hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 31 May 2019

(Not) Figuring out the Future of Europe’s Defence

On the up?

Alphen, Netherlands. 31 May. Europeans will not start really fearing what they should fear in the wider world, until they stop secretly fearing each other.  Consequently, deep down they cannot decide if they want to empower other Europeans or enfeeble them. That is why real European defence remains still-born, why Europeans have become cheap defence junkies, and why Europeans continue to ask Americans to defend them from the world and each other.
The trigger for that opening statement was a piece I read on a plane to Rome this week to address the Conference of Commandants of Alliance defence academies hosted by the NATO Defence College and the Italian Centre for High Defence Studies (CASD). Entitled “On the up: Western defence spending in 2018”, published by IISS, and written by Canadian academic Lucie Beraud-Sudreau, the piece endeavoured to apply some ‘science’ to the problem of defence expenditure by Europeans. However, there was also a political message; that Europeans do spend a lot on defence and that American claims to bear too high a burden for the defence of Europe are misplaced.

The theme of the piece is established early. “After years of reduced spending after the end of the Cold War and in the wake of the financial crisis, NATO’s European members increased their defence budgets by 4.2% in real terms in 2018”. It goes on: “Their [NATO Europeans] total spending would – if the aggregated figure of US$264bn were considered on its own – amount to the second largest defence budget in the world”. The crunch sentence is thus: “…given Washington’s other global commitments, attributing to European defence the entirety of the US commitment would…seem to overstate the US commitment [to European defence JLF]”.  So, Europeans DO spend a lot on their own defence, possibly enough, and the Americans overstate their commitment to the defence of Europe. According to the piece all that is needed now is for Europeans to spend what they spend a bit more efficiently (common defence?) and more cooperatively.
Europe’s no pies in the sky defence

Now, I have been reading this stuff for decades. Of its kind this is not one of the bigger ‘pie in the sky’ pieces on European defence that I have read. It is well-written, well-researched, well-argued, and just plain wrong. It makes the mistake many such ‘Europeans ARE spending enough but not well enough’ pieces make by failing to address WHY Europeans still refuse to spend better, what defence outcomes Europeans should collectively aspire to, and just how much defending themselves without the Americans would cost. With regard to the latter, forget NATO’s 2% GDP Defence Investment Pledge, a truly autonomous European defence investment pledge would require at least each state to spend 4% GDP per annum on defence, probably more, with much of that funding ‘sunk’ into a central European defence fund. Only then could Europeans hope to replace the high-end forces and resources which the Americans bring to bear and which are the true granite of Europe’s defence, and the rock upon which deterrence stands.

So, why do Europeans refuse to pool their resources after decades of empty European defence rhetoric? There is at least one equation that must be understood if one is to grasp the ghastly politics of European defence: the more money promised the smaller the force becomes whilst conversely the smaller the force the more tasks assigned to whilst the number of acronyms (‘new’ forces) created to carry out such tasks expand exponentially.  In other words, European defence remains an essentially political project rather than a serious defence.

The hard truth is that Europeans still do not trust each other enough to pool sufficient forces and resources to become “more efficient and cooperative”. For many of European countries their armed forces are intrinsically tied-up with their sense of national identity. They also act as sources of labour represented by vested political interests that have real clout in many European countries. Europeans also suffer from their own version of ‘pork barrel politics’ with defence industries not only strongly-represented in the political class, but also a vital source of employment often in swing parliamentary constituencies. That latter imperative is why Britain’s two enormous and hugely-expensive new aircraft carriers really got built. It is also the reason why the fielding times and project costs of so much new European defence equipment is so often lamentable, bordering on the criminal.

What to do?

The piece is at its weakest when it implies that a direct comparison of the annual cost to the Americans for the defence of the Alliance with European defence outlays is the true test of burden-sharing. Yes, the Americans may have forces spread the world-over but those forces also have the strategic enablers across air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge which Europeans, by and large, lack. Strategic enablers without which most forward deployed European forces would simply be sausage-meat in the making in any war. Strategic enablers that the Americans routinely make available to Europeans through the Alliance and which many Europeans too often now take for granted.

Here’s the twist: only in the extreme event of a new high-end world war could one envisage the Americans being forced to deny Europeans such support. Yes, as the piece states, European defence expenditure is “…equivalent of 1.5 times China’s official [note ‘official’ JLF] budget (US$168bn), and almost four times Russia’s estimated total military expenditure (US$63bn)…” And yet, there is no serious comparison to be made between Europe’s generated defence outcomes and those of contemporary China and Russia.

