hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Britain and France MUST Hang Together…

“…for neither Britain nor France can there be any nostalgic attachment to past structure and relationships in the pursuit of influence. While the financial case for a renewed and intensified partnership is clear, the political and strategic imperatives on both sides of the Channel are less so”.

Julian Lindley-French, Britain and France: A Dialogue of Decline? Chatham House, December 2010

Perfidy all round?

Alphen, Netherlands. 25 September. Last week was one of THOSE weeks in the ever-sensitive Franco-British strategic partnership. As Prime Minister May typically bungled her Salzburg Brexit ‘Sound of Hubris all round’ von Crapp-shoot French President Emmanuel Macron seemed to relish his role as leader of the EU punishment lynch mob.  Indeed, he came very close to insulting all of the British people with a Gallic relish that Charles de Gaulle would have been proud of. Less Jupiter, more Napoleon.  At exactly the same time in London, the annual Franco-British Defence Conference took place blithely implying that the political fracas in Salzburg will have no impact on the vital Franco-British strategic partnership. Frankly, London and Paris are deluding themselves.

Scroll back eight years to 2 November 2010. Lancaster House, Central London. Amid the usual pomp and circumstance surrounding Franco-British summits, British Prime Minister David Cameron (remember him?) and French President Nicolas Sarkozy met to put pen to a new Defence and Security Co-operation Treaty which committed Europe’s strongest military powers to the pooling and sharing of military equipment. Protocols to the treaty included a Nuclear Stockpile Stewardship agreement to help preserve the reliability and credibility of the two countries’ respective independent nuclear deterrents.  An agreement was also reached on closer operational ties between the British and French armed forces and deeper cooperation between the two countries’ advanced defence and technological ‘bases’.

The centrepiece of the ‘Lancaster House Agreement’ was the formation of a new high-end, deployable, expeditionary force called the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force or CJEF.  Yesterday in The Times, the new British Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, tried to defy political gravity by pretending politics and strategy were somehow distinct. In an article entitled Old Alliance is Key to Meeting Modern Threats Carter wrote that “…we must take our alliance to the next level: our collective security and stability depend on it”.  In strategic terms, Carter’s call makes perfect sense…but.

The Franco-British (sort of) strategic partnership

In June 1998, six months before the landmark Franco-British St Malo Declaration, I published in New Statesman what many regard as one of my most influential articles.  Time to Bite the Eurobullet called for a close Franco-British strategic partnership as the basis for a revitalised European security and defence structure which, whilst focussed on the EU, would be NATO-friendly and open to others outside the Union.  The idea that France and Britain together should form the expeditionary military power core of a renewed European defence effort is still something in which I believe deeply and passionately and informed my work during my years in Paris as a Senior Fellow at the EU Institute for Security Studies.

Critically, with coalitions of the willing and able ever more to the fore of organised European military deployability, there will be occasions when the ability to run ‘ops’ under an EU or non-NATO, non-US flag will be needed. Having the option to communicate effectively a specifically European strategic identity during complex operations could help better realise the legitimate European political objectives any use of force must serve. Clearly, President Macron also shares this vision. Indeed, it is why Macron created the European Intervention Initiative and called for the creation of a force that was outside of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy or CSDP. 

Carter also went on to write, “The strength in any military alliance is built on mutual trust and respect that can only be fostered through a long history of close collaboration. Our relationship with France is built on more than a century of our militaries joining forces to defend our people and uphold our values.  Well, Sir Nick, all well and good. However, as a historian of the Franco-British strategic partnership since the April 1904 Entente Cordiale let me tell you there have been times over the past 114 years when the ‘entente’ was distinctly less than ‘cordiale’. My fear is that we are about to enter another of such rocky period in the interminable Franco-British love-hate relationship.

The political threats to a strategic partnership.

There are two political threats to Carter’s vision of moving Franco-British defence co-operation onto a higher level. The first is that President Macron will overplay his Brexit punishment of Britain. The second is that further defence cuts in Britain will at the same (critical) time further reduce the importance and value of Britain as a strategic partner.

President Macron is certainly in danger of overplaying his Brexit hand.  If Paris (and others) somehow managed to force Brexit into a retreat do the French really think that a Britain full of people who believe they have been ‘screwed’ by Europe with France to the fore would be happy about a deeper strategic partnership?  No, the challenge for all concerned in the Brexit negotiations must somehow be even at this late stage to craft a deal that peoples on both sides accept as reasonably fair. If not the toxic politics of Brexit will certainly undermine the Franco-British strategic partnership.

Why anti-French venom? The post-March 2019 Brexit flashpoint will inevitably be at Calais, Dover and other British and French ‘entrepots’.  Given the appalling failure of the British Government to properly prepare for a ‘no deal’ Brexit it could well be that significant disruption takes place to travel and trade in 2019. Paris it seems is quite keen to see that happen ‘pour encourager les autres’ a la Voltaire, Candide and Byng! Given that French airspace is critical to a lot of air travel out of Britain it will be France who is blamed. What price a Franco-British strategic partnership then?

And then there are the further defence cuts planned in Britain. British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has failed to secure more real funding from the strategically tin-eared Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond. The result is that the Ministry of Defence has now to find a further £20bn plus of savings. This means a further retreat from the ‘minimum’ future force agreed in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review or SDSR. God knows what will be left of the British future force in the 2020 SDSR?  Floating sitting ducks?

