hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

2014: The Year Grand Illusions Burned Away


Alphen, Netherlands. 30 December. In December 1914 British and German troops declared an unofficial Christmas ceasefire, swapped tobacco and so the story goes played a football match together in no man’s land, which apparently the Germans won, on penalties no doubt.  With the hindsight of history that uplifting moment of humanity was but an interlude in a bitter World War One struggle that would see many of those who took part dead within the year.  In a sense the West, particularly the European West, has been enjoying just such a ceasefire with history these twenty-five years past since the end of the Cold War.  Four grand strategic shifts made 2014 the year that grand illusions finally burned away.

The Return of Realpolitik in Europe: In 2014 President Putin did something many fellow Europeans thought impossible; he used force to resolve a territorial dispute to Russia’s apparent advantage.  Putin cited the encroachment of both the EU and NATO on Russia’s borders as justification and in so doing destroyed the comforting illusion that balances of power and Realpolitik had been banished from Europe forever.  On 26 December President Putin re-issued Russia’s 2010 military doctrine albeit modified to reflect a particularly aggressive tone.  The message is clear; in spite of the sanctions and the collapse in the oil price which has so damaged the Russian economy the militarisation of the Russian state will continue in 2015, even though the policy is doomed to end in failure.  Expect 2015 to see NATO and its members probed and provoked further by Russian forces.

The Return of Geopolitics: China’s increasingly assertive stance and growing pressures across South and East Asia highlight the world’s new seismic, systemic epicentre and a new domain of warfare.  North Korea’s December 2014 cyber-attack on Sony Pictures on the eve of the release of a film satirising Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, is a sign of things to come.  The US responded to the attack by shutting down the internet in North Korea. With China and Russia engaged in industrial levels of cyber attacks the use of the ether as a domain for warfare is very much the future of geopolitics in the twenty-first century. The aim is not so much the permanent destruction of an opposing state’s centre of political gravity, à la Clausewitz.  Rather, in the growing struggle between the liberal and the illiberal the aim is to keep open societies permanently off balance through attacks and the threat of attack on critical national infrastructure thus changing the balance of resources liberal states commit to protection at the expense of projection.  Expect this struggle to intensify in 2015.

The Struggle over “Ever Closer Union”:  In December Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in an interview that the EU should stop trying to micro-manage the lives of Europeans and focus instead on the big things.  On the face of it Juncker’s call marks a new pragmatism and a possible new balance between the EU member-state and an increasingly onerous and ponderous Brussels.  It is also a classic description of a federal state in which grand strategy, most notably foreign, security and defence policies are controlled by a federal hub, whilst the ‘states/provinces’ focus on the those issues most immediate and most pressing to the needs of the people.  In reality, and in the wake of Juncker’s illegitimate May 2014 coup, Juncker was simply drawing the federalist battle-line for 2015.  If the EU is to take on greater responsibility for the 'big issues' that means more not less Europe and ultimately the final end of state sovereignty in the EU.  Britain will never accept that and nor would it appear will Germany or France.  Expect the implicit geopolitics of the EU to worsen in 2015, especially if Greece as seems likely votes for the anti-austerity leftist Syriza movement and the Eurozone crisis re-ignites.

The Emergence of the Grand Strategic Super-Insurgency: In a December interview General John Allen, President Obama’s Special Envoy to a sixty-state anti-IS coalition, said that Islamic State was “…one of the darkest forces that any country has ever had to deal with”.  What makes IS different is its level ambition and a a bizarrely grand leadership that believes genuinely they can change the world. As such IS marks the beginning of a super-insurgency committed to the very destruction of the state first in the Middle East and then the world over.  Paradoxically, unlike the unworldly AQ leadership IS uses the means of the state against the state, funding its campaigns from the sale of state resources such as oil and gas and using force, disinformation and brutality in much the same way as many modern states.  Critically, IS is secretly backed by state and factional supporters who believe mistakenly it can be instrumentalised to their more narrow ends.  2015? Although President Obama has re-committed US forces to support Afghanistan it is likely IS will continue to seek to wreak havoc across the Middle East and through terrorism beyond.  It may also endeavour to extend its ‘brand’ into Afghanistan in conjunction with some elements of the Taliban.  Therefore, 2015 will prove the schwerpunkt in the first phase of what is going to be a long struggle with IS. 

Now that the grand illusions of the past twenty-five years have been burned away the challenge for leaders will be to confront the hard realities they masked and bring their publics with them.  This challenge will prove no harder than in Europe where leaders have for too long avoided hard realities and in which the disengagement of European security from world security has led to the grandest of all illusions – that soft power in the absence of hard power carries any influence at all.  If Europe and by extension the world is to be made more secure in 2015 then the European powers led by Britain, France and Germany must return to fundamental principles of statecraft.  That will mean in turn the sustained, collective and skillful management of state affairs in a world changing fast and not for the better through the sound and considered application of all forms of power soft and hard.

By the way, in December 2014 the British and German armies replayed that famous football match and the British won 1-0!  Well done, chaps!

Happy New Year!


Julian Lindley-French

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