hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Why NATO needs a new Strategic Concept

“Where the Washington Treaty leaves open the balance between global and regional tasks, the Strategic Concept must specifically interpret geopolitical circumstances. What are the threats and what are the military implications? These are the two basic and essential questions the Strategic Concept must answer”

Jens Ringsmose and Sten Rynning

Why a new NATO Strategic Concept

By no later than 2030 NATO must be demonstrably able to fight and thus deter a high-end world war AND support front-line Allies to Europe’s south dealing with the consequences of potentially catastrophic collapse across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

In spite of significant but modest progress on integrated air and missile defence and enhancements to the Alliance’s conventional deterrent at last week’s NATO defence ministerial the Alliance is at a tipping point between political credibility and military incapability. The cause of the crisis, for that is what it is fast becoming, is twofold: increasing pressure on US forces the world over and a refusal of Europeans to take on the bulk of the burden for their own defence.  A Strategic Concept would thus reset the what, the why, the where, the when and the how of Alliance action at a critical juncture.  The core message of the next Strategic Concept would also need to be clear: NATO is essentially a European organisation for Europeans supported by Americans and Canadians, not an American organisation for Europeans occasionally supported by Europeans. The reason why there is no new Strategic Concept is because there is no consensus in the Alliance over a new Strategic Concept. That is both telling and dangerous for it reveals a lack of cohesion that is the single biggest threat to the Alliance and why NATO so desperately needs a new Strategic Concept.

In making such a call I am in no way dismissing the inherent and implicit complexity in drafting such a Concept. The Alliance is not simply a vehicle for amassing sufficient military power to keep those who it does not want ‘in’, ‘out’; it is also a vehicle for keeping those who are ‘in’ ‘in’, and to ensure those ‘in’ do not fight others who are also ‘in’. As such NATO’s purpose is fourfold: the defence, deterrence, security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic area.  Its method is dual track: to generate sufficient capability, capacity and cohesion to deliver all four, whilst constantly seeking to engage adversaries and partners in dialogue. In the wake of the Cold War the centre of Alliance gravity shifted towards dialogue, now it must shift back towards military defence. The world is changing rapidly and adversely and the very lack of a new Strategic Concept is reinforcing the perception of adversaries and partners that the Allies are simply too divided, too weak and too often subverted by the idea that values alone can substitute for power.

A very act of a Strategic Concept would be an act of deterrence. First, it would re-establish a new 'contract' between Allied leaders and those in NATO charged with fulfilling the mission set them. Second, it would help establish the new political and military centre of gravity the Alliance desperately needs to credibly and simultaneously support strategic directions east, south and north. Third, it would reinforce deterrence by also demonstrating that the Alliance collectively understands the scope, pace and strategic direction of change, and the threat it is generating. Fourth, it would communicate resolve and clarity of purpose (unity of mission) to NATO citizens. Fifth, and perhaps most pressing of all, it would reassure the Americans that Europeans are serious about their own defence, understand the burdens it places on an increasingly over-stretched US, and are now willing to match strategic autonomy with strategic responsibility. Above all, a new Strategic Concept would demonstrate a shared level of shared strategic ambition vital to re-establishing a balance of relative power between the security environment and thus the roles and tasks of the Alliance to 2030.

Ostriches, heads and sand?

Why is a Strategic Concept so difficult for the Alliance? Too many of the West’s political leaders seem curiously unable to grip the scale of emerging threat and its implications for the Euro-Atlantic area. Worse, the high political tendency in many Allied countries is to keep defence off the political agenda. The rise of military China, the dangerous mix of economic instability and over-securitisation in Russia, the advance of a new era of military technologies, the erosion of the rules-based system, the toxic combination of demographic change, fundamentalism and fragile states across MENA, and a US under increasing pressure domestically from debt and external commitments suggest NATO needs not so much to adapt as reset. Then there is COVID-19. The 2019 NAT Military Strategy has been critically undermined by the crisis, or at least it will be. Therefore, the Alliance desperately needs to grip and demonstrably so the impact of COVID-19 on the ends, ways and means of Alliance defence, deterrence and outreach.

NATO faces existential choices.  The Alliance (or rather its nations) can continue to recognise only as much threat as it can politically afford and avoid all the fundamental challenges implicit in preparing a new Strategic Concept, or it can face them. The Alliance can continue to maintain the illusion of cohesion, organising nice leader photo-ops and well-drafted eloquent communiques, or it can confront all challenges square on, including cohesion-corrupting Chinese debt. The Alliance can continue to choose the short-term and the politically easy but such a course of inaction will quickly confirm that NATO is simply too politically fragile to meet both high-end and wide-angle strategic threats, its essential purpose.

Such contention-avoidance will see Europe locked into a virtual Ten Year Rule colluding in its own future shock. If that is the case then the future defence of Europe will soon become little more than a Potemkian village. Some would like to build such a ‘village’ around a coalition of worthy German-led continental European powers (the Eurosphere), whilst the Americans and British (the Anglosphere) quietly sail away from the Continent in their nuclear-powered vessels taking their German-offending nuclear weapons with them. That would be a profound mistake because it is the North American and European pillars together that is the real bedrock of credible Alliance defence and deterrence. Too harsh?  Last year Britain withdrew all but a tiny portion of its Army from the Continent, whilst the Americans are now threatening to withdraw some 28% of its already small force. The very process of embarking on a new Strategic Concept would help arrest this strategic drift into distant and barely engaged pillars. 

