hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

The Lindley-French Analysis


All change

Alphen, Netherlands. April 8. Henceforth, the Lindley-French Blog Blast will be The Lindley-French Analysis. This blog was born amidst the wreckage of the Great Financial Crash, we are now in the midst of the Great COVID-19 Crash. All major crises accelerate change, this one will be no different. Therefore, it is also time for this blog to change. 

It is some ten years since I posted my first Blog Blast.  My motivation then, as it is today, was to speak strategic truth unto mainly European power which routinely placed parochial, short-term, self-serving politics before sound strategy and policy. Back in 2010, as an experienced analyst who had witnessed power in Brussels at close quarters – both EU and NATO – I was concerned that many of Europe’s leaders lacked the strategic depth to deal with the complex challenges of the age.  The world was in flux and yet European leaders seemed impervious to change, stuck in a 1990s time-mind-set. Europe was also in shock and the EU effectively paralysed by the Eurozone crisis.  The US and its allies were also mired in a series of conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq, and far beyond. Europeans seemed incapable of gripping the scale of the challenges they faced or their own rapid decline.  My own country, Britain, had become profoundly complacent and overly reliant on one financial sector for its income.  China was on the rise and Russia on manoeuvres.

My early blogs were often quite aggressive.  They needed to be. Europe’s leaders were stuck on default as another phase of Project Europe began and with it ever more ‘Europe’. The Constitutional Treaty had been replaced with the just ratified Lisbon Treaty and yet more significant powers were being transferred from the European nation-state to the EU institutions with profound implications for governance and democracy in Europe.  And yet, citizens were being routinely treated as (at best) children by a ‘we know best’ ever more distant elite many of whom seemed lost in a globalist ideology. For Brussels citizens a ‘problem’ to be circumvented, by-passed, ignored for some ill-defined greater good that saw ever more power in ever fewer hands.  If citizens objected they were castigated as populists and nationalists or asked to vote again in a series of referenda from France to the Netherlands to Ireland to Denmark.  In Britain, Tony Blair had a more elegant solution: he simply reneged on his promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty for fear the people might give the ‘wrong’ answer. 

Ten years on Europe’s battle over collective and common inaction still rages, even as the Real World beyond the Euro-World moves on.  Since 2010 the consequences of policy failure have become all too apparent. Fragile Europe is still stuck with the Eurozone a constant accident waiting to happen again and again and again. Europe’s nation-states are in danger of being hollowed-out, Potemkin villages vulnerable to the slightest shocks, as their ability to affect change drains away, with no-one quite sure where power lies. At least there was a strong Germany. Now?

Insights, controversy and education

The blog has had its insights.  In 2011, I was one of the first, if not THE first, to predict Britain would leave the EU.  It was analysis, not genius. To make the Euro work in the wake of the crisis continental Europeans would need to go to a place where Britain simply could not go – real banking, fiscal and political union.  The alternative would be for the British to expend huge sums on a project of which they were not effectively a part. This blog was also the first to suggest the ‘West’ was evolving from a place into a global idea, and that the Atlantic Alliance should be seen as part of a global security network of liberal democracies faced by the growing systemic challenge of the two power autocracies, China (real power) and Russia (pretend power). The idea of a Europe on ‘strategic vacation’ was invented here, and I also made the important distinction between a European Army (which will never happen) and an ‘army of Europeans’ (which really should).

The blog has also necessarily courted controversy. For example, some took my commentary on Brexit as proof I was a Brexiteer. In fact, I was never a Brexiteer and campaigned for Remain. To my mind, Brexit was a denial of Britain’s historic role as Europe’s balancer and I wanted the British to stay in the fight for a reformed EU in which the distance between power and people was not driven ever wider by the dirigiste instincts of a faraway elite. Paradoxically, given my above analysis, the innate contradictions from which the Euro suffers meant Britain would always be able to exert its pragmatic influence, not least because for the most part Berlin agreed.  In any case, politics in Europe is (or at least should) never be about absolutes. 

I have also made mistakes, which I regret. As a student of Soviet history it was a mistake to entitle a piece EUSSR and I was rightly berated for it.  It was a response to a senior Commission official who had suggested my concerns about giving the New Berlaymont ever more power in the name of ‘Europe’ might be the result of my suffering some form psychological malaise. Re-education? These things can happen when one exists in a political pressure cooker for many years. Still, if one cannot take the criticism, don’t write the piece!

Given my education some have asked why I did not become part of that elite. First, said elite did not want me as I am far too uncomfortable for them. Second, I am a product of English political culture, which fought a civil war to deny kings absolute power, the same culture which over a century later informed the American Revolution.  My fear was of democracy diluted to the point of irrelevance in the process.  A Hotel California Europe in which I could vote anyway I liked but I could never leave. Indeed, I was also the first to use the Hotel California metaphor in the context of Brexit: Britain could check-out any time she liked, but she could never leave. However, my challenge to a kind of absolutism in Europe that wrapped itself in the cloak of freedom and democracy and yet promised a form of bureaucratic tyranny was the challenge of a citizen, not a wrecker.

