it was. However, the alternative he realised would be worse, the effective subjugation of Britain and the rest of Europe to Prussian militarists.

Fantasy? Reimagine Europe had it been the Allies who had been forced to sign an Act of Capitulation in some German railway carriage deep in some Belgian wood somewhere near the German Imperial Military Headquarters in Spa.  The ‘Europe’ far too many of us today take for granted would simply not exist. Yes, the terms of the Treaty of Versailles were harsh, but so was the damage Imperial Germany had inflicted on much of Europe.  What if the Americans had forcefully backed Wilson’s Fourteen Points? What if the League of Nations had been endowed with Realism rather than simply Idealism? What if the Wall Street Crash of 1929 had not happened…what if…if…if…maybe Hitler, Tojo, even Stalin and World War Two might have been avoided.

The eleventh hour…

Today I commemorate the millions who lost their lives in World War One. Specifically, I remember and pay respect to the 900,000 of my own countrymen who lost their lives in World War One. In paying my respects I do not do so in the belief that their sacrifice was futile, or that they were lions led by donkeys, even though at times they were. No, I celebrate them as ordinary heroes, ordinary men and at times women in extraordinary circumstances without whose sacrifice the freedom which is today taken far too much for granted would not have been possible. There is thus no spirit of pacifism in my commemoration even though as a historian and strategist I strive every day to maintain the legitimate and just peace I crave.  

Wars are not prevented by democracies renouncing war. No, wars are stopped by democracies that show they understand the dark art and science of war and by so doing prepare to preserve and thus ensure peace. That is the true lesson of this mournful day. Have Europeans learnt it? Will they ever learn it?

Requiescat in Pace.  Lest we forget.      

Julian Lindley-French                       

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

NATO Trident Juncture 18: Plugging NATO's Thirty Day Gap?

“But this, that men are evill by nature, follows not from this principle [that every man will distrust and dread each other]; for though the wicked were fewer than the righteous, yet because we cannot distinguish them, there is a necessity of suspecting, heeding, anticipating, subjugating, self-defending, ever incident to the most honest and fairest conditioned”.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Trident Juncture 18

Alphen, Netherlands, 6 November. There is a certain historical symmetry to NATO holding a major Article 5 collective defence military exercise that spans the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month centennial of the Armistice that brought the First World War to an end.  Exercise Trident Juncture 18 (TJ18) is designed to test deterrence and response, as well as send a strategic message to Russia.  As such, TJ18 is part of the Alliance’s increasing effort to ensure no NATO ally anywhere, ever again, faces a major war attack. Given that noble aim, how does Trident Juncture 18 compare with Russia’s recent Vostok 18 exercise and has TJ18 really strengthened deterrence?

Some facts. TJ18 is a maritime-amphibious (hence ‘Trident’) joint exercise designed to test Alliance forces and systems in a short, high-end war. TJ 18 is taking place in and off Norway and began on 25 October and will end on 23 November.  The exercise involves some 40,000 troops, 250 aircraft and 65 ships from 30 nations. TJ18 involves air, sea, land, maritime, amphibious and Special Forces forged into a so-called ‘spearhead force’ designed to seize back NATO territory taken by a well-armed aggressor.  TJ18 is divided into two main elements. The main ‘live’ exercise began on 25 October and ends tomorrow. After the Armistice commemorations (and deliberately so) a command post exercise will take place between 14 and the 23 November in which lessons will be identified and the scenario played out further.  Although Russia claims TJ18 threatens its border with Norway even though the exercise is taking place some 200 km from it. That said, the exercise is clearly designed to send Russia a message about NATO’s determination to defend the strategically-vital North Cape of Norway and the Svalbard Archipelago.

TJ18 versus Vostok 18

How does TJ18 compare with Russia’s recent Vostok 18? Vostok 18 was somewhat bigger in scale and probably involved some 75,000 Russian troops (plus a relatively small number of Chinese forces), 1000 aircraft and up to 2000 tanks, possibly more. Moscow claimed Vostok 18 ‘involved’ some 300,000 troops but that inflated figure was arrived at by including whole units even if only small elements from them were actually engaged.

The respective aims of the two exercises are revealing.  TJ18 is designed to test and validate NATO’s efforts to reconstitute a heavy defence through the re-creation of a ‘deep’ joint, mobile heavy reserve focussed on the NATO Response Force (NRF). The task of the NRF is to support small forward deployed units in the event of an emergency and act as a holding force until larger NATO forces can be generated and deployed. Vostok 18 was part of the military-strategic development plan of Chief of the Russian General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov. His over-arching aim is to enhance the force projection of Russian forces by making then more joint, agile and ‘intelligent’.

Improved theatre and battlefield mobility are central to Gerasimov’s thinking and to that end, he is replacing the old motor rifle and old-style tank divisions that were the main strike elements of Soviet forces with more airmobile forces similar to those pioneered by the Americans. He is also trying to create much greater tactical autonomy at junior leadership levels to enable Russian forces to better ‘think’ their way around an operational problem.   During Vostok 18 General Gerasimov emphasised the need for ‘innovation’ via what he called ‘non-standard solutions’ when he set the Central and Eastern Military Districts against each other on opposing strategic directions.  Significant elements of the Western Military District facing NATO were also engaged during Vostok 18.  General Gerasimov was only partially successful during Vostok 18 but his unstinting efforts to create a new form of ‘shock army’ will doubtless continue

Sufficient Notice to Surprise?  

