Wednesday, 2 September 2015
“The tyrant desires that his subjects shall be incapable of action, for no-one attempts what is impossible, and they will not attempt to overthrow a tyranny, if they are powerless”
Aristotle on Tyranny.
Alphen, Netherlands. 2 September. Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the European Commission and former Dutch Foreign Minister, is a decent man and certainly not the tyrant against which his beloved Aristotle rails. Indeed, I had the honour of meeting him at a big conference I chaired in Amsterdam a couple of years ago. However, a Monday speech he gave at the University of Tilburg that my wife helped organise worries me. Entitled, “The European Union and the Rule of Law” it was in certain respects an excellent speech that sought to reacquaint the European Commission with the core principles of Europe’s Founding Fathers as arbiter for and between the states it is meant to serve. However, read between its many lines and the speech does something else – by placing the rule of law ABOVE democracy and law as an ALTERNATIVE to power it seeks to justify the transfer of ever more state power (sovereignty) to the Commission in the name of toothless efficiency masquerading as law. In so doing Timmermans attempts to justify the idea that Higher Authority always knows best and with it power ever more distant from the ever more ignored citizen. Above all the speech demonstrates to me an EU heading inexorably towards a reckoning between state and super-state.
With much of the speech I could agree. The rise of xenophobia, intolerance, hatred and the populism it engenders on both the political Left and Right must be resisted. His assertion that democracy and the rule of law are intrinsically and inevitably intertwined is clearly correct. His reassertion of the need for a system of migration and asylum that is founded in both law and effective management is sound. Equally, Timmermans fails to point out that the current migration crisis has been exacerbated by the elite’s focus on the former but refusal to realise the latter.
However, my concerns about the speech are manifold. Timmermans particularly irritated me when he cited Mark Leonard’s trite, ‘tell the EU elite what they want to hear’ comment that ‘Europe’ had somehow “led the way toward a future run by committees and statesman, not soldiers and strongmen”. First, it was not the EU or its forebears that invented the idea of international institutions as constraints on extreme state action. Second, by emphasising law at the expense of power the EU has contributed to Europe’s wilful self-decline and retreat from the world and in so doing made both its region and the wider world a very much more dangerous place than it need be. Third, a Europe run by committee is a weakness not a strength.
However, it is over the relationship between law, democracy and power that Timmermans gets into a real tangle. At one point in the speech he warns against “illiberal democracy” and that the rule of law must at times be used to justify the denial of the majority will, i.e. law not in partnership with democracy but superior to it. Yes, there are indeed occasions when mob rule must be countered and that is why the rule of law evolved. As Plato said, “Laws are partly formed for the sake of good men, in order to instruct them how they may live on friendly terms with one another, and partly for the sake of those who refuse to be instructed, whose spirit cannot be subdued, or softened, or hindered from plunging into evil”. However, in a democracy it is the will of the people which is sovereign, or at least used to be.
Worse, Timmermans then links the rule of law to an idea of sovereignty that seems to defy contemporary reality. First, he states that, “European nations pooled sovereignty in order to secure the basic aims of sovereignty”. He then defines sovereignty “as not just the right to act, but the ability to act”. Whether such a statement is viewed through the lens of legitimacy or efficiency it is patent nonsense. Indeed, be it the Eurozone crisis or the migration crisis the EU’s institutions far from aggregating sovereignty have instead become a sovereignty black hole – denying member-states the ability to act, the right to act and ignoring the will of the people at one and the same time.
It is at this point the essential failing and indeed contradiction in Timmerman’s argument becomes apparent. For example, he states that: “For Europe, the rule of law is not just an inspiration, it is also an aspiration: a principle that guides both our internal and external actions”. However, having implied the rule of law is more important than democracy he also implies that law is an alternative to power. This is also nonsense. Law is power. Whosoever makes laws must also have the power so to do. Timmermans is in fact making an implicit argument for the supremacy of technocracy as decided by an elite oligarchy.
Again, I am not suggesting for a moment that either the European Commission or Frans Timmermans are tyrants. However, the speech certainly advocates more power for the Commission which is what all institutions and their leaders always seek. Here is the but and it is a big one. The speech comes perilously close at times to advocating the European Commission as Leviathan, a Europe in which stability is ‘guaranteed’ only at the expense of liberty. Timmermans might have been better advised to have reminded his audience of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and government of the people, for the people and by the people. Instead, for all the sophisticated prose this clever speech ends up being simply yet another of those EU elite plaidoyers which in the name of 'Europe' calls for the concentration of ever more power in a few elite hands – their hands. But then what do I know? After all, I am merely a citizen. Or should that be peasant?
