hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 18 January 2021

Scottish Independence: Be Warned!

 “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft a-gley, And leave us nought but grief and pain, And for promised joy”.

 Robert Burns

Peter Kellner has just published an article for Judy Dempsey’s wonderful Strategic Europe series entitled The Gradual Disintegration of the United Kingdom.  The piece is what one would expect from Peter Kellner, a hard line anti-Brexiteer who like many of his ilk (both in the EU and the UK) almost wish for the dissolution of my country as the price of Brexit. Like so many such pieces it is also couched in terms of a warning.  Who is he warning? Me. Those of us who are both British and English and for whom the UK is central to our identity. Frankly, I am tired of being ‘warned’. So, here is my respectful English response.

First some facts, as the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) like to say.  Scotland will always be a small and beautiful country stuck on the end of much larger, richer and more powerful England and no constitutional shift will ever change that. Scotland represents 8.2% of the population, but contributes only 5% of the UK’s export revenue, whilst the Scottish economy represents only 7.4% of the UK economy. Over 90% of Scottish trade comes to or passes through England, whilst 61% of Scotland’s trade is with the rest of the UK. The massive bulk of that trade is with England, more than the rest of the world combined. Oil? That's just about gone. In other words, the first irony for an independent Scotland would be its economic dependence on England.

There can be no doubt given the genius of the Scottish people that they would in the end make Scotland economically viable, but it would also be significantly poorer.  Last year, government spending per head in Scotland was some £11,247 compared with £9246 in England, yet Scotland’s deficit is some seven times higher than that of the UK as a whole.  One of the hardest realities most Scots would thus have to face post-independence would be the level of taxation the Scottish economy required to sustain the level of public services so many Scots now take for granted.  Indeed, the future of Scottish public services, and who would pay for them, would likely be the battleground over which any Indyref2 would be fought.  The one thing now clear is that the so-called Barnet Formula, the mechanism by which Westminster divides up UK tax income between the nations would for Scotland stop from day one of Scottish independence and quite possibly before. Would Nicola Sturgeon then still be able to offer all Scottish National Health Service employees £500 cash bonus as she did at the end of the 2020? The second irony of Scottish independence would be that England would be richer.

Scotland could, of course, appeal for fast-track EU membership. First, if the EU granted it the acquis would still take a minimum of 5 years and Scotland would also be required to adopt the Euro. Second, France and Germany would know they would risk seriously annoying a still powerful England if Berlin and Paris supported Edinburgh. Third, Brexit has seen the EU budget contract by 16% and the entry of another poor country into the EU would mean structural funds being spread even thinner. Would central, eastern and southern European member-states be happy with that? Fourth, would EU member-states with their own secessionist movements want to help Scotland make a success of secession? The third irony of Scottish independence it would make Europe poorer.

The SNP would no longer be THE political party OF Scotland as it is inside the UK, but A political party IN Scotland. The Edinburgh government would be profoundly divided between the SNP and pro-Unionist parties, whilst the long postponed civil war inside the SNP would almost inevitably break out. In other words, Scotland would be a weak and divided state.  Perhaps the biggest shock to many Scots when faced with the reality of EU membership would be the prospect of a hard border between England and Scotland.  Their fishermen complain now about the problems of exporting to the EU. What if they faced similar problems exporting to England?  The fourth irony of Scottish independence would be a Scotland less not more united.

There could also be some serious defence implications of the UK’s dismemberment.  First, if the English believed other European states had helped accelerate the destruction of the UK already taut relations would worsen.  There would be little appetite to help defend countries that had helped destroy the UK. Second, whatever the UK’s successor state would be called would have its modernising nuclear shield (which would be moved south albeit at great expense) and an increasingly powerful Royal Navy.  The Scots would get nothing of Britain’s Armed Forces. Third, the loss of Scotland to NATO (at least for a time) would complicate Allied operations in the Northern Atlantic and for the Scots to be a member of the Alliance they would have to accept nuclear weapons. Fourth, the construction programme for the new Type 26 and Type 31 warships that are due for construction in Scotland would almost certainly be moved to north-east England. Would Scots want to see what is left of their industry effectively destroyed? The fifth irony of Scottish independence would be a Scotland and a Europe less secure.

The mistake people like Peter Kellner routinely make is to equate Scotland leaving the UK with the UK leaving the EU.  Whilst I regret Brexit as bad statecraft Britain is still the world's fifth biggest economy and Europe's top defence spender. The UK still has the critical mass of capability, capital and creativity to survive and prosper. Scotland would certainly survive and eventually make its way, but prosper? On what? By the way, if the SNP really believe Brexit is illegitimate because 60% of Scots voted to Remain why did they legitimise both the UK and the 2016 Brexit referendum by campaigning in it? The real choice the Scottish people face is one the SNP wants to hide: to be part of the UK or be independent-lite and de facto dependent on England.

Picture this! The day after some future Scottish independence a SNP dominated Edinburgh Government suddenly finds itself facing a hostile England.  The English might not be particularly anti-Scottish, but they would certainly be anti-SNP and the UK would have withdrawn much of its money and the right of Scots to use the pound. Faced with profound uncertainty over monetary stability most of Scotland’s major businesses would already have moved south. Whatever currency Edinburgh adopted (the Groat?) would also have no bank of last resort and they would be forced to appeal to the English and the City of London for support, especially so given the debt an independent Scottish state would find itself in. Unfortunately, Scotland simply would not have the borrowing power of the British state. Which brings me to perhaps the greatest irony of all about Scottish independence: the people who want it the most, the SNP, are the very people who will be unable to make it work for lack of moderation and an inability to build a friendship with Scotland’s closest neighbour.