Is Russia planning an attack? All of the time. Is Russia going to attack tomorrow? No. There are four things that make contemporary Russia dangerous (even to itself) and thus a vigilant NATO. First, Russia is developing military capabilities and capacities that could give it local superiority for a critical period at a time and place of its choosing. Second, neither Russian society nor its economy is being reformed to adapt to the twenty-first century. Third, the weight and burden of the security state (including defence) are too high on a Russian economy that is overly-dependent on the export of oil and gas for income. Fourth, there is no obviously peaceful succession plan for the orderly transfer of power from President Putin when he dies, or when he and his family are sufficiently secure for him to step down.  In other words, Russia is strategically and politically volatile         

To properly understand the strategic utility of Vostok 18 it is necessary to look beyond the exercise itself. Russia is fast developing a new concept of warfare that I have dubbed ‘4D’ warfare. In a Gerasimov-led 4D war disinformation, destabilisation, disruption and destruction, flavoured to taste with a ‘liberal’ sprinkling of deception (Maskirovka), would be unleashed in sequence. One objective would be to keep NATO allies politically and socially off-balance so that they were singularly and collectively distracted from Moscow’s real aim – strategic surprise. It is vital for General Gerasimov to mask any strategic surprise so that Russian forces could concentrate prior to an attack either unnoticed or uncontested. The maximum moment of vulnerability for Russian forces would be as they concentrate, however, ‘dispersed’ General Gerasimov would like his forces to remain prior to any attack.

Plugging NATO’s thirty-day gap

Does TJ18 suggest NATO could combat my worst-case scenario? Not as yet. There is a strange symmetry between Vostok 18 and TJ18 which should worry NATO planners.  General Gerasimov is building, in effect, a thirty-day crash, bang, wallop force. If the force has not achieved its political and strategic goals after thirty days President Putin would likely face one of four options: threaten to use short and theatre range nuclear weapons, stop and hold what ground has been gained; embark on a much longer war than for which his forces are designed, or withdraw.

The NATO dilemma, which is also implicit in the time it took to get TJ18 in place, is that the bulk of its forces could not move in any strength prior to ‘D plus 30’. On paper at least, given the so-called ‘Notice to Move’ of both the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) and NATO Response Force (NRF), they might meet the thirty-day challenge. In reality, it is highly questionable that NATO has sufficient forces at sufficient readiness in sufficient strength to counter any such Russian military adventure. It is even more questionable whether the ‘heavier’ forces NATO European nations are required to have ready would be available to Allied commanders by ‘D plus 90’, let alone ‘D plus 60’.  

That is why my friend and colleague Hans Binnendijk pioneered the 4 x 30 concept for the 2018 Brussels Summit by which 30 combat battalions, 30 combat squadrons and 30 combat ships would be ready to go within 30 days of an emergency being declared. Tellingly, the Americans wanted those forces ready to go in 10 days, but it was the Germans who led efforts to ease it out to thirty days. In other words, NATO European forces might be ready to go just when President Putin could be picking up the phone to some future German chancellor to tell her he has achieved his strategic objectives of rebuilding a buffer between the Russian Federation and NATO. The Baltic States?

No Action Talk Only?

Exercise Trident Juncture has revealed the progress towards the enhanced readiness and responsiveness of Allied forces NATO has made through its significant command and force structure reforms. As such the exercise is an important step on the road to reinforcing deterrence. However, TJ18 has also revealed NATO’s eternal weakness: that reforms of the Alliance itself also require the European Allies to reform and improve their own forces and that the defence of Europe is still too dependent on over-stretched Americans combat forces. As yet, NATO Europeans are still more talk than action. 

Such strategic sloppiness matters because to be truly credible NATO needs to convince the likes of President Putin and General Gerasimov that the thirty-day gap has well and truly been plugged. If not, and assuming the Americans are not mired in a crisis elsewhere, Washington, not NATO would need to take command in an emergency and move with a few trusted allies. NATO?  Coalitions would well prove the death of it.    

Julian Lindley-French

Monday, 29 October 2018

Nelson, Future War and the Pursuit of Victory

Alphen, Netherlands. 29 October. Last Thursday night on board HMS Nelson in Portsmouth I had the honour to give the Trafalgar Night dinner speech to the ancient Royal Navy Club of 1756 and 1785 in commemoration of Admiral Lord Nelson’s famous victory and untimely death off Cape Trafalgar on October 21st, 1805. Entitled Nelson and the Pursuit of Victory my speech also considered the challenge of the Royal Navy in the face of the revolution in military technology underway and how Nelson would have fought what is euphemistically called future war.

Nelson and the Pursuit of Victory

Honoured Guests, Distinguished Officers of the Naval Service, ladies and gentlemen

My subject tonight is Nelson and the pursuit of victory. My aim is to pose and answer a question - how would Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, Duke of Bronte, Admiral of the White and Colonel of the Marines have pursued victory in what we euphemistically call future war?

To that end, I will consider Nelson’s victories at Copenhagen, the Nile and, of course, his valedictory victory at Trafalgar on October 21st 1805, before I conclude with a very personal anecdote.

My themes? Selection and maintenance of the aim (the Master Principle): the destruction of the enemy, Nelson’s genius for combining innovation, superior technology and firepower at the decisive moment, his acceptance of considered and controlled risk, and his understanding of the power of a trusted and committed team in battle. But, above all, Admiral Lord Nelson’s mastery of decisive leadership through instinct, experience and learning, not least from his own many mistakes.

