hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 27 April 2017

One Song Russia

Austin, Texas. 27 April. Kalinka is the one Russian song that everyone in the West knows. It can often be heard wafting across the station concourses and grand open spaces of large European cities played by motley crews of begging musicians. If one had not visited Russia and experienced its rich musical culture one could be forgiven for thinking it is the only bloody song the Russians have. This week here in Austin, Texas, I attended the policy equivalent of one song Russia. It was an exercise in creative fantasy I have not experienced since the Cold War and which worries me.

The conference itself was great. Entitled Russia and the West, and organised by my old friend Sharyl Cross, Director of the Kozmetsky Center at St Edward’s University, it was a real pleasure to engage with some very senior and very bright Russian colleagues. Sadly, far from convincing me that dialogue with Russia could soon bear fruit, both my Russian colleagues and I came away realising just how difficult such dialogue will be.  
The one song message was incessant. Russia is not only a great power, it is to all intents and purposes a superpower - just look at a map. Russia has this super economy, that is as rich in talent as it is in resources, and unencumbered by high debt. One American, very supportive of the Russians, went as far as to suggest that Russia is the economy of the future and that everyone should invest therein. The US, on the other hand, was doomed to decline and to be eclipsed by Russia. However, the best lyric of this fanciful song came from a respected and leading Russian academic who suggested with a straight face that only Russia and the United States can shape Europe and the world and must therefore re-establish the kind of bilateral relationship once ‘enjoyed’ by the US and USSR.  Hybrid warfare? What hybrid warfare?

After I had stopped spluttering it was my turn to sing. Russia, I pointed out, has an economy which according to both the IMF and the World Bank is less than half the size of the British economy. Russia’s armed forces might be impressive but they are a growing burden on a relatively small economy. Russia’s demographics are going the wrong way, and because there is no separation of law and state investors will continue to hedge their bets when dealing with or in Russia. The size of Russia?  It is a curse, not a blessing. As for Russians and Americans again talking over the heads of Europeans about the future of Europe – dream on!
To be fair I had kicked off hostilities by asking my Russian colleagues what I had thought was a simple question; what does Russia want? What are the policy outcomes it wants to generate from its current actions? The most I could elicit was a sense that because the ‘West’, whatever that is these days, does not listen sufficiently to Moscow’s song, and that the only way to get ‘our’ attention is to hammer on the door extremely loudly. You see Moscow has been forced into action by an unreasonable ‘West’ which refused to respect the ‘red lines’ Moscow says it once established on EU and NATO enlargement, and refuses to acknowledge Russia’s right to a security buffer zone around its borders and an extended sphere of influence.         

Sadly, I am forced to conclude that until Russia awakes from its current power dream and re-enters reality it will be very hard to talk to Russia. Indeed, whenever I brought up ‘inconvenient’ issues that divide us, such as Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea, or its aggressive actions against the Baltic States, I was told that if ‘constructive’ talks are to be established I should focus on a different agenda, i.e. Russia’s agenda.
Russia and the West share opposing world-views. Russia wants a return to a Europe in which the West accepts that Moscow has the right to interfere in the internal affairs of states around its borders and beyond. Westerners like me believe very definition of an independent state is its right to choose the alliances and unions to which it wishes to belong. Therefore, I can never, nor will I ever, countenance the idea of Russia having ‘special rights’ to interfere in the internal affairs of others, most especially the Baltic States. That is not to say I reject the idea that Russia has legitimate rights and interests in its dealings with NATO and EU members. However, such rights and interests must be pursued in a legitimate and constructive manner, which is sadly not the case today.

The tragedy is that I am no Russophobe. I have studied Russian history and I have a deep respect for Russia and Russians, and I fully understand how history weighs heavy on Russians. And yes, I would love to have better relations with Russia. However, until a profound change takes place in how Russia sees itself in Europe and the world I cannot see how anything other than maintenance can take place in what is today a deeply mothballed relationship.
Which brings me back to my question; what does Russia want? The real problem is that Russia does not know what it wants. It knows what it does not like, but not what it wants. This is why Russians find it so hard to answer such an essentially simple question. Rather, Moscow resorts to historical reflex and throws its considerable weight around, descends into self-pity…and then blames others.

