hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 30 November 2015

Turkey has Russia and the EU in Dire Straits

Alphen, Netherlands. 30 November. Power politics has and always will be about exploiting space and people over time and distance, to exert the influence of the strategically strong, over the politically weak.

Look at a map of Eastern Europe and Western Asia from north to south. For the Russia Black Seas Fleet to sail from its base at Sevastopol via the Black Sea and into the Mediterranean it must first pass through the Bosporus directly in front of Istanbul, then sail south through the small Sea of Marmara, and finally on past Cernak into the Dardanelles straits before it can enter the Mediterranean.  The distance between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean is some 60 miles or 85 kilometres, all of which is under firm Turkish control. In other words without Turkey’s approval Russia’s Black Seas Fleet and Sevastopol, Russia’s only south facing warm water European fleet naval base, is rendered useless.

Consequently, if Turkey turns against Russia in the wake of last week’s downing of a Russian SU-24, much of the strategic rationale behind President Putin’s illegal seizure of Crimea is threatened. That is why for all Moscow’s bluster Putin knows all too well it is the Turks not the Russians who hold most (not all) of the strategic cards. Indeed, the Russian Black Seas Fleet is vital to wider Russian ambitions across and around the Mediterranean basin.

This is not the first time in history the Dardanelles and the Bosporus have been a grand strategic flashpoint. A century ago in December 1915 Allies forces were about to be withdrawn in the face of heroic Turkish resistance after Churchill’s failed attempt to force the Dardanelles with the Royal and French navies, and to take the Gallipoli Peninsula with an Allied Expeditionary Force of mainly British, Australian and New Zealand troops. The aim was to push Istanbul (Constantinople became Istanbul in 1453) out of its alliance with Wilhelmine Germany, and thus out of the First World War. The expedition was a spectacular failure as I saw for myself on a visit to Gallipoli as a guest of the Turkish Government.

In fact, Russia and Turkey (or more precisely the Ottoman Empire) have been fighting over the Dardanelles and the Bosporus ever since Moscow decided an all-year round warm water port was an essential Russian interest.  In 1807, during the Napoleonic wars, British and Russian forces blockaded the Dardanelles.   When Istanbul lost the 1828-1829 Russo-Turkish war Moscow forced the Ottomans to close the straits to all non-Russian (i.e. British) forces. European powers became alarmed by Russia’s de facto control of the straits and Moscow’s ambitions to extend its influence into the Mediterranean and the wider Middle East. Nothing new there then.

In 1841 at the London Straits Convention Austria-Hungary, Britain, France and Prussia, using the precedent set by the 1815 Congress of Vienna, forced Russia to agree that in peacetime only Ottoman warships could traverse the straits. During the 1853-1856 Crimean War the Royal and French navies actually traversed the straits into the Black Sea to blockade Sevastopol with the aim of denying Russia the very same warm water port that is deemed vital to Moscow’s twenty-first century grand strategy.  Indeed, the 1856 Congress of Paris which reaffirmed the 1841 convention is still in legal force today!

So, President Putin might make much play of deploying highly-advanced S400 anti-aircraft missiles to the Russian Air Force base at Latakia in Syria, and yes those missiles can reach deep into Turkish air space. He might also escort his SU-24 fighter-bombers with fighters, and hit Turkey with limited sanctions. However, implicit in Turkish President Erdogan’s warning to Russia “…not to play with fire” over the downing of the SU-24 is the inference that it is Istanbul not Moscow that has the strategic upper hand.

Now, turn aforesaid map around and look at it from west to east. All the Syrian and other refugees using the northern route from the Middle East to Europe have to cross the self-same Bosporus. Yesterday Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davotoglu met with EU leaders in Brussels at an EU-Turkey summit. Again, Istanbul not Brussels (or the real power capitals of Europe) held most of the cards. Ankara is using the migration crisis as a means to exert pressure on fellow Europeans (Turkey is both a European and an Asian country) by turning migration flows on and off like a tap. Greek officials reported in October that in the wake of a previous high-level meeting with the Turks the migration flow suddenly eased.

So what does Turkey want?  On 12 December, 1999 Turkey was officially recognised by the EU as an official candidate state. Ever since then the EU has pretended to negotiate Turkish membership, and the Turks have pretended to believe them. No more! President Erdogan’s mandate was markedly strengthen in Turkey’s June 2015 presidential elections. In return for controlling the migration flows into Europe President Erdogan is determined to force the EU to take Turkey’s membership far more seriously, and force visa-free travel for Turks upon a reluctant EU. At yesterday’s Brussels EU-Turkey Summit desperate EU leaders were willing to give President Erdogan pretty much all he wants.

Scratch the surface of European politics and one finds history. European fears (for that is what they now are) of such a huge wave of mainly Muslim migrants runs deep in the DNA of Europe’s collective historic memory. Between 1529 and 1683 the Ottomans made repeated incursions into Europe, culminating in the 1683 Battle of Vienna. Inter-mingled with the fear of migrants is that historic fear of Ottoman conquest, even if many Europeans do not realise it. It is a fear that runs deep in contemporary politics.

Presidents Erdogan and Putin also understand each other, and indeed power politics far better than Europe’s many little leaders.  Power politically both the downing of the Russian plane and the migrant crisis demonstrate Turkey’s ‘strong’ grand tactical position. However, Turkey must be careful not to confuse a strong grand tactical position with a strong grand strategic position. Indeed, being so close to Syria and the wider Middle East it is also evident that strong NATO allies and EU partners will be vital to Turkey’s long-term security.  Consensual (not forced) Turkish EU membership will also be vital to this pivotal power’s future stability and prosperity.

Critically, Ankara does not want to spend too much strategic energy looking over its shoulder north at an aggrieved Russia. Just look at a map, watch this space and indeed twenty-first century power politics at work!

Julian Lindley-French          

Friday, 27 November 2015

Syria: Beginning, Muddle, but no End

“The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it”.

Albert Einstein

Alphen, Netherlands. 27 November. The West’s Syria strategy has a beginning, a muddle, but no end. One hundred years ago this week Albert Einstein gave the world his general theory of relativity. Part of the theory suggests that space and time can become so distorted that light can no longer escape – black holes. Syria has become the political equivalent of a black hole into which rationality pours, but from which no hope emits. It is as though one relatively tiny political space has become so dense, with so many competing and contending hatreds, that Syria threatens not just itself, but much of the political universe beyond. Ethnic, sectarian, regional, inter-regional, and geopolitical forces are being sucked into the Syrian black hole whilst strategically-challenged Western leaders have no idea what lies beyond. Indeed, Syria is beginning to warp of the very fabric of the international system and with it the space-time political continuum.  Indeed, it is a struggle that begins to look ever more like Europe’s terrifying Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648 than the effects of the small dying red dwarf that is Syria.

