hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Welcome to the Alphen Group

Creating solutions for a secure Europe

What must be done?

What must be done to make Europe secure in the twenty-first century? A resurgent, nationalist Russia, systemic terrorism, mass barely-regulated immigration, strained transatlantic relations, the revolution in military technology, the threat of pandemics, warfare that stretches across the social bandwidth from fake news to new nukes, transnational crime and a host of other challenges, hazards and threats with which a divided Europe must contend.
Paul Cornish, Judy Dempsey, Ben Hodges, Julian Lindley-French, Holger Mey, Andrew Michta, Alexandra Schwarzkopf, Jamie Shea, Anna Wieslander and Rob de Wijk are the Alphen Group, or TAG to its friends.  Representing decades of advanced thinking and doing at the highest levels we share a profound concern about European security and defence. Therefore, we have come together to seek solutions for a more secure Europe. Our aim is to move beyond the discussion culture in Europe that so rarely sees words become action and offer leaders a grounded vision for our future security and defence.

Why now?

The need for action has never been greater. The dangers Europeans and their allies face span the new threat-scape from aggression by hostile Great Powers waging ‘war’ on our politics and our media systems to global reach terrorists seeding hatred and instability at the seams of our increasingly complex and diverse societies and far beyond. Disinformation, destabilisation, disruption, deception and implied destruction are be the ‘stuff’ of a new/old war as information is weaponised to become the agent of fear, challenging our confidence in conventional politics.
The Internet is revolutionising society in every conceivable way, and on every level. It is also revolutionising the way we must defend society, undermining the very concept of loyalty, identity and agency upon which any state must depend if it is to mount an effective defence. The Internet of Things (or Everything), artificial intelligence (AI) and new 5G technology will make security more immediate, more automatic and far more brittle. It will also become increasingly difficult for Europeans, acting in concert, to ensure the active defence of their values and interests. Active defence will require the projection of power, but this will not be feasible if Europe is seen by its people to be weak, uncertain and incoherent.

A new Pearl Harbor?

The prospect of a ‘new Pearl Harbor’ – a surprise attack launched from cyberspace and beyond – is controversial. Some see it as ill-informed scare-mongering, others as a cynical device to secure investment in key sectors of the technology industry. It remains, nevertheless, a very useful metaphor. The attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 was a strategic surprise not only militarily but also diplomatically, politically and technologically. The attack ‘broke the rules’, contravening the prevailing (and arguably, in retrospect, rather complacent) norms and expectations of conflict and competition between states. It is not far-fetched or alarmist to imagine something similar happening in Europe today – and happening at such pace and with such scope that there would be little or no chance of defending or fighting back.

Technology is fast changing the battlespace in which any future European war would be fought The so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution is revolutionising warfare to such an extent and at such pace that future war will be conducted simultaneously from the low end of the conflict spectrum to the high end.  War will also come in many forms and be defined by the distance from which an attack is launched, the difficulty of openly attributing an attack and the need for hyper-speed decision-making in the face of AI-informed hostile operations. The very idea of conflict, of what constitutes an ‘attack’ will be questioned. Political and military leadership will demand far swifter decision-making often in the midst of engineered uncertainty and insecurity.

Self-reinforcing new technologies led by AI, machine-learning, hypersonic systems, drones and quantum computing will further blur the already vague distinction between the civilian and military worlds.  These innovations will demand new armed forces able to operate effectively across seven enormous domains – air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge. Such forces will require different types of combatant (or ‘operator’) than hitherto, with new technologies applied across new capabilities and capacities, and led by new ideas of strategy.
In the face of such pan-dimensional threats the US security guarantee to Europe also faces a growing crisis of credibility.  American forces are now stretched thin across a multi-dimensional strata-scape of space, time, technology, cost and people.  Most European forces are at best museum pieces; increasingly analogue in a hyper-digital world. And yet, in the worst-case they would be Europe’s valiant first responders, even though the ‘worst-case’ has been banished from the European post-modern strategic lexicon. Such concerns are all too politically and economically inconvenient for Europe’s current leaders.

Creative solutions for a secure Europe

The Alphen Group will begin by contributing a series of informed, high-level blogs on the major strategic issues confronting Europe and its security and defence, of which this is just the first. Guest contributors will reinforce the work of the Group and at the end of the year the first of a series of annual Alphen Group reports will point the way to the future.  There will be one unifying theme throughout the work of the Group: What is to be done…and now?

