hms iron duke

hms iron duke

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)

Monday, 15 October 2018

Strategikon Podcast

Please find below my new podcast with Strategikon on the strategic implications of Russia's Vostok 18 military exercise and much, much more...

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Vostok 18 and Saif Sareea 3: Carry on Warfighting?

“Your rank?” Captain Potts. “Well, that’s a matter of opinion”. Private Bailey.

Carry on Sergeant Film

Russia v Britain

Alphen, Netherlands, 10 October. Britain is conducting a major military exercise in Oman entitled Saif Sareea 3 (Swift Sword 3) with the specific objective of preparing British forces to fight states which have far stronger armed forces. Read Russia. SS3 comes a few days after Russia’s very large Vostok 18 exercise which has far stronger armed forces than Britain.  Naturally, London is dodging the real question; why are Britain’s armed force sso much weaker than their Russian counterparts? 

The hard truth is that what passes for British defence policy has left a country with a population of over 65 million and an economy nominally worth some $3 trillion with armed forces far too small for Britain’s international weight. On the other hand, Russia with a population of 144 million with an economy worth some $1.6 trillion has a security state (including armed forces) that is far too large and onerous for its international weight.  Even if one compares the power purchasing parity of the two countries, which marginally favours Russia (at least nominally) the respective figures point to one inescapable conclusion: Moscow spends money on ‘defence’ at the expense of the Russian people, whilst what money the British Government does spend on the British people thanks to the criminal irresponsibility of bankers a decade ago comes at the expense of their defence.    

Part of the reason for these twin imbalances comes down to the character of the two men who really and respectively run Russia and Britain.  For Russia’s President Putin, Western Europeans are a bunch of weak, decadent states who are no longer capable of competing where to him it really matters in international relations, hard, military power. To Britain’s Phillip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister), the Big Business Almighty’s Chosen Representative in London and the man who is quietly but very effectively destroying Brexit, Britain’s armed forces seem to be an unnecessary luxury that messes up his beloved spreadsheet and adds little to the economy by way of productivity. For Hammond, and his merry band of unworldly post-academic, strategically-illiterate econometric modellers at HM Treasury defence is a cost, not a value – until it is needed.

A Tale of Two Exercises

SS3 involves some 5500 British troops deployed to Oman, supported by 18 tanks, 8 Typhoon aircraft and 4 ships. Compare Britain’s effort with the just concluded Vostok 18.  Whilst much over-hyped by Moscow’s propagandists it probably involved at least 75,000 Russian troops, 1000 aircraft and up to 2000 tanks, possibly far more.  Britain’s own recent history does not flatter SS3. Back in 2001 Britain held Exercise Saif Sareea 2 which saw a force deployed with four times as many personnel, aircraft, tanks and ships as it SS3. Even if one assumes the changed nature of warfare since 1981 Britain’s armed forces are today pitifully small given the range of tasks even this ‘we only recognise as much threat as we can afford’ British Government calls on them to meet.

Back in 1991 at the end of the Cold War the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), which for much of the struggle was seen by the then still Soviet General Staff or Stavka as a little more than a bump in the road for Russian forces on their way to the Fulda Gap, alone numbered some 53,000 personnel. Marshal Zaytsev’s Group of Soviet Forces Germany, or GSFG, totalled some 333,000 troops, 4200 tanks, 8200 armoured vehicles, 3800 artillery pieces and 690 aircraft.

SS3, Vostok 18 and 4D Warfare

Last week in Latvia I gave a speech about what I call 4D warfare in which disinformation, disruption, destabilisation and destruction combine to form a new interlocking warfighting concept that spans the so-called hybrid, cyber, hyper warfare spectrum.  Or, to put it another way Russia is seeking to master a new form of coercive escalation that starts with RT (Russia Today) and the manipulation of social media, employs much of the Russian security state via the SVR, GRU etc., exploits new technologies such as cyber-warfare and hypersonic weaponry, and possibly ends up with Russia’s burgeoning and once again treaty-blurring and bristling nuclear arsenal. The aim of the Russians is clear; to exploit the now many seams in Western society, the defence of the West and the institutions and alliances through which defence is organised. 

Specifically, Moscow’s force escalation combines information warfare with political warfare and if needs be a form of tailored, high-end warfare that exerts coercion on Russia’s adversaries at several escalation levels. Agility, joined-upness and innovation are the keys to the success of such a strategy and it would appear that whilst Moscow has made big strides forward it is suffering from the typical tensions with which any rapid expansion of security capability and capacity must contend. If the GRU’s bungled ‘clean-up/mess-up’ missions post-Olympic doping, Syria and Skripal are what they appear to be – utter, bungling incompetence – then the Russian state has neither mastered the new warfare nor escaped its particular talent for cock-up!

Which brings me back to Vostok 18. The impressive Russian Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, described one of the main purposes of Vostok 18 as being to create a culture at the key junior and mid-command leadership levels that encourages innovation via ‘non-standard solutions’ if faced with forces, events and circumstances that were not envisaged in the operational plan or Oplan – Moltke and all that. During the 1980s several massive Soviet military exercises revealed the same problem in that whilst elite assault formations were first rate the follow-on forces tended to be more mass than manoeuvre and liable to stall if all did not go according to plan.   