Russia today is a habit in search of a fix, an itch in search of a scratch. And, until Russia sings another song it will be hard for the rest of us to listen.
Julian Lindley-French   

Friday, 21 April 2017

Maggie May Makes Hay!

“Men [and Women] who are capable of real action first make their plans and then go forward without hesitation while their enemies have still not made up their minds.”
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

Alphen, Netherlands. 21 April. First, a very Happy Birthday to both my bosses; my wife and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Second, let me define for you the meaning of ‘to make hay whilst the sun shines’.  It is to make the most of any given circumstance or opportunity. British Prime Minister Theresa May is certainly ‘making hay’. Her not-so-surprising call of a ‘snap’ June 8 General Election has caught many off-balance; friends and opponents alike. The likelihood that she will win is clear, what is less clear is whether she will get the thumping parliamentary majority she seeks to do what she thinks she needs to do. So, what are the domestic and international reasons for Theresa May to call what will undoubtedly be dubbed ‘May’s Brexit Election’?

1.               Consolidate her Brexit negotiating position in Parliament: As soon as the courts stopped her using royal prerogative to trigger Article 50 to begin Britain’s departure from the EU to my mind a general election was inevitable. There were simply too many barriers, and too many Trojan horses that could undermine her Brexit negotiating position. Although the Labour Party supported the triggering of Article 50 its deep divisions mean it is likely engage in a form of guerrilla warfare throughout the process if for no other reason than to keep it slavishly pro-EU membership happy. Add unstable Labour to the contrarily pro-EU SNP and the EU fantasists in the Liberal Democrats, as well as the small, but influential rump of anti-Brexiteers to the left of her own Conservative Party, May could be politically ambushed at any time during what are going to be fraught negotiations with Brussels.

2.               Consolidate her Brexit negotiating position within the Conservative Party: It is not just the Tory left she fears. She will at some stage have to face down the implacable EU-hating Tory right. At some stage a deal will be reached with the EU (hopefully) and that will require compromises that many on the right of her party will find unpalatable. With a large majority that she had personally won at the ballot box May would have a personal mandate that would enable her to see off any challenge from the right.

3.               Make the most of the shambles that is the Labour Party: The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has never been weaker. Decent man of the Left that he is, his socialist/pacifist/redistributive vision for Britain simply does not chime with much of the key constituency in any British election – Middle England. His ‘chiming’ rings particularly weak with older, patriotic Middle England who simply cannot see Corbyn as prime minister and, crucially, will vote in very large numbers to keep him out of Downing Street.

4.          Weaken the Scottish secessionists: Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish Nationalist Party did spectacularly well in the 2015 general election winning 56 of the 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland. Now that Sturgeon has been in government in Edinburgh for some time there are signs that her ‘blame the English for everything to gain independence’ strategy is beginning to wear thin with centrist Scottish voters. It is hard to see how Sturgeon could do better than 2015 at the June 8 elections.

5.               Shore up her negotiating position with the EU: Leaked documents overnight from the European Commission reveal not only its negotiating position, but also the extent to which the EU is morphing from democratic union into a form of dictatorial empire which seeks to punish any member-states that dares countenance leaving the EU. May is clearly going to face one hell of a fight with Commission, and its rubber-stampers in the European Parliament. The Commission’s attempt to impose the European Court of Justice on a post-Brexit Britain will turn ugly if she is to resist the Commission’s colonial/imperial strategy. For that she will need to be politically strong at home, not least to see off the EU dreamers and fantasists in parliament.