Yesterday in London British Prime Minister David Cameron produced a 36 page dossier (ghosts of Tony Blair and Iraq?) in an attempt to convince Parliament to end a nonsense. The RAF can attack IS up to the non-existent Iraqi-Syrian border, but not beyond. In fact, all the debate achieved was to underscore just how fragile Britain and its foreign and security policy has become, and how close the opposition Labour Party is to political oblivion. Far more important to events on the ground and in the air over Syria was the de facto alliance announced yesterday between France and Russia. Rather, the false assumptions in Cameron’s dossier did at least reveal the lack of anything one might conceive of as a comprehensive Western political and military, offensive and defensive strategy to deal with what is fast becoming of one of the most dangerous post-Cold War crises the West, the Middle East and the wider world has faced.   

Ethnic tensions: Syrian has been riven by ethnic tensions ever since the minority Alawhite community seized power in Damascus through President Assad’s father and the Ba’ath Party in 1966. What is left of Syria Syria is 90% Arab, with some two million Kurds plus other smaller groups making up the balance of a 22 million population that grew by over 300% prior to the outbreak of the war. It is a demographic shift reflected across much of the Middle East as are many of the ethnic divisions.  

Ethnic and Sectarian tensions: Ethnic tensions have also reinforced the sectarian divisions that have in turn helped Islamic State to grow rapidly since its founding in Jordan. Syria is 87% Muslim with Shias making up 13% of the population, as against 74% Sunnis with the rest comprised of small Christian, Druze and other communities.  In the past the Ba’athist constitution protected minorities and until those self-same minorities feel secure peace is unlikely to be re-secured.

Ethnic, Sectarian and Regional Tensions #1: There is now a very real danger that ethnic, sectarian and regional tensions will also merge. In Iraq tensions between Sunni and Shia tribes are reinforced by divisions between the Arab and Kurdish peoples. Such divisions continue to threaten a weak Baghdad government. If the Baghdad government falls Iran would likely intervene more deeply in Iraq, which would at the very least alarm the Gulf States, most notably Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Turkey seems unlikely to permit the appearance of a fully-autonomous Kurdish ‘state’ with profound implications for Ankara’s own eastern provinces. 

Ethnic, Sectarian and Regional Tensions #2: The Syrian war is first and foremost a threat to what might best be described as the region’s many precarious states in the region. In the wake of the unfortunately-named Arab Spring (perhaps the less catchy but more accurate title would be the emaciation  of the Arab state) the precarious states include Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon all of which suffer from a potent mix of contending ethnicities, sectarianism, economic decline, and enduring political tensions between states, rulers and peoples. Moreover, through the spread of both al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates, ‘precariousness’ extends to sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn of Africa. There is also the very real chance that nuclear-tipped Israel could be dragged in, especially if Jordan is threatened by some form of new Intifada that further exacerbates tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.

Ethnic, Sectarian & Inter-Regional Tensions: The Syrian war has profound implications for not just the Middle Eastern region. Indeed, through the mass migration of millions of Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians and others, Europe in being dragged into the Middle Eastern conflict.  The 13 November terrorist attack on Paris was an extension of the sectarian divisions that have riven Syria and much of the Middle East. Radicalisation of members of the many North African, Sub-Saharan African, and South Asian Diasporas that now live in Europe means that a very small minority of people now pose a very real threat to Europeans of all ethnicities and beliefs.    

Ethnic, Sectarian, Regional, Inter-Regional & Geopolitical Tensions: The Syrian war is also generating growing geopolitical tensions. Do not be fooled by Russia’s desire for co-ordinated air strikes. Beyond a rapprochement with France Moscow has no intention of a formal alliance with the West to defeat IS. Rather, Moscow wants a free hand to strike anti-Assad forces under the guise of its own war on ‘terror’, a strategy which is also implicit in the Franco-Russian accord of yesterday. Indeed, this war within a war is also implicit in the hidden stand-off between the West and an unlikely coalition of Russia, Iran & Syria.  Russia and Iran seek extended pan-regional and/or inter-regional influence at the expense of the West.  Turkey is also a regional and inter-regional player. Tuesday’s downing of a Russian Sukhoi 24 by Turkish F-16s was as much about protecting Turkic tribesman in northern Syria against Russia’s pro-Assad air strikes, as it was about any possible violation of Turkish airspace by Russian forces. Given Turkey is a NATO member that one incident combined ethnic, regional, inter-regional, and geopolitical tensions into one dangerous moment and epitomises the wider threat the Syrian war now poses.

Crafting Comprehensive Strategy: The first task of the statesman is to recognise the Syrian war for what it is; the epicentre of conflicts across the Middle East that are now breaking out of one region and beginning to de-stabilise others. That is why a comprehensive strategy is needed that works to effect equally at the ethnic, sectarian, regional, inter-regional and geopolitical levels. However, such a strategy can only be crafted by big power. Here the main problem is the absence of real American strategic and political leadership (Europe is incapable). Worse, it is hard to see how such leadership will be forthcoming for at least a year from a US distracted by next November’s presidential elections. Hope now is that the big (and regional big) power Vienna Process (Congress of Vienna?) will generate sufficient unity of effort and purpose to craft big, sustained strategy. Do not bet on it! Such a strategy would mean the United States, Russia, the major European powers, together with Iran and the Gulf States agreeing at the very least the war must be contained, IS destroyed, and thereafter a political roadmap crafted for Syria.

In the circumstances and in the absence of true strategic commitment the best to which can be aspired is sustained pragmatism. Any action to degrade IS is to be welcomed. However, clarity of strategic thought would suggest separating the anti-IS strategy from the political future of Syria strategy to ‘de-conflict’ the divers interests of the partners in what is a very loose de facto coalition. Equally, any such ‘strategy’ must be grounded in political and strategic reality. In his speech to Parliament yesterday Cameron claimed the existence of some 70,000 ‘moderate’ non-Islamist, non-regime ‘ground troops’ that the air campaign should support in the fight against IS. This is a very optimistic definition of both ‘moderate’ and ‘ground troops’.

Einstein suggested that the only way to counter the unimaginable gravitational pull of a black hole is with countervailing superior power. If the Syrian black hole is to be closed such power will mean far more than superior kinetic force. In the short-term the need to prevent IS from extending its evil mandate both in the region and beyond is vital. However, until the wider conflict is brought to an end all parallel and subsequent actions will take place in a political vacuum. At the very least, a serious Western strategy would recognise that such is the danger this conflict poses conflict resolution will take a lot of time, immense resources, huge power and loss. And yet I see no Western leader will to admit that. However, Western powers must at the very least seek to regain the strategic and political initiative they have lost to Russia of late by crafting something that would at least approximate to a draft comprehensive Syria strategy.

Syria: dreadful beginning, appalling muddle, but no end in sight.

Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

SDSR 2015: Debt, Defence & Events

“Our Armed Forces and security and intelligence agencies (the Secret Intelligence Service, the Security Service, and the Government Communications Headquarters) are respected around the world for their capability, agility, reach and ability to fight and work alongside our close allies. We took tough decisions to balance the defence budget in 2010, and are now in a position to invest in the highly deployable Armed Forces that we need to guarantee our security”.