So, for those of you unwilling to wade through all eleven of the labyrinthine pages of bad philosophising and Commission speak (the speech was clearly written by a Cambridge man) Timmerman’s speech can be satirically summarised thus (wait for it!): The world is so big and bad and getting more so that no single EU member-state can deal with it to effect any longer. Therefore if the European individual is to be protected against bad things ‘sovereignty’, i.e. power, must be ‘pooled’ which is a metaphor for giving ever more of said power to we the European Commission who in turn because we are bloody good chaps and chapesses (and paid accordingly) will render nasty state power ‘legitimate’ and because we are ‘legitimate’ courtesy of our pooled power we the Commission will generate, arbitrate and execute everything and call it the rule of law precisely because we are good chaps and chapesses and therefore legitimate. AND as only we at the European Commission are really able to make any difference in this big, bad world because the states and their leaders are so pathetic and useless because we have ensured they must be then we the Commission must thus in time (hopefully not too long now) become THE sovereign power in Europe but only in the name of Europe and, oh yes, the people, of course. AND if the individual citizen does not a) understand; b) appreciate; or c) acquiesce in our efforts on his or her behalf it is because he or she is an idiot, insufficiently ‘European’, unendowed or imbued with ‘Europe’s spirit and values, and therefore cannot be trusted to understand complex things. AND whilst we at the Commission might still allow the people to vote from time to time any such polls will in effect be meaningless like the ones we run every four years for the European Parliament (good one, eh?) AND in any case if said people vote the wrong way which they do from time to time that is dissent and must be disregarded because it will be necessarily misguided and thus infringe the rule of law which by definition only we the European Commission can define because we decide the needs of the many which are ultimately far more important than the rights of the individual except when said individual is a member of a minority and must therefore be protected from the nasty majority whatever they think which is why we have the rule of law.
Monday, 31 August 2015
Alphen, Netherlands. 31 August. In his new book on David Cameron Cameron at 10 Sir Antony Seldon quotes my friend Lord Richards of Hurstmonceux. Asked about the 2013 Syria crisis Richards said Cameron was more interested in “a Notting Hill liberal agenda than statecraft”. Lord Richards should know. Then Sir David Richards was Chief of the British Defence Staff until 2013 during which time I served him as a member of his Strategic Advisory Panel. The attack by Richards has been jumped upon (predictably) by Cameron’s political allies as the jumped up remarks of some jumped up former general who needs a good jumping on. They are wrong. David Richards is one of the most politically and strategically savvy military men I have ever known. Critically, he is also a man with a clear understanding of the relationship between power, effect, influence and outcomes in strategic affairs as is clear in his foreword to my 2015 book Little Britain? Twenty-First Strategy for a Middling European Power (www.amazon.co.uk). Indeed, I recall sitting in the Kabul office of his American successor trying to convince said American general that the scrapping of the Political Action Groups Richards had set up was a big mistake precisely because it removed a key component in the relationship between strategic ends, ways and means. Richards was right then and he is right now and here is why.
Since he came to power in 2010 David Cameron has ducked, mishandled or ill-judged almost every major international issue he has had to deal with. This was not and is not entirely his fault. The economy Cameron inherited from Gordon Brown’s Labour Party was in tatters. He lacked a clear parliamentary majority to push ahead with his own political agenda forced as he was by the 2010 elections into a difficult coalition with the Liberal Democrats. He was at also the political apex of a government machine that has lost the ability to think and act strategically, had been torn apart by Blair's wars, and in effect no longer believes in Britain as an independent, influential power.
However, as time went on it became clear to me that the ‘Lib Dems’ also provided a convenient alibi for inaction or ill-judged action that was all Cameron’s own. The botched August 2013 vote in Parliament about planned Syrian air strikes reflected a light touch politician who simply did not understand international relations and failed to think the consequence of action/inaction through.
Now, I must fess up. I also opposed the planned action in Syria not because I believed inaction was the best option but because the Obama plan would simply have made the rubble bounce. As such the 'plan' bore little or no relationship to the stated desired outcome of removing Assad and thus ending Syria’s nightmare. It was a clear failure of strategy, ambition and will (on both sides of the Pond) which revealed a prime minister clearly uncomfortable with his role in a dangerous big picture world. He also had little idea about Britain’s place and role in aforesaid world; and/or the role force and its use plays in the broad ambit of strategy of one of the world’s top five economic and military powers. Rather, Cameron seemed to be saying, ‘let me get off the world for a bit while I fix Britain’s economy and then I might get back to you’.
Critically, Cameron seemed unable to understand how his ‘Long-Term Economic Plan’ and the foreign affairs and defence austerity at its core would impact Britain’s ability to shape its environment. The most notable example of this failing was the disastrous cuts to the British armed forces in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and the wider (and deeper) impact such cuts had on Britain’s wider influence, most notably in Washington. The corrosive effect of one strategy on another revealed itself at the September 2014 NATO Wales Summit during which Cameron lectured other Alliance leaders about the need to maintain defence spending at 2% GDP even as his own Treasury (finance ministry) were planning more cuts to the armed forces. The jury is still out as to whether the July 2015 ‘reversal’ of planned cuts is real or the kind of political sleight of hand for which David Cameron has both a penchant and a peculiar talent.
With his May 2015 victory in the British general election I had hoped that a ‘real’ Big David Cameron would emerge. That Cameron would finally reveal himself to be a prime minster moulded in the image of Britain’s great strategic leaders. There were early signs my hopes would be fulfilled, not least the announcement that Britain would indeed maintain defence spending at 2% GDP. Sadly, my hopes are once again flagging.
Two issues have again revealed Little David Cameron (Little Lord Fauntleroy?) for the essentially short-termist politician he is: immigration and the EU. Indeed, both issues reveal a politician focused almost exclusively on the ‘political moment’ and how he can manipulate it, rather than the substantive change rightly demanded by the British people.