More cuts will further undermine Britain’s wider strategic influence at a critical moment.  One of the failings of the entire Lancaster House process has been the contrasting ambitions and expectations invested by both sides in the effort. Back at St Malo, I saw how much strategic capital France wanted to invest in the process. To be fair, then Prime Minister Tony Blair was also prepared to invest significant capital in the strategic partnership until American concerns and the 2003 Iraq War intervened.  For David Cameron in 2010 Lancaster House was simply one way of offsetting some of the damage his own government had done to the defence of Britain in the unbalanced and frankly panicky SDSR 2010. What value a Franco-British strategic partnership now?

Britain and France MUST (somehow) hang together…

For me, the great tragedy of Brexit is the extent to which it has undermined Britain’s strategic partnerships, which is why I campaigned against it in spite of my grave concerns about over-concentrating power in Brussels and the threat to meaningful democracy the EU represents.  Worse, compounded by strategically-blind post-financial crash policies Britain, and much of the rest of Europe, have turned inwards at a time when external threats to the EU and NATO have grown exponentially.    

The Franco-British strategic partnership has always been, and always will be, subject to the complex and too often toxic politics within and history between the two countries. If Sir Nick Carter believes otherwise he is being poorly advised or simply living in strategic la-la land.  And yet, the partnership remains vital not just for the stability of Europe, but its defence. Why? The Americans are going to be stretched thin the world-over by China and Russia. German is as yet still strategically-incapable. That leaves Britain and France still at the heart of any effort that might lead to Europeans doing serious European defence as Europeans. Britain and France are providing back-bone battlegroups for NATO’s forward defence of the Baltic States. Last week British and French fighters were scrambled to meet a force of Russian nuclear-armed bombers who appeared unannounced in the North Sea.

One can only hope Lancaster House and its successor agreements will survive Brexit and British defence cuts.  This is because, like it or not, Britain and France MUST hang together…or at some point, they will hang separately as they embark on a dialogue of terminal decline.

Julian Lindley-French

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Predators, Prey or Herbivores with Attitude? Europe's Choice

Alphen, Netherlands. 20 September. Last night I returned from Oslo where I had the honour of addressing Major-General Odin Johannessen’s impressive Army Summit 2018.  During the visit, I also gave a keynote speech at the Norwegian Atlantic Committee, or DNAK, which is superbly led by my dear friend Kate Hansen Bundt.  I cannot share the slides of my speech to the Summit with you but below is the speech I gave at DNAK about the strategic choices Europeans must confront, the need for real leadership, and the terrifying consequences of a lack of it.

The Leadership Hole

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My thanks to Kate and Andreas, it is always a real pleasure to be back at DNAK and here in beautiful Oslo. My theme this morning is leadership. Or, rather, the consequences of a lack of it.

I am not going to pull my punches this morning. No slides, even less politesse, but a plea to leaders across Europe to get their strategic act together and invest political energy where it is really needed of Europeans are to be safe in an increasingly dangerous century as a new ‘ideological’ struggle takes place between liberalism and cynicism.

Kate asked me to address the following issues:

1.     NATO after the Summit – What’s next? I am tempted to ask, summit? At times it was more of a pub brawl;

2.     The Consequences of Brexit. Or, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, what to do when the unknown unknowns are decidedly more worrying than the known unknowns in the case of my own country at present;

3.     President Trump and the role of Germany – or what do I think of wannabe leader but not too much leadership please Germany and its relationship with the utterly inconsistent and increasingly dysfunctional White House which appears to have abandoned any pretence to the leadership of the West and increasingly America itself.

What, if anything binds these issues?  My sense that the post-Cold War ‘not-so belle epoch’ is finally over, but that European leaders refuse to recognise it – which is why I have decided to entitle this little chat – Predators, Prey or Herbivores with Attitude? Europe’s Choice.

If you take nothing else away this morning understand this:

1.     NATO is split between high-enders and low-enders, between south, east, north, south and now west.

2.     Brexit has revealed a) the incompetence of Britain’s elite; b) the transition of my country from Great Britain to Little Britain; and c) a profound loss of strategic mojo

3.     Brexit has also revealed the weak imperial quality of the European Commission, the lack of any real control most member-states have over it, and the lack of real accountability of over-mighty Eurocrats. Want more proof? See this month’s report on the appointment of Martin Selmayr as Secretary-General of the Commission by the European Parliament’s Ombudswoman Emily O’Reilly.  It was a blatant and utterly arrogant abuse of power. Sanction? None. It is time to put the Commission back in its box and give power back to the member-states. Europe needs a super-alliance, not a super-state.

4.     And then there is Trump’s America. Washington these days reminds me of that old Kissinger jibe about Europe and who to call?  Who does one call in DC these days? The passing of John McCain reinforces my sense that a once inspirational America is fast becoming an indifferent America unwilling to bear the costs of free world leadership any more or enjoy the benefits it rightly proffers.

5.     Germany?  France once had the idea that the future of Europe would be built on French strategic culture and German money. What we seem to have now is German strategic culture, such as it is, and French ‘money’ i.e. none. The great mystery/tragedy for me of ‘Europe’ is that with each passing European treaty – Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon the European nation-state has become less strategically ambitious and more power-emaciated whilst ‘Europe’ has become no stronger.  Our influence is waning across the world, with perhaps the possible exceptions of German-led mercantilism and the narrow confines of trade deals. The question Europeans should be asking is not where Britain is going. Britain is going nowhere. Rather, where has all of Europe’s power gone?