National Security Strategy and Strategic Security and Defence Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom

Alphen, Netherlands. 25 November. Britain spends about £35bn annually on total debt interest, which is about the same as Britain spends on defence. NSS 2015 & SDSR 2015 (hereafter SDSR 2015 unless specified) is a conscious attempt by London to balance the growing demands for enhanced security and defence, with the Government’s determination to eradicate debt interest payments and achieve a budget surplus by financial years 2019-20. So, if one peers through the relentless political spin that has accompanied the launch of SDSR 2015 will Britain’s security and defence be stronger or weaker?

As SDSR 2015 was launched a Russian Graney-class nuclear attack submarine, believed to be the Severodvinsk, had entered British waters. A week prior Islamic State militants had killed 132 people and wounded over 300 in Paris. Yesterday, two F-16s of NATO member Turkey shot down a Russian SU 24, killing one of the crew members. No wonder Prime Minister David Cameron chose to deliver SDSR 2015 to Parliament rather than Michael Fallon, the Secretary of State for Defence, as would have more normally been the case, in more normal times. That is precisely the essential point about SDSR 2015; these are not normal ‘let me get off the strategic roundabout whilst I fix the economy’ times. Thus, ultimately it is against those ‘times’ that the SDSR 2015 must be measured. 

“National Security Strategy and Strategic Security and Defence Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom”, is 96 pages long and does exactly what it says on the tin – merges strategy, security, debt and defence. Being a defence wonk I have spent the last thirty six hours or so trawling through SDSR 2015 and my sense is that Britain is as ever trying to execute a politically perilous defence-strategic balancing act. Much of the analysis of Britain’s changing strategic environment in SDSR 2015 is sound. Moreover, although essentially resource-led SDSR 2015 does at least try to balance affordability with strategy. As such SDSR 2015 is far superior to its predecessor SDSR 2010, which was slash, burn, panic and preach. Even so, SDSR 2015 remains replete with the tensions that are inherent to Britain’s taut defence budget. The slightest shock, and or commitment beyond what are now very limited defence planning assumptions, could bring the entire SDSR edifice crashing down.

SDSR 2015 and Britain’s Strategic Dilemma: All democracies struggle to balance security, strategy, defence capability and capacity, and affordability, or ends, ways and means as it is known in the business. For the world’s fifth largest economy and a top five military actor, and a country which for all the sneering of many (all too often fellow Europeans who make no effort to pull their defence weight) Britain maintains influence and seeks to maintain influence at the core of all the major international fora. Indeed, enabling such influence to achieve cost-effective security and defence is the strategic method behind SDSR 2015. However, the extent to which power in all its forms can be invested in by the British remains an eternal dilemma for London, a dilemma this British government has struggled with more than most. And, it is a struggle that is all-too apparent reading between the lines of the three stated National Strategic Objectives in SDSR 2015: protect people; project global influence; and promote prosperity.

New Money? Much political spin has been woven by the Government these two days past about new money to be invested in defence. Indeed, SDSR 2015 makes much about maintaining defence expenditure at the NATO guideline of 2% GDP until financial year 2020-21. Much has also been made about the commitment to increase defence spending in real terms each year over the same period, and funding an ‘additional’ £12bn bringing the defence investment budget up to £178bn over the next decade. However, close analysis reveals much of this ‘new’ money to be existing resources re-tagged. It is a re-tagging effort that is particularly apparent when it comes to the ‘increased’ intelligence resources, counter-terror spend, and the investments to be made to counter hybrid warfare and cyber-warfare.

Creative Defence Accounting: If one compares the 2015 defence accounting model with the 2009 defence accounting model British defence expenditure on current projections could be as low as 1.7% GDP by 2020. This is because the 2015v model includes both the cost of the nuclear deterrent and so-called ‘other’ mainly non-military items of expenditure that are within NATO's definition of defence expediture, but not traditionally the British definiion. The most worrying aspect is the degree to which Britain’s world class diplomatic machine, the transmission between national strategy, power, influence, security and defence remains under-funded. There seems something dangerously churlish in the Government’s attitude towards the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Britain’s diplomats that seems to be driven by Chancellor George Osborne’s mistaken belief that foreign policy can be reduced to mere mercantilism. 

The Bottom-Line of SDSR 2015: Britain spends around 7.4% of GDP in the round on security and all the evidence suggests that the government has simply shifted money around within that pot and created a Joint Security Fund to act as a crisis contingency reserve. Even the much-lauded $12bn increase in the defence equipment budget will include a minimum of £7bn (and as much as £11bn) of ‘efficiency savings’ (cuts). Much of those cuts will see some 30,000 MoD civilians cut, many of whom were engaged after SDSR 2010 to replace military personnel. 

Britain’s Strategic Core force: The headline of SDSR 2015 is that Britain is committed to the creation of a small, reasonably ‘balanced’ force at the higher-end of capability able act as a core or hub force to offset a lack of capacity. This is sound thinking. As I suggested in my 2015 book Little Britain? Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power it is about time London abandoned the ‘little bit of everything, but not much of anything’ force to which every defence review has been committed since at least 1967. In the book I argued Britain needed a core or hub force which could reach across government in times of national emergency, and reach out to allies and partners. Such a force would take pressure off an over-stretched US, and/or act as a coalition command hub for European or non-European coalitions under a NATO, EU, UN, or any other flag of strategic convenience. To that end I am excited to see the Joint Force Concept and Command brought front and centre in the Future Force and its commander given an extra star. Now, I am not for a minute claiming any credit for this (oh, go on then just a bit) but by 2025 when all the force elements in SDSR 2015 come together Britain will have generated just such a core or hub force. And, should the strategic environment worsen the possibility does indeed exist to expand the force, albeit at cost and over time. 

Security and Defence Strategy: SDSR 2015 quite deliberately blurs the lines between security and defence which enables the government to mask even more cuts as efficiencies. Indeed, the aim of hiding cuts is the reason for merging NSS 2015 and SDSR 2015, most notably the blurring of lines between the strategic counter-terrorist strategy and what Professor Mike Clarke suggests will be the “strategic raider” role of the British future force. SDSR 2015 in effect abandons mass for manoeuvre with British forces to be instead postured to conduct strategic deterrence, high-end counter-terror operations, and through carrier strike, some limited level of both power and force projection. Sustained counterinsurgency à la the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq is all but abandoned in SDSR 2015.

Royal Navy: This shift in defence strategy is most obvious in the new ‘balance’ SDSR 2015 imposes on the Royal Navy. Since the time of Drake in the sixteenth century the Navy has endeavoured to undertake both sea control and sea presence. The surface fleet is already down to 19 principle surface ships and SDSR 2015 claims to want to preserve that number. However, the reduction of the planned Type 26 Global Combat Ships (frigates) from 13 to 8 (with 5 more to come later?), the possible mothballing of one of the Type 45 destroyers, and problems with the life-extensions of the Type 23 frigates, makes me wonder if sea presence is any longer feasible. Force projection does not escape with the planned withdrawal of HMS Ocean. Moreover, there is also a possible reduction in the number of Astute-class nuclear hunter killer attack submarines from 7 (already cut from 8) to 4. My estimate is that the Navy could be reduced to a fleet of two super carriers, one amphibious assault ship, 8 new frigates (but only by 2030), and 5 destroyers. What is self-evident in the balance the RN is trying to strike is the impact of the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers (of which I am a fan) on the crewing crisis the Navy now faces. Even to crew the modest planned force the Navy still needs an additional 4000 personnel. Under SDSR 2015 it will get 450. 