His position on Britain’s membership of the EU is frankly risible. To suggest one is going to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU and yet admit that if such renegotiations fail he will insist Britain remains in the bloc is nonsense. This is particularly the case given the EU will look very different in a decade’s time. Whatever happens the political space Britain currently occupies in the EU is untenable. Worse, Chancellor Merkel now knows she has only to snap her fingers and Cameron will immediately jump into line behind Germany’s national interest. That is what is euphemistically meant by the apparently 'close and warm relationship' the two leaders enjoy. Such political subservience may be appropriate for some of the smaller EU member-states but surely not for Europe’s leading military power (still) and second biggest economy. Put simply, a real negotiator would be making Merkel work far harder for Britain’s continued membership of the EU because Britain really does matter to the EU.
However, it is on immigration that the gap between Cameronian rhetoric and reality is revealed. Ever since he came to power Cameron has been promising to get immigration under control. Last week’s figures from the Office of National Statistics revealed it is not. In the year to June 2015 gross immigration to Britain was an eye-watering 636,000 people with net immigration at 330,000. That means a city the size of Birmingham is being imported every three years.
Cameron’s response is all-too revealing and revealed again his political instincts upon receipt of bad news: a) make sure he is away on one of his several holidays and say nothing; b) let some ministerial underling take the rap; c) eventually make some meaningless ‘no ifs no buts’ promises to get immigration under control (which no-one believes any longer); and d) talk about something else.
Something else happened last week that also revealed the unbearable lightness of being David Cameron; Chancellor Merkel acted unilaterally and thus set a precedent which clearly establishes the German national interest above that of ‘Europe’. Having said that the Dublin Convention concerning the registration of irregular migrants in the EU was not working Merkel simply decided to ignore it and seek instead to impose Germany’s policy on the rest of the EU. What is OK for Germany should also be OK for Britain.
Now, I have long believed in managed free movement as a fruit of winning the Cold War. However, I do not accept that free movement should also mean chaos and tbat it what it is fast becoming. If David Cameron was a great prime minister he would be saying to his EU counterparts clearly and simply that given the current crisis refusal to reintroduce proper border checks and sensible constraints on free movement will see Britain follow Germany’s lead and act unilaterally. Now that would be renegotiating.
Now, I have long believed in managed free movement as a fruit of winning the Cold War. However, I do not accept that free movement should also mean chaos and tbat it what it is fast becoming. If David Cameron was a great prime minister he would be saying to his EU counterparts clearly and simply that given the current crisis refusal to reintroduce proper border checks and sensible constraints on free movement will see Britain follow Germany’s lead and act unilaterally. Now that would be renegotiating.
David Cameron is a lucky politician but by no means a great one. His greatest piece of fortune is to have faced a Labour Party soon to complete its long retreat into a kind of Socialist Disneyland. However, before Cameron gloats too much he may like to contemplate his own political legacy. As Richards suggests if Cameron wants a legacy that will last more than the time it takes to consume an over-priced cappuccino in the Ritz the prime minister must show he has “balls”. Don't hold yer breath!
The unbearable lightness of being David Cameron.
Thursday, 27 August 2015
“Predictability: Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”
Alphen, Netherlands. 27 August. The stock market crashes in China. Saudi crude drops to $50 per barrel. A migrant dies aboard an over-crowded wreck lost in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. A young girl in East London logs onto an Islamist web-site run by a British jihadi out of Raqqa in northern Syria. A Californian student joins an online petition to protest against global warming. A Moroccan Islamist attacks Europeans on a train between Amsterdam and Paris. Three Russian Tu-160M bombers fly down the coast of northern Norway deliberately violating Norwegian airspace. Welcome to the world of catastrophic interdependence and bad globalisation and the policy and strategy vacuum that is today’s West. What if anything can the ‘West’ do?
Catastrophic interdependence goes something like this. Since the 2008 financial crash China has been the saviour of the world economy enabling much of the anaemic economic growth that helped prevent global economic meltdown. However, China is about to pay the price for not building a sustainable economy as China’s debt-fuelled economy crashes, depriving the world of economic drive. The Chinese Communist Party faced with the prospect of an ouster resorts to armed nationalism to shore up its power base as the contradiction of free market capitalism competing with a command economy breaks the Chinese state.
The US economy is too debt-ridden and American economic growth too fragile to replace China as the driver of global growth. The Eurozone again faces economic collapse as the exports of its beating heart – Germany – falter and then collapse. Unemployment in Europe again soars opening the door to political populists and extremists offering simple, and to some people romantic solutions to incredibly complex problems.
In the developing world the consequences are more profound. Many countries across the world are one-shot economies that rely heavily on the export of commodities such as oil, wood and precious metals to meet the basic needs of their growing populations. In the absence of Chinese demand commodity prices collapse placing Nigeria. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States under extreme duress. No longer can Riyadh buy off Islamists as Saudi Arabia joins the now long list of failing states across the region. Iran is strengthened but so too is ISIS as the prospect of a Caliphate offered the false hope of ‘stability’.
A final reckoning between Shia and Sunni extremists explodes, leading to a general Middle Eastern war that also threatens to engulf Israel. The migration flows into Europe in 2015 that caused such concern suddenly seem like a trickle as many millions head north and west seeking safety and security in Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. Free movement across Europe is suspended but it is too late as EU member-states simply force the migrants to keep on moving north and west.