At the August 1795 Battle of the Nile Nelson seized the moment created and afforded by a tactical mistake by his opponent the French Admiral Brueys. However, it was an opportunity sealed by his tactical genius and his innovative thinking. At the Nile, Nelson ensured each French man-o-war always faced at least two British. Then, with the superior rate and weight of fire his gunlock cannon and their well-trained gun-crews afforded the Fleet, allied to a willingness to take a calculated risk in shallow waters, Brueys was quickly disabused of his complacent belief that his defensive position was strong.

Nelson was also willing to take personal risk.  The night before the action during dinner on board HMS Vanguard Nelson said, (and I quote) “This time tomorrow I shall either have gained a peerage or Westminster Abbey”.  And, whilst Nelson eventually battered the French fleet into submission it was not before he had been wounded in the head. He knew the risk, but he also knew that ending Bonaparte’s ambitions on Egypt was a strategic prize worth the risk-reward decision he had to take.

Nelson’s understanding of the role of force in the national interest was also evident at the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen. Indeed, Nelson fully understood the grand strategic implications of ensuring the modern Danish fleet could never have been employed against the Royal Navy in possible combination with Russia and Sweden. To that end, Nelson was prepared to accept significant risk against a strong defence because again he understood the strategic significance of the action. When Admiral Sir Hyde Parker signalled that Nelson might consider withdrawing under heavy fire Nelson said to his flag captain Thomas Foley, “You know, Foley, I only have one eye and I have the right to be blind sometimes”.

Nelson’s use of truce during the battle also demonstrated just how politically savvy he had become, unlike earlier in his career. Under a flag of truce Nelson sent a note to the Danish Crown Prince. It is a masterpiece of forceful British diplomacy. It said, and I quote: “To the Brothers of Englishmen, the Danes. Lord Nelson has directions to spare Denmark when she is no longer resisting, but if firing is continued on the part of Denmark, Lord Nelson will be obliged to set on fire the floating batteries he has taken, without having the power to save the brave Danes who have defended them”.

However, it is the October 1805 Battle of Trafalgar and Nelson’s relentless pursuit of victory for which the world best knows the Great Man. Indeed, as an example of the Master Principle applied in action, it is unsurpassed. By Trafalgar Nelson had established psychological superiority over his enemies, particularly the French commander Admiral Villeneuve, who he had pursued across the Atlantic and back. Critically, Trafalgar is also the apex of Nelson’s ‘band of brothers’ forged not only by his decisive leadership, but by his trust in those under his command – naval officers, Royal Marines and ratings, and by no means all of them British. As my good friend Lt General Ed Davis, the Governor of Gibraltar, told this august body in 2013 (and note the emphasis on Marines), “…17,000 Sailors and Marines, from 22 nations manned Nelson’s Fleet of 27 ships off the Cape of Trafalgar…[and] contemplated how they would ‘do their duty’ to deliver their Commander’s battle-plan for defeating Napoleon’s Fleet…..“Swift and bold, swift and bold; engage closely, engage closely”.  

You see Nelson believed in the fighting spirit and had supreme confidence in the skills, experience, tactical nous and fighting power of his brother officers from Collingwood down and the men who served them. It showed in the risk he took by sailing slowly at the Franco-Spanish fleet in two columns with the intention of breaking the enemy’s battle line. To do that Nelson effectively enabled Villeneuve to ‘cross his T’, something that Jellicoe was to achieve twice over a century later against Scheer’s High Seas Fleet at Jutland.

For an extended period, the French and Spanish were permitted to pour a much heavier weight of fire upon the British fleet than could be immediately returned. However, even though the British fleet was out-numbered and out-gunned, such was Nelson’s belief in his ‘team’ he felt emboldened to take the risk as he knew the discipline, patience and seamanship needed for his masterstroke to work would be maintained. That is why prior to the battle Nelson famously said, “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy”.

Once the enemy line had been broken what happened thereafter was an exercise in systematic destruction by a patently superior British fleet. The strategic consequence? Not only was the threat of invasion by Napoleon’s Grande Armee lifted, but Britain’s dominance of the seas was confirmed for over a century.

Nelson’s determination to put the right people with the right stuff in the right place at the right time brings me to my own very personal anecdote. In June 1980, shortly after Schools at Oxford and confident of a very good degree in Modern History, I tried to join the Naval Service. Hard though it is for this noble throng to believe I was a little full of myself at that age. In I breezed to the Recruiting Office where I handed over my CV to a grizzled old Chief Petty Officer who looked like he had stepped straight from the gun-deck of Victory. ‘Where do I sign?” was written all over my face. A face which clearly filled him with all the enthusiasm of the middle watch on a stormy South Atlantic night. Suddenly, what passed for a grimace emerged from beneath the beard – “You failed your physics O-Level, did ya?” he asked in a broad Devon drawl. “Yes”, I said, somewhat recoiling, “but I have a legion of other O-levels and a host of top grade A-levels”. “Not good enough”, he growled, “…now bugger off”.

Chief Petty Officer? That man should have made Admiral, Admiral, for he undoubtedly saved the Naval Service and the country from perhaps the worst naval officer ever to have darkened the forecastle of any British man-o-war.  Indeed, I can only imagine Nelson’s response to my misplaced ambition. “Sink me, sir. Hoist your Colours elsewhere and be smart about it!”

Future War!