Perhaps my most controversial analysis was at the height of the post-911 conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Given the threat posed by Al Qaeda, Islamic State et al, I asked why there appeared to be a disconnect between immigration policy and security policy in many Western European countries. It seemed strange to be sending Allied forces faraway to keep Salafist Jihadism ‘at strategic distance’, whilst allowing large numbers of people from the very same socially and religiously conservative regions to settle in Europe. Not surprisingly, given the nature of this age and medium, there were misplaced accusations of racism. In fact, my analysis was essentially about strategy and policy. Respect, irrespective of race, gender, creed or orientation, is hard-wired into my DNA. There have been too many good people from all over in my life to think otherwise. What the attacks revealed was also a growing intolerance of analytical nuance and the politicisation of insight, together with a dangerous demand that analysts ‘conform’ to dogma.

Friendships have also been forged and broken by this blog, and I have not always been popular with my peers, most notably in academia and elite think-tanks, particularly in Europe. My Quaker-inspired strap-line, ‘speaking truth unto power’ was the result of a creeping conviction that too many European think-tanks were doing the opposite.  Trapped by the need to raise money, much of it from the very people they needed to analyse, I saw good minds being suborned by power, particularly in Brussels.  Independence of thought and analysis is the sine qua non of contemporary liberal democracy and vital to the holding of distant power to account.

I am also a member of a very pragmatic British school of political Realism, rather than the ideological school one finds elsewhere.  For all the focus on European politics, policy and strategy, it has been big defence that has been the constant that has bound together a decade of informed and experienced reflection, with NATO, European and British defence policy to the fore.  Indeed, my entire approach is that of an historian addressing strategy, as I am first and foremost an Oxford historian with a profound interest in defence strategy. Everything I think and write goes back to the education in modern history I received many years ago at Oxford from the likes of Sir Michael Howard, Leslie Mitchell, Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann, and my old and late-lamented mentor, the wonderful David Cox.  It is also my Oxford education that, like Gibbon and Macaulay before me (No, I am not comparing myself to either of them) that informs my firm Realist belief that freedom can never be take for granted.  Realism why defines my staunch support for my friends in Poland and the Baltic States in the face of a revanchist Russia.

Taking a stand

My analysis is not and never will be neutral. Indeed, belief is central to my analysis.  To my mind, the world is a safer place when North Americans and Europeans are in harness. For me, the Atlantic Alliance is THE cornerstone alliance of world security. However, for the Alliance to endure it is vital Europeans finally step up and become strategically responsible actors, something they can only do through the closest of collaborations. 

Finally, I am also a British patriot (no nationalist) who believes Britain still has a major role to play if not as the world power of yore, as an Atlantic and European power, but only if London’s elite Establishment once again learns to believe in Britain and its people.  Critically, if Britain is to return to its Realist tradition it must again align the ends, ways and means of British security and defence policy with the strategic roles and responsibilities expected of a still major regional strategic power. 

So, when the dust of the Great COVID-19 Crisis begins to settle geopolitics will again be cast by Realpolitik and if Britain thinks it can evade the responsibilities of its power then London is deluded. That is why throughout this journey, and whilst I have often attacked elites and establishments, the aim has never been to destroy them, but to make them better so they can serve me, the citizen, more effectively.

The Lindley-French Analysis

Now, my blog is at another crossroads and about to evolve again. The next decade will be tumultuous as power, space and freedom once again become sorely contested on the anvil of the new Global Bipolarism as Pax Americana and Pax Sinica compete for dominance.  In such a world it is as an analyst at the juncture between academia and practice where I can best add value.  Consequently, there will be fewer ‘blogs’ but each blog will be longer and deeper and grounded in evidence.

The journey will be bumpy as I will never compromise with thought ‘fashion’, and I will continue to call it as I see it. The other day a Dutchman took great pride in telling me the Dutch were direct to a fault.  He also castigated the English for never saying what they really think. In fact, and with no disrespect to the Dutch who I (by and large) admire, the Dutch can indeed be direct, but often only about the things that do not matter.  They can also take easy offence when they find an Englishman who really does say what he thinks.

In that light, the one thing I can assure you of, as a Yorkshireman, Englishman, Briton, European and Atlanticist, is that I will continue to say exactly what I think without fear of grace or favour.  Thank you for your support. It has been an honour to serve you all.  Here’s to the next decade of informed citizen engagement with power. Without it freedom will not endure.

Stay safe, everyone!

Julian Lindley-French

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Analysis: Disease, Debt and Defence

“In this suffering and misery of our city, the authority of human and divine laws almost disappeared, for, like other men, the ministers and the executors of the laws were all dead or sick or shut up with their families, so that no duties were carried out”.

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (describing the effects of the Black Death in Florence in 1348).

Headline: Since World War One European democracies have failed to plan adequately for shock, with systems and structures routinely collapsing at such moments of crisis.  Over time Europeans respond to effect, but such efforts are profoundly undermined by a tendency to sacrifice the medium-to-long term for the short-term. This is caused by the primacy of politics over strategy. That same dynamic is again apparent in the response to the COVID-19 crisis, during which an understandable choice has been made to place human security before state security. However, as the economic cost of the crisis becomes apparent European governments must avoid another now ‘traditional’ response: the sacrifice of sound defence to manage debt. Trade-offs will, indeed, need to be made, but through far more effective use of NATO, and a meaningful strategic partnership between NATO and the EU, Europeans can strike a new balance between security and defence and between efficiency and effectiveness, and begin to close the yawning gap between ends, ways and means from which Europe and its defence suffers.  