Carry on Warfighting?

Given the challenge implicit in Vostok 18 the scale of Saif Sareea 3 might not be as comparatively comical as at first glance. Hopefully, the thinking behind SS3 reveals a senior British military leadership is thinking innovatively about how best Britain’s far smaller force could help frustrate Russia’s ‘thirty days but not much more crash, bang and wallop’ force in the event of a real emergency. Back to history. In 1982 the US Army in Europe adopted the doctrine of AirLand Battle which required land forces to manoeuvre aggressively and in close coordination to mount a dynamic defence against advancing GSFG forces. The land force was to be supported by air power and Special Operating Forces which would attack the follow-on echelons behind the elite Soviet and East German forward formations. 

On the face of it SS3 looks like a 75% scale down of SS2 simply aimed at thwarting a Russian military advance by delaying it rather than defeating it and hoping to hell the Yanks are not too busy elsewhere and will show up in strength and in time. Or, rather, a much smaller road-bump than the BAOR on the way to the Suwalki Gap, but a road-bump nevertheless. However, given that even Gerasimov’s much vaunted Vostok 18 is, in fact, a much scaled-down strategic manoeuvre exercise compared with some of the ‘biggies’ the Soviets ran during the 1980s the scale is comparable.  In other words, Gerasimov and the British have identified the same enduring weakness in contemporary Russian forces that dogged their Soviet forebears – a Russian attack must work like clockwork if it is not to stall and then fail.

Gerasimov’s concern about his force also explains why Russia has adopted 4D warfare. Ultimately, and although much updated, Russian military doctrine still dates back to Guderian and the German doctrine of Blitzkrieg in 1940. That is apparent in the nature and scope of Vostok 18 and the way it tested forces from the Central and Eastern Military Districts by setting them against each other in an effort to outflank each other via strategic and technology manoeuvre. Here’s the thing. The essential Russian weakness is that before each force could commence manoeuvres in opposite strategic directions it had to concentrate. Any such concentration of force tends to reveal intent and makes it vulnerable to a host of attacks.  Thus, the real military-strategic purpose of 4D warfare is revealed; to reinforce Maskirovka (deception) and thus keep NATO allies permanently off-balance politically, strategically and militarily.  

A NATO Aspirin for a British Headache?

Is there a method in British madness? If the British can combine intelligence, offensive and defensive cyber capability, Special Operating Forces and an adapted form of AirLand Battle with a new form of Follow-on Force Attack (FOFA) to effect then it could show the way forward for a new NATO doctrine that could in turn counter Gerasimov defensively at every level of the fires and effects he seeks to generate.

If that is the key to success will be an adaptive NATO.  NATO is indeed adapting but it will not resolve its strategic failings unless it sorts out some of the nonsense at the operational and tactical levels. The other day a senior NATO operational commander told me he has to keep stocks of different headache tablets. Why? Because the forces in his battlegroup come from different nations and until an emergency is formally declared each nation’s force must use its own headache tablets.  Worse, manufacturers’ warranties on military equipment remain perhaps the greatest impediment to Allied military interoperability because they forbid the use of ‘kit’ by any other force than the nation that purchased it. The job of NATO’s enhanced and tailored forward presence is to make General Gerasimov’s life as complicated as possible, but Allied rules of engaging with each other make defence far more complicated and thus prone to failure than needs be. This kind of NATO nonsense must make the Good General Gerasimov laugh out loud on occasion, were he prone to such occasional expressions of jollity.

Therefore, for all the almost comical variance in scale between Vostok 18 and Saif Sareea 3, if there is some method in British military ‘madness’ and the British really are working out which of seams in Gerasimov’s 4D warfare to attack and disrupt then all well and good.  If not, SS3 does indeed look a little like one of those ‘Carry on’ movies beloved of the British in the 1950s in which incompetent but plucky little Britannia eventually prevails in spite of itself. Worse, such strategic pretence could reflect a British Army that is beginning to look ever more like Lord Gort’s British Expeditionary Force of 1940 – over-exposed, over-tasked, under-funded, under-manned and under-equipped. Any student of history will tell you where that fiasco ended up - Dunkirk!

Julian Lindley-French  

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The Riga Test 2018: Latvia 200?

Alphen, Netherlands. 2 October. Every year, when I have the honour of addressing the magnificent Riga Conference I set myself thereafter the Riga test. Are the good citizens of Riga safer this year than last?  Whenever I go to the Baltic States I come away convinced of two things. First, the need for something called ‘Europe’ in some form or another. Second, just how fragile freedom is and why it must be constantly defended. This year I had the honour of supporting Minister Bergmanis and his team by setting out the challenge for NATO over the coming century and chairing a vital debate about the relationship between security and liberty that democracies must strike and which, in essence, defines freedom.
My Latvian friends are celebrating one hundred years as a country this year. Sadly, they are not celebrating one hundred years as a free country. Since 1918 and those past one hundred years Latvia suffered under the jackboot of oppression for fifty-two of them as they were betrayed by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. My use of the word ‘betrayed’ is deliberate. On August 23rd 1939 Hitler’s foreign minister Ribbentrop and Stalin’s foreign minister Molotov signed a so-called Non-Aggression Pact to which a secret protocol was attached. That protocol agreed that with the outbreak of war on 1 September 1939 Poland and the Baltic States would be divided between the Nazis and the Soviets.  Two years later, on 22 June 1941, Hitler launched his gargantuan, obscene invasion of the Soviet Union that would lead to his suicide in a Berlin bunker less than four years later, but only after some thirty million Balts and Russians had perished.

