London, England. 22 November. Sea Sense 2013. Fifty years on from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the ending of what Jackie Kennedy called the Camelot presidency I was asked to consider “NATO in the Future Maritime Domain” at the NATO Maritime Commanders conference here in London. The link is important because in the wake of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the moment the world came closest to nuclear annihilation, NATO politics were by no means easy. Indeed, the tension between the Americans and British one the one side and President de Gaulle’s France on the other would lead France in 1966 to quit the Alliance’s military core. Back then NATO took the idea of strategy seriously. Today I really wonder.
Entitled Sea Sense 2013 this fleet commander’s conference should really have been called (finally) Sea-ing-Strategic Sense. I carefully noted down the issues discussed: high north, Gulf security, Asia-Pacific power shift and the US pivot, friction in the East China Sea, Baltic security, the Middle East and the end of Sykes-Picot, the Horn of Africa, piracy, drugs, terrorism, trade security, the littoralisation of world populations etc. etc. However, instead of seeing them as part of an emerging strategic picture many of the admirals present chose instead to break them into short-term ‘manageable’ events. If navies do not think strategically who will?
This management approach to world security is killing NATO. It is a failing that was brought home to me when someone suggested that as there were no clear threats there was little or nothing to plan for. Nonsense! By the time a threat is apparent it is too late for sound defence strategy. It is friction that one must consider if one is to successfully set strategic priorities and use sound strategic judgement thereafter to make the necessary decisions.
And that is what struck me about yesterday’s debate when one sets it alongside a strategic giant such as John F. Kennedy. Kennedy made mistakes – the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and Vietnam to name but two. However, they were mistakes of ambition. The cycle of strategic retreat that is killing NATO is established first and foremost on a denial of ambition.
When I rose to speak I wanted to achieve two things. First, place NATO navies in their true twenty-first strategic context. Second, establish a new set of principles of for how navies, armies and air forces work together to maximise peace-building and affordable strategic influence.
As I spoke I could feel the resistance to what I was saying and I knew why. Fleet commanders, like their counterparts in armies and air forces, have been utterly bruised by a political class that really no longer wants to hear uncomfortable strategic reality. Indeed, one does not build a career pointing out such truths unless that is you are me…and I have no career. This culture of strategic denial is reinforced by the legions of civilian advisors around leaders who wilfully confuse politics with strategy. The maritime domain will be critical to a strategically-renovated NATO but that in turn will means a non-US NATO that has sufficient ‘high-end’ naval and amphibious assets to be credible in what is going to be a new age of power.
Back in 1963 NATO’s maritime strength was built on what was then a very genuine special relationship between President Kennedy and Britain’s Prime Minister of the day Harold MacMillan. Indeed, the two had last met at MacMillan’s Birch Grove estate back in July 1963 not knowing it would be the last time they would meet. Today the special relationship is not-so-special, hollowed out by a disinterested Obama and a Britain that has devalued its all important strategic currency – its armed forces.
That is about to change. With the launch next June of HMS Queen Elizabeth, one of two giant aircraft carriers, and with a new Royal Navy under construction, Britain is finally making a statement of real strategic intent that will force both an over-stretched US and an utterly un-strategic Europe to take note. Britain should use the occasion of next year’s launch in Portsmouth to bring political and military leaders together from across the Alliance and beyond to consider NATO’s (and the EU's) real strategic role in the world’s maritime domain.
There is a profound irony that stalked this conference. NATO has an immense strategic opportunity if only its leaders can seize it. The West is no longer a place it is an idea as evinced by the presence of so many partners from the world over. And, much of that global idea is at sea.
As a citizen and tax-payer I call upon NATO leaders to end this appalling cycle of short-termist, strategic retreat and finally Sea Strategic Sense. You can start by reading my January book – Little Britain: Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power…for that is what it is about.