The security and defence of Europe is in danger of failing. Europe’s political leaders fail to understand either the changing or the enduring character of conflict and the big, strategic choices they must make, and soon, if Europeans and their allies are to be secured and defended in the twenty-first century. Business as usual is not an option.

Welcome to the Alphen Group. Welcome to an informed and provocative discussion of Europe’s security and defence future.

The Alphen Group
April 2019  

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Are NATO Cohesion and NATO Defence Compatible?

“In all history, this is the first time that an Allied headquarters has been set up in peace, to preserve the peace, and not to wage war”.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Alphen, Netherlands. 18 April. Are NATO Cohesion and NATO Defence compatible? Friday last I had a strange experience. This distinctly VUP – very unimportant person – found himself alone in a posh Alfa Romeo as part of a VVIP (Very, Very Important Person) convoy being driven brilliantly at high speed by an Italian soldier through the streets of Rome. It was the most efficient way to get the NATO Deputy Secretary-General, the impressive Dr Rose Goettemoeller, quickly and securely through the Roman traffic from the hotel to the NATO Defense College where we were both due to speak in the excellent NATO @ 70: No Time to Retire conference. At one point, a short delay, a gentlemen who was waiting to cross the road, looked straight at me and shook his head in disgusted contempt. It was a moment that seemed to capture the zeitgeist of European peoples distinctly at odds with their European elites.

The conference was a success for the NATO Defense College. Not only did the assembled throng take stock of NATO and its seventy years, it also looked forward. After a well-crafted assessment of where NATO is at by the Deputy Secretary-General ‘looking forwards’ was very much my theme. To do that I employed NATO past to shine my light on NATO future.  By invoking past  NATO strategic concepts – the what, why, when, where and how of NATO action – I endeavoured to reinforce the need for a clear and agreed understanding on the part of all the allies about the need to really adapt NATO and its role, utility and purpose in the twenty-first century.  Specifically, and to take up the challenge of Eisenhower, NATO’s first Supreme Allied Command, Europe, I also posed a question - does sufficient political cohesion exist between the allies to mount an effective defence? My sense is no.

Which NATO?

A couple of interventions from two Italian friends, the professional acumen and knowledge of whom I deeply respect, left me profoundly concerned that NATO’s political cohesion is being just about maintained but only at the expense of NATO defence. The first concerned the threat posed by Russia. Russia, I was told, is not threat to the Alliance. Let me put aside the rapid modernisation of the Russian armed forces, the aggressive posture of the Putin regime, the rape of Ukraine-Crimea and Moscow’s systematic application of complex strategic coercion and 5D warfare – disinformation, destabilisation, deception, disruption and implied destruction against many of Europe’s open societies. The simple fact is that Russia has a relatively small, unmodernised economy reliant for too much of its limited wealth on one export to countries that form part of what Moscow has deemed to be its main strategic adversary and which is using too high a proportion of that limited and fluctuating wealth to fund a burgeoning security state – both civilian and military – the burden of which is as much a threat to itself as others. In other words, no-one knows what will happen to Russia in the coming years, least of all President Putin and his team. What IS clear is that on its current policy and strategic trajectory at some point Russia will face a massive political and social crisis. Then what?

The second question concerned me even more. Why is non-defence spending in Europe not included as defence spending?  To be fair, this ‘non-defence spending’, it was implied, is expenditure that contributes to the wider security that Italy and other NATO Mediterranean states must address daily given the threats and challenges it faces from its south. My response was clear; if ‘non-defence’ spending has a proven and demonstrable defence effect then all well and good. For example, investments made in infrastructure to improve military mobility in Europe in a crisis. Rather, the question seemed to imply that if one takes security and defence in the round then Italy is spending enough on defence. It is not.

360 Degrees of what?

NATO’s leaders regularly refer to the creation of a 360 Degree Alliance that can cope with all threats of whatever nature and from whatever direction they come. To achieve such a defence would require a high level of both political and defence cohesion. NATO is making some way towards achieving such a balance. However, given the nature of extant and emerging threats such progress is nothing like fast enough and cohesion nothing like deep enough. Mediterranean NATO wants a very different NATO to eastern and northern European NATO. In such circumstances the danger is that political convenience will be bought at the expense of defence reality.