Given that stark reality the piece would have been immeasurably stronger if the essentially defence economic argument had been balanced and reinforced with the sage words of General Mark Milley in his May 2018 testimony to the US Congress.  Milley stated, “I’ve seen comparative numbers of US defense budget versus China, US defense budget versus Russia. What is not often commented on is the cost of labor. We’re the best paid military in the world by a long shot. The cost of Russian soldiers or Chinese soldiers is a tiny fraction”.  Milley then went on to suggest that if one strips out the relative high cost of US labour the defence outcomes China and Russia generate are dangerously close to those generated by the US.

Critically, Chinese and Russia defence outcomes in the scope and mass of forces they generate are way beyond any forces Europeans can aspire to simply because there is no, and there can be no comparison between the bang for the buck America, China and Russia generate, and the squeak for the buck Europeans generate. And, for all the rhetoric to the contrary, there is little sign that Europe’s defence squeak is going to get any louder any time soon.

Beraud-Sudreau is essentially correct when she suggests Europeans SHOULD spend more effectively and cooperatively. Sadly, there is little chance they will. What she can expect are yet more ‘big’ announcements, and even ‘bigger’ European claims about not an awful lot. European defence is the mouse that squeaked, and it was ever thus.

Julian Lindley-French  


Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Chinese Europe: Belt, Road and Chains?

“In proposing the Belt and Road Initiative, the aim is to carry forward the spirit of the ancient Silk Road by combining the dream of Chinese people with that of people living in countries involved in the initiative…”
President Xi Jingping

US defence/Chinese money?

Alphen, Netherlands. 22 May. Can Europe rely on the US for its strategic security and defence, and China for infrastructure investment? It is a timely question because yesterday Huawei launched its new mobile phone in London. It was also the implicit question at this past weekend’s excellent Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn, Estonia which I had the honour to attend.  Naturally, given its location, much of the debate was focussed on the threat posed by Russia to the Baltic States. There was another strategic elephant in the room – China. More specifically, the strategic implications of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Much of my work at present is focussed on elaborating my concept of complex strategic coercion and 5D warfare, the sustained and systematic application of deception, disinformation, destabilisation, disruption and implied destruction by Russia at the margins of NATO and the EU, and between the seams of Europe’s increasingly complex societies. After listening to the debates in Tallinn I am tempted to add a sixth ‘D’ – debt - Chinese debt.

The message was clear at Lennart Meri was clear: Europeans should be under no illusions about the level of strategic ambition driving China’s BRI. This $1 trillion project is part of a China-centric ‘cob-web’ strategy designed to tie countries economically to Beijing as part of Beijing’s broader strategic competition with the United States and others. Today, BRI involves sixty-eight countries with the ‘Road’ stretching along some 6000 kilometres of sea lines between south-east Asia, the Pacific (Oceania) and North Africa. The ‘Belt’ sees immense Chinese investment in roads and railways across Central and Western Asia, the Middle East and, critically, Europe.

There is no such thing as a free bridge

On the face of it such investment should be welcomed. However, there is no such thing as a free bridge.  Chinese investment is not Western aid and development. Rather, China uses its corporations to exert influence, and if needs be coercion, by using cheap loans for the development of infrastructure in poorer countries to promote reliance and dependency by driving up debt-GDP ratios. When a country defaults on the debt China aggressively demands recompense, often in the form of strategic infrastructure, with their corporations often acting as the spear-tip of coercion.

For example, China recently (and effectively) seized the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota when Sri Lanka defaulted on its Chinese debt. The case had eerie parallels with the 1842 ceding by China’s then Qing dynasty of Hong Kong Island to the British during the First Opium War. Britain engineered the acquisition of Hong Kong Island, in line with its strategic aim of the time, to expand its mercantilist and imperial ambitions in South and East Asia. For China, the Sri Lankan port is no less strategic.

It is not the only parallel between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Britain’s imperial past. Jonathan Hillman has just published a fascinating May 2019 piece for Washington’s CSIS entitled War and PEACE on China’s Digital Silk Road. Hillman highlights the efforts, of what I have dubbed the post-1815 Second British Empire, to control strategic communications. In the wake of victory over Napoleon what had been primarily a commercially-driven mercantilist empire increasingly became ‘strategic’ as British corporate and state interests merged. In Britain’s case the establishment of so-called All Red lines, an exclusive network of telegraph lines, helped facilitate London’s control and gave Britain a critical strategic communications advantage over rivals.

China is endeavouring to do a similar thing in this digital age through control over digital networks. 95% of all international communications take place through sea-bed cables. One of its flagship projects is called PEACE and takes place in Pakistan, formerly part of the British Raj. PEACE, or the Pakistan East Africa Cable Express, is designed to enable the fastest internet link between Asia and Africa.  The PEACE cable also begins in the port of Gwadar in Pakistan, which is also part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and at which China would like to establish a naval base.   In other words, China is developing the capability and capacity to threaten those it does not control, and enhance its influence over the rest.  At present, China, or rather Huawei, is laying or enhancing some one hundred high data rate digital lines under the sea.

