hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 25 May 2017

President Trump, the DIP, and NATO BS

Bratislava, Slovakia. 25 May. I have just arrived from Brussels at the superb GLOBSEC conference here in Bratislava. Back in Brussels President Trump is about to speak BS (burden-sharing) over dinner to other NATO leaders. He needs to. A slithering sound can be heard in Brussels these days. It is the sound of several NATO nations sliding out of the so-called Defence Investment Pledge or DIP. What would be an acceptable burden-sharing ratio for the Americans, and how much will the European Allies likely stump up? 
In an ‘ideal’ world the Americans would want their European Allies to field forces that could match at least 50% of US military capability. After all, NATO is part of both European and world security which is ‘guaranteed’ by the sole superpower – the US. It is a vital European interest to keep the US strong where it needs to be.  And yet, whilst the Americans today provide 68.8% of all NATO-assigned forces, the US GDP represents only 48% of the NATO GDP total. Political realism suggests that it will be a push for Europeans to provide even 50% of the US forces that are committed solely to the Alliance.

NATO officials make much these days of the Defence Investment Pledge of at least 2% GDP to be spent on defence by 2024, of which 20% should be spent on the acquisition of new equipment. This benchmark is important for the Alliance. Indeed, if Europeans met the ‘DIP’ it would mean an extra $100bn each year for NATO. On Dutch TV this week, the Belgian Defence Minister said that under no circumstances could he envisage Belgium spending 2% GDP on defence. Which raises a further point; are any of the commitments made by NATO’s Allies worth the price of the pigment they are no doubt written on?
 ‘The Meeting’, as today’s mini-summit is euphemistically called by senior NATO officials, follows hard on yesterday’s publication of the new US defence budget, which saw big hikes in some future critical areas, such as cyber. The US defence budget sends two messages to Europeans. First, the US will continue to fund the defence of Europe for the time-being at least. Second, the future US force envisaged could soon be too technologically-advanced for many European armed forces to work with, particularly at the high-end of the conflict spectrum. ‘The Meeting’ also follows hard on the Manchester atrocity, something British Prime Minister May will drive home, no doubt in tandem with President Trump (but only after giving Trump a firm wigging about Washington leaking British intelligence to the American press). Expect NATO to at least promise to expand its role in counter-terrorism, and become a formal member of the Global Coalition against ISIL.   

President Trump will drive particularly hard on what I call NATO’s 3Cs – cash, capabilities, and contributions. And, no doubt, those many Europeans not spending enough on defence will seek to reassure him by suggesting the lack of cash does not imply a paucity of contribution. After all, the defence budgets of most European Allies have at least stopped falling, and some even show modest signs of modest increases. To use a technical term well known to Yorkshire diplomacy, this is bollocks! 
The spending devil will, as ever, be in the NATO detail. NATO is an institution that is ruled by consensus which means for political reasons no Ally can be seen to fail to meet its commitments. This supreme NATO political rule is reinforced by the nature of both the 3Cs and the NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP). Improvements to the NDPP have indeed been made, and the system is far more rigorous that it once was when European defence spending commitments were in fact great works of European fiction. However, there are still times when a better acronym for the NDPP would be FUDGE.  

Yes, the Allies will today agree to provide annual national reports to demonstrate their progress towards the 2%/20% targets. And yes, those that fail will receive damning reports on their performance, or rather lack of it, that it is hoped will shame them into action. However, in my experience European politicians can cope with an awful lot of shame within NATO, if they believe paying for social welfare instead of defence will get them re-elected at home.
The European Allies should be under no illusion; business as free-riding usual is simply no longer possible for the Americans. Burden-sharing is not simply about cash, capabilities and commitments. It is also about sharing the benefits of Alliance. Last month I was in the White House where I spoke to a senior member of the Administration. During that trip I also spoke with senior Democrats. In other words, Europeans, no more benefits without more defence.

European leaders must not for a moment believe that if they can outlast President Trump Europe can somehow return to Sleepy Hollow and the Americans will continue to defend them. Times really are a-changing and an over-stretched US vitally needs strong Allies, and the Allies vitally need a strong US. Even the ‘2%’ target is something of an anomaly. By setting such an arbitrary target many Europeans have in effect stopped analysing the threats against which they must defend, setting the priorities they must keep, and making the hard choices strategic judgement demands of them.      
My fear is that Trump will not be the only one speaking BS in Brussels today! Tweet anyone?

Julian Lindley-French

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The Donald of Arabia?

