hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 24 February 2017

The Limitation Game

“We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done”.
Alan Turing

Alphen, Netherlands, 24 February. Alan Turing is the father of the computer. He also established the Turing Test. To pass the test a machine would need to fool a human that it was in fact another human; the imitation game. His idea of a ‘thinking machine’ was designed to free humans to think more widely, more accurately, and above all more laterally to enable intelligent humans to do what they do best; understand complexity through analysis, knowledge and instinct. To Turing the purpose of ‘thinking machines’ was to crunch immense and complex series of data to establish accurate patterns which humans could then act upon.

It has been a funny old week. A moment of profound strategic importance to the transatlantic relationship took place and yet passed with barely more than a comment. A German Chancellor effectively told an American President that in spite of being the leader of a country full of citizens that had grown rich under the armed protection of the citizens of another country and at great cost to the latter over many years, she was in fact thinking about reneging on a formal NATO commitment that her taxpayers would spend roughly half the amount the latter’s taxpayers pay for the security and defence of her own country. Even though political reality is being warped in Germany by September’s federal elections the rejection of President Trump’s perfectly reasonable call for Germany and other Europeans to fully commit to spend 2% GDP on defence represents a real threat to the future of NATO and the transatlantic relationship.

My own week has been spent drafting a major high-level report into the strategic adaptation of NATO. As I was drafting this report I was struck by the growing strategic-philosophical divide within the Alliance. This split brings me back to Alan Turing’s genius. Turing’s aim was to transform complexity into clarity upon which sound decisions of policy and strategy could then be made. Turing’s work on “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” was an extension of his work on the famous ‘Bombe’; the pioneering computer Turing built at Bletchley Park during World War Two which helped to break the German “Shark” naval code. Turing, the Bombe and the Bletchley code-breakers played a crucial role in helping the Allies defeat the U-boats during the critical Battle of the Atlantic, a battle which Churchill said was the only one that really frightened him.

My sense is that the West’s leaders are today in a pretty similar position to Churchill and other Allied leaders in the early years of World War Two; grasping around to properly understand what is happening and in the absence of any real understanding profoundly unsure about what if any action to take, or investments to make. The situation is made worse by the huge number of think tanks and university departments that have proliferated over recent years, particularly in Europe, and which add little real strategic value. Too often universities refuse to undertake hard analysis of events and processes for fear it offends reality-bending political correctness. Too often think tanks in search of money stop thinking and simply tell power what it wants to hear, or retreat into a parochial, partisan agenda-pumping that offers leaders no chance to understand and thus little rationale to act.

The result is what passes for security and defence policy in Europe today; powerful institutions such as states, the EU and NATO that taken together COULD be adapted to both understand and the meet the risks, challenges and threats of the twenty-first century if properly organised and co-ordinated. However, precisely because there is no real understanding about the nature of threats and thus agreement what to do about them, these same states and institutions look ever more out of sync with the missions with which they are charged; the twenty-first century security and defence, protection and projection of the West’s citizens. In the absence of understanding the preservation of the institution becomes more important than the efficient and/or effective application of those institutions (which are means not ends) in pursuit of their respective missions.

What is needed is a new ‘Bombe’ that could help identify the patterns and linkages inherent to complex, globalised insecurity; between emerging state threats, global-reach terrorism and criminality, the emergence of mass disruptive and mass destructive technologies, how to understand them, and above offer critical paths to predict, adapt, stop, cope, and recover. In other words a new kind of transformative imitation game is needed if the West, of which Europe will always be a part, is to be secured. Or, to put it another way, a thinking policy and strategy ‘machine’ full of brilliant people charged with ‘computing’ the many threats faced by the citizens of Atlanticism and freed to make any recommendation the evidence suggests to leaders.

The road-block? The lack of transformative thinking at the elite, establishment level. Unfortunately, only the shock of disaster or war is likely to shake our leaders out of their politics before strategy torpor. Worse, most establishment careers are not built by speaking truth to power, and those of us who try to speak truth to power are by definition outside the establishment and can thus be dismissed as cranks when sound strategic analysis clashes with political expediency. It is precisely that clash which explains the mess the all-powerful West is in, and why our citizens feel far less secure and far more uncertain than they should be. It is precisely this clash which explains why the short-term and reaction reigns supreme over the long-term and the strategic.     
Merkel’s side-stepping of Trump’s demand to ‘show me the money’ over NATO is thus in fact about far deeper issues than defence investment, burden-sharing, and the need for Europe to get its collective or common act together over defence. What we need is a new kind of security imitation game but what Chancellor Merkel revealed this week is that all we are likely to get is more of the limitation game. 


Julian Lindley-French  

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