The new NATO and a shadow Strategic Concept

Power is relative. A transformed NATO is thus needed, not some ‘adapted’ paper tiger. Today's NATO is still far too analogue, and insufficiently digital. The new NATO would be constructed around a hybrid, cyber, hyper defence European pillar (with the Brits included). The hard core of the Alliance would be a twenty-first century multi-domain European Future Force able to respond to and deter high-end threats to the east and north of the Alliance, AND support front-line to the south in multiple and simultaneous emergences. The new NATO would be sufficiently Europe capable to enable the Americans to be strong wherever and when they are needed, and able to move fast anywhere in and around Europe. The act of this ‘Strategic Concept’ would help establish the necessary vision and ambition needed for such an Alliance to be realised. It would also finally set NATO on the road to resolving the politically toxic issue of transatlantic burden-sharing and give Europeans far more 'sovereign' control over their own defence within the framework of a re-vitalised transatlantic strategic relationship/partnership.

Next steps? In 2009, I chaired part of a Washington meeting about the then 2010 NATO Strategic Concept. At that meeting I made an historic offer to the then NATO Secretary-General and assembled leaders: Europeans would improve their military capabilities, if the Pentagon improved its coffee. Now is the time to be similarly ambitious, although I hold out little hope for Pentagon coffee. Sometimes the world of ideas must offer solutions and courses of action to the world of policy. This is one such moment. With each passing day the 2010 Strategic Concept looks ever more like a work of the ancients, eloquent and almost quaint in the world it describes, and NATO's role therein. Therefore, I call for the drafting of a shadow Strategic Concept produced by a group of the most experienced strategists and practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic and which capitalises on the findings of the NATO Reflection Group. We have work to do! Let’s get on with it!

NATO is a warfighting, security-enhancing defensive alliance. It is NOT a military EU! It is time to remember that. NATO needs a new Strategic Concept and fast!

Julian Lindley-French

Monday, 15 June 2020

NATO: Is Cohesion Killing Deterrence?

15 June, 2020

 Cohesion versus deterrence

Is NATO’s obsession with cohesion killing deterrence?  On the face of it the question seems silly because without political cohesion no alliance can function. In ‘NATO speak’ cohesion is established by finding common ground between the Allies on a whole raft of issues from threat perception to defence investment. The NATO bureaucracy is obsessed with cohesion, particularly around major political gatherings such as this week’s NATO Defence Ministerial. This is because ‘cohesion’ is critical to the ‘language’ of the ‘communique’ that is routinely issued at the end of such meetings.  Unfortunately, the NATO machine is so focussed on maintaining the appearance of cohesion that it will go to great lengths even when there is little or no agreement on substantive issues such as now. Indeed, I sometimes unsure whether NATO is a defence alliance or an armed conference organiser. The danger is, and it is a very real in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, that ‘cohesion’ will become a metaphor for a lowest common denominator NATO in which apparently ‘successful’ communiques issued but none of the real issues are addressed because they are too politically toxic. Over time, such defence pretence will kill the Alliance as maintaining the twin illusions of political solidarity and cohesion are deemed to be more important than credible defence and deterrence.     

To illustrate my concern there was an interesting high-level response to my last Analysis, The Guns of August 2020? Indeed, a spirited debate took place between myself and senior NATO and non-NATO people.  Below is my response to one senior NATO figure.  There are some minor changes to the original missive as I do not wish to reveal his identity and I am not in the business of embarrassing good people.

NATO now and next?

“Dear…, great to hear from you and as an Ally and citizen I very much hope next week's Defence Ministerial goes well. I will certainly look out for more support for the Deterrence and Defence of the Euro-Atlantic Area. You have access to a far more detailed picture than I do and given my respect for you I am listening. Still, my self-imposed task is to be a critical friend of our Alliance and act as a part of an informal external Red Team that challenges the assumptions that, however efficient, all institutions create in order to simply make the machine work. The reason the plan to withdraw 9500 US troops is dangerous is twofold: now and next. Now, because of a combination of circumstances, and next because of what it implies about the future of the Alliance over the next decade. To be really reassured I would need to see the Ministerial address both.

Now: We face the Russian constitutional plebiscite on 1 July and only this week the extent of the economic damage began to emerge that COVID 19 has done to already weakened European economies. For example, according to HMG (British Government) figures the UK economy contracted by 20% in April alone due to the lockdown. The October 2019 NATO Military Strategy could not possibly have assumed the economic and political consequences of this crisis and its implications for European defence. 

Next: Faced with an economic crisis and its political consequences most Europeans tend to cut defence, Russians tend to exaggerate it. In that context, the plan to withdraw the troops is being presented in Europe as a political/tactical issue. In fact, it masks a fundamental US dilemma that is not unlike that faced by Imperial Britain in the 1890s. With the rise of the US and Germany as Great Powers it became rapidly clear to London that Britain could be strong in Europe, the Mediterranean/Suez or the Eastern Empire, but given the rapidly shifting correlation of forces not all three simultaneously, hence the 1902-23 Alliance with Japan.

That begs of Washington two fundamental questions that need to be answered now and communicated honestly to the Allies. First, with the rise of China as an aggressive real power peer competitor (Russia is exploiting Chinese power) how does the US intend to maintain relative military strength where it needs to be strong the world over. Second, how militarily strong does the US expect its most capable allies to aspire to be to enable the US to both maintain its own relative strength and its obligations to the Allies through the Alliance? Unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing in the changing balance of power and Europe's retreat from such power that makes me at all sanguine about now, let alone 2030.

The bottom-line of NATO now and next is that the US will only be able to continue to afford Europeans the post 1949 security guarantee if Europeans do far more for their own security and defence. The minimum down payment on a revised sharing of transatlantic burdens would be a European multi-domain future force able to operate at the high-end of conflict and thus assure deterrence (the real business of NATO) if you Americans were forced to be engaged in great strength elsewhere. I see no such ambition.