The SNP likes to say the Scots do badly from the Westminster system. Really? Each Scot receives some £2000 more per capita per annum from the Westminster system than the English.  Under devolution the Scots have far greater influence over the seat of Edinburgh power for a whole host of domestic policies than the English who have no distinct English Parliament. You see, the final irony of Scottish independence is this: it will only ever work if English people like me in some way support it. If I am asked nicely and convinced of the case I would support Scottish independence as I am deeply respectful of the will of the Scottish people. Indeed, as an Englishman and a Briton who believes in democracy, and who is also part Scot, I want the best for Scotland.  However, if I am repeatedly threatened my goodwill tends to erode.  

The SNP are my political enemy precisely because they keep threatening and insulting me and want to destroy something in which millions of us still believe. They also want to do it in a particularly unfriendly way for which reason I would not lift a finger to help those ‘numpties’. As for England, with a population of 56.5 million, a GDP worth $2.3 trillion and the City of London at the beating heart of its adaptable economy, it will be fine.  England and the English are no better or worse than anyone else in Britain and I utterly reject the creed of Little Englanderism.  However, there are far more of us than anyone else.  Moreover, the political history of the British Isles would not stop because of Scottish independence and England will always be the political and economic superpower of the British Isles. We might also be pissed off. Therefore, with respect to those of you warning me, be warned...and be nice!

Julian Lindley-French

Friday, 8 January 2021

Elephants and Swans: The Annual TAG Report

Elephants and Swans

 The Annual TAG Report

 A Personal Review by Professor Dr Julian Lindley-French, Chair of The Alphen Group

8 January, 2021


This TAG Annual Report is my personal take on the Group’s activity in 2020 and my reflection on the outstanding analysis offered by its members over the past year. Perhaps the dominant theme in both our PREMIUM blogs and the virtual ZOOM conferences we held was the search for priorities in uncertainty and the urgent need to better understand the balance of risk faced by Americans, Canadians and Europeans. COVID-19 dominated news and lives in 2020 but the pandemic also accelerated systemic change with China possibly a clear ‘winner’ with all the profound strategic implications such a ‘victory’ would entail. However, China is not quite yet and enemy and some hope still possibly a partner. Given that the nature of the threat China poses, and indeed the opportunities it could afford COVID-19 ravaged economies remains unclear and it is that uncertainty over China that is doing as much to divide the West as any overt act of coercion by Beijing. What price are Europeans in particular willing to pay for partnership with China what price would the transatlantic relationship pay for it?  What of the West itself? During the final tumultuous months of the Trump administration some Europeans even seemed to be playing with the prospect of diminished Atlanticism with calls for European ‘strategic autonomy’ one moment offering to strengthen the transatlantic community, the next moment threatening to replace it. Implicit in all these debates was the search for a renewed sense of strategic purpose. This raised another question: will Germany ever be able to lead Europe?

2020 was also a year of expansion for the TAG and I had the honour to welcome to our fold Professor Yves Boyer (France), General (Retd) Sir James Everard (United Kingdom), Admiral (Retd) Giampaolo di Paola (Italy), Professor Zaneta Ozolina (Latvia), General (Retd) the Lord Richards of Hurstmonceux (United Kingdom), Professor Ste Rynning (Denmark), Paul Schulte (United Kingdom) and Colin Robertson (Canada) and Ambassador Alexander Vershbow (United States). It is great to have you all on board.

Swans and elephants

During one of our virtual ZOOM conferences one TAGGER suggested that, “The real threat to NATO and its cohesion are Black Elephants; risks that are widely acknowledged and familiar (the ‘elephant in the room’) - but ignored. When the elephant can no longer be ignored it is passed off as an unpredictable surprise (a ‘black swan’) by those who were slow to address it. NATO’s biggest Black Elephant is the reluctance of its member countries to spend on defence.”  I agree.  Black Elephants are indeed a major risk to the Euro-Atlantic community and the wider security and defence of Europe. However, it is black swans which could prove the most deadly.   

Judy Dempsey in her TAG blog “Multilateralism Buckles under Corona” spelt out the consequences of both elephants and swans. The post-1945 order was in bad shape, she said, even before the Coronavirus swept across the globe. “In the midst of the pandemic, it is barely surviving with few prospects of being revived”.  Holger Mey in his TAG blog “Dealing with Risks” offered an insight as to why. Those who were surprised by the outbreak and world-wide spread of COVID-19, Holger suggested, had either no understanding of biology or history or both.  Everything that happened was foreseeable and foreseen as well as predictable and, indeed, had been predicted. In April, another TAG v-Conference went further. “COVID-19 should have been predicted. The response to it will dominate the political and strategic agenda on both sides of Atlantic for the foreseeable future”.

It was striking the extent to which TAGGERS also believed that the pandemic has accelerated strategic trends already in play.  The TAG believes not only that strategic competition with China will increase in 2021 but that distracted Western policymakers will remain too reactive and too slow to respond. The Group was scathing in its assessment: “The West has naively connived in its own vulnerability and must now seek a more balanced relationship with China”. The sense was that lazy assumptions about the benefits of globalisation far from promoting mutually beneficial interdependence could lead to a distinctly unhealthy form of dependence on Xi’s Middle Kingdom. And, whilst “Globalisation will not end but rather slow down a process of re-regionalisation is also likely to ensue”. The TAG also called for “a full and dispassionate assessment of COVID-19 crisis management”. This is because the response and responsiveness of the machinery of government on both sides of the Atlantic appeared at times to be confused and sluggish.  Moreover, far from being a crisis of globalism, COVID 19 could well prove to be the first global crisis of twenty-first century nationalism”. Only a properly considered “functionalist response will counter nationalism”.