The cost of freedom and the hard choices it forces on people was brought home to me shortly after I arrived at Riga Airport last Wednesday.  Last Thursday I had the honour of giving the keynote address at the excellent Tipping Point 2018 conference in Palanga just over the Latvian border with Lithuania.  To get there I was driven some 260 km along a road that in late 1944 and early 1945 was a highway of death. 
Being a historian I was only too aware through where I was being driven as I passed through places where tragedy had walked with both of its heavy feet. Saldus, Skrunda and Liepaja, and the many places in between were on the front-line between hold-out German forces and massive Soviet advances during Operation Bagration and the six battles of the Courland Pocket between October 1944 and May 1945. When I looked carefully I could see the sad signs of a struggle that consumed tens of thousands of Latvian lives with monuments and graves acting as a sentinel of remembrance as I made my peaceful way to Palanga. The Latvian countryside is truly beautiful rolling in waves likes the unfurling waves of a flag, but it also melancholy.  Where once forest had stood fields abound because to flush out resistance the Red Army had simply burnt to the ground the forests of silver birch which are the sylvan signature of the Baltic region.

What a choice the Latvian people had faced back then between Moscow’s Political Commissars and Berlin’s Leadership Guidance Officers, not to mention the SS Einsatzgruppen with their murderous mission to exterminate Jews and anyone else who stood in their way. In fact, it was no choice at all. That is why I rejected the title of my panel at the Riga Conference which asked if NATO would still be effective one hundred years hence.  For me NATO is the hard backbone of all out freedoms but for all its utility and value NATO is but a tool of defence. No, what matters far more to me was this week’s upcoming elections in Latvia for it is the popular expression of real freedom that we are together defending. The real question is how we ensure that Latvia is still holding free and fair elections when Latvia 200 is celebrated. 
Three separate but interlocking trends worry me.  The first trend is Moscow’s retreat back into over-militarised and aggressive autarky most typified by the cult of Stalin that is once again rearing its head in Russia. The second trend is America’s retreat into itself even as US power is being stretched ever more thinly the world over.  As an aside, I was offered a lift into central Riga by a Canadian colonel and two of his soldiers.  Canada is doing its bit!  The third trend is the decline of the main Western European powers into a strategic fantasy-land in which harsh reality is appeased by politicians all too willing to take risks with the lives of others.  Britain lost deep in the swamp that is Brexit. Germany, still too fearful of itself and its own history to take on the burdens that geography and history place on it. Italy? No comment. France? President Macron is Europe’s only strategic leader but like his country’s wine, there are times when the ‘etiquette’ on the bottle is far more appealing than the contents within.

The other day Sir Simon Winchester, a doyen of the British media, and all-round, fully signed-up member of the London Metropolitan chattering elite posed a question on the BBC that has not really been heard since eighty years ago on the eve of the Munich ‘peace in our time’ Accord Neville Chamberlain talked about then Czechoslovakia as “…small country about which we know little”.  “Why should Britain defend Latvia?” Winchester asked.  He should make the same journey, no, the same pilgrimage to a painful past, I have just made. You see the same past that consumed Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania in 1939 almost consumed Britain in 1940. It was only the maverick Churchill, a British people willing to fight (as opposed to much of the Lord Halifax Establishment who wished to ‘seek terms’ with Hitler) and some sane defence decisions taken in 1934 that saved Britain and thus prevented Hitler from winning.
Sadly, Britain’s heroics in 1940 also inadvertently helped paved the way for Stalin to win in 1945 and gobble up much of eastern and central Europe for generations.  It was only a relatively strong NATO, American solidarity and the absolute determination of Balts, Poles and others that over time wore down the resolve and the capability of the then Soviet Union. It is thus sobering, to say the least to hear President Putin thinks the Soviet Union was a good thing and he wants to rebuild it. I have learnt to believe President Putin when he makes such pronouncements.

For these reasons, I want neither Balts nor Brits ever again to face such choices.  For Latvia 200 to be celebrated NATO remains vital, but it must be a NATO in which Europeans do far more than at present. Why? First, because it is now time for Europeans to grow up strategically. Second, because to keep America strong in Europe Europeans must do far more to help America. 
There is a twist, as I made clear in a somewhat heated discussion I had with a senior diplomat over Brexit who is both a friend and someone I respect. It is not weapons that make NATO strong but mutual respect.  If Latvians want to face down the likes of Sir Simon Winchester and stop post-Brexit Britain simply retreating behind its nuclear shield and its powerful navy (On Saturday HMS Queen Elizabeth became Europe’s only massive strike carrier, the first of two such power projection British ships) then solidarity must work both ways. If the British people PERCEIVE they are being punished for Brexit by the very Europeans who are calling upon young Britons to defend then I am afraid NATO will be damaged and possibly the Riga test one day failed, especially if the Americans are weakened by events in Asia-Pacific.  It is perception that drives politics and strategy just as much as reality and the next two months of Brexit negotiations could well decide the future not just of the EU, but also of NATO and by extension the very idea of ‘Europe’. Think about it, Riga.  