6.               Make the most of Britain’s strengths: As the Commission was preparing to commence hostilities yesterday 800 British troops were arriving in the Baltic States to lead part of NATO’s efforts to ensure credible deterrence against Russian intimidation. Next week RAF Typhoon fighters will fly to south-eastern Europe to help protect the air space of Bulgaria and Romania. The real danger from an overtly hostile and aggressive Commission Brexit negotiating position is that very quickly the British people will begin to ask why they are being expected to defend people and states who are part of a bloc that seems determined to damage Britain for an act of democracy. If that happens NATO will not be insulated from the strategic and political fall-out of Brexit.
7.               Fight the Brexit money fight: The real Brexit fight with the EU will come down to money. The EU is about to lose some 16% of its entire budget. There are only 6 EU member-states which pay 67% of the entire EU budget and the loss of the British money will impose more cost on those few states that in effect part for the EU. Britain has an economy worth some $3 trillion which is larger than 20 of the EU 28 member-states combined. The loss of British money could in effect bankrupt the EU, which is why Brussels is demanding a €60bn ‘divorce’ settlement. May will face a tough fight over money.

8.               Eventually get a sensible Brexit deal through Parliament: At some point a sensible, negotiated deal will be reached. Such a deal will involve the British paying some not insignificant moneys into the EU budget for some time to come. It will also need to involve sensible, transitional arrangements on trade and people. Given her current slim majority of 17 in the House of Commons when she presents the deal she could be held hostage by a mix of Brexit deniers and Brexit hardliners.

9.               Reinforce May’s own personal political legitimacy: The decisions that are going to be taken over the next five years will be truly historic for both Britain and the rest of Europe, with profound implications for NATO and Britain’s wider strategic relationships. Theresa May became prime minister by Conservative Party fiat when David Cameron resigned after the Brexit referendum. May needs a general election to reinforce her own political authority, legitimacy, and indeed capital, during what is going to be a bumpy five years.

Taking all of the above together it is hard to see that Prime Minister Theresa May had any other choice than to call a snap election. Faced with either being seen as a strong Margaret Thatcher or a weak John Major, May has clearly opted to be the former. However, whether or not she achieves her strategic and political aims with this election, well that is a completely different question.

It is never dull in Blighty these days!

Julian Lindley-French

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Dealing with Grand Asymmetry

“Were you proposing to shoot these people in cold blood, sergeant?"
"Nossir. Just a warning shot inna head, sir”.
Terry Pratchett, Jingo

Alphen, Netherlands. 18 April. Professor Joseph S. Nye defined for the world Grand Strategy, although the idea has been around for a long time. According to Nye Grand Strategy is the organisation of immense means in pursuit of world-bending ends. Professor Dr J. S. Lindley-French, that’s, err, me, is today giving the world the idea of Grand Asymmetry; a vaguely oxymoronic concept whereby actors with relatively few means also seek world-bending ends. That is, I think I am giving the world the idea of Grand Asymmetry.  I would certainly be mightily peeved if someone else had got there first.

Let me first put Grand Asymmetry in context. On paper at least there is something Gilbert and Sullivan about North Korea threatening the United States. There is definitely something Rudyard Kipling about the threat Al Qaeda and Islamic State poses to the West. Even Russia’s implied threat has something of the Mel Brooks about it. After all, North Korea has an economy that is probably less than that of Columbus, Ohio, whilst the one thing Islamic State is not is a state. As for Russia it threatens the very people whose income it relies upon to feed its own.

It is the ‘on paper’ thing that is the problem for the West. Grand Asymmetry works because we in the West, or rather our leaders, have over the past forty or so years been busy making most of our states far weaker and far more fractured than need be the case. Indeed, we do not so much have nation-states these days, as nations-states full of so-called ‘communities’ who more or less talk to each other. Consequently, Western society is far less cohesive and robust than it was even a generation ago. It is the precisely the many seams of mistrust that now run through our open societies that makes the West so vulnerable these days to Grand Asymmetry.

The strategic implications of Grand Asymmetry are profound. Unable to protect such fractured societies Western states, particularly European states, are finding it ever harder to project power and influence for fear of offending growing constituencies of dissent, some of whom not only disagree with policy and strategy, but now challenge the very founding principles of the societies of which they are now a part. The result is Western states that ‘on paper’ look far stronger than their adversaries and enemies, but which in reality are less so because of the grand vulnerabilities from which they suffer make them prey to Grand Asymmetry.