Strategy, action and leadership

The TAG also considered the crisis of leadership. Events in Washington in early January revealed the dangers to complex democracies of irresponsible leadership. The problem in Europe leans more towards the risks of irresolute leadership. In many respects Germany epitomises and exemplifies the difficulties Europeans have not only in dealing with and confronting risk and establishing and implementing the necessary strategies for prevention and effective response and management. These dilemmas beg a further and seemingly interminable European question the answer to which the wider world is unlikely to await: who leads?

Anna Wieslander of the Atlantic Council in Stockholm suggested Germany should lead the way towards a truly European Pillar in NATO. Anna called the “European pillar” an old idea whose time has come. Indeed, rather than pursue yet more confusing debates on “strategic autonomy”, a “European Army” and/or an eventual “European Defense Union”, all of which not only make little sense to many but positively repel others (post-Brexit Britain?), the 21 states that are both members of NATO and the EU should focus on defining, developing and strengthening the European pillar of NATO. Is Sweden finally abandoning non-alignment? It should. It is not.  Why Germany? “The responsibility falls on Germany, who is well suited as the traditional unifier in the EU and with a defense which is mostly integrated into NATO”. If only Germans shared Anna’s vision and confidence.

German TAGGER Alexandra Schwarzkopf by and large agreed with Anna but had no illusions about the domestic political challenges any strengthened German leadership role would need to overcome. In her TAG blog “Making Security a “Kitchen Table Topic” in Germany” Alex was clear: “Seventy-five years after the end of World War Two, Germany is a major economic and democratic power. I think it is time for us to assume more responsibility worldwide.  And especially given our past, we should vigorously contribute to the defense of our allies and the democratic world order to which post-War Germany owes so much”. However, “To do this we need a societal debate – a kind of citizens’ forums - about German foreign and security policy as part of a broader debate about its strategic role in the world of the 21st century. The most populous and biggest economic power in the EU cannot be a bigger version of Switzerland. Germany’s “strategic beauty sleep” must end”. Most TAGGERS would echo such sentiment but I am reminded of a piece I published many years ago in The International Herald Tribune in which I suggested that for many years Germany’s friends and allies had used World War Two to impose modesty on Berlin, too often Berlin now uses World War Two to imposed excessive modesty on itself. Europe and the wider transatlantic relationship needs modern, democratic, decent Germany to lead alongside a United States that needs more capable allies more urgently by the day.  Let me be clear: neither Europe nor Germany can any longer pretend to be elephants or swans. This world does not permit bystanders to history as this coming decade will make all too clear.  

Risk, change and strategy

The effective management of risk pre-supposes not only a firm grip of such risk and the policy priorities which flow thereafter, but sufficient public support for the costs and constraints that flow thereafter. Public diplomacy and strategic communications (they are not the same things) but the reputation of democratic government for competence is being sorely tested by the use of fake news. Canadian TAGGER Colin Robertson highlighted the extent to which black swans and black elephants feed on fake news (flying elephants?) to sow confusion and discord. Colin was clear: “Disinformation is a clear and present danger to liberty and representative government. Technology, especially artificial intelligence, have amplified its threat.  The liberal democracies need to get their acts together. This means investing in science, restoring civics to the curriculum, teaching critical thinking, relentlessly exposing and penalizing the sources of disinformation. Having failed the test of self-regulation, social media must be held accountable through government regulations and enforcement. Governments need to be more forthcoming with the public. Transparency is the best disinfectant for disinformation”.

Liberty, security, free speech and freedom. Just what is the balance between rights and responsibilities in the twenty-first century? Does ‘freedom’ mean the right to implicitly endanger others through irresponsibility? Who decides? Who or what is the new Leviathan and how much freedom must the individual surrender to avoid anarchy? What about the autocracies who foster such anarchy for their own ends in a world in which ‘warfare’ now seems a permanent feature across the mosaic of information and digital warfare in which neat ideas of identity and sovereignty seem increasingly quaint.  

Power, structure and crystal balls

Such profound change has, of course, equally profound consequences for order and structure. An enduring TAG theme throughout 2020 was the impact of such change on institutions and their respective members.  This was most apparent in the debate over the crises of ends, ways and means with which the EU, NATO and their respective nations are grappling.  It is a crisis that was evident in the two formal submissions of evidence the TAG was called upon to offer. 

The TAG submission to the NATO Reflection Group did not pull its punches about the need for a new NATO Strategic Concept and for Europeans to do far more for their own security and defence. As the submission stated: “NATO is ultimately a European institution for the benefit of Europeans. The NATO Reflection Group can do the Alliance a great service if, like Harmel, it confronts NATO’s hard realities. If not, it is simply another exercise in political self-deception in which political cohesion is given more importance than credible defence and deterrence.  The hardest of those realities is thus: for the transatlantic relationship to continue to function, and NATO with it, Europeans will need to do far more for their own defence, and become better able to support the Americans when they so choose.  Given the investments such an outcome will entail European leaders will also need to better protect and inform their people and make both them and the critical systems that support them far more resilient in the face of Russian coercion and terrorism”.

Such firmness and clarity over strategy was also apparent in the TAG submission to the UK Integrated Review. In spite of budgetary pressures from Brexit and COVID-19 Britain, the TAG stated, must maintain its highly-skilled, high-end armed forces and seek to reinforce the security and defence of Northern Europe, the Arctic and the Eastern Atlantic. The TAG called on IR 2020 to strike a better balance between cost and threat and afford a vision of Britain’s future role in Europe’s defence out to 2030. The reason for such a call was simple because in in the months preceding the December 2020 EU-UK trade deal the world’s fifth largest economy and defence spender appeared to steadily retreating from the defence of Europe. Thankfully, in November 2020 Prime Minister Johnson also announced a 10% increase in the British defence budget which added fuel to the TAG’s call for more innovative thinking about what sound security and defence should look like in 2021 and where best to invest. As the TAG stated, “The pooling of several departmental budgets could promote greater efficiency and effectiveness in pursuit of National Strategic Objectives, but only if the ends, ways and means crisis from which UK Armed Forces (UKAF) suffer is also addressed”.

