hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 17 April 2020

Who will ‘Win’ COVID-19?

“Victory is reserved for those who are willing to pay its price”.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

April 17, 2020
China and Rome

COVID-19 sounds like some ghastly Roman poetry competition, but who will ‘win’ it? In a piece for Foreign Affairs John Allen, President of Brookings, suggests that history will be written by the victors of the COVID-19 crisis. It is certainly true that all such shocks to the existing order accelerate change. Between 1914 and 1945, some thirty-one years, World War One, Spanish flu, the Great Depression and World War Two completely transformed geopolitics.  However, and critically, such change was already underway.  Many of the commentaries also speak of COVID-19 as though it is a war.  To pass the time, and as an antidote to some of the more extreme conspiracy theories, I am re-reading Caesar’s Gallic Commentaries. It seems appropriate. After all, the West has fuelled China’s rise by allowing Europe to become like Rome at the height of its powers, dependent on Egypt.  Whilst Rome appeared dominant its reliance on the Egyptians for much of the Eternal City’s wheat meant the threat of famine was never far away.

The prevailing mood in much of the European Kommetariat is that China will emerge ‘victorious’ and that the Middle Kingdom will become even more ‘Middle’.  China is certainly doing all it can to foster such a belief. President Xi has even set the goal of China being the dominant global power by 2049. Some even go as far as to suggest COVID-19 is a form of bio attack designed to accelerate Chinese strategic supremacy. Whilst the British Government still adheres to the line (as I do) that COVID-19 was born in an appalling ‘wet’ Wuhan market, it is also considering the possibility that the pathogen may have escaped from one of two laboratories in the Chinese city, the Institute of Virology or the Wuhan Center for Disease Control. It would be tragically ironic if China were to emerge as the ‘winner’ of a COVID-19 pandemic that it accidentally engineered.

The Economic Impact

COVID-19 is first and foremost a human tragedy, but it is also having a profound economic impact. In her opening remarks to the International Monetary Fund Spring Meetings Press Conference, IMF Director Kristalina Georgieva, stated, “We anticipate the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. While there is tremendous uncertainty around the forecast, we project global growth to fall to [minus] 3 percent this year. And we project a partial recovery in 2021, with growth expected at 5.8 per cent”. 

According to the IMF growth in the so-called Advanced Economy Group is projected to contract by 6.1 percent in 2020 with the US contracting by 5.9 percent, Japan 5.2 percent, UK 6.5 percent, Germany 7.0 percent, France 7.2 percent, Italy 9.1 percent, and Spain 8.0 percent.  Asia is projected by the IMF to be the only region with a positive growth rate of 1 percent in 2020, albeit more than 5 percentage points below its average in the previous decade. The IMF continues, “In China, indicators such as industrial production, retail sales, and fixed asset investment suggest that the contraction in economic activity in the first quarter could have been about 8 percent year over year. Even with a sharp rebound in the remainder of the year and sizable fiscal support, the economy is projected to grow at a subdued 1.2 per cent in 2020”.

Jekyll and Hyde China

In spite of that China is ruthlessly and successfully exploiting the crisis.  To the outside world, China is Dr Jekyll using ‘mask diplomacy’, much of which is sub-standard, to present itself as the global saviour, even if it omits to mention several European states, Britain and the Netherlands to the fore, actually sent so-called personal protective equipment (PPE) TO China early in the crisis in a vain attempt to assist Beijing manage the spread of the disease. At home China is ever more Mr Hyde, as the Xi regime becomes even more repressive, and the shift towards autocracy and away from oligarchy evident since President Xi came to power accelerates. 

‘Autocracy is better’, is the essential domestic message of the regime to its people with ‘proof’ a China returning to some form of ‘normalcy’ far earlier than Western democracies.  What the regime fails to admit is that not only was its lockdown draconian to the point of totalitarianism, it has been so tight that the real death toll in China will probably never be known and Beijing may never learn the lessons it needs to about pandemic control and management.  Beijing has also used the crisis to control information even more tightly, as tightly as the Chinese nationalist flag in which the regime has wrapped itself. How long before China’s domestic Mr Hyde begins to travel?

The sun will never set...