Terrorist attacks break out across the European Continent as networks of Islamist radicals become established feeding on disillusioned youth. Growing immigrant populations begin to exert and impose identity politics paralysing the political action of Western European states that whilst powerful on paper have become virtually ungovernable as ‘communities’ retreat into mutually-loathing ghettos and European cities begin to look more like broken parts of Africa and the Middle East than Europe.
And then there is Russia. The Putin regime facing the collapse of the Russian economy that threatens the survival of the regime seizes the opportunity of Europe’s distraction to divert attention by completing the occupation of much of Ukraine. Moscow also seizes the Baltic States. Faced with challenges on many fronts NATO, the EU and its member-states issue a welter of condemnation…but do nothing. However, even in the hour of Putin’s ‘triumph’ Russia itself begins to collapse as beyond the Ural Mountains Moscow’s writ fails. Much of Russia becomes yet another ungoverned space decisively reinforcing the power and wealth of the Russian mafia and the global criminal network of which it is a part. The trafficking of drugs, arms and people accelerates unchallenged.
The blame game begins. The West must bear its responsibility for catastrophic interdependence and bad globalisation. The West has gone strategically-AWOL these seven years past. With the failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya. Powerful Western leaders have retreated into sound-bite, gesture, and gimmick politics. Instead of confronting dangers European leaders have wasted political capital and energy on a fantasy ‘union’ that will never work and which actually prevents power, influence and action rather than aggregates it. In the margins even the President of mighty America sounds ever more like a junior policy-wonk in a think-tank offering pious hope rather than decisive action.
So, what to do? Even if I am deliberately painting a very dark picture all of the threats I outline above are plausible and interaction between them probable. Therefore, it is time for Western governments to return to the first principles of power, policy and strategy-making and turn analysis into action. Critically, it means the ‘West’ together reinvesting in the tools of influence and effect – diplomacy, intelligence and armed forces. It also means the creation of policy, strategy and structure than can effectively prevent and manage the consequences of catastrophic interdependence and bad globalisation. Above all, it demands of our leaders the political courage to see my big, dark picture – my Edvard Monck of a strategic picture – tell people the hard truth, and then act.
It will be tough. Bad globalisation is a world defined by a growing battle between interconnectedness and interaction, between power and ideology, between hatred and hope, between values and consequences, between extreme faith and no faith, and between old structure and new anarchy in which state power however powerful simply does not have the same currency or value as it had in the past. However, the alternative would be disastrous. A continued penchant for political bullshit (sorry!) by leaders would be unforgivable for it would mean ceding the realm of dangerous change that is the world today to the forces of evil, to effectively leave the world at the mercy of predators and predation simply because leaders are no longer capable of effective policy-making or the crafting or sound strategy.
A senior Canadian friend of mine said to me this week how nothing is possible anymore, until suddenly it is possible. He is right. It is time for our leaders to get a grip. It is time for Europeans, North Americans and their fellow-travellers in Asia-Pacific such as Australia, India and Japan to begin properly preparing for and thus preventing the picture I paint. It is time for our leaders to cast aside the old, tired mantra that public opinion would not understand. It is time for them to stand up and lead. It is time for a new West that is more idea than place to confront the forces of catastrophic interdependence and bad globalisation.
If not bad globalisation and catastrophic interdependence mixed with political vacillation, weakness and incompetence will surely permit all these separate evils to merge into one - the worst of all worlds. A world that is ever more prone to shock, but ever less capable of coping with shock. Yes, the world is complex; but managing complexity is precisely what government is meant to be for. Yes, effective policy means tough decisions; but that is why we pay our leaders and why they enjoy the fruits and the perks of taxpayer-funded power.
Pericles, the great leader of Ancient Greece and defender of the Greek demos once said; “freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it”. It is time to get real before it is too late. Big West, little West or no West – it is up to our leaders.
Monday, 24 August 2015
“The Germans themselves I should regard as aboriginal, and not mixed at all with other races through immigration or intercourse. For in former times, it was not by land but on shipboard that those who sought to emigrate would arrive, and the boundless and, so to speak, hostile Ocean beyond us seldom entered by a sail from our world”.
Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Germania, AD 98.
Alphen, Netherlands. 24 August. Last week was a busy week in Europe’s migrant crisis, this week will be no different. German Interior Minister Thomas de la Maizière warned that some 800,000 migrants would seek asylum in Germany in 2015 and that it would take years before such mass migration would end. The same day the EU reported that 107,500 irregular migrants had entered Europe in July alone, whilst the British and French interior ministers agreed a new ‘Joint Force’ at Calais designed to counter human traffickers operating at the French Channel port. Today, ‘Europe’s’ self-appointed leaders German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande will meet to discuss the migration crisis which if unchecked threatens to make Europe a very different place in ten to twenty years. However, there is another way of lokking at the crisis. Indeed, if one takes an historic view the current migration crisis becomes one such movement in many. When did those migrations take place, what drove them and what was their impact?
There have been four mass immigrations into Europe in recorded history and one major emigration. The first such period of immigration took place with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire between the fourth and eighth centuries. The westward movements of the Germanic tribes was driven by military pressure from beyond Europe's eastern borders and a loss of control in the west. Between the fifth and sixth centuries Slavic migrations took place into modern Europe which also saw profound social, cultural and economic shifts in Europe. Moreover, between the ninth and tenth centuries the Hungarian occupation of the Carpathian Basin led to a profound population shift in Southern and Eastern Europe as did the Moorish conquest of the Southern Iberian peninsula between the eighth and sixteenth centuries. However, perhaps the most influential mass migration was that of Europeans to the Americas between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Indeed, European migration to North America in the nineteenth century represented some 40% of the population and had an enormous and deleterious impact on the indigenous aboriginal population, as did similar migrations to modern day Australia, and to a lesser extent New Zealand.
