hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 4 April 2014

NATO and the Coming Big War

Naples, Italy. 4 April.  Christine de Pizan in her 1412 masterpiece “The Book of Deeds of Arms and Chivalry” wrote “What will the wise prince…do when…he must undertake wars and fight battles? First of all, he will consider how much strength he has or can obtain, how many men are available and how much money.  For unless he is well supplied with these two basic elements, it is folly to wage war, for they are necessary to have above all else, especially money”. 

War is coming, big war. Not here, not now but some time, some place this century it is coming.  The rapid shift in the military balance of power away from the democracies, arms races, climate change and the coming dislocation of societies, the dangerous proliferation of dangerous technologies, demographic pressures, competition for energy, food and water and the hollowing out of states.  All the necessary ingredients for big war exist driven daily by the growing systemic frictions apparent in the world.

As I write this blog the sun is making its lazy way across the Bay of Naples.  The southern Italian sun is in no hurry and takes its time to appreciate the better things in life.  I contemplate a voluptuous glass of Campania as the old castle of Naples sits to my immediate left on the Borgo Marinello.  To my far left broken Vesuvius lies asleep the Ad 79 destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum but the ancient musings of Tacitus.  In the distance just visible in the sun-fried haze lies the alluring outline of Capri.  It is a picture of Italian tranquillity – la dolce vita?  Or is it?  What I am actually looking at is the ancient remains of a super-volcano with Vesuvius but a pimple on the face of super power. 

Yesterday, I briefed NATO commanders on the role of the Alliance post-Afghanistan.  My message? If the Alliance and its leaders do not face up to the enormity of change in the world and the pressures it is creating NATO too could become a pimple on the face of super power.  Russia’s seizure of Ukraine-Crimea is just a harbinger of things to come in a world in which the West is declining rapidly.  

Military power is of course but one of the many tools the West will need to help manage the coming ruptures. However, military power will remain a critical tool because for many states military power remains the reserve currency of influence and the stuff of prestige. And yet in modern day Europe military power is seen as neither affordable nor useful, a hangover from somebody else’s age that has no place in the new Europe.   

The essential problem is as ever political; a lack of vision, an inability or a refusal of Western leaders and led alike to see the big picture that friction is painting and its possible consequences.  The Russian action in Ukraine-Crimea is but one of the symptoms of an international system under ever growing pressure – a Vesuvius that has begun to smoke and rumble.  Russia took Crimea because it could.

NATO is the world’s big security, big defence alliance, a credible deterrent against extreme behaviour by extremists and extreme states in extremis.  NATO is insurance.  However, the Alliance desperately needs a root and branch reassessment of its role in twenty-first century peace.  Only thereafter could a proper assessment be made of what must be done; the balance to be struck between civilian and military tools, the type of military forces that will be needed and at what level. That will take political courage and strategic vision in our leaders that is not immediately apparent. 

The Alliance must be transformed into a new strategic hub that sits at the very pivot of civilian and military security and defence. Not just in and around Europe but a NATO that also sets a global industry standard for true strategic partnership the world over.  However, for such a NATO to emerge the most profound of mind-set changes is needed at the political and military levels.  Indeed, the challenge now is not to do the past better but to do the future properly.  Strategy can no longer be sacrificed at the altar of expedient politics – the West’s great curse.

Russia is not going to invade the rest of Europe, although the jury is still out on eastern Ukraine.  However, what Russia has done is to end the comforting fantasy that conflicts can always be solved by dialogue alone.  Moscow has reminded Europe in particular that it no longer defines what former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called the “rule of the road”.  This is not just about Europe. Sitting over the far horizon China is watching.  How the West responds to this crisis will decide whether China becomes a stakeholder in the current system or a revisionist power.  That is what is at stake.
Something very nasty is happening and it will be coming to a place near you sometime.  Like the doomed of Tacitus if we continue along the road of strategic pretence will we one day find ourselves with nowhere to run.  We need a legitimately strong NATO to stop it!
Another glass of Campania please.

Julian Lindley-French

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