British Army: The Army will be re-organised into two 5000 Strike Brigades, organised around the Parachute Regiment and other armoured infantry brigades, with much of the rest of the force configured to sustain those two brigades. There will be some limited capacity to ‘surge’ via the so-called Reserve Force. However, the only significant new technology the Army will receive will be a new Armoured Infantry Fighting Vehicle to enhance battlefield manoeuvre. Paradoxically, whilst the government makes much of the £2bn of ‘additional’ resources to be invested in Special Forces, it is hard to see how such a quality force can be recruited from such a small force base of some 82,500 soldiers. Therefore, taken together SDSR 2015 would appear to imply an abandonment of Army 2020 and the Reaction and Adaptable Force concept at its core. Or, rather SDSR 2015 now offers an Army 2025 concept that again changes the main mission of the force and looks too much like a hasty response to the Paris attacks.

Royal Air Force: The RAF which is desperately in need of modernisation will fare slightly better than the RN or the Army, with two additional Typhoon squadrons of twelve aircraft each being brought out of store. Moreover, the delivery of some 42 F-35s will be accelerated to be available for both the Fleet Air Arm and RAF by 2023, 24 of these aircraft will be on the new aircraft carriers. However, whilst a commitment is made to purchase 138 F-35s by 2035 I am still unclear as to the year-on-year build-up of the force and the RAF/RN split. Critically, eight C-17s plus some 22 A400M transport aircraft will also be retained, together with a force of 14 C-130Js. However, the number of such aircraft a US Stryker Brigade needs in support is markedly larger than is likely to be available to the British Army’s Strike Brigades.

Future Force 2025: What was Future Force 2020 has now in effect become Future Force 2025 in SDSR 2015 with slippage in both force reforms and big ticket procurement programmes. It is certainly good news that the UK will purchase all 138 F-35Bs, although God only knows what world Britain will find itself in by 2035. It is also good to see that nine Poseidon P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft will be purchased, although 12 would make more operational sense, although they are hideously expensive. Interestingly, five years ago I was in Hangar 4, RAF Kinloss, home of the Nimrods and planned home of the MRA4 replacement, to hear Assistant Commander-in-Chief Air Ops announce that all nine MRA4 aircraft, both new aircraft and those under construction, would be broken up. As he spoke an ageing American Orion aircraft took off to look for a Russian submarine that had entered British waters. Plus ça change? It is clear that neither the future carrier-strike force nor the Successor-deterrent would be able to operate at an acceptable level of risk without an ‘MPA’ capability. And, given that these two capabilities are in effect the twin pillars of SDSR 2015 such protective investment is critical.

Tension between Defence Strategy and Defence Budget: With the “Successor” programme to replace the four Trident-armed Vanguard-class submarines now increased from £25bn to some £31bn over a decade from next year’s likely ‘Main Gate’ decision to proceed, and with no new real money being injected into the British defence budget, given existing pressures on investment choices the cost of the new deterrent will continue to warp defence strategy. The consequences are already apparent. Implicit in SDSR 2015 is the extension of planned defence-equipment programmes and a reduction in numbers which means loss of economy of scale and increased costs. This factor would well explain much of the 'additional' funding in SDSR 2015 which if correct would represent a poor return on defence investment for the British taxpayer. Nothing new there then. Critically, SDSR 2015 has not resolved the SDSR 2010 failing; a hollowed-out force vulnerable to surprise and shock that could turn very quickly into a fragile or even a broken force if over-extended.

A Resource-driven SDSR 2015: My conclusion on SDSR 2015 remains the same as the core evidence I gave last week in London to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee; Britain is trying to create both a strategic nuclear deterrent and a global-reach conventional strike force on a defence budget which can probably afford one or the other, but not both. At the House of Commons Defence Select Committee I also said that I feared SDSR 2015 would be back of a fag (cigarette) packet politics dressed up as strategy. That was probably a bit hard. However, having read the document SDSR 2015 is still clearly resource-driven, rather than strategy, threat or interest driven.

Britain’s Critical Strategic Question: SDSR 2015 still fails to answer the seemingly eternal problem Britain has faced since at least the end of World War Two; how to be a pocket superpower on the cheap? Which is after all the implicit ambition of SDSR 2015. Why else have super-carriers, nuclear attack submarines, and a strategic nuclear deterrent? Indeed, until Britain’s all-too-often strategically illiterate leaders finally decide just what kind of power Britain seeks to be in this world that question will never be answered.

Does SDSR 2015 Make Britain Stronger or Weaker? Marginally stronger. However, debt reduction is clearly still more important to the Government than defence which suggests that on balance SDSR 2015 is a) a more political than strategic review; and b) the Treasury’s continued grip on Britain’s defence strategy reinforces the ‘how much threat can we afford’ culture that still permeates Whitehall. And, all of the above is predicated on the assumption that the British economy will continue to grow at 2% per annum, which is one hell of a big ‘if’.

7 out of 10: For all the lacunae and weaknesses in the document SDSR 2015 is a damn sight better than SDSR 2010 which simply threw the strategic bath out with the defence bathwater (or is it the other way round?). Moreover, it is a far better ‘strategy’ than anything I have seen elsewhere in Europe (most notably here in the Netherlands) to close the strategy, capability, capacity, affordability gap. For those reasons I think in time SDSR 2015 will be seen as a turning point in Britain’s defence strategy. SDSR 2015 at least implies more assertion, and a better understanding of the role armed forces play in power and influence. If Britain follows through on its defence investment plan Britain’s influence with allies will increase, most notably in Washington, Berlin and Paris, rational adversaries will indeed think twice before incurring Britain’s ire, and Britain’s influence will be strengthened in domains far beyond the strictly military. Therefore, whilst I gave SDSR 2010 4 out of 10, I am prepared to give SDSR 2015 7 out of 10, but only if all the commitments made therein are honoured.

Winston Churchill once said: “However beautiful the strategy, one must occasionally look at the results”. That is surely right. The gravest danger to SDSR 2015 is that it will simply get blown away by events.

SDSR 2015: debt, defence and events.

Julian Lindley-French

Monday, 23 November 2015

UNSCR 2249: Are Power, Strategy and Law Aligned in the Fight Against IS?

“Determined to combat by all means this unprecedented threat to international peace and security”.
United Nations Security Council Resolution 2249 (2015), 20 November, 2015

Alphen, Netherlands. 23 November. Today, the British Government will announce the latest Strategic Security and Defence Review (SDSR 2015). Some colleagues have written to me asking if I will be commenting on the review. To be frank, I am fully aware of most of the review’s contents. However, I still want to read the review in full and reflect before I comment later in the week. Today, I want to consider last Friday’s French-drafted United Nations Security Council UN Security Council Resolution 2249 (2015) which authorised UN Member States to use “all means” against Islamic State. In effect, France is seeking both legitimacy and legality in its armed response to the Paris terror attacks. Therefore, the French strategy involves not just the creation of an UN-sanctioned grand coalition to take the fight to IS, but reinvigoration of the flagging institution of UN-sanctioned international law. Therefore, the French strategy begs a critical question; did 2249 actually authorise the use of force against IS?