TAGGER Paul Cornish took up the theme of strategy in his TAG blog, “Tanks for the Memory”. As Paul rightly said, “The fate of the MBT [main battle tank], and any other military capability, should be decided neither by quasi-historical projections, nor techno-fetishism, nor cost – but by strategy. Strategy is an attempt to engage with a future that is not merely uncertain, but fundamentally unknowable. But it must nevertheless be engaged with – decisions must be made in the present for the strategic posture of the future. It’s at this point that cash-conscious governments like to tell themselves (and the rest of us) that perhaps the future is less unknowable than is supposed, that they have the singular skill of peering into the future and finding, when they do, that the future is, uncannily, not too worrying and can, most conveniently, be managed on an even more limited budget or with some technological ‘fix’. Fine – but I’d prefer a MBT to a crystal ball any day”.

Resilience and the unintended unexpected

Naturally, one does not craft strategy in a vacuum and others make strategy too – that is the essence of strategic competition. Moreover, the consequences of such competition are not always linear as it generates both the intended and the unintended. The capacity to cope with the unintended and the unexpected is the sine qua non flip side of strategy. Indeed, strategy without resilience is simply oxymoronic, with the emphasis on moronic. 

Talking of the unexpected TAGGER Kate Hansen Bundt in her blog “Biden and the High North” highlighted the growing importance of China as an Arctic power. She called on President-elect Joe Biden and his team not to take their eye off the Arctic ball (should that not read ‘puck). China. Kate said, is not just challenging the US in the Deep South (of the world) and the Far East, but also in the High North.  She cited the increased threat posed by China’s icebreakers and Russia’s nuclear submarines in Norwegian waters, some seven times larger than Norway’s territory. Implicit in Kate’s warning was another tendency apparent in Europe’s response to geopolitics: the tendency towards denial, particularly for those smaller European powers which lack what some call a ‘strategic culture’.  For this reason Kate also reminded us all of the importance of multilateralism to small Nordic powers, such as her native Norway. To my mind, such multilateralism is the very DNA of Europe’s strategic culture. However, that begs a further question: why does the pooling of European sovereignty seemingly and routinely lose Europeans influence over events?  Deus ex Machina or the nature of the ‘Machina’ itself?

The unexpected also has geopolitical consequences. That was the essential message from a TAG debate on the geopolitical and defence-strategic implications of the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh. In 2021 there would appear to be no small countries in faraway places about which we can afford to know nothing a la Neville. This brief but brutal European between Armenia and Azerbaijan war saw identity, religion, nationalism, geopolitics and military technology combine with Machtpolitik and Realpolitik. It also suggested a future in which the West no longer makes the rules whilst others routinely flout the ‘rules’ that so exist.  The war also challenged the hitherto neat policy and strategy prescriptions with which Western policymakers have become so comfortable. Wars amongst the people and wars between peoples suggest the escalation from one to the other could become far faster than expected, or indeed, intended.

The war should also remind Europeans if Crimea had not already that strategy is about far more than words on paper. It is about power, cause and effect. As such strategy calls for indicators that can properly warn us of threat, understanding of the nature of threat, and far quicker responsiveness, both political and military, to deal with threat. Above all, it demands the proportionate means of power and capability in sufficient capacity to enable the means and the ways to maintain the peace as a legitimate end, and if needs be restore it. Power means risk. That begs a further question of Europeans we enter 2021: can we compete if we are not also willing to take considered risk? 

The Chinese elephant and the American swan?

China was ever-present in TAG debates during 2020.  In many respects the fault-lines in the TAG over China reflect those within the wider West. Some TAGGERS believe the West should seek what one called “managed reciprocity via robust engagement with China”, whilst others were committed to active more containment and overt strategic competition.  I was not at all sure any of us have a clue what to do with China and its power.  TAGGERS, like so many others in the West, are simply unsure what to do about or with the Chinese elephant.  Can it be tamed or is it set to rampage through the china shop that is Europe (I like a good mixed metaphor)? Or will China simply buy the shop and the contents therein?

For that reason, renewed and reinvigorated American leadership will remain vital given that the “mother of all challenges” will remain geopolitics. TAGGERS hope that under President Biden the transatlantic relationship will become more predictable, more of a partnership again and thus better able to exert “shaping power” on the world beyond.  However, business as before in the transatlantic relationship is not an option for Americans, Canadians or Europeans.  Moreover, COVID-19 will continue to emphasise matters domestic with the available political bandwidth for foreign and security policy likely to be decidedly limited, not least in the US. And yes, whilst the Biden administration could well be more “decent” and better aligned with European values and the ideology of multilateralism than the quixotic Trump administration, Washington will still demand Europeans do far more for their own defence. It simply has no choice. China’s rise is stretching US forces and resources thin the world over and as events of late have simply confirmed America’s many internal divisions will be Washington’s main preoccupation. Therefore, like European mariners of old maybe it really is time for Europe to finally set a strategic course with a new Strategic Compass for a new strategic future. Just a word of warning: words do not float.

Talking of words, perhaps the final one should go to TAGGER Stan Sloan. In his TAG blog “(Some Worrying) Transatlantic Security Options” Stan suggested, or rather implied, an implicit choice was afoot between substantial continuity, positive radical change and negative radical change.  My bet is that all three will happen. Still, Stan reminded me of what was said of the French fashion designer Pierre Cardin, who died in 2020. Cardin, it was said, was always one step ahead of tomorrow. The danger is that Europe in particular is not one but two steps behind tomorrow. The task of The Alphen Group is thus to show how all of us can quicken our strategic pace. We will need to! The first step? As one TAGGER memorably put it, “The European pillow must become the European pillar”. Amen to that!

