Forli, Italy. 7 October. A grigio mist hangs over the ancient Italian hills; an infant autumn awakening. Below me ageing leaves born of a long, hot Italian summer nestle in russet mantle clad. Gentle change in ancient permanence? I am back in my beloved Italy; tired, stressed, noble Italy, in a beautiful medieval castle high above Forli and not far from where the River Rubicon of legend flows. Roman armies of antiquity were forbade to cross the Rubicon and enter what was then Italy unless they had express permission from the Roman magistrates for only they could exercise Imperium. That sense of a strategic Rubicon being crossed suffused an excellent conference organised by Rome’s Istituto Affari Internazionale, the University of Bologna, and NATO’s Allied Command Transformation. The conference discussed the threats with which NATO must contend, and the myriad complex mix of ends, ways and means the West’s adversaries present. Rapid change in strategic flux.
The other day President Obama complained about President Putin and his penchant for Machtpolitik. “This is not a superpower chess game”, Obama said. With respect, Mr President, yes it is. Or, rather this is the beginning of a new Great Game of power as the illiberal and the downright evil challenge the liberal order the West has come to take for granted. As I said in my typically modest and understated speech, NATO’s future world will be one in which “chaos, confusion and Clausewitz will meet in an unholy trinity of uncertainty”. Or, to put it rather less pompously; wake up and smell the strategic coffee!
Where Americans fear to tread, Europeans refuse to think. By implying that Russia is still a superpower and thus America’s strategic equal President Obama affords woeful Russia an equality in European and world affairs that can only be an equality of fear. The Stolichnaya must be flowing in the grand halls of the Kremlin with this anointing of Putin's great power super-bluff. Sadly, the contradiction that is Russia means the inevitable end of the bluff is inevitable, and that at some point in the not-too-distant future the inevitable end of the bluff will inevtiably be more dangerous than the bluff itself.
The focus of the conference was the 2016 NATO Warsaw Summit. Given where the summit is to be held the core topic should be clear; the re-invigoration of NATO as a conventional and nuclear deterrent. Central to that mission will be the readiness of Alliance forces. ‘Readiness’ means to be prepared to do something, anything, whatever and wherever. In the NATO context that means Allied forces able to cope with the future shock that is surely to emerge from the swamp of deceit, disinformation, and de-stabilisation that is hybrid warfare, today’s way of war. And therein lies the challenge because keeping military forces at ‘readiness’ is expensive and as the strategic context expands and the strategic picture gets bigger, and the military task-list of nationally-funded Alliance forces grows exponentially, the size of the force is being cut.
So, give the Alliance more and better forces? Well no. Defence IQ’s new report “Global Defence Spending 2015” states, “Western and central Europe is the only region in the world that saw its military expenditure fall during the 2014-2015 period”. Nor is the problem confined to Europe. Only last week US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter warned that the threat of sequestration continues to stymy effective long-term US defence planning and that US forces are suffering from a “hand-to-mouth existence”.
Which brings me to chess and poker, the strategic metaphors du jour. President Putin likes to imply he is engaged in strategic chess. After all, Russia has had many grand masters. In fact Putin is playing military poker and he is doing so with a weak hand. His aim? NATO, or rather the collapse of the strategic unity of effort and purpose without which NATO as a deterrent is no longer credible.
Whether it be chess or poker strength is the key to victory and weakness the guarantee of failure. Whilst chess stresses foresight, guile and manoeuvre, poker is built on the premise that a strong mind with a weak hand can trump a strong hand held by a weak mind. It is precisely that game President Putin is playing as he seeks to exploit the seam between the West’s actual strength and its strategic feeble-mindedness.
Therefore, Europeans and North Americans must be under no illusion about the Great Game in which it is being engaged. The future of liberal international values is at stake if the Game is lost. Moreover, the West could well defeat itself through its own contradictions, specifically the tension between values and interests from which many Western states suffer. ‘Values’ for too many in the West means the replacement of interests, i.e. the success of values is defined by the abandonment of interests.
NATO is an instrument of power. If NATO is to defend the West and its ‘values’ it must be firmly established on an equally firm understanding of shared interests, and the credible, relevant military power required to generate influence and effect.
So, Mr President, the real danger to the West, and by extension NATO, comes not from the ‘strength’ of a weak President Putin and his ilk. It comes from the growing tendency in Western capitals to define security purely in terms of values rather than interests, and the uncertainty such strategic wooliness creates in our minds, and the encouragement it affords our adversaries (or ‘counterparts’ as the Kremlin now styles itself).
The world today is one in which chaos, confusion and Clausewitz sit cheek by jowl. In the midst of such uncertainty the West must be able to play chess and poker at one and the same time. That means a clear understanding of one’s opponents, the strategic foresight upon which stratagems can be built and the diplomatic machine to enact them, the strength of mind to raise the stakes when our interests are threatened, and the military capacity to render Western strategy and indeed NATO credible. Thereafter, the West’s very ability to defend its vital interests will itself be the best way to promote its values.
The mission of NATO’s Warsaw Summit? Deliver on the promises made at NATO’s 2014 Wales Summit. If that means crossing a strategic Rubicon so be it…and get on with it!