The Centre for Business and Economic Research predicts world GDP will fall by as much as 4% this year with the subsequent economic contraction possibly twice as big as the Great Financial Crash of 2008-2010, from which many European economies have yet to recover.  Take France as a European example. France’s government debt prior to the crisis was over 100 per cent of GDP, with France routinely breaching the EU budget deficit ceiling of three per cent per annum of GDP. The French statistical agency (INSEE) states that French economic output is down by 35 per cent and three percentage points could be wiped off France’s GDP if the lockdown lasts another month, up to six points over two months.  According to Econographics the impact on the US economy will be significantly worse than the 5% fall in GDP that occurred in the wake of the 2008 crisis. 

The history of plague and its reckoning

Every major pestilence in European has had profound strategic consequences. Between 1347 and 1353 the population of Boccaccio’s Florence fell from 110,000 to 50,000, a mortality rate that was reflected across Europe where some 40% of the population perished. Wage inflation and aristocratic debt soared, destabilising an already fragile European polis, and ending feudalism once and for all.  There were profound geopolitical consequences as power shifted tectonically resulting in a series of conflicts, such as the Hundred Years War between England and France which was intensified as a consequence of the Black Death.  Thankfully, COVID-19 whilst tragic is not the Black Death, but it will have profound economic, political and strategic consequences, most notably in Europe.

The reckoning, when it inevitably comes, will test to the limit Europe’s tenuous relationship between rhetoric and structure, the state and the individual, as well as debt and defence, just as it did in the fourteenth century.  France, like many European states, is devoting huge additional resources to the struggle against COVID-19, with profound implications for public expenditure in Europe.  The Euro already looks very vulnerable. A major row is developing between Germany and the richer, northern EU member-states, and France, Italy, Spain and other EU member-states.  The latter want the former to pay for the crisis in the form of debt mutualisation.  Consequently, COVID-19 and its implications will again shake the EU to its political and institutional foundations.

Human security versus national defence.

There are also profound implications for ‘welfarised’ European states as they seek a new balance between the security of the individual and defence of the state:

First, there will be a debt-defence paradox. Spiralling public debt will be a singular consequence of COVID-19, and yet the immediate political reaction of big government Europeans will be for even more government. Equally, more government could also mean less defence.  Most Europeans spend an average of around 9% GDP on healthcare and 1.2% GDP on defence.  European defence expenditure was expected to reach $300 billion/€275 billion in 2021.  That is now unlikely. Word has it that the UK’s Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review has already been derailed by the borrowing to which London is committed to offset the worst economic impacts of the crisis.

Second, a profound shift will take place in what constitutes ‘security’.  More of the European state will likely be committed to cocooning the individual and the economy from risk in the form of health-care, social security, crisis subsidy and elevated levels of admittedly 'cheap' borrowing. The result will be that whilst the individual might in time have access to more resilient locally-afforded protection, the state itself will become progressively more vulnerable to externally-generated strategic shock.

Third, Europeans could retreat further from power and influence projection. The already limited ability of Europeans to project coercive power upon which credible twenty-first century defence and deterrence depends could well be effectively abandoned in favour of seeing armed forces as little more than a reserve for domestic civilian crisis management.

Moving Mountains amid a Crisis: Increasing Military Mobility across Europe  (1000 hours EST/1600 hours CET)

Today, I will take part in a virtual conference, which you are welcome to join, organised by my old friend Lieutenant-General (Ret.d) Ben Hodges and CEPA. Entitled Moving Mountains amid a Crisis: Increasing Military Mobility across Europe the panel will consider an issue that points the inevitable way towards Europe’s defence future – how to rebalance the ends, ways and means of Europe’s future defence:

First, military mobility is, in fact, crisis mobility - the ability, capability and capacity to move relevant resources across Europe in sufficient mass to prevent crises, respond to them and mitigate their consequences. As such, work to enhance political, legal and physical 'infrastructure' across Europe will be critical to more effective crisis management, an enhanced ability to receive, organise and manage force and resource, and move it rapidly, securely and efficiently to where it is needed.

Second, any significant resource-shift by Europeans away from defence would take place just at the moment the US faces growing world-wide and domestic pressures. If Washington is to maintain the security guarantee through NATO it will need its European allies to do more not less for their own defence. In such circumstances, the effective defence of Europe will only be possible if a far tighter relationship is forged by Europeans between force and resource efficiency and effectiveness. 

Third, efforts to increase military mobility could well provide the model for partnerships between and within states that will be essential to the realisation of credible European defence and deterrence in the twenty-first century. Consequently, the very nature and concept of 'defence spending' will change, as will the way Europe’s defence is organised and structured.

Fourth, NATO/SHAPE will (and must) remain the exclusive command hub for the organisation of military effect across Article 4 and Article 5 high-end contingencies, but will also need to become far more agile and adaptive. This is because warfare will stretch across what I call 5Ds - disinformation, deception, destabilisation, disruption and tailored destruction. Deterring and defending against it will need to do the same.

S**t happens!

The current crisis has also shown the scale and range of threats facing Europe. Many years ago I coined the phrase ‘strategic vacation’ in a piece I wrote for the International Herald Tribune.  That vacation must now finally end, or rather the seeming inability or willingness of European leaders to confront Europe’s rapidly deteriorating, cross-spectrum, threat horizon and the atomisation of effort all-too-apparent during crises over recent years.  The 'grand strategy' of Europe's future security and defence will thus rely on the much more efficient application of great means in pursuit of high political and strategic ends. Unfortunately, the current crisis has once again demonstrated that not only does European solidarity (and with it the EU) tend to fail at such moments, but the concomitant renationalisation of response leaves NATO with little or no role. If that happened in a worst-case military emergency a few of the larger nation-states, led by the US, would simply by-pass both NATO and the EU.