1 over 16 equals domination?

What of Europe? The dilemma that many Central and Eastern European countries (CEEC) face, but refuse to confront, concerns the nature, length and political implications of the strings attached to Chinese money. And, the likely impact of taking such money on their strategic relations with the United States.  In November 2015, China-CEEC co-operation was established at a big bash in Suzhou City. The Accord was (and is) where BRI enters Europe, with projects ranging from development, industrial capacity-building, innovative financing, trade enhancement and beyond.   On the face of it, the Accord simply enables trade and promotes prosperity for debt-ridden European countries. However, if past patterns of Chinese influence are to be applied in Europe, the Accord also implies a degree of potential coercion. It is that potential for Chinese coercion of both EU and NATO members that is worrying both Brussels and Washington. In particular, that in a crisis certain EU and NATO members would be ‘persuaded’ by Beijing to withhold their support for the Americans and thus, in effect, paralyse the Alliance.

Why is China so aggressive? Beijing is subject to a pressing imperative which drives China to apply all and every means available to expand its economy, and which belies the lazy Western idea that China always takes a long view. You know, the old 1960s Zhou Enlai joke about it being too early to assess the impact of the 1789 French Revolution. It is an imperative that was laid out clearly in President Xi Jingping’s 2013 China Dream speech, and which has been regularly re-stated since. Put simply, the Communist Party survives in unfettered power in China because in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre of democracy protesters the Chinese state established a new ‘contract’ with its people – unquestioned power in return for rising prosperity. Since 1989 Beijing has fulfilled that pledge through the astronomic growth of the Chinese economy often at, or above, 10% per annum. Much of that growth came from the modernisation of China itself. However, there are now signs that such internally-driven growth is slowing and China must seek to maintain growth through externally-driven extractive (Arctic BRI?) and exploitative policies abroad, hence the Belt and Road Initiative, whilst limiting access to the enormous Chinese market.

Belt, road and chains?

The BRI is thus part of an expansionist grand strategy driven by internal political imperatives. As such, the BRI is simply the flip side of China’s burgeoning military capabilities evident in its aggressive policies in the South China Sea and far beyond. The United States may have a world-wide presence, but it has no such aspirations to exert the kind of control over other states that Beijing seeks through the BRI.
Could Europeans both rely on the US for its security and defence, and China for infrastructure investment? Within certain limits, and if China observed the kind of rules enshrined in the World Trade Organisation. The problem is there are few limits to BRI, which is precisely why it is so seductive and so dangerous given the level of indebtedness it can generate. Whilst China has occasionally offered debt forgiveness it is rare, and only when a bigger strategic prize is in the offing. Beijing also refuses to play by trade (and many other) rules which the US not only observes, but by and large created. Critically, Europeans must understand that the United States and China are, and will continue to be, strategic competitors. The current round of trade tensions and the tech Cold War are merely symptoms of a structural competition that will shape geopolitics in the twenty-first century. And, given the nature of Sino-US strategic competition it will sooner rather than later force those Europeans seduced by Chinese money to choose sides.

It is vital Europeans understand the differences between democratic America and autocratic China. Yes, the United States can drive hard bargains on its European allies at times. Yes, US corporations often play hard ball. However, the Americans have been, and continue to be (European Deterrence Initiative???), extraordinarily generous to Europeans by affording them a defence which is far beyond that which Europeans seem willing themselves to afford. Moreover, because of the many separation of many powers under the US Constitution the relationship between the US Government and US commerce is often as tough as any between the US and third countries. There is no such separation of powers in China.  Indeed, Chinese companies are legally-required to act as agents of the Chinese state. It is precisely this ability to use corporate entities as strategic leverage which is making so many British lawmakers uneasy about Huawei’s possible role in the development of Britain’s 5G network.

In other words, those Europeans tempted by the shiny baubles in the BRI seduction pack must be under no illusions that over time the belt will gradually tighten and the road will begin to lead downhill towards the chains of political and strategic subjugation. In such circumstances, those same European states could well lose the protection of the United States as the cohesion of NATO becomes progressively undermined. In the security vacuum that would inevitably ensue they would also find themselves at the mercy of another strategic predator – Russia. Lennart Meri, of all people, would understand that.

Julian Lindley-French           

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

The Iran Nuclear Deal Crisis: Briefing & Analysis

14 May 2019

Where are we at?