Nelson’s pursuit of victory was built on the solid principle embodied in Vegetius’s third-century insight and motto of the Royal Navy – si vis pacem para bellum – if you want peace prepare for war. That is not bellicosity, but rather the recognition that if a peace endures that honours our ancient freedoms the Naval Service must be at the core of a new band of brothers and sisters – a warfighting deep joint force that respects Britain’s place as a top five world power, that projects Britain's still undoubted power, reinforces our American allies, assures the defence of Europe and keeps open the sea lanes which are still the sinews of prosperity. A naval fighting force with carrier strike at its expeditionary warfighting core that knows it history from Drake to Hawke to Nelson et al and through confident self-belief enables coalitions central to our strategic method, exerts our legitimate interests, and deters our enemies and adversaries.

It is my firm belief that if the Navy’s build programme is honoured by the government (a very big if) the new Royal Navy – the future force - will be of sufficient power and capability to sit at the heart of future Allied maritime/amphibious power projection coalitions and when needed exert Britain’s authority.

My cri de coeur is thus: having invested in so many new assets it would be irresponsible bordering on criminal not to ensure our ships, submarines and aircraft, but above all our people, have the right tools to do the job that a no-longer-impossible major war could call upon you to fight. To afford you the necessary protections in the face of the future war revolution in military technology that is now upon us.  My responsibility to you as a citizen is to afford the Naval Service, sufficient confidence of mission success at a reasonable level of risk and underpinned by an appropriate scale of forces and resources. THAT is for me what I would call the Prime Nelsonic Lesson.      

So, to conclude, my master message is this? Whatever the technology there are enduring principles of leadership in the crises of warfare that Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, Duke of Bronte, Admiral of the White and Colonel of the Marines embodied. For Nelson the Naval Service must, first and foremost, be a warfighting force designed, equipped, trained and educated to prevail in war. The Nelson Touch did not refer to diplomacy or his sensitivity to humanitarian need, however rightly important they are in this modern age. No, the Nelson Touch referred to the combination-in-action of innovation, education, instinct, technology and teamwork in the pursuit of victory.

Leadership IS thus the Nelson Touch which he is why the Great Man is not only Britain’s greatest naval hero, he is regarded the world-over as THE naval hero. He also remains for many of us the very embodiment of a national hero – a man who served and saved his country through valour at a decisive moment in its history and being.

Let me leave the last words to Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, his brother in arms at Trafalgar.  Soon after Trafalgar Collingwood wrote: “He possessed the zeal of an enthusiast directed by talents which Nature had very bountifully bestowed on him, and everything seemed, as if by enchantment, to prosper under his direction. BUT, it was the effect of system, and nice combination, not of chance”.

Admiral.   Thank you.

Julian Lindley-French, Portsmouth, October 2018

Monday, 22 October 2018

Trump, INF and the Putin Trap

“Dual-track would see Alliance conventional forces significantly strengthened and its nuclear forces modernised, whilst seeking new arms control talks with Moscow.  The aims of these talks would include: re-establishing Russian compliance with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; reducing the imbalance in non-strategic nuclear forces in Europe; enhancing transparency and predictability of conventional forces, and reducing destabilising concentrations of forces along NATO’s and Russia’s common borders”.

The 2017 GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Report

INF & Putin

Alphen, Netherlands 22 October. President Trump’s decision to unilaterally abrogate the December 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) threatens not only to start a new arms race but to split NATO asunder and with it the wider transatlantic relationship. In spite of being justified on several levels to walk away from INF, he is wrong to do so.

The INF Treaty eliminated all nuclear and conventional missiles and their launchers in Europe with a range of between 500 and 1000 km (short-range) and 1000 to 5500 km (intermediate range).  In June 1988 the Treaty came into force and ended one of the most destabilising periods of the Cold War.

President Putin has made no attempt to conceal his desire to rebuild the Soviet Union, at least in part. He has also made it abundantly clear that Russia is locked into a policy of using both conventional and nuclear military capability to threaten, coerce and intimidate his neighbours, both NATO and non-NATO members. He is also conducting a significant war in Eastern Ukraine. In other words, those ‘experts’ who suggest that President Putin would not dare launch another misadventure in Europe simply do not know. Putin is developing the military capability, he has stated his intent, and all he needs now is the opportunity. The three Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Norway’s North Cape and the Arctic, as well as the Black Sea are all at risk.

Putin’s INF-busting and the Trump decision

The specific weapons system of concern to the Americans is the Novator 9M729 missile (NATO codename of SSC-8). It can be launched at very short notice with either a conventional or a nuclear warhead and has the range to strike almost all NATO European countries. Novator is a development of the 9K720 Iskandr M missile system (NATO codename SS-26 Stone) and its naval equivalent Iskandr Kalibr.  Implicit in the deployment of the SSC-8 is President Putin’s continuing assault on all the treaties agreed that were designed to stabilise the European continent at the end of the Cold War.  Not only has the INF Treaty been undermined by Russia’s break-out but also the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe from which Russia withdrew in March 2015.

President Trump’s decision bears the clear hallmark of his hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton. Bolton has long-believed that such treaties are for lesser powers than the US which for the sake of peace needs to maintain a decisive military advantage over all other powers if peace is to be preserved.   Equally, the Trump administration clearly has a point about Russian cheating. However, if one looks at President Trump’s INF statement he also lines up China in his sights. China is not a signatory to INF and one justification Russian claims for developing treaty-busting systems is that INF prevents Moscow from matching Beijing’s burgeoning weapons systems. President Trump is thus not only accusing Russia of breaking out of the INF Treaty, but by including China in his remarks he is also suggesting that the Treaty itself is being overtaken by technology and events.