So, let me now dive deeper into these issues and how they relate to the paucity of strategic vision in Europe and a dangerous lack of leadership.

NATO after the Summit and ever-decreasing PESCOS

Forget the ‘language’ that came out of Brussels – that was more of the same-ol, same-ol, Wales to Warsaw and beyond conditional adaptation ‘we recognise only as much threat as a) we can afford; and/or b) we think will still get us re-elected stuff. It was the Alliance’s retreat into transactionalism that was striking. It begged question: is American internationalism dead?  Too early to tell and we lost one of its great pragmatic champions in John McCain, but President Trump is doing all he can to kill it.

For me, the really important message from Brussels, and Kate and I were close, was how convenient Donald Trump has become for European leaders to blame for their own appallingly dilatory approach to defence.

Look around Europe’s ‘ends’ - Russo-Chinese Vostok 18 at one end, the ongoing tragedy of Ukraine, Russia’s victory in Syria through rivers of blood, the militarization of the Arctic, the attempted murder of the Skripals in Britain, and the (at best) manslaughter of one of my fellow British citizens Dawn Sturgess, the unfolding (again) chaos in Libya, mass migration flows with profound implications for Europe with an already de-stabilised Italy with the Middle East and North Africa a powder keg.

Now look west, ladies and gentlemen. The transatlantic relationship is now conditional and transactional. Why? Trump or no Trump the United States is stretched thin the world over and it will only get more complicated and worse for the Americans.  America needs European allies, but it needs real-world European allies who are not locked into ever decreasing PESCOs.

You see NATO only has a future if we Europeans do far more for our own defence. There was a time when NATO was about the Americans providing the real defence of Europe, with Europeans in support. Now, the Alliance MUST be about the Europeans providing far more for their own defence collectively with the Americans in support.

Double Dutch Defence

Here is the crunch question. Are we up to the challenge of contemporary European defence?  The Netherlands and Norway would suggest not.  The Dutch this week committed to yet another smoke and mirrors increase in the defence budget. On the face of it, a 10% increase looks impressive. Two things. First, the new funding will simply fill the holes in the capability of the Dutch armed forces caused by years of serial underfunding. There will be no new capabilities of note. Second, the growing Dutch economy and defence cost inflation mean that by the early 2020s the Netherlands will actually be spending LESS on defence as a proportion of the national economy. And yet the Dutch signed up to spending 2% GDP on defence by 2024 to meet NATO’s 2014 Defence Investment Pledge. This is strategic illiteracy of the first order if you look at what is happening just across the border between Norway and Russia?

Norway?  It simply beggars belief to my mind why a NATO ally with one of the world’s biggest sovereign wealth funds cannot spend 2% GDP on defence. Worse, by spending less than 2% and yet expecting American and British taxpayer’s (and others) to meet the shortfall in Norway’s own defences as a result of political choice treats me with a kind of contempt. Why should I fork out to defend Norway, which I am very willing to do, if Norway will not meet its own commitments to itself? A good start would be for Norway to permit allies to permanently station forces in Norway if needs be.  Oslo can hardly expect our forces to die in an emergency for a Norway that apparently does not trust its allies.

As Norwegian NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said, Allies cannot use both a lack of economic growth or too high economic growth to justify failing to invest in what is still a historically low defence investment requirement of 2% GDP.  To use the language of Yorkshire diplomacy – it is a bloody ridiculous argument Dutch, Norwegian and other European politicians use to justify their strategic illiteracy.

Put simply, Europeans need to come together and look out of the eternally-bickering ant-hill that is the EU and see the world within which Europe resides for what it is and not what they would like it to be. Then and only then will Europeans, or at least some of them, grow up strategically. They had better do it fast.

Brexit and the Strategic Failure of Britain’s Elite

Which brings me (yawn) to Brexit. Oh, how I lament for thee my once great country.  Brexit has revealed Britain today for what it is – the consequence of a series of misguided strategic decisions, the unwillingness of the elite Establishment to be honest with the people about their lack of belief in Britain or their mistakes, and a culture in Whitehall of ‘managing decline’ that is close to policy psychosis.

There is no question in my mind that a state with the inherent strengths and talents of Britain, with an economy that still counts amongst the world’s biggest and a strategic culture that led it to span the world for centuries, could again rule itself. Don’t get me wrong – I campaigned for Remain partly in the belief that for geopolitical reasons Europe needed to hang together not hang apart, and mainly because Britain has never walked away from institutions central to its concept of influence. 

There was another reason: as a citizen, I have simply lost faith in Britain’s declinist elite and did not think they are up to the task of Brexit. Critically, for years they deceived the British people by refusing to admit how entwined the UK had become in the ‘European Project’ and just how much sovereignty that had handed over to Brussels on the QT whilst keeping it from the British people.

There are other reasons for Britain’s loss of strategic mojo – the criminal irresponsibility of the bankers who almost bankrupted Britain with their criminal recklessness but for which (surprise, surprise) few have been convicted, the collapse of a once reasonably united society into ‘devolved’ and competing poles of power within the UK under the rubric of ‘modernisation’, the atomisation of society into ‘communities’ and identity-politics, and the retreat of the political class into virtue-signalling at the expense of considered policy, most notably foreign policy where all that matters these days it seems is vacuous statement-making and an obsession with inputs to prove virtue at the expense of hard outcomes.