There is a lot going on this week with the US and China at each other’s throats over trade. Thankfully, and hopefully, the US and China are not close to war. The US trade embargo is not the same as the oil embargo placed by Washington on Tojo’s Japan prior to Pearl Harbor, not least because Xi’s China is far stronger in relative terms than Tojo’s Japan ever was – aircraft carriers, super-battleships and all.  The more pressing issue is the growing stand-off between the US and Iran in the Gulf. Last week the US despatched the super-carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and its strike group to the Gulf. It also despatched a missile defence battery and a bomber group to the region. The US also has some 5000 troops still in Iraq. 

Washington is ratcheting up pressure on Tehran a year after the Trump administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, that limited Iran’s nuclear ambitions in return for the progressive lifting of economic sanctions. If a conflict does break out it would be a very twenty-first century war with America’s advanced stand-off strike capabilities facing Iran’s use of proxies and terrorists. One reason nothing has happened yet is that Tehran is using the sixty days withdrawal notice permitted under JCPOA to put pressure on the so-called E3 to convince Washington to ease off. The E3 – Britain, France and Germany – were signatories to the JCPOA and a conflict would be the first real test of transatlantic cohesion under Trump.  The US and its major European allies simply disagree over how to handle the Middle East, in general, and Iran, in particular. Regional strategic implications also abound. Iran’s regional enemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are on full alert.  Geopolitics are also apparent. How would Russia, following its ‘victory’ in the Syria War and ever-more-influential China react to a US fight with Iran?  

How did we get here?

The JCPOA was agreed on 14 July, 2015 in Vienna between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the E3/EU+3. It states: “The E3/EU3+3 (China, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, with the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) with the Islamic Republic of Iran welcomes the historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which will ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful, and mark a fundamental shift in their approach to this issue”.  Whilst the JCPOA concerns the nature and scope of Iran’s ambitions to build nuclear weapons the Accord was as much about contemporary geopolitics and the regional-strategic security and stability of the Middle East. 

The JCPOA was 159 pages long, attesting to its complexity and extensive efforts to build on the November 2013 Geneva Accord.  The main aim of the Accord was to reaffirm the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as the essential benchmark for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to so-called non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS). Under the agreement Iran was to be transformed from a so-called ‘threshold state’ into a non-nuclear weapons state. Iran was also be required to end “possible military dimensions” of its nuclear programme. 

Central to the Accord were strengthened safeguards and a verification and inspection regime by the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) that was intrusive, even if it stopped short of ‘no warning inspections’. It was a Safeguards Regime that was based on, but more extensive than, that agreed under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  IAEA inspectors also had the right to inspect so-called ‘suspicious facilities’.  However, because the inspectors were unable to carry out snap exercises some concluded the Iranians had cheated, most notably Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, even though on June 6 2018 the IAEA reported that Iran was in compliance. 

The focus of the Accord was on preventing the weapons-grade enrichment of both uranium 235 and plutonium.  Uranium enrichment was to be curtailed by reducing the number of operational centrifuges from 19,000 to 5000 and limiting Iran to the use of short lifespan first generation centrifuges.  Medium-enriched uranium was to be rendered unfit for use in weapons.  Some 9700 kg of Iran’s 10,000 kg low-enriched uranium was also to be shipped abroad.  Fordow, one of two main research and development sites, was to cease all enrichment and become a physics research centre with no access to fissile material for at least 15 years.  The Arak heavy water reactor vital to the development of weapons grade plutonium was to have its core destroyed and, under the terms of the Accord, Iran would seek no heavy water production again for at least 15 years.  Iran is now threatening to abandon those central provisions of the Accord. Specifically, Tehran has threatened to limit its stockpile of low-enriched (non-weapons-grade) uranium to 300 kg and its heavy water reserve to 130 tons.

Under the terms of the Accord the EU, US and United Nations Security Council (UNSC) agreed to lift a range of trade sanctions and unfreeze some $150 bn of Iranian oil assets held in foreign banks.  However, sanctions relief was linked to Iran’s compliance over time and thus would only take place in stages.  Critically, there was to be no complete relief from sanctions until the agreement had been implemented in full and the Arak reactor destroyed.  A strong so-called ‘snap back’ regime was also put in place that allowed for sanctions to be re-imposed quickly if the Accord was breached, and without recourse to a further UNSC Resolution.

On May 8 2018 the United States withdrew from the JCPOA on the grounds that the Accord was insufficiently robust and re-imposed sanctions. In a sign of the depth of transatlantic tensions over Iran and the Accord, on May 17 the European Commission declared “illegal” the US sanctions on Iran as they applied to European doing business with Iran, and instructed the European Central Bank to facilitate investment to Iran.