NATO might be making progress towards balancing ends, ways and means but it is no way near achieving such a balance. For proof see the absurd lengths NATO Europeans and Canada go to justify not spending the 2% GDP on defence of which 20% per annum to be on new equipment. Even some of those NATO nations who claim to spend 2% only do so through creative accounting. Britain’s claim to spend 2% GDP on defence is one of the greatest works of English fiction since Dickens! NATO Europeans are doing little or nothing to confront the revolution in military technology underway and the fundamental threat that does and will pose to the military interoperability with US forces which, in extremis, collective defence will rest upon.   Europe’s strategic vacation is over. And yet, a lot of Europeans are like the schoolkid who at vacation’s end does not want to go back to school.

NATO Europe’s cold turkey reality

Let me state again NATO’s cold turkey reality. The Americans can no longer afford to subsidise Europe’s defence even if Europeans still refuse to recognise America’s changing strategic reality. With Europeans seemingly unable or unwilling to fund their own collective/common defence there is, and there can be no NATO without the Americans. And yet, US armed forces are stretched thin the world over and are likely to become ever more over-stretched. In other words, the Americans will only be able to continue to afford relatively rich Europeans the security and defence guarantee they have enjoyed for seventy years if Europeans become far better effective first responders to the threats that are beginning to squeeze Europe from multiple directions. What will it take for Europeans to wake up and smell this very American coffee?

So, why are Europeans unable to recognise hard reality? Frankly, Europeans have become addicts. They have become addicted to the cheap defence the Americans afford them through NATO. That addiction must come to an end and fast, even if that means Europeans going into some form of cold turkey and defence ‘rehab’ for some time. Thus, the elephant in the NATO at 70 room is that for the Alliance to mount an effective defence and thus preserve the peace to which Eisenhower referred Europeans must also help the Americans preserve peace beyond Europe. First and foremost, that means Europeans far more willing to share the real burdens of preserving the peace in and around Europe itself.

Are NATO cohesion and NATO defence compatible? 

Let me take you back to my line of sight exchange with a disgruntled Italian citizen the other day. The reality is that Europe’s elites will only afford the European people security AND defence at a reasonable degree of risk and cost if a) they agree on the balance that must be struck BETWEEN security and defence; b) a further balance is struck between national security and collective defence; and c) (critically) they begin to treat citizens as adults rather than uneducated peasants and explain honestly to their respective peoples what needs to be done in their name.  The disgust shown by that Italian citizen seemed to imply that the VVIPs momentarily disrupting his Friday morning had no longer earned the right for such privilege. If that is what he was thinking then he has a point. Only Europe’s elites can make the calls necessary to secure and defend Europe and thus earn their status by demonstrably getting to grips with the many dangers Europe faces. In other words, Europe’s elites need to get their collective act together and prove to the people they are performing and not just mouthing self-serving platitudes.

As for my momentary VVIP-ness and my hi-speed, high status drive through Rome, the next morning I found myself back to full on VUP-ness. Mop in hand I cleaned the kitchen floor under the stern command of my Dutch Commander-in-Chiefness. Poorly, I might add, for as ever I missed a bit.
Happy birthday NATO! But, NATO is us and, if we Europeans really want NATO to preserve the peace that Eisenhower set as its challenge, we must all ensure the Alliance CAN secure and defend it.

Julian Lindley-French         

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Why the Free World STILL needs NATO

“When American military men approach some serious situation they are wont to write at the head of their directive the words "over-all strategic concept." There is wisdom in this, as it leads to clarity of thought. What then is the over-all strategic concept which we should inscribe today? It is nothing less than the safety and welfare, the freedom and progress, of all the homes and families of all the men and women in all the lands”.
Winston Spencer Churchill, Fulton, Missouri, March 6, 1946

The eternal challenge of defending freedom

Alphen, Netherlands. 4 April. The Free World still needs NATO because the unfree world is again threatening it. However, the unfree world is becoming far more sophisticated in the way it threatens the Free World. Therefore, NATO must thus become much better at countering the threats of the twenty-first century.

Seventy years ago today the North Atlantic Treaty was signed by (inter alia) the prime ministers and foreign ministers of Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, United Kingdom and the United States. Since 1949 NATO has been joined (in order) by Greece, Turkey, Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Croatia and Montenegro.