Sadly, Britain has become just another of those strategy-free, other-worldly European ‘powers’ in which interest groups turn every issue into a crisis, where victimhood has replaced personal responsibility and where Special Advisors undermine what is still, on balance, a very good but horribly under-resourced civil service.

Britain’s leaders have instead retreated into strategic pretence. Proof? Much has been made over the past week that Britain will use its admittedly burgeoning offensive cyber capabilities to retaliate against Russia for the bungling aggression of the GRU on the streets of Salisbury.  No chance.

You see the obsession of successive British governments with privatising almost everything, including much of the support for the armed forces, has left Britain and its society dangerously vulnerable to cyber-attack. Why? Because British governments refused to listen to those of us who warned that the need for profit was diametrically opposed to the building of costly redundancy. In any case, most of Russia is too backward to notice any British action. The best that London can do is to kick a few oligarchs out – but not too many.

Where does Britain go next?  Look at Britain’s deeds, not its words. Britain is retreating behind its soon-to-be-updated nuclear shield and will use its massive new aircraft carriers to strategically virtue signal. The British Army is far too small these days to properly meet the commitment Britain has made to NATO to provide two real divisions in the event of a real emergency. Worse, I fear, the days of Britain being the Alliance’s European heavyweight are over.  Indeed, until and if Britain realigns the ends, ways and means of its foreign and defence policy then the great strategic gap at the heart of British engagement will tell you all you need to know.  London could start by simply plugging the £20bn plus funding hole in its own minimum defence requirement.  Anything less is again strategic pretence.

To give you a sense of the scale of the declinist diseases and strategic illiteracy at the heart of Britain’s elite Establishment the other day I listened to that doyen of the British Press Sir Simon Jenkins on the BBC seriously suggest that Britain really did not armed forces anymore beyond a kind of Home Guard. Dad’s Army? He even questioned why Britain was defending Latvia.  As I said in response on the Riga Conference’s website, if we fail to defend Latvia we fail ourselves.

Put bluntly, Brexit has been an exercise in incompetent political weakness that has exaggerated Britain’s relative decline. A real British leader would reinvest properly in the tools, instruments and strategy of influence. Instead, I and millions of my fellow citizens are faced with a choice between a barely-reconstructed Marxist and someone who seems at times more suited to lead a village council than one of the world’s leading powers.

And yes, I was the one who invented Hotel California Brexit – we can check out anytime we want but we can never leave. Watch this space.

The EU: Empire or Union?

The EU?  The appointment of hard-line federalists Michel Barnier and Guy Verhofstadt to lead the Brexit negotiations also revealed the extent of the marginalisation of most EU member-states from real power in and over Brussels. Wrong people, wrong place, wrong job, and the wrong time. You see, Brexit has revealed the EU for what it has become – a bureaucratic empire and a pretty vengeful one at that in which democracy is merely a fig-leaf for a distant elite which is demonstrably incompetent given its inability to confront the big systemic issues of our age beyond rhetoric and yet believes only it knows best when it palpably does not.  

Brexit is also the start of a deep existential struggle for the centre of power in Europe between self-aggrandizing power centralisers in Brussels and the European nation-state. It is my firm conviction that a new political settlement for Europe will emerge from its decade of crisis. Given real democracy resides only in the European nation-state it is vital the EU becomes a super-alliance. If it becomes some form of super-state, weak or strong, it will also, inevitably, become some form of tyranny. Intransigent, intolerant and incompetent. Sadly, until this battle over power and institutions is resolved I fear Europeans will look inward not outward.  

Europe’s power to which I referred earlier? If one reads the 2004 Lisbon Agenda the EU was to spearhead Europe’s efforts to become economically ultra-competitive in the twenty-first century.  In fact, Europe has become increasingly uncompetitive and protectionist in an effort to simply delay the moment when Europeans are unable to compete in a twenty-first-century world that owes Europeans nothing.

Trump, Germany and the Need for a New Transatlantic Relationship

The only real transatlantic strategic relationship between powers of any real weight that matters is between America and Germany.  I have the honour to be part of the joint Munich Security Conference-George C Marshall Center Loisach Group which is committed to turning the essential German-US relationship into a special one. Why am I a member? Don’t ask.

It will not be easy. A recent DPA poll suggested 42% of Germans want US forces to leave Germany. The Nordstream 2 gas pipeline also reveals something about how Germany sees power these days – mercantilism. I have noticed something else, not a few Germans seem as ambivalent about its relationship with Putin’s Russia as it is about its strategic partnership with the US. 

And yet, look beyond the appalling personal chemistry that exists between Chancellor Merkel and President Trump and it becomes apparent something else is going on: we are finally witnessing the real end of World War Two and a democratic Germany that is emerging from strategic deference to the Americans to err, sort of, not quite, lead.

The result is a vacuum. A vacuum of strategy and a vacuum of power. Berlin may dislike Trump, Germany may be ambivalent about the Americans, but the Federal Republic is offering little by way of replacement. Berlin, it seems, wants the benefits of leadership but is unwilling to get its strategic hands dirty. Rather, it has developed a kind of proxy leadership in which Germany uses ‘Europe’ as an alibi for German power. Just see who Berlin wants to replace Juncker at the Commission next year. Weber and Selmayr together. How very European…or do I mean German? Paradoxically, Berlin’s confusion of ‘order’ with power cedes the European strategic ground, such as it is, to the French and in particular President Macron. Sadly, the tragedy for President Macron is that his ideas are far mightier than his country and quite possibly Europe.