“There are today essentially four options for Western policy [in the Middle East]: to do nothing; to engage with others in humanitarian relief; to construct a coalition of allies and partners for short-term intervention in Syria; or to construct a coalition of allies and partners for long-term intervention more widely”.
The New Geopolitics of Terror: Demons and Dragons
William Hopkinson and Julian Lindley-French (Routledge, January 2017)

Alphen, Netherlands. 20 May. Another day, another press storm. President Donald J. Trump has just arrived in Saudi Arabia for his first official foreign foray. As he stepped off Air Force One in Riyadh he was hunted by the press pack over his alleged description of sacked FBI Director James Comey as a “nut job”, during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Indeed, one could be forgiven watching CNN or the BBC for thinking this trip is of secondary importance. It is not. The de facto disengagement of President Obama from the Middle East helped create a regional-strategic vacuum that Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Iran and Russia have sought to fill. President Trump’s visit will thus raise expectations that the Administration is about to embark on a new Middle Eastern strategy. What are the strategic options open to the Americans?

Trump certainly wants to convey a sense that the US is re-engaging in the Middle East, and that Saudi Arabia remains a vital US ally. In Riyadh President Trump will pay an official visit to His Majesty King Salman bin Abdulaziz, and His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as well as meet the leaders of the Gulf States.  At the same time, the President also wants to showcase his America First by closing a new arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth $100bn to the US, and possibly as much as $300bn over ten years. Given the controversial Saudi leadership of an Arab coalition in attacks on Houthi rebels in Yemen, such a deal will be politically sensitive to say the least. Critically, both the Americans and the Saudis want to send a message to the Iranians about reinvigorated US leadership in the region to counter Iranian action in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. And, even if nothing is said publicly, President Trump will doubtless seek to buttress the security of Israel by pointing out to the Saudis (to loosely paraphrase Machiavelli) that the sworn enemy of Iran is in some way Riyadh’s ‘friend’.

President Trump will also emphasise his Administration’s focus on counter-terrorism by attending a conference at which leaders from forty Muslim states will discuss how to combat violent extremism. Trump will offer US support for all Muslim leaders willing to engage and destroy Salafist Jihadis. President Trump’s position is not without risk as Saudi Arabia is the spiritual homeland of Modernist Salafism from which Sunni Islamists draw their inspiration.

President Trump will need to properly grasp the complexity of the strategic choices the US faces in the Middle East, the costs it will impose, the policy consistency over time it will demand of Washington, and the set-backs it will undoubtedly face. In my latest book, The New Geopolitics of Terror: Demons and Dragons, which is of course brilliant and very reasonably priced, my friend and colleague William Hopkinson and I chart the recent history of failed contemporary Western strategy in the Middle East, the consequences of that failure, and the stark choices on offer to the US and its allies.

There are roughly four strategic options. First, the US could do next to nothing, which might save American lives in the short-term, but will leave a dangerous and chronically-instable region to fester and open to the interference of other outside actors. Second, the US could focus on the delivering of the kind of conscience-salving humanitarian relief beloved of Europeans, but avoid getting engaged in political strategy. Third, the US could seek to strengthen the Coalition against ISIL so that it is better equipped to attack Islamic State, and maybe better able to influence events in Syria, but avoid a region-wide strategy.

However, if President Trump really does want the Middle East to live at peace with itself and others then the US will need to consider a plan of engagement for the entire Middle East and North Africa. That aim will, in turn, need the Trump administration to realise a fundamental political truism in the Middle East: the state therein exists at the pleasure of Islam, but Islam most certainly does not exist at the pleasure of states. Or, to put it another way, ‘successful’ American strategy in the Middle East will be dependent upon a new accommodation with Islam. 
There is also a profound paradox in the US position that Washington will also need to address. States like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have bought off internal Islamist opposition by using oil and gas revenues to fund the expansion of fundamentalist Islam across the world. As America becomes self-sufficient in oil, and as other reserves of hydrocarbons are discovered the income, which has for decades enabled regimes in the Middle East to avoid reform, will decline, and with it what limited stability that today exists.

The Middle East is in need of deep reform and real US strategy will need to reflect that need.  Profound reforms are need in governance and government across the region, as well as society-changing investments in education and employment that will take billions of dollars over many years to realise. Yes, much of that investment could come from the region itself. However, the paradox of such change is that it will undoubtedly undermine the very leaders that President Trump will meet this weekend.