The Trump decision also reveals a truth Europeans find very hard to accept – a full-blown arms race is again underway and must be confronted because it has huge implications for the Alliance. Back in 1975 the Euromissiles crisis erupted when the Soviet Union deployed the SS20 a mobile, hard-to-detect, triple-warhead nuclear-tipped missile system that could strike European capitals with little warning, but not continental North America. Moscow’s political objective was to ‘decouple’ the defence of Europe from the strategic nuclear arsenal of the United States. By deploying these missiles the Brezhnev regime of the time posed a question to Washington that has been at the heart of NATO’s deterrence dilemma since its 1949 inception – do Americans really want to die for Europe?

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Carter and Reagan administrations responded by deploying Cruise and Pershing 2 intermediate missiles to Europe to counter the Soviet weapons and to reinforce the Alliance with a further layer of deterrence. However, the deployment of the American weapons to Europe spectacularly backfired politically and was so controversial that Washington’s attempt to counter Soviet attempts to de-couple the US from its European allies almost achieved the opposite.

One reason Cruise and Pershing 2 deployments were so controversial was that the Soviet Union set out to make them so. Moscow undermined Alliance solidarity by funding radical, leftist groups across Western Europe to make it as hard as possible for European governments to accept the new American weapons on their soil. The Soviets backed that covert effort up with a barrage of propaganda which painted the Americans as the aggressors.  At one point the Carter administration proposed deploying an Enhanced Radiation Weapon, or Neutron Bomb as it was dubbed, that would kill people but not buildings. What has been an attempt to reassure West Germans that the defence of Europe would not be at the cost of their annihilation collapsed when Moscow suggested the system was a capitalist bomb designed to preserve property at the expense of people.

Putin’s trap and the rules-based system

So, why is President Trump wrong to walk away from INF? Role on forty or so years and the rise of the radical, youthful left is again apparent in European countries.  Much of its political energy is coming from social media which Moscow is manipulating and exploiting  It is part of a new concept of warfare that I have dubbed ‘4D warfare’, through which Russia combines disinformation, destabilisation, disruption and destruction to achieve the political pre-conditions to potentially inflict three other ‘D’s on Europeans – deception, decoupling and political decapitation.

If President Trump were to unilaterally abrogate the INF Treaty he would walk straight into a carefully laid political trap that President Putin has laid for him.  Moscow would first suggest that for all the West’s talk of a rules-based system American ‘aggression’ proves what he has been saying all along that the West are hypocrites when it comes to rules. President Trump’s assertion that the US would “…not let Russia go out and do weapons [whilst] we’re not allowed to” implies the US might press to reintroduce ‘Euromissiles’ into Europe. Not only would such a deployment split the Alliance and threaten again to ‘decouple’ the US from its European allies, but it would also almost certainly lead again to massive and destabilising street protests by Europeans who have no memory of the Cold War, fuelled by Kremlin-backed hackers and trolls across social media. Indeed, any legitimate counter-measures the Alliance deploys, such as strengthened missile defences will be presented as ‘aggression’.

Furthermore, Moscow will now claim it has every right to press ahead with yet more deployments and treaty-illegal weapons systems. Worse, the American decision will enable Moscow to again create a Euro-specific nuclear strategy better designed to destroy structures and systems vital to the defence of Europe. Above all, Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from INF will re-energise the Kremlin’s ‘paranoia strategy’ and strengthen the narrative of external threat and thus ensure Russians are kept firmly locked in autocracy.   

Dual track and broad deterrence

Rather than walk away from INF, the Trump administration should do all it can to offset Russian cheating by turning INF against Putin. This could be done not only by highlighting repeated Russian breaches but by developing new and legitimate ways to counter the Russian systems. For example, INF does not prohibit sea-based systems, an anomaly that was included in the Treaty to protect the British and French nuclear arsenals. Washington should also remind the allies of just how the 1987 INF Treaty was eventually secured – dual track! At the time NATO both sought to talk to the Kremlin whilst at the same time reinforced its conventional military power to ensure deterrence remained credible.

There is something else the Americans should push the Allies to do – innovate. The West needs a new concept of Broad Deterrence that stretches across a new escalation spectrum from hybrid war to hyper war via cyberwar. War at the seams of our governments and societies is already a fact with opportunistic Russia and long-game China already exploiting those seams to effect. Broad deterrence would deter across the new domains of warfare such as Artificial Intelligence (et al), cyberwar, electronic warfare and hyper war domains, and across air, sea, land, cyber, space, nuclear, information and knowledge with the aim of enhancing resiliency, strengthening protection and enhancing power projection upon which all contemporary defence must be established. The specific aim should be the construction of a new escalation ladder designed to raise the threshold of 'success' for any adversary and to confound their own thinking by forcing them to onto the strategic and political back foot. 

INF, 4D warfare and the Putin trap

The World is entering a new cynical ‘ideological’ (cynological?) struggle in which re-invigorated strong men the world over, such as President Putin, are challenging the rules-based system. Putin and his ilk want a return to Machtpolitik in which might is right and the strong do what they can, whilst the weak accept what they must. The West, American and Europe together to the fore, must re-galvanise themselves for this new struggle by preserving the rules-based system for which two world wars and a cold war were fought.  America will not achieve that noble aim if one of its first acts in the new struggle is to destroy one of the very rules which must be defended and in so doing hand President Putin the very propaganda victory he seeks. As for the European Allies, they must finally realise that if the twenty-first-century transatlantic security contract is to endure, and Washington to remain committed to upholding the system from which they have so benefitted, then Europeans are going to have to do a lot more deterring and if needs be a lot more defending. Like it or not, in an emergency the lawfare beloved of Europeans and enshrined at the heart of their many institutions will afford them no defence in warfare.

