hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

The Biden Doctrine, China and RCEP

“Speak softly and carry a big stick: you will go far”. 

President Teddy Roosevelt

Bloc mentality?

November 25th, 2020. Geoeconomics is geopolitics. An event took place on Sunday, November 14th that could potentially change the lives of Europeans. Press coverage?  Minimal. Three are two immediate strategic questions implicit in the creation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). What are the geopolitical implications and how does the RCEP relate to China’s also just announced fourteenth Five Year Plan? 

A bit of history. The First World War was caused by the extreme Prussian-centric nationalism and expansionism of Wilhelmine Germany. However, Berlin also set in a motion a process that led to dangerous bloc mentality. With the fall of the wily Bismarck in 1890 the Dual Alliance, and then the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and for a time Italy, gradually went from being a defensive to an offensive pact as the domestic social and political pressures faced by the Prusso-German elite grew.  By way of response the Franco-Russian Alliance was formed, which led in turn to the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France, and eventually the Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia.  Such an alignment would have been unthinkable a generation before.  Something else happened. As the blocs formed every action taken by the states involved began to be seen through the narrow prism of military power. Hammers and nails and all that.

Geoeconomics: The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership

The geoeconomics. The fifteen nation RCEP could be possibly the largest free trade deal in history. Whilst it has not been China-led, the sheer magnitude of China’s economy and its ‘gravitational’ economic pull will inevitably mean it becomes China-centric. Whilst the RCEP does not completely eclipse the so-called Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) because both the US and India withdrew (mistake?) the RCEP will further shift the centre of regional and thus world economic gravity towards China.

The RCEP involves some 30% of the world population and, critically for China’s domestic need to maintain economic growth, could see $209 billion added annually to world income and by 203 $500 billion to world trade. Whilst such growth is good news for COVID devastated Europe both the nature of it and the locus for its generation will also further accelerate the shift of wealth and thus power from Europe.  Critically, for COVID-19 damaged economies in much of the Indo-Pacific, RCEP could improve access for many of the states therein to Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) funding, with all the geopolitical implications that would entail.  

Geopolitics: The Fourteenth Five Year Plan

Now, the geopolitics. In March 2021 China’s fourteenth Five Year Plan will be revealed. From what is known thus far China’s aim will be to enhance economic, technological and supply chain security. Much of the Plan will be devoted to easing the rapid urbanisation driven economic gulf that exists between Chinese cities and the countryside, as well as between rich coastal communities and the rural poor. There will also be a significant part of the plan devoted to strengthening internal security, given the social unrest and many disturbances that have recently broken out.  Beijing is particularly sensitive to the danger posed to the regime if the ‘contract’ established in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre breaks down.  Under that ‘contract’ China’s burgeoning middle class accepted the political ascendancy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in return for ever-improving living standards. Given the size of China’s middle class they matter.

Critically, the Plan will also contain major provisions for the further modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), with the focus on “elevating the level of national security”.  Given that Beijing sees Taiwan as part of ‘national security’ the implications for Taipei and regional strategic security could be serious.  The specific aim of the Plan will be to transform the PLA from its current status as a twentieth century plus half-mechanised force still focused on old Communist-era military districts into a fully twenty-first century ‘informationised’ force designed to exert decisive theatre-wide influence and coercion.  Given that the ‘theatre’ in question is the Indo-Pacific, by ‘influence’ the Plan clearly implies coercion of states therein (if needs be) and, in time, the exclusion of US forces. Central to the Plan will be the creation of a very large, high-end, integrated joint force, reinforced by civil-military fusion and a PLA Strategic Support Force. In other words, enhanced and sustainable military power projection allied to strengthened domestic resilience and people protection via the technologies of the new battlespace – hypersonic missile systems, artificial intelligence, drone swarms, bio and Nano tech, and super-computing leading to quantum computing.  

Geoeconomics or geopolitics? China is no democracy and it would be easy for many in the global democracies to see all Chinese actions and the RCEP through the prism of Beijing’s increasingly aggressive military building programmes, its illegal seizure of islands in the South China Sea, its routine breaking of World Trade Organisation rules (most notably intellectual property theft), and its digital and other forms of offensive espionage.  There will certainly be those around President Xi who profoundly believe that coercion works.

A wolf in sheep’s clothing?