All such migrations shared common drivers; war and conquest in source regions, economic dislocation, poverty and oppression of groups, religious and/or ideological hatreds, and struggles for local and regional political superiority between regimes, races and cultures. Today’s mass immigration within and into Europe is little different and thus a twenty-first century version of a very old phenomenon.
Critically, from a policy perspective, it is important not simply to see the current wave of mass immigration as having begun with the arrival of people smugglers and horribly over-loaded boats across the Mediterranean. Indeed, the current mass immigration into Europe began with the end of European colonialism and accelerated as the successor states set up after colonialism began to falter and then collapse from the late 1970s on, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, but also in Asia. The Arab Spring, the failed Western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya further accelerated such flows because it enabled sophisticated criminal trafficking networks to create unhindered ‘pipelines’ from source countries to Europe across effectively ungoverned spaces. Indeed, the traffickers are clearly ‘winning’ their war with European governments.
One must also draw an important distinction between irregular immigration into Europe and legitimate immigration within Europe. The latter is the result of a deliberate and agreed EU policy and part of the free movement of peoples designed to foster a ‘Europe whole and free’ after the 1989 end of the Cold War. Indeed, as one of 3m British migrants living within the EU I am one of those self-same immigrants who has benefitted from free movement.
Equally, whilst today’s mass movement shares many of the same characteristics of historic movements there are some crucial differences. Whilst the German interior minister’s figures if correct suggest that upwards of a million people will seek asylum in Europe in 2015 such a movement is still relatively small compared to the 500m or so inhabitants of the EU. In past migrations the ratios between indigenous peoples and immigrants was far lower, the host populations were so much smaller, cultures and races more localised, and thus the impact far greater.
However, if such flows continue effectively unmanaged then the implications for European society and individual European societies will be very profound indeed. It is reasonable to assume that most of the migrants will seek to head to northern and western Europe, as have many southern and eastern Europeans during the Eurozone’s now interminable financial crisis. Indeed, one can already see the impact of recent mass immigration on those societies – for good and ill. Resentment within indigenous populations will grow and social cohesion will suffer leading to profound policy implications. For example, de la Maizière warned yesterday that the 1985 Schengen Agreement might have to be suspended if the flows of migrants continue unchecked.
The lessons from the past? History suggests that those on the Left who believe that open door migration leads to a diverse and tolerant multicultural society that somehow strengthens said ‘society’ are utterly naïve at best. History also suggests that those on the Right who believe such flows can simply be stopped and/or reversed are equally naïve. It is therefore vital effective management is established and quickly. That means immigration and asylum systems that are just for migrants and seen to work by and for citizens at one and the same time.
Prospects? Sadly, through all recent crises European leaders have proved themselves spectacularly incompetent and by and large unable to take the decisive action that a ‘crisis’ by definition demands. It is as though the appearance of EU ‘solidarity’ is more important than finding solutions. Consequently, the EU has become an appalling talk-shop because European leaders rarely if ever agree about any course of action.
Failure to act and Europe’s migrant crisis will only deepen. In such an event migrants will not find Europe the safe haven or the ‘better life’ magnet they had hoped for, and the growing contempt felt for Europe’s leaders by much of Europe’s population will only worsen.
As Tacitus once said: “Viewed from a distance, everything is beautiful”.
Tuesday, 18 August 2015
“To make war all you need is intelligence. But to win war you need talent and material”.
“For Whom the Bell Tolls”
Alphen, Netherlands. 18 August. Last week the ship’s bell of HMS Hood was recovered from her 1941 wreck-site deep down in the dark, icy depths of the Denmark Strait. What lessons does the loss of HMS Hood have for the vitally important and critically ‘strategic’ Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) which London is currently preparing?
She was “The Mighty Hood”. Between 1920 and 1938 this massive battlecruiser was the world’s largest warship. At 860 feet (262.3 m) in length, Hood was armed with a main armament of eight 15-inch (38cm) diameter guns that fired shells weighing 1350 kg. The ship herself weighed in at 47,430 tons whilst her sleek hull and elegant lines made her perhaps the most beautiful warship ever built. Sadly, on 24 May 1941 in the Denmark Strait in what is today called the High North an armour-piercing 15-inch shell from the German fast battleship KM Bismarck penetrated Hood’s aft 15-inch shell magazine and ignited an explosion so powerful that it broke the bow and stern away from the amidships section of the ship. Indeed, such was the force of the explosion that some 365 feet (115m) of Hood’s hull effectively disintegrated. Three members of her crew of 1418 were rescued.
The sinking of the Hood was an example of what happens when there is a mismatch between strategy, commitments and resources. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the Royal Navy faced a series of massive cuts but no major commensurate reduction in responsibilities. During the 1920s the cuts were driven by a mix of pious hopes for disarmament and post-war economic pressures and persisted into the second half of the 1930s. However, the Mighty Hood sailed on, flying an increasingly-tattered flag for Britain. Naval technology was moving on but not the Hood.
