“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die”.
Transatlantic Foot Shooting
Alphen, Netherlands. 1 June. On Wednesday I posed a question that was received a bit like a fart in a lift (elevator to the Yanks amongst you) – are we actually deterring any adversary anymore? That said, today is not a good day to propose re-conceiving deterrence. The decision by President Trump to start a trade war is a Vladimir Putin wet dream. The EU’s likely retaliation will almost certainly lead to both Americans and Europeans shooting each other in the foot. Well, the Europeans would shoot themselves in the foot, but the gun was decommissioned some time ago due to lack of spares. Either way, a transatlantic trade war endangers the central pillar upon which credible deterrence rests – political and strategic solidarity. So, bear with me and let me assume for the moment that both Americans and Europeans miss their respective feet and that somehow, and in spite of the best efforts of our ‘leaders’, the transatlantic relationship stumbles on. If so, Americans and Europeans together will need to completely re-think deterrence if NATO’s Article 5 collective defence is to remain credible in the face of twenty-first century challenges.
Back in February I called for a new concept of deterrence by which new and emerging non-nuclear technologies could be 'bundled' and applied via new strategy and new thinking to generate deterrent effect across the conflict spectrum in conjunction with existing Alliance conventional and nuclear capabilities and postures. My purpose was to close the dangerous deterrence gap that now exists between weak Allied conventional forces in Europe and last resort strategic nuclear deterrents. At the same time I posed a question: could the Alliance generate the same or similar deterrent effect as nuclear escalation across the low to high yield, short-range missiles to intercontinental ballistic missiles nuclear spectrum by matching new strategy with new non-nuclear technology, rather than return to a form of mutually assured nuclear destruction or MAD-ness?
On Wednesday, I gave a lecture at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London on the subject of Strategic Stability, Missile Defence and Nuclear Deterrence. Now, I say gave a lecture, having risen at 0230 in the morning and driven well over a 100 kilometres to Amsterdam Schiphol airport I found my flight to London City cancelled, and then the flight upon which I was re-booked also cancelled. Thanks, KLM…British Airways was flying. So, I came home and gave my lecture via Skype.
My message was succinct; we need a new concept of Broad Deterrence that stretches across a new escalation spectrum from hybrid war to hyper war via cyber war. War at the seams of our governments and societies is already a fact with opportunistic Russia and long-game China already exploiting those seams to effect. In that context, NATO’s very limited debate about the place of its hopelessly limited missile defence simply underlines much of the old-fashioned nature of the wider debate within the Alliance about who to deter and against what to defend.
Therefore, new thinking is needed as a matter of urgency, hence my idea of Broad Deterrence. However, such new thinking will only take place if there is a critical change of mind-set at a very high-level and in Europe. One of my excellent interlocutors posed a question I found quite stunning (and my apologies if I got this wrong); do we want to admit we are in an arms race with the Russians? My reply was blunt; if it walks like a duck, sounds like a duck, it is an arms race! Our choice is simple: we either convince the Russians to stop (not very likely given the current attitude of President Putin and the rest of the Siloviki who ARE the Russian Government), or we win the arms (relatively easy given Russia is an economic minnow if we turned our minds to it). The most dangerous situation is the one in which we now find ourselves in which one side is arms racing and the other (us) is still pretending we are on a strategic picnic. As an Oxford historian let me tell you the thing about history: shock happens!
How Would Broad Deterrence Work?
So, what is Broad Deterrence and how would it work? Broad deterrence would deter across hybrid, Artificial Intelligence (et al), cyber war, electronic warfare and hyper war domains, as well as across air, sea, land, cyber, space, nuclear, information and knowledge space to combine and enhance resiliency, strengthened protection and enhanced projection. The aim would be to build a new deterrence ladder to raise the threshold of 'success' for any adversary and to confound their own thinking by forcing them to onto the back foot to consider how they deter us. NATO would be the guardian of Broad Deterrence with such new thinking central to NATO adaptation.
How do we begin? The other great deception used by those who simply do not want to face reality is that European public opinion would not understand. Let me be utterly elitist by way of response. Publics know squat about defence and deterrence and pay their leaders to handle such matters. European leaders and thinkers really need to stop wearing this Emperor’s New Clothes argument about public opinion and start leading.
Another implied counter-argument to new thinking was that my concept of Broad Deterrence would be too complicated to turn into policy, strategy and architecture. The simple answer to that is we do not know until we try. In any case, that is precisely why people like myself occasionally get paid. Therefore, having staged a conference last year on the future of European defence I am now proposing one of my Wilton Park conferences to now consider the future of European deterrence for which (naturally) I would write the report. He who holds the pen and all that…
One final thought, for all of the above to have any chance of working there has, of course, to be an ‘us’. Here Europeans need to really get real. America’s problem is not deterring Russia, the United States can do that quite comfortably. America’s critical twenty-first strategic problem is that its credible deterrent ‘reach’ will need to be global AND high-end all of the time, and all over the place. Which means even mighty America will need to make hard choice and tailor its deterrent posture. For Europeans, America’s coming choices will be profound. If America cannot deter high-end adversaries the world-over. In other words, Alliance deterrence will equally depend on the ability of Europeans to deter Russia as Europeans. Indeed, if one separates the US from its European allies the deterrence gap in Europe between Europeans and Russia is enormous and mainly due to wilful European weakness. And, for Broad Deterrence or any other form of deterrence to work there needs to be an ‘us’. Trade wars between allies are not particularly helpful on that front.
Peace through legitimate strength!