“…we [the United States] must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances’.
The resignation letter of General James N. Mattis as US Secretary of Defense, 20 December 2018
Transactionalism ain’t grand strategy
Alphen, Netherlands. 22 December 2018. The resignation of General Mattis as Secretary of Defense on Thursday was because he understands the nature of the complex strategic coercion in which both China, Russia and others are engaged and President Trump does not. Worse, President Trump has become a useful idiot for the likes of Presidents Putin and Xi. He thinks that statecraft can be reduced to doing transactional deals with fellow leaders, ‘mano a mano’. Statecraft simply does not work like that. His decision to declare a premature victory over IS in Syria reveals the extent of President Trump’s grand strategic illiteracy. Mission accomplished? Such a decision might motivate his domestic political base, the sons and daughters of whom in many ways provide the spine of the American military. It also reveals a complete lack of understanding on the part of President Trump about the existential nature of the twenty-first century Great Power struggle between democracy and autocracy, the vital need for the intelligent use of American power, and the place of Syria in the wider struggle underway between democracy and autocracy.
It’s the grand strategy stupid!
In his resignation letter he wrote: “It is clear that China and Russia…want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic and security decisions – to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors”. In other words, the relevance and cost of the power projection armed forces both China and Russia are constructing can only be understood in the context of the complex strategic coercion they seek. Many Western political leaders and commentators fixate simply on the fast improving capabilities and capacities of the two country’s respective armed forces. They are, of course, right to be concerned. However, it is the strategy – the ends and means – that should be the real concern. General Mattis understands this.
Grand strategy is the systematic application of immense means in pursuit of world-changing ends. Beijing and Moscow are applying a range of coercive and inductive tools to force other states to align their critical choices with Chinese and Russian interests. Such strategy was implicit in President Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ speech of 17 December 2018, Russia’s use of force in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait in November and the tone of much of President Putin’s annual 'end of year' press conference on 20 December.
Belatedly, Britain seems to have woken up to this dangerous reality, even if the response only reveals the large gap between the ends, ways and means in the policy of America’s apparently most capable ally. This morning HMS Echo will arrive in Ukraine to demonstrate British resolve in the face of Putin’s once again increasing threat to south-eastern Ukraine, with the port of Mariupol in particular danger. In fact, HMS Echo is a lightly-armed survey vessel and to the Russians her deployment will look more like echo of empire Gilbert and Sullivan than sophisticated Bismarckian message-sending. Unfortunately, self-obsessed western Europeans are as strategically-illiterate as President Trump given their belief that covenants can replace swords when dealing with the likes of President Putin and President Xi.
Fighting Complex Strategic Coercion
So what is the complex strategic coercion that General Mattis gets and President Trump does not? It is what I call 5D warfare; a complex tool of coercion that stretches across and ‘weaponises’ five new domains of coercion: disinformation, destabilisation, disruption, destruction and deception. The aim is to destroy the ability of powerful Western states to act decisively and effectively in their own defence by conducting an unrelenting war at the seams of their complex, diverse societies. It is a form of coercive grand strategy purposely designed as war at the margins of the Alliance and the Union with the specific objective of forcing small vulnerable allies and partners to begin accepting the implicit power writ of both Russia and China over their affairs, and in so doing undermine the alliances that they have chosen to join.
Moscow is seeking is to create the conditions that, if Moscow so chose, would afford Russia the opportunity to exert decisive pressure, by force if needs be, at a place and location of its choice. For Russia complex strategic coercion is thus designed to achieve a decisive local-strategic comparative advantage across an arc of Russian-generated instability that stretches from Norway’s North Cape, through Northern Sweden and Finland to the Baltic States, the Black Sea region, the Levant, the Western Balkans and beyond, i.e. Syria. It is within that strategic context that Russian force modernisation must be seen.
China is undertaking a similar campaign in Asia-Pacific. Beijing’s approach, replete as it is with a massive cyber-hacking campaign, is far more sophisticated than that of Moscow, not least because Beijing has the means to foster debt-dependency in target states. It is just as coercive. Again, this is something General Mattis understands and why he was calling for the ‘comprehensive’ application of American power. President Trump clearly does not.
Don’t make America alone again
Putting aside the meltdown of strategic responsibility in Britain’s political class the importance of allies to the United States has never been greater. In his letter of resignation General Mattis wrote: “Our core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships”. The very real danger now is that with General Mattis gone President Trump’s obsession with the political short-term, which is the true cause of his strategic illiteracy, will now run roughshod and untrammelled over America’s strategic interests and its allies. That President Trump will become ever more like a latter-day version of the isolationist Senator Arthur Vandenburg who supported the Neutrality Act that undoubtedly hastened World War Two. At least Vandenburg had the bigness of mind to reverse course when Pearl Harbor was attacked on 7 December 1941. President Trump?
It is that failure of vision, of understanding and of the nature of American power itself that, I suspect, ultimately forced a much-decorated, serving US Marine general who is deeply imbued with an immense sense of duty to the people he served to finally abandon his post in quiet, dignified despair.
Thursday was a good day for autocrats. It was a bad day for the free world.