At the end of the panel I chaired I finished with a quote from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which had been haunting me through the debate about Europe, security and freedom.  “In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security.  They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom.  When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”
The real threat to NATO and by extension to Latvia and the people of Riga is that Europeans come to believe that the responsibility for the security of Europeans ultimately rests elsewhere. It does not. It rests on all of us together – Britons, French, Germans, Poles, Latvians, et al.

The people of Riga are no less secure in 2018 than they were in 2017 but nor are they completely safe. Free Latvia 200? Only if we are all willing to defend freedom together, not simply talk about it.
Julian Lindley-French  

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Britain and France MUST Hang Together…

“…for neither Britain nor France can there be any nostalgic attachment to past structure and relationships in the pursuit of influence. While the financial case for a renewed and intensified partnership is clear, the political and strategic imperatives on both sides of the Channel are less so”.

Julian Lindley-French, Britain and France: A Dialogue of Decline? Chatham House, December 2010

Perfidy all round?

Alphen, Netherlands. 25 September. Last week was one of THOSE weeks in the ever-sensitive Franco-British strategic partnership. As Prime Minister May typically bungled her Salzburg Brexit ‘Sound of Hubris all round’ von Crapp-shoot French President Emmanuel Macron seemed to relish his role as leader of the EU punishment lynch mob.  Indeed, he came very close to insulting all of the British people with a Gallic relish that Charles de Gaulle would have been proud of. Less Jupiter, more Napoleon.  At exactly the same time in London, the annual Franco-British Defence Conference took place blithely implying that the political fracas in Salzburg will have no impact on the vital Franco-British strategic partnership. Frankly, London and Paris are deluding themselves.

Scroll back eight years to 2 November 2010. Lancaster House, Central London. Amid the usual pomp and circumstance surrounding Franco-British summits, British Prime Minister David Cameron (remember him?) and French President Nicolas Sarkozy met to put pen to a new Defence and Security Co-operation Treaty which committed Europe’s strongest military powers to the pooling and sharing of military equipment. Protocols to the treaty included a Nuclear Stockpile Stewardship agreement to help preserve the reliability and credibility of the two countries’ respective independent nuclear deterrents.  An agreement was also reached on closer operational ties between the British and French armed forces and deeper cooperation between the two countries’ advanced defence and technological ‘bases’.

The centrepiece of the ‘Lancaster House Agreement’ was the formation of a new high-end, deployable, expeditionary force called the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force or CJEF.  Yesterday in The Times, the new British Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, tried to defy political gravity by pretending politics and strategy were somehow distinct. In an article entitled Old Alliance is Key to Meeting Modern Threats Carter wrote that “…we must take our alliance to the next level: our collective security and stability depend on it”.  In strategic terms, Carter’s call makes perfect sense…but.

The Franco-British (sort of) strategic partnership

In June 1998, six months before the landmark Franco-British St Malo Declaration, I published in New Statesman what many regard as one of my most influential articles.  Time to Bite the Eurobullet called for a close Franco-British strategic partnership as the basis for a revitalised European security and defence structure which, whilst focussed on the EU, would be NATO-friendly and open to others outside the Union.  The idea that France and Britain together should form the expeditionary military power core of a renewed European defence effort is still something in which I believe deeply and passionately and informed my work during my years in Paris as a Senior Fellow at the EU Institute for Security Studies.

Critically, with coalitions of the willing and able ever more to the fore of organised European military deployability, there will be occasions when the ability to run ‘ops’ under an EU or non-NATO, non-US flag will be needed. Having the option to communicate effectively a specifically European strategic identity during complex operations could help better realise the legitimate European political objectives any use of force must serve. Clearly, President Macron also shares this vision. Indeed, it is why Macron created the European Intervention Initiative and called for the creation of a force that was outside of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy or CSDP. 

Carter also went on to write, “The strength in any military alliance is built on mutual trust and respect that can only be fostered through a long history of close collaboration. Our relationship with France is built on more than a century of our militaries joining forces to defend our people and uphold our values.  Well, Sir Nick, all well and good. However, as a historian of the Franco-British strategic partnership since the April 1904 Entente Cordiale let me tell you there have been times over the past 114 years when the ‘entente’ was distinctly less than ‘cordiale’. My fear is that we are about to enter another of such rocky period in the interminable Franco-British love-hate relationship.

The political threats to a strategic partnership.

There are two political threats to Carter’s vision of moving Franco-British defence co-operation onto a higher level. The first is that President Macron will overplay his Brexit punishment of Britain. The second is that further defence cuts in Britain will at the same (critical) time further reduce the importance and value of Britain as a strategic partner.

President Macron is certainly in danger of overplaying his Brexit hand.  If Paris (and others) somehow managed to force Brexit into a retreat do the French really think that a Britain full of people who believe they have been ‘screwed’ by Europe with France to the fore would be happy about a deeper strategic partnership?  No, the challenge for all concerned in the Brexit negotiations must somehow be even at this late stage to craft a deal that peoples on both sides accept as reasonably fair. If not the toxic politics of Brexit will certainly undermine the Franco-British strategic partnership.