By the late 1930s Hood was the flawed heir to a bygone Edwardian age – a vulnerable battlecruiser in an era when fast battleships were being built with superior protection and modern firepower that could also match her for speed. She was of course meant to be modernised but somehow it never quite happened and the myth of her ‘might’ became reality as both politicians and public slowly came to be believe that she too was a fast battleship.
However, by 1941 Hood was a museum-piece and in no real state to fight the fast super-battleship Bismarck or indeed fight alongside the over-new and unworked-up HMS Prince of Wales. Indeed, the merest of comparisons of Hood and ‘PoW’ is enough to demonstrate how far warship design and technology travelled between 1916 and the late 1930s.
Fast forward to 2015. Hood blew-up because of repeated government failures to look at the long-term defence and strategic influence role of the British armed forces and properly invest. Having fought the war-to-end-all-wars London too often opted for short-term political and bureaucratic convenience rendering British ‘strategy’, power and influence more bluff than substance. That same old habit is also apparent in the SDSR 2015 process as I warned it would be in my 2015 book Little Britain? Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power (www.amazon.co.uk).
There is some good news. The new government agreed in July to commit to spending 2% GDP on defence to at least 2020 with a 1% year-on-year real-terms increase in defence expenditure. In principle such a release of funding over expectation should mean that the future force at the heart of SDSR 2015 could begin to be properly considered in light of strategic change and strategic requirement and some move made towards balancing ends, ways and means. Specifically, the growing tensions between capability and capacity, technology and manpower could begin to be met.
However, well-informed sources tell me that whilst the heads of the Navy, Army and Air Force are united in their efforts to ensure SDSR 2015 is a properly-balanced strategic review the bureaucrats charged with leading the effort are not. As one very senior colleague put it to me last week; “…we are chasing a powerful (and arguably irreducible) pre-SDSR position”. Either the political leadership has lost control of the process to bureaucrats who after years of cuts know only how to cut and not to think (and grow) strategically (possible but unlikely), the whole SDSR effort is an exercise in political sleight of hand and that in reality the ‘defence’ budget is about to be siphoned off to a whole raft of other areas, such as intelligence (quite possible) or SDSR 2015 is a Faustian combination of the two (most likely).
My suspicions were further roused when last week ‘experts’ were invited to submit their ideas but in no more than 300 words or 1500 characters. This is nonsense and demonstrates clearly that far from being an exercise in strategic defence SDSR 2015 is in fact yet another exercise in strategic pretence. If that is so the ‘strategic’ implications will be profound.
Take the Royal Navy of which Hood was once flagship. The Navy is committed to fulfilling the roles the Government has established for it. These are the three so-called “twin strategic peaks” (don’t ask me) of a continually-at-sea-deterrent (CASD), Continuous Carrier Capability and Continuous Amphibious Readiness (perhaps the Navy is being asked to choose two of the three roles so as not to embarrass ministers). To meet these national requirements the Royal Navy needs at least 2500 more personnel but there seems precious little evidence that the government is committed to funding the very roles it is calling on the Navy to perform. Pretty much the same can be said for the other two Services.
Let me be blunt; if indeed SDSR 2015 is yet another exercise in strategic pretence like that of its forebear SDSR 2010 there may well be young British men and women out there today who in future years will find themselves facing a similar fate to that of their grandfathers-in-arms in HMS Hood – be they in the Navy, Army of Air Force – under-equipped, under-gunned and over there.
My friend and colleague Professor Paul Cornish has argued that whilst Britain might not need grand strategy in the formal sense it needs to demonstrate that its leadership has the capacity to think grand strategically. SDSR 2015 is the chance to do just that but only if it is led from the top with vision and determination. Thankfully, there are signs that Britain’s current political leadership have realised that a narrow focus on the balance sheet enshrined in SDSR 2010 came close to breaking Britain’s military by destroying the all-important relationship between ends, ways and means. The mood music around SDSR 2015 is far more favourable than SDSR 2010. However, far more needs to be done.
SDSR 2015 must above all answer a critical question – what type of future force should Britain aspire to have given its power and responsibilities in the world? Sadly, I fear the review will again dodge rather than address that question. Therefore, today I call for a Shadow SDSR 2015 to be drawn up by a group of experts, retired officers and bureaucrats to hold the official SDSR 2015 to strategic account and stop the politics that is being played not just with Britain’s defence but that of our NATO and EU allies and partners.
My senior colleague also said last week that Britain’s armed forces “…are a measurable extension of the national character, a demonstrable reflection on industrial and economic authority, and a centre-piece of the visible face of a nation that still has the embers of global ambition”. Amen to that.
On 27 May 1941 three days after the Hood action and after an epic sea and air chase the Bismarck was cornered by the heavy battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney and sunk. Of the 2200 men aboard only 114 survived. In June I was privileged to be given a tour of Kiel Sound the home port of the Bismarck by the German Navy. This blog is written in honour of all the British and German sailors who perished in those freezing North Atlantic waters back in May 1941. Once enemies, now friends. It is also written in the hope that just for once those charged with SDSR 2015 will put strategy before politics and and principle before bureaucracy in the search for a proper and reasoned strategic balance between military capability, capacity and affordability.
