hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Snow Meeting 2018: Plans or Planning?

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower,

National Defense Executive Reserve Conference,

November 14, 1957

Trakai, Lithuania. 16 January.  Can NATO and EU states plan effectively for 360 degrees of very different threats? It is with grave concern that I must report that His Excellency Linas Linkevicius, the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, failed this year’s Snow Meeting. No snow! Apart from that the organisation of this superb annual security conference was as impeccable as ever.  With an over-arching theme of keeping the transatlantic bond strong European security nestled comfortably within the Snow Meeting like a Lithuanian lake amidst a forest of silver birch. Sadly, I come away from beautiful Trakai each year with my concerns about European security heightened.  Indeed, Europe’s ‘security’ is fast becoming like a gigantic marshmallow; pierce the thin, crusty edge in places like Lithuania and one discovers a thick gooey core or irresolution and uncertainty at Europe’s heart.  

Eisenhower’s famous quote has often been misunderstood, and the original context forgotten, but it is worth today quoting his 1957 speech in some length.  “Some years ago, there was a group in the staff college of which some of you may have heard, Leavenworth Staff College. This was before our entry into World War One, and in that course it was necessary to use a number of maps and the maps available to the course were of the Alsace-Lorraine area and the Champagne in France. But a group of “young Turks” came along and wanted to reform Leavenworth. They pointed out it was perfectly silly for the American Army to be using such maps which could after all be duplicated in other areas without too much cost – they would get some maps where the American Army might just fight a battle. So they got, among other things, maps of the area of Leavenworth and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and in succeeding years all the problems have been worked out on those maps. The point is, only about two years after that happened, we were fighting in Alsace-Lorraine and in the Champagne”.

Eisenhower went on to explain the distinction he rightly insisted upon between plans and planning. “There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of ‘emergency’ is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you expected”.

As part of the Snow Meeting and as part of a delegation I had the chance to meet the ever-impressive President of Lithuania, Her Excellency Dalia Grybauskaite. What makes her impressive is the clear-sighted understanding she has of her country’s security situation and what must be done about it.  Russia must be deterred with strength so that any irresistible itch President Putin needs to scratch does not at any point involve the invasion of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. 

The problem is that Lithuania is not Europe’s only vulnerable state. My many trips to Rome have also revealed an Italy far more in tune with the tragic and ongoing events to its south and the massive migration flows such chaos is both triggering and enabling. Rome is also far less concerned with Russia, for obvious reasons, than Lithuania, even if Italy also takes its NATO responsibilities very seriously at a time of extended economic duress.  In such circumstances for Rome to establish effective policies and strategies to cope with and manage what looks increasingly like a structural shift in population movement requires a wholly different set of tools than those needed to deter the Russian military.

It is this essential tension which exists between defence of the ‘east’ and security of the ‘south’ and which reinforces Eisenhower’s wise dictum.  In spite of NATO’s sterling efforts to recast its deterrence and defence posture to cope with such a wide array of challenges there is simply not the resources available to provide a credible response to both.  This is important because Friendly-Clinch’s First Law of Strategic Nonsense identifies an inverse, obverse, and not-so-little obscene relationship in such circumstances between plans and planning. Indeed, when planning cannot be properly resourced there is a profusion of plans which may suggest NATO be renamed the North Atlantic Summit Organisation and Declaration-Writing Organisation.

In Europe today there are a mass of plans to deal with every conceivable threat Europe could possibly face. However, in the absence of the sound, considered, co-ordinated and efficient application of necessarily immense resources precious little proper planning will take place. ‘Planning’ requires planners to think big and build redundancy into their plans, precisely because as one of the Moltke’s pointed out, all plans collapse on contact with the enemy. Such planning also requires political leaders to think equally ‘big’ and devote the necessary resources to ensure such planning is sound.  Indeed, it is the ACT of planning which is the central tenet of credible deterrence.

NATO places much faith in its ‘360 Degree Approach’ to security and defence.  In fact NATO has three dangerously separate 120 degree approaches that in effect compete with each other – a growing threat to the north, a profound threat to the east, and a complex and long-term threat to the south. The purpose of planning is ease that tension and craft a credible response to all three. To that end, sound planning would suggests that NATO in partnership with the EU moves to actively support Europe’s three sets of frontline states – Finland, Norway and Sweden to the north, the Baltic States to the East, and Italy, Spain et al to the South. To some extent that is precisely what is being planned for. Or, rather, that is what a lot of key Western European states say that that are planning for. However, the gap between what those states say they would do in an ‘emergency’, and what they are capable of doing, grows wider by the day.

“There are always the Yanks”, I hear you proclaim. Hold on a minute. The US faces challenges the world over.  NATO plan can only be credible if Europeans are planning at the very least to be credible first responder to major emergencies in and Europe. Which brings me back to my giant marshmallow, which I shall call ‘Kurt’.  Lithuania has increased its defence spending to meet the 2014 NATO Wales Summit defence investment pledge of 2% GDP on defence. Italy is engaged deeply in trying to ameliorate the situation of and situation with irregular migrants transiting North Africa. And yet, too many powerful Western European states talk a lot (President Macron!!!) but in fact reveal little evidence of any real planning or the commensurate investment that would be needed to cope with an emergency that looks ever more likely. Indeed, President Macron looks to me ever more like Tony Blair from 1997 to 1999 – a man with ambitions far greater than the country he leads.

States like Britain, France and Germany are the gooey mess at the heart of European security and defence but which in an emergency would need to act as a critical strategic reserve for the front-line states.  And yet, for all their political ‘plans’ there is no real evidence that they are undertaking anything what might be termed proper strategic planning. They just talk a lot…and send a few troops to Lithuania. 

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.  Speaking of which can we have some snow next year please, Mr Minister?