Article 5 was enshrined at the heart of the North Atlantic Treaty and effectively committed all member nations of the Alliance to consider an attack on one ally as an attack on all. What was regarded as the Doomsday clause during the Cold War was invoked only once, on 12 September 2001, in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Adapting NATO

In 2017 I had the honour to be the lead writer for the GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Report. Under the leadership of General John R. Allen the steering committee comprised one former deputy secretary-general, a chairman of the Military Committee, a former ambassador to the North Atlantic Council, and one of Germany’s top generals. The report was crystal clear in its challenge to the Alliance, “NATO is at a crucial decision point. The Alliance has adapted well in response to the watershed events of 2014 – rebuilding deterrence against threats from the East, increasing its engagement with the Middle East, and forging a closer partnership with the European Union. But as it nears its seventieth birthday, NATO risks falling behind the pace of political change and technological developments that could alter the character of warfare, the structure of international relations and the role of the Alliance itself”.

There has been a lot of academic nonsense spoken about NATO as it approached today’s landmark. Some of it from Moscow’s fellow travellers, some of it by people who spend far too much time floating in clouds of theory. Frankly, I have lost count of the number of times I have heard academics cite ‘alliance theory’ to suggest NATO is doomed. It has become so bad of late that I have been reminded repeatedly of an alleged exchange between British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald. After a particularly fierce ‘hand-bagging’ by Thatcher about the need for action Fitzgerald is alleged to have responded, “That’s all well and good, Prime Minister. What you propose may indeed work in practice but does it work in theory”. However, if NATO is to do more than merely hang after around after its seventieth the Alliance also needs to answer with honesty a series of profound questions.

NATO: A beast of burdens

Do North Americans and Europeans agree about the purpose of NATO? The Alliance is under threat, and not only from the likes of a Russia that wants to turn back the clock of European history, and extremists who simply want their interpretation of medievalism imposed upon the rest of us. The greatest danger faced by NATO today is from Americans who do not realise they are growing relatively weaker and thus need allies more not less, and from Europeans who refuse to recognise that the security guarantee America affords Europe can and will only be maintained if Europeans do far more for their own defence, the Alliance and the wider transatlantic relationship.

Back in April 1949 the strategic equation was simple if stark. America was the only atomic power and the ‘bomb’ offset a huge advantage in conventional forces enjoyed by the Soviet Union on the then inner-German border. Today, many former Warsaw Pact adversaries are friends and NATO allies. However, as the Free World has become freer, the unfree world has become more assertive as they espy an opportunity to fill a strategic vacuum. Much of this vacuum has been created by strategically-inept Europeans who for too long have been suffering from a post-Cold War peace hangover. Whilst this new tepid war of today lacks the ideological sharpness of the early Cold War it is nevertheless extremely dangerous, and every bit as cynical.

It also explains constant American pressure on Europeans to improve their defence performance. Indeed, such pressure was implicit in the North Atlantic Treaty and has regularly re-surfaced since 1949. The Korean War, Germany rearmament and the European Defence Community of the 1950s, the missile gap, Berlin crisis, Cuban missile crisis, France’s 1966 withdrawal from NATO’s military command structure, Vietnam and containment, Ostpolitik and the Harmel declaration of the 1960s, the Euromissiles crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession of the 1990s, and 911, Afghanistan and Iraq have all, in some part, reflected American frustration with a Europe that Washington believes makes an insufficient commitment to its own defence and the obligations both explicit and implicit in the North Atlantic Treaty.
These tensions have been encapsulated since October 1949 in a series of so-called strategic concepts – the what, the why, the when, the how and the with what and whom of Alliance action. From New Look to Massive Retaliation and then from Flexible Response to the post-Cold War concepts of cooperation, reconciliation and enlargement the Alliance has been constantly adapting to strike a new balance between environment, strategy, capability, military capacity, technology and affordability.
Brittle NATO

How secure is the Alliance? The unfree world is engaged in a continuous war at the seams and margins of the Alliance employing disinformation, destabilisation, disruption, deception and destruction for comparative strategic advantage. The very freedom that NATO defended during the Cold War is being subverted precisely to undermine the strategic and political cohesion of the Alliance. One might also add a sixth ‘D’ debt to this 5D warfare. Russia, to some extent, and China, to a very much greater extent, are ‘investing’ in NATO Europeans. The strategic aim is clear – to influence countries such as Italy and Greece so that their policies become more Moscow and Beijing-friendly.   Even mighty Germany is not free from such influence as Berlin ludicrously seeks to portray the Nordstream 2 direct gas pipeline between the two countries as a commercial project that lacks and strategic implications.