Grand Asymmetry can come in many forms. There is the hybrid warfare currently being conducted by Moscow, using disinformation, destabilisation, and distortion to keep vulnerable Western states politically off-balance, even the mighty United States. There is the wars of religion being conducted by Al Qaeda and Islamic State aimed at undermining the very concept of national society in Western states, and the nation-state itself across the Middle East and North Africa. An individual Jihadi armed with no more than a truck bomb and the hair-trigger media can cause strategic impact out of all proportion to the act, however tragic that maybe for the individuals caught up in such attacks. And then there is the threat of thermonuclear Armageddon threatened by a political minnow such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

There is, of course, another way of looking at this. Western societies may have become far more vulnerable, but the ideas the West espouses are stronger than ever. One reason for Grand Asymmetry is that the West is no longer a place, but an idea. It is the World-Wide West that is the true revolutionary force in twenty-first century international politics. Grand Asymmetry is, in fact, the chosen weapon of war of the Grand Reactionaries who are essentially on the decline and the defence. Russia is an Ersatz Superpower that is desperate to mask the reality of its decline for fear the Putin regime collapses. Islamic State wants to return the Middle East, and much of the world around it, back to some form of idealised medieval Caliphate. Pyongyang is a dynasty masquerading as an ideology desperately trying to hold back the change that will in time sweep it away.

How can the West combat Grand Asymmetry? Western leaders must consciously set out to reinforce protection and tailor projection based on a far better understanding of the nature and scope of the threats they face. The sense of uncertainty such threats engender is compounded by a sense of unease about the nature of the threat.  Leaders must also be honest and realistic about just what can be achieved. There will be few clear cut victories. Above all, leaders must be far clearer about the distinction between threats that attack vital Western interests, and thus need to be confronted, and those that offend Western values but do not in and of themselves threaten the West.

The real challenge will be creating more secure societies that feel better protected.  First, leaders must avoid nostalgia and consciously build new societies for a new age. Second, a twenty-first century idea of ‘patriotism’, i.e. love of society, must be built upon the very ‘vulnerability’ that makes the West strong – liberal democracy, tolerance and openness. Above all, a new ‘contract’ is needed between power and people. No longer can elites treat citizens like children as they have done in Europe for far too long. Citizens must become partners in security.

Leaders must also recognise that ‘peace’ is a long game and properly invest in relevant strategy together with the means to prosecute and measure it; good intelligence, more resilient critical infrastructures, targeted aid and development that helps turn potential enemies into friends, and the kind of police and armed forces that can flexibly engage a raft of threats across a broad spectrum of conflict.

And yes, such strategy will also include the use at times of the kind of US Navy battle group that is now steaming towards the Korean Peninsula. This is because however clever one’s use of soft power it rarely works against those who oppose it unless those that have it also possess the relevant ‘if all else fails’ tools of hard power.

Indeed, unless people in Western societies understand and support the use of such hard power, however hard that power may be it can rapidly become soft if not supported, in which case Grand Asymmetry will succeed in deterring, denying, and in time destroying our own capacity to legitimately protect ourselves.

Julian Lindley-French

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Brexit: Pour Encourager les Autres?

“In this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others”.
Voltaire, Candide

Alphen, Netherlands. 11 April. Is it really in the interests of the EU and Germany to destroy the UK? One of the many pleasures of being in the US last week was to have a week off from the partisan lunacy which appears to have descended on the denizens of the political swamp that is Brexit. Even respected commentators are now writing nonsense. One fanatical Remainer, having (of course) said that he respects the vote of the people (NOT!), even went as far as to suggest that because German feelings were hurt by Brexit Britain should be very gentle in its dealings with Berlin. Poor little diddums. This nonsense is either a failure to understand the ‘doings’ of international politics, or more likely simply another stratagem to weaken Britain and its position. From what I have been told Berlin and Brussels have absolutely no desire to be gentle with Britain, ‘pour encourager les autres’.

The EU is meant to be a voluntary association of democracies who voluntarily agree to pool sovereignty in pursuit of their own and some greater good. Given Europe’s violent history that greater good is plain to see. However, implicit in all the treaties (although quite deliberately not explicit – Article 50 or no) is the right of a member-state if its people so wish to leave the EU if a democratic mandate for exit has been established. Equally implicit in the idea of Union is that any such state should not be attacked for so deciding if a vote was held across the length and breadth of the land and a majority confirmed. This is precisely what happened with the June 23rd Brexit referendum vote.