My Oxford thesis was on British policy and the coming of war and one finding was that for all the appeasement of the age Britain did in 1932 scrap the rolling Ten Year Rule and in 1934 began to rearm. All I see in Europe today suggests to me a) Europeans continue to be locked into a kind of rolling virtual Ten Year Rule; b) the political culture herein is unable to grip the worst-case; and c) the only possible leader of Europe, Germany, lacks both the strategic culture such leadership demands, and is still far too intimidated by its own past to lead where it matters. Worse, some of the official language and responses (NATO Reflection Group?) sound like the reassuring assessments that the Foreign Office and the Berlin embassy fed back to the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments. They were at the time locked in a desperate struggle to escape the Depression and really did not want to be bothered with issues such as renewed military threat. Then, as now, there was a tendency to commission worthy reviews and commissions for political ends precisely to avoid facing the cost, consequence and reality of adverse strategic change. With all due respect to the NATO Reflection Group, Harmel it ain't!

Actions and consequences

As I said in my piece (The Guns of August 2020?), actions have consequences, but the US action is not the only one of concern. For example, the British Integrated Foreign, Security and Defence Review has already been delayed and all the signals I am picking up is that whilst the UK may signal its intention to maintain the 2%/20% commitment it will only do so through more creative accounting. Much of the rest of Europe is likely to follow suit. In that context, if the White House proceeds with the withdrawal of 9500 troops the timing could not be worse, either for the ministerial or the wider defence of Europe. Whilst I fully accept that a direct military attack on NATO is highly unlikely our colleague’s analysis is well-made. If the Kremlin does indeed embark on another land grab in Ukraine I see absolutely no political will on the part of Germany and other Europeans to do anything other than condemn such action with rhetoric. Moscow knows that. In 1982 I recall that it was Britain's decision to withdraw HMS Endurance from the South Atlantic (which was hotly contested inside HMG) which led Buenos Aires to disastrously miscalculate and invade the Falkland Islands. Again, actions (can) have consequences.

Let me thank you for engaging and I am genuinely glad you are optimistic as I learnt to trust your judgement many years ago. I also hope you are right to be optimistic about NATO's direction of travel. Will it arrive in time? The most dangerous period for the Allies on our eastern borders is precisely whilst such an adaptive journey is underway. The worst of all outcomes would be if you Americans are rendered steadily and relatively weaker over time and space than you need or should be simply because you are forced into adverse, even perverse choices to offset the military weakness of Europeans. Such weakness would be an open invitation to the likes of China and Russia to make US strategic calculations impossibly complicated at a time, place and manner of their choosing and far more quickly than many in Europe are willing to countenance. The pace and scale of China’s military rise cannot be over-stated. The implications for both the US and the Alliance can also not be over-stated. Is it on the agenda this week?

Therefore, if my concerns are really to be assuaged at the Defence Ministerial the one thing I would need to see is ministers specifically addressing the adaptation of the 2019 Military Strategy in light of the changed economic, political and strategic circumstances of the Alliance now, and how best next to maintain the ends, ways and means stated therein.

All best,


Julian Lindley-French

Sunday, 7 June 2020

The Guns of August 2020?

“One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.”

 Barbara W. Tuchman

 June 7th, 2020

The Guns of August

It is not the mission of this Analysis to scaremonger, but actions have consequences. The decision of President Trump to suddenly withdraw 9,500 of the 34,000 US troops in Germany, some 28% of a capability at the core of NATO deterrence, is one such action. Why is President Trump doing this, why is it potentially dangerous, what could be in President Putin’s mind, what could happen, where and when?

In the wake of the US decision Moscow has already announced it will reinforce the Western Military District (Western Strategic Command) with the Guards Motorised Rifle Sevastopol Red Banner Brigade. This force will support the Guards Red Banner Tank Army to “…perform tasks on ensuring the defence of the Russian Federation in the Western strategic direction”. This follows comments over the past week by Colonel General Sergei Rudskoi of the Russian General Staff who in referring to limited-scale Allied exercises accused the US and NATO of conducting “anti-Russian” activities close to the Russian border.  

Why is President Trump doing this?

With Joe Biden confirmed as the Democratic Party nominee for the November US presidential elections the White House is now in full campaigning mode.  The Trump decision to ‘bring the boys home’ must thus be seen as election gambit to appeal to his neo-isolationist election base. However, there are also deeper structural pressures growing on the US Armed Forces that Europeans must not discount. The rise of Chinese military power in East Asia is beginning to force uncomfortable choices on Washington over where and how best to use its increasingly over-stretched armed forces.  Europeans have long come to believe that the purpose of the US military is to act in their interests even if, at times, it may conflict with the American interest.  Therefore, President Trump’s decision must also serve as a warning to Europeans for the future.

There is another possible reason: the threat that Germany could abandon nuclear NATO.  In May 2020, the US Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell accused Berlin of refusing to support NATO’s policy on nuclear deterrence. This followed calls by Rolf Mutzenich, the SPD leader in the Bundestag, for Germany to insist upon the removal of US nuclear weapons from German soil. Allied to recent Pew research it suggests growing German ambivalence about the wider transatlantic relationship, Trump or no Trump.  President Putin then increased the political pressure on Germany by announcing that Russia might resort to a first strike nuclear policy in the event of a conventional military attack on Russia.  

Why is the decision potentially dangerous?

Much of Western Europe is distracted and disrupted by the COVID-19 emergency. Worse, behind the rhetoric the contemporary transatlantic relationship is close to breaking, not least because it now relies on the essential (it is certainly not ‘special’) strategic relationship between the US and Germany. Britain is in precipitous strategic decline and in 2019 effectively abandoned the defence of continental Europe by withdrawing the bulk of its forces from Germany. London is hunkering down behind its nuclear shield and has little or no influence on international affairs. Indeed, London seems to have less and less influence even over British affairs. For all President Macron’s talk of European strategic autonomy France is mired in deep debt and only has influence if Germany agrees. The rest of Western Europe is either not defence serious, has abandoned statecraft or enjoys a close relationship with Moscow that could well compromise the ability of the Alliance to act in an emergency.  Turkey is now so alienated from the rest of Europe it can no longer be relied upon to act during an Alliance emergency.