Why anti-French venom? The post-March 2019 Brexit flashpoint will inevitably be at Calais, Dover and other British and French ‘entrepots’.  Given the appalling failure of the British Government to properly prepare for a ‘no deal’ Brexit it could well be that significant disruption takes place to travel and trade in 2019. Paris it seems is quite keen to see that happen ‘pour encourager les autres’ a la Voltaire, Candide and Byng! Given that French airspace is critical to a lot of air travel out of Britain it will be France who is blamed. What price a Franco-British strategic partnership then?

And then there are the further defence cuts planned in Britain. British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has failed to secure more real funding from the strategically tin-eared Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond. The result is that the Ministry of Defence has now to find a further £20bn plus of savings. This means a further retreat from the ‘minimum’ future force agreed in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review or SDSR. God knows what will be left of the British future force in the 2020 SDSR?  Floating sitting ducks?

More cuts will further undermine Britain’s wider strategic influence at a critical moment.  One of the failings of the entire Lancaster House process has been the contrasting ambitions and expectations invested by both sides in the effort. Back at St Malo, I saw how much strategic capital France wanted to invest in the process. To be fair, then Prime Minister Tony Blair was also prepared to invest significant capital in the strategic partnership until American concerns and the 2003 Iraq War intervened.  For David Cameron in 2010 Lancaster House was simply one way of offsetting some of the damage his own government had done to the defence of Britain in the unbalanced and frankly panicky SDSR 2010. What value a Franco-British strategic partnership now?

Britain and France MUST (somehow) hang together…

For me, the great tragedy of Brexit is the extent to which it has undermined Britain’s strategic partnerships, which is why I campaigned against it in spite of my grave concerns about over-concentrating power in Brussels and the threat to meaningful democracy the EU represents.  Worse, compounded by strategically-blind post-financial crash policies Britain, and much of the rest of Europe, have turned inwards at a time when external threats to the EU and NATO have grown exponentially.    

The Franco-British strategic partnership has always been, and always will be, subject to the complex and too often toxic politics within and history between the two countries. If Sir Nick Carter believes otherwise he is being poorly advised or simply living in strategic la-la land.  And yet, the partnership remains vital not just for the stability of Europe, but its defence. Why? The Americans are going to be stretched thin the world-over by China and Russia. German is as yet still strategically-incapable. That leaves Britain and France still at the heart of any effort that might lead to Europeans doing serious European defence as Europeans. Britain and France are providing back-bone battlegroups for NATO’s forward defence of the Baltic States. Last week British and French fighters were scrambled to meet a force of Russian nuclear-armed bombers who appeared unannounced in the North Sea.

One can only hope Lancaster House and its successor agreements will survive Brexit and British defence cuts.  This is because, like it or not, Britain and France MUST hang together…or at some point, they will hang separately as they embark on a dialogue of terminal decline.

Julian Lindley-French

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Predators, Prey or Herbivores with Attitude? Europe's Choice

Alphen, Netherlands. 20 September. Last night I returned from Oslo where I had the honour of addressing Major-General Odin Johannessen’s impressive Army Summit 2018.  During the visit, I also gave a keynote speech at the Norwegian Atlantic Committee, or DNAK, which is superbly led by my dear friend Kate Hansen Bundt.  I cannot share the slides of my speech to the Summit with you but below is the speech I gave at DNAK about the strategic choices Europeans must confront, the need for real leadership, and the terrifying consequences of a lack of it.

The Leadership Hole

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My thanks to Kate and Andreas, it is always a real pleasure to be back at DNAK and here in beautiful Oslo. My theme this morning is leadership. Or, rather, the consequences of a lack of it.

I am not going to pull my punches this morning. No slides, even less politesse, but a plea to leaders across Europe to get their strategic act together and invest political energy where it is really needed of Europeans are to be safe in an increasingly dangerous century as a new ‘ideological’ struggle takes place between liberalism and cynicism.

Kate asked me to address the following issues:

1.     NATO after the Summit – What’s next? I am tempted to ask, summit? At times it was more of a pub brawl;

2.     The Consequences of Brexit. Or, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, what to do when the unknown unknowns are decidedly more worrying than the known unknowns in the case of my own country at present;

3.     President Trump and the role of Germany – or what do I think of wannabe leader but not too much leadership please Germany and its relationship with the utterly inconsistent and increasingly dysfunctional White House which appears to have abandoned any pretence to the leadership of the West and increasingly America itself.

What, if anything binds these issues?  My sense that the post-Cold War ‘not-so belle epoch’ is finally over, but that European leaders refuse to recognise it – which is why I have decided to entitle this little chat – Predators, Prey or Herbivores with Attitude? Europe’s Choice.

