Alphen, Netherlands. 6 November. Only in Britain it seems can a sex scandal involving a foreign, Hollywood film mogul lead to the effective paralysis of Parliament, and the undermining of effective governance. Watching the latest bout of elite hysteria unfold in Britain reveals the extent of the malaise in the British political class, and why sound strategy is so often subordinated to unsound politics. Sadly, an extreme form of ultra-liberal political correctness is morphing into social media lynch mobs that destroy due process. Indeed, it looks to all intents and purposes as if a new form of intolerant neo-fascism is taking over in which guilt is presumed, and innocence must be proven. Hysteria re-fuelled by virtue-signalling political leaders like Theresa May who react rather than lead, locked into a race to ‘virtue’ they can, by definition, never win.
If such an abandonment of political reason was confined to matters domestic then perhaps Britain could weather such storms. Unfortunately, London has abandoned strategic reason for the same strategy-consuming short-term politics. With the appointment of Gavin Williamson, the new Secretary of State for Defence, as a direct consequence of the political hysteria in London, and as part of an occasional series of guest blogs, my close friend and colleague, Professor Paul Cornish explores the consequences of London’s abandonment of strategic reason. He does so within the context of the forthcoming National Security Capabilities Review which he warns will fail if it simply seeks to protect the Government from bad news, rather than the country from dangerous change, or the still distant but growing possibility of a major war. Paul and I worked closely together on his new book, co-authored with Kingsley Donaldson 2020: World of War (London: Hodder and Stoughton). Indeed, I contributed much to the scenario in the chapter entitled, The Caliphate Resurrected: Cairo in Chaos.
National Security Capabilities Review
The UK’s newly appointed Secretary of State for Defence will have a lot on his plate. With the last strategic defence review not yet two years old, the government has begun a comprehensive reassessment of the country’s strategic outlook. The National Security Capabilities Review is expected to be complete by the end of the year. This is not an open-ended re-evaluation; there will be no new money, and very likely less. So, stand by for months of zero-sum argument as each defence interest – often led by a retired senior officer – pleads for a thicker slice of a diminishing cake.
Sir Basil Liddell Hart, the military historian, once quipped ‘the only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old one out.’ Some might feel that Liddell Hart’s tart comment applies as much today as it did in the 1940s. With one former Armed Service Chief after another likely to make the case for more warships, battalions, aircraft etc., won’t we simply be given sight of a fantasy world in which they think their ‘old ideas’ (about international security, defence policy and national strategy) still matter? Possibly. But it’s also possible that the joke could be on us if we dismiss all these warnings, and all those who utter them, as merely new versions of an old caricature.
With some exceptions, Service Chiefs have adhered to the convention that they should not be openly critical of national strategy and defence policy while still in uniform. But once back in civvy street they’re free to tell us if they are worried; about the variety, scale and urgency of the security problems demanding the attention of the country’s Armed Forces, and whether there are sufficient resources to meet enough of those challenges. On balance the rest of us should listen to those warnings – rather than take shelter in some trouble-free comfort zone of our own imagining. This is where the real problem lies; not so much in the ‘telling’ but in the ‘listening’ – and particularly on the part of government.
Government should listen to the warnings of our retired Service Chiefs because some of them deserve our attention. Government should listen to plenty of other people too – because not even retired Service Chiefs know everything there is to know about international security and national strategy. But here we return to the ‘comfort zone’ problem just mentioned, a form of confirmation bias that lets us ignore uncomfortable information because it’s, well, uncomfortable. If generals can be accused of ‘fighting the last war’ then the rest of us might just as pointedly be accused of ‘clinging to the preferred peace’. On the face of it, this can’t be such a bad instinct; who wouldn’t prefer a life of peace and prosperity over one of conflict and loss? But it must be government’s job to step out of the comfort zone and contemplate the uncomfortable on our behalf. In other words, we expect government to think and act strategically. But then we confront an even bigger problem. It might not be as simple as finding the ‘old’ strategic idea that animates government and replacing it with a ‘new’ one; it might be that there isn’t one there at all – and hasn’t been for some time.
There could very well be a case for the UK to acquire more warships, tanks and fighters or, at least, not to mothball those we already have. But the first task must be to recover our strategic sense, such that we can identify and manage the international security situation as it is, rather than as we used to know it (during the Cold War, for example), or would prefer it to be (the comfort zone again). But how can we avoid alarmism and over-reaction on the one hand, and complacency on the other?
The first step is to explain what is (and could be) going on around the world, and not simply to describe the international security context with such floppy platitudes as the ‘the era of constant competition’. In our recent book 2020: World of War Kingsley Donaldson and I worked with a team of experts to show how international security encompasses traditional inter-state conflict, climate change, cyber security, terrorism, mass migration, nuclear proliferation, urbanisation, resource scarcity and disease. Together, these are the serious, strategic-level challenges of our day; they need to be understood for what they are and managed with appropriate methods and means. Although the contemporary international security challenge is not as grave, singular and ‘existential’ as it was during the Cold War, the world is nevertheless very far from being stable, secure and pacific.
Complacency should have no place in national strategy, any more than scare-mongering and alarmism. We need to know the international security environment more closely if we are to manage it more effectively. Policy-makers and strategists must neither fight the last war nor cling to the preferred peace; they must have the capabilities to deal with this unprecedentedly wide range of evolving security challenges. The twenty-first century security environment is likely to remain complex, fast-changing and opaque; all that we can really know of this environment is that we’ll have to engage with it. But this all looks like hard work when complacency is so much more comfortable – and so much cheaper in the short run.
In August 1919 Lloyd George’s government adopted the ‘Ten Year No War Rule’ as a rationale for reductions in military spending. In 1928 it became a ‘rolling rule’, whereby the decade-long year strategic holiday would simply begin again each year. The rule was abandoned in 1932 and rearmament began, belatedly. 1947 saw a variation upon the theme; the ‘Five Plus Five’ rule whereby major war was not considered likely for the first five years, with the risk increasingly gradually over the following five. The rule was dropped by the Attlee government in 1948 because of deepening insecurity in Europe. In 2017 it would surely be unwise of the May government to adopt yet another version of the no war rule – but this time with no apparent time limit. History shows little respect for strategic holidaymakers.
Professor Paul Cornish,
Co-author, 2020: World of War (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017).