Only a few years ago it seemed the sun would never set on American power? How like London in the 1890s contemporary Washington now seems with the Americans certainly appearing to be the big losers of the COVID-19 crisis, a view both Beijing and Moscow are only too keen to encourage.  The Trump administration has shifted daily from bluster to incompetence back to bluster, whilst profound tensions between Washington, states and the cities has left some wondering if the United States of America is any more integrated than the United States of Europe? The carefully calculated image of Chinese and Russian ‘aid’ being sent to the US only reinforced the growing sense of an America in decline, as it was clearly designed to do. 

Washington’s leadership of the free world seems to have been further weakened by China offering loans and debt relief to a raft of countries, not least in Europe, to ‘help’ them emerge from the COVID-19 economic crisis. Washington has also walked willingly into carefully laid PR traps. President Trump is right about the failings of the World Health Organisation.  The refusal of the WHO leadership to heed Taiwan’s early warnings about the crisis suggests China was exerting undue political pressure upon it. Still, the image of an America flouncing out of the WHO by withdrawing funding at the height of a pandemic has simply enabled China to appear statesmanlike.

Europe? COVID-19 is but the latest crisis to reveal the gap between political aspiration and hard reality.  ‘Europe’ is not at all a political union of nation-states tightly bound by a shared mission fused together by solidarity and values.  It is, instead, a Potemkin Europe, a façade behind which for too long European leaders have believed their own rhetoric and failed to deal with any of the strategic fundamentals that change is imposing on them.  Consequently, faced with the pressure of COVID-19 the fragile edifice that is the EU simply collapsed, its member-states retreated behind their own respective and often different emergency measures, hoarded resources that might have been better used elsewhere in Europe, and refused to take collective, let alone common action.  It is for those reasons why last week Mauro Ferrari, the EU’s Chief Scientist, resigned.

Britain and Russia? COVID-19 has revealed Britain to be a hollowed-out, ‘just-in-time’ state in which redundancy and resiliency have been abandoned by successive governments in favour of a hand-to-mouth state that effectively survives from day-to-day. A lack of forward planning and capacity caught the British state off-guard (as it has before in history). Thankfully, a kind of latter day Blitz mentality, allied to an ability to adapt and innovate by those on the front-line of healthcare seems to be having an effect. Russia? It will pretend it has ‘won’ this crisis, when in fact it has again lost.

If China has, indeed, ‘won’ COVID-19 and America ‘lost’ it, Europe seems stuck in no man’s land.

Is history really on China’s side?

But will China win? In November 1956, at a reception at the Polish Embassy in Moscow, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in an address to Western envoys was blunt: “About the capitalist states it does not depend on you whether or not we exist. If you don't like us, don't accept our invitations, and don't invite us to come to see you. Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!"  There are clearly those in the Xi regime who would like to create a similar sense of historic fatalism in the minds of today’s Western ‘bloc’. And yet Khrushchev was wrong and, the rest, as they say, is history. Over time the profound contradictions at the heart of the Soviet state caught up with Moscow and in 1991 the USSR collapsed.

Much of China’s meteoric growth since 1989 came under the leadership of a pragmatic oligarchy.  In 2012 China, or rather the Chinese Communist Party, abandoned the oligarchy for something much more akin to Stalin’s cult of the personality, military-backed, one-strong-man rule. Since then the regime has become progressively more rigid, a rigidity the current crisis seems to have reinforced.  Party officials who have not Kow-Towed to the Party line have been purged, whilst huge numbers of members of the Uighur, Kazakh and Muslim minorities have been sent to ‘re-education’ camps. The Chinese economy has become progressively more centralised, with ever more state-owned ‘enterprises’ doing the bidding of what is today the ultimate control freak state. China may appear to be strong and unified, but like the Soviet Union before it, much of that is probably an illusion.

Consequently, if properly utilised there is every reason to believe the economic dynamism and freer spirit of the US and its allies will again prevail, but only if the West makes it harder for the likes of China and Russia to exploit its riches of knowledge and technology.  The profound mistake of the Trump administration has been to believe America’s leadership of the free world is a burden on the US, driven by an even more historically mistaken belief that international relations are simplistically transactional.  Since the late 1940s when President Harry S. Truman first stepped up to provide such post-war American leadership to the free world key advisers, such as Paul Nitze and George Kennan, knew only too well that such leadership was in the American interest.  What was true then is true today, albeit with a large caveat; now more than ever America needs Europeans to finally take some strategic responsibility. Anna Wieslander points this out in an excellent new piece on the website of The Alphen Group, which I have the honour to chair (

Who will ‘win’ COVID-19?