Julian Lindley-French

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

The Shape of Future War

“But, the bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding go out to meet it”.
Athenians and Spartans

Alphen, Netherlands. 9 January. What will be the shape of future war? The world is fast becoming divided between latter day Athenians and Spartans.  The former is powerful and views it expansion as inevitable and a consequence of its superior open political, social and economic model. The latter is less powerful but ruled by nationalistic and militaristic elites who fear that in time they too will be swept away by a ‘progressive’ West that is now a global idea rather than a place.  This systemic tension not only makes war possible, but will shape the very nature of twenty-first century warfare.
Karl von Clausewitz once said that the overriding aim of war is to disarm the enemy.  The latter day Athenians strive to disarm adversaries through treaties. The latter day Spartans believe the key to disarming an adversary to be coercive power and its decisive application at a time, method and place of their choosing. In Clausewitz’s day one disarmed a state by smashing its armed forces war.  Today, there are so many ways to disarm a state and it is the new ends, ways and means of future war that occupy so much of my thinking and concerns these days.  Somewhere, sometime in the not-so-distant future war will take place. It could well be a big, systemic war in which all Western states will somehow be involved and for all the reasons Thucydides so eloquently describes in his seminal 5th Century BC work History of the Peloponnesian War.

The Shape of Future War
The shape of war is not simply a function of relative military power. How a systemic war is fought is essentially dictated by the political, social and economic nature of the combatants.  Today, there are roughly three sets of systemic adversaries that represent three distinct poles of power in the twenty first century.  The West and its fellow travellers are the Athenian Globalists, who in varying ways embrace the openness that new technology and borderless trade and movement brings, but also wilfully ignore the profound vulnerabilities it generates.  China and Russia lead the Exploiters, Spartan states that seek to ring-fence their own systems and societies behind rigid systems of government from the vulnerabilities of globalisation, whilst at the same time seeking to exploit Globalist vulnerabilities.  A third group might be called the Believers.  Whilst the Globalists and Exploiters are both committed, in their varying ways, to a system of global capital the Believers reject the secular legitimacy of power and seek instead a new unworldly order based on extreme interpretations of faith.  Al Qaeda and Islamic State are the most obvious examples of Believers in geopolitics, but there are others.

The Globalists are the status quo and seek to expand their writ primarily via co-option (Athenian League?) though retain some military means to punish those who challenge the order they have forged. Whilst Globalist elites talk constantly of ‘change’ for them it is as much about justifying elitist decisions to their sceptical, traditionalist peoples, than defending those self-same people.  There are also two wings of the Globalist elite, both of which are pretty hard core and which whilst appearing to counter each other, in fact reinforce each other.  At one end of the Globalist political spectrum there are what might be called the Goldman Sachs Globalists, for whom the borderless movement of capital and the businesses that foster such movement are the key essentials of power. For them nation-states are very passé and little more than second order, local entities that exists to maintain the order they need to do business.  At the other end there are the liberal Globalists who espouse open internationalism based on a vision of the borderless universalism of peoples. For them the nation-state is also an anachronism forged as it was on mono-cultural identities which must also be eroded.
Societal and strategic vulnerability is thus an inherent consequence of the world views of both wings of the Globalist elite. Indeed, openness and vulnerability are two sides of the same strategic coin. Whereas one promotes and exploits extreme openness/vulnerability for profit, the other creates extreme openness/vulnerability in pursuit of ideology. Vulnerability that the Exploiters and the Believers, the Grand Revisionists, are only too happy to use against the Globalists by turning the world they have created against them. It is at this point the shape of future war becomes apparent.

Whilst ostensibly weaker both the Exploiters and the Believers use offset strategies to exacerbate the structural vulnerabilities of the Globalists.  However, whilst the Exploiters systematically analyse and design coercive strategies to achieve their revisionist grand political ends, the Believers are, by nature, far more instinctive and opportunist. Consequently, for both Exploiters and Believers coercion, and its many tools and applications, are ‘values’ to be had at any cost, whereas for Globalists defending against coercion is simply an impediment in the way of wealth-generation and societal ‘renewal’, and thus a cost to be minimised.  Indeed, for many Globalists armed forces are themselves legacies of out-dated states that must be maintained only at a minimum level even if such forces also rely to an extent on what many Globalists see as ‘archaic’ patriotism.  Worse, one great weakness of the bureaucratic Euro-Globalists is that because of Europe’s peculiar and particular recent history many of them are convinced that Europe’s own military power poses a threat unto themselves. For them ‘strategy’ is overwhelmingly a civilian function of law and precept, rather than power, coercion and capability. 
For Globalists systemic war is not just unthinkable (which is why they try hard not to think about it) it is illogical because of its myriad of costs.  In other words, Globalists cannot possibly imagine why someone would start such a war and thus have little interest in it, even if, to echo Plato, war certainly has an interest in them. Still, for all their martial emphasis the Exploiters would prefer to achieve their revisionist aims short of war, primarily through intimidation of the Globalists and their populations. Of course, they prepare for war because the threat of war is central to their coercive narrative, but also because to them as nationalists (nationalism destroys patriotism) ‘war’ is part of the very DNA of strategy. For Believers war is a ‘purifying’ end in and of itself.

The Four Phases of Future War
Future war will thus be about far more than military power. Future war will be a complex matrix of coercive actions all of which will form part of a new escalation of conflict designed to blackmail Globalists into accepting what for them are unacceptable actions. As such future war will essentially concern the application of pressure in pursuit of revisionist strategic ends by exploiting globalist vulnerabilities via a myriad of coercive means of which mass destruction will be only one extreme. For the Exploiters future war will thus involve the application of pressure across a prescribed mix of ‘effects’ ranging from systematic mass disinformation, disorder, disruption and, if needs be, to decisive destruction.