And yet over the past week key members of the EU have behaved less like fellow members of a voluntary association and more like Imperial Rome. Their weapon of choice is Scotland and their apparent support for the nationalist secessionists led by Nicola Sturgeon. This is at best hypocrisy. Scottish Nationalist Party leader Ms Sturgeon legitimised the UK-wide vote by campaigning in it, but then refused to accept the result. Rather, she sees Brexit as simply yet another opportunity to destroy the UK.

Given that it was galling to say the least to hear senior German MEP Elmar Brok encouraging the secessionists by saying that there would be few obstacles to Scotland joining the EU. This attack on the UK was reinforced by the Spanish Foreign Minister saying that Madrid would not veto a membership application from an independent Scotland. A well-placed source of mine in Brussels told me that Brok was speaking with the support of Berlin and that Spain had been lent on by said Berlin to shift its position, even if that establishes a principle that would permit Catalonia to secede from Spain.

So, let’s pause for a moment and consider the implications for Europe of the destruction of the UK. Even though the Scottish population is only 8.3% of the UK the loss of Scotland would end Britain as a major international player. The result would be yet another weak, broke, small state Germany would have to support (having destroyed my country I would not support it), and an angry, resentful, broken rump UK that would see the EU, Germany in particular, as at best a frenemy, at worst an enemy. For a time rump UK would probably go through the motions of supporting NATO, but our heart (and my heart) would have gone out of it as we all wondered why we should risk lives and spend reduced our geld defending people who had consciously set out to destroy our country. The winner would be Vladimir Putin. The losers would be NATO, the US and, of course, the defence of Europe.

The Americans are fully aware of this. Time and again last week I was told by senior people on both sides of the Washington political divide that maintaining the integrity of the United Kingdom was a fundamental US interest. And, that the loss of the UK would also deal a potential death blow to NATO. Those are indeed the stakes, and Mr Brok and other German politicians need to be aware that they are playing with fire if they are seen to encourage Scotland to secede.  If they persist such a stance could well break already fragile US-German relations.

My preference from the beginning of all this Brexit farago has been to find an equitable solution to that is in the interests of all given the circumstances. As a pro-German Brit who sees little to fear in Germany’s leadership of Europe I am particularly keen to establish a post-Brexit relationship between Britain and Germany built on respect and friendship. Playing the Scotland card will destroy any hope of that.  Of course, some will say this is all pre-negotiation posturing. They would be wrong. Threatening the integrity of the UK is not what friends do, even if it is a pre-Brexit, pre-negotiating posture. Negotiate hard Germany by all means, but do not actively encourage Sturgeon and her fellow secessionists by artificially tipping the political field in their favour by making promises to them you know you cannot keep. 

As for my fellow Remainers my message is clear; a vote was taken, the result was clear, get over it! Given the horrors happening elsewhere around Europe’s borders it is vital, for the sake of Britain, the EU and NATO, that we come to an equitable deal and quickly.  If not I will fight for my country Britain (peacefully of course) and people I had regarded as friends would soon become non-friends.

Given that, is it really in the interests of the EU and Germany to destroy the UK simply ‘pour encourager les autres’? Is it really in your interests Germany to have the rest of us in the UK hate you? Can you really build a democratic Union, Berlin and Brussels, by enforcing membership through fear?

Julian Lindley-French

Saturday, 8 April 2017

America First or America Leads?

“Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak, when power to flattery bows? To plainness honour’s bound when majesty falls to folly”.

King Lear, William Shakespeare

Cosmos Club, Washington DC. 8 April. What does Trumpworld look like? Five days in and my visit to Washington is drawing to a close. It has been a fascinating visit which has cast a light for me on the febrile state of this most political of towns. The Trump administration is in transition…again. And yet, my sense is that this most enigmatic of presidents, and this most enigmatic of White Houses, is finally beginning to settle on a world view that this week’s events both solidified and represented. Put simply, America First, which for so long has been defined by hard core Trump supporters as ignoring the world, is being re-defined to mean America Leads, albeit quixotically.