Power is rarely ethical and almost always amoral. By contemporary European standards China’s behaviour during this crisis has been unacceptable, and yet it is Europe that has made itself uniquely vulnerable to Chinese influence.  There is a certain tragic charm in the way European leaders have embraced a kind of naïve, China-empowering globalism given it was Europe that invented Realpolitik, although Sun Tzu might beg to differ. Therefore, if anything has to change now as a consequence of this crisis it is Europe’s rush towards vulnerability must end. Like pandemics before it COVID-19 will accelerate existing strategic, political, economic, even social change, but it can also act as a wake-up call for Europeans to finally summon up the political courage to face such hard reality. 

Europeans will also need to consider a more comprehensive concept of security. Indeed, as the popular and political clamour grows in Europe’s democracies for more to be spent on ‘human security’ it could well be that in the short to medium term state security and national defence suffer. Russia and China would be happy to help encourage such an outcome. Clearly, the next political cycle in Europe will be devoted to dealing and then coping with the consequences of COVID-19. Europe’s all-too-reactive politicians will need to be careful that they strike a working balance between human security and national defence. 

Above all, if China is to be denied the strategic fruits of its own folly America must learn to lead the free world again! That begs a further question; lead where?  First, a shared understanding that China is the main external strategic challenge to the world’s democracies. Second, a shared Allied recognition that the relationship with China has become dangerously unbalanced with too many Western supply chains now dependent on a country that is as much predator as partner. Third, the future transatlantic relationship and European cohesion need to be seen against the backdrop of such challenges.  Fourth, and perhaps most important of all, Europe’s intergovernmental institutions need to become far more robust in the face of shock.

Where to start? During the Cold War there was a list of prescribed strategic metals that Western powers insisted must remain under their control. One lesson from this crisis must surely be the need for the West, Europe in particular, to regain control over certain ‘strategic’ technologies and core medicines vital to a forward looking concept of comprehensive security across the human security-national defence spectrum. Faced with such a determination China may well decide to be less predator and more partner.

If not, and the relationship becomes even more confrontational, then whilst COVID-19 is not a war, it could well come to be seen as the pivotal battle in a much wider and longer strategic ‘war’ for strategic dominance. God only knows where that might end!

Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

The Lindley-French Analysis


All change

Alphen, Netherlands. April 8. Henceforth, the Lindley-French Blog Blast will be The Lindley-French Analysis. This blog was born amidst the wreckage of the Great Financial Crash, we are now in the midst of the Great COVID-19 Crash. All major crises accelerate change, this one will be no different. Therefore, it is also time for this blog to change. 

It is some ten years since I posted my first Blog Blast.  My motivation then, as it is today, was to speak strategic truth unto mainly European power which routinely placed parochial, short-term, self-serving politics before sound strategy and policy. Back in 2010, as an experienced analyst who had witnessed power in Brussels at close quarters – both EU and NATO – I was concerned that many of Europe’s leaders lacked the strategic depth to deal with the complex challenges of the age.  The world was in flux and yet European leaders seemed impervious to change, stuck in a 1990s time-mind-set. Europe was also in shock and the EU effectively paralysed by the Eurozone crisis.  The US and its allies were also mired in a series of conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq, and far beyond. Europeans seemed incapable of gripping the scale of the challenges they faced or their own rapid decline.  My own country, Britain, had become profoundly complacent and overly reliant on one financial sector for its income.  China was on the rise and Russia on manoeuvres.

My early blogs were often quite aggressive.  They needed to be. Europe’s leaders were stuck on default as another phase of Project Europe began and with it ever more ‘Europe’. The Constitutional Treaty had been replaced with the just ratified Lisbon Treaty and yet more significant powers were being transferred from the European nation-state to the EU institutions with profound implications for governance and democracy in Europe.  And yet, citizens were being routinely treated as (at best) children by a ‘we know best’ ever more distant elite many of whom seemed lost in a globalist ideology. For Brussels citizens a ‘problem’ to be circumvented, by-passed, ignored for some ill-defined greater good that saw ever more power in ever fewer hands.  If citizens objected they were castigated as populists and nationalists or asked to vote again in a series of referenda from France to the Netherlands to Ireland to Denmark.  In Britain, Tony Blair had a more elegant solution: he simply reneged on his promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty for fear the people might give the ‘wrong’ answer. 