The unfree world is also benefiting from the other-worldliness of many Western Europeans and their refusal to see the world as it is, not as they would like it to be. As the armed forces of China and Russia are being modernised to operate to effect across the seven domains of future war - air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge, too many European armed forces remain analogue anachronisms.
Why worry, many Europeans aver? After all, NATO has always really been American. First, such complacency represents a profound misunderstanding of Alliance history. For example, the largest land force under NATO command for much of the Cold War was Germany’s Bundeswehr. Second, US forces are stretched thin the world over. The Americans could be faced with multiple crises simultaneously the world over. The only way that future NATO can possibly continue to function as a credible deterrent and defence for over 1 billion free people is if Europeans help keep America strong where America needs to be strong. First and foremost, that means Europeans being able to act to far greater effect in emergencies in and around Europe.

A twenty-first century Maginot Line?

Is NATO a twenty first century Maginot Line? In May 1940 Britain’s Lord Gort and France’s General Gamelin failed the true test of any alliance on the battlefield.  When confronted with surprise and shock their front collapsed.  As the Germans broke through the Ardennes the pictorially impressive but utterly useless Maginot Line was bypassed and the allies forced back to Dunkirk. NATO is NOT a twenty-first century Maginot Line but it could become one.

The litmus test of a NATO that is truly future-proofed will be the ability of the Alliance to move forces rapidly and securely from North America to Europe, and then move them on across Europe to where they are needed. The hard truth today is that the Americans lack the means to move large forces quickly across the Atlantic that one once saw during the four massive REFORGER (Reinforcement of Germany) exercises during the Cold War.  Europeans lack the forces and resources to regenerate a meaningful defence quickly and the basic infrastructure – both actual and legal – that would ensure they could act as effective first responders.

Another test for the Alliance will be the extent, or otherwise, to which European allies embrace the emerging hyperwar concepts and capabilities the Americans, Chinese and others are developing. Any military alliance ultimately stands or falls on the ability of armed forces to operate together under pressure in a crisis, the very test Gort and Gamelin failed. Parade ground marches can look very smart, table top exercises can appear impressive, and real exercises can create the sensation of power. However, if such efforts do not actually address weaknesses in relation the enemy they can also become a form of self-delusion. It is the anachronism of European ideas about security and defence, allied to a refusal to properly consider the nature of future war that represents a major threat to contemporary NATO, just as the British and French in the 1930s wilfully refused to accept the threat posed by Guderian’s concept of Blitzkrieg and do anything purposeful to counter it.

Today, a revolution in military technology is underway that will be applied in future on the twenty-first battlespace against Alliance forces by enemies armed with artificial intelligence, big data, machine-learning and quantum-computing. If Europe does not stop talking and start doing the possibility of another Maginot Line or worse a twenty-first century Pearl Harbor cannot be ruled out – and this time with no chance of recovery and fightback.

A 360 degree Alliance?

There are signs that NATO is slowly being allowed by its member-states to address the fundamental division at its core, between NATO easterners who believe Russia is the main threat, and NATO southerners who believe instability and fundamentalism in the Middle East and North Africa is the main threat.  Since the 2014 Wales Summit, European defence expenditure has begun to slowly recover from the disastrous systemic cuts that took place in the wake of the Cold War and the banking and financial crises from 2008 on and markedly which accelerated the relative decline of America and the West.

NATO command structure reform has led to the creation of new commands to strength Alliance control over the North Atlantic and to strengthen the ability of forces to operate together across an ever-widening battlespace. Some improvements have also been made to the readiness and responsiveness of Allied forces. NATO has also made some efforts to consider its role in future war and to improve the Alliance’s ability to counter cyber operations and information warfare. The Enhanced Forward Presence to the eastern Alliance and the Tailored Forward Presence to south-eastern Europe have also brought some degree of strategic reassurance to allies. But, is it anything like enough? As Ukraine’s continuing agony attests, there can be no room for complacency in dealing with a nationalist Russia that is both militarily-resurgent and economically-backward at one and the same time. However, there is also a danger that NATO becomes a dumping ground for issues the allies find too hard to deal with.  If that happens this relatively small organisation with its relatively small budget and few personnel will be diluted to the point of irrelevance. 

If NATO and its members are really committed to a 360 degree alliance that is credibly capable of engaging threats from whatever angle and in whatever form they may emerge, then it is going to have to be endowed with far more armed mass, and that armed mass will need to be far more nimble and agile.