There is another way of looking at the RCEP and, indeed, how it influences the politics and strategies that will be both explicit and implicit in the Five Year Plan.  In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis and China’s aggressive ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy, which has done so much to undermine trust in the Chinese state, Beijing has realised that China has much to gain by being seen to observe international rules and norms, which is precisely what the US and its Western Allies want.  It is also why democracies in the region, such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and others, have signed up to the Partnership (the key is in the title). In other words, time will thus tell whether it is the RCEP or China’s Five Year Military Plan that will be the defining factor in both regional-strategic and by extension world security. At the very least, the RCEP should be given a chance to work some multilateral magic. 

RCEP also establishes a template for a Biden Doctrine.  For all the talk of climate change being the primary foreign policy focus of the President-elect’s team, it is China which will define the Biden Doctrine.  As such, the Biden Doctrine will need to both engage China where and when Beijing observes the rules implicit in the RCEP, but if needs be confront and contain China when it does not. In other words, whilst RCEP implies risk and reward for all concerned (including India and the US) it also mitigates the tendency to see all Chinese actions through the prism of narrow militarism. Critically for the Americans New Delhi could well be in agreement with such an analysis.


At the same time, China will still be the overwhelmingly powerful force in RCEP, precisely because India and the US refused to join.  There can also be no doubt that China sees itself in strategic competition with the US and the wider West. Such competition is implicit in the military modernisation aspects of the Five Year Plan.  The test will be the extent or otherwise to which Beijing seeks to instrumentalise RCEP to exclude the US (and others?) from free trade in the Indo-Pacific, the world’s growth generator, and thus strengthen the perception of a US in decline.  If it does then China’s stated aims in the Five Year Plan to strengthen China’s technological, economic and supply chain security will be decidedly anti-American, which in time would likely mean the RCEP falls apart.

Still, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is an important strategic demarche. It is also a success for the patient diplomacy of several mid-sized regional powers and the leadership of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and should be celebrated as such. As such, the RCEP should also be seen as an attempt to use free trade to tie China into a rules-based multilateral framework of the type the West has consistently championed. The Biden administration, and the wider West, must also see the RCEP as a post-COVID geo-economic opportunity and treat it as such.  However, there is always the chance it is also the harbinger of the geopolitical challenge that will be laid down in the Five Year Plan. In which case, the Biden administration would do well to remember the words of former President Teddy Roosevelt: “Speak softly and carry a big stick: you will go far”.  One final thought. What a different world it would be if the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) had been agreed. Ho hum.

Julian Lindley-French

Friday, 20 November 2020

Britain Sets the Defence Agenda

 “There are significant parts of Britain’s defence architecture that will need to be re-thought, if Britain is to prepare effectively to confront a radical age.  To do that, the British will need to do something that has traditionally eluded them.  They will need to think big about security.  ‘Strategic’ will need to mean something”.

 “Little Britain?” Julian Lindley-French 2015


Power and strategy

November 20th, 2020. Power is strategy, politics is trade-offs. Yesterday’s announcement of the largest increase in British defence expenditure since the end of the Cold War sets the defence agenda for NATO and Europe’s future defence. It also lays down a challenge to other Europeans. As such, it is a masterstroke of British statecraft for it reminds other Europeans of Britain’s vital importance to their security and defence on the eve of Brexit, signals to the new Biden administration that London will invest in a twenty-first century special relationship, and warns secessionists of the power of the British state to use defence investment to thwart them.  It is also a vital injection of political capital in the strategic brand of Global Britain. Having set the ambition Prime Minister Boris Johnson must now mean what he says and deliver. The COVID-19 economic crisis is yet to bite and when it does pressures will grow to spend instead on a whole raft of demanding domestic issues, not least public sector pay. Given that, why does a hike in Britain’s armed forces make sense?

Like all crises COVID-19 will accelerate and intensify dangerous global strategic competition. The nature and scope of new military technology and the 5Ds of continuous warfare (deception, disinformation, destabilisation, disruption and coercion through implied or actual destruction) with which Britain must contend is now clearer than it was five years ago. If properly spent this investment will go a long way to promoting sound defence and credible twenty-first century deterrence through a strengthened and modernised NATO.  The strategy is thus threefold: to reinforce the defence Special Relationship with the US by creating a British Future Force able to operate to with US forces at the high end of military effect across the multi-domain future warfare of air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge; to generate the necessary military power to enable post-Brexit Britain to exert defence influence over European and other allies and partners, as well as being a public good in and of itself; by integrating high-end military force with intelligence, diplomacy and aid and development enable Britain to exert global influence and thus retain its status as a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council.