Future war will not begin with any formal declaration, that is far too legalistic, globalist, and anachronistic. Future war could also be ‘gradualistic’ by nature. Future war will begin at ‘escalation level one’ with fake news, and disinformation campaigns that try to turn the now many ‘communities’ within Western states against each other, and exploit further the profound split in many Western states between the patriots (in the literal meaning of the word) and the internationalists, with the aim of rendering such states politically paralysed.  The Believers will tend to focus on these early elements of future war unless they can develop the high warfare means of future warfare the Exploiters are already in train to deploy.
If the fostering of disorder via disinformation fails the Exploiters will move onto ‘escalation level two’ and the next phase of future war– disruption.  Globalism has been built as world-wide web of people, ideas and things. On the face of it, the Internet that has so empowered Globalism has redundancy so deeply built into it that it would be very unlikely to suffer a catastrophic denial of service attack.  However, the systems and infrastructures that increasingly rely on cyber-systems are too often insufficiently robust because robustness implies cost and a constraint on the ‘openness’ the Globalists espouse. The Exploiters, on the other hand, see robustness of their critical infrastructures and systems as the sine qua non of their respective coercive strategies and are willing to impose the cost on their peoples of the closed structures such ‘robustness’ generates. After all, the Exploiters have few shareholders to satisfy.  Crash the critical systems the Globalists rely upon and the unstable societies they have created will render impossible an effective strategic and political response.  

‘Escalation level three’ would see Exploiters seeking to ram home their perceived advantage by reinforcing a growing sense of pending panic they have generated within Globalist societies by stepping up coercion.  This would be achieved by advertising and threatening mass destruction.  This phase of future war would be prosecuted by essentially military means. It could be via use of a limited war that underpins and reinforces strategic revisionist aims, by placing chemical, nuclear and biological forces on full alert, or by a combination of the two.  At this point the revisionist forces, Exploiters and Believers, might even join forces and create a latter day Delian League, with the latter undertaking terrorist attacks against the Globalists to further foster panic. Alternatively, Exploiters would use undercover Special Forces to exploit terrorism as war by other means. Escalation level four? Full on systemic war.
Preventing Future War

Why am I writing this?  The Globalists are in denial that such a threat exists because for both wings threat is politically inconvenient, even if the people sense otherwise. Take contemporary Britain as an example. At one level the current National Security Capabilities Review (NSCR) (or Sedwill Review as it is popularly known) is a useful exercise if it did what it says on the tin: to consider security and defence in the round given the changing nature of threat with the aim of ensuring the efficient and effective application of resources.  Sadly, the NSCR is the now all too familiar cost-cutting politics dressed up as strategy.  As such it demonstrates (yet again) not only that the British elite do not understand future war or are even willing to consider it, they completely misunderstand the utility and role of in the face of such a threat. Any state that sacrifices defence to pay for security, which is the essence of the Sedwill exercise, simply demonstrates it understands neither. Worse, such a state also demonstrates to allies, adversaries, and its own people that it affords neither security nor defence sufficient political priority. Further cuts to already critically over-stretched armed forces simply to meet the dictates of a short-term balance sheet also demonstrate an elite that has not only abandoned any pretence to considered strategy in security and defence, it has also decided that the critical vulnerability it is imposing on its people is a price worth paying for Globalism.
The paradox?  By weakening the security and defence of the European state it is Europe’s own elite Globalists who are helping to create the conditions for future war by artificially exaggerating vulnerability. Instead, Europe is promised new virtual Maginot Lines, such as PESCO, which weaken European defence because it is strategic tinkering that demonstrates all too clearly that Europe’s elites do not believe future war possible and are not serious about deterring it or preventing it. This situation will worsen, particularly in Europe, as the Revisionists systematically exploit social media and the new technological ends, ways and means of future warfare, such as hyper-sonic weapons, Artificial Intelligence, quantum computing, big data, et al.

If future war is to be prevented Athens must properly think about war conceptually, strategically and practically.  Western states are in danger of being disarmed by forces ostensibly far weaker if it fails collective to re-capitalise the twenty-first century security and defence of the Western state across the new spectrum of future war.  Therefore, Western states must together begin to re-think security and defence in the round, and the worst that could be done to them and their people. That means looking at all tools of security and defence. In practice a real review would reconsider the balance that must necessarily be struck between ‘unseen’ security and ‘seen’ defence to forge the two into a new form of shield and sword. Why the state? The state remains for millions the focus of identity, the legitimate and most efficient purveyor of security and defence, and the tax-generating source of power.  Only Western states working in harness, and which use institutions such as NATO and the EU as means to a strategic ends, rather than political ends in themselves, will successfully deter future war. For future war can only be deterred demonstrating an ability and a capability to act to effect across the entirety of the future war coercive spectrum.

Future war that has already started and needs to be fought. As British General Sir William Francis Butler once said, “The nation that insists upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards”.

Have a nice day!

Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

NSS 2017: Making America Great Again?

“This strategy is guided by principled realism. It is realist because it acknowledges the central role of power in international politics, affirms that sovereign states are the best hope for a peaceful world, and clearly defines our national interest”.

The United States National Security Strategy, December 18, 2017
A Happy New US Year?

Alphen, Netherlands. 3 January. A Happy New Year to you all! Look, being something of a sad bastard I spent part of my Christmas reading the new US National Security Strategy (NSS 2017).  In part this was because I wanted to give it the full and proper consideration it deserves. This meant first allowing to die down the now usual Euro-Chicken Little response to anything with the name ‘Trump’ on it.  My considered reaction to NSS 2017? The United States seriously needs allies, and America’s allies really now need to get serious about the world, their place in it, and the continuing ability and willingness of the US to do their defending for them.

The document itself is a serious and concise piece of work written by very serious people. Indeed, it is a far stronger ‘strategy’ than some of the vacuous aspirational internationalism that was published during the Obama years, or its ‘mini-me’ British counterpart which lists all the threats Britain faces, many of which Britain is doing little or nothing about. London only recognises as much threat as the Treasury says it can afford…which is not a lot. As for the EU’s Global Strategy, I tend not to bother with junk mail.
NSS 2017
Fifty-five pages in length and divided into four pillars, NSS 2017 is an elegant statement of the American geopolitical dilemma; powerful enough to be the only global power, but no longer powerful enough to exert its interests or its influence globally everywhere, all of the time.  At a particularly sad moment, and infused with a large glass of Scotch, I read side-by-side both NSS 2017 and the December statement by the European Council on PESCO or permanent structured co-operation. Whereas the US NSS is an attempt to recognise and ultimately overcome US geopolitical over-stretch, PESCO is politics dressed up as strategy and can at best be described as strategic tinkering, at worst it is European defence as cold turkey avec frites.