Julian Lindley-French,

TAG Chair,

January 2021

Monday, 14 December 2020

Britain, Brexit and NATO 2030

 Britain, Brexit and NATO 2030


David Richards and Julian Lindley-French

“In absolute terms, the United Kingdom spent by far the most on defence (EUR 47 billion in 2016). This represents around a quarter (23.7%) of the total EU expenditure on defence (i.e. around EUR 200 billion in 2016)”.

Defence: Member-States’ Spending, European Parliament, May 2018

What could a toxic Brexit mean for NATO? One of the essential messages of the NATO Reflection Group’s (NRG) NATO 2030: United for a New Era, which has just been delivered to Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, is that there can be no transatlantic solidarity without European solidarity.  However, what is the point of European solidarity without Britain? It would be naïve in the extreme to believe the current tensions over a trade deal between the EU and Britain will not leak into other areas of policy. This could include London’s commitment to the defence of those countries perceived to be punishing the British for Brexit.

First, Britain matters. In November, Boris Johnson announced that Britain will increase its defence expenditure by some 10% over the coming four years.  By 2024 Britain will spend some 2.12% of a $3 trillion (€3.3 trillion) economy on defence with a large part of the planned £16.5bn ($21.7bn, €17.9bn) increase spent on modernising its force posture. This compares with an average of 1.55% GDP on defence across the rest of NATO Europe.  In 2018 Britain already represented almost 25% of the entire defence investment made across the EU.  Britain’s relative defence weight has already increased with its departure from the EU and will increase further over the next four years as the British defence budget grows from the current £41.5bn ($55.7bn, €45.1bn) in 2020 to £51.7bn ($68.1bn, €56.2bn) by 2024. With Britain gone the EU 27 now spend some £160bn ($210bn, €173.7bn) which is a significant amount. However, in spite of efforts to get more ‘bang’ out of each euro-buck spent, the EU remains a woefully inefficient defence spender because of the way many of its member-states ‘invest’ in defence.  Consequently, Britain’s relative importance to the defence of Europe will increase further over the coming years, the more so if the costs of the COVID-19 crisis see already constrained Continental European defence expenditure cut further.

Second, the US must reaffirm the importance of Britain in NATO. To paraphrase Dean Acheson, Britain has lost a Union, but has yet to find a role.  The Biden Administration will need Britain to be fully committed to NATO and the defence of Europe if it is to ease burdens on the US.  Therefore, the Biden administration should move quickly to co-opt Britain in the drafting of a new NATO Strategic Concept.  A new Strategic Concept would not only put Brexit in its proper strategic context, but also enable post-Brexit Britain to play a leading role in better preparing the Alliance to meet twenty-first century challenges.

Third, Brexit could accelerate the decoupling of NATO. The US-UK Special Relationship remains the defence and intelligence foundation of the Alliance. However, the US-German strategic partnership is fast becoming the Alliance’s essential political relationship, even if Berlin like the EU still clings to the false belief it can generate geopolitical weight without concomitant hard power.  Under the guise of strategic autonomy there are also those on the Continent, most notably the French, who seemingly cling to the idea of an alternative European defence.  The consequence? Over time the Americans and British could quietly decouple from the land defence of Europe. Thankfully, Berlin is alive to the danger and has reaffirmed its commitment to Atlanticism. In a speech last month German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was clear: “The idea of strategic autonomy for Europe goes too far if it is taken to mean that we could guarantee security, stability and prosperity in Europe without NATO and without the US. That is an illusion”.  Far from fearing a closer Berlin-Washington relationship London should do all in its still considerable power to foster it. Berlin must also recognise the importance of Britain.

Fourth, France must decide if it is Britain’s friend or not friend.  The hard-line position Paris has adopted over Brexit threatens to cripple the ever-fractious but vital Franco-British strategic partnership. Unfortunately, NATO 2030 will only ever be realised if US and European forces can work together in the most extreme of crises. Only the British and the French enjoy the strategic culture and understanding of force upon force on which any such ‘interoperability’ will depend. This is because the Franco-British defence pact is the hard, advanced military core of NATO’s European pillar. In November 2010, Europe’s two nuclear powers signed the Lancaster House Treaty which committed London and Paris to closer security and defence co-operation.  In the wake of Brexit the treaty should ideally be updated and expanded to include Berlin, Madrid, Rome and Warsaw. Other Europeans may object, but past experience suggests it is only when Europe’s larger states agree that Europe’s defence is strengthened, and NATO with it.  However, any such progress will only be possible if France stops seeking to punish Britain for Brexit.

Implicit in NATO 2030 is a new defence ‘architecture’ for a new NATO that transforms Europe’s defence across a complex landscape of danger which could see the Alliance facing multiple high-level threats simultaneously.  For the balance to be struck between strategy, affordability, capability and the shared risk and cost implicit in the NRG’s NATO 2030 report a new European force will be needed. This NATO European Future Force will also need to be sufficiently capable to act as a European First Responder in any crisis scenario, particularly so if the Americans are busy elsewhere in the world.  It would need to be demonstrably capable of both deterring aggression from NATO’s east and supporting front-line Allied nations to NATO’s south.  Consequently, this super-coalition of NATO Europeans would need to operate to effect across air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge. Without a Britain fully committed to the defence of Europe any such force would simply be yet another European defence pipe-dream, and NATO 2030 with it.