Defence value versus defence cost

This is the stuff of contemporary geopolitics. And, whilst the costs will be substantial, the value will be great.  Consequently, the investment will leverage a strategic value for Britain far beyond the cost of defence investment and is thus an efficient, effective and value for money way to enhance British security. This four-year defence deal will be worth £16.5bn ($21.8 billion), given that the annual defence budget is some £40bn such represents an increase of about 10%, far beyond any comparable commitment by any other major European state.  There is some quibbling over the figures. For example, the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests there will only be £7bn of new money for the annual defence budget by 2025. The discrepancy is explained by the fact that existing planning envisaged the defence budget rising to £45bn by 2025, whilst the new plan will now see it rise to £52bn. Downing Street went further. “The £16.5 billion extra in the Ministry of Defence's budget over the next four years is the amount over and above the manifesto commitment. The Government has already pledged to increase defence spending by 0.5 per cent above inflation for every year of this parliament. On existing forecasts, this is an overall cash increase of £24.1 billion pounds over four years compared to last year's budget”.

Johnson said the purpose of the investment was to “end the era of retreat, transform our armed forces and bolster our global influence”. He went on, “I have taken this decision in the teeth of the pandemic because the defence of the realm must come first.”  Johnson also said, “The international situation is more perilous and more intensely competitive than at any time since the Cold War and Britain must be true to our history and stand alongside our allies.” He also said that the investment would “…unite and level up our country, pioneer new technology and defend our people and way of life”.


What new capabilities will the new investment generate?  Johnson was clear, “Since the Cold War the threat from our adversaries has been evolving. Our traditional defence and deterrence capabilities remain vital, and our Armed Forces work every day to prevent terror reaching the UK's shores. But our enemies are also operating in increasingly sophisticated ways, including cyberattacks, to further their own interests”. The aim is to make Britain’s armed forces by far the most technologically-advanced force in Europe thus affording London a powerful coalition leadership role with the British Future Force.

Britain is also going back to space. The establishment of a UK Space Command was an election manifesto commitment. Britain already possesses a Space Operations Centre at Air Command in High Wycombe. This is a deep joint force and involves personnel from the Royal Navy, British Army and the Royal Air Force and is in line (albeit far more modestly) with US Future Force planning, particularly the development of US Space Command.  The so-called ‘high frontier’ is now regarded as future war theatre for military operations.  Britain will also create a military Artificial Intelligence (AI) capability that will focus on developing intelligent drone swarms, autonomous vehicles and target recognition, with a significant part of the new investment devoted to research and technology.

The messaging

Timing is everything and the Brexit message implicit in this announcement is clear: there can be no meaningful European defence without Britain. It would be na├»ve in the extreme to believe Brexit can be separated from Britain’s role in the defence of Europe. A bad Brexit deal will inevitably lead Britain to retreat from the continent, withdraw behind its nuclear deterrent, and act as a high-level strategic raider alongside the Americans. A good Brexit deal will see Britain take its proper place as a leader of European coalitions, a role London is now indicating it seeks to play. An equitable Brexit deal will thus see Britain re-commit to the defence of continental Europe and help lead the drafting of a new NATO Strategic Concept and join with France, Germany and other Europeans to rebuild the European pillar of the Alliance.

The strategic message to President-elect Biden is equally clear. Britain is investing in its unique strategic skill set that unlike any other European state reaches across the multi-domains of power. As such, Britain will remain the only European ally able to project high-end military power in conjunction with offensive cyber and information warfare capabilities. As a leader of European coalitions London is also signalling to Washington its determination to balance power projection with people protection and thus ease the burdens Americans must bear for the defence of Europe. 

There is also a clear domestic message. Johnson also stated that his ambition is to restore Britain as the “foremost naval power in Europe” with the main military beneficiary the Royal Navy. This makes sense. Britain is an island and the security of sea-lines of communication (SLOC), underwater cable infrastructure and freedom of navigation are a vital British interest. Consequently, the three under construction members of the seven planned Astute-class of nuclear attack submarines (HMS Anson, HMS Agamemnon and HMS Agincourt) will now be completed quickly. The Successor programme and the four Dreadnought-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines currently under construction will also be completed as planned. The six advanced Type 45 air defence destroyers will be augmented by eight advanced Type 26 anti-submarine frigates and five Type 31 general purpose frigates, plus fleet support ships to support the new Royal Navy Carrier Strike Group. Most if not all of these ships will be built in Scotland (on the Clyde) and Northern Ireland (Belfast), creating and supporting up to 10,000 COVID protected jobs in both. The message to the Scottish Nationalist Party is thus blunt: if Scotland becomes independent it will lose all access to the buying power of the British state and any last industrial capability in Scotland will thus be lost. Romantic nationalists might be willing to pay such a price. The Scottish people?