The critical ‘pillar’ is entitled Preserve Peace through Strength and is where the rubber of NSS 2017 hits the hard road of realism. The analysis therein is spot on, particularly the section on the competitive nature of the world, and the need for the US to exert influence and generate effect. NSS 2017 is particularly effective describing the new balance Washington must strike between protection of people and projection of power in an age in which technology and Twitter merge security and defence…and undermines them at one and the same time.  The main threats are clearly identified: super-revisionists China and Russia; regional revisionists Iran and North Korea, as well medieval revisionists in the Middle East. 
The role of the US armed forces is also reaffirmed in NSS 2017 as central to the American strategic effort, even if the strategy recognises military power is but one facet of American ‘strength’ that stretches from the economic (the deficit?) to the inspirational.  Critically, and very unusually, NSS 2017 has the courage to recognise relative American decline by recommitting America to seek to “renew its competitive advantages”. 

Militant Turkey or American Decline?
Still, reading NSS 2017 I felt qualms of unease that were caused by more than an excess of militant Christmas turkey. You see, NSS 2017 is the ghost of British strategy past, albeit dressed up as Uncle Sam. Indeed, NSS 2017 is a little bit like that American rip-off of the famous World War One poster Your Country Needs You in which Lord Kitchener thrusts his four-digit in the faces of young men about to sign up for the trenches.

NSS 2017 is an exercise in managing relative American decline and, as such, would have been recognisable to a young Winston Churchill.  At the start of the twentieth century Britain still appeared to supremely powerful with the Royal Navy ensuring Britannia really did rule the waves. In 1889 Britain established the Two Power Standard and passed the Naval Defence Act in which London committed to “… a standard of strength equivalent to that of the combined forces of the next two biggest navies in the world”.  However, some thirteen years later, faced with the rise of Imperial Germany in Europe, and yet to conclude ententes, cordiale or otherwise, with either France or Tsarist Russia, in January 1902 Britain forged the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.  By so doing London recognised the beginning of its century long retreat from global power that continues today, albeit it exaggerated by its own numpty politicians.  In 1902 Britain faced strategic reality and abandoned the Two Power Standard and with it any fading delusions of splendid isolation or supreme power. NSS 2017 does much the same for contemporary America.  
Instead, NSS 2017 implicitly reinforces the importance of allies in the pursuit of US strategic ends, and clearly recognises the shifting balance of global power, America’s fading dominion over it, the revolutionary role of technology in security and defence, and the ability of other powers and actors to complicate US strategic choices.  NSS 2017 also reveals the sheer extent of the challenges America faces even if there are so many “Priority Actions” across so many domains that reading NSS 2017 one wonders if there can be anything can be a strategic priority if everything is a priority.

The End of American Exceptionalism?
It is the section entitled Strategy in a Regional Context, which Europeans should take very seriously indeed. The key phrase is a telling one for Europeans: “The NATO Alliance will become stronger when all members assume greater responsibility for and pay their fair share to protect our mutual interests, sovereignty and values”. One could read that statement and suggest it is the NATO-old American complaint about a lack of European burden-sharing.  However, to be properly understood the statement should rather be read against the back-drop of the new strategic context in which NSS 2017 is set and to which NSS 2017 responds. In a sense NSS 2017 is pleading with America’s European allies to finally get serious about defence.  The danger is that Europeans misread that message for America’s need for help is Europe’s new reality Trump or no Trump.  Sadly, experience suggests most Europeans will demur because President Trump too often provides an alibi for too many Europeans NOT to be serious about defence. Put simply, America needs ‘Europe’ to be serious about defence if America is to maintain the security guarantee it has afforded Europe since 1945.

America’s new strategic realism is reinforced by the use of the term Indo-Pacific in NSS 2017, rather than the more usual Asia-Pacific.  Read between the lines and it is self-evident that America also needs the support of all of its allies in Asia-Pacific if it is to maintain the power status quo and thus the security guarantee that Washington has ensured and assured since 1945.  The suggestion therein also implies a possible new strategic partnership with India. A latter day Anglo-Japanese Alliance?
It is Strategy, Stupid!

A clue to the real purpose and utility of NSS 2017 is in the name. It is a strategy. Not only is it a strategy, it is American grand strategy – the application of still immense US national means in pursuit of the highest of strategic ends via a host of considered ways.  As such NSS 2017 is meant to signal to those responsible for its implementation that the White House understands the challenge and will support them with the necessary tools to do the job.  NSS 2017 also sends a message to the allies about the scope, nature and limits of America’s commitment to them. Critically, NSS 2017 also implies a disciplined approach to the application of American power. However, NSS 2017 will only work as strategy if the Commander-in-Chief has the discipline, consistency and commitment to infuse its prescriptions and actions with political credibility. 
This is certainly not a moment for America to be a strategic flake.  Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff is not a man prone to exaggeration but he is worried.  In an interview on 2 January in This Week Mullen said two things that reveal American concerns and one of which should concern the European allies more than it does.  First, Mullen warned that, “We are actually closer…to a nuclear war with North Korea and in the region than we have ever been”.  Second, he said that President Trump’s first year has been “incredibly disruptive”. 

Making America Great Again?

Implicit in NSS 2017 is an American nightmare I have been warning of for some time: simultaneous crises in Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Europe that places an already over-stretched American diplomatic and military instruments under unbearable pressure.  If Russian aggression is to be deterred, if Chinese expansionism prevented, and Islamist ideology countered then America will need help.  In other words, implicit in NSS 2017 is an end to the ‘Americans will always be there’ school of thought that has endured amongst allies the world over since 1945. NSS 2017 is thus in part an American call to arms to liberal democracies the world-over. Or, to put NSS 2017 a la mode, America will only be great again with the help of friends.

THAT is the real message of the US National Security Strategy of December 2017. Europe? It is time for delusional Europeans to wake up and smell America’s realist coffee!

Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The Oxford Historian and the Biggar Picture

“The “Ethics and Empire” project asks the wrong questions, using the wrong terms, and for the wrong purposes. However seriously intended, far from offering greater nuance and complexity, Biggar’s approach is too polemical and simplistic to be taken seriously”.

Open Letter from 58 Oxford historians criticising Professor Nigel Biggar.

Alphen, Netherlands. 27 December. Whatever happened to academic rigour and the disciplined professionalism to consider historical evidence from many angles?

On the face it the argument between Professor Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology and some of my fellow Oxford historians over the frame of reference for the study of the British Empire is a storm in a Queen’s Lane Coffee House tea-cup.  In an article that appeared in The Times newspaper Biggar, according to his critics, had the temerity to suggest that the British Empire was not all bad. By way of response a host of Oxford historians penned an open letter of complaint in which they imply Biggar is a right-wing racist bigot for even suggesting such heresy. This is an important argument that is not only deeply political, but goes to the very core of why we study history, and the danger posed by the growing intolerance of the academic political Left.

The attack on Biggar presents itself as being apolitical. It is anything but. Rather, it is yet another example of an attempt by the political Left to dominate British university discourse and to prevent dissent through public intimidation.  By publishing an open letter in The Conversation attacking Professor Biggar and his course Ethics and Empire the aim of these ‘historians’ is clearly to whip up another of those ‘snowflake’ storms of outrage which have become all the rage amongst left-wing academics.
The key political phrase in the letter is this: “For many of us, and more importantly for our students, they also reinforce a pervasive sense that contemporary inequalities in access to and experience at our university are underpinned by a complacent, even celebratory, attitude towards its [Britain’s] imperial past”. The basic premise here is that because the British Empire was intrinsically evil Britain must bear guilt and because Britain must bear guilt it forfeits the right to a national interest. Britain must thus atone for its past ‘evils’ by using what power it has to support others, even if that is at the expense of itself and its own people. The key phrase is “…our students”. By that they certainly do not mean the whole student body but simply those activist students who share their dogmatic, leftist views? What pretentious, pompous twaddle.

The letter goes on, “Good and evil may be meaningful terms of analysis for theologians. They are useless to historians”.  And yet ‘good’ and evil’ as a basis for understanding the British Empire is precisely what these ‘historians’ are trying to impose on the rest of us.  In fact, Biggar takes a morally neutral position in his work precisely to enable a more nuanced study of the British Empire, who and why it was created and how it evolved over some four hundred years. By attacking Biggar in the manner and tone they adopt his detractors simply reveal themselves to be politically-motivated and intolerant and consequently fail as Oxford historians.  Worse, by applying their own left-wing framework of political reference to the actions of people over four hundred years they negate of the very art of the historian by imposing their values on past actions.  As a result, they reduce the moral and ethical narrative of the entirety of the British Empire to a ‘simple’ and absurd equation; the abolition of slavery by the second Empire versus the Amritsar massacre and the Tasmanian genocide, both of which were terrible events, one of which was ordered by a very poor general and which was deemed appalling even by the standards of his day.

The letter also states that, “Biggar sets up a caricature in place of an antagonist: an allegedly prevailing orthodoxy that “imperialism is wicked”. His project’s declared aim is to uncover a more complex reality, whose “positive aspects” dispassionate scholarship can reveal. This is nonsense. No historian (or, as far as we know, any cultural critic or postcolonial theorist) argues simply that imperialism was “wicked””. And yet the letter clearly implies that for the letter’s authors the British Empire was utterly wicked.

The letter goes on, “We welcome continued, open, critical engagement in the ongoing reassessment of the histories of empire and their legacies both in Britain and elsewhere in the world. We have never believed it is sufficient to dismiss imperialism as simply “wicked”. Nor do we believe it can or should be rehabilitated because some of it was “good””. Really? There is no evidence I can see from Professor Biggar’s work that he is endeavouring to ‘rehabilitate’ the British Empire, nor is it the role of the professional historian or theologian to ‘rehabilitate’ anyone or anything.

Why does this dispute matter? The politicisation of history in British universities is more than an academic dispute. It is about political power and the very purpose of universities. Some Oxford historians go on to enjoy glittering careers in politics and the civil service. If their world-view is shaped by those who believe contemporary British policy should be shackled by guilt Britain will decline even further and even faster than it is now. As for the purpose of British universities the danger exists that they will simply espouse a political mono-culture, much like Russian universities from Lenin to Putin.

What are the implications of such political intolerance? A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by a leading academic in a top department at a well-respected British university who invited me to apply for a professorial chair.  As you might expect I was honoured but after due consideration decided not to apply.  Now, many of you who read my scribblings know I am no snowflake.  Indeed, I like and welcome robust debate.  Moreover, I do not characterize myself as either a progressive or a conservative, but rather both. Unfortunately, British universities are no longer places where such debate can take place and the academics who scribed the letter simply demonstrate the intolerant refusal to debate that so concerns me. Worse, some British universities are beginning to take on the appearance of state-funded ‘re-education camps’ in which people who do not conform to a political mono-culture are shouted down by the self-important and self-righteous.  If people of my robustness are being deterred from applying for posts, I can assure you that many others are also so deterred.

Why is an open-minded study of the British Empire important?  Many years ago I was invited to lunch in New Delhi. Present at the lunch was a mix of British and Indian officials and academics.  The British (yours truly accepted), determined to uphold the longest apology in history and which is doing so much to suck the life out of Britain’s contemporary strategic mojo, were in full ‘don’t mention the Raj accept to say sorry’ mode.  My line was provocatively different.  India, I said, is an emerging Great Power, Britain is still a power to be reckoned with and there is much we can and should do together.  After several bouts of British official tut-tutting an old Indian lady suddenly averred, “You know things were better here when the British were in charge, but it was right the British left”. 

The British Empire was of its age, and over four hundred years it did a lot of good and a lot of bad when viewed through a contemporary lens. When it was over it was right that it was over.  Indeed, as a contemporary Oxford historian my historically-informed political view is that people should always aspire to the freedom to screw up their own countries.  Here, Britain is again leading the world.