New political and strategic realities will also need to be faced. With Britain outside the EU the organisation and enabling of transatlantic effects will be increasingly established on two pillars: a NATO-focused 'Anglosphere', in which efficient collective action is the ethos, and a 'Eurosphere' of continental Europeans which will need to become increasingly common, or at the very least collective to the point of fusion, if EU Member-States are to close Europe’s yawning ends, ways and means gap. Bluntly, the more common the EU effort, the less Britain could, or would, play any role for a host of complex political and legal reasons mainly on the side of a profoundly legalistic EU.  Put simply, Britain cannot be outside the EU and part of a common EU effort. Critically, the EU-NATO strategic partnership will become more, not less important. However, it will also need to become far more than the talk-shop it is today, a real force and resource generator and command and control hub at the juncture between people protection and power projection.

In short, now is the moment EU member-states must prove they are committed to a common approach, or abandon it. 

Disease, debt, defence…and decline

Looking to the future COVID-19, or something like it, is just how a future war could begin, albeit with no space permitted by an enemy for civilian systems of government to recover and respond. Therefore, any NATO ‘strategic concept' must be built on an assumption of a much greater strategic whole of government approach. Counter-intuitive though it may seem such an assumption will need a far stronger European security and defence effort. At the high-end of conflict prevention, and for even minimum deterrence to remain credible, which is in fact NATO’s real purpose, Europeans will need a NATO European first responder future force able to operate across seven domains of contested advantage - air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge.

The alternative is more of the same accelerated relative decline apparent since 2010, only far more accelerated. The consequence of decline for Europeans will be where it always is, at the sharp end of reality. If Europeans continue to talk the talk of defence or retreat into ersatz defence in which their respective armed forces become little more than a paramilitary reserve for domestic civilian crisis management, then Alliance defence and deterrence will fail.

Therefore, European governments must confront the false dichotomy they are fast barrelling towards between disease, debt and defence.  Put simply, far better use of the Alliance must be made as a mechanism for the further promotion of transatlantic defence and deterrence effectiveness, alongside and in parallel to EU efforts to act as the cradle for the high-end aggregated support of civilian authorities, focussed on an improved capacity to move immense capabilities across Europe in time and to place.  

Europeans will soon have a profound choice to make; for once let sound strategic judgement make it the right one.

Scritta Posta: Boccaccio’s The Decameron has a personal angle for me. It is set in a farmhouse close to the wonderful village of Fiesole which sits majestically in the hills overlooking Florence.  Boccaccio and his companions shared stories in Fiesole as they sat out the Plague. For four years I lived in Fiesole where I wrote my doctorate…on the future defence of Europe. As Boccaccio once wrote, “You must read, you must persevere, you must sit up nights, and you must inquire, and exert the utmost power of your mind. If one way does not lead to the desired meaning, take another; if obstacles arise, then still another; until, if your strength holds out, you will find that clear which at first looked dark.”

Julian Lindley-French

Friday, 27 March 2020

Operation Infektion 2020

“But again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. The schoolteacher is well aware of this. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is one of knowing whether two and two do make four”

Albert Camus, The Plague

Operation Infektion

Alphen, Netherlands. 27 March. How are China and Russia using ‘desinformatsiya’ to exploit the COVID-19 crisis in Europe? Today (0930 hrs EST/1530 hrs CET), the impressive Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington will hold a virtual panel discussion entitled Infektion Points: Russian and Chinese Disinformation on the Pandemic (  The panel will include an old friend, Ed Lucas, Senior Vice-President at CEPA, as well as Jakub Janda, Executive Director at European Values, who has just written a fascinating paper entitled Chinese and Russian Disinfo Ops Compared and Contrasted ( The panel blurb refers to a little known Soviet disinformation campaign, Operation Infektion, and for good reason.

Operation Infektion, Operation Vorwaerts II or Operation Denver, as it was variously known, was a joint ‘information operation’ between the KGB and the East German Stasi.  It began in 1983 with the aim of fostering anti-Americanism in those European states hosting US forces at the height of the Euromissiles crisis, during which Moscow came close to decoupling the defence of Europe from the US strategic nuclear umbrella.  The narrative (all offensive KGB operations were built around some form of narrative) was that the Americans had ‘invented’ HIV/AIDS at Fort Derrick in Maryland and had intentionally-spread the disease across Europe.

Operation Infektion 2020

A variant of Operation Infektion seems to have been launched by Moscow, with much of it focussed on social media, to undermine the ability of European states to effectively manage the crisis. As such, Operation Infektion 2020 is simply the latest variant of applied disinformation in Russian statecraft.  The so-called ‘Bronze soldier’ campaign in Estonia in 2007, the run-up to the 2014 seizure of Crimea and the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, as well as a sustained campaign to deflect responsibility for the July 2014 shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 by a Russian Army BUK missile, all conform to a pattern of Russian information operations.

The March 2018 poisoning of Sergei and Iulia Skripal in Salisbury, UK, was another such case when two members of the GRU’s Unit 29155 bungled an attempted assassination of a former Russian intelligence officer. Of late, Moscow has also tried to blame Warsaw for the outbreak of World War Two and mask Russia’s role in the ‘secret protocol’ to the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which carved Poland up between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Perhaps most cynically of all, Moscow has tried to shift responsibility for the 1940 Soviet massacre of 22,000 Polish officers, even though former President Mikhail Gorbachev formally apologised for the war crime.