Paying the price of the COVID war

Still, there will be a cost and how will it be paid for? The cost of Britain’s war effort generated by World War One and World War Two peaked at between 175% and 250% of GDP in the years from 1914 to 1962.  With the COVID crisis the past year has seen the national debt rise from 80.8% of GDP to (probably) over 100% of GDP in 2021.  The war debt was paid for with cheap US loans which were then paid back in fifty instalments between 1950 and 2006 (somewhat longer than the planned in-life service of the two new British heavy aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales). 

The Government put war debt into a box and treated it as a distinct liability separate from the rest of the national debt.  Today, Britain can also borrow cheap money and will need to adopt a similar approach to COVID debt as it did to war debt.  As such, increased defence expenditure should be seen as a function of COVID ‘war’ debt. It is also pay-back time for many of the banks that were propped up by the British taxpayer in 2008-2010 when their global (not British) debts threatened to destroy them.

There will have to be further ‘efficiencies’ sought and this will mean cuts to legacy forces.  However, such cuts need not be egregious. Much is made of the so-called £13bn ‘black hole’ in the defence investment budget caused by unfunded defence aspirations in the 2010 and 2015 defence reviews.  In fact, the real shortfall is £6bn and only over ten years. The figure of £13bn would only be pertinent if the gap between aspiration and funding had continued to grow.  With this injection of capital that gap will now be closed. It will also enable the British armed forces to escape from another trap: the enforced use of legacy equipment for want of anything else. One lesson from the tragic war in Nagorno-Karabakh is that faced with a new triad of even limited numbers of cyber, drones and precision strike munitions legacy formations are rapidly defeated.

Reform of the defence procurement system will also need to continue. Thankfully, there are precedents for innovation that must be built upon.  For example, the Aircraft Carrier Alliance that built the two new aircraft carriers exploited the entire national industrial base and multiple supply chains far beyond the traditional defence industrial sector. Much of the emerging and disruptive technology entering the battlespace comes from the civil sector.  A new strategic public-private partnership is needed to foster the necessary relationships with ‘tech’.

Distinction will also need to be made between defence investment and wider national security investment. The planned co-operation between the signals intelligence capabilities of GCHQ and the MoD to create the planned National Cyber Force will merge the AI, information and digital domains and must thus be seen as a national contingency and funded as such.  Britain devotes some 7% of its $3 trillion economy to all aspects of national security, stability (policing) and defence.  The new force will have defence, counter-terrorism and counter-crime applications and should thus be funded as a national contingency.   

Power, politics and strategic literacy

The central theme of my 2015 book Little Britain? was that Britain’s political and strategic elite had lost the capacity to think geopolitically, were strategically illiterate and Britain’s defence was paying the price for it.  The book argued that Britain’s leaders lacked the political courage and the strategic foresight to make intelligent decisions about foreign, security and defence policy and the effective statecraft Britain so desperately needed.  This decision suggests Prime Minister Johnson and his administration do understand the first duty of the state is the defence of the realm and that any such defence is relative to the threats Britain faces. Whatever other pressures Britain faces British leaders must first and foremost secure and defend British citizens.  For over ten years Britain has only recognised as much threat as HM Treasury believed it could afford. This announcement suggests Britain is finally beginning to recognise threat for what it is.

This announcement is a good start, but it must now be delivered. By the way, Prime Minister, if you want a detailed strategy to justify the funding please read my forthcoming 2021 book Future War and the Defence of Europe (Oxford University Press for the English language version and Franckh Kosmos for the German language edition).

Julian Lindley-French

Friday, 13 November 2020

COVID-19, Europe's Defence and the Riga Test

Please find below the link to my Policy Brief which I had the honour to write for this year's Riga Conference. The paper is entitled "COVID-19, Europe's Defence and the Riga Test" and considers possible implications of the coming COVID-19 driven defence cuts across much of the Alliance, the possible implications for my friends in the Baltic States, and what we need collectively to do about it. Read more... PS if the link does not work directly please copy and paste into your browser. 

Thursday, 5 November 2020

Does America (Still) Want to Lead the Free World?