On the face of it the answer would appear to be no. This is because 2249 was not issued under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Chapter VII covers “Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches to the Peace, and Acts of Aggression”. There are two articles under Chapter VII which are considered the formal triggers for the use of force under the UN Charter; articles 42 and 51. Article 42 states: “Should the Security Council consider that measures provided for in Article 41 [non-military measures] would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, it may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations”. Article 52 reinforces Article 42 by stating: “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security”.

Interestingly, the language in 2249 implies that IS has some elements of a state, not just a group. Indeed, 2249 states that, “…by its violent extremist ideology, its terrorist acts, its continued gross systematic and widespread attacks directed against civilians, abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law, including those driven on religious or ethnic ground, its eradication of cultural heritage and trafficking of cultural property, but also its control over significant parts and natural resources across Iraq and Syria and its recruitment and training of foreign terrorist fighters whose threat affects all regions and Member States, even those far from conflict zones, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh), constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security”.

Now, I am no expert on UN law but there does appear to be an inherent tension within 2249 between its determination, “…to combat by all means this unprecedented threat to international peace and security”, and its call for “…all necessary measures in compliance with international law, in particular with the United Nations Charter, as well as international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law”. Indeed, the first sentence implies clearly that the use of force is now authorised against IS because of the scale of the threat it poses. However, use of the word ‘necessary’ in “all necessary measures” in compliance with international law, suggests a further authorisation would be needed by the UN Security Council to use greater force across a wider scope over a larger area against IS, because current action must be seen as policing rather than self-defence or the armed upholding of the UN Charter. 

2249 then goes to reinforce the policing argument by suggesting that IS and the other terrorist groups cited for, “…for committing or otherwise responsible for terrorist acts, violations of international humanitarian law or violations or abuses of human rights must be held accountable”. However, without the use of force it is hard to see given the nature of the battlefield and the scope of forces ranged therein how those responsible could be brought to justice and under what jurisdiction. Critically, 2249 then goes on to state that: “Member States that have the capacity to do so…eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria”. How could such an aim be achieved without the significant use of armed force?

So, what does 2249 tell us? First, there were significant concerns on the part of China and Russia about the need to preserve Syria’s state sovereignty. In Russia’s case this means preservation of the Assad regime as the ‘legitimate’ governing body. There is certainly no mention of a ‘managed transition” to some other form of government, as desired by Western powers. Second, the UN and the 15 members of the UN Security Council are unclear whether to treat IS as a de facto aggressor ‘state’, or a non-governmental group. As such the authorised response hovers between a policing action of the type used against Malaysian insurgents by the British in the 1950s, and some implicit form of self-defence, even if such action is not under Chapter VII.

This ambiguity suggests three further tensions. First, at some point the UN Charter itself may be in need of modernising. Second, that for those states committed to the armed fight against IS 2249 can be interpreted as an implicit authorisation of the use of force. Third, those states still concerned about the supremacy of state sovereignty, such as China but most notably Russia, can claim some form of control over the nature and extent of force used in that authorization is only against ‘terrorist’ groups, which are identified in 2249 as Al-Qaeda, IS, and the al-Nusra Front. 

In conclusion, any legal impediment to the creation of the grand coalition Paris seeks, and thus the sustained use of force against IS, seems to have been removed. However, Moscow will also interpret 2249 as legalisation of its attacks against all anti-Assad forces. What constraints remain are those of power and strategy. Specifically, the degree to which the US wishes to further its involvement and indeed its leadership of the non-Russian, Iranian and Syrian parts of the campaign in an election year, how much force France can actually bring to bear against IS, the scope of Russian, Iranian and Syrian military action, and the degree of autonomy/co-operation they seek from/with Western forces, and critically the degree to which other French allies, most notably the British, move to reinforce US, French and, indeed, Australian action.

By attacking Paris IS may just have succeeded in not only creating a grand coalition against it, but in so doing stalled the growing geopolitical tensions between the great powers, and reinvigorated the relationship between international law and the use of force. The Assad regime is clearly strengthened. Quite a feat of ‘arms’!

Julian Lindley-French

Friday, 20 November 2015

IS: Europe Needs a New Social Contract

“France is at war. But we are not engaged in a war of civilisations, because these assassins do not represent any”.
President François Hollande

Brussels, Belgium. 20 November. One purpose of strategy is to resist reflex. Over the past week I have witnessed the struggle between considered response and vengeful reflex in the wake of the Paris attacks. By way of response France has rightly called for changes to the Schengen Border Code and the need to check every EU citizen against the Schengen Information System database. By way of ill-considered reaction European Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said, “Schengen is not the problem. We are not intent to open a debate on Schengen’s future. Schengen is the greatest achievement of European integration”.  Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the leader of the terrorist cell which attacked Paris, boasted of being a beneficiary of free movement as he travelled unchecked between Syria and France. Indeed, the Avramopoulos reaction begs a question; how many Europeans must die for the Commission’s beloved ‘European Project’ before common sense replaces ‘theological’ dogma?  Equally, there is another vital question that we Europeans need to address. How do we overcome prejudice and rebuild a sense of community which ultimately will be Europe’s strongest defence?  The European state needs a new social contract.

European leaders are failing the test of leadership. There can be no question that IS has successfully exploited and is exploiting the failure of European leaders such as Avramopoulos to exert some control over the huge flows of migrants now headed into Europe, and to distinguish between legitimate asylum seeker, economic migrant, and militant.  With trust in Europe’s leaders virtually destroyed there is now the very real danger anti-Muslim bigotry could be unleashed across much of Europe.  That is precisely why IS attacked, and it is precisely Europe’s vulnerability which makes this attack different to previous terror outrages.

Nor should the power of prejudice be under-estimated. Indeed, such prejudice still runs deep in the European psyche, as evinced by the utterances of some of Eastern Europe’s leaders of late. For example, IS often refer to Europeans as ‘crusaders’. This refers to Europe’s brutal invasions of the Levant between 1099 and 1272 in the name of Christianity. So brutal were the crusades they were seared into the Muslim consciousness. Deep down within us all – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – there is still a ghost of the crusades that all-too-easily acts as a reflex at times of crisis, such as today.

Are there too many members of our ethnic minorities who reject European values? Yes. There are clearly members of Europe’s Muslim communities who reject European values, and too many of whom offer tacit support to extremism. Are there those who feel utterly alienated from the society of which they are a part? Yes. It is estimated some 10,000 European citizens have undertaken Jihad. However, there is no point in nostalgia for a society that is long gone and will never return. 

The plain truth is that the majority of citizens are going to have to accept that we live in complex, multiple identity societies in which the task of both governments and citizens will be to re-forge the loyalty of all to the state.  Such a goal should not be impossible. For example, a recent poll of British Muslims found the majority to be patriotic Britons who are more optimistic about Britain’s future than many of their fellow citizens. 