President Trump has arrived in the White House just at the moment when the kind of hard-edged, loose alliance, vaguely anarchical world of big business meets a new strategic reality in which power again defines influence, not legalism. The twenty-first century is fast becoming an ultra-Realist epoch in which power and might define strength. President Trump clearly understands that, but in dealing with the world the problem the President will face may well be his own ill-discipline.

Yes, at one level keeping adversaries off-balance can be seen as part of a clever stratagem. However, the President is still too adept at keeping his allies, Washington, his own team, and even himself at times off-balance. If that continues the enunciation of anything approaching a Trump foreign and security doctrine will be hard to realise. This matters because such a failure would in turn make it hard for allies to coalesce around American leadership. The purpose of doctrine is to establish principles and consistency and, as yet, both are lacking, even though it is early days yet,

Perhaps President Trump’s greatest strength is that he is a product of the fractured, uneasy, transactional world that he now surveys. As a political and business bruiser who has clambered his way to power President Trump shares a lot of the same attributes as China’s President Xi and Russia’s President Putin. That is intended as a back-handed compliment in a way, because President Trump is well-equipped to do business with the world’s illiberal Great Powers.

It is the European allies who are going to find it hard to deal with the Trump world-view. Like many Europeans history has led me to have a penchant for legally-based international institutions precisely because they prevent the kind of extreme state behaviour which has rent destruction upon Europe twice in a century. Equally, I know that institutions without power are meaningless. And, it is precisely the cult of meaningless and powerless institutions that have turned Europeans into victims of global change.

The recent visit of German Chancellor Merkel to the White House was the diplomatic equivalent of “The Silence of the Lambs”, with Merkel cast as Jodie Foster. Now, it would be easy to say that the all-too-apparent tension was some kind of personality thing. After all, Chancellor Merkel and President Trump come from different political planets. It is deeper than that. Germany is emerging after some 150 years of struggle to be Europe’s proto-dominant power. And yet it is a Germany that rejects much of the American world-view, let alone the Trump world-view.

Germany will not become a peer competitor to the US in the style of China and Russia, but will no longer accept American leadership of the West as a given. Germany is clearly now also willing to act against US interests. There is some evidence Berlin is quietly orchestrating a campaign to damage the UK by implicitly encouraging Scottish independence, for daring to step out of the EU, and thus Germany’s sphere of influence. It is not in the US interest to see the UK broken up and terminally weakened, and at some point Washington will need to back the UK and face Berlin down.  

The future? The shape of the Trump world-view will depend on the outcome of a power struggle underway within the White House between America First radicals, such as Steve Bannon, and America Leads ‘traditionalists’, such Secretary-of Defense Mattis and National Security Advisor McMaster. Today, the pendulum appears to be swinging towards the America Leaders, possibly because the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner seems to be an advocate.

However, as I learnt during my visit this week to the White House, and my old friend and Presidential Deputy Assistant Sebastian Gorka, the situation within the Administration is far more nuanced that much of the Press would have you believe. My sense is that the President will aim to forge a more tightly-knit foreign and security policy team around hi, with much of policy led by the so-called Principals Committee of the National Security Council. The true test of a re-empowered NSC will be their collective willingness, and that of the National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, to speak truth unto power…and the President’s willingness and capacity to listen.         

Allies? They will all need to heed that old Washington adage that if a state wants to influence the Administration it is not about what you did last week for America, let alone what you did decades ago, but what you do now and tomorrow.

After all, America First means America Leads.     

Julian Lindley-French

Friday, 7 April 2017

Syria: My View from Washington

“We cannot be any stronger in our foreign policy for all the bombs and guns we may heap up in our arsenals than we are in the spirit which rules inside the country. Foreign policy, like a river, cannot rise above its source”.

Adlai Stevenson

Washington DC, 7 April. What are the strategic implications of President Trump’s decisive but limited missile strike yesterday against a remote desert airstrip in Syria? Ironically, I spent much of yesterday in the White House, and elsewhere in DC, discussing US foreign and security policy, including Syria. There is no question that the loosing of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles by two US warships in the Eastern Mediterranean marks a change from the policy of the Obama administration, but to what extent? Is the strike an emotional response by President Trump to this week’s disgusting footage of children dying in chemically-induced agony, is it an act to deter Assad from further use of toxic weapons, or is it the start of a new phase of US engagement?