COVID-19 disinformation

This month the EU’s European External Action Service (EEAS) identified some eighty Russian COVID-19 disinformation injects over two months. The Guardian newspaper in London stated that “Coronavirus was claimed [by Russian disinformation] to be a biological weapon deployed by China, the US or the UK. Other conspiracy theories contended the outbreak was caused by migrants or was a pure hoax”. According to the EEAS, the specific aim of Russian disinformation is to undermine popular trust in European health-care systems, whilst European Commission has also confirmed a marked increase in Russian disinformation efforts to that end since the outbreak of the pandemic. 

Some of the claims are absurd. For example, in February Sputnik radio claimed that Britain and certain international organisations were seeking to force China to open its markets through force, in much the same way the British Empire did at the 1842 Treaty of Nanking and thereafter in what the Chinese call the ‘unequal treaties’.  Russian disinformation is also amplifying claims made elsewhere to avoid Moscow’s ‘fingerprints’ being found on any one specific campaign.

China?  On Wednesday, the G7 meeting failed to issue an official communique because Beijing took exception to US Secretary-of-State Mike Pompeo’s repeated assertion that China is the source of COVID-19 and that Beijing’s initial bungled efforts to suppress news of the outbreak helped facilitate its global spread.  Worse, like Operation Infektion in the 1980s, the Chinese have also stated on the record that it was the American military that imported the virus into China. Why?

The effectiveness of disinformation does not depend on whether or not the information being peddled is believable by all, but believable where it matters in constituencies critical to the realisation of the broader national interest. Russian disinformation is as much a strategic reflex as a cohesive strategy, itself reflective of the strategic spoiler role Moscow has adopted, particularly in and around Europe.  For Beijing two huge audiences are critical: the domestic audience, and the audience across much of the developing world. At home, the Communist Party of China is like the Pope, infallible, and must not be seen to fail.  China is also in strategic competition with the US across much of the world. Absurd though Chinese disinformation may seem to most Western ears, it will have traction in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia.

Why is disinformation dangerous?

Disinformation is also how future war would start.  Operation Infektion was part of so-called Russian ‘active measures’ (aktivinyye meroproatia). Active measures were part of a broad strategy of offensive influence operations conducted by both the KGB and Soviet military intelligence (GRU) as part of what today I call 5D warfare: the considered and co-ordinated application of disinformation, destabilisation, deception, disruption and coercion through implied destruction.  The strategic aim was, and is, to keep European states permanently politically and socially off-balance, and to exploit all and any divisions between the US and its European allies to thus undermine the cohesion of the Atlantic Alliance.

As I write nine Russian warships are testing Britain’s defences. The Royal Navy has responded with at least seven surface ships. The Russian objective is to test the ability of the British state to respond militarily when some 10,000 British military personnel are engaged in supporting the civil authorities at a time when all other instruments of state are under intense pressure. 

In fact, the Russians are doing the British a favour by reminding London of the strategic implications of the current crisis.  Given all the money the British Government is pumping into crisis response the first instinct of HM Treasury will be to further limit investment elsewhere, most notably defence. With the Integrated Review of Britain’s foreign, security, defence and development policies underway, and the search for a new balance between defence effectiveness and efficiency, the current Russian incursions are a timely reminder of how Russia would seek to exploit disinformation for military ends in a future crisis.

Jekyll and Hyde China?

China?  Beijing is a Jekyll and Hyde power.  China’s Dr Jekyll offers support to Europe’s crisis response, whilst China’s Mr Hyde seeks to exploit it.  As for collusion between Russia’s Mr Hydes and their Chinese counterparts, they are clearly sharing ‘best practice’ about the utility and application of disinformation, and both are clearly engaged in advanced information operations.  Indeed, the very Jekyll and Hyde nature of China’s operation is fostering uncertainty, which is a strategic end in itself.  However, the extent to which Beijing and Moscow have adopted a joint approach is as yet unclear.

However, Europeans should be under no illusion; there is a broad strategic information operation to exert Chinese and Russian influence to divide European states and/or undermine their ability to govern effectively during the crisis. Russia cannot help itself, but I had hoped (still do) that China, in particular, would adopt a more Mr Jekyll approach to dealing with the pandemic.  Sadly, over the past week it is Beijing’s Mr Hydes who have the whip hand over policy preferring concealment and confrontation to collaboration and co-operation.

In time, disinformation campaigns do reveal an inelegant truth, à la Camus, about those who commission them.  The problem is that by the time two and two has been added up to four the damage done can be grievous. As for Europe’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, it should finally remind its leaders about a fundamental truism of geopolitics – s**t happens!

Julian Lindley-French

Thursday, 19 March 2020

COVID-19: The Silk Road Pandemic

“Civilised life, you know, is based on a huge number of illusions in which we all collaborate willingly. The trouble is we forget after a while that they are illusions and we are deeply shocked when reality is torn down around us”.

J.G. Ballard, “High Rise”

Headline: COVID-19 is a human tragedy, not the prelude to war. The enemy is a pathogen, not a state and policy and strategy should be shaped accordingly. Expert assessments suggests that as many as one in fifty under the age of seventy of those infected could die, and up to one in six of those over 70 with underlying health conditions. Protection of vulnerable groups is the marked of a civilised society. However, historians of the future will wonder how a relatively mild virus could bring the global economy to its knees so quickly. They will possibly conclude that the twenty-first century world, far from being a globalised economy was, in fact, a hybrid interdependent anarchy to which shock was endemic and routinely magnified. Consequently, some have predicted the end of globalisation.  China is the epicentre of the pandemic and will need to change. It is particularly inappropriate that Beijing has, instead, begun hectoring others, most notably the US. An effective strategy will require collective action across the epidemiology, politics and communications. Whilst there are doubtless lessons to be learnt about how to build more resiliency and redundancy into the globalised system, it is only through a global effort that the threat will be contained and then reduced. The blame game should stop and the action game begin. 