The new social contract between Europe’s leaders and citizens will demand renewed responsibility on the part of leaders and citizen alike. Europe’s leaders, and most urgently the European Commission, must wake up to the new reality Europeans face before they become a danger to the very people they are meant to serve. Improved border controls and enhanced security checks are the very minimum response to keep Europeans safe from the very real threat Europe now faces.

However, but there are no silver bullets in this fight and it is thus time citizens also escape from the almost child-like state into which they have been lulled by leaders these twenty-five years past and take their own security responsibilities. Critically, we must all work with fellow citizens to root out and then steadily emasculate extremism and terrorism by recreating the mutual respect and tolerance essential to the survival of all liberal democraties. That means all of us not just actively resisting past ghosts, but even our own anxieties.

Here at Brussels Central station as I write I can smell the odour of mistrust. Feelings are running high. Nerves are taut. Glances are exchanged in implicit, but acknowledged mutual fear. That is exactly what IS wants. As is the appalling anti-Islam nonsense that has sprouted up on Twitter and elsewhere on the Internet as bigotry believes prejudice now legitimised by the acts of a few fanatics. Apprehension in the wake of the appalling events in Paris is entirely natural, anger entirely understandable, prejudice is completely unacceptable.

The goal of IS is to drive a wedge within and between the many identities that exist in the modern European state. Sound strategy and considered response must first of all be built on balance, and balance means looking at what works, not just at what does not.  Europe’s greatest weapon will be the strength and indeed the resilience of all its citizens who must together be the power which ultimately defeats the likes of IS.

Julian Lindley-French  

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Tough Choices: The New Geopolitics of Terror

London, United Kingdom. 18 November. Strategy is about choices. Tough choices. The Paris attacks have clearly acted as a strategic awakening for many Europeans. There is now a moment of political momentum that must be exploited if there is to be any chance of a solution to the war in Syria, which is disfiguring not just the Levant but Europe as well. Indeed, the Paris terror attacks are already generating new geopolitics as the strategic state realigns to fight strategic terror. What tough choices must be made and by whom given the new mosaic of strategic partnerships and ‘realignments’ that are emerging in the wake of Paris?  

Tough choice #1: Russia and Assad. This morning President Putin ordered Russian forces in the Mediterranean to treat French forces as allies. This will come as no surprise to Paris who have always been lukewarm about the sanctions imposed on Russia in the wake of Moscow’s seizure of Crimea, its dismembering of eastern Ukraine, and clear complicity in the downing of MH 17. Moreover, Russian grand strategy is clearly working to re-position Moscow as the power that cannot be ignored. However, can the West in general, and Europe in particular, forge an effective alliance over Syria with a state that continues to intimidate NATO allies and EU member-states in central and Eastern Europe? Particularly if this means by extension a de facto alliance with Syria's President Assad. Surely, if any sort of alliance, de facto or otherwise, is to be forged with Russia it can only happen if Russia stops its snap military exercises in the Baltic region, stops arming rebels in Ukraine, and enters into meaningful dialogue over the future status of Crimea. What deal?

Touch choice #2: Turkey. For too long the Berlin-led obsession with organising Mitteleuropa via the Eurozone around Germany has led to the effective marginalisation of Europe’s three major peripheral powers Britain, Russia and Turkey.  All three of these powers have legitimate interests in the shape of power in Europe. Russia has opted for unilateral intimidation to exert influence, whilst Britain is simply sulking. However, it is Turkey which has emerged as the pivotal power that bestrides both Europe and the Middle East. It is now clear that if Syria is to be resolved Turkey will have a crucial role to play and that will in turn mean a new political relationship between the EU and Ankara. No more can Europe pretend to be offering Turkey membership of the EU. No longer will an emboldened President Erdogan accept such nonsense. What deal?

Tough choice #3: Brexit. Yesterday I gave evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee on Britain’s defence budget and the Cameronesque scribbles on the back of a fag (cigarette) packet politics dressed up as strategy that will be next week’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR 2015). However, the real strategic outcome of Paris for both Britain and the EU is that it is now clear a Brexit would be disaster for Europe’s security and the cohesion of Europe’s security. Russia, Syria, IS, the migration crisis, and the fragile state of Europe’s neighbourhood; the world is simply too dangerous for Europe to be paralysed over internal relationships however important. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum demonstrated all too clearly the paralysing effect on the effective use of power such division has. This is my tough choice because there is much I deeply dislike about the elite-led theology that is ‘Project Europe’, and which I will continue to fight. However, both France and Germany will need to help find a new political settlement that will keep Britain in what will need to be a new EU. What settlement?

Tough choice #4: Credible strategy. Ed Lucas wrote a powerful piece in The Times this week on the need for strategy. However, his suggestion that the best way to fight IS was for the EU to become a superpower simply defied logic. Indeed, if Europe has to wait that long IS are more likely to die of old-age than be defeated. Yes, in a fantasy world strategic unity of effort and purpose over time and distance in a fantasy Europe might see the EU as a superpower. However, the centre of power gravity in Europe remains its powerful nation-states and it is they who must craft and drive forward intelligent strategy. The EU clearly has an important role to play as it possesses a range of instruments which a truly (and necessary) comprehensive strategy over time and distance will need. However, any strategy that has any chance of countering the IS super-insurgency, and all the other security and defence risks and threats now emerging will require a mix of intelligence, engagement and force. Credible force can only come from powerful conventional militaries such as those possessed by Britain and France for without their full commitment the entire strategy will be critically weakened. Whither strategy?

Tough choice #5: Boots on the ground. Perhaps the toughest choice of all leaders will face in the aftermath of the Paris attacks is the need to find boots on the ground to take the fight to IS. Air power alone will not suffice. Right now there is a search for someone, anyone to provide those boots as long as they are not Western. The region is brim full of militias and militia’s masquerading as armies that are simply too weak and unprofessional to defeat IS. At some point if IS is perceived to be the threat to Europe and the West that leaders are today proclaiming then professional military boots will need to be deployed. Who? What? When?

New geopolitics. Touch choices. Are our leaders up to it? They need to be.

Julian Lindley-French


Friday, 13 November 2015

Lebanon on the Rhine

This blog was written yesterday prior to the appalling attacks on Paris. Out of respect to the victims and their families, and indeed in solidarity with France and the French people, I am re-posting this blog in the desperate hope that finally Europe's leaders will wake up and together finally meet the threat Europe is facing. JLF

Alphen, Netherlands. 13 November. Is Germany and much of Western Europe becoming Lebanon on the Rhine?  The migrant crisis will see Germany’s population of 80 million increase by over one percent in 2015 alone. Such an “avalanche” of people, as German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble last night called the migrant flows, is unheralded. Far greater than any of the flows generated by the 1990s Balkan wars the migration crisis is beginning to damage the very fabric of German society. This is confirmed by reports of German police being intimidated by groups of migrants, fights between different migrant groups, and communities being overwhelmed by large numbers of migrants imposed upon them. Unless control is re-exerted and seen to be re-exerted there is the very real danger that citizens will lose faith in the leadership, not just of Chancellor Merkel in Germany, but other Western European states. Indeed, there is now the very real danger that the migration crisis will reinforce and further exacerbate Europe's multiple crises of liberalism, leadership, identity, and terrorism. 