One of my favourite books is L.P. Hartley’s The Go Between. Its opening lines read – “The past is a different country. They do things differently there”. Germany is a model democracy and I am comfortable with German leadership of Europe if a) Germans have a greater sense of solidarity with other Europeans; b) stop simply swapping the ‘German interest’ for the ‘European interest’. To do that Germany will need to be informed by its Nazi past but stop using it as an alibi for doing very little for the greater good.  Indeed, Germany’s fear of its own past is paralysing Europe’s ability to deal with the big issues Europeans face, most notably mass irregular migration and helping to push leaderless and frustrated Europeans towards populists of both Left and Right who offer nothing.

Where to start? Germany needs in the first instance to have the political courage to sort out the appalling state of the Bundeswehr. Indeed, Berlin needs to understand that leadership requires the sound and balanced investment in both soft and hard power for leadership cannot exist if softness is insufficiently supported by legitimate hardness.  For that is the only way deterrence and defence can be mounted in this new age of new 4D warfare which stretches disinformation, destabilisation, disruption and destruction as it simultaneously climbs a new escalation ladder from hybrid war to hyper war via cyberwar.  Protection and projection are two sides of the new defence for all of us. Is Germany up to it? Are any of us up to it?

Herbivores with Attitude?

So, does it matter that America is inconsistent, NATO is divided, Britain is dysfunctional, the EU is weak imperial, European states are power-emaciated and Germany wants order without responsibility?  Look around you. Illiberal predators are emerging who threaten us, our values and our interests. They have penetrated our societies, treat our laws and our rules-based international system with contempt, and see Europeans increasingly as prey. 

I am not suggesting we Europeans become predators. We have been there, done that, got the imperial T-shirt. However, I am reminded of a short film I watched recently. A lion attacks a Wildebeest calf. For a moment all seems lost as the big cat drags the calf towards lunch. Then, suddenly, a large male wildebeest with huge horns piles into the lion and frees the calf with the herd charging in from behind.  It may have been a herbivore but, my God, it was a herbivore with horns…and attitude.

It may be that we Europeans are becoming strategic herbivores, nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but for God’s sake in this world we need to be herbivores with horns and attitude because with the likes of Putin and Xi around being ‘nice’ does not buy peace.

So, what do I as a citizen want?

1.     NATO: America you are a truly great country and freedom’s great bastion BUT you need your European allies more than you have ever.  Europe, wake up to this world and invest in the forces and resources to make our Great Alliance once again a credible deterrent and defence;

2.     Britain: give me some vision leaders, some sense you still believe in my country. That you will again craft pragmatic policy that was once the signature of British power. And, that once again you give the great people who serve me and who are the face of our influence – be it diplomatic, military or whatever, the tools and the funding to do the job – as someone once said once before. End the strategic pretence now.

3.     Brussels: remember you are there to foster democracy and support the European state not to replace the latter and kill the former with bureaucracy. You cannot replace democracy with bureaucracy and you must respect votes even if the electorate denies you ever more power in the name of ever more Europe.

4.     Germany: we love you, really.  But, if you want to lead do the job leadership requires. Above all, take the rest of us along with you. The German interest is not automatically and conveniently synonymous with the European interest.

Why? Because Hotel California stretches the world over and whilst all of us can check out any time, we can never leave.

Predators, prey or herbivores with attitude?  It is indeed our choice…so let’s make it.

Thank you.

Julian Lindley-French,

Oslo, September 2018

Thursday, 13 September 2018

The Hinge of History and the Rebuilding of American Statecraft

“Our hands rest purposely on history's door and it depends on us to push it in the right direction”.
US Secretary of Defense James B. Mattis, George C. Marshall Center, 28 June 2017

Hinges of power
Alphen, Netherlands. 13 September.  Whither American statecraft? L’Entente Cordiale, World War One, America’s entry into World War One, Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations and America’s refusal to join it, the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler, the Rhineland occupation, Munich, World War Two, the Battle of Britain, Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War Two, Stalingrad and the defeat of Nazism, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Indian independence, the Berlin Airlift and the start of the Cold War, NATO, the Schuman Plan, the Korean War, German re-armament and the Warsaw Pact, the Treaty of Rome, Sputnik, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Ostpolitik, the Yom Kippur War, Euromissiles and the INF saga, Gorbachev and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Treaty of Maastricht, Gulf War I, the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession, 911, Gulf war II, the Russian seizure of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Oh, and I should add another, the collapse of Lehman Brothers ten years ago today which helped trigger the twin banking and Eurozone crises, accelerated the relative decline of the West and tipped many states into political lunacy. These are all greater or lesser hinges upon which power turned and all of which have involved Americans, Europeans and Russians but few of which, in this ever less Eurocentric world involved Asian powers, beyond the ghastly tragedy of millions slain during the 1931-45 Asia-Pacific War. Today, we could be witnessing another hinge – Vostok 18 – in which the real battle lines of twenty-first century geopolitics are confirmed.