What’s in President Putin’s mind?

President Putin is again facing a difficult domestic situation and has just declared a COVID-19 state of emergency. Russia’s critical export of hydrocarbons has been crippled by the collapse of the oil and gas price and is unlikely to recover soon.  Since the bungled invasion of Georgia he has rebuilt the Russian Armed Forces at great cost. However, the force could be approaching peak capability that he will be unable to maintain if the economy continues to decline.  Putin is also losing popularity at home and needs a boost and the adventurist reflex in Russian nationalism must never be under-estimated.

Moscow has also noted the sharp deterioration in Sino-US relations over recent months.  It may be that China has now decided to bring to an end the ‘One China, Two Systems’ model.  In the first instance any such action could involve the military occupation of Hong Kong as a warning to Taiwan not to seek formal secession. Beijing and Moscow are clearly discussing anti-Western strategy.  With the US mired in the presidential elections and Europe impotent the summer of 2020 could be the perfect opportunity for Beijing and Moscow to support each other by creating simultaneous crises in the Indo-Pacific and Europe.

What could happen, where and when?

If Russia acts it is unlikely to be through a direct force-on-force attack on NATO as it would be too dangerous.  Whilst Putin may hint at such an attack there will still be over 50,000 US personnel in Europe.  However, the chaos across much of Europe also makes it ripe for the exercise of complex Russian strategic coercion through the applied use of 5D warfare – deception, disinformation, disruption, destabilisation and implied and even actual destruction. As with all such past events the period immediately preceding such action might appear deceptively calm.

Where? Russia’s Western Military District stretches from Norway’s North Cape to Ukraine’s Donbass, where it abuts the Southern Military District and the Black Sea Region.  President Putin is increasing Russia’s military mass roughly halfway along that border so that it can exert pressure, possibly in support of non-military coercion to the north or south.  The nature of any Russian action would likely involve hybrid and cyber warfare attacks in all NATO and EU countries north and south of Ukraine and Belarus, possibly including military feints and deception.  However, any military focus would likely be on Ukraine, possibly with the objective of seizing the port of Mariupol (more likely), or launching a more ambitious incursion along the Donetsk, Mariupol, Melitopol, Odessa axis (less likely, but not impossible).  The invasion of Ukraine has cost Russia dear but it would be a mistake to believe such ‘cost’ would prevent further incursions.   

When could such an attack take place? In August 1914 Imperial Germany invaded Belgium at the start of World War One. In August 1939 Hitler and Stalin concluded the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact at the start of World War Two. In August 2008, President Putin used the distraction of the Beijing Olympic Games to invade Georgia.  So, August, when much of Europe has effectively gone to sleep for a month.

A dangerous trinity

In June 1914 few thought war in Europe was imminent. However, a dangerous trinity of opportunity, circumstance, military mobilisation, false assumptions and miscalculations rapidly led to catastrophe.  Something similar could be happening in Europe today. There is opportunity, dangerous circumstances, military mobilisation allied to de facto de-mobilisation and no doubt a whole raft of false and frankly quite desperate assumptions working their way down Kremlin corridors, as they have so often done in the past.

President Trump is also essentially right in his criticism of Europeans.  They do not do enough to defend themselves and the US is called upon too often to do too much with too many European leaders in denial of danger, Germans to the fore.  However, the decision to suddenly withdraw 9500 troops now is strategically cack-handed at best, and dangerously crass at worst.  President Trump might think he is being politically savvy, but it also suggests he is as strategically-illiterate as the European leaders he clearly despises. The only possible other explanation is that maybe President Trump has done a deal with President Putin. Is it a better deal than the one President Putin has with President Xi?

In 1963 British historian A.J.P. Taylor offered his “red button” theory of how World War One broke out. Taylor’s thesis was that given the nature of mass mobilisation and their reliance on railway timetables, once started they led irrevocably to war. There is much to be contested in Taylor’s thesis but European history is replete with moments when the momentarily powerful believed they would have no better opportunity, whilst the momentarily weaker seemed far weaker than they actually were. As Taylor said, “Human blunders do more to shape history than human wickedness”.  

The lesson of history? S++t happens!

 Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

China: Power, Payback and Statecraft

“We are not dealing with the China of the 1990s or even the 2000s, but a completely different animal that represents a clear challenge to our democratic values”.

Francis Fukuyama

One China, One System

One China, Two Systems? No, One China, One system. For President Xi Jingping the 1947-29 Chinese Communist Revolution will not be complete until Hong Kong and Taiwan are brought fully under Beijing’s writ. Xi’s senses the moment might be fast approaching when the ‘correlation of forces’ are sufficiently in his favour for him to forcefully unify China. The imposition of National Security Legislation over Hong Kong by Beijing could well be but the beginning of the forced unification of China. Indeed, Chinese military exercises near the Taipei controlled Paratas/Dongsha islands could also signal stage two of the Plan is coming soon. This would involve the forced unification of Taiwan with Mainland China far earlier than the stated date of 2049, the centennial of the Communist Party’s seizure of power.

Critically, President Xi’s power exploitation of the COVID-19 crisis has shone a light on how Beijing really sees power and its determination to extend its writ across China, East Asia, and much of the rest of the world. There was something tragically quaint about Chris Patten bleating this week about a new dictatorship in Hong Kong.  Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong would have suspected even in 1997 at the time of the Handover that Beijing would at some point move to impose Chinese sovereignty over the Special Administrative Region long before the fifty years agreed. Like so much of British foreign and security policy these days the Handover was merely a device for a Britain in retreat to save face.