The simple truth is that one does not defend the rules-based system by breaking its rules and destroying the system which upholds them. President Trump is certainly making a mistake by abrogating the INF Treaty, although he is surely right to highlight the dangers posed by those that breach it.  What now? If we are going to avoid Euromissiles 2, it is time for Dual Track 2.

Julian Lindley-French    

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Yemen and the Gulf: Where the West's Interests and Values Collide

“The war in Yemen is not a war that we wanted – we had no other option. There was a radical militia allied with Iran and Hezbollah that took over the country. It was in possession of heavy weapons, ballistic missiles and even an air force. Should we stand idly by while this happens at our doorstep, in one of the countries in which al-Qaeda has a huge presence? So, we responded, as part of a coalition, at the request of the legitimate government of Yemen, and we stepped in to support them”.[1]

Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubier, Foreign Minister, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 


The October 2018 disappearance and alleged murder of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has only added to the tension at the heart of the West’s complex relationship with Saudi Arabia and could have profound strategic and political implications.  In that context this brief article explores the regional-strategic and geopolitical implications of the West’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States through the prism of the war in Yemen, its origins and geopolitical implications and asks a simple question – are the Wests interests and its values compatible?  Indeed, as Riyadh’s reaction to an August 2018 official Canadian Tweet expressing concerns about human rights in the Kingdom attests, supporting Saudi Arabia comes at a price.  At some point the West will need to confront the contradictions that afflict both American and European policy and the profound questions they raise about the extent to which the West and its constituent elements are prepared to sacrifice its values for its interests, and to what if any extent influence can be brought to bear on its Gulf allies in the conduct of the war in Yemen.
Before any consideration of geopolitics, the human cost of the war in Yemen must be paid due respect.  The cost is high, even if figures for those killed and wounded are very hard to substantiate.  According to the Washington Post, British charity Save the Children estimated some 130 children died each day in 2017.[2] The Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) estimates that some 66% of the deaths have been inflicted by Saudi-led air strikes, although it also accuses the Houthi movement of committing atrocities during the siege of Taiz.  The UN Security Council claims that 22.2 million Yemenis of a 27.5 million population are in need of humanitarian assistance.[3]

A small country far away?

In 1938, on the eve of World War Two, former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain once said of then Czechoslovakia it was “…a small country far away about which we know little”. The rest, as they say, is now history. The same could now be said of Yemen. The August 2018 sight of Yemeni children allegedly killed by a Saudi-led coalition air strike returned the ghastly reality of war to Western consciousness. Rightly so. It was poor intelligence at best, bad target acquisition or at its worst rules of engagement completely indifferent to the suffering of civilians. And yet, beyond the suffering, the war in Yemen is not just about Yemen but the geopolitics of the Middle East and quite possibly beyond. 
The war in Yemen is a very twenty-first century form of geopolitics and yet reeks of the nineteenth century when values had no place in the pursuit of interest.  Alliances are fluid, often temporary and conditional between states that whilst aligned harbour deep suspicions about each other. At its core and most simplistic the struggle is for regional supremacy between a US-backed coalition of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) allies on one side, and Iran with implicit backing from Russia on the other. And yet Yemen’s war is far from simple, as Moscow good relations with Riyadh would suggest. What is clear is the danger the war now poses well-beyond Yemen. The Syrian War is seemingly in its final Assad-confirming stage, and in spite of Turkey’s efforts, a possible bloodbath in Idlib could be imminent. Thus, the power struggle for the Middle East and beyond which is implicit in Syria’s tragedy could well shift to Yemen as it finds itself on the front-lines of the twenty-first century.

Mackinder revisited?

A mere glance at a map explains why the struggle for Yemen has geopolitical implications. Yemen sits at the mouth of the Red Sea, guarantees access to the Suez Canal and lies not far from the Persian Gulf passage to which Iran effectively controls.  Iranian control over both the Straits of Hormuz and the Gulf of Aden would effectively strangle oil exports from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.  The implications for the wider world would be profound. Saudi Arabia remains by far the world’s largest oil exporter and in 2017 by far the biggest importers of crude oil were the European Union, followed by China, the US and India.[4]

Yemen itself is split very roughly into three contesting groupings which on the face of it are also a microcosm of wider struggles across the Middle East.  Iranian-backed Shia Houthis control roughly a third of the country to the west, including much of the land around the capital Sana’a and the strategically-vital shipping artery at the Bab El Mandeb Strait. A mix of Saudi-backed Hadi tribes and local militias loyal to the government control a swathe of land in the centre and to the east of Yemen.  Critically, a huge swathe of the centre of Yemen is nominally under the control of forces loyal to Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP).