My sense of the state of the Administration’s putative foreign and security policy today is that it is again a work in progress.  Talking to senior Americans across a political divide that runs through this city far wider and deeper than the mighty River Potomac is that the Administration is slowly moving towards a some form of concept for global engagement/grand strategy…even if thinks it is not. The primary impulse of President Trump in ordering the strikes was to punish Assad for a blatant use of ‘CW’ against his own people. However, by simply reinstalling some of President Obama’s tattered and faded red-lines, but not defining what or where they are, President Trump has already forced both Damascus and Moscow off-balance.

In Syria itself the implication is that the fight against Assad might now be accorded the same status as the fight against Islamic State (IS). Moscow clearly understands that which is why today Russia has suspended the agreement designed to ‘de-conflict’ air operations by Russia and the US-led coalition. By implicitly raising the level of risk to allied aircraft operating against IS Moscow hopes to relieve the pressure on its client Assad, which overnight the Americans increased.

At the regional-strategic level the strike has clearly reassured some American allies that unlike the Obama administration the new White House will not talk itself constantly and consistently into inaction. The Americans have certainly disturbed Tehran’s composure. Washington seems also to have sufficiently impressed Ankara for Turkey’s President Erdogan to back the strikes, thus suggesting President Putin will need to work far harder to achieve his policy goal of detaching Turkey from NATO. Still, the White House will need to be very clear-headed about what if any policy outcomes it seeks in the regional-strategic chess-cum-rugby match that is the Middle East and North Africa today.

It is at the grand strategic level where perhaps the strikes perhaps resonate most profoundly. One can almost palpably feel the disappointment/disturbance in Moscow that its concerted effort to shape American policy is failing. One has to feel things about Moscow today because the truth died some time ago in Russia. For a few years Moscow has forced Washington on the back foot and forced Washington to answer a simple but profound question; what are you going to do about us?  It is a question Washington has been unable to answer, thus sending the currency of US leadership into a nose dive. This morning at least America is posing the same question; what are you Moscow going to do about us?

Which brings me back to the twin issues of US strategy and leadership. Right now the very uncertainty over the Administration’s position has Putin, Assad and others holding their breath. What will President Trump do next? Will he call the Putin-Assad bluff and escalate further? Or, having returned a remote, secondary airstrip back to the desert will Washington now stop? If it is the former then President Trump is beginning a new era of American engagement and it will become rapidly clear that the target audience of US action is allies and adversaries alike that America means business (and I use that word advisedly). If it is the latter then the aim of the strike will have been little more than to assuage the moral outrage of the ‘something must be done but we are not sure what and why’ lobby in the West. In which case, plus ca change…

Europe? This week the French foreign minister called for the US to do more in Syria. Of course, the language employed by the Quai D’Orsay was wreathed in the mist and mystery of Talleyrand. The British were not far behind offering ‘full support’ to the US short of doing anything. Oh, Britain, what have you become? One point I made in the White House yesterday was that the Administration should be clear to its European allies; if they want the US to act, then they too must act.

For all that after a week here I do sense a profound shift in US policy is underway. First, President Trump IS abandoning the neo-isolationism that marked much of his rhetoric throughout the presidential campaign. That may have something to do with the growing influence of Secretary of State Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Mattis, and National Security Advisor McMaster, who are beginning to hunt like a pack. Second, the over-intellectualised nothingness of US foreign and security policy under President Obama is being replaced by something far more rugged.

Which brings me in conclusion to my core question; is this policy? After all, one missile strike does not a policy make. The paradox of the Trump administration is that when one talks privately to pivotal members of it, as I have done this week, one does get the sense of serious work underway to reset US foreign and security policy and cast it clearly into a series of hard-headed but realistic goals and desired outcomes.

What next? At some point it would be nice for the Allie to hear just what that policy is. For the American people, particularly those that backed President Trump, it will be interesting to see what they think. Putin? Let’s see how he reacts.