In the late 1930s my grandfather served on Hood. However, he was a destroyer man at heart and soon transferred back to his beloved smaller ships, although he lost friends when Hood blew up. This week he and my great-uncle Walter, who was killed in action with the Royal Navy in 1943, will both be resting a little easier knowing that Hood’s bell, the soul of that great ship, will finally make it back to her home port some seventy-four years after she left. The bell will be given pride of place at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.
Thankfully, 2015 is not 1941 but nor is it 1990 (defence premiums) or even 2008 (imminent financial collapse). It is the dawn of a new contentious strategic age not entirely dissimilar to the strategic age which forged HMS Hood and the national interests she was designed to serve. HMS Hood’s motto was “Ventis Secundis” – “With favourable winds”. With ‘favourable winds’ SDSR 2015 can still live up to all it needs to be…but only with favourable political winds.
Thursday, 13 August 2015
“The history of war convincingly testifies to the constant contradiction between the means of attack and defence. The appearance of new means of attack has always [inevitably] led to the creation of counter-action, and thus in the final analysis has led to the developments of new methods for conducting engagements, battles and operations (and war in general)”.
Marshal N.V. Ogarkov April 1985
Alphen, Netherlands. 13 August. In April 1985 Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, recently demoted Chief of the Soviet General Staff, published a book entitled “History Teaches Vigilance”. Central to his argument was the idea that emerging conventional military technologies were changing the balance between conventional and nuclear forces and thus rendering ‘warfighting’ in Europe again possible. In essence Ogarkov was following in the tradition of Soviet military thinkers such as M.N. Tukhachevsky and V.K. Triandafillov back in the 1930s who like their German counterparts such as Hans Guderian, focused on how a force that was on paper inferior in terms of mass could achieve a “decisive result” quickly. Their conclusion was an adaptation of ‘Blitzkrieg’ or ‘Lightning War’ in which technology and manoeuvre was used to exert decisive pressure by a ‘joint’ force at a critical point of weakness in enemy defences. Fast forward thirty years and what might be called the “Gerasimov Doctrine” (after the current Russian Chief of the General Staff) is clearly rooted in Ogarkov’s thinking. Indeed, the now frequent snap exercises around and along Europe’s inner borders might well have be seen by Ogarkov as a fourth Russian military revolution.
Contrast the Gerasimov Doctrine with an excellent paper published this week by the European Leadership Network entitled, “Preparing for the Worst: Are Russian and NATO Military Exercises Making War in Europe more likely?” (Ian Kearns, Lukasz Kulesa & Thomas Frear) The paper warns that that the “…changed profile of exercises”…is sustaining “a climate of tensions in Europe” and leading to “unpredictability”. To reduce such tensions ELN calls on both NATO and Russia to better communicate their respective “schedule of exercises”, to better utilize OSCE channels to increase military predictability, politicians on both sides to show restraint in terms of the scenarios used in exercises, and for conceptual work to begin on a new treaty to establish “territorial limitations on deployment of specific categories of weapons”. It is a worthy paper. However, ELN completely miss the essential point of Russia’s snap exercises which is precisely create tension across a broad front from the Arctic to the Mediterranean so that Moscow can focus on where if it deems necessary it may exert decisive pressure.
In my May 2015 paper for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, “Countering Strategic Maskirovka” I state, “The Russian use of hybrid or non-linear warfare in Ukraine also suggests the blurring of the traditional NATO distinction between collective defence and collective security. Maskirovka is in fact war that is short of war, a purposeful strategy of deception that combines use of force with disinformation and destabilisation to create ambiguity in the minds of Alliance leaders about how best to respond”. Indeed, it is a theme I repeat in my new book for Routledge, “NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2015”.
Moscow shows no signs of demurring from such a strategy. In the 1980s when NATO had a relatively straight border to defend with a ‘correlation of forces’ such that the relationship between conventional and nuclear war made the resort to nuclear weapons almost inevitable in the event of war. However, today NATO must defend a complex set of borders far further to its east than in the 1980s with conventional forces that are at best stretched thin and not just in Europe. Moreover, it is questionable if the political will exists in key Western European capitals to really defend Eastern European allies in the event of Russian ‘aggression’ that would be far more sophisticated than a frontal assault on the North German Plain by Group of Soviet Forces Germany a la late-1970s. In that light NATO’s counter-exercises are as much about forward deterrence as forward defence, demonstrating to Moscow that NATO understands the Russian strategy, and has the means to counter it if needs be…even if that is not the case in certain scenarios.
Thankfully, I do not believe either side is seeking a major war in Europe. However, implicit in Ogarkov’s doctrine was the destabilising political implications of a renewed imbalance in Europe between the offensive and defensive at the decisive moment and point of contact. An examination of the excellent map of Russian snap exercises ELN provide in another of their papers “Anatomy of a Russian Exercise” (Thomas Frear) reveals Moscow’s strategic political imperative; to straighten Russia’s defensive line via an extension of a buffer zone by if needs pushing the current eastern border of the Alliance back to the west. In spite of Russia’s overt use of force in Eastern and Southern Ukraine the main Russian strategy elsewhere is one of political intimidation via military means.
However, were Moscow at some desperate future point choose instead the military option it would mean ‘limited’ conventional war and the threat of the use of both tactical and strategic nuclear weapons as a way to ‘checkmate’ a NATO conventional response. Such a strategy would be very much in line with Ogarkov’s thinking back in the late 1970 and early 1980s. Indeed, the mistake many analysts make is to see the 2014 Russian Military Strategy as a break from similar strategies adopted by broken Russia back in the 1990s. It would be far more useful to see Gerasimov as the heir to Ogarkov and the latter’s idea of the “Independent Conventional Force”, able to operate under the neutralising umbrella of nuclear weapons and reinforced by the use of strategic disinformation fit for an information age.