Xi’s rise to power

Fukuyama is right; Xi’s China is not the China of his predecessor Hu Jintao. The process of projecting power abroad is changing the very nature of the Communist Party, which now relies for its power base more on Han Chinese nationalism than ideology.

Whilst Hu was never more than primus inter pares, Xi is distinctly primus. In the wake of the Communist Party’s brutal 1989 suppression of the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square Beijing opted to re-build social cohesion by focussing on economic growth.  The policy was overseen by a cautious oligarchy which was focused on China’s domestic stability. Whilst it proved spectacularly successful it also led to a period of relative calm in China’s foreign policy. 

All that changed in November 2012 when Xi Jingping became General Secretary of the Party. For eight years Xi has focussed on three policy goals. First, consolidation of his own power and that of the Party through anti-corruption drives and the establishment of greater censorship.  Second, a more aggressive policy of forced unification and military expansionism, particularly in and around the South China Sea. Third, the development of the People’s Liberation Army into a power projection force. The latter policy was accelerated in March 2018 when this Princeling of the Party became the de facto President-for-Life.

As President-for-Life Xi has far more in common with the Chinese emperors of old or Mao Zedong in his later years, than either Marx or Lenin. Indeed, under Xi the Chinese Communist Party is fast becoming a Chinese Nationalist Party, which is historically ironic given that it was the Communists that in 1949 defeated Chiang Kai Shek and the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang) at the end of (Part One?) the Chinese Communist Revolution. Chiang Kai Shek and the Nationalists retreated onto the island of Taiwan and have been there ever since.

Kow-towing to history

How the Han Chinese see the world and China’s place in it is thus central to any understanding of Beijing’s contemporary foreign and security policy. The Han Chinese represent some 92% of the Chinese population and a shared culture and historical narrative that dates back some four thousand years.  They tend to be deeply patriotic, bordering on the nationalistic, with a particular view of Chinese history and the role of foreigners in it. Central to the Han Chinese world view is the idea of the Middle Kingdom or Central Kingdom that goes back to their origins as a series of communities clustered around the Yellow and Yangtse rivers.  For many Han Chinese it is the emergence of Imperial China and the Xia dynasty in the third century BC which fires the imagination.  Thereafter, China was at the forefront of technology, economy and philosophy for centuries.

This glorious (and often glorified) epoch of Chinese history sits in stark contrast to the humiliation the Chinese suffered at the hands of foreigners, mainly the West, from the mid-eighteenth century to the recent past. Indeed, there is a profound shared and collective sense of China having been mistreated and disrespected by European imperialists, Japan and US. Several tragic events stand out for the Chinese. The so-called ‘unequal treaties’ when Imperial Britain forced the Chinese to cede control of Hong Kong in 1842. The 1901 crushing of the anti-imperialist, anti-Christian and anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion which also saw the defeat of the Imperial Army by an eight nation alliance of Austro-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States was deeply humiliating. The rise of Imperial Japan, the 1931 invasion of Manchuria, and the 1937 Japanese Rape of Nanking, in which up to 300,000 Chinese may have been murdered, are further compounded by a continuing sense of outrage over further Japanese atrocities committed during the occupation prior to 1945.  US backing for Chinese nationalists during the Revolution, the 1949 Amethyst Incident and China’s decisive October 1950 intervention in the Korean War against US-led United Nations forces all help to shape the world-view of many millions of Han Chinese.


That same history also informs Xi Jingping and much of China’s contemporary civil, and in particular, powerful military leadership, which is also Xi’s power-base within the Party.  Consequently, a toxic mix of historical nationalism and power hubris is taking hold, reinforcing the sense in Beijing that the twenty-first century will be China’s century and pay-back time for all the many indignations and humiliations China has suffered at the hands of foreign powers. Critically, behind the Grand Overseas Propaganda Campaign, aggressive espionage and massive and routine cyber-attacks China is offering an implicit choice to the democratic world: embrace China’s rise or be crushed by it.   

The paradox is that Xi is fast turning China into a very nineteenth century, twenty-first century imperial power in which balances of power and spheres of influence dominate policy choices and nationalism is routinely instrumentalised as insurance against economic decline and any domestic challenge to the Party’s untrammelled power. There is also little reason to believe Beijing will change course for the simple reason Xi thinks he is winning.  For that reason alone China is likely to remain inherently autocratic, periodically confrontational and routinely coercive when it believes such action will be to its advantage.

Statecraft and the Chinese Dual Track

What to do about Xi’s China? Statecraft is essentially the art of making others believe one’s own interests are their interests whilst avoiding shooting oneself in either the foot or worse the head in the process.  As such, statecraft concerns the constant adaptation of state postures and behaviours. Given Chinese assertiveness both before and during the COVID-19 crisis the relationship between China and many of the world’s democracies is in need of rebalancing, with European states to the fore.  Too many Europeans are too dependent on China for too many vital things and Beijing will not hesitate to use such dependence as leverage as and when it suits. However, talk of hard decoupling is also misguided because it might well precipitate the very outcome everyone should be seeking to avoid: war.  Like Imperial Japan in the face of the ruinous pre-war US oil embargo if Beijing believes there will be no better moment to act than now then military action might seem the only option for fear of Xi’s historic mission being denied.

