“An Englishman's self-assurance is founded on his being a citizen of the best organised state in the world and on the fact that, as an Englishman, he always knows what to do, and that whatever he does as an Englishman is unquestionably correct".
War and Peace
Alphen, Netherlands. Quatorze juillet. Interesting week. On Monday I drove some 600 kilometres from here to Strasbourg to address senior executives on matters strategic. On Tuesday I drove some 500 kilometres from Strasbourg to Brussels to address senior British military commanders. All went well until I reached Belgium, which was closed for repairs. And then I flew from Brussels to London, and my own failing state, the fabric of which, both actual and political, seems these days to be in a permanent state of disrepair. On Thursday I addressed the Air Power Conference on future war in which I painted a Monck-esque picture of hybrid, hyper, and kinetic war combined creating chaos across a Europe made brittle and vulnerable by years of strategic pretence. With politicians all too keen to avoid hard choices, and senior civil servants all too career keen to protect them from such choices, neither Britain, nor any other European state is at all serious about addressing the very real possibility of such a war. Rather, they prefer to live in the twilight world of an implicit Ten Year Rule in which nothing bad can happen if it costs too much.
Talking of chaos it is perhaps fitting that I write this piece on Bastille Day. With Macron and Trump reviewing shiny military stuff in Paris, on the centennial of the arrival of the Dough Boys in France, the symbolisms of power and pretence are at their most stark. Issues of war and peace seen through the lens not of history or strategy, but of ceremony and appearance. In Europe’s post-strategic age appearance is all the rage. And yet the symbolism of Macron with Trump also matters for the British. Britain’s entire security and defence strategy relies on being close to, and exerting some influence over, the Americans. Make no mistake, Trump is with Macron (rather than May) because the Trump world-view can be essentially broken down to winners and losers. Right now, Trump sees Macron (and by extension France) as a ‘winner’, and May (and Britain) as a ‘real loser’. Result? Britain is failing to exert influence in Washington, as well as losing influence in Berlin and Paris.
Political London is a mess. The smell is awful. Made worse by the huge posters promoting a new ‘blockbuster’ film “Dunkirk”, which commemorates another moment of ‘glorious’ British failure. Dunkirk happened because all power is relative. In 1940 Britain’s army was defeated because an enemy had spent more and better for a significant period proved it on the beaches of the Pas de Calais. It happened because at a time of danger a powerful state put sound money before sound defence? It happened because a powerful state chose to recognise only as much threat as it thought it could afford? It happened because of the the gap between what a state said what it must do to secure and defend itself, and what it was actually prepared to do. A gap that became so wide as to make the Potemkin preservation of appearance more important than either the protection of its people, or projection of its influence and effect. That state was Maginot France. Maginot Britain?
Britain’s credibility and influence is fast declining. Specifically, and consequently, Britain is not spending anywhere near well enough on either security or defence (the two are very different) to meet the risks, threats, and indeed opportunities as established in Britain’s own National Security Strategy. Rather, London is retreating into the appeasement of reality, and a kind of defence theatre d'absurde in which a proud but increasingly cardboard cut-out military desperately tries to close its many gaps with a ‘can do’ spirit, and by sending one man (or woman) here, a little force there, armed with a little bit of everything, but not much of anything. Rule Britannia? I don’t think so. Indeed, I can almost hear Chancellor Phillip Hammond in the wake of a coming security shock saying “Don’t worry. We were defeated within our national means”.
Ultimately, the rational for what passes as current British security and defence policy comes down to an interpretation of the word 'security' - the first duty of the state. For Phillip Hammond 'security' is purely financial and economic. Prime Minister May rather confirmed that in Prime Minister’s Questions when she referred to the national debt being at a peacetime high. Firstly, she is wrong. Between 1922 and 1955 both Britain’s net public debt was far higher than today. Second, Britain is not at peace. Britain maybe not at war, but it is certainly no longer at peace.
Consequently, Hammond's economist's 'in an ideal world, all things being equal' approach to security and defence, in which all threats must meet his deficit reduction target, is becoming daily more dangerous. Or, to put it another way, Britain is locked into a race to the bottom between preparing for either a major economic shock or a major security shock...but not both. You takes yer pick, you yer makes yer choice. Balance? Forget it! As an informed citizen I am frankly appalled by my great country’s across the board retreat of late into strategic pretence, and how such retreat is making Europe and the wider world more, not less dangerous. You don’t believe me? Look around you.
As I drove back from Brussels Airport to my home yesterday morning I was thinking of Churchill and the ‘wilderness years’, and wondering after a week of discussions whether Britain can escape the political and strategic wilderness in which it is now lost. It would take real leadership and I see neither the talent nor the capacity for such leadership in London today. Rather, what Tolstoy wrote of his fellow Russians seems better applied to Britain’s elite these days. “A Russian is self-assured simply because he knows nothing and does not want to know anything, since he does not believe in the possibility of knowing anything fully.”
War or Peace? Britain must end the strategic pretence and finally decide what kind of power it seeks to be. Pocket superpower or yet another weak European? This is a big question for the choice Britain makes could well help decide whether it is indeed future war or future peace, future defence and deterrence or future defeat.