If you take nothing else away this morning understand this:

1.     NATO is split between high-enders and low-enders, between south, east, north, south and now west.

2.     Brexit has revealed a) the incompetence of Britain’s elite; b) the transition of my country from Great Britain to Little Britain; and c) a profound loss of strategic mojo

3.     Brexit has also revealed the weak imperial quality of the European Commission, the lack of any real control most member-states have over it, and the lack of real accountability of over-mighty Eurocrats. Want more proof? See this month’s report on the appointment of Martin Selmayr as Secretary-General of the Commission by the European Parliament’s Ombudswoman Emily O’Reilly.  It was a blatant and utterly arrogant abuse of power. Sanction? None. It is time to put the Commission back in its box and give power back to the member-states. Europe needs a super-alliance, not a super-state.

4.     And then there is Trump’s America. Washington these days reminds me of that old Kissinger jibe about Europe and who to call?  Who does one call in DC these days? The passing of John McCain reinforces my sense that a once inspirational America is fast becoming an indifferent America unwilling to bear the costs of free world leadership any more or enjoy the benefits it rightly proffers.

5.     Germany?  France once had the idea that the future of Europe would be built on French strategic culture and German money. What we seem to have now is German strategic culture, such as it is, and French ‘money’ i.e. none. The great mystery/tragedy for me of ‘Europe’ is that with each passing European treaty – Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon the European nation-state has become less strategically ambitious and more power-emaciated whilst ‘Europe’ has become no stronger.  Our influence is waning across the world, with perhaps the possible exceptions of German-led mercantilism and the narrow confines of trade deals. The question Europeans should be asking is not where Britain is going. Britain is going nowhere. Rather, where has all of Europe’s power gone?

So, let me now dive deeper into these issues and how they relate to the paucity of strategic vision in Europe and a dangerous lack of leadership.

NATO after the Summit and ever-decreasing PESCOS

Forget the ‘language’ that came out of Brussels – that was more of the same-ol, same-ol, Wales to Warsaw and beyond conditional adaptation ‘we recognise only as much threat as a) we can afford; and/or b) we think will still get us re-elected stuff. It was the Alliance’s retreat into transactionalism that was striking. It begged question: is American internationalism dead?  Too early to tell and we lost one of its great pragmatic champions in John McCain, but President Trump is doing all he can to kill it.

For me, the really important message from Brussels, and Kate and I were close, was how convenient Donald Trump has become for European leaders to blame for their own appallingly dilatory approach to defence.

Look around Europe’s ‘ends’ - Russo-Chinese Vostok 18 at one end, the ongoing tragedy of Ukraine, Russia’s victory in Syria through rivers of blood, the militarization of the Arctic, the attempted murder of the Skripals in Britain, and the (at best) manslaughter of one of my fellow British citizens Dawn Sturgess, the unfolding (again) chaos in Libya, mass migration flows with profound implications for Europe with an already de-stabilised Italy with the Middle East and North Africa a powder keg.

Now look west, ladies and gentlemen. The transatlantic relationship is now conditional and transactional. Why? Trump or no Trump the United States is stretched thin the world over and it will only get more complicated and worse for the Americans.  America needs European allies, but it needs real-world European allies who are not locked into ever decreasing PESCOs.

You see NATO only has a future if we Europeans do far more for our own defence. There was a time when NATO was about the Americans providing the real defence of Europe, with Europeans in support. Now, the Alliance MUST be about the Europeans providing far more for their own defence collectively with the Americans in support.

Double Dutch Defence

Here is the crunch question. Are we up to the challenge of contemporary European defence?  The Netherlands and Norway would suggest not.  The Dutch this week committed to yet another smoke and mirrors increase in the defence budget. On the face of it, a 10% increase looks impressive. Two things. First, the new funding will simply fill the holes in the capability of the Dutch armed forces caused by years of serial underfunding. There will be no new capabilities of note. Second, the growing Dutch economy and defence cost inflation mean that by the early 2020s the Netherlands will actually be spending LESS on defence as a proportion of the national economy. And yet the Dutch signed up to spending 2% GDP on defence by 2024 to meet NATO’s 2014 Defence Investment Pledge. This is strategic illiteracy of the first order if you look at what is happening just across the border between Norway and Russia?

Norway?  It simply beggars belief to my mind why a NATO ally with one of the world’s biggest sovereign wealth funds cannot spend 2% GDP on defence. Worse, by spending less than 2% and yet expecting American and British taxpayer’s (and others) to meet the shortfall in Norway’s own defences as a result of political choice treats me with a kind of contempt. Why should I fork out to defend Norway, which I am very willing to do, if Norway will not meet its own commitments to itself? A good start would be for Norway to permit allies to permanently station forces in Norway if needs be.  Oslo can hardly expect our forces to die in an emergency for a Norway that apparently does not trust its allies.

As Norwegian NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said, Allies cannot use both a lack of economic growth or too high economic growth to justify failing to invest in what is still a historically low defence investment requirement of 2% GDP.  To use the language of Yorkshire diplomacy – it is a bloody ridiculous argument Dutch, Norwegian and other European politicians use to justify their strategic illiteracy.

Put simply, Europeans need to come together and look out of the eternally-bickering ant-hill that is the EU and see the world within which Europe resides for what it is and not what they would like it to be. Then and only then will Europeans, or at least some of them, grow up strategically. They had better do it fast.