Britain led the creation of NATO in 1949, it must now help lead the way to NATO 2030. However, Britain, Brexit and NATO are inseparable and must be seen as such.  Deal or no deal years of Brexit political turbulence lie ahead and it will affect the Alliance. Therefore, whatever happens in the coming weeks this is a moment for cool heads in Britain and amongst fellow Europeans.  In the dangerous world of which Europe is a part Brexit is a strategic sideshow. For the sake of NATO and the future defence of Europe it is time that Allies and Partners remember precisely that.  

David Richards and Julian Lindley-French

General The Lord Richards of Herstmonceux is the former Chief of the Defence Staff of the United Kingdom. Professor Julian Lindley-French is Chair of The Alphen Group of strategy and defence experts and author of the forthcoming Oxford book, “Future War and the Defence of Europe”.

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

Never Closer Union?

 “DETERMINED to lay the foundations of an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe…, RESOLVED by thus pooling their resources to preserve and strengthen peace and liberty, and calling upon the other peoples of Europe who share their ideal to join in their efforts, HAVE DECIDED to create a European Economic Community…”.

 The Treaty of Rome, 25 March 1957

Ever closer union?

December 2nd, 2020. Will the EU ever become ‘Europe’?  On the eve of the Portuguese presidency of the Council of the European Union, Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa last week gave a speech.  Costa highlighted the main fissure which has cut through the EU for most of its history: is the EU a vehicle for the eventual creation of a European super-state or simply a super customs union designed to protect European states from the vicissitudes of the world economy?  As Costa said: “This distinction is very important because the lack of understanding of this certainly led to the departure of the UK, which saw the EU as a platform for generating value, but not something that resulted from sharing fundamental values”. The tension between the two visions of ‘Europe’ also explains why the EU has always been part geopolitics and part domestic politics, and why the British have had such a tortured relationship with the idea of ever closer union.

Costa was being a little kind in suggesting a “lack of understanding” on the part of the British.  The seeds of the forthcoming Brexit finalité (as much as there will ever be one) were sewn on 1 January 1973, the day the UK acceded to the then European Economic Community (EEC).  The prime minister of the day, Edward Heath, was never wholly honest with the British people about the political ambition inherent in the EU’s founding instrument, the Treaty of Rome.  That is why London routinely referred to the EEC as the “Common Market”.  Former diplomat Sir Crispin Tickell, who was intimately involved in the negotiations, put it this way, “Heath knew the EU would evolve towards a political union, and wanted to make certain the UK contributed to the way it was shaped. There was a realisation during the negotiations that we were setting out a direction of travel, and making certain that we had the right stops on the journey – but we didn’t have great arguments about the ultimate destination [finalité]”.  Only those opposed to Britain’s membership cast the EEC in the light of a political project and the ‘nightmare’ prospect of some future European super-state.

The geopolitics of Europe

For Heath the emphasis in 1973 was geopolitics and preserving the influence of a declining, post-imperial Britain through the aggregated economic and political power of the EEC. However, Britain’s concept of geopolitics always differed from that of, say, Germany.  For Germans the domestic and the European were pretty much the same and their security could be realised only through the effective alignment of the two within the wider framework of the transatlantic relationship. At the time there was an inner-German border and on the other side the massed ranks of the Red Army. For centuries the British, or rather the English, had seen the purpose of geopolitics in Europe as preventing the emergence of any one single dominant power on the Continent.  For London the aim was precisely the opposite – to prevent the European dominating the domestic.  By joining the ‘European Project’ London hoped to ensure the EEC remained precisely that, an economic community of nation-states.  That was also the reason Britain was a fan of ‘widening’ the European institutions rather than ‘deepening’ them. This dichotomy caused a profound tension in Britain’s membership of the EEC from the start, because London was both part of the European journey and a brake on it.  In other words, Britain’s membership was not to promote an ideal but to ‘win’ a power struggle and was as much mired in the past as looking to the future.

Interestingly, the power struggle implicit in the campaign for Scottish independence led by Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon also involves Europe.  Indeed, it would be immediately recognisable to any Scottish king prior to the 1603 Union of Crowns.  As such, it not only reflects an at times cartoonish Braveheart distrust of an imagined England (Edward Longshanks in a bowler hat?) in significant parts of her party, but also the re-emergence of Edinburgh’s age-old strategy of playing Europe against the ‘auld enemy’. Scottish independence may or may not happen, and Brexit may or may not be the cause, but it is hard to believe that given politics and history it would have been LESS likely had the UK remained in the EU.

The ‘new’ euro-sceptics

Now that the British brake has been removed is euro-scepticism gone with them? No. The problem for the euro-federalists is that Britain was never alone in its euro-scepticism.  Indeed, when I worked for the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris some twenty years ago I can recall having regular conversations with diplomats from several EU member-states who would routinely tell me that their countries supported the British position on this or that, but could not say so publicly. Consequently, with Britain no longer there to take the euro-federalist flak, new euro-sceptics have emerged.  The most obvious and aggressive of the new euro-sceptics are Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki who object to what they see as the interference of Brussels in their internal affairs.  Put bluntly, Budapest and Warsaw under current management take the view that they did not escape the Soviet star to be shackled by the Brussels star (I will not refer to the colour of said stars for obvious and unfortunate historical connotations). 

There is also the so-called Frugal Four – Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden.  Their immediate and primary objection is to the planned €500 billion European Recovery Fund and the implicit debt mutualisation therein. Until May of this year the Frugal Four were the Frugal Five, as they were led by powerful Germany.  However, Germany’s decision to support the Fund seemingly left these fiscal conservatives marooned, although it is far too early to tell if Germany’s ‘defection’ is permanent as much of the German population remains deeply opposed to the debt mutualisation that would be needed to create a real European bank of last resort. Such a bank would be a sine qua non for any United States of Europe worthy of the name.   