Ten years on Europe’s battle over collective and common inaction still rages, even as the Real World beyond the Euro-World moves on.  Since 2010 the consequences of policy failure have become all too apparent. Fragile Europe is still stuck with the Eurozone a constant accident waiting to happen again and again and again. Europe’s nation-states are in danger of being hollowed-out, Potemkin villages vulnerable to the slightest shocks, as their ability to affect change drains away, with no-one quite sure where power lies. At least there was a strong Germany. Now?

Insights, controversy and education

The blog has had its insights.  In 2011, I was one of the first, if not THE first, to predict Britain would leave the EU.  It was analysis, not genius. To make the Euro work in the wake of the crisis continental Europeans would need to go to a place where Britain simply could not go – real banking, fiscal and political union.  The alternative would be for the British to expend huge sums on a project of which they were not effectively a part. This blog was also the first to suggest the ‘West’ was evolving from a place into a global idea, and that the Atlantic Alliance should be seen as part of a global security network of liberal democracies faced by the growing systemic challenge of the two power autocracies, China (real power) and Russia (pretend power). The idea of a Europe on ‘strategic vacation’ was invented here, and I also made the important distinction between a European Army (which will never happen) and an ‘army of Europeans’ (which really should).

The blog has also necessarily courted controversy. For example, some took my commentary on Brexit as proof I was a Brexiteer. In fact, I was never a Brexiteer and campaigned for Remain. To my mind, Brexit was a denial of Britain’s historic role as Europe’s balancer and I wanted the British to stay in the fight for a reformed EU in which the distance between power and people was not driven ever wider by the dirigiste instincts of a faraway elite. Paradoxically, given my above analysis, the innate contradictions from which the Euro suffers meant Britain would always be able to exert its pragmatic influence, not least because for the most part Berlin agreed.  In any case, politics in Europe is (or at least should) never be about absolutes. 

I have also made mistakes, which I regret. As a student of Soviet history it was a mistake to entitle a piece EUSSR and I was rightly berated for it.  It was a response to a senior Commission official who had suggested my concerns about giving the New Berlaymont ever more power in the name of ‘Europe’ might be the result of my suffering some form psychological malaise. Re-education? These things can happen when one exists in a political pressure cooker for many years. Still, if one cannot take the criticism, don’t write the piece!

Given my education some have asked why I did not become part of that elite. First, said elite did not want me as I am far too uncomfortable for them. Second, I am a product of English political culture, which fought a civil war to deny kings absolute power, the same culture which over a century later informed the American Revolution.  My fear was of democracy diluted to the point of irrelevance in the process.  A Hotel California Europe in which I could vote anyway I liked but I could never leave. Indeed, I was also the first to use the Hotel California metaphor in the context of Brexit: Britain could check-out any time she liked, but she could never leave. However, my challenge to a kind of absolutism in Europe that wrapped itself in the cloak of freedom and democracy and yet promised a form of bureaucratic tyranny was the challenge of a citizen, not a wrecker.

Perhaps my most controversial analysis was at the height of the post-911 conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Given the threat posed by Al Qaeda, Islamic State et al, I asked why there appeared to be a disconnect between immigration policy and security policy in many Western European countries. It seemed strange to be sending Allied forces faraway to keep Salafist Jihadism ‘at strategic distance’, whilst allowing large numbers of people from the very same socially and religiously conservative regions to settle in Europe. Not surprisingly, given the nature of this age and medium, there were misplaced accusations of racism. In fact, my analysis was essentially about strategy and policy. Respect, irrespective of race, gender, creed or orientation, is hard-wired into my DNA. There have been too many good people from all over in my life to think otherwise. What the attacks revealed was also a growing intolerance of analytical nuance and the politicisation of insight, together with a dangerous demand that analysts ‘conform’ to dogma.

Friendships have also been forged and broken by this blog, and I have not always been popular with my peers, most notably in academia and elite think-tanks, particularly in Europe. My Quaker-inspired strap-line, ‘speaking truth unto power’ was the result of a creeping conviction that too many European think-tanks were doing the opposite.  Trapped by the need to raise money, much of it from the very people they needed to analyse, I saw good minds being suborned by power, particularly in Brussels.  Independence of thought and analysis is the sine qua non of contemporary liberal democracy and vital to the holding of distant power to account.