The study of history will always be to an extent political, and there have been well-documented contentions between Oxford historians for centuries that attest to the politics of historical study. However, it is, at best, poor tradecraft to apply the political values of one dogmatic group today to the actions of another group centuries ago. Yes, the study of history must also always be challenging.  At the same time the study of history must always, by definition, seek balance, because a lack of balance leads to the over-politicisation of history and results in abominations, such as Holocaust denial.  Indeed, the problem of politicised history is not solely one of the political Left. The political Right also poses a threat to the study of history by too often championing and exaggerating the supposed actions of the past to maintain historical myths that in turn enable nostalgia as the basis for policy.  Both are wrong and Biggar, it seems to me, is right to challenge both camps to put down the mega-phones and again embrace respectful debate.

It is also a privilege to be a professional Oxford historian. If they do nothing else this group of dons and fellows should aspire to be the guardians of historiography and the art and craft of the professional historian. At the very least that means up-putting with research and topics for research they might find objectionable, if the methodology is sound. Rather, the tone and substance of the attack on Professor Biggar reveals a group of Oxford historians have not only lost balance in seeking to impose a contemporary political agenda on the study of history, they have also failed in their duty as professional Oxford historians and let down their students.

The joy of being a historian is the search for evidence and the debate it engenders. The discipline of the historian is to suppress one’s own prejudices in an attempt to understand the ‘then’ contemporaneous relationship between cause and effect.  Discipline, open-mindedness and tolerance are thus vital because history is always essentially political because so much of it is about power. However, what really saddens me about this latest bout tale of academic mud-slinging is the questionable quality of some of the people at my own university who purport to be professional Oxford historians.

The British Empire lasted a very long time and was subject to many motivations, changes and events. There were also, in effect, two British empires. The first empire was indeed acquisitive and rapacious and began with the arrival of English in India in 1583 and English and Scottish settlers in North America in 1607, and ended with the American Revolution in 1776.  The second empire was constructed after 1815 and Britain’s victory in the Napoleonic Wars, the establishment of British Crown Rule in India in 1858, and was then ‘de-constructed’ (to use academic speak) between 1947 and the late 1960s, with some remnants still extant.  The difference between the two empires was enormous mainly because Britain itself changed and evolved. Thus, the British empires are very much worthy of study, and very much worthy of study through a moral and ethical lens, and it thus very hard to see how such a ‘project’ can ask the wrong questions, using the wrong terms, and for the wrong purposes.

Ultimately, the study of history is about the simple search for ‘truth’ via evidence and respectful debate designed to hone the focus of analysis on events, their causes and consequences.  Ironically, Biggar, who is not an historian, is reminding some Oxford historians that the study of history should first and foremost be conducted without fear or favour. 

Press on, Professor Biggar. Ignore this bout of politically-motivated bullying and remember, not all Oxford historians are against you.

Julian Lindley-French

Monday, 18 December 2017

Julian’s Christmas Carol: Europe’s ‘Army’, PESCO & Britain’s Super Opt-Out

“After visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, Scrooge most fears the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. When he sees what this spirit has to show him, Scrooge begs to know whether the course of events can be changed: "Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead," said Scrooge. "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!"
Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol

Alphen, Netherlands. 18 December.  It must be Christmas!  The Brexit Twitter Fairies are about. This week I have been assailed for daring to suggest that last week’s European Council decision to proceed with PESCO doth not a European Army make.  One Twitter assailant went as far as to suggest that ALL of Europe’s armed forces will soon be under the command of the President of the European Commission.  This is a Dickens of a vision; Jean-Claude Cognac’s addled finger on the ‘European’ nuclear button after a particularly bibulous Christmas breakfast. It is enough to invoke the Ghost of Apocalypses Past, Present, and feared for future.  The problem with PESCO is that it is now hopelessly entangled in Britain with Brexit (as is everything else these days).  Or, to put it another way, the EU’s not-really Army is now tied up with Britain’s not-quite Brexit. You see, Brexit at its extremes (which is all we tend to get) is now a quintessential struggle between Hard Remoaners and their vision of an EU that would afford perpetual prosperity but only if citizens willingly sacrifice liberty and sovereignty, against Hard Brexiteers who promise unfettered British sovereignty and liberty but only at the profound risk of national prosperity.  This explains the building sense of betrayal amongst those who dreamed of HMS Britannia setting sail again into distant geopolitics unfettered by Holy Brussels bulls and bureaucrats. So, after two weeks of divorce and defence where is Britain and ‘Europe’? Let me try and disentangle Brexit from PESCO in an attempt to make some sense of both.


Hard Remoaners and Hard Brexiteers are wrong.  Britain is not really going to ‘leave’ the EU as currently constituted, and will always to some extent orbit around the EU, if for no other reason than that is how power works.  This not-quite Brexit was admitted to this week by none other than Chancellor Philip Hammond, the City of London’s Anointed Representative on Earth, who suggested that a not-quite post-Brexit ‘transition period’ would last ‘at least’ two years. In other words, for ‘at least’ two years Britain, as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson suggested, would be little more than a vassal state or colony of the EU, subject to its rules but with no say over them.  Thereafter?  There is no such thing as complete sovereignty in this world for any state that deems itself part of the Western institutional system, even the mighty United States.

So, is a not-quite Brexit even worth a McCawber (read your Dickens!)? Well, yes. Remember the 1992 Maastricht Treaty (what eventually became the 1993 Treaty of European Union)?  Britain, after another particularly rancorous domestic debate over ‘Europe’, eventually engineered an opt-out from the so-called Social Chapter, and in so doing established a political and legal precedent for British political and legal exceptionalism.  It is happening again as so-called ‘convergers’ battle within Theresa May’s wonky Cabinet with so-called ‘divergers’.
In other words, it is becoming increasingly clear that the aim of May’s Brexit is not some political divorce decree absolute, but rather as a super opt out from a possible future, more politically, economically and security-integrated EU.  In other words, the Brexit May is offering is deeply unappealing to Hard Brexiteers when they look at today’s EU, but inevitably Britain will diverge politically from an EU that could well go to a political place Britain was never going to go.  Indeed, it is the EU that in future will and probably must diverge politically from the UK if its institutions are to be made to work.