Too much of this important debate has been reduced to whether or not the European allies fulfil a commitment to spend 2% on defence by 2024 and President Trump.  Germany’s recent decision to maintain defence spending nearer 1% than 2% for the foreseeable future effectively kills off the so-called Defence Investment Pledge. It also reveals one of the Alliance’s major weakness - the US-Germany relationship. With the Brexit defeat and strategic demise of Britain the importance of the Berlin-Washington relationship for the Alliance cannot be overstated, but essential though it is it is anything but special.

Whatever one might think about the 2% debate and the arbitrary setting of defence spending goals, 2% of GDP spent on defence well is low compared with adversaries. And, if spent well 2% would realise at least twice as much legitimate military capability and all-important capacity than 1% spent badly…which is the case today. Importantly, the DIP also called on all allies to spend 20% per annum on new equipment. As for President Trump, he has become the latest European alibi to avoid doing enough for their own defence when, in fact, the American commitment to Europe’s defence as part of the so-called European Defense Initiative has increased under the Trump administration.            

Whither NATO at seventy?

What of future NATO? The West today is not a place but a global idea. Globalisation has connected free peoples the world over for which the defence of whom NATO should be central. The transatlantic relationship is a cornerstone of global security thus NATO cannot be seen in isolation from the security of other free peoples the world over. That does not mean NATO is going to enlarge to Asia, although one of its members, Turkey, is already a major Asian power. Rather, for all of its complexity the Alliance is, and will remain, the model for all legitimate military alliances of democracies and the most tested mechanism for the generation of democratic defence. In other words, NATO at seventy has a great opportunity to strengthen its service of peace. Will it?

Regular readers of these pages know I can be one of NATO’s fiercest critics, something ‘tell us what we want to hear’ officials at NATO HQ have not always thanked me for. The reason I am so hard on NATO is that I am both a NATO citizen and one of its biggest supporters. Equally, as a truly-informed NATO citizen I also demand performance and too often I do not get it. Words yes, strategic performance no. That is not the fault of the Alliance, but rather its members who hide comfortably behind the fact of NATO without doing enough to makes its reality credible.

Too often NATO is reduced to little more than a summit organising committee designed to generate communiques that make strategically-illiterate leaders feel warm and fuzzy when they should be concerned and anxious. It is precisely because NATO cannot deliver the feel good feeling too many European leaders seek that the Alliance’s seventieth anniversary celebrations are today so muted. THAT, says more about the leaders than anything worth hearing about the Alliance.  

Twenty-first century Flexible Response

NATO post seventy must be empowered by all its nations to properly consider the threats we all face, to create the forces a credible twenty-first century Article 5 demands, and endowed with the forces and resources necessary to maintain Allied defence at a level of readiness relevant to the environment in which they might be called upon at short notice to operate. The Alliance needs a new strategic concept with a new idea of Flexible Response. Until that happens, and it is not happening yet, NATO will continue to be undermined by a lack of political and military ambition in a world where such ambition lies elsewhere in spades. 

Flexible Reponse 21 could do worse than hark back to Churchill sage words of 1946. The over-all strategic concept to which we all the free peoples of the Alliance should inscribe today is nothing less than the safety and welfare, the freedom and progress, of all the homes and families of all the men and women in all the NATO lands. Nothing more, nothing less.

Happy birthday NATO! Time to get real. The strategic vacation is over. Now, get on with it!

Julian Lindley-French

Monday, 1 April 2019

Cambridge: The Geopolitics of Brexit

Alphen, Netherlands. 1 April. On Friday last, on what was meant to be Britain’s day of departure from the EU, I took part on a panel at Tim Less’s excellent Europe after Brexit (???) conference at The Forum on Geopolitics at Cambridge University. As ever, I had prepared carefully-tailored remarks which I include below and, as ever, I strayed from them to be part of an unfolding discussion. In considering the geopolitics of Brexit I set myself three questions. First, would the EU and its creed of a big, ever more centralised Europe be any good at dealing with the dark side of globalisation and the big threats implicit therein? Second, is contemporary Britain so Little Britain that its only option is to be part of a big Europe run, in effect, by a few very elite people who are not British?  Third, can the US continue to afford Europeans a security and defence guarantee in the absence of a big defence Europe?