The Silk Road Pandemic

It is a bolt from the blue! The early spread of COVID 19 seems eerily to follow the old Silk Road that from China to Europe via Iran.  COVID 19 has some similarities to the Black Death of the fourteenth century in that is a trade route pandemic, albeit a very twenty-first century variant and as such a disease of globalisation. Like trade, the pandemic is now spreading far beyond that corridor and rapidly, replacing much of the trade that sustains the globalised economic system. In such circumstances, humanity, or rather those that govern it, have a choice to make: act irresponsibly by blaming others or find a way to work together to confront and deal with a threat common to all.

Contemporary Globalism is part of the problem.  Far from being the community its more ideological adherents claim it is more a form of interdependent anarchy. Consequently, a relatively small event or group can create enormous shock. Such shock is not confined to the spreading of disease. 911 and Al Qaeda spawned the Global War on Terror, a small group of bankers triggered the 2008 financial crash and the precipitant decline of Europe and the accelerated rise of China as power shifted from West to East. All the serious evidence suggests COVID 19 began in Wuhan in November as a pathogen leapt from one species to another and within four months much of the world economy is shutting down.

At the time of the 2003 SARS outbreak China represented 3% of the world economy, whereas today it represents 17%.  In the past, most such contagions tended to be localised. Travel was far more restricted, lockdowns at times of plague were far more common, and people died far more quickly limiting the ability of any contagion to spread. There were, of course, exceptions. The Black Death which swept through Asia, Africa and Europe in the fourteenth century also spread along the old Silk Road and sea-borne trade routes.

Why China and why now?

The demand for fresh meat slaughtered in the traditional Chinese manner now poses a clear and present danger to the well-being of humanity. Why? For all the growth in China’s power and wealth since 1989, the Middle Kingdom is a huge populous country full of very poor people.  There is a profound friction between the twenty-first century state Beijing likes to project to the world, and the reality of rural poverty and the rapid growth of an urban poor still wedded to traditional practices such as ‘wet [blood] markets’.  The average GDP per capita in China is still only around $10,000 per annum (with millions living on incomes far below that) compared with US GDP per capita at $65,000 per annum.  Living conditions are often appalling with huge numbers of Chinese families crammed together in high-rise poverty.  Chinese cities have become natural breeding ground for pathogens able to leap from one species to another.  

Beijing has tried to limit such practices. However, state action has simply pushed the business into the unregulated back alleys of Chinese cities. Given the reputational and actual damage to China that will be caused by COVID-19 Beijing is now taking stringent action to deal with the threat.  Equally, containment of COVID-19 is also likely to see a lurch towards an even more control-obsessed, autocratic Chinese state.  

Strategic consequences and implications

The COVID-19 pandemic will also have profound strategic consequences, of which the health crisis is simply the first. Over time the crisis will spread to all other areas of statecraft from the economic to the military. The world’s two power autocracies, China and Russia, are particularly vulnerable. The signs are already ominous with Russia already suffering. The price of benchmark Brent crude oil has collapsed from $55 per barrel in December to $29 today. Russia needs to export its oil at around $70 per barrel for the Russian economy to be sustained. In the first quarter of 2020 Chinese manufacturing production dropped by 13%, the fastest and largest fall for fifty years.

Autocracies tend to share certain characteristics when under pressure.  First, the primacy of the state over the individual is reinforced, with elites seeing themselves as the very embodiment of the nation and indispensable to it.  Both Beijing and Moscow are already moving to exert even more control.  President Xi is already the president-for-life of China. If, as seems likely, President Putin succeeds in his efforts to remain president at least until 2036, Russia too will become more autocratic. Second, such elites also fear their own people. In the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre the Chinese Communist Party offered a new ‘deal’ to its burgeoning middle classes: sustained growth in their prosperity in return for their continued unquestioning of power of the Party. That deal could fail.

History also plays an important role. Both Xi and Putin were shaped by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and fear the consequences of a sustained period of economic decline on their ability to hold onto power. President Putin is already suffering from falling popularity.  In such circumstances, Russia could retreat even more into a reflexive nationalistic and militaristic posture with the West, the source of most of Russia’s foreign-generated income, routinely cited as a threat.  In such circumstances, China too would likely become far more aggressive, with Taiwan particularly vulnerable.  Therefore, the possibility of both power autocracies embarking on more military adventurism must not be discounted as a downstream consequence of COVID-19.

As China cracks down on internal dissent the legal frameworks that enable Western multinational corporations to operate therein will also likely become even more onerous. Many Western companies could well seek to ‘re-shore’ their operations back to the US and Europe, exacerbating the economic crisis in China. At the very least, many such corporations will (and should) move to end their over-reliance on Chinese supply chains vulnerable to catastrophic failure or political disruption. 