Brexit and the Strategic Failure of Britain’s Elite

Which brings me (yawn) to Brexit. Oh, how I lament for thee my once great country.  Brexit has revealed Britain today for what it is – the consequence of a series of misguided strategic decisions, the unwillingness of the elite Establishment to be honest with the people about their lack of belief in Britain or their mistakes, and a culture in Whitehall of ‘managing decline’ that is close to policy psychosis.

There is no question in my mind that a state with the inherent strengths and talents of Britain, with an economy that still counts amongst the world’s biggest and a strategic culture that led it to span the world for centuries, could again rule itself. Don’t get me wrong – I campaigned for Remain partly in the belief that for geopolitical reasons Europe needed to hang together not hang apart, and mainly because Britain has never walked away from institutions central to its concept of influence. 

There was another reason: as a citizen, I have simply lost faith in Britain’s declinist elite and did not think they are up to the task of Brexit. Critically, for years they deceived the British people by refusing to admit how entwined the UK had become in the ‘European Project’ and just how much sovereignty that had handed over to Brussels on the QT whilst keeping it from the British people.

There are other reasons for Britain’s loss of strategic mojo – the criminal irresponsibility of the bankers who almost bankrupted Britain with their criminal recklessness but for which (surprise, surprise) few have been convicted, the collapse of a once reasonably united society into ‘devolved’ and competing poles of power within the UK under the rubric of ‘modernisation’, the atomisation of society into ‘communities’ and identity-politics, and the retreat of the political class into virtue-signalling at the expense of considered policy, most notably foreign policy where all that matters these days it seems is vacuous statement-making and an obsession with inputs to prove virtue at the expense of hard outcomes.

Sadly, Britain has become just another of those strategy-free, other-worldly European ‘powers’ in which interest groups turn every issue into a crisis, where victimhood has replaced personal responsibility and where Special Advisors undermine what is still, on balance, a very good but horribly under-resourced civil service.

Britain’s leaders have instead retreated into strategic pretence. Proof? Much has been made over the past week that Britain will use its admittedly burgeoning offensive cyber capabilities to retaliate against Russia for the bungling aggression of the GRU on the streets of Salisbury.  No chance.

You see the obsession of successive British governments with privatising almost everything, including much of the support for the armed forces, has left Britain and its society dangerously vulnerable to cyber-attack. Why? Because British governments refused to listen to those of us who warned that the need for profit was diametrically opposed to the building of costly redundancy. In any case, most of Russia is too backward to notice any British action. The best that London can do is to kick a few oligarchs out – but not too many.

Where does Britain go next?  Look at Britain’s deeds, not its words. Britain is retreating behind its soon-to-be-updated nuclear shield and will use its massive new aircraft carriers to strategically virtue signal. The British Army is far too small these days to properly meet the commitment Britain has made to NATO to provide two real divisions in the event of a real emergency. Worse, I fear, the days of Britain being the Alliance’s European heavyweight are over.  Indeed, until and if Britain realigns the ends, ways and means of its foreign and defence policy then the great strategic gap at the heart of British engagement will tell you all you need to know.  London could start by simply plugging the £20bn plus funding hole in its own minimum defence requirement.  Anything less is again strategic pretence.

To give you a sense of the scale of the declinist diseases and strategic illiteracy at the heart of Britain’s elite Establishment the other day I listened to that doyen of the British Press Sir Simon Jenkins on the BBC seriously suggest that Britain really did not armed forces anymore beyond a kind of Home Guard. Dad’s Army? He even questioned why Britain was defending Latvia.  As I said in response on the Riga Conference’s website, if we fail to defend Latvia we fail ourselves.

Put bluntly, Brexit has been an exercise in incompetent political weakness that has exaggerated Britain’s relative decline. A real British leader would reinvest properly in the tools, instruments and strategy of influence. Instead, I and millions of my fellow citizens are faced with a choice between a barely-reconstructed Marxist and someone who seems at times more suited to lead a village council than one of the world’s leading powers.

And yes, I was the one who invented Hotel California Brexit – we can check out anytime we want but we can never leave. Watch this space.

The EU: Empire or Union?

The EU?  The appointment of hard-line federalists Michel Barnier and Guy Verhofstadt to lead the Brexit negotiations also revealed the extent of the marginalisation of most EU member-states from real power in and over Brussels. Wrong people, wrong place, wrong job, and the wrong time. You see, Brexit has revealed the EU for what it has become – a bureaucratic empire and a pretty vengeful one at that in which democracy is merely a fig-leaf for a distant elite which is demonstrably incompetent given its inability to confront the big systemic issues of our age beyond rhetoric and yet believes only it knows best when it palpably does not.  

Brexit is also the start of a deep existential struggle for the centre of power in Europe between self-aggrandizing power centralisers in Brussels and the European nation-state. It is my firm conviction that a new political settlement for Europe will emerge from its decade of crisis. Given real democracy resides only in the European nation-state it is vital the EU becomes a super-alliance. If it becomes some form of super-state, weak or strong, it will also, inevitably, become some form of tyranny. Intransigent, intolerant and incompetent. Sadly, until this battle over power and institutions is resolved I fear Europeans will look inward not outward.  

Europe’s power to which I referred earlier? If one reads the 2004 Lisbon Agenda the EU was to spearhead Europe’s efforts to become economically ultra-competitive in the twenty-first century.  In fact, Europe has become increasingly uncompetitive and protectionist in an effort to simply delay the moment when Europeans are unable to compete in a twenty-first-century world that owes Europeans nothing.