The geopolitics of three

Critically, Britain lost the geopolitics of the EU.  The EU did not banish state competition in Europe, it merely created a new arena for it and like all international institutions helped ensure such competition did not morph into strategic threat.  In that light France is perhaps the most interesting and paradoxical of those now calling for ever closer union.  When Britain joined the EEC in 1973 it was after a decade of French objections and fears in Paris that British membership would be the thin end of an anglosaxon wedge.  Apart from the April 1969 resignation of President Charles de Gaulle, what seemed to shift the French position was the emergence of West Germany in the last 1960s as the economic powerhouse of Europe.  If the British wanted to ‘balance’ German power by joining the EEC, for all the post 1963 talk of a Franco-German axis, France also wanted Britain ‘in’ as insurance to balance growing German power. After all, 1973 was only thirty-three years after the Wehrmacht had paraded in victory down the Champs Èlysée and many of the heroes of the French Resistance were still in power.  Ironically, there were a few in the then West German capital, Bonn, who also wanted Britain to join the EEC, precisely to balance France.

The French paradox? For all President Macron’s current rhetoric France never has, and never will have any intention of becoming some form of disaggregated ‘departement’ in some form of European super-state. Paris’s contemporary political aim is more about the exploitation of Germany’s budget surplus than the political architecture of the EU.  As such, Macron’s demarche must be seen as the latest iteration of France’s by and large successful European geopolitics and its far more pragmatic (ironic?) view of power and sovereignty than London.  For example, even though President Mitterand shared Margaret Thatcher’s concerns about the 1990 reunification of Germany, Paris moved rapidly to reinforce its embrace of the new Germany and firmly anchor it in what in 1991 became the European Union.  Britain, on the other hand, opted out of the very instruments in the Treaty of European Union designed to tie Germany in.

Therefore, in the cold light of contemporary history the tragi-comic British experience of ‘Europe’ was not just the result of a profound gap that for so long existed between London elite’s understanding of its utility and the narrative they afforded the British people. It was also because Britain lost the geopolitics of the EU as the big three became the Big Two. The consequence? The new geopolitics of a Europe in which the German-centric EU is the gravitational political core is also one which sees three important losing powers on its periphery – Russia, Turkey and now Britain. As the Brexit negotiations conclude Berlin and Paris need to be aware of the implicit danger therein. Whilst Britain will never make common cause with the likes of Putin’s Russia there is a strategic imperative for the EU implicit in Brexit: how to ensure relations with important Third Countries on the EU’s periphery are not seen by those powers and their peoples as an attempt to dominate or damage them.  That will never work and I, as a Briton, would never accept it. Indeed, even if the UK becomes the rump UK that will still represent over 92% of the population and wealth of Great Britain and ‘England’ will continue to dominate the British Isles and carry weight elsewhere.  Something that Scots might also wish to ponder.

Never closer union?

With Britain now gone from the EU euro-scepticism will not die, but adapt.  And, as Costa suggests, there is a further struggle about how to ‘manage’ power in Europe.  At its core is the eternal search for political balance in Europe.  On one side there are those who believe in top-down Europe in which member-states are essentially subordinated to supranational authority in the name of efficiency. On the other side there is bottom-up Europe in which power can only be legitimate if it remains close to the people. For that defining reasons the nation-state remains the essential guardian of political legitimacy, not least because it remains the locus of political identity. For one group, the member-state is effectively an instrument of Brussels, for the other group Brussels exists only to serve the member-state. 

The real challenge for ‘Europe’ thus remains what it has always been: how far distant can the power of the people become from the very people in whose name it is exercised?  This leads to the final twist in the Brexit story.  Since the creation of Simon de Montfort’s Parliament of 1265 a constant theme running through English history has been the distrust of distant, unaccountable power that also informed the English Civil War and the American Revolution. In 1534 the first Brexit took place when Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church and created the Church of England and appointed himself as head. In Europe the age-old tension between church and state has been replaced by the struggle between state and super-state.

The solution?  The solution is also implicit in the fissure that Costa identified: the search for ever closer union must never become a finalité for it is the very process of ever closer union which is the essential guardian of political balance in Europe. Indeed, if there ever is a finalité the EU could well be destroyed for once again there would be winners and losers and in the long history of Europe ‘winning’ tends to be merely the harbinger of ‘losing’. Given that, and even though I harbour profound concerns about Brussels and its political culture, the reason I campaigned against Brexit and believe it to be an historic mistake is because Britain can never absolve itself from Europe’s eternal search for political balance, because Britain is part of Europe.  Some Britons see Europe as the detour from Empire. In historic terms, Empire was Britain’s temporary detour from Europe.

And, as the French rightly say, ‘les absents ont toujours torts’.

Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

The Biden Doctrine, China and RCEP

“Speak softly and carry a big stick: you will go far”. 

President Teddy Roosevelt

Bloc mentality?

November 25th, 2020. Geoeconomics is geopolitics. An event took place on Sunday, November 14th that could potentially change the lives of Europeans. Press coverage?  Minimal. Three are two immediate strategic questions implicit in the creation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). What are the geopolitical implications and how does the RCEP relate to China’s also just announced fourteenth Five Year Plan? 

A bit of history. The First World War was caused by the extreme Prussian-centric nationalism and expansionism of Wilhelmine Germany. However, Berlin also set in a motion a process that led to dangerous bloc mentality. With the fall of the wily Bismarck in 1890 the Dual Alliance, and then the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and for a time Italy, gradually went from being a defensive to an offensive pact as the domestic social and political pressures faced by the Prusso-German elite grew.  By way of response the Franco-Russian Alliance was formed, which led in turn to the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France, and eventually the Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia.  Such an alignment would have been unthinkable a generation before.  Something else happened. As the blocs formed every action taken by the states involved began to be seen through the narrow prism of military power. Hammers and nails and all that.