There is another destabilising factor – the rapid decline of the Russian economy. President Putin sees a strong Russian military and the nationalism it engenders and represents as ‘a’ if not ‘the’ central pillar of his regime. Indeed, Putin has committed vast sums to force modernisation. However, as James Dunnigan points out this week in a piece entitled, “The Red Fleet Returns to the Past”: “The persistent low oil prices and continued economic sanctions have caused the military and political leadership to reassess Russian strategy and procurement policy. GDP is shrinking and the government is having a hard time maintaining the high levels of spending planned to replace Cold War era equipment”.
Russia’s economic and political situation suggests possibly one of two courses of action; either a shift towards a more conciliatory stance of the sort ELN calls for, or a retreat into a ‘use it or lose it’ mind-set. Either way for the NATO Allies history does indeed teach vigilance.
Tuesday, 11 August 2015
Alphen, Netherlands. 11 August. It seems apt in this year of all years, the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo, to quote Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. Talleyrand was one-time French royalist, one-time Napoleon’s foreign minister, one-time French ambassador to London and perhaps the most skilled and cynical diplomat at the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Talleyrand famously said that one is, “….never as far away from the target, as when you do not know where you’re going”. Were he around today he would probably have said the same about Europe in a world awash with dangerous change. Critically, whatever the mutual irritations and at times contempt London and Paris feel for each other the two old Powers must uphold together Realist strategic principles of power and influence.
It will not be easy. Indeed, all the ingredients exist for one of those tetchy and difficult periods in Franco-British relations which come along as regularly as the Bateaux Mouches on the summer Seine. The Calais migrant crisis has once again opened up various fissures and the hackneyed clichés of mistrust into which the relationship still has a propensity to tumble. Such tensions are exacerbated by the contrasting politics of the two countries. Britain is led by a Conservative administration committed (or so it claims) to austerity. France is led by a Socialist administration committed to precisely the opposite. Worse, Francois Hollande and David Cameron simply do not like each other. Consequently, the last Franco-British ‘summit’ was reduced to a rather forced photo op in an Oxfordshire pub – the inebriate discussing indifferently the irrelevant?
Furthermore, on the face of it at least London and Paris take very different views about the future direction of the EU. President Hollande is pushing Germany hard to introduce Eurobonds and with them the mutualisation of Eurozone debt. Such a step would necessarily drive deeper Eurozone integration and with the further marginalisation of Britain within the EU. With a Brexit vote just around a corner France seems to show no signs of yielding to any of Cameron’s calls for EU reform. Worse, at least some of Hollandes’ closest allies seem to actively welcome the prospect of a British EU exit, even though it is hard to see how such a departure is in France’s best strategic interest. Indeed, even if Britain does depart an unreformed EU somehow the strategic partnership with France will need to be protected from the inevitable political fall-out.
There are some limited grounds for optimism. Behind all the Euro-speak power still courses through the veins of the European body politic in much the same way Talleyrand would have understood and indeed made use of. For all France’s pretentions to want ‘ever closer political union’ the French people have no great desire to see French distinctiveness subsumed by some all-subsuming European super-state. Moreover, whilst contemporary Germany sees itself (and by and large acts) as a community champion Berlin’s economic power now dwarfs that of France. Consequently, the original idea of the Single Currency as a framework within which to embed and thus constrain a re-united Germany has failed from a French policy perspective. Even Berlin sees the Franco-British strategic relationship as an essential counterweight to its own power and thus crucial to a legitimate European political balance.
Specifically, the need to underpin ‘European’ influence with hard, credible twenty-first century military power remains the strongest imperative for London and Paris to maintain a close strategic relationship. France dresses up such initiatives as the Common Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) as a vital step on the road to what General de Gaulle once called the “third force”. Britain inevitably sees such initiatives as a vital component in a stronger US-friendly European pillar of NATO. Whatever the political packaging the pressing strategic need for Europeans to engage more effectively in major, complex crisis prevention and management is undoubted. And, such influence will only happen with Britain and France together at the core of much-needed European strategic renovation. That was the goal of the 1998 St Malo Declaration and the 2010 Franco-British Security and Defence Treaty but due to ‘distractions’ has not happened.
Talleyrand once said that the “…art of statesmanship was to foresee the inevitable and to expedite its occurrence”. If those charged with power in both London and Paris properly understand the scale of change underway and agree where they need to go they will also recognise that for all the differences of style and emphasis Britain and France will and must remain strategic partners. Ironically, this is something Talleyrand himself believed.
Therefore, it falls to London and Paris to act together to drive forward a distinctly European big picture understanding of the nature and scale of the momentous change that is underway. Indeed, with illiberal power challenging liberal power in many domains Britain and France must act as the strategic conscience of Europe. Fail and all the current focus with the internal structure of the EU will soon come to seem like misplaced and irrelevant self-obsession.
Britain and France somehow have to hang together for if not they will each hang separately and the rest of Europe with them. To paraphrase Talleyrand; strategy is far too serious a business to be left to the politicians but it is to the politicians that strategy is ultimately left.