Oh, and by the way, President Xi of China has just landed.

Julian Lindley-French         

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Allied Command Innovation?

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference”.

Robert Frost

Norfolk, Virginia. 4 April. Yesterday I had the honour of addressing NATO’s Allied Command Transformation as a guest of the Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, General Denis Mercier. The title of my talk was “The Innovation Game”, whilst the essence of my argument was that NATO must become a security and defence thinking machine if Allied defence and deterrence are to be credible in a non-linear age. How does NATO get from where it is today to where we need it to be? The Alliance must innovate with ‘ACT’ NATO’s great agent of change.

Nor did I pull my punches; if the Alliance is to prevail in its mission it must completely rethink its own role in security and defence and, indeed, the very way we think about security and defence. Through ACT the Alliance must reach out to innovators across many fields if it is to forge innovation and the best practice it fosters in pursuit of comparative strategic advantage. And, there is no question that ACT is doing some excellent work to foster such goals. After all, why bother inviting a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad like me to speak?

The other week, in the wake of a big conference in Budapest, I had roasted the political and diplomatic leadership of the Alliance for talking innovation, but not walking it. Which brings me to the anomaly of ACT. NATO has a command ready-made to think, to experiment, and to take innovative risk. What impressed me was the quality of the people at ACT, the first and most important battle any organisation must win if permanency of innovation is to be built into its DNA.

But there is a ‘but’. There are at least two barriers to ACT acting to effect as NATO’s innovation hub. The first barrier is NATO itself. ACT should be the elite think-tank of the Alliance, the experimenter, the simulator. And yet, the NATO system does not allow SACT to choose the best and the brightest from across the Alliance. Tellingly, one officer said to me that “eighty percent of the work is done by twenty percent of the people”.  

The other barrier was the cynicism of some ACT staff members. The civilians at ACT have no career progression beyond ACT and can become ‘parked’. Military officers come and go and, I suspect, many of them leave little creative turbulence in their wake. Now, having worked in my time at both NATO and the EU I know how easy it is to be crushed by the stultifying preponderance of lowest common denominator bureaucracy. After a time it is simply too easy to say, “oh well, I tried”. THAT is perhaps NATO’s biggest trap right now.

Why does ACT matter? If the Alliance cannot prove it adds value to US security it will fade. As I write this I am on the train from Norfolk to Washington DC for high-level discussions on the future of NATO. This week President Trump and his team are preparing for the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, and considering what to do with a dangerously predictable North Korea.

NATO faces a crisis of ends, ways, and means. Innovation, with ACT in the lead, would not only demonstrate to an increasingly sceptical Washington that the Allies ‘get it’ and that Canadian and European security is as much about keeping America strong where it needs to be strong, as it is about American troops defending the NATO space. It is that implicit ‘contract’ that is the very essence of the twenty-first century Alliance.

If an ambitious innovation agenda is to be realised the whole command must become an innovator, established on an innovation culture. Innovation would thus become a vital component in NATO’s strategic communications to allies and adversaries alike about the ability of the Alliance to adapt.  However, for that messaging to be generated ACT needs to be systematic in its approach to innovation. That means ACT must build a development programme that can act as a vehicle for innovation, reach out to new partners in innovation, and establish a knowledge-led approach to the understanding of risks, challenges, and opportunities. That also means everyone at ACT buying into the effort. Innovation only ever works if people really believe in it.   

Innovation to what end? The Alliance must adopt what I call an outcomes-based approach to security and defence.  That means big and bold thinking about ends, ways and means, and what tools – both civil and military – the Alliance and its nations will need to generate such outcomes.  At the very least NATO will need to strike a radical new balance between efficiency and effectiveness.

NATO is at a fork in its long road, albeit deep in a dark wood called uncertainty. Innovation is where strategy meets practice to close the gap between ends, ways, and means and thus create clarity. To that end, ACT should be equipped with the tools, but above all the people to think radically about how NATO innovates. In other words, ACT must cut a new path through that dark wood because Allied Command Future Operations (for that is what ACT is) IS the future of NATO.

Allied Command Innovation?

Julian Lindley-French