Last week’s defeat of the British Government over the supremacy of Parliament hinted at this future divergence and where the law of the land must ultimately reside.  Enshrined at the heart of the EU is a Richelieu-esque principle against which the English once fought a civil war and the Americans fought a revolution; that distant, bureaucratic executive power over which citizens have no direct say and which enshrined in hybrid treaties that straddle domestic and international law are supreme over national democratic institutions.  Parliament has dimmed over the years as it rubber-stamped itself out of supremacy by passing sovereignty to Brussels. If sovereignty is to be repatriated it is Parliament, not the Executive which must be supreme.


PESCO, or permanent structured co-operation, is some great leap forward on the road to a United States of Europe, whatever Martin Schulz the deluded leader of Germany’s SPD might claim.  However, if properly funded it could become an important step towards more effective and efficient European armed forces, to which Britain’s still powerful armed forces will choose its relationship.  I say ‘powerful’, Britain’s armed forces will soon cease to be so if Spreadsheet Philip ‘City’ Hammond and his mates at the Treasury continue to destroy Britain’s armed forces in their hard-line ideological pursuit of sound money. Vladimir Hammond? The weaker militarily Britain chooses to become the stronger militarily Britain makes a weak Russia.

Yes, the language of PESCO, with its hints of a sometime European Defence Union does indeed smack at time of the federalist ambitions beloved of the Brussels Euro-Aristocracy. Then again every single EU document since the 1950 European Coal and Steel Community has included such Monnet-esque verbiage.  In fact, in defence terms PESCO’s provisions are surprisingly and dangerously modest.  The real problem with PESCO is that it simply the Ghost of European Defence Past re-packaged by people not very serious about defence.  Yes, seventeen projects across a sweep of mainly combat support services will help alleviate some desperately dangerous lacunae in Europe’s military capabilities and capabilities. Yes, the idea of national implementation plans are useful, although as with NATO’s Defence Planning Process there is no enforcer to ensure compliance. Yes, the European Defence Fund, the European Defence Industrial Development Programme and the Athena Mechanism for financing common costs of EU military missions and operations are to be welcomed. 

However, the level of strategic and political ambition implicit in PESCO simply does not match the seriousness of the threat implicit and explicit in the 360 degree security environment in which Europeans reside. To put PESCO in perspective at €5bn per year until 2020, and then €500m per year thereafter, the European Defence Fund would just about pay for one and a half new British aircraft carriers. Indeed, perhaps the most important thing to come out of PESCO is the agreement to create a ‘military Schengen’ to aid enhanced military mobility in the event on an emergency. And, Dublin’s final and irrevocable, albeit backdoor abandonment of any pretence that Ireland is a neutral country.

So, if I act as a translator of EU-speak, a role for which I am particularly well-versed, what PESCO really means in plain, Yorkshire English is thus:

Although at the 2014 NATO Wales Summit most of us signed up to spending 2% GDP on defence by 2024, of which 20% must be spent each year on new equipment, we did not actually mean it.  We did so because the Yanks were going through one of their every-now-and-then tantrums about low European defence spending and the unfair sharing of burdens. In any case we knew President Obama was already by then political toast and it made David Cameron look ever so slightly in power as well as in office.  Many of us also no longer believe there really is a world beyond the EU and therefore need not bother with it, but still need the Yank taxpayer to defend us just in case President Putin and his mates imbibe a bit too much Yuletide Stolichnaya. So, PESCO gives us a get out of Wales free card by letting us pretend we are serious about defence by restating that old roasted defence Christmas chestnut that we will do ever more defending with ever less money, by also pretending we really are going to integrate what is left of our armed forces.  We then enshrine it one of those pre-Christmas, post-champagne EU summits by giving an old lower case concept – permanent structured co-operation – a new upper case acronym – PESCO. We then all drive home for Christmas having convinced ourselves that words mean action and therefore must be true and we open some Christmas crackers to find one of those terrible European jokes.  When is defence not defence? When it has gone all a-PESCO.

Brexit and PESCO

Europe’s hard defence reality will not be fixed by PESCO and must not be worsened by Brexit.  That reality is a stark one given growing US global military over-stretch, the growing threats Europeans face, and the fact that the UK provides 25% of all European defence investment, 30% of all defence research technology, and 35% of all high-end deployable European combat forces (the Royal Marines Mr Hammond?). Europe’s massive defence deficit will only stand a chance of being closed if Britain continues to play a full role in the defence of Europe and Europeans finally get really serious about hard power and how to generate it.
In other words, Europe needs more PESCO not less, and it poses no threat to NATO because unless the US is going to replace the UK in the EU the Alliance will remain the supreme purveyor of defence for Europe unless and until the Americans finally become so fed up with free-riding Europeans they tell the Allies to take a strategic hike.  Then and only then could something like PESCO become a precursor for some kind of European Army, and only if Brussels really is the capital of a country called ‘Europe’. Why? Because a European Army would need a European Government if it was ever to be used. Not only is ‘Europe’ a very long way from creating such a country, read PESCO properly (so few do) and it is clear that for the indefinite future Europe’s armed forces will remain under the command of the member-states and the governments and parliaments that rule them and most decidedly not the European Commission.

Europe’s ‘Army’, PESCO & Britain’s Super Opt-Out

Perhaps the most sensible commentary I read this week came from my friend Ambassador Stefano Stefanini, the former Italian Permanent Representative to NATO, and Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, head of the Munich Security Conference and former German Ambassador to the United States.  In a piece last week that appeared in both La Stampa and on the website of the Munich Security Conference, entitled “There is More at Stake in Brexit than Trade”, the two ambassadors injected a note of realism into the Brexit/PESCO debate.  For both sides of the Channel a simple reality check will make it obvious. Between 25 and 30% of overall EU military capabilities fly the Union Jack: it is too little for the UK to stand alone; it is too much for the EU to do without. In times of shifting geopolitics, growing and multiple threats, and budget constraints, London should not delude itself and Brussels should not be in denial. European security of course will continue relying on NATO, with the UK's full participation, but there are and there will be operations carried out by European forces only, for instance in Africa or in the Mediterranean. London is hinting at supporting a credible European defence structure and capabilities, as long as they do not amount to "vanity fair". In exchange we believe that the UK should get a comprehensive and generous offer from the EU to be associated with it, including access to the European Defence Fund and to the EU Defence Industrial Development Programme.