To understand the events of the past week one has to consider the nature of the Iranian regime and the respective world-views of President Trump and many Europeans. This is one of those moments in international relations when all Parties can claim virtue, and yet all are Parties are at fault.  There is some evidence Iran has been cheating on some of the Accord’s provisions and Washington (and Tel Aviv) is right to be concerned about that.  At the same time, the fact of the Accord was a political and strategic breakthrough that could in time have led to improved relations between the West and Iran.

Critical to understanding current tensions is a key phrase in the Accord reads, “They [the Parties to the Accord] anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will contribute to regional and international peace and security”.  The Trump administration believes Tehran has made no such attempt to implement that provision and has decided to exert what it calls “maximum pressure” on Tehran to change its wider foreign policy. Brian Hook, the US special representative on Iran, called the US action a “response to Iranian aggression”. “Everything we are doing is defensive”, he went on. “Iran is still the leading sponsor of terrorism in the world. If they’re behaving this way without a nuclear weapon, imagine how they’ll behave with one”.    

Critically, the Trump administration has never liked the JCPOA, which it sees as the leitmotif for Obama’s (and European) weakness in its dealings with Iran. Indeed, for Trump the JCPOA is a weak ‘deal’ which Iran won from a weak Administration. There is also no small part of American domestic politics at play here. Critics also note the timing of the US withdrawal from the Accord and it closeness to a 2018 visit to the US by Israeli Premier Netanyahu. Hook says that the US aim is not provoke a war.  “We have two goals that overlap”, he states. “One is that we’d like to get a new and better deal that succeeds the Iran nuclear deal. It will be comprehensive: nukes, missiles, regional aggression [by Iran] and human rights”. Hook also claims that Washington is seeking to make “…Iran’s foreign policy unsustainable”. This probably refers to Iran’s support for Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, as well as Houthi militias in Yemen.

The timing of this latest round of tension is also important. For a time Shia Iran was deeply concerned by the rise of Sunni Islamic State and focussed on the war in Syria. The JCPOA was partly reflective of Iran’s regional concerns between 2013 and 2017. The public suspension of Iran’s nuclear ambitions helped to forge an implicit anti-IS ‘coalition’ at least over the short-term. Those concerns have now abated and the US clearly has some intelligence to suggest Iran is beginning to ramp up its nuclear programme again.

The security of Israel is also a key issue for the Americans. The Accord did not lead to a shift in Tehran long-standing and extreme hostility to Israel.  Indeed, the Americans have long been concerned that post-sanctions oil-income would bolster Iran’s wider policy of funding and arming anti-Israeli proxies, and strengthen the role and position of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Syria.  With Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza restocked and re-supplied and President Assad in Syria now bolstered Iran the Americans have some cause for concern.  

The geopolitics of this crisis is equally concerning. The Accord was reflective of a struggle between a rules-based international order and Machtpolitik. It is the latter that would appear to prevailing as the world teeters in the balance between a treaty-based world order and a new balance of power and global disorder. As such the Accord was a modest but important step back from the brink of Machtpolitik in the Middle East and its demise (for in the absence of US support its demise is surely now a given) could well herald acceleration in the regional and, quite possibly, the global arms races both of which are already underway.

China and Russia? China has called for the Accord to be implemented in full. At the same time, China has established a naval base at Djibouti and continues to extend its influence in the Gulf and the wider Middle East.  Russia succeeded in Syria at the expense of the US and its disparate European allies. The West is now seen as a busted flush across much of the Middle East.

Where next?

Where next? For Americans power, albeit under law, is the essence of foreign and security policy, for Europeans law for law’s sake has become what exists of their collective or common foreign and security policy. For President Trump, the power of the presidency to exercise American power in what he sees as the vital American interest. His use of presidential authority and powers is also the source of much contention between him and much of Congress. That battle is also apparent in this conflict.

As for the Europeans, the EU has become the very embodiment of Europe’s abandonment of hard power as an instrument of policy. As an aside, Jeremy Hunt, a British prime ministerial wannabe, yesterday called for Britain’s hard power to be rebuilt. Like most European states these days, it is questionable if Britain’s hard edge could now survive its soft virtue-signalling core.  The best that might thus be said of the ‘West’s’ approach to Iran is that the US is playing ‘bad cop’, whilst the Europeans have cast themselves as ‘good cops’. In fact, Americans and Europeans simply disagree over how to deal with Iran and the wider Middle East.

As for the regime in Tehran, no-one should be under any illusions as to the extent of its regional-strategic ambitions.  Iran is a Persian, Shia country in an Arab, predominantly Sunni region. There is every reason to believe that unless contained Iran will continue to use proxy militias and terrorists groups to destabilise the Arab states to its west and south.  Iran has also not given up on its ambitions to become a nuclear power, even if (or partially because) Tehran also fully aware that Saudi money paid for much of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, and that Riyadh is quite capable of rapidly becoming a nuclear power should (when) the Accord falter.  Iran will certainly seek to gain from the profound division between the Trump administration and its European allies.   