 “We confide in our strength, without boasting of it; we respect that of others, without fearing it”.

 Thomas Jefferson

Checks and balances

November 5th, 2020. So, that was that! The Great Arsenal of Democracy has spoken…sort of. As I write the US is heading for a Biden presidency. However, the Democrats are likely to see their majority in the House of Representatives reduced and, crucially, fail to gain control of the US Senate.  If confirmed the real ‘winner’ is the US Constitution. The checks and balances it enshrines will ensure that a Biden White House will be an essentially centrist administration.  What does the last forty-eight hours suggest about the next four years for Europe and America’s leadership of the free world?

Many Europeans will be quietly celebrating this morning amidst the economic wreckage of COVID-19. At least the transatlantic relationship will return to some form of ‘business as usual’, some will suggest.  Wrong! It cannot and will not.  There are few concepts I can lay claim to but I was the first to suggest the foreign and security policy of the Trump presidency would be transactional. At the time I called upon Europeans to look beyond the politics of Trump at the structural challenges the Americans are facing, foreign and domestic. They did not.  Instead, Europeans have used President Trump as an alibi to avoid facing the hard security and defence choices they must now make. This is something, I fear, COVID-19 is about to make a whole lot worse.

The world is changing…

Some months ago I also asked a question: who will win COVID-19?  It will certainly not be Europe, but nor will it be the US.  The terrible twin titans of the post COVID-19 international system are geopolitics and geo-economics, neither of which are trending in the West’s favour.  The world is witnessing a profound shift in the balance of coercive power away from the democracies towards China, and by extension its piggy back partner, Russia. The economic and military rise of China also seems to be accelerating as a consequence of COVID-19 with profound implications for European defence and the transatlantic relationship.

The defence strategic consequences?  In spite of the still awesome military power projection the US Armed Forces are still capable of even the mighty US Armed Forces cannot be present in strength in all places all of the time across the full spectrum of twenty-first century conflict.  Power is relative and for a state to exert such influence it would need to be uniquely strong in relation to all other possible peer competitors. There may have been a moment back in the early 2000s when some Americans thought the US enjoyed such power and could act as the Global Policeman (even if many Americans denied such ambitions), but 911, Afghanistan and Iraq quickly proved such pretention to be illusory, if not delusional. The coming years will thus likely see a kind of information-digital-hypersonic arms race in which the autocracies systematically seek to ‘short-of-war’ exploit the many vulnerabilities that are also the very essence of democracy.

…but so is America

Then there is the changing nature of America itself. A lot of Europeans still tend to view America through the prism of ‘the Greatest Generation’, which in tandem with Churchill’s Britain and Stalin’s Russia won World War Two. They forget the isolationist Vandenberg America of the 1930s and ignore the extent to which the US is again fast changing. There were two telling trends in this election. First, the percentage of white voters fell from 70% in 2016 to 65% in 2020. Second, the sheer scale of voting revealed a far greater engagement of minorities in the electoral process. This is to be welcomed. Political legitimacy in liberal democracies rests upon the need for the greatest number of citizens to engage.  Analysts too often tend to see geopolitics in terms of power indicators, which are often stripped down to size of a respective state’s economy and the relative power of its armed forces.  However, the ability of a state to apply power also rests upon a range of other, often intangible domestic factors. The power of the ageing ‘baby boomer’ vote was again apparent in this election. However, their future is behind them and twenty years hence the US will wear a different identity and political complexion.

Lessons from history?

In some important (although not all) respects contemporary America is not unlike late imperial Britain in the 1920s.  On the face of it, 1920 saw British power and influence at its zenith. Britain emerged from World War One victorious and in 1920 still possessed by far the largest navy in the world, the true measure of global power at the time. However, Britain was also mired in debt, not unlike the US today which faces a budget deficit of some 16% GDP, the largest since 1945, and a national debt fast approaching $28 trillion.

Britain was also deeply divided.  The 1918 Representation of the People Act and the 1928 Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act extended the franchise to all men and women over the age of twenty-one.  With two strokes of the Parliamentary pen the age of High Victorian Aristocratic Imperialists (of which Churchill was very much a part) was effectively brought to an end. To say the political and strategic consequences were profound is an understatement.  Britain had been in relative decline on the international stage since the 1890s as Wilhelmine Germany emerged as a European industrial powerhouse, America stopped colonising itself and began to look outward, and the Empire of Japan began to take its first tentative steps towards Great Power. Important though such change undoubtedly was Britain’s retreat from Empire accelerated far more quickly because of the changing nature of Britain itself.  