I am also a member of a very pragmatic British school of political Realism, rather than the ideological school one finds elsewhere.  For all the focus on European politics, policy and strategy, it has been big defence that has been the constant that has bound together a decade of informed and experienced reflection, with NATO, European and British defence policy to the fore.  Indeed, my entire approach is that of an historian addressing strategy, as I am first and foremost an Oxford historian with a profound interest in defence strategy. Everything I think and write goes back to the education in modern history I received many years ago at Oxford from the likes of Sir Michael Howard, Leslie Mitchell, Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann, and my old and late-lamented mentor, the wonderful David Cox.  It is also my Oxford education that, like Gibbon and Macaulay before me (No, I am not comparing myself to either of them) that informs my firm Realist belief that freedom can never be take for granted.  Realism why defines my staunch support for my friends in Poland and the Baltic States in the face of a revanchist Russia.

Taking a stand

My analysis is not and never will be neutral. Indeed, belief is central to my analysis.  To my mind, the world is a safer place when North Americans and Europeans are in harness. For me, the Atlantic Alliance is THE cornerstone alliance of world security. However, for the Alliance to endure it is vital Europeans finally step up and become strategically responsible actors, something they can only do through the closest of collaborations. 

Finally, I am also a British patriot (no nationalist) who believes Britain still has a major role to play if not as the world power of yore, as an Atlantic and European power, but only if London’s elite Establishment once again learns to believe in Britain and its people.  Critically, if Britain is to return to its Realist tradition it must again align the ends, ways and means of British security and defence policy with the strategic roles and responsibilities expected of a still major regional strategic power. 

So, when the dust of the Great COVID-19 Crisis begins to settle geopolitics will again be cast by Realpolitik and if Britain thinks it can evade the responsibilities of its power then London is deluded. That is why throughout this journey, and whilst I have often attacked elites and establishments, the aim has never been to destroy them, but to make them better so they can serve me, the citizen, more effectively.

The Lindley-French Analysis

Now, my blog is at another crossroads and about to evolve again. The next decade will be tumultuous as power, space and freedom once again become sorely contested on the anvil of the new Global Bipolarism as Pax Americana and Pax Sinica compete for dominance.  In such a world it is as an analyst at the juncture between academia and practice where I can best add value.  Consequently, there will be fewer ‘blogs’ but each blog will be longer and deeper and grounded in evidence.

The journey will be bumpy as I will never compromise with thought ‘fashion’, and I will continue to call it as I see it. The other day a Dutchman took great pride in telling me the Dutch were direct to a fault.  He also castigated the English for never saying what they really think. In fact, and with no disrespect to the Dutch who I (by and large) admire, the Dutch can indeed be direct, but often only about the things that do not matter.  They can also take easy offence when they find an Englishman who really does say what he thinks.

In that light, the one thing I can assure you of, as a Yorkshireman, Englishman, Briton, European and Atlanticist, is that I will continue to say exactly what I think without fear of grace or favour.  Thank you for your support. It has been an honour to serve you all.  Here’s to the next decade of informed citizen engagement with power. Without it freedom will not endure.

Stay safe, everyone!

Julian Lindley-French

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Analysis: Disease, Debt and Defence

“In this suffering and misery of our city, the authority of human and divine laws almost disappeared, for, like other men, the ministers and the executors of the laws were all dead or sick or shut up with their families, so that no duties were carried out”.

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (describing the effects of the Black Death in Florence in 1348).

Headline: Since World War One European democracies have failed to plan adequately for shock, with systems and structures routinely collapsing at such moments of crisis.  Over time Europeans respond to effect, but such efforts are profoundly undermined by a tendency to sacrifice the medium-to-long term for the short-term. This is caused by the primacy of politics over strategy. That same dynamic is again apparent in the response to the COVID-19 crisis, during which an understandable choice has been made to place human security before state security. However, as the economic cost of the crisis becomes apparent European governments must avoid another now ‘traditional’ response: the sacrifice of sound defence to manage debt. Trade-offs will, indeed, need to be made, but through far more effective use of NATO, and a meaningful strategic partnership between NATO and the EU, Europeans can strike a new balance between security and defence and between efficiency and effectiveness, and begin to close the yawning gap between ends, ways and means from which Europe and its defence suffers.  