Within Iran, tensions remain between relative moderates around President Rouhani, who believe that Iran’s changing society must accommodate itself, at least to some extent, with globalisation, and hard-liners in and around the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei and the powerful Revolutionary Guard, who see themselves as the guardians of the 1979 Revolution.  Equally, it would be far too simplistic to suggest there is a split between Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rouhani.  Iran remains first and foremost an Islamic Republic with clerical power still the deciding force in Iranian policy-making.  The Accord itself reflected an accommodation between the two factions.

There are some indications that Iran would prefer to avoid an open conflict with the US right now. However, whether or not elements of the JCPOA survive this particular moment of tension the trajectory towards conflict remains unless there is a game-changer.

Julian Lindley-French  

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Has US Geopolitics gone Caracas?

“We [US] owe it…to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those [European] powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their systems to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and security”.
President James Monroe, 2 December 1823

Monroe 2019?

Alphen, Netherlands. 8 May. On this day, the seventy-fourth anniversary of the end of World War Two it may seem strange to some that I am writing about Venezuela. To paraphrase a certain British prime minister, Venezuela is a small country far away about which we know little. However, what is happening in Venezuela also says a lot about the state of US geopolitics and why China and Russia are finding it so easy to export their particular coercive creed far beyond their respective borders.

In 1823 the US established the Monroe Doctrine. Until Secretary of State John Kerry publicly abrogated the Doctrine in November 2013 it pretty much represented two centuries of an American determination to keep other Great Powers out of the American continent, particularly the Latin American bit of it.  Not surprisingly, many Latin American countries long-regarded the Monroe Doctrine as unwarranted ‘gringo’ interference in their affairs. The origins of the Monroe Doctrine are worth recounting because it has little to do with America’s southern neighbours, even though implicit within it was a warning to a then fading imperial Spain not to interfere with American trade ambitions in the region.  Rather, the Monroe Doctrine was a consequence of Russia’s UKASE of 1821 which claimed territorial sovereignty over much of what is today Alaska, western Canada and the US Pacific North West. The message was clear: keep off the grass!

American power?

Contrast that with the Trump administration’s uncertain handling of the crisis in Venezuela and the influence both China and Russia are exerting over it. Last week, US National Security Adviser, John Bolton, called Latin America, “our hemisphere”.  For a moment it seemed ‘Operation Freedom’, as opposition leader, Juan Guaido called it, would prevail and the Chavista President Nicolas Maduro would be ousted.  He deserves to be. In the early 1980s the GDP per capita of Venezuela was some 40% of that of the US. Today, it is close to 4% with some 3.4 million people of a population of some 23 million having fled what should be one of Latin America’s oil-richest countries. And yet, the lamentable Maduro regime endures. What happened?
Last week several senior Venezuelan ministers, including the defence minister, and much of the military top brass, seemed willing to jump ship.  At one point, Guaido was even filmed with military officers at a base on what seemed to be the beginning of a coup that, if not formally sanctioned by the Americans and their European allies, would have at least been legitimised by them.  After all, both the US and EU had declared Guaido to be Venezuela’s legitimate president.

And yet, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN that whilst Maduro “…had a plane on the tarmac” ready to flee to Cuba “…the Russians indicated he should stay”.  Interestingly, Pompeo is in London today ostensibly to mark forty years since the accession to power of Margaret Thatcher, but also to stiffen the dissolved backbone of the May administration and warn about the dangers of embracing Chinese 5G too closely.  Irony?

The geopolitics of Venezuela

The geopolitical precedent and its significance established by the events of the past week in Venezuela cannot be over-stated.  Indeed, as Pompeo speaks in London a strange spinning sound might well be audible from across that Atlantic. It is sound of American presidents past spinning in their respective graves across the twenty-three states in which they are interred must be deafening. 
First, the simple truth is that Latin America is in America’s strategic backyard and of vital interest to the US. Many Latin American leaders will have watched the uncertainty and flip-flopping of the Trump administration over the past week with some bafflement.  It suggests a President Trump all-too willing to talk tough but not act even in America’s own strategic backyard. The US Venezuela policy fiasco certainly goes some way to explaining the tough talk on China and trade that has emanated from the White House this past weekend.

