“Were you proposing to shoot these people in cold blood, sergeant?"
"Nossir. Just a warning shot inna head, sir”.
Terry Pratchett, Jingo
Alphen, Netherlands. 18 April. Professor Joseph S. Nye defined for the world Grand Strategy, although the idea has been around for a long time. According to Nye Grand Strategy is the organisation of immense means in pursuit of world-bending ends. Professor Dr J. S. Lindley-French, that’s, err, me, is today giving the world the idea of Grand Asymmetry; a vaguely oxymoronic concept whereby actors with relatively few means also seek world-bending ends. That is, I think I am giving the world the idea of Grand Asymmetry. I would certainly be mightily peeved if someone else had got there first.
Let me first put Grand Asymmetry in context. On paper at least there is something Gilbert and Sullivan about North Korea threatening the United States. There is definitely something Rudyard Kipling about the threat Al Qaeda and Islamic State poses to the West. Even Russia’s implied threat has something of the Mel Brooks about it. After all, North Korea has an economy that is probably less than that of Columbus, Ohio, whilst the one thing Islamic State is not is a state. As for Russia it threatens the very people whose income it relies upon to feed its own.
It is the ‘on paper’ thing that is the problem for the West. Grand Asymmetry works because we in the West, or rather our leaders, have over the past forty or so years been busy making most of our states far weaker and far more fractured than need be the case. Indeed, we do not so much have nation-states these days, as nations-states full of so-called ‘communities’ who more or less talk to each other. Consequently, Western society is far less cohesive and robust than it was even a generation ago. It is the precisely the many seams of mistrust that now run through our open societies that makes the West so vulnerable these days to Grand Asymmetry.
The strategic implications of Grand Asymmetry are profound. Unable to protect such fractured societies Western states, particularly European states, are finding it ever harder to project power and influence for fear of offending growing constituencies of dissent, some of whom not only disagree with policy and strategy, but now challenge the very founding principles of the societies of which they are now a part. The result is Western states that ‘on paper’ look far stronger than their adversaries and enemies, but which in reality are less so because of the grand vulnerabilities from which they suffer make them prey to Grand Asymmetry.
Grand Asymmetry can come in many forms. There is the hybrid warfare currently being conducted by Moscow, using disinformation, destabilisation, and distortion to keep vulnerable Western states politically off-balance, even the mighty United States. There is the wars of religion being conducted by Al Qaeda and Islamic State aimed at undermining the very concept of national society in Western states, and the nation-state itself across the Middle East and North Africa. An individual Jihadi armed with no more than a truck bomb and the hair-trigger media can cause strategic impact out of all proportion to the act, however tragic that maybe for the individuals caught up in such attacks. And then there is the threat of thermonuclear Armageddon threatened by a political minnow such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
There is, of course, another way of looking at this. Western societies may have become far more vulnerable, but the ideas the West espouses are stronger than ever. One reason for Grand Asymmetry is that the West is no longer a place, but an idea. It is the World-Wide West that is the true revolutionary force in twenty-first century international politics. Grand Asymmetry is, in fact, the chosen weapon of war of the Grand Reactionaries who are essentially on the decline and the defence. Russia is an Ersatz Superpower that is desperate to mask the reality of its decline for fear the Putin regime collapses. Islamic State wants to return the Middle East, and much of the world around it, back to some form of idealised medieval Caliphate. Pyongyang is a dynasty masquerading as an ideology desperately trying to hold back the change that will in time sweep it away.
How can the West combat Grand Asymmetry? Western leaders must consciously set out to reinforce protection and tailor projection based on a far better understanding of the nature and scope of the threats they face. The sense of uncertainty such threats engender is compounded by a sense of unease about the nature of the threat. Leaders must also be honest and realistic about just what can be achieved. There will be few clear cut victories. Above all, leaders must be far clearer about the distinction between threats that attack vital Western interests, and thus need to be confronted, and those that offend Western values but do not in and of themselves threaten the West.
The real challenge will be creating more secure societies that feel better protected. First, leaders must avoid nostalgia and consciously build new societies for a new age. Second, a twenty-first century idea of ‘patriotism’, i.e. love of society, must be built upon the very ‘vulnerability’ that makes the West strong – liberal democracy, tolerance and openness. Above all, a new ‘contract’ is needed between power and people. No longer can elites treat citizens like children as they have done in Europe for far too long. Citizens must become partners in security.
Leaders must also recognise that ‘peace’ is a long game and properly invest in relevant strategy together with the means to prosecute and measure it; good intelligence, more resilient critical infrastructures, targeted aid and development that helps turn potential enemies into friends, and the kind of police and armed forces that can flexibly engage a raft of threats across a broad spectrum of conflict.
And yes, such strategy will also include the use at times of the kind of US Navy battle group that is now steaming towards the Korean Peninsula. This is because however clever one’s use of soft power it rarely works against those who oppose it unless those that have it also possess the relevant ‘if all else fails’ tools of hard power.
Indeed, unless people in Western societies understand and support the use of such hard power, however hard that power may be it can rapidly become soft if not supported, in which case Grand Asymmetry will succeed in deterring, denying, and in time destroying our own capacity to legitimately protect ourselves.