Geoeconomics: The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership

The geoeconomics. The fifteen nation RCEP could be possibly the largest free trade deal in history. Whilst it has not been China-led, the sheer magnitude of China’s economy and its ‘gravitational’ economic pull will inevitably mean it becomes China-centric. Whilst the RCEP does not completely eclipse the so-called Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) because both the US and India withdrew (mistake?) the RCEP will further shift the centre of regional and thus world economic gravity towards China.

The RCEP involves some 30% of the world population and, critically for China’s domestic need to maintain economic growth, could see $209 billion added annually to world income and by 203 $500 billion to world trade. Whilst such growth is good news for COVID devastated Europe both the nature of it and the locus for its generation will also further accelerate the shift of wealth and thus power from Europe.  Critically, for COVID-19 damaged economies in much of the Indo-Pacific, RCEP could improve access for many of the states therein to Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) funding, with all the geopolitical implications that would entail.  

Geopolitics: The Fourteenth Five Year Plan

Now, the geopolitics. In March 2021 China’s fourteenth Five Year Plan will be revealed. From what is known thus far China’s aim will be to enhance economic, technological and supply chain security. Much of the Plan will be devoted to easing the rapid urbanisation driven economic gulf that exists between Chinese cities and the countryside, as well as between rich coastal communities and the rural poor. There will also be a significant part of the plan devoted to strengthening internal security, given the social unrest and many disturbances that have recently broken out.  Beijing is particularly sensitive to the danger posed to the regime if the ‘contract’ established in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre breaks down.  Under that ‘contract’ China’s burgeoning middle class accepted the political ascendancy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in return for ever-improving living standards. Given the size of China’s middle class they matter.

Critically, the Plan will also contain major provisions for the further modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), with the focus on “elevating the level of national security”.  Given that Beijing sees Taiwan as part of ‘national security’ the implications for Taipei and regional strategic security could be serious.  The specific aim of the Plan will be to transform the PLA from its current status as a twentieth century plus half-mechanised force still focused on old Communist-era military districts into a fully twenty-first century ‘informationised’ force designed to exert decisive theatre-wide influence and coercion.  Given that the ‘theatre’ in question is the Indo-Pacific, by ‘influence’ the Plan clearly implies coercion of states therein (if needs be) and, in time, the exclusion of US forces. Central to the Plan will be the creation of a very large, high-end, integrated joint force, reinforced by civil-military fusion and a PLA Strategic Support Force. In other words, enhanced and sustainable military power projection allied to strengthened domestic resilience and people protection via the technologies of the new battlespace – hypersonic missile systems, artificial intelligence, drone swarms, bio and Nano tech, and super-computing leading to quantum computing.  

Geoeconomics or geopolitics? China is no democracy and it would be easy for many in the global democracies to see all Chinese actions and the RCEP through the prism of Beijing’s increasingly aggressive military building programmes, its illegal seizure of islands in the South China Sea, its routine breaking of World Trade Organisation rules (most notably intellectual property theft), and its digital and other forms of offensive espionage.  There will certainly be those around President Xi who profoundly believe that coercion works.

A wolf in sheep’s clothing?

There is another way of looking at the RCEP and, indeed, how it influences the politics and strategies that will be both explicit and implicit in the Five Year Plan.  In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis and China’s aggressive ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy, which has done so much to undermine trust in the Chinese state, Beijing has realised that China has much to gain by being seen to observe international rules and norms, which is precisely what the US and its Western Allies want.  It is also why democracies in the region, such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and others, have signed up to the Partnership (the key is in the title). In other words, time will thus tell whether it is the RCEP or China’s Five Year Military Plan that will be the defining factor in both regional-strategic and by extension world security. At the very least, the RCEP should be given a chance to work some multilateral magic. 

RCEP also establishes a template for a Biden Doctrine.  For all the talk of climate change being the primary foreign policy focus of the President-elect’s team, it is China which will define the Biden Doctrine.  As such, the Biden Doctrine will need to both engage China where and when Beijing observes the rules implicit in the RCEP, but if needs be confront and contain China when it does not. In other words, whilst RCEP implies risk and reward for all concerned (including India and the US) it also mitigates the tendency to see all Chinese actions through the prism of narrow militarism. Critically for the Americans New Delhi could well be in agreement with such an analysis.


At the same time, China will still be the overwhelmingly powerful force in RCEP, precisely because India and the US refused to join.  There can also be no doubt that China sees itself in strategic competition with the US and the wider West. Such competition is implicit in the military modernisation aspects of the Five Year Plan.  The test will be the extent or otherwise to which Beijing seeks to instrumentalise RCEP to exclude the US (and others?) from free trade in the Indo-Pacific, the world’s growth generator, and thus strengthen the perception of a US in decline.  If it does then China’s stated aims in the Five Year Plan to strengthen China’s technological, economic and supply chain security will be decidedly anti-American, which in time would likely mean the RCEP falls apart.

Still, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is an important strategic demarche. It is also a success for the patient diplomacy of several mid-sized regional powers and the leadership of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and should be celebrated as such. As such, the RCEP should also be seen as an attempt to use free trade to tie China into a rules-based multilateral framework of the type the West has consistently championed. The Biden administration, and the wider West, must also see the RCEP as a post-COVID geo-economic opportunity and treat it as such.  However, there is always the chance it is also the harbinger of the geopolitical challenge that will be laid down in the Five Year Plan. In which case, the Biden administration would do well to remember the words of former President Teddy Roosevelt: “Speak softly and carry a big stick: you will go far”.  One final thought. What a different world it would be if the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) had been agreed. Ho hum.

Julian Lindley-French