Therefore, given the stakes and the scale of the challenge a China strategy worthy of the name would need to involve all the world’s major democracies (the Global West?) and balance realism, reason and resolve.  Any such strategy would also need at least ten basic tenets that equally balance defence and dialogue:


1.             Unless hard proof emerges of malfeasance agreement that China will not be blamed for COVID-19 and recognition of all and any efforts by the Chinese to assist in combatting the pandemic.
2.             Renewed efforts by European and other US allies to convince China to use the UN to resolve all grievances and conflicts through international law, with arbitration to deal with specific disputes in the South China Sea. .
3.             Acknowledgement that China is a Tier One power and will be accorded the respect that such power commands.
4.             Acceptance that globalisation will continue and that whilst some reshoring will be needed to ensure supply chains are not reliant on one source no purposeful effort will be undertaken to damage the Chinese economy.
5.             Agreement to work with China on the creation of a new arms control architecture relevant to twenty-first century technology.

Realism and Resolve:

6.             A shared understanding of the minimum deterrence needed to challenge the assumptions of hard-liners around President Xi keen to seize a perceived opportunity.
7.             Systematic and aggressive countering of Chinese digital warfare, espionage and cognitive warfare through expanded deterrence across the conventional, digital and nuclear spectrum.
8.             Active and collective support for the US in its efforts to ensure the UN Convention on the Law at Sea (UNCLOS) is upheld, specifically when it concerns freedom of navigation in international waters.
9.             Determination by the US and its allies to respond to Chinese military activity and ambitions in the air, sea, land, cyber and space domains and actively respond to Chinese efforts to exploit new technologies in warfare from hypersonic weaponry to artificially-intelligent tactical and intercontinental systems.
10.         Identification of all strategic technologies from semi-conductors to systems architectures such as 5G and its future developments that must be fully sourced from within the community of global democracies.

The price of failure

Statecraft at times also involves the deliberate combining of obfuscation with consequence. The right of Taiwan and Hong Kong to self-determination will be the most challenging issue for the democracies.  For the moment, the safest course of action for both must be support for the status quo; autonomy short of independence.  Support for any other outcome when it is highly unlikely democratic powers would fight for either would be dangerous.  At the same time, Beijing must also be clear that aggressive action against either would see China be designated an aggressor and trigger a determined reaction from the democratic powers across the political, economic and, indeed, military spectrum. However, clarity is also needed with regard to consequence. Unfortunately, with hard-liners seemingly in control in Beijing it is hard to see how a war to force Taiwan under Beijing’s yoke can be avoided unless Xi’s China dramatically changes course.  The alternative is that Taipei accepts One China, One System, which is extremely unlikely given that the Chinese civil war never really ended. That stark reality begs two further enormous questions. Would the US go to war to defend Taiwan?  What would be the implications for US power and influence across the Indo-Pacific and, indeed, the wider world if it did not?

However, demonization of China would also be self-defeating and thus poor statecraft. The West must neither under-estimate the scope of China’s challenge, nor the extent to which Xi and much of the China he leads sees itself locked in a power or perish struggle. This is particularly the case now that COVID-19 has stripped bare the false politesse of power.

The Great Twenty-First Century Power ‘game’ is afoot. How we play it, and how well we play it, could well decide peace and war. If the ‘game’ is to be played at all it must be based on respect.

Julian Lindley-French

Friday, 22 May 2020

COVID-19 and the Disease of ‘Spinitis’

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Strategy and planning

What is strategy and what is planning? Let me start with a spoiler alert. This is not one of those many commentaries one reads these days in which a writer with no responsibility criticises those doing their utmost to cope with an immense crisis in the face of uncertainty and imperfect knowledge. To them I pay tribute. However, COVID-19 has again revealed the dearth of effective strategy and planning in Europe, as well as a lack of strategic culture and an inability or unwillingness to consider the worst-case and prepare for it. 

Helmut von Moltke’s dictum on planning has passed into history: “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength”. He saw strategy as the practical art of adapting means to ends to ensure a balance between action, resources and environment.  And yet, like Eisenhower, he famously questioned the utility of a plan given that most events are dynamic and conceal and generate a myriad of unknowns. 


During the COVID-19 crisis most European governments have been desperate to demonstrate to their respective publics that they have a ‘plan’.  In fact, much of the ‘plan’ is political spin – the appearance of considered, concerted and cohesive action when in fact there is none.  Crisis management has thus become a crisis of governance. For example, whilst the British government has not performed as abjectly as some of its critics claim, the crisis has revealed the extent to which ‘spinitis’ has penetrated government to the point where many policy-makers and practitioners seem unable to distinguish between the two. It has also left millions of Britons, for example, wondering why there often seems little relationship between the stated goals of government and actual reality on the ground. 

There has also been routine high-level confusion over strategy and planning. In essence, strategy in a crisis concerns the pulling of big levers of power in the right sequence and at the right time in pursuit of an overarching goal: in this case a return to a secure, stable and relatively prosperous society.  Strategy thus involves hard policy choices at times between those three end states. Planning should be an adaptive process that constantly fine tunes forces and resources to ensure strategy and the goals it supports can be realised.  However, if ‘strategy’ is in fact a political mechanism for the avoidance of such choices, it is spin.

Spinitis and strategic fragility

For the past twelve years, in the wake the economic and financial crash, most of Europe has been desperately trying to reduce deficits and public debt to restore balance whilst often avoiding hard choices, although the Greeks might beg to differ. This is primarily because politicians have avoided doing what was necessary for fear of being punished. The result is a Europe locked into a form of low-level crisis psychosis in which politicians give the impression of strength and stability where little or none exists.  The masking and protection of fragility has thus been the purpose of strategy.  
Cue COVID-19 and the effective collapse of a fragile edifice.  The coming consequence will be seen in the very hard policy choices European governments will soon be forced to make.  The very kind of choices elected politicians have spent their entire careers trying to avoid. However, the very nature of Europe’s political elite raises a further profound question: are they equipped and able even to make such choices?