Now, I drafted this piece prior to the terrible suicide attacks yesterday by IS in Beirut’s Shia suburbs which killed 41 and injured over 200 and I thought hard about whether to change the title. Tragically, it is precisely the import of such hatreds into Europe that concerns me, and why this piece needs to hit hard. Of course, Lebanon is very different to Germany. Lebanon has a population of some 6.5 million of whom some 2 million are Syrian refugees, together with some 500,000 Palestinians. However, there is as many as 1.2 million migrants from very different cultures and traditions likely to enter Germany this year, and according to the EU up to 3 million will enter the Union by 2017, with most of them headed towards a few Western European states.

Europe's Liberal Crisis: The current migrant crisis is not just a people crisis, it is the existential political crisis of liberal Europe. A liberal Europe of which I am very much a part.  Like many of my fellow Europeans my instincts are to do right by people in need. However, I am also a political realist and understand that the sheer scale and nature of the migration flow, both from Middle East and Africa represents a clear and present danger to the stability and indeed the cohesion of European societies.

The Western European liberal compulsion to avoid looking at any big picture that might suggest misplaced compassion could be dangerous has created a bizarre situation. Many mainstream politicians now appear to place the well-being of migrants before the security of the very citizens who elect them. Indeed, like many European citizens I am sick and tired of being lectured from on high by ivory tower, ȕber-idealist leaders telling me, “We can do this”.  What’s with the ‘we’?  It is not leaders in their posh residences and protected cars lost in a mad dream about Europe issuing vacuous statements about the need for “European solidarity” who are having to deal with the inevitable tensions and frictions caused by such an influx. It is ordinary people in ordinary neighbourhoods across Western Europe, many of whom are already reeling from the impact of seven years of austerity politics.

Europe's Leadership Crisis: Another month, another failed EU summit. Yesterday, European Council President Donald Tusk yesterday stood up in Malta following the sixth (yes, sixth!) migration-related summit this year to announce yet another EU “Action Plan”. An action plan that likely as not will see little or no ‘action’. Whilst some of the measures proposed at Malta are a step in the right direction, there was no agreement over the critical need for enforced repatriations. 

The Malta Summit did at least agree a wish-list with African leaders that included the need to address the root causes of migration, improve work on promoting and organising legal migration channels, enhance protection of migrants and asylum seekers, tackle the exploitation and trafficking of migrants, and improve co-operation on return and readmissionSadly, it was all talk as Western European leaders are simply not tough enough to protect Europeans, and not willing to take the necessary tough decisions. Indeed, the moment difficult scenes appear on television screens they will scurry back to the false idealism which is so exacerbating this crisis. Indeed, at the current rate of resettlement it will take until 2101 for the initial 160,000 refugees to be re-settled across the EU.

It is also clear that the entire edifice of free movement within the EU is now under threat from the migration crisis.  Indeed, even as Tusk was speaking Sweden was ‘temporarily’ closing its borders as the pressure of 200,000 2015 migrant arrivals began to bite. Denmark looks likely to follow suit.   Instead of action too many Western European leaders simply retreat ever deeper into their politically-correct trenches.  The simple truth is that many of Europe’s mainstream leaders have all but abandoned political common sense these past few months, and it is this retreat from realism that is opening the door to political opportunists. 

Europe's Identity Crisis: The migration crisis is also generating a crisis of identity. The other day I watched an interview with Col (Retd.) Bob Stewart MP, a British politician whom I hold in high regard. The issue under debate was why the British armed forces are finding it so hard to recruit in London and the south-east of England. For ten minutes Stewart danced on the head of a pin as he endeavoured to avoid saying the politically inconvenient, but blindingly obvious; London has a huge population of recently-arrived Commonwealth citizens and new British citizens who enjoy multiple identities and who cannot be expected to be as loyal to the British state as the bulk of the indigenous population. I don’t blame them. Indeed, I am an immigrant myself in the Netherlands.  And, whilst I am respectful of both the laws and indeed the Dutch state, I have absolutely no intention of joining the Dutch armed forces, even if I could and even though I also hold them in high regard. Typically, Mark Rutte, the smiley Dutch prime minister, has been notable for not just a complete absence of leadership during this crisis, but a complete absence.
Liberal democracies cannot function if large numbers of the population – be they citizens or residents - have no sense of loyalty to, or no longer believe in, the state. Therefore, if the current migration flows are not brought under proper management (migration will never end nor should it) and quickly then not only will European states like Germany find themselves full of people who have little connection to, or investment in the German state, Western European states will also lose the trust and confidence of huge numbers of their own citizens.  
Europe's Terrorism Crisis: The worst and most dangerous failing of Western European leaders is their wilful ignoring of the clear link between uncontrolled migration and terrorism.  Instead, they mask an abject failure of political leadership by instead trying to convince Europeans that the influx is also a good thing. Europe needs young people, they say, and that many of the migrants are highly-educated. This is nonsense. Whilst not a few Syrian refugees have skills to offer that will in time be desperately needed back in Syria, some 70% are young men, with only 30% or so of whom can be described as true refugees. In other words, Germany and Europe is letting in the most dangerous demographic, and there can be no question that ordinary Europeans will pay a price for this. Yesterday the Americans killed ‘Jihadi John’, a ‘British’ IS fighter who became infamous for beheading innocent people.  Mohammed Elwazi moved to Britain in the 1990s from Kuwait. Yesterday arrests were also being made across six European countries to break up a gang directly linked to IS terrorism and led by an Iman who had come to Europe from Iraq in 1991.

Therefore, in addition to Tusk’s five proposals I want to add six more: immediate re-establishment of control over Europe’s borders; registration of people at point of entry into the EU; European authorities not migrants to control the movement of migrants; those with a genuine right to stay given the right to stay; economic migrants identified and repatriated quickly, with humane, enforced deportation if needs be; and EU and European state aid withheld from those countries that refuse to take back those who do not qualify for resettlement in Europe.

If such action means European leaders appearing tough then so be it, for such toughness will itself act as a deterrent and help re-establish order.  There is one other proposal I would add; mainstream politicians must stop being intimidated into taking the easy ‘PC’ way out over difficult issues, and/or stop putting even the most mildly controversial issues into the politically too difficult to deal with file.         

Western Europe today is fast becoming a dangerous mix of imported frictions and profound uncertainties and insecurities, with citizens fast losing faith in both their national political leaderships and the EU. It is a toxic combination that is fast rendering both the European state and by extension the EU dysfunctional. That is why unless decisive action is taken to re-establish control Germany, and indeed other Western European states, are in danger of becoming Lebanons on the Rhine. 

Europe’s political centre is failing and this can only benefit political radicals and Europe’s adversaries, and no good-thinking person could possibly wish that. As Donald Tusk said yesterday, “It is a race against time”.

Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Strategic Illiteracy & the Goldilocks State

Alphen, Netherlands. Armistice Day. Strategic illiteracy is an inability to understand how power and influence work in international relations. President Putin exaggerates Russia’s power because of maps, David Cameron under-estimates Britain’s power because of maps…and strategic illiteracy. On this day on which the eleventh hour chimes on the eleventh day of the eleventh month it is not just loss that is foremost in my mind. It is history and the ever-dynamic influence map of Europe, which was the actual cause of World War One. Critically, power and change continue to dance in tandem across the European power landscape.

