hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Strategic Illiteracy & the Goldilocks State

Alphen, Netherlands. Armistice Day. Strategic illiteracy is an inability to understand how power and influence work in international relations. President Putin exaggerates Russia’s power because of maps, David Cameron under-estimates Britain’s power because of maps…and strategic illiteracy. On this day on which the eleventh hour chimes on the eleventh day of the eleventh month it is not just loss that is foremost in my mind. It is history and the ever-dynamic influence map of Europe, which was the actual cause of World War One. Critically, power and change continue to dance in tandem across the European power landscape.

Hands up, I suppose today of all days I should write about Cameron’s letter to European Council President Donald Tusk setting out the very modest British demands for a very modest change to the way the EU does business. Sadly, Cameron’s letter has nothing to do with the power map of Europe or the new political settlement the new EU will vitally need between those within the Eurozone and those without. Rather, it is the modest letter of a very modest politician who through his own strategic illiteracy is turning a great power into a very modest one.

Next Tuesday I will give evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. The session will be entitled, “Shifting the Goalposts: Defence Expenditure and the 2% Pledge”. On the face of it the session is part of a study into whether Britain’s renewed commitment to spend 2% GDP on defence up to 2020 is real or illusory. In fact, the session is really about Britain’s level of strategic ambition, or rather the lack of it within much of the very modest British political class which spawned David Cameron.

Much of the British political class seem to have convinced themselves that Great Britain is in fact Little Britain. They look at a map of the world and convince themselves that Little Britain is no longer a great power and that Britain is doomed to decline because Britain is so well, err, small. Too often these days I hear British politicians say something along the lines of, “we are only a little island of 65 million people”.  They confuse size with power; strategic illiteracy at its most eloquently nonsensical.

Contrast Britain (population in 2014 65 million, GDP $2.95 trillion, world rank 5 (IMF)) with Russia (population in 2014 142 million, GDP $1.86 trillion, world rank 10 (IMF)) and the respective conclusions of London and Moscow about power and influence in the world. On the one hand, the London Establishment has convinced itself Britain can aspire to be little more than an outlying satellite of the Berlin-Brussels Axis, or ‘at best’ perhaps a super car boot sale for the Chinese and Indians.  On the other hand, the Putin Establishment has convinced itself that Russia is again a superpower, a ‘co-hegemon’ to use the language of Moscow. Both views are barking mad; the British because they exaggerate Britain’s weakness, and the Russians because they exaggerate Russia’s power. Much of these illusions of faiblesse/grandeur are down to maps and both reflect the strategic illiteracy from which the two respective elites suffer.

Many of you will recall that now somewhat ageing and delightfully risqué Peugeot commercial ‘size mat-tears’ (my hopeless attempt at a written French accent). It now seems that in measuring the respective ‘power’ of a state in today’s world physical ‘size’ really does ‘mat-tear’.  The other mantra one often hears trotted out without any regard to reality is that Brazil, Russia, China and India will soon inherit the earth, and that the rest of us are doomed to be strategic and political minnows. Again, this is strategic illiteracy at its worst, or to use technical language, complete and utter crap!

The facts appear to speak for themselves.  According to CEBR the coming global top table economic balance will look something like this. First, China’s GDP may indeed overtake that of the US, but only in 2025 at the earliest, and only if all things remain equal – which they will not.  In 2014 the UK overtook France (again) to (again) become the world’s fifth largest economy. However, India’s economy could well overtake that of the UK in 2018, and by 2024 could be the world’s third largest economy. Critically, the Russian economy dropped back from eighth largest in the world in 2013 to tenth in 2014, and is likely to stay there until 2030. By 2030 Germany will be overtaken by the UK for the first time for since 1954. and drop back to seventh largest economy in the world.

In fact, there is only a limited correlation between size of geography, size of economy, size of population and scope and extent of power. Indeed, the bigger the state, the more populous it is, unless it is the United States, the more difficult it is to likely find the governmental wherewithal to generate real power and influence on the world stage. China for all its impressive growth of late faces huge internal challenges, India even more so. Brazil? Forget it! No offence but Brazil’s elite could not organise/prevent a tree-felling in a rain forest. As such Brasilia is run by strategic infants with corruption and incompetence on such a scale that it will prevent Brazil’s emergence as a great power for years to come. As for Russia, it is a broken state with broken systems and broken communities spread across nine time zones run by an incompetent and corrupt government overseeing an ailing one-shot economy that simply to maintain contro invents and/or creates enemies where none exists.

No, the greatest danger to Britain’s influence is an EU that enmeshes it into a mechanism that functions more like Brazil or Russia than the United States, and the incompetence of a strategically-illiterate political class who do not believe in Britain as a power, and who confuse size with power, strategy with politics.  That is why the EU desperately needs reform and that is why Cameron is not up to it. Indeed, precisely because Cameron does not believe in Britain as a power he has failed to make the right case for EU reform. Rather, he has abandoned British national strategy for mercantilism, and with the support of Chancellor George Osborne is busy sacrificing the tools of strategy and influence, most notably Britain’s once-superb diplomatic service.  

Britain’s tragic irony is it could influence so much more than it does.  Britain, like France and Germany, is a Goldilocks state, well-connected, and well-networked with an advanced economy that is neither too large, nor too populous. Such states are likely to remain for the foreseeable future the most effective and efficient states on the planet, and thus powerful and influential. However, that is only if they are well led. This is especially so for a state such as Britain, which combines both significant hard and soft power, is the font of the world language, and which sits in a time zone between east and west.

Sadly, it is the absence of strategic leadership that drips from Cameron’s letter to Tusk. Worse, there is irony in the letter which Cameron’s own strategic illiteracy prevents him from understanding; the British are probably about to get their way with or without a Brexit.  Over the next decade those inside the Euro will abandon any freedom for strategic manoeuvre as they venture deeper into the anti-democratic strait-jacket of Euro-land. As they do so they will take many of the EU’s ‘common’ structures with them, such as home affairs, foreign affairs and defence.  This will be the Real EU. Those outside the Euro are soon to be members of EU-lite, whatever Cameron and the British do.

EU-lite will be focussed almost exclusively on the Single Market. Consequently, the EU-liters are going to have to learn to think again strategically for themselves. That will demand strategic literacy and leadership.  However, facing reality, be it over the EU’s self-paralysing contradictions, the strategic and societal implications of hyper-migration, and the changing military world balance, British leaders of late have shown themselves to be appeasers of reality. Too often they hope against hope they can be re-elected before the consequences of their own inaction destroys them. The strategic leadership of the country in a complex Europe and a dangerous world is merely secondary to narrow political calculation.

Therefore, all the Brexit vote will do is put Britain and Europe through an unnecessary political mangle. Indeed, the Brexit referendum will only address Cameron’s letter. rather than anything serious or substantive. In that light I worry not about a Britain outside the EU per se, but whether Britain’s leaders would be any good at leading a newly-independent Britain. The evidence would suggest not.

On the face of it the argument that a Britain outside the EU would be reduced to a Switzerland (population 2014 in 7.4m, GDP 703bn, world rank 20 (IMF)) or a Norway (population in 2014 5.2m, GDP 500bn, world rank 27 (IMF) would appear nonsense.  However, if ‘leaders’ are not up to leadership then however powerfully power talks, the language of power will not be understood, and power and the state will be much reduced.  

Still, there is always Jeremy Corbyn. 

Julian Lindley-French


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