Second, a precedent has been established that will embolden the world’s two great strategic autocracies, China and Russia.  In Venezuela, China is providing the money both to prop up the regime by buying its oil whilst Russia is exerting direct influence over the regime via security ‘co-operation’. Put simply, for the ‘investment’ of the dispatch of a few Russian military aircraft and a coterie of ‘advisers’ to Venezuela President Putin has achieved a strategic effect out of all proportion to the size of Russia’s presence. He has also built on his growing world-wide reputation as the confounder of the West. In such a context, whilst the crisis in Venezuela may not be the second coming of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the strategic challenge to America should not be under-estimated. 
Whither American leadership?

What are the causes of Washington’s volte face on Venezuela and the geopolitical implications?  It could be that President Trump, who is already engaged in electioneering, does not want be mired in any entangling engagements. After all, much of his political base is instinctively isolationist. And, a new report by the Pentagon states that it would take six years at least and some $80bn to stabilise Venezuela.  Trump clearly fears the spectre of another entangling engagement similar to Iraq and Afghanistan, albeit this time in Spanish. It could be that he does not see Venezuela as that important to the US and is happy to live with Russian and Chinese interference therein.  After all, Washington learned to live with the Castro regime in Cuba following repeated failures to remove him and his regime from power. There could be another reason.  It is being reported that this past weekend Trump and Putin had a “good conversation” about the need to limit growing Chinese influence in the Arctic.  There was apparently an equally feel-good conversation between Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Arctic Council meeting in Finland.

Could it be that President Trump is willing to accept Chinese and Russian influence in Latin America in return for Russian support to limit Chinese influence in the Arctic?  If so, then US geopolitics really has gone Caracas. The Putin regime defines itself by its opposition to the US-led West. What Venezuela appears to reveal is an increasingly imperial president who sees geopolitics as simply a variant of the Art of the Deal. If so, it would be a profound mistake. Any ‘deal’ is simply a consequence of geopolitics and the applied and considered statecraft needed to enact it. Geopolitics is essentially the clear and consistent application of power over time and distance to generate strategic effect through the use of all tools, resources, partnerships and alliances available to a state in pursuit of its critical and vital interests. What is clear is that Putin is playing Trump.

The strategic implications of Venezuela for US geopolitics are equally concerning. The Trump administration’s capricious lack of strategic consistency and its abandonment of statecraft is encouraging the strategic autocracies to interfere, even in America’s strategic backyard. Indeed, there is something of the ‘European’ about Trump’s foreign and security policy at present – all talk and no trousers, as we say in Yorkshire. What makes this surprising, to say the least, is that there is real foreign and security policy experience in and around the White House, but it seems strangely neutered.  Rather, the impression, even to those of us who believe in American leadership, is of a White House that functions like some latter-day medieval court. A court in which the main effort of those charged with the high responsibilities of state seems more focused on keeping in favour with a Quixotic ‘king’, than establishing the firm principles upon which American power must stand in a highly-competitive twenty-first century world.
US geopolitics gone Caracas 

The geopolitical message to both Beijing, Moscow, and many of America’s allies the world-over is thus clear: if America can exert little or no decisive influence over a significant regional crisis in its own strategic backyard what hope elsewhere?  The United States is the hub of the global West – an idea rather than a place. However, if Washington is to balance the benefits and burdens that its power imposes upon it America’s leaders need the vision and consistent application to realise the opportunities that such a coalition of democracies affords it. Rather, America is fast becoming a superpower that acts like a much smaller power; opportunistic, obsessed with narrow, factional gain, rather than offering the kind of inspiration that assures allies and partners. As for adversaries, they do not have to like American power, but they do need to respect it. It is increasingly self-evident that both China and Russia are fast losing respect for American power in much the same way they long ago lost respect for European ‘power’. Whither the West? Without assured American leadership the ‘West’ is little more than a rhetorical chimera.

In awarding the President Medal of Freedom to golfer Tiger Woods on Monday, President Trump spoke of American excellence, devotion and drive as ‘qualities that embody the American spirit of pushing boundaries, defying limits and always striving for greatness”. Venezuela? Americans and Europeans together need to recognise that the geopolitics implicit in what is happening in Venezuela is about far more than strategic transactionalism – the Arctic for Venezuela for example. It is about world order and the West’s need to assure its vital interests through assured American leadership. 

Has US geopolitics gone Caracas?

Julian Lindley-French

Thursday, 2 May 2019

The Sorry Demise of Gavin Williamson

Staff Sergeant, pointing his pace-stick hard into the stomach of an officer cadet: “Sir, there is a shit at the end of this stick”. Officer Cadet: “Not at this end, Staff”
Anecdote from the late, great TV chef Keith Floyd.

Huawei this?

Alphen, Netherlands, 2 May. How has Britain been reduced to this? Keith Floyd’s aphorism just about sum up relations within what is left of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Cabinet.  Yesterday, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson was sacked for allegedly leaking details of a National Security Council meeting to a Daily Telegraph journalist. At the meeting Theresa May over-rode concerns from the security services to allow China’s Huawei to take part in the construction of Britain’s 5G critical infrastructure. Someone leaked her decision. Williamson categorically denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a witch-hunt. If so, by whom and for what reason?