The Centre for Business and Economic Research predicts world GDP will fall by as much as 4% this year with the subsequent economic contraction possibly twice as big as the Great Financial Crash of 2008-2010, from which many European economies have yet to recover.  Take France as a European example. France’s government debt prior to the crisis was over 100 per cent of GDP, with France routinely breaching the EU budget deficit ceiling of three per cent per annum of GDP. The French statistical agency (INSEE) states that French economic output is down by 35 per cent and three percentage points could be wiped off France’s GDP if the lockdown lasts another month, up to six points over two months.  According to Econographics the impact on the US economy will be significantly worse than the 5% fall in GDP that occurred in the wake of the 2008 crisis. 

The history of plague and its reckoning

Every major pestilence in European has had profound strategic consequences. Between 1347 and 1353 the population of Boccaccio’s Florence fell from 110,000 to 50,000, a mortality rate that was reflected across Europe where some 40% of the population perished. Wage inflation and aristocratic debt soared, destabilising an already fragile European polis, and ending feudalism once and for all.  There were profound geopolitical consequences as power shifted tectonically resulting in a series of conflicts, such as the Hundred Years War between England and France which was intensified as a consequence of the Black Death.  Thankfully, COVID-19 whilst tragic is not the Black Death, but it will have profound economic, political and strategic consequences, most notably in Europe.

The reckoning, when it inevitably comes, will test to the limit Europe’s tenuous relationship between rhetoric and structure, the state and the individual, as well as debt and defence, just as it did in the fourteenth century.  France, like many European states, is devoting huge additional resources to the struggle against COVID-19, with profound implications for public expenditure in Europe.  The Euro already looks very vulnerable. A major row is developing between Germany and the richer, northern EU member-states, and France, Italy, Spain and other EU member-states.  The latter want the former to pay for the crisis in the form of debt mutualisation.  Consequently, COVID-19 and its implications will again shake the EU to its political and institutional foundations.

Human security versus national defence.

There are also profound implications for ‘welfarised’ European states as they seek a new balance between the security of the individual and defence of the state:

First, there will be a debt-defence paradox. Spiralling public debt will be a singular consequence of COVID-19, and yet the immediate political reaction of big government Europeans will be for even more government. Equally, more government could also mean less defence.  Most Europeans spend an average of around 9% GDP on healthcare and 1.2% GDP on defence.  European defence expenditure was expected to reach $300 billion/€275 billion in 2021.  That is now unlikely. Word has it that the UK’s Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review has already been derailed by the borrowing to which London is committed to offset the worst economic impacts of the crisis.

Second, a profound shift will take place in what constitutes ‘security’.  More of the European state will likely be committed to cocooning the individual and the economy from risk in the form of health-care, social security, crisis subsidy and elevated levels of admittedly 'cheap' borrowing. The result will be that whilst the individual might in time have access to more resilient locally-afforded protection, the state itself will become progressively more vulnerable to externally-generated strategic shock.

Third, Europeans could retreat further from power and influence projection. The already limited ability of Europeans to project coercive power upon which credible twenty-first century defence and deterrence depends could well be effectively abandoned in favour of seeing armed forces as little more than a reserve for domestic civilian crisis management.

Moving Mountains amid a Crisis: Increasing Military Mobility across Europe  (1000 hours EST/1600 hours CET)

Today, I will take part in a virtual conference, which you are welcome to join, organised by my old friend Lieutenant-General (Ret.d) Ben Hodges and CEPA. Entitled Moving Mountains amid a Crisis: Increasing Military Mobility across Europe the panel will consider an issue that points the inevitable way towards Europe’s defence future – how to rebalance the ends, ways and means of Europe’s future defence:

First, military mobility is, in fact, crisis mobility - the ability, capability and capacity to move relevant resources across Europe in sufficient mass to prevent crises, respond to them and mitigate their consequences. As such, work to enhance political, legal and physical 'infrastructure' across Europe will be critical to more effective crisis management, an enhanced ability to receive, organise and manage force and resource, and move it rapidly, securely and efficiently to where it is needed.

Second, any significant resource-shift by Europeans away from defence would take place just at the moment the US faces growing world-wide and domestic pressures. If Washington is to maintain the security guarantee through NATO it will need its European allies to do more not less for their own defence. In such circumstances, the effective defence of Europe will only be possible if a far tighter relationship is forged by Europeans between force and resource efficiency and effectiveness. 