Europeans and the EU are once again major victims of crises made elsewhere, with Europe now the epicentre of the pandemic according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).  There is also a profound danger is that over the coming months the COVID-19 crisis will merge with a renewed refugee/migration crisis. Such a complex crisis will not only test European solidarity but also place all systems of government in Europe under the utmost strain, with economic consequences for at least a decade.  Indeed, the whole idea of ‘Europe’, with its focus on free movement of goods, services and people will likely need to be reconsidered. Europe, and indeed the wider West, could well suffer from another profound political shock. The scale and complexity of the crisis will doubtless reinforce the attractiveness of extremist political parties. 

Strategic choices

Faced with the strategic and political choices inherent in the COVID-19 crisis there are essentially two options for all the states involved: cohesion or fragmentation.  It is cohesion that should be the aim.  Any other approach would simply guarantee a lose-lose outcome for all.  However, any such strategy will require all the responsible powers to craft a complex new strategic agenda that pre-supposes a level of mutual trust that is in short supply.  Any such agenda would require (at the very least) the following elements over the short and medium terms, across a range of sustained actions from the epidemiological strategy to the grand strategic with effective strategic communications vital. It will also require a marked change in both the tone and nature of state behaviour.

China is already seeking to shift the blame for COVID-19. Moreover, not for the first time Beijing’s obsession with secrecy has helped turn an outbreak into global contagion. The re-emergence of Zhao Lijian, a particularly feisty Chinese nationalist as Foreign Ministry Spokesman is also not a good sign that China is willing to act collectively. His claim this past week that the virus had been brought to Wuhan by the US military is simply preposterous and US Secretary-of-State Mike Pompeo has rightly complained. If Beijing adopts such a posture and refuses to acknowledge that two months of Chinese mismanagement during the early stages exacerbated the crisis, then it will be hard to treat China as a responsible strategic actor.

Equally, states must avoid appearing to condone conspiracy theories. There is an apochryphal story that in 2003 the SARS epidemic began when it escaped from the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory.  Given the proximity of the laboratory to the contemporary outbreak concerns continue to be expressed about the safety of the facility. However, the US, in particular, must be careful not to begin a tit-for-tat blame game that would draw it into an equivalency trap. At present, there is no evidence the Chinese designed the pathogen and then lost control of it.  In any case, COVID-19 would be a strange offensive weapon as it only really affects people beyond the productive/warfighter age and only, normally, very mildly. One might argue that because the virus places Western healthcare systems under intense strain it could be a form of attack. However, China has so many other means to attack Western critical infrastructure if it so chose. The pandemic will have a serious impact on China's foreign income, with profound implications for its future economic performance and Beijing’s emergence as a military superpower.

The COVID-19 strategic agenda

Shorter-term epidemiological strategy can draw lessons from the response to the 2003 SARS contagion. Brian Doberstyn, who in 2003 was director of the WHO Western Pacific Region’s Division for Combatting Communicable Disease, identified three main lessons: transparency and a willingness of states to admit the scale and pace of early infection; the utility of proven past practices in harness with twenty-first century science; and the rapid and effective global scientific collaboration to enable the early mapping of the genome of the virus. He also identified a critical causal faction, “animal husbandry and marketing practices seriously affect human health.

Rebuild strategic public private partnerships: One consequence of globalisation has been the progressive decoupling of Western states from Western corporations.  The very idea of the multinational corporation is the antithesis of the nation-state.  A strong partnership between the public and private sectors IN states will now be crucial, and not just to limit the economic damage.  In the immediate future, vaccines must be developed and ventilators made to treat the severely ill. 

Begin a forensic audit: WHO is a flawed institution, primarily because it reflects the tensions between the states that pay for it.  However, as part of confidence-building the WHO should be charged with conducting a proper strategic audit into the crisis with the enquiry ring-fenced against any external political interference.  This will not be easy. Many years ago I was seconded to the UN in both Geneva and New York and saw the gap between reality and UN reality. If such an audit is not possible, then the US and its European allies should conduct such an audit independently to ensure lessons are identified, best practice disseminated, and new structures identified.

Treat pandemics as a threat to the state order: Better intelligence and early warning indicators will need to be established, first response needs to be faster, more assured and better co-ordinated, healthcare systems (both public and private) need to be better prepared, critical infrastructures need to be made more resilient, with redundancy built into information networks and redundancy built into state structures. Critically, better early understanding about the scope of any threat will need to be established. Over-reaction is as dangerous and under-reaction. Ultimately, it is the robust state that must be at the centre of any crisis response.  

The death of globalisation?

COVID-19 happened because of a failure of policy in China and an absence of structure elsewhere, particularly in Europe.  It was made worse by ideological globalism and the abandonment of common sense by leaders.  Critically, Western democracies have become over-reliant on one autocratic source for many of the supply chains which sustain their respective societies. However, those who believe time can be rolled back and globalisation abandoned have to ask themselves with what?  Contending, hermetically-sealed and confrontational blocs?  Yes, Western states need to better protect themselves from crises made elsewhere, but what has been missing for far too long is the considered practice of statecraft in globalisation.  Indeed, globalism has been seen by the naively ideological as an antidote to statecraft.  The dark side of globalisation, of which COVID 19 is a consequence, must therefore be gripped and structure built to mitigate its dangers. However, it is not a time to abandon globalisation for to do so would be to cut the very connectedness that mitigates the nationalism and militarism that would doubtless come to dominate both Beijing and Moscow if they were completely denied access to Western markets.

At home, Western democracies must again reconsider the balance to be struck between liberty and security, between secrecy and trust. In short, the state will need to better know where people are and shape how they behave. Critically, European democracies must stop treating their citizens like children and recognise (as some now seem to be doing) that true security can only come from a genuine partnership between responsible citizens and an effective state. Above all, governments must act. Too often in the past promises of necessary corrective action have been eroded by special interests groups with access to power once a crisis no longer grips the news cycle.