Spin, power and strategy

The paradox of strategy is that whilst it is ultimately about power and resource, it is far more important for the weak than the strong. COVID-19 is changing the all-important balance between risk, stability, security and defence.  It will also demand that European leaders are called upon to do far more with far less.  This is because COVID-19 has critically weakened the assumptions upon which traditionally strategy and planning in Europe has been based.  Europe is no longer a region of relatively powerful states.  The problem for Europe’s political leaders is their wish to maintain the appearance of power where little power exists. Spin.

The coming and consequent political crisis will be made more intense by the public clamour to ensure ‘this never happens again’. Such clamour will almost certainly mean much limited resource is wasted giving the impression that government is far better prepared to deal with any such future pandemic.  However, better protection against the past offers little or no protection against an inevitably different future. In other words, spin will be king and real strategy and planning subordinated to it. 

What makes spin so dangerous is the purposeful sacrificing of strategy for politics. Both strategy and planning depend on sound analysis, and such analysis can only be generated by government machinery free to make analyses.  When spin is king such analysis becomes inconvenient and the virus of ‘spinitis’ spreads like a pandemic across all organs of government.  Thereafter, the main purpose of government becomes the maintenance of spin, with governments hoping desperately that all the other risks and threats of which they are also aware remain quiescent, at least on their watch. Specifically, any balance between health security and other critical public investments will probably be abandoned as political leaders embark on the policy equivalent of ambulance chasing.  Standing policy will thus be sacrificed to meet the short-term goal of being seen to deal with COVID-19-type threats, critically undermining national defence and the ability to respond to any and all other threats.   
Future consequences

The appearance of a plan when in fact neither strategy nor planning really exists has profound consequences for Europe’s future. Spin kills strategic analysis and strategic thinking and destroys any hope of a strategic culture.  Paradoxically, Europe does not lack for strategic analysis, thinking or thinkers, it is simply very little such analysis and thinking is close to power. For example, Britain’s inability to see the risks posed by Xi’s China is not simply a consequence of mercantilism and the allure of Chinese investment.  There is simply no strategic thinking in government in London about China or, frankly, much else these days.  If Britain no longer thinks strategically, then there is little chance the rest of Europe will. France retains some vestigial strategic culture, but it lacks the weight to convince the rest of Europe of Paris’s admittedly often parti pris thinking.  Berlin, the natural leader of contemporary Europe, lacks any such culture. This lacuna represents perhaps the greatest danger to the transatlantic relationship. It is not simply that Germans increasingly disagree with the Americans, they are simply unable to understand how and why the Americans think the way they do.  The irony is that Germans in many ways invented the idea of strategy and planning.

Moltke also understood the relationship between strategy, planning and complexity. Specifically, in a complex environment force and resource must be able to act autonomously from each other, even as they act upon each other.  Consequently, absolute control from any one centre is impossible because no commander can be aware of all the factors that are acting upon strategy. Consequently, effective strategy and planning depends on the capacity to generate great means efficiently and apply them both systematically and flexibly, which in turn demands devolution of authority to trusted subordinates. Spin destroys any such trust because the maintenance of a big political lie relies on absolute control.

Ends, ways and means

Moltke saw the ultimate purpose of planning and the application of resources as the reduction of risk to strategy. Ends, ways and means are thus the Holy Trinity of strategy and planning and are themselves dependent on a mix of capability, decentralisation and redundancy and the forging of a robust relationship between strategy and planning, control and desired effect. In the real world European governments would together now consider four lines of planning action in support of a new strategic balance between human security and national defence: a broad post-COVID-19 scan of the threat horizon; proper consideration of the nature and likelihood of risk; prioritisation risk and the apportioning of resources accordingly; adaptation of structure to ensure responsiveness and readiness across a range of contingencies. The Euro-world?

Will Europeans ever learn? More importantly, can Europeans learn in time?

Julian Lindley-French    

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Reflecting on NATO 2030

May 13th, 2020

This Analysis is the guidance I am about to give to the Secretary-General’s NATO Reflection Group concerning my vision of NATO 2030.

“Power is as power does”.
J.K. Galbraith

Ladies and Gentlemen, good afternoon. Let me begin by quoting J.K. Galbraith, “power is as power does”.

This briefing has five elements germane to your mission: 1. a strategic appreciation; 2. the worst defence-strategic consequence of COVID-19 for NATO; 3. NATO’s strategic paradoxes and dilemma; 4, NATO’s critical needs; and 5. (and finally) my vision for NATO 2030. Given the importance of your mission I will choose my words carefully. You have the text of my remarks to assist you and all the arguments herein are much more deeply-developed in my forthcoming Oxford book Future War and the Defence of Europe, co-written with Generals Allen and Hodges.

Core messages

1.      Far from adding more tasks to NATO’s already wide but shallow capabilities and capacities, the Alliance should be ditching tasks that do not conform to its core mission of the defence and deterrence of the Euro-Atlantic area. Indeed, adding new tasks shorn of significantly increased resources would profoundly undermine the credibility of the Alliance. 

2.      Even as NATO re-focuses on its core mission it must also properly consider the changing nature of that mission in the face of the revolution in military technology underway and how the future hybrid, cyber, hyper war mosaic will affect the Alliance’s ability to defend and deter.

3.      If the Alliance adapts together NATO could continue to be organised around a North American and a European political pillar. If not, function and capability will become the new organising Alliance principle, with NATO divided between a high-end, hi-tech, digital future pillar, and a low-tech, analogue, legacy force ‘pillar’.

4.      Or, in an emergency, NATO’s stronger members will simply step outside of the Alliance framework and function as a coalition of the willing and able.

