hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Snow Meeting 2018: Plans or Planning?


“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower,

National Defense Executive Reserve Conference,

November 14, 1957

Trakai, Lithuania. 16 January.  Can NATO and EU states plan effectively for 360 degrees of very different threats? It is with grave concern that I must report that His Excellency Linas Linkevicius, the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, failed this year’s Snow Meeting. No snow! Apart from that the organisation of this superb annual security conference was as impeccable as ever.  With an over-arching theme of keeping the transatlantic bond strong European security nestled comfortably within the Snow Meeting like a Lithuanian lake amidst a forest of silver birch. Sadly, I come away from beautiful Trakai each year with my concerns about European security heightened.  Indeed, Europe’s ‘security’ is fast becoming like a gigantic marshmallow; pierce the thin, crusty edge in places like Lithuania and one discovers a thick gooey core or irresolution and uncertainty at Europe’s heart.  

Eisenhower’s famous quote has often been misunderstood, and the original context forgotten, but it is worth today quoting his 1957 speech in some length.  “Some years ago, there was a group in the staff college of which some of you may have heard, Leavenworth Staff College. This was before our entry into World War One, and in that course it was necessary to use a number of maps and the maps available to the course were of the Alsace-Lorraine area and the Champagne in France. But a group of “young Turks” came along and wanted to reform Leavenworth. They pointed out it was perfectly silly for the American Army to be using such maps which could after all be duplicated in other areas without too much cost – they would get some maps where the American Army might just fight a battle. So they got, among other things, maps of the area of Leavenworth and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and in succeeding years all the problems have been worked out on those maps. The point is, only about two years after that happened, we were fighting in Alsace-Lorraine and in the Champagne”.

Eisenhower went on to explain the distinction he rightly insisted upon between plans and planning. “There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of ‘emergency’ is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you expected”.

As part of the Snow Meeting and as part of a delegation I had the chance to meet the ever-impressive President of Lithuania, Her Excellency Dalia Grybauskaite. What makes her impressive is the clear-sighted understanding she has of her country’s security situation and what must be done about it.  Russia must be deterred with strength so that any irresistible itch President Putin needs to scratch does not at any point involve the invasion of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. 

The problem is that Lithuania is not Europe’s only vulnerable state. My many trips to Rome have also revealed an Italy far more in tune with the tragic and ongoing events to its south and the massive migration flows such chaos is both triggering and enabling. Rome is also far less concerned with Russia, for obvious reasons, than Lithuania, even if Italy also takes its NATO responsibilities very seriously at a time of extended economic duress.  In such circumstances for Rome to establish effective policies and strategies to cope with and manage what looks increasingly like a structural shift in population movement requires a wholly different set of tools than those needed to deter the Russian military.

It is this essential tension which exists between defence of the ‘east’ and security of the ‘south’ and which reinforces Eisenhower’s wise dictum.  In spite of NATO’s sterling efforts to recast its deterrence and defence posture to cope with such a wide array of challenges there is simply not the resources available to provide a credible response to both.  This is important because Friendly-Clinch’s First Law of Strategic Nonsense identifies an inverse, obverse, and not-so-little obscene relationship in such circumstances between plans and planning. Indeed, when planning cannot be properly resourced there is a profusion of plans which may suggest NATO be renamed the North Atlantic Summit Organisation and Declaration-Writing Organisation.

In Europe today there are a mass of plans to deal with every conceivable threat Europe could possibly face. However, in the absence of the sound, considered, co-ordinated and efficient application of necessarily immense resources precious little proper planning will take place. ‘Planning’ requires planners to think big and build redundancy into their plans, precisely because as one of the Moltke’s pointed out, all plans collapse on contact with the enemy. Such planning also requires political leaders to think equally ‘big’ and devote the necessary resources to ensure such planning is sound.  Indeed, it is the ACT of planning which is the central tenet of credible deterrence.

NATO places much faith in its ‘360 Degree Approach’ to security and defence.  In fact NATO has three dangerously separate 120 degree approaches that in effect compete with each other – a growing threat to the north, a profound threat to the east, and a complex and long-term threat to the south. The purpose of planning is ease that tension and craft a credible response to all three. To that end, sound planning would suggests that NATO in partnership with the EU moves to actively support Europe’s three sets of frontline states – Finland, Norway and Sweden to the north, the Baltic States to the East, and Italy, Spain et al to the South. To some extent that is precisely what is being planned for. Or, rather, that is what a lot of key Western European states say that that are planning for. However, the gap between what those states say they would do in an ‘emergency’, and what they are capable of doing, grows wider by the day.

“There are always the Yanks”, I hear you proclaim. Hold on a minute. The US faces challenges the world over.  NATO plan can only be credible if Europeans are planning at the very least to be credible first responder to major emergencies in and Europe. Which brings me back to my giant marshmallow, which I shall call ‘Kurt’.  Lithuania has increased its defence spending to meet the 2014 NATO Wales Summit defence investment pledge of 2% GDP on defence. Italy is engaged deeply in trying to ameliorate the situation of and situation with irregular migrants transiting North Africa. And yet, too many powerful Western European states talk a lot (President Macron!!!) but in fact reveal little evidence of any real planning or the commensurate investment that would be needed to cope with an emergency that looks ever more likely. Indeed, President Macron looks to me ever more like Tony Blair from 1997 to 1999 – a man with ambitions far greater than the country he leads.

States like Britain, France and Germany are the gooey mess at the heart of European security and defence but which in an emergency would need to act as a critical strategic reserve for the front-line states.  And yet, for all their political ‘plans’ there is no real evidence that they are undertaking anything what might be termed proper strategic planning. They just talk a lot…and send a few troops to Lithuania. 

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.  Speaking of which can we have some snow next year please, Mr Minister?

Julian Lindley-French

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