If the war in Yemen is complex it also captures the dilemma of contemporary Western policy. The reason is precisely because for much of the West the securing of interests is inextricably linked to the promotion of values, so much so that the tension between the two can create paralysis of action.  For example, much of the focus of Western debate has been about the humanitarian tragedy in Yemen and the sale of Western weapons to the Saudis and their allies, much of it from European states and most notably Britain, France and Germany.[5]

Equally, Western capitals, with Washington, London and Paris to the fore, see the Saudis and their GCC allies as a bulwark against expanding Iranian, Russian and possibly growing Chinese influence in a region still vital for the flow of oil to the West and as bases for Western influence into the region. The 2016 agreement between China and Djibouti has led rapidly to the establishment of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Support Base in the Horn of Africa with the clear intention of projecting Chinese power into the region. As Andrew A. Michta writes in an excellent piece in  The American Interest, “A wealthier and more geo-strategically assertive China is staking ever-bolder claims to a sphere of influence in Asia and is leveraging its growing wealth to gain influence in Australia, Africa, South America, and, increasingly of late, Europe”.[6]
A dangerous moment in a dangerous place

With the war in Yemen now in its fourth year, it may well be entering a new phase.  The re-imposition of US sanctions on Iran by the Trump administration is likely to intensify efforts by hard-liners around Grand Ayatollah Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to foment regional instability. The West has palpably failed to stop the Russian-led, Iranian-supported regime in Damascus from committing a legion of atrocities on its way to crushing the Syrian opposition. The failure of the West and its loss of influence and prestige, for that is what has happened, could also see renewed and purposeful instability spread across the Arabian Peninsula and beyond.
Back to the map. With Iran soon to be successfully freed from its destabilisation of Syria Tehran will likely seek to extend its proxy war against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. The economic disruption caused by renewed US sanctions could well lead to further adventurism by the regime in Tehran as it seeks to shore up its faltering domestic position. With the Assad regime in Syria little more than a client state and Iraq split down a Sunni-Shia divide that has enabled Iran to keep Baghdad politically off-balance, the Iranians clearly feel emboldened to further complicate the situation in Yemen for the Saudis and its allies. If successful, Iran would force Riyadh to face instability and uncertainty on three of its four sides. Thus, whilst Persian Shia Iran is unlikely ever to exert direct control over Sunni Arab Arabia it is well-positioned to further destabilise the Kingdom, the sheikdoms and emirates of the GCC. Such an outcome would not be in the Western interest.

Yemen’s perpetual war?
In many ways, Yemen has been lost deep in a chasm of geopolitics for much of its contemporary history.  Indeed, if one looks beyond the confessional religious divide that stretches across the Middle East, it has been geopolitics that has driven conflict for over a century and looks set to continue to so do. The Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Accord of 1916 eventually led to the creation of many Middle Eastern states which were designed at the time by the two European Great Powers to ensure their control over them, but perpetual instability at the same time.

Yemen’s recent history has been one of almost permanent and perpetual strife fuelled by external forces. Between 1962 and 1970 the Yemeni Civil War in Northern Yemen between Republican and Royalist forces led to the creation of the Yemen Arab Republic. Riyadh only reluctantly recognised the new regime after having backed the losing side.  It was a struggle that was further complicated by fading Britain’s November 1967 withdrawal from strategically-vital Aden after London came dangerously close to being sucked into the civil war.  In the wake of the civil war, South Yemen established the Marxist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen with Soviet backing that also led to further conflict with the Saudi-backed North.  
In 1990 Yemen was re-unified. However, Saudi-Yemeni relations deteriorated rapidly soon afterwards because of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s close relationship with President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and Yemen’s use of Iraqi military advisors. This was in spite of the fact that Sana’a was economically dependent on the Saudis and the rest of the GCC, particularly remittances from Yemeni workers in Saudi Arabia. In the wake of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the bulk of these workers were expelled from Saudi Arabia. 

Then came the 2004 Houthi rebellion. Between 2004 and 2011 President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been in office since 1978, launched six Saudi-backed wars against the Houthi tribes, part of Yemen’s Zaidi Shia sect. At the time he was also fighting the Salafists of Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP).  A fragile peace was finally brokered in November 2011 when President Saleh stepped down in favour of his deputy Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. However, the armed forces were deeply divided over this agreement after a top general who defected to the rebellion was in part inspired by the Arab Spring, which alarmed Saudi and Gulf leaders. Today, President Hadi remains in office rather than in power in a Yemen as deeply-divided as ever along tribal, economic, social and along confessional lines and in which political power depends by and large on patronage.
A further complicating factor in what has long been a complicated Saudi-Yemeni relationship is the presence in some strength of AQAP, a group which emerged from Saudi Wahhabi or Deobandi Salafism. Cue coalition air-strikes. Saudi-led air-strikes in Yemen, as well as US drone strikes against AQAP, have reinforced a sense of grievance in an already grievous situation. Such strikes also reflect the nature and scope of an increasingly regional-systemic, geopolitical struggle in which Yemen’s internal strife and the fundamentalist threat posed by AQAP is becoming steadily more entangled with the struggle for regional supremacy between Iran and other (Sunni) actors.  Interestingly, Islamic State has been less successful in gaining a significant foothold since their 2015 appearance in Yemen.