Strategic Appreciation

Europeans are in denial about the nature, scope and speed of strategic change. COVID-19 could be the tipping point towards conflict for an increasingly precarious global balance of military power. However, whilst COVID-19 will doubtless accelerate change, it is unlikely to radically transform the nature of change itself. Indeed, if the strategic consequences of COVID-19 conform to past pandemics far from ending the threat of war, it could well accelerate it.

2030? Europeans are locked in a virtual Ten Year Rule. They do not believe a major war could happen in the next decade. COVID-19 could further detach Europe’s virtual world from strategic reality by creating a profound tension between human (health security) and national defence.

Critically, few Europeans understand the revolution in warfare underway, nor the implications of the growing over-stretch of US forces for the Alliance and European defence. Europeans, I fear, have also lost the political capacity to consider the geopolitical worst case. Specifically, the danger that the Alliance could face a simultaneous multi-theatre crisis in the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and North Africa, as well as on the Alliance’s Eastern and Northern flanks across the conventional and nuclear, and the analogue and digital spectrum.

At the very least, Europeans must begin to grip the implications of fast-shifting military power purchasing parity. First, by 2030, on current trajectories, the relative military power of China and Russia could have surpassed the Western democracies unless Europeans drastically improve their future war, future defence effort. Second, China and Russia will be able to exert pressure on the US and its allies at the weakest seams of the Alliance. Third, such power could well do what it can. Beijing and Moscow are not European liberal democrats.

Worst defence-strategic consequence of COVID-19 for NATO

If Europeans effectively abandon the modernisation of national defence for health security in the face of a changing military balance of power they will force the Americans into a dangerous choice: defend Europe by offsetting European military weaknesses, and thus make their own armed forces relatively weaker, or effectively abandon Europe for the Indo-Pacific. As COVID-19 has demonstrated: shock happens!

NATO’s Strategic Paradoxes and dilemma

NATO suffers from a series of strategic paradoxes and a strategic dilemma that the NATO Reflection Group should consider:

NATO’s strategic paradoxes:

-   - European defence under-investment will likely deepen post-COVID-19, but the scope of NATO missions will likely expand;
-      -  China’s military rise will exacerbate US military over-stretch, but European military capability and capacity will be unable to meet the challenge of a European worst-case military emergency;
-         -Deterring Future War should be the centre of gravity of Alliance Adaptation, with a specific mandate to consider the impact of new technologies in the battlespace, such as artificial intelligence, machine-learning, super-computing etc and et al. However, too many Europeans either want to fight past campaigns better, or adapt NATO to managing crises for which it is ill-suited (such as terrorism and assistance to civil authorities);
-      - Future war will demand an Alliance deterrence and defence posture that stretches across complex strategic coercion and 5D warfare from deception to disinformation, from disruption to destabilisation, and destruction. That, in turn, will require a deep strategic partnership with the EU and the nations. Such synergy simply does not exist;
-       -  Real Adaptation would see a new and critical balance struck between the digitalised military power projection upon which all credible 2030 Allied defence and deterrence will depend, and far more assured people protection via a more secure home base. There is no such ambition apparent.

NATO’s Strategic Dilemma:

Crises will not come in single packages. The specific dilemma is thus: how to ensure NATO has the tailored mass and high-end manoeuvre to simultaneously defend and deter on its Eastern and Northern Flanks and support Allies on its Southern Flank in the event of chaos across the Middle East and North Africa?

NATO’s Critical Needs

Given the defence and deterrence challenge NATO’s critical needs now are thus: 
-          Drastically improved European force interoperability with their US counterparts;
-          Far faster political consultations over what constitutes an attack;
-          Far faster and more nuanced indicators, better shared analysis, much faster responsiveness, with forces and resources constantly at a higher state of readiness and able to seamlessly rotate during a crisis; and
-          Above all, much greater devolved command authority to SACEUR and SHAPE from the earliest stages of a crisis and throughout the conflict cycle.

My vision for NATO 2030?

1.    A new strategic concept that prioritises future-proofed Allied defence focused on a new system of deterrence across the hybrid-cyber-hyper war mosaic which intelligently adapts existing conventional and nuclear counterforce deterrence with digital counterforce.
2.    A Euro-centric twenty-first century Allied Command Operations heavy mobile force that closes the posture gap from which Alliance forces suffer and which could assure defence and deterrence in an emergency and when US forces are engaged across multiple theatres and multiple domains.
3.    Allied Command Transformation is charged with properly developing such a European high-end, first response digital-centric future force that can also act as a development platform for a future AI, big data, and increasingly robotic-enabled defence, via such programmes as the NATO Unmanned Systems Initiative.
4.    That such a force can also meet the interoperability challenge with the US future force.  The European future force must, therefore, also be able to operate with US forces or autonomously across air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge, and critically able to gain comparative advantage in contact.
5.    A NATO-EU strategic partnership worthy of the name that can project power and protect people by moving forces and resources quickly in and around Europe in an emergency to underpin deterrence, mount a defence, and respond to consequence.


The tendency since the end of the Cold War, and indeed for much of it, has been to place political compromise before defence and deterrent effect. The 2019 NATO Military Strategy was reflective of such a tradition. However, NATO and its nations will soon face hard choices and it is those choices the NATO Reflection Group should address.

NATO is ultimately strategic insurance against war in an unstable world in which strategy, technology, capability and affordability are combining for allies and adversaries alike.  NATO must thus be a high-end, warfighting military deterrent.  It is NOT a military EU. 

Above all, Europeans must realise that in the coming decade a hard-pressed US will only be able to ‘guarantee’ Europe’s future defence if Europeans do far more for their own defence. COVID-19 or no! For once, the future of NATO really is at stake. If we fail to modernise our Alliance one day power really could do to some of us, what malicious and malevolent power can, indeed, do if not deterred.

Julian Lindley-French