The geopolitical significance of Vostok 18
On the face of it Vostok 18 is just another of those ‘showy’, expensive, Russian-led military exercises that friends and allies in Central and Eastern Europe are only too aware of, even whilst much of Western Europe sleeps the sleep of the purposively self-deluded.  In fact, the military stats of an exercise that involves some 300,000 Russian troops, 1000 aircraft, 36000 military ‘assets’ are far less important than the political symbolism and strategic shift Vostok 18 is primarily designed to communicate.  The most important statistic is the 900 Chinese tanks believed to be taking part but above all the 1 parallel meeting between China’s President Xi and Russia’s President Putin.

The strategic messaging is clear.  The global strategic space is now to be contested by the two Great Illiberal Powers by all means possible – political, military and economic.  Vostik 18, the message goes on, is thus another hinge of history and with it the final, definitive end of an era of constructive coexistence between China and the West, precisely because it also marks the definitive end to decades of deep suspicion between China and Russia.  That the world is entering a new era of strategic competition is clear, but are the battle-lines being as neatly and as dangerously drawn as Vostok 18 clearly seeks to suggest?
At present, illiberal China is clearly on a collision course with the US and its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region.  Fuelled by aggressive Han Chinese nationalism and a regime that believes that one great purpose of economic wealth is the projection of strategic influence based on the development of great military power, contemporary China is a very traditional Great Power that Bismarck would have recognised.  And yet, my sense is that unlike Russia which locked itself into strategic hooliganism Beijing is as yet not as implacably anti-Western as Moscow would like it to be. Yes, Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Maritime Silk Road is clearly designed to expand China’s at the expense of the West.  Yes, China will use all means possible – foreign engagement, debt diplomacy and, I suspect, the implied threat of military coercion on occasions to ease the West out of places Westerners have long taken for granted, most notably Africa.

The Rebuilding of American Statecraft
How should the West respond? In fact, the real question is how should America respond because in reality Russia is to China pretty much what contemporary Britain is to America – the very junior partner?  History offers us insight. Back in 1971, Henry Kissinger visited Mao’s China in the wake of a series of border conflicts between the then Soviet Union and Communist Peking, as it then was. Ever the political opportunist Kissinger’s boss, President ‘tricky Dicky’ Richard M. Nixon, had seen a chance to divert attention away from the failing Vietnam War and reinforce the Containment of Moscow as the D├ętente of the late 1960s began to fade.  This strategic gambit of gambits worked.  At the same time, Nixon and Kissinger also unintentionally set China on a path to a new relationship between the state and capital that laid the foundations for the superpower China that is emerging today.

The problem is that without a consistent US world-view and the organising principles to realise it American power and influence are evaporating. Take China. What Beijing wants from Washington is some sense that the Americans see China as an equal rather than another regional potentate screwing American workers by unfair trade practices, all of which is true by the way. The problem is that Trump’s China Policy, with its emphasis on sanctions, tariffs and short-term trade-offs almost plays into the hands of Xi and his need for an enemy and reinforces Putin and his penchant for bullying. Worse, the transactional low ground approach to foreign and security policy championed by President Trump is destroying US statecraft, the art of conducting state affairs through the application of considered ways via a range of means in pursuit of ambitious and legitimate ends.
Therefore, if President Trump really wants to make America great again at this hinge of history he must reinvest in a national strategy worthy of the name and further reinvest in all the tools of American power and influence across the spectrum from soft to hard power. The Trump administration must also craft those means of power – be it NSC, Defense, State, CIA et al – into a coherent policy which means lifting them above the intense ‘divide et impera’ turf battles of an Administration seemingly more concerned with perceived enemies within than the potentially very real enemies the US faces without.  .

What really made America great
Leadership is not a burden that Americans must bear but a great prize that Americans should hold aloft. What made America great before to this friendly foreigner was how America rose to lead the free world in less than a decade under President Theodore Roosevelt and then maintained that leadership, albeit with bumps along the way, under Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan etc., etc. Yes, America had to pay a price for its leadership but it also accrued great benefits as visionaries like George Kennan and George C Marshall knew only too well it would.

If America continues to be so defensive and short-term it will destroy any claim to leadership Washington has and destroy ‘West’ the leadership of which it desperately needs to realise its national security objectives.  There is no-one else in the free world who can lead. Forget all the talk in Europe about ‘Europe’ stepping up to replace America.  Yesterday morning European Commission President Juncker in his last State of the Union address issued again that now empty refrain that the EU is preparing to ‘lead’. No chance. If there is a leader in Europe it is not the EU but rather Germany, which in the past year or has finally begun to craft a foreign policy no longer defined by either America or World War Two. Unfortunately, Germany might be America’s essential strategic partner in Europe but it is still very much a strategic adolescent that does not want to get its hands too dirty with power and which deep down still thinks it can rush ‘home’ to America if someone is too nasty to it. Little Britain, together with its Lilliputian leaders, has abandoned all and any pretence of strategic ambition.  President Macron talks a lot and often makes strategic sense, but his ideas are far grander than his country. The EU? The great tragedy of the Grand European Project is that with each passing European treaty the European state has become more emaciated but ‘Europe’ has become no stronger.

Making America really great again

The greatest mistake President Trump is making is to risk the destruction of inspirational America that millions around the world look up to with its unique fusion of values, interests and power that made America unique.  It is not entirely his fault. For some time the US has been descending from its shining city on a hill to become an ever more ‘European’ power.  It is not too late. American the Idea still has it within itself to be THE inspirational power, but only if it can again inspire itself, which at present it does not. 