Downton Abbey America?

The shift in the Britain of the 1920s away from Imperialism and towards Disarmament was not just a consequence of the sacrifice of World War One. With the seizure of power by the political leaders of the bourgeois and working classes a British world view began to emerge that was very different from that of the Patrician order of old. That is the implicit story of Downton Abbey which any fan will recognise. In what was perhaps the first great struggle between imperial globalists and social nationalists the Great Depression then further accelerated change in the global, political and social order, just like COVID economics seems to be doing today. The change showed itself most clearly over the question of Britain’s role in the world, in particular what was then termed Indian Home Rule.  Gandhi, Nehru and others were successful (eventually) in agitating for Indian independence, but what is not often recalled is the support for such independence in Britain itself.

Masked by Britain’s subsequent role in World War Two it is often overlooked that much of 1930s Britain no longer had the political appetite to be an imperial power. With the political empowerment of the working class, both men and women, British politics rapidly became focused on the domestic struggle between entitlement, capital and labour. In Britain, such tensions took the form of events like the 1926 General Strike and the rise of the Trades Union Congress.  In contemporary social media driven America it is reflected in culture wars, entrenched politics of identity and the demand for far greater political and real investment in promoting racial and social equality.  There is also the huge task that any new Administration must face of modernising American infrastructure, much of which is clapped out. 

These immense domestic pressures the new Administration will face also begs two further questions of Americans. First, do Americans still want to lead the free world?  Second, if Americans do, how? Britain’s past may again prove illuminating.  The Naval Defence Act of May 31st, 1889 formally adopted the so-called Two Power Standard. This committed the Royal Navy to maintain twice the strength of the next two most powerful navies combined. On the face of it the Standard was a statement of British Imperial power. In fact, it was recognition that the French and Russian navies enjoyed the luxury of being able to make life exceedingly difficult for an over-stretched Royal Navy by choosing when, where and how to apply pressure the world over.  This is much the same dilemma the US faces today with the rise of China as a hybrid, cyber and potentially hyper war power, and Russia’s assertive coercion in and around much of Europe. In other words, for America to still lead the free world and defend Europe it will need to impose some form of ‘tax’ on the Allies to do it.  

Rise and Fall…

Britain’s decline was played out on the world’s oceans, as will America’s. Throughout the 1890s the challenge for Britain of controlling home waters, the Mediterranean and the sea lines of communication to Britain’s African colonies, India and the Eastern Empire became increasingly acute.  The appointment of Admiral Tirpitz in 1898 led to the eventual 1907 creation of Imperial Germany’s High Seas Fleet which was designed for one purpose – the defeat of the Royal Navy in Britain’s home waters. London soon recognised that in the face of such challenges Britain could no longer defend all of its interests everywhere, all of the time.

To solve the problem of what became known as imperial overstretch in January 1902 Britain forged the first Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The alliance helped transform the Chrysanthemum Throne into a regional-strategic Great Power, and all that happened thereafter, including the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The policy quickly paid strategic dividends to Britain with the crushing May 1905 naval defeat of Russia by Japan at the Battle of Tsushima (with at least one Royal Navy officer in attendance) and helped lead to the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907. 

America? America is not Britain and its power fundamentals are far stronger than Britain's ever was.  Therefore, if the US still has the will and political cohesion to lead the free world it can do so, but only in concert with committed and capable allies. In the Indo-Pacific that will mean deeper ties with Australia, South Korea and, of course, Japan. India? As for Europe, the Americans need NATO, but only if NATO can be transformed into a group of capable allies that can and will properly share risks, costs and burdens.  However, if such a new NATO is to be realised THIS America must want to lead and be willing to continue to bear the costs of such leadership, which will remain substantial.  Washington will also need to demonstrate the strategic patience needed to rebuild and maintain the alliances Washington increasingly needs. The alternative?  Look at Britain. A century ago London’s writ ran the length and breadth of the world. Today, London’s writ does not even run the length and breadth of Britain.

The difference between a President Biden and President Trump? They will be manifold, particularly in matters of style.  President Trump also saw American power as transactional because he for him international relations is little more than a protracted big business negotiation over global real estate. The transactionalism would be driven by a simple truth: the US has no alternative. Yes, there are many Americans who no longer confide in US strength and not a few who increasingly fear the power of the other, but the free world still needs American leadership and that leadership must both empower its people domestically and its allies globally. 

Julian Lindley-French