Let me state for the record that if Williamson is responsible for the leak then May had no choice but to sack him. Given the nature of national security and the risks unnamed people take daily to keep millions safe it is vital that secrecy is maintained at the highest levels of government. For too long now May’s Brexit-battered Administration has given the impression of an Administration in which discipline has broken down at the high levels of responsibility.  And yet, and from a distance, I rather respected Williamson. Unlike many of his predecessors, who were simply sent to the Ministry of Defence to either keep defence cuts out of the headlines, or raid the defence budget, or both, Williamson fought hard for his department in the face of the strategic illiteracy of May and the Treasury (Finance Ministry) which seem to think that Britain exists in a benign world.

Williamson’s ‘mistakes’

The ‘mistakes’ Williamson seems to have made are fourfold. First, Williamson was Chief Whip (prime ministerial enforcer in the House of Commons) prior to his appointment as Secretary of State for Defence. In that role he made few attempts to make friends in the Parliamentary Conservative Party. Second, he crossed the almighty Treasury and May’s living, breathing Cardinal Richelieu, Chancellor Philip Hammond. Third, he also crossed the mighty (over-mighty?) civil servant Sir Mark Sedwill who combines the posts of Cabinet Secretary AND National Security Adviser. Sedwill had last year conducted the National Security Capabilities Review and rightly, to my mind, had sought to boost Britain’s intelligence and cyber defences. However, the Treasury, and its ‘we only recognise as much threat as we say you can afford’ approach to Britain’s security and defences, meant any such investment would have to come from within an already hard-pressed defence budget. Williamson successfully resisted the Sedwill Plan and also secured a modest increase in Britain’s beleaguered defence budget. Fourth, Williamson was not of the Establishment and thus not one of ‘Us’.

This morning Sedwill is getting much of the blame as the ‘architect’ of Williamson’s demise. In fact, what really led to Williamson’s downfall are the deep tensions within the Cabinet and the egregious lack of leadership from Prime Minister May. These tensions actually go deeper than Brexit, even if May’s disastrous ‘stewardship’ of the Britain’s not-leaving the EU has destroyed her authority and her Administration.

Britain’s China syndrome

There are two structural factors at work in Williamson’s dismissal that reveal the extent to which the current Administration has broken down. First, Britain cannot or will not afford the ways and means to achieve its declared stated security and defence ends. This is in spite the fast-changing nature of the mounting threats Britain faces. Rather, London fixates on maintaining the fantasy of Britain spending 2% GDP on defence but getting nothing like the defence outcomes 2% properly spent on defence would generate.  Second, there is a profound split within the Cabinet, and across government, as to whether China is an opportunity for Britain or a threat to it.
The ends, ways and means of Britain’s security and defence policy is at crisis point. To fund Britain’s existing defence equipment procurement plans alone would require an additional £21bn over public investment. However, the ‘fiscal discipline’ imposed by the Treasury since the 2010 and 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Reviews mean there is little chance of such money being made available to defence. The result has been the progressive cutting back of the front-line force and the hollowing out of logistics and all the vital forces and resources that are needed to maintain and sustain high-end operations during a major crisis which is seen as ever more plausible.

The Treasury’s China syndrome is equally telling. Phillip Hammond and his team see opportunity in China’s rise. Hammond is at the forefront of a business lobby in government that has also dominated May’s Brexit policy, such as it is. The Ministry of Defence and its partners in the Secret Intelligence Service, know only too well that China is a strategic competitor and that Huawei is ultimately an agent of the Chinese state.  To Phillip Hammond and the Treasury the focus is determinedly on the budget deficit and the national debt and how to reduce them. Good relations with China are key to that. Whilst to Williamson and his colleagues Britain’s future security and defence means keeping close to the Americans, especially intelligence-sharing through such groupings as Five Eyes, and China is a threat to that.
One state, two world-views

Both the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence are committed to Britain’s future security but they define ‘security’ completely differently. The result is that Britain is trying to ride two horses trying to eat each other at the same time – America and China. At the same time, Britain is seeking to feed a third horse, the European Union, even as it endeavours to dismount it.  The result is the chaos implicit in Williamson’s demise. Who is to blame? Ultimately, it is the appalling absence of leadership from Primus inter-Pares May that has created this breakdown in coherent national strategy and policy. Consequently, different departments of state have developed different world views.  It is these contending world views that ultimately did for Gavin Williamson.  Good luck with that, Penny Mordaunt.

Julian Lindley-French