COVID-19: the echo of history

The test of any system is how it copes with shock. COVID-19 has shown that globalisation, as a structure of power is profoundly fragile. The globalised international system is, at best, a virtual interdependent anarchy in which state sovereignty has very little influence, particularly European state sovereignty. Contemporary globalisation is also dependent on two competing poles of power for stability – the US and China. As such, the globalised world looks ever more like the contentious dependencies in Europe prior to World War One, as the in-between states were forced to choose one side or another.

In that light COVID-19 is as much a warning as a crisis. Indeed, unless collective action is taken a truly mass extinction humanity-culling pandemic could one day come down the same old Silk Road as COVID-19.  Conversely, collective action against a common enemy might just help promote a more stable world order.  If not, then the 2020 COVID-19 crisis will do much to shape international relations in the twenty-first century, and not for the better.

Julian Lindley-French

Friday, 13 March 2020

Afghan Fables

“You have the watches, but we have the time”
Taliban commander to Canadian former Chief of Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier

In an article for The Times on March 7th, entitled “Our Afghanistan heroes died for nothing”, respected columnist Matthew Parris placed much of the responsibility for what he believes to have been British hubris in Afghanistan squarely on Britain’s deployed military commanders. Parris was responding to a letter, also in The Times, from the same military commanders expressing concern that a hastily agreed peace deal between the Americans and the Taliban could compromise the Afghan people, the many gains they have made over the past nineteen years, and again risk Afghanistan becoming a base for terrorism. The right of Parris to write what he thinks is his stock in trade and a core freedom in a free society. However, his influence and standing also imposes upon him a particular responsibility to be fair and factually correct. On this occasion Parris failed both those tests. 

Fairness and Fact

British military operations in Afghanistan must be seen against the backdrop of then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s concept of liberal humanitarianism and the post-911 Global War on Terror.  Indeed, Britain’s support for the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was a politically-driven merger of the two agreed to by all Allied countries, many of which committed forces; Britain being prominent among them. 

Then General Sir David Richards, now Lord Richards of Hurstmonceux, one time commander of ISAF, comes in for particular and unfair criticism. First, it was not General Richards who used the phrase, “use it or lose it’, implying a gung-ho disregard for reality. Rather, Richards fought hard with London to secure the vital additional forces and resources which he counselled were critical for the Helmand campaign. Second, Richards allegedly told then US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, that not only was the overall campaign under-resourced, but that the coalition was failing to meet the expectations of the Afghan people.  Rumsfeld’s reply was “I don’t agree general, move on”.  Third, to quote US General Dan McNeil’s description of the British strategy in Helmand as “dysfunctional” and its reconstruction effort as “fraudulent nonsense” is profoundly misleading. Some US commanders viewed non-American efforts through a ‘not invented here’ prism. General McNeil succeeded Richards as COMISAF and was dismissive of many of his predecessor’s innovations.  Fourth, many of the in-country challenges faced by the deployed commanders were caused by political box-ticking in London.

The most stinging criticism by Parris is that Britain’s generals wish to continue fighting a failed campaign.  This is plain wrong. Richards and other commanders repeatedly called for a peace deal with the Taliban.  However, for such a deal to succeed it had to be driven by progress in Afghanistan rather than electoral calculations in Washington. 2020?  

Ends, ways and means?

Matthew Parris is right to highlight the tensions between the ends, ways and means of the British campaign in Afghanistan, and the many lessons that need to be learned. He is wrong to deflect responsibility from London onto Britain’s deployed military commanders for what he now perceives to have been a failed campaign in Afghanistan.  First, only time will tell whether the campaign was a failure. Second, responsibility for any such campaign must ultimately fall on those who commissioned it. Yes, the costs associated with buying military equipment off-the-shelf in the form of urgent operational requirements was exorbitant. Yes, there were failures on the ground and profound mistakes were made. However, Afghanistan is a complex place, Britain was subject to policy and strategy made elsewhere, and many of the problems faced were the result of defence planning assumptions in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. Put simply, Britain’s political leaders failed to adequately plan for the attrition of a long-campaign at a high-level of operational intensity in a complex place far from home, let alone two - Iraq.

Therefore, to suggest that the 500 British servicemen and women who died and the 4500 who were wounded, many of them grievously, did so for nothing is to demean them and the force they were proud to serve.  As for Richards, three characteristics defined his leadership – humanity, support for the well-being of the Afghan people, and a desire to get the campaign over as quickly and as effectively as possible so that the men and women under his command could return home.

“You have the watches, but we have the time”

As that Taliban commander said, “You have the watches, but we have the time”.  The inference being that for all the technology and capability Western powers brought to Afghanistan, ultimately a lack of strategic patience would ultimately defeat the coalition. Hopefully, I am wrong. It would not be a first and I can only hope Afghanistan find relief from the extremists, warlords and strategic predators that border it.  Forgive my cynicism, but I am not hopeful.

As for Britain, Parris betrays the thinking that informs much of Britain’s contemporary elite. For him, Little Britain is a small country lost in a post-imperial fantasy about imagined power. His notion of the British ‘interest’ is for a still significant regional-strategic power to withdraw onto its nuclear-armed island and leave dealing with danger to others. Nothing would make the world more dangerous, more quickly than such strategic irresponsibility.

Julian Lindley-French