An ever less proxy war
In my 2017 book The New Geopolitics of Terror William Hopkinson and I wrote, “…that the current struggle between Middle Eastern…states and what might be termed anti-state elements, could be but the curtain-raiser to a wider Middle East war between states, fuelled and intensified by mistrust between elites and peoples, the mutual hatred of Shia and Sunni factions, between Iran and many Arab states, and possibly between Israel and Iran, or another Iranian-inspired, proxy-led coalition. Such a war would have profound consequence for the region and the world. Europe is particularly vulnerable to the loss of energy supplies from the region, and to further major attacks upon its societies and infrastructure by AQ and ISIS-inspired Islamic fundamentalism.”[7]

The real and present danger from the war in Yemen is that the current proxy war between Iran and the Saudis will become less and less proxy and its strategic implications ever greater.  The capacity for the war to escalate and rapidly is clear. Whilst Yemen’s Zaidi Shia community differ fairly fundamentally from the Twelver Shia of Iran the Houthi movement have publicly supported Iran, particularly over its hostility towards Israel and the West. The Sunni kingdoms surrounding Yemen are firm in their belief that the Houthis are backed by Iran and claim the Houthis have received arms and training from Hezbollah and the Iranian Qods Force and thus pose a threat to them.  Whilst the alignments are nothing like as firm as the blocs that in 1914 triggered World War One in Europe the war in Syria has demonstrated how quickly competing regional-strategic and grand strategic powers from within the region and beyond can instrumentalise internal conflicts in the Middle East.
What options the West?

Faced with the threat of growing Iranian, Russian and possibly Chinese influence, as well as the threat posed by AQAP in the region allied to the continuing dependence of Europe in particular on Saudi and Gulf oil it would seem that the West has little option but to hold its nose and support the Riyadh-led coalition.  However, there must be three caveats:

First, a ‘Western’ policy worthy of the name must be agreed between Washington and its European allies. One of the many paradoxes of the West’s engagement with the contemporary wars of the Middle East is that whilst Europeans are far less engaged than the US they are far more vulnerable to the consequences, especially if oil exports are disrupted.  The Trump administration’s decision to abandon the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), aka the Iran nuclear deal, and re-impose sanctions on Tehran shows how hard it is for Americans and Europeans to agree these days on a joint course of action in the Middle East.  

Second, Western powers must collectively find ways to exert some pressure, albeit discreetly, on the Saudis and their allies to improve the conduct of the war in Yemen to limit civilian casualties and to modify Saudi behaviour. In other words, the situation in Yemen, the Gulf and the wider Middle East are one of those strategic tipping points in which no easy alignment of the West’s values and its interests is apparent.  Emphasise values and the West will lose influence over partners that remains vital to its interests. Should that happen there can be no question that other powers will move rapidly to fill the influence vacuum that emerges with the demise of the West in the region. 

Third, if Saudi complicity is established in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi the West together must not be afraid to condemn Riyadh for it. Nor should the West refrain from publicly rebuking the Saudi-led coalition if large numbers of Yemeni citizens are killed due to indiscriminate use of force. Of course, it is precisely on these issues that the West's values and interests collide. The language used by the West and any possible sanctions will need to be carefully crafted. However, that is precisely the challenge statecraft exists to meet.
However, for such a delicate policy and strategy balance to be struck the West will need a far more granulated and nuanced understanding of contemporary Saudi Arabia. Since King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud ascended to the throne in 2015 and his son Crown Prince Mohammed took on responsibility for national strategy the Saudis have been much more assertive than hitherto over what Riyadh regards as critical Saudi interests.  It is also clear that whilst Riyadh leans towards the West it does not do so exclusively as Russian-Saudi relations attest. Therefore, given the continued vital importance of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to the strategic economic and security interests of the West, any criticisms/advice will need to be muted and discreet if they are to have any effect in what is a very conditional set of relationships.

The West must understand something else. At the centre of this conflict is the relationship between Riyadh and Sana’a. Saudi policy towards Yemen is complex. On the one hand, the Saudis seek to prevent Yemen ever becoming a military threat to the Kingdom, whilst on the other hand, Riyadh wants to prevent Yemen’s complete economic collapse for fear of a migrant surge.  At one point the Saudis even began work on a fence along the Saudi-Yemen border to prevent irregular migration. Therefore, Americans and Europeans would do well to engage together in search of a political solution between the government in Sana’a and the Houthis. If successful such a settlement would help block Iranian ambitions and detach the Saudi-Iran conflict from that between the Saudis, the West and AQAP.  Encouragingly, the Saudis have been holding secret talks in Oman with the Houthis in an effort to find just such a solution. And, in September 2018 the UN made another effort to re-start stalled peace talks in Geneva in search of a ‘framework’ for peace. 
If this article reads like an attempt to balance policy on the head of a strategic pin that is because it is. However, Yemen sits at the crux of contemporary geopolitics.  And, as long as the war in Yemen continues the wider region will continue to be de-stabilised and whilst that might be in the interests of Iran, Russia and possibly even China, it is not in the interests of either the GCC or the West. For that reason, like it or not, the West and its Saudi and GCC allies are locked together for the foreseeable future and no amount of posturing will change that hard and very strategic reality.

Julian Lindley-French

[1] “Saudi Arabia and Iran: The Cold War of Islam”, by Susanne Koelbl, Samiha Shafy, Bernhard Zand, Der Spiegel, 9 May 2016,
[2] See Kareem Hafim, “The deadly war in Yemen rages on. So why does the death toll stand still?” The Washington Post, 3 August 2018
[3] See Al Jazeera, 15 March 2018 “Saudis in Secret Talks with Houthis to end Yemen’s War: Report”.
[4] Source: CIA World Factbook 2018
[5] See “Germany quintuples arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Europe”, Deutsche Welt, 14 November 2017.
[6] See Michta, Andrew A. (2018) “The Revenge of Hard Power Politics” in “The American Interest”, October 2018,

[7] Hopkinson W & Lindley-French J. (2017) “Demons and Dragons: The New Geopolitics of Terror”. (London: Routledge)