Hands up, I suppose today of all days I should write about Cameron’s letter to European Council President Donald Tusk setting out the very modest British demands for a very modest change to the way the EU does business. Sadly, Cameron’s letter has nothing to do with the power map of Europe or the new political settlement the new EU will vitally need between those within the Eurozone and those without. Rather, it is the modest letter of a very modest politician who through his own strategic illiteracy is turning a great power into a very modest one.

Next Tuesday I will give evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. The session will be entitled, “Shifting the Goalposts: Defence Expenditure and the 2% Pledge”. On the face of it the session is part of a study into whether Britain’s renewed commitment to spend 2% GDP on defence up to 2020 is real or illusory. In fact, the session is really about Britain’s level of strategic ambition, or rather the lack of it within much of the very modest British political class which spawned David Cameron.

Much of the British political class seem to have convinced themselves that Great Britain is in fact Little Britain. They look at a map of the world and convince themselves that Little Britain is no longer a great power and that Britain is doomed to decline because Britain is so well, err, small. Too often these days I hear British politicians say something along the lines of, “we are only a little island of 65 million people”.  They confuse size with power; strategic illiteracy at its most eloquently nonsensical.

Contrast Britain (population in 2014 65 million, GDP $2.95 trillion, world rank 5 (IMF)) with Russia (population in 2014 142 million, GDP $1.86 trillion, world rank 10 (IMF)) and the respective conclusions of London and Moscow about power and influence in the world. On the one hand, the London Establishment has convinced itself Britain can aspire to be little more than an outlying satellite of the Berlin-Brussels Axis, or ‘at best’ perhaps a super car boot sale for the Chinese and Indians.  On the other hand, the Putin Establishment has convinced itself that Russia is again a superpower, a ‘co-hegemon’ to use the language of Moscow. Both views are barking mad; the British because they exaggerate Britain’s weakness, and the Russians because they exaggerate Russia’s power. Much of these illusions of faiblesse/grandeur are down to maps and both reflect the strategic illiteracy from which the two respective elites suffer.

Many of you will recall that now somewhat ageing and delightfully risqué Peugeot commercial ‘size mat-tears’ (my hopeless attempt at a written French accent). It now seems that in measuring the respective ‘power’ of a state in today’s world physical ‘size’ really does ‘mat-tear’.  The other mantra one often hears trotted out without any regard to reality is that Brazil, Russia, China and India will soon inherit the earth, and that the rest of us are doomed to be strategic and political minnows. Again, this is strategic illiteracy at its worst, or to use technical language, complete and utter crap!

The facts appear to speak for themselves.  According to CEBR the coming global top table economic balance will look something like this. First, China’s GDP may indeed overtake that of the US, but only in 2025 at the earliest, and only if all things remain equal – which they will not.  In 2014 the UK overtook France (again) to (again) become the world’s fifth largest economy. However, India’s economy could well overtake that of the UK in 2018, and by 2024 could be the world’s third largest economy. Critically, the Russian economy dropped back from eighth largest in the world in 2013 to tenth in 2014, and is likely to stay there until 2030. By 2030 Germany will be overtaken by the UK for the first time for since 1954. and drop back to seventh largest economy in the world.

In fact, there is only a limited correlation between size of geography, size of economy, size of population and scope and extent of power. Indeed, the bigger the state, the more populous it is, unless it is the United States, the more difficult it is to likely find the governmental wherewithal to generate real power and influence on the world stage. China for all its impressive growth of late faces huge internal challenges, India even more so. Brazil? Forget it! No offence but Brazil’s elite could not organise/prevent a tree-felling in a rain forest. As such Brasilia is run by strategic infants with corruption and incompetence on such a scale that it will prevent Brazil’s emergence as a great power for years to come. As for Russia, it is a broken state with broken systems and broken communities spread across nine time zones run by an incompetent and corrupt government overseeing an ailing one-shot economy that simply to maintain contro invents and/or creates enemies where none exists.

No, the greatest danger to Britain’s influence is an EU that enmeshes it into a mechanism that functions more like Brazil or Russia than the United States, and the incompetence of a strategically-illiterate political class who do not believe in Britain as a power, and who confuse size with power, strategy with politics.  That is why the EU desperately needs reform and that is why Cameron is not up to it. Indeed, precisely because Cameron does not believe in Britain as a power he has failed to make the right case for EU reform. Rather, he has abandoned British national strategy for mercantilism, and with the support of Chancellor George Osborne is busy sacrificing the tools of strategy and influence, most notably Britain’s once-superb diplomatic service.  

Britain’s tragic irony is it could influence so much more than it does.  Britain, like France and Germany, is a Goldilocks state, well-connected, and well-networked with an advanced economy that is neither too large, nor too populous. Such states are likely to remain for the foreseeable future the most effective and efficient states on the planet, and thus powerful and influential. However, that is only if they are well led. This is especially so for a state such as Britain, which combines both significant hard and soft power, is the font of the world language, and which sits in a time zone between east and west.

Sadly, it is the absence of strategic leadership that drips from Cameron’s letter to Tusk. Worse, there is irony in the letter which Cameron’s own strategic illiteracy prevents him from understanding; the British are probably about to get their way with or without a Brexit.  Over the next decade those inside the Euro will abandon any freedom for strategic manoeuvre as they venture deeper into the anti-democratic strait-jacket of Euro-land. As they do so they will take many of the EU’s ‘common’ structures with them, such as home affairs, foreign affairs and defence.  This will be the Real EU. Those outside the Euro are soon to be members of EU-lite, whatever Cameron and the British do.

EU-lite will be focussed almost exclusively on the Single Market. Consequently, the EU-liters are going to have to learn to think again strategically for themselves. That will demand strategic literacy and leadership.  However, facing reality, be it over the EU’s self-paralysing contradictions, the strategic and societal implications of hyper-migration, and the changing military world balance, British leaders of late have shown themselves to be appeasers of reality. Too often they hope against hope they can be re-elected before the consequences of their own inaction destroys them. The strategic leadership of the country in a complex Europe and a dangerous world is merely secondary to narrow political calculation.

Therefore, all the Brexit vote will do is put Britain and Europe through an unnecessary political mangle. Indeed, the Brexit referendum will only address Cameron’s letter. rather than anything serious or substantive. In that light I worry not about a Britain outside the EU per se, but whether Britain’s leaders would be any good at leading a newly-independent Britain. The evidence would suggest not.

On the face of it the argument that a Britain outside the EU would be reduced to a Switzerland (population 2014 in 7.4m, GDP 703bn, world rank 20 (IMF)) or a Norway (population in 2014 5.2m, GDP 500bn, world rank 27 (IMF) would appear nonsense.  However, if ‘leaders’ are not up to leadership then however powerfully power talks, the language of power will not be understood, and power and the state will be much reduced.  

Still, there is always Jeremy Corbyn. 

Julian Lindley-French