If America can indeed again inspire itself and by extension, the rest of us the prize for Americans would be great – the forging of a new global West – idea rather than place - built on an American idea with the US the hub for a worldwide network of democracies. Do that and the apparent ‘power’ of this proto-Russo-China Axis will be revealed for what it is – a charade, an artifice of power between two states that actually still continue to harbour deep suspicions about each other and contempt for each other and their respective intentions.

There is perhaps a tragic symmetry in the passing of Senator John S. McCain – a great American. He was born to a generation and a patrician American class that saw a very big picture and laid the foundations for American internationalism. My hope is that his passing does not mark the passing of American internationalism for if it does Vostok 18 is just the beginning of an age of strategic bullying and coercion that could end God knows where.

Give history a push, America

Henry Kissinger, in his book On China, wrote, “Chess teaches the Clausewitzian concepts of “centre of gravity” and the “decisive point”—the game usually begins as a struggle for the centre of the board. Wei qi teaches the art of strategic encirclement.”  Both chess and Wei qi (the game ‘Go’ to the rest of us) are games about power that adopt very different approaches to arriving ultimately at the same place – dominance. There is no question that if left unchallenged the very nature of the nationalism that underpins the ambitious pragmatism of the Xi regime will ruthlessly seek to exploit all and every Western weakness.  China is clearly not a friend of the West, and is quite possibly an adversary, but is it as yet an enemy?  My sense is the patient application of American power and statecraft could do much to blunt Putin’s ambitions for a blatantly aggressive anti-Western alliance. For all that Vostok 18 must be seen as part of a grand strategic ‘game’, a Great Game if you will, and because of that both Americans and Europeans have no other choice other than to engage and to engage seriously and fast.
Over the past century, power has accelerated and the world has turned on many hinges, moments when the direction of power changed significantly or even decisively. Power is still accelerating, or rather the change it engenders is accelerating. America thus finds itself at another hinge of history and with it the wider West which can only exist if America leads it.  Therefore, if America really wants to be great again just go back to being American.  Stop blundering through power and release the power talent in Washington to do what it does best – apply immense power through strategy over time and distance in pursuit of the American interest, but above all the values that underpin it.  

You see for all President Putin’s penchant for the ‘cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war’ stuff America’s hand still rests on history's door and it is only America that can still push it in the right direction if it so chooses with, of course, some help from its friends.

So Yanks, stop messing around. We need you.

Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Fear God and Dread Nought: Europe, 8G military technology and the new arms race

“Moderation in war is imbecility”.

Admiral Lord Fisher, First Sea Lord

Vostok 18 and the revolution in military technology

Alphen, Netherlands. 5 September. Europeans are about to face a ‘Dreadnought’ moment. It is both a threat and an opportunity.

Over dinner the other night my great friend Dr Andrew Michta, Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall Center, enjoyed an admittedly alcohol-fuelled discussion about the future of force. The world in 2018, we agreed, stands on the verge of a revolution in military technology and because of that, like it or not, a new global arms race beckons. Specifically, that for all the hype about ‘6G’ military technology the world’s serious armed forces are still only groping towards the future of warfare: wholly unmanned, artificially-intelligent (AI), autonomous/independent robotic combat systems (8G?) that is coming via a form of hybrid part-manned, part-machine military concept. The reason for the uncertainty is that they are all trying to fit ultra-digital technology into effectively analogue military-strategic concepts and command structures. They also fail to grasp the extent to which ‘8G’ warfare will see technology drive strategy precisely because offensive weapons, defensive systems and command response is about to become so fast it will be beyond the ken of human beings.

To underline the point Russia’s mighty Vostok 18 joint exercise with China will kick off on 11 September (nice that, eh?) and run to at least 20 September. Vostok 18, the largest Russian military exercise since 1981, will see 300,000 troops, 1000 aircraft and over 36,000 military ‘assets’ deployed in a show of Russo-Chinese military might.  It threatens to be transformative and leave Europeans not only further behind in the new Great Game that is unfolding, but dangerously vulnerable. Europe’s leaders you see, simply don’t get this power thing.

The Mighty Dreadnought

There was a time they did. Let me take you back to HM Dockyard, Portsmouth on 10 February, 1906. With Union flags flying the brand new HMS Dreadnought was launched. The first all-big gun, fully-armoured, high-speed, turbine-driven battleship she not only gave a name to an entire class of mighty warships she made everything that had sailed before her immediately obsolete. She also triggered an arms race with Imperial Wilhelmine Germany which would only really end with the Royal Navy’s strategic victory at the 1916 Battle of Jutland.

Here’s the thing.  You see HMS Dreadnought was not simply a step forward in military technology. The step change advance she represented drove strategy and thus changed the very character of naval warfare.  Critically, at a stroke she increased the distance between ship and enemy that has continued unabated to this day. Through her gun director system she also introduced a degree of automation hitherto unknown.  She also revealed a profound dilemma that also exists today: as the range of gunfire increased signalling failed to keep pace and, consequently, decision-making fell far behind technology. It was a failing that almost proved disastrous at Jutland.