So, Brexiteers, calm down there will be no European Army, no Supreme Commander Cognac…and no European defence without Britain. Remoaners? Buy a bloody atlas!

Merry Christmas!

Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Frozen Harmel?

“…the Alliance is a dynamic and vigorous organisation which is constantly adapting itself to changing conditions. Given such changes people in NATO societies want action/protection and not seeing it. It has also shown that its future tasks can be handled within the terms of the Treaty [of Washington] by building on the methods and procedures which have proved their value over many years”.
Report of the Council on the Future Tasks of the Alliance, 13 December 1967

Alphen, Netherlands. 13 December. If the Netherlands had a slope it would be sliding ‘slippererily’ down it!  Right now I should be in Stockholm having addressed a joint Atlantic Council-Konrad Adenauer Stiftung event on security in the North Atlantic and Arctic. Instead, I was trapped at home, KLM cancelled my flight, and the Netherlands declared ‘Code Red” due to snow. My apologies to my friend Anna Wieslander at the Atlantic Council.  So, by way of very limited recompense here are my remarks that in the end I made by Skype. 

Fifty years ago Pierre Harmel published his seminal report, “The Future Tasks of the Alliance”. The report was based on a dual-track approach – sound defence and engaged dialogue – to deter the Soviet Union whilst talking to it.  Dealing with Russia in the North Atlantic and the Arctic will require a similar approach, a new Northern Dual Track. Indeed, because whilst Russia signals co-operation at times, particularly in the Arctic, it is also developing military capabilities which means if Moscow’s intent changes NATO allies and EU member-states in the region could very quickly face an overtly hostile Russia.  Credibly deterring Moscow from crossing such a threshold must be our collective aim, and by so doing convince President Putin of the mutual benefits of co-operation across the region.

My core message is this; security in the Arctic sits perilously on the cusp between co-operation, competition and conflict; between regimes and treaties and force majeure; and between legitimacy and legalism and a Realpolitik sphere of influence. EU and NATO together must develop sufficient hard power in the region to ensure soft power prevails as the modus operandi of co-operation with Russia.

Anna posed four questions for this session which I will endeavour to answer:

1)   What is at stake in the North Atlantic and what should be our response in order to increase security?

The keyword is deterrence.  I worry about Russian ambitions on Norway’s North Cape because of what it would mean for the Russian Northern Fleet to control it, and the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap. Therefore, with the United States Navy (USN) stretched thin the world over ‘credible deterrence’ would mean an essentially European Naval Joint Expeditionary Force at least able to match that of Russia.

2)   How does Climate Change affect security operations in the Arctic?

Moscow clearly thinks a new Northern Sea Passage could open up shortening the sea route between Europe and Asia by some 3000 nautical miles, with much of it along Russia’s northern coast.  Russia would naturally seek to control that trade. However, even if some scientists suggest the Arctic ice cap is melting far more quickly than envisaged many suggests it could still be 30 years before such a route opens up.  In any case, there could, in time, be as many as four such routes across the Pole. 
Either way, Russia seems to have ambitions to see much of the Arctic under its sphere of influence which is why we must collectively resist such a goal.  Specifically, the EU and NATO together must ensure current relationships are locked into regimes, treaties and institutions so that they remain the mechanisms for resolving what look like inevitable future disputes over sea-lines of communications and natural resources.

3)   Does it continue to make sense to view the North Atlantic and Arctic as two separate areas?

In a sense the EU and NATO are forced to as long as Russia is willing to co-operate in the Arctic, but competes in the North Atlantic.  The real challenge for the Allies and Partners in the region will be to get non-regional NATO and EU members to take the Russian threat in the ‘High North’ seriously.  Too many eastern allies look east, southern allies look south, ne’er the twain ever meet, and very few look north.  The UK? God knows where London looks these days. The real question is what will the EU and NATO do if and when Russia tries to exert unreasonable influence over either the Arctic or the North Atlantic, or both.

4)   What are Russian strategic concerns and perspectives?

-      Political: Part of Moscow’s strategy is simply to keep EU and NATO states politically and          permanently off-balance and the on strategic back-foot around its extensive periphery from Syria    to Svalbard.
-      Economic-domestic: Russia, dangerously to my mind, too often sees Arctic resources as a ‘one     shot’ chance to avoid much-needed economic reforms, and as a ‘silver bullet’ to solve all of its    economic contradictions.
-      Military-Operational: It is vital to Moscow that the Northern Fleet can ingress and egress between North Cape and Bear Island without detection or molestation the main fleet base at Severomorsk and the secondary base at Kola and maintain the nuclear launch ‘bastion’ for the one Typhoon-class SSBN currently operating there (Dmitriy Donskoy), the seven ageing Delta IV-class ‘boomers’ and the one new Borei-class boat.  There are more Borei-class SSBN boats planned.
-  Military-Strategic: It is also vital to Moscow that the Northern Fleet bases can operate as springboards for offensive maritime-amphibious-land ops across the Arctic, Baltic and North Atlantic regions to assert Russian interests and claims, to intimidate and if needs be to seize.

To conclude, we Europeans are very good at talking these days, but very poor at defending. Therefore, NATO must re-kindle Harmel in the High North (Frozen Harmel?) and in conjunction with the EU. To that end, it was encouraging to see some progress made this week on enhancing the EU-NATO strategic partnership at the NATO Ministerial. Peace through legitimate and realistic strength must be purposely allied to engaged dialogue with Russia.  Indeed, whilst we must never stop talking, we must never stop defending.

Now, where’s that bloody snow shovel?\

Julian Lindley-French