“Laws are silent in times of war”
Rome, Italy. 27 October. War is unthinkable. Therefore, it must be thought about. I am back in the Eternal City reading about Cicero and his ultimately fatal tryst with Caesar over the age-old struggle between law and power. In a sense it is that struggle which is the theme of my blog today. Tomorrow I address the NATO Defence College on the future of NATO against the backdrop of two challenges to Western ideas of power and law. ISIS seeks to impose extreme religious law on the world, whilst President Putin simply wants power to trump law. My presence in Rome is certainly timely as I have just returned from an outstanding conference organised by Dr Robert Grant of Wilton Park on NATO and Russia. What was for me fascinating and worrying in equal measure was the inability of many of the ‘dips’ and officials around the table to admit that Russia’s actions of late have moved Europe closer to a major war than at any time since World War Two. Therefore, as the Alliance prepares for the 2016 Warsaw Summit it should heed the fourth century AD words of Roman philosopher Vegetius in De Re Militari, “Si vis pacem, para bellum.” (If you want peace, prepare for war).
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am no militarist. I am far too much the historian for that. Equally, I am very much a political realist and thus all too aware that illiberal regimes thrive by intimidating liberal regimes and people’s by the very implication of their power irrationality.
At the Wilton Park conference much was made of the new NATO “Russia Strategy”. The debate moved up and down, back and forth but it did not address the real issue; the possibility of war. The trouble was I could not ignore the ‘war’ word and intervened to suggest that if Russia’s warlike preparations on NATO’s Eastern Flank look like a war-duck, quack like a war-duck, and all-too-often violate air-space by flying like a war-duck, maybe just maybe we should listen to the signals President Putin is sending us and thus prepare for war. Naturally, my intervention was greeted like a bad fart at a diplomatic reception; clearly apparent but best politely ignored.
By ‘war’ I do not mean the Band-Aid, pretend strategy NATO currently has on offer. Reassurance Action Plans, Spearhead Forces et al are all very well and good. However, they bear little relation to what is needed to properly establish credible forward deterrence on NATO’s eastern flank. This sense of playing at deterrence ran through the conference. Indeed, one has only to see the gap between the rhetoric at the September 2014 Wales Summit about the need to strengthen deterrence via increased defence spending (eventually) and increased investment in defence equipment (occasionally), and today’s unforgiving reality. Indeed, for a new report by Price Waterhouse Coopers states that in the period 2014-2015 the only region in the world to actually reduce its defence expenditure was Western Europe – hardly the hard signalling of steely resolve.
Rather, conference seemed to place the preservation of fragile unity before political and military credibility. Naturally, much was made of various ‘action’ plans to be discussed at the Summit but all fell far short of the reformed full spectrum capability that NATO’s twenty-first century collective defence will need if the Alliance is to meet the challenges posed by Russia, ISIS, and by extension US over-stretch. It is as though the Alliance is lost in a strategy vacuum, mouthing the right words but prevented from turning pious words into proper policy, planning, and action.
The most pressing danger to NATO is a lack of leadership at the top. Indeed, the fault lies not with those diplomats and officials who valiantly try to eek some sense of strategic unity of effort and purpose out of irresolution and weakness. As I indicated in my interview last week with European Geostrategy the fault lies with the political minnows who pass themselves off as our leaders and for whom pulling the short-term political wool over the eyes of the people is far more important than preparing for their sound defence.
In such a leadership vacuum no diplomat or official, however skilled in the art of statecraft can fashion credibility from craven strategic illiteracy. The hard reality is that Europe’s political class from Chancellor Merkel down are simply unable or unwilling to bring themselves to face hard reality. That is why Europe is so crap at crisis management, any crisis, and why President Putin can get away with his power super-bluff.
What to do? The only way for NATO (not the EU, OSCE or UN) to restore credible deterrence (the primary mission of the Alliance) is to return to the principles of worst-case planning which informed the Alliance at its founding back in 1949. Indeed, it is the Alliance’s wilful retreat from the principles of traditional defence planning that have reinforced the strategy vacuum that President Putin is now exploiting.
When it came my turn to present at Wilton Park I offered a sobering worst-case scenario. It is 2020. The Russian economy has suffered repeated energy shocks and the domestic position of President Putin has become vulnerable, possibly unsustainable. Suddenly a crisis erupts in East China Sea involving key US allies and the US is forced to respond in force. After weeks of de-stabilisation, disinformation and deception power and information networks suddenly crash in the Baltic States, and across much of Eastern Europe. Alarming reports begin to appear of ‘Little Green Men’ at Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius airports. Military exercises underway in Kaliningrad and Belarus intensify and expand and the Kremlin begins to talk of NATO aggression and cites violations of Russian air, sea and land space, as well as attacks via cyberspace.
Russian forces begin to cross into the Baltic States to “restore peace and stability” and to consolidate a “peace buffer” between Russia and an “aggressive NATO”. Russian nuclear forces – both strategic and tactical – are placed on full alert. In a national TV address President Putin tells the Russian people he is simply straightening Russia’s “strategic defensive line”, acting to prevent the “oppression” of Russian minorities, and removing a final “anomaly” that has threatened Russia ever since the end of the Cold War.
Shortly thereafter Putin rings President Clinton and German Chancellor Merkel (surprisingly still in power) and tells her he had no alternative and does not seek a wider war with the West. He apologises for the ten American, five British and five French servicemen killed during Russia’s advance. He also offers compensation to the families and his “sincere condolences”, together with the immediate return of all those captured in what is now the Occupation Zone. He also offers free gas supplies to several EU member-states as a mark of his bona fides. At home flushed by apparent ‘success’ President Putin nationalist credentials are now on a par with Alexander Nevsky and Peter the Great.
In effect, Putin’s fait accompli offers President Clinton and Chancellor Merkel the same choice Britain and France faced in 1939 over Poland – space for time. In other words, having been unable to defend the Baltic States Putin poses NATO leaders a chilling question; does the rest of the Alliance really want to go to war with nuclear Russia to free them? After all, US forces are too over-stretched to respond in force in both Asia-Pacific and Europe (“the US cannot make 30,000 into 300,000”), and NATO Europeans are too militarily-weak and politically-divided to act as effective first responders. Surely, Putin implies, would it not be best for all concerned to negotiate the best terms possible for the people of the Baltic States now again under Russian rule?
If the Warsaw Summit does nothing else it must re-consider how to properly establish credible forward deterrence. That means a NATO that must think again about war, big war. Allied Command Operations and Allied Command Transformation must be instructed to do just that. For, as Thomas Hobbes once said, “Covenants without the sword are but words”. After all, it is Russia who is doing the intimidating and escalating, not NATO.
Quod, si vis pacem, para bellum. Thus, if we want peace, we must prepare for war…or at least be seen to be thinking properly about it.