Trump, Germany and the Need for a New Transatlantic Relationship

The only real transatlantic strategic relationship between powers of any real weight that matters is between America and Germany.  I have the honour to be part of the joint Munich Security Conference-George C Marshall Center Loisach Group which is committed to turning the essential German-US relationship into a special one. Why am I a member? Don’t ask.

It will not be easy. A recent DPA poll suggested 42% of Germans want US forces to leave Germany. The Nordstream 2 gas pipeline also reveals something about how Germany sees power these days – mercantilism. I have noticed something else, not a few Germans seem as ambivalent about its relationship with Putin’s Russia as it is about its strategic partnership with the US. 

And yet, look beyond the appalling personal chemistry that exists between Chancellor Merkel and President Trump and it becomes apparent something else is going on: we are finally witnessing the real end of World War Two and a democratic Germany that is emerging from strategic deference to the Americans to err, sort of, not quite, lead.

The result is a vacuum. A vacuum of strategy and a vacuum of power. Berlin may dislike Trump, Germany may be ambivalent about the Americans, but the Federal Republic is offering little by way of replacement. Berlin, it seems, wants the benefits of leadership but is unwilling to get its strategic hands dirty. Rather, it has developed a kind of proxy leadership in which Germany uses ‘Europe’ as an alibi for German power. Just see who Berlin wants to replace Juncker at the Commission next year. Weber and Selmayr together. How very European…or do I mean German? Paradoxically, Berlin’s confusion of ‘order’ with power cedes the European strategic ground, such as it is, to the French and in particular President Macron. Sadly, the tragedy for President Macron is that his ideas are far mightier than his country and quite possibly Europe.

One of my favourite books is L.P. Hartley’s The Go Between. Its opening lines read – “The past is a different country. They do things differently there”. Germany is a model democracy and I am comfortable with German leadership of Europe if a) Germans have a greater sense of solidarity with other Europeans; b) stop simply swapping the ‘German interest’ for the ‘European interest’. To do that Germany will need to be informed by its Nazi past but stop using it as an alibi for doing very little for the greater good.  Indeed, Germany’s fear of its own past is paralysing Europe’s ability to deal with the big issues Europeans face, most notably mass irregular migration and helping to push leaderless and frustrated Europeans towards populists of both Left and Right who offer nothing.

Where to start? Germany needs in the first instance to have the political courage to sort out the appalling state of the Bundeswehr. Indeed, Berlin needs to understand that leadership requires the sound and balanced investment in both soft and hard power for leadership cannot exist if softness is insufficiently supported by legitimate hardness.  For that is the only way deterrence and defence can be mounted in this new age of new 4D warfare which stretches disinformation, destabilisation, disruption and destruction as it simultaneously climbs a new escalation ladder from hybrid war to hyper war via cyberwar.  Protection and projection are two sides of the new defence for all of us. Is Germany up to it? Are any of us up to it?

Herbivores with Attitude?

So, does it matter that America is inconsistent, NATO is divided, Britain is dysfunctional, the EU is weak imperial, European states are power-emaciated and Germany wants order without responsibility?  Look around you. Illiberal predators are emerging who threaten us, our values and our interests. They have penetrated our societies, treat our laws and our rules-based international system with contempt, and see Europeans increasingly as prey. 

I am not suggesting we Europeans become predators. We have been there, done that, got the imperial T-shirt. However, I am reminded of a short film I watched recently. A lion attacks a Wildebeest calf. For a moment all seems lost as the big cat drags the calf towards lunch. Then, suddenly, a large male wildebeest with huge horns piles into the lion and frees the calf with the herd charging in from behind.  It may have been a herbivore but, my God, it was a herbivore with horns…and attitude.

It may be that we Europeans are becoming strategic herbivores, nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but for God’s sake in this world we need to be herbivores with horns and attitude because with the likes of Putin and Xi around being ‘nice’ does not buy peace.

So, what do I as a citizen want?

1.     NATO: America you are a truly great country and freedom’s great bastion BUT you need your European allies more than you have ever.  Europe, wake up to this world and invest in the forces and resources to make our Great Alliance once again a credible deterrent and defence;

2.     Britain: give me some vision leaders, some sense you still believe in my country. That you will again craft pragmatic policy that was once the signature of British power. And, that once again you give the great people who serve me and who are the face of our influence – be it diplomatic, military or whatever, the tools and the funding to do the job – as someone once said once before. End the strategic pretence now.

3.     Brussels: remember you are there to foster democracy and support the European state not to replace the latter and kill the former with bureaucracy. You cannot replace democracy with bureaucracy and you must respect votes even if the electorate denies you ever more power in the name of ever more Europe.

4.     Germany: we love you, really.  But, if you want to lead do the job leadership requires. Above all, take the rest of us along with you. The German interest is not automatically and conveniently synonymous with the European interest.

Why? Because Hotel California stretches the world over and whilst all of us can check out any time, we can never leave.

Predators, prey or herbivores with attitude?  It is indeed our choice…so let’s make it.

Thank you.

Julian Lindley-French,

Oslo, September 2018