Imagine a new HMS Dreadnought. A fully autonomous, artificially intelligent, machine-learning, robotic military platform that arms and defends itself independently of any direct human command. Capable of launching intelligent swarms of robotic drones each armed with the ‘intelligence’ to independently seek out enemy vulnerabilities across systems, platforms, communications and command chains.  The pioneering work led by General John R. Allen and Amir Husain at Spark Cognition are part of America’s search for their new ‘Dreadnought’. Europe?

Vostok 18

Which brings me back to Vostok 18. There are two specific aspects of Vostok 18 that should worry any European leader worthy of the name. First, the Vostok series of exercises were originally designed by Russia to test big war AGAINST China.  Now Vostok 18 has been adapted to test the idea of large, mass-mobile Russian forces going to big war WITH China.  At the very least Vostok 18 is a sign of the hardening of geopolitical blocs as the two great illiberal powers seek common cause against America and the democratic, global West.  There can be no other explanation for the military coupling of these two powers in such a way and at such a time.

Second, the Russians and Chinese are paying particular attention to a new form of extended-reach all-arms warfare built on effective coordination between disparate but powerful forces over great distance, able to operate autonomously or in concert as part of an ‘organically’ intelligent force. To illustrate the point Vostok 18 will see large-scale deployments of mainly Russian forces in Russia’s Southern and Central Military Districts (Oblast) whilst in the eastern Mediterranean the Russian Navy conducts a large-scale exercise, possibly as a prelude to a large-scale assault on the hold-out Syrian city of Idlib.

Specifically, Vostok 18 will test reconnaissance-strike contouring, large-scale combat arms, training between different types of companies, communications between disparate forces and new technologies (e.g. SPECTRUM, a new Russian electronics warfare capability was declared operational this week), drone and counter-drone missions, integration of large ground formations and air power with conventional and nuclear systems – in other words ‘deep jointness’.  The Chinese contribution will be relatively modest – believed to be no more than 3200 troops from the People’s Liberation Army, some 30 aircraft and an indeterminate number of main battle tanks. Still, as someone, somewhere else once said, “This is just the beginning. They won’t stop now”.

The new arms race and burden-sharing the future

Are the Russians and Chinese preparing for a major war?  Not directly. What they are preparing for is a major arms race with America. The design and shape of Vostok 18 suggest the Russians and Chinese are seeking to create a transformative framework for future military action that unless countered could give them a decisive advantage at a time and place of their choosing.  Clearly, both Moscow and Beijing understand the first principle of war that Europeans invented but have now wholly abandoned: success in high-end warfare depends on the successful interaction of, and balance between, five concepts – a strategic concept, a force concept, a technology concept, and intelligence and information concept with the whole ghastly edifice held together with a robust and effective decision-making and communications structure.  Of all the Western powers only the Americans are systematically thinking about future war in this way and doing something about it. Europeans?  As ever we are talking a lot but doing little or next to nothing.

Here’s the cruncher. It may be that the Americans will be able to maintain the edge in the new future war arms race of which Vostok 18 is a part, but it cannot be guaranteed. They would be helped immeasurably if their European allies started to get serious about this stuff, if for no other reason than ensuring the defence of Europeans.  To simply suggest that because arms races are nasty dangerous things, which is the real European position, Europe is not going to engage in one is even more dangerous.  You see, there may come a point when the relationship between the military strength of the revived illiberal Great Powers is so preponderant when compared to the self-chosen weakness of Europe’s decidedly less-than-great ‘powers’ that war and defeat become again real possibilities. Burden-sharing?

A European Dreadnought?

The paradox of Vostok 18 is that it also affords Europeans an opportunity to turn their dilatory defence effort to advantage.  Look at the ‘assets’ taking part in Vostok 18. The bulk of them are 4G and 5G systems. In other words, now would be the moment for Europeans collectively to begin thinking of 6G, 7G even 8G military systems. You see HMS Dreadnought may have been met with a lot of patriotic British flag-waving but in fact, she also marked a moment of maximum vulnerability for the Royal Navy, precisely because she made every other ‘RN’ ship obsolete.  Had German industry of the time been committed to out-building the British there was a chance Berlin could have eclipsed four hundred years of British sea power.  
Worse, if HMS Dreadnought had instead been the SMS Kleinangst (joke) the technological edge Britain enjoyed at sea would have been lost and with it the British Empire. Over time that happened anyway but not before Wilhelmine Germany had been defeated, a victory that owed a very great deal to the blockade Royal Navy dreadnoughts and super-dreadnoughts imposed on Germany between 1914 and 1918. Thankfully, from London’s viewpoint, the British understood that the Prussian aristocrats who controlled the Kaiser’s army would never have permitted Germany to turn its full industrial might to the production of naval armaments. If they did there is a slim chance the new HMS Dreadnought could even be European. 

Of course, it would be much better for all if Russia and China could be persuaded not to embark on an expensive arms race, not least because they are horribly expensive as well as dangerous.  However, there is a compelling quality to such races that once underway are hard to resist. 

In the wake of HMS Dreadnought’s success, public pressure demanded more. Winston Churchill, then the Home Secretary (interior minister), once famously remarked, “The Admiralty had demanded six ships, the economists offered four, but we finally compromised on eight”. These days, the British plan for fourteen, the economist’s offer ten, but London usually compromise on six (if lucky). The rest of Europe? Most simply can’t be bothered.

The new revolution in military affairs is coming and with it a new HMS Dreadnought.  What is needed is a proper European future war study and a plan to turn words into action? Who should fund the study? Germany, of course!

Julian Lindley French