Third, efforts to increase military mobility could well provide the model for partnerships between and within states that will be essential to the realisation of credible European defence and deterrence in the twenty-first century. Consequently, the very nature and concept of 'defence spending' will change, as will the way Europe’s defence is organised and structured.

Fourth, NATO/SHAPE will (and must) remain the exclusive command hub for the organisation of military effect across Article 4 and Article 5 high-end contingencies, but will also need to become far more agile and adaptive. This is because warfare will stretch across what I call 5Ds - disinformation, deception, destabilisation, disruption and tailored destruction. Deterring and defending against it will need to do the same.

S**t happens!

The current crisis has also shown the scale and range of threats facing Europe. Many years ago I coined the phrase ‘strategic vacation’ in a piece I wrote for the International Herald Tribune.  That vacation must now finally end, or rather the seeming inability or willingness of European leaders to confront Europe’s rapidly deteriorating, cross-spectrum, threat horizon and the atomisation of effort all-too-apparent during crises over recent years.  The 'grand strategy' of Europe's future security and defence will thus rely on the much more efficient application of great means in pursuit of high political and strategic ends. Unfortunately, the current crisis has once again demonstrated that not only does European solidarity (and with it the EU) tend to fail at such moments, but the concomitant renationalisation of response leaves NATO with little or no role. If that happened in a worst-case military emergency a few of the larger nation-states, led by the US, would simply by-pass both NATO and the EU.

New political and strategic realities will also need to be faced. With Britain outside the EU the organisation and enabling of transatlantic effects will be increasingly established on two pillars: a NATO-focused 'Anglosphere', in which efficient collective action is the ethos, and a 'Eurosphere' of continental Europeans which will need to become increasingly common, or at the very least collective to the point of fusion, if EU Member-States are to close Europe’s yawning ends, ways and means gap. Bluntly, the more common the EU effort, the less Britain could, or would, play any role for a host of complex political and legal reasons mainly on the side of a profoundly legalistic EU.  Put simply, Britain cannot be outside the EU and part of a common EU effort. Critically, the EU-NATO strategic partnership will become more, not less important. However, it will also need to become far more than the talk-shop it is today, a real force and resource generator and command and control hub at the juncture between people protection and power projection.

In short, now is the moment EU member-states must prove they are committed to a common approach, or abandon it. 

Disease, debt, defence…and decline

Looking to the future COVID-19, or something like it, is just how a future war could begin, albeit with no space permitted by an enemy for civilian systems of government to recover and respond. Therefore, any NATO ‘strategic concept' must be built on an assumption of a much greater strategic whole of government approach. Counter-intuitive though it may seem such an assumption will need a far stronger European security and defence effort. At the high-end of conflict prevention, and for even minimum deterrence to remain credible, which is in fact NATO’s real purpose, Europeans will need a NATO European first responder future force able to operate across seven domains of contested advantage - air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge.

The alternative is more of the same accelerated relative decline apparent since 2010, only far more accelerated. The consequence of decline for Europeans will be where it always is, at the sharp end of reality. If Europeans continue to talk the talk of defence or retreat into ersatz defence in which their respective armed forces become little more than a paramilitary reserve for domestic civilian crisis management, then Alliance defence and deterrence will fail.

Therefore, European governments must confront the false dichotomy they are fast barrelling towards between disease, debt and defence.  Put simply, far better use of the Alliance must be made as a mechanism for the further promotion of transatlantic defence and deterrence effectiveness, alongside and in parallel to EU efforts to act as the cradle for the high-end aggregated support of civilian authorities, focussed on an improved capacity to move immense capabilities across Europe in time and to place.  

Europeans will soon have a profound choice to make; for once let sound strategic judgement make it the right one.

Scritta Posta: Boccaccio’s The Decameron has a personal angle for me. It is set in a farmhouse close to the wonderful village of Fiesole which sits majestically in the hills overlooking Florence.  Boccaccio and his companions shared stories in Fiesole as they sat out the Plague. For four years I lived in Fiesole where I wrote my doctorate…on the future defence of Europe. As Boccaccio once wrote, “You must read, you must persevere, you must sit up nights, and you must inquire, and exert the utmost power of your mind. If one way does not lead to the desired meaning, take another; if obstacles arise, then still another; until, if your strength holds out, you will find that clear which at first looked dark.”

Julian Lindley-French