My answers were thus: there is no evidence that ‘more Europe’ would be a more effective at dealing with geopolitical threat; Britain might no longer be a global power but with the right leadership it remains a very significant regional power. It is precisely because Britain does not have the right leadership that a very significant country is being reduced into a small one; and, whatever Brexit outcome emerges from Britain’s elite Establishment created political fiasco the only way the US will be able to afford all Europeans a security and defence guarantee is if Europeans do far more for their own defence and do it together. First and foremost, that means Britain, France and Germany maintain a serious level of strategic and political cohesion, the very cohesion Brexit is undermining.   

Here are my remarks.

Cambridge. March 29, 2019. Let me put my cards on the table – I am a Euro-sceptic Remainer with Brexiteer sympathies. I am also a democrat and on this day of profound failure of British government and parliament I suspect I feel like many of my fellow citizens; appalled and disgusted at how the High Establishment both political and high bureaucratic, have systematically retreated from the June 2016 referendum that the same political class willed in large numbers. And yet, like anyone who has considered the issue of Brexit at any length, and beyond the tired mantras of the ‘Ultras’ on both sides, I am also deeply conflicted about it. The Withdrawal Agreement was bad enough but what parliament seems now to be willing as ‘Brexit’ will be so bad for Britain as both a power and a country, that it could well mark the beginning of the end of the latter and certainly the end of the former. With Britain broken and effectively contracting itself out of the responsibilities imposed upon it by its still significant power the entire European and global balance of power could well be destabilised. THIS is the geopolitics of Brexit.

It need not be this way. I have long believed in a ‘l’europe des nations’ but I am far less enamoured with the EU and the globalist-centralisers in Brussels who use the fig-leaf of globalism to focus ever more power on themselves in the name of efficiency and effectiveness and in so doing erode any meaningful link between the people and real power. I worked for EU. I have seen too often the anti-democratic tendencies of the Brussels elite. The growing gap between voting, power and real accountability in Europe should be a concern to any democrat. Nor is their much efficiency or effectiveness on show in Brussels but rather a kind of sovereignty deficit that gnaws away at the heart of the European project. For all the weakening of the nation-states that ever more Europe entails, and the oft soaring rhetoric about ‘common’ this and ‘common’ that, the EU is crap at geopolitics. It talks endlessly about geopolitics but is rotten at doing it – particularly hard geopolitics in accelerating extremis.

However, for all that, and after an exhaustive analysis, I decided to campaign for Remain and it was geopolitics that was the clincher.

Why? Just look at the already apparent strategic consequences of THIS Brexit. British influence has tanked, the EU is weakened, whilst NATO and the US are witnessing what could be the slow death of one of its major powers. Meanwhile, Presidents Putin and Xi are clear beneficiaries of the West’s loss of cohesion and the latest bout of European navel gazing. The strategic direction of travel is such that, for all the patent weakness of the EU, I considered it irresponsible for Britain to leave the EU and thus lose influence over it, and any influence from it. My position has not changed.

There are a range of specific geopolitical implications?

First, Brexit ‘Dunkirk’. Pre-Brexit Britain injected a level of strategic realism into the EU and was seen by many as a force for, and voice of, pragmatism in Brussels. That is over. As an Oxford historian (!!!!) I am careful about presenting Brexit as ‘war’ as I have heard too many allusions to 1940 of late. Bombs are not raining down on our cities and our soldiers are not dying in the fields of Flanders. And yet to all intents and purposes, Britain has been politically defeated by Brexit and like all defeated powers its elite is turning inwards. Unless a real leader emerges to replace the ersatz one in Downing Street the Brexit mess could well see Britain cease to be a power and even cease in time to be a country. Certainly, Britain has been profoundly weakened by Brexit and its political conduct.

Second, the reinforcement of Brussels legalism. The narrow legalistic tendency in Brussels has gained further ascendancy in the wake of their defeat of Britain. Brussels too often sees law as power in and of itself even if that law has neither real power of sanction nor action.  This in a world in which the really powerful see power as power and increasingly ‘law’ as inconvenience. A world in which for the first time in perhaps four hundred years Great Power beyond Europe set the non-rules of a power road made elsewhere, in a world once again governed ever more by Machtpolitik. Europe’s influence over those ‘rules’ i.e. the anarchy of hard Realism is being daily diminished and Britain’s Brexit demise is accelerating Europe’s retreat from strategic and political realism.

Third, the tyranny of small powers. The EU has long been a balance between bigger and small power in Europe. Brexit has profoundly disturbed that balance and will reinforce a political culture at the heart of the EU that enables small powers to constrain bigger powers from doing what necessarily they must do at times. This constraint, and the implicit alliance between small power and big EU bureaucracy that enshrines it, comes even at the expense of the efficient aggregation of European state power into some form of geopolitical handle beyond Europe.  Brexit is, in many ways, a small power victory over a bigger power and thus strengthens the defining implicit idea at the heart of the EU to turn all European powers (with the possible exception of one) into small powers to create the political space for more Europe.

Fourth, the possible death of Britain. The very idea of ‘Britain’ since its creation in 1707 has always been underpinned by a strategic, competitive narrative. Britain IS or WAS a strategic, competitive narrative. Those days are clearly over but a state must still act to its power if the system is to function. Without a clear vision of Britain as a power in Europe and its role beyond it is hard to see Britain as anything other than prey for the growing band of petty nationalists gnawing at its rotting carcass. One of the many failings of Prime Minister May has been her complete and total lack of understanding about the importance of Britain’s external power and influence to its internal cohesion.
Fifth, the resumed march of euro-federalism. Brexit has delayed the march of euro-federalism but it is not over. With Britain’s defeat the implicit war between the Euro-federalists and Euro inter-govermentalists will intensify with the Brexit defeat of Britain. The EU will not and cannot stop here. This means many years of internal struggle at the expense of effective external engagement. It also means strategic spoilers, such as Putin’s Russia, will be emboldened. Indeed, May’s conduct of Brexit and Britain’s retreat from strategic responsibility has already encouraged the strategic recklessness that defines Putin’s foreign and security policy.

Brexit cannot be blamed wholly for Britain’s strategic demise although it has certainly accelerated it. Indeed, Britain has long been in retreat from its 1890s zenith and, as an historian I see Brexit in the context of World War One, World War Two, Suez, treaties of Washington and Rome et al.  There are also a range of complicating factors that have also helped turn Britain from one time strategic predator into strategic prey. Britain’s elite no longer believe in Britain as a power, there are too many poles of power competing with Westminster in the land, and the very idea of Britain as a power is neither understood nor seemingly accepted by large swathes of its people.
Brexit represents a monumental failure of statecraft by Britain’s elite Establishment. It has also shown itself for the Mediocracy it is, an Establishment that has become so obsessed with values it has forgotten that a state has interests that must also be defended. As for Britain’s political class they are a byword for irresponsibility. The result is that Britain has become very bad at considering the long-term with much of what passes for foreign and security policy now reduced to a kind of short-termist virtue-signalling.

Therefore, unless the EU really learns to play geopolitics and Britain again learns to use its still not inconsiderable regional weight to strategic effect then I fear Europe and the world is only going to get more dangerous in the wake of the Brexit disaster – for that is what it is. You see, we do not live in a world community full of world citizens. We live in a balance of power, sphere of influence bear-pit red in tooth and claw. And, if democracies contract out of the renewed strategic competition that is the geopolitics du jour because it is all too ghastly and retreat into either an anachronistic nationalistic fantasy or some kind of values snowflake la la land, then all they do is accelerate and intensify the ghastliness.

At the beginning of my remarks I said I was a democrat. I am. Unlike many on the Remain side of Brexit I saw 23 June 2016 as a formal and binding commitment by the political class to the people. Unlike many Ultra Remainers I do not condemn the ‘peasantry’ for being too stupid to understand for what they were voting. If that is the case all elections should be cancelled. Nor, am I re-writing history about the contract implicit in the referendum which parliament seems determined to break now that the people have given the ‘wrong’ answer.  And yet, the position Britain is in today is so bad and the strategic consequences for Britain, Europe and the wider transatlantic relationship potentially so dire from THIS Brexit/non-Brexit, that to my mind a responsible leader would come clean about the defeat Britain has suffered and stop it.  Rather, once May and Juncker have been dumped in the dustbin of history where they both belong the search for a new and equitable place for Britain WITHIN a broader framework of European institutions must begin. If not, then expect Brexit to poison relations with its close European partners for years to come and for the fracturing of Britain itself to continue apace. THAT is the sad geopolitical reality of THIS Brexit for Britain, its allies and its partners.

Hard truth? Britain would be better off remaining a member of the EU than anything that is likely to emerge from next week’s round of “I’m a parliamentarian get me out of here’ indicative votes.
Brexit is a disaster. A solution must be found. It starts here.

Thank you.

Julian Lindley-French,
March 2019