Perhaps the real test for President Trump will be to separate his own narrow, domestic political and business interests, from the foreign and security policy of the great country he now leads.  The President would do well to heed the words of T.E. Lawrence, who knew a thing or two about Western failure in the region. “The foreigners come out here [Arabia] always to teach, whereas they had much better learn, for, in everything but wits and knowledge, the Arab is generally the better man of the two”.
As President Trump drives into Riyadh he will pass under a huge banner which reads, “Together We Prevail”. I wonder.

Julian Lindley-French

Monday, 15 May 2017

Herman Kahn and the New Escalation Ladder

“It is immoral from almost any point of view to refuse to defend yourself and others from very grave and terrible threats, even if there are limits to the means that can be used in such defense”.
Herman Kahn

Alphen, Netherlands. 15 May. Herman Kahn was in many ways the doyen of nuclear strategy from the 1950s onward. His book On Escalation, charted the journey up an escalation ladder from peace to annihilation, from political tension to all-out nuclear war, and the choices states would need to make to realise mutually assured destruction. Kahn’s ladder had many rungs that began with the analysis of a threat on the bottom-rung of tension, climbed through political decision-making, on through diplomatic engagement and crisis management, and finally reached its ghastly zenith with military action and eventual mass destruction. Much of Kahn’s focus was on the escalation from conventional military force to nuclear war. Given that focus I wonder what Kahn would have made of Friday’s massive ransomware attack, and to what extent would he have modified his escalation ladder?

My point is this; the development of information and cyber warfare represent to my mind new rungs on the escalation ladder. Today, analysis and political decision-making must contend with, and adapt to, new forms of coercion centred on the three twenty-first century strategic continuums. These are the balance a state or an alliance must strike between protection and projection; the relationship between hard and soft power during escalation; and the complex relationship that now exists between mass disruption and mass destruction.

Friday’s cyber-attack reinforces the creeping understanding that security and defence in this century must demand a much clearer, and frankly much larger, grand strategic continuum that exists between the protection of society and the projection of influence and power. To a significant extent Kahn viewed the distinction between protection and projection as precisely that; a distinction. In other words, for Kahn the civilian domain mattered in thermonuclear war only in the sense that ‘victory’ would be afforded the side that somehow preserved remnants of government, governance, and civil society in the wake of a strategic nuclear exchange. There would be no winners.

Today, that distinction has become a continuum. A state would be unlikely to be able to wield to policy effect all the instruments of its offensive power if its home base is sorely vulnerable to penetration by criminals, terrorists or states alike, possibly in tandem. This insight necessarily changes the very nature of the relationship between security and defence in the twenty-first century, especially given the move towards so-called hyper-war. Hyper-war would be the first truly total war in which no element of, or person in a society would be safe. Possibly led by Artificial Intelligence (AI), such a war would witness Armageddon not only in the form of mushroom clouds, but with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminators roaming the planet, be it in the form of macro-systems or micro Nano-technologies! Ouch!

The Danteesque descent from peace to total war would likely witness a very different form of escalation ladder than Herman Kahn described. Today, there is a clear continuum established between the mass disruption that a concerted cyber-attack on critical infrastructures would trigger, and the mass destruction Kahn considered. That continuum demands of policy-makers and leaders a far better understanding of the messaging implicit in such attacks, and what range of responses and escalations they must make available, and the forces and resources needed to mount credible deterrence and a sound defence.

Russia is fast climbing the new escalation ladder. Moscow has traditionally emphasised the use of hard military power to exert influence beyond its borders. This is partly because the use of such power is hard-wired into the strategic DNA of the Kremlin and Moscow’s security power ministries.  It is also because traditionally Moscow has had little soft power available to exploit. Unlike Britain, for example, Russia does not speak English (at least not very well), did not give the world The Beatles, does not have the BBC, and its football (soccer) league is rubbish.

Moscow has created a new form of artificial soft power. Through the use of social media, allied to clever use of strategic disinformation and miscommunication organs, such as RT and Sputnik to sow systematic propaganda, Russia has reinforced its impressive offensive cyber capabilities and burgeoning military might.  It is a soft-hard power strategy that is also enacted from the very top of the Russian state.  In so doing Russia is demonstrating the ability of a relatively weak power (Russia’s economy in 2017 is less than half the size of the UK’s) to establish game-changing strategy using field-levelling technologies to exploit the weaknesses of ostensibly stronger adversaries, whilst offsetting what Moscow regards as their strengths.

Hybrid war is not distinct from peace and war, and is very much the junior partner of hyper war at the uber high-end of the conflict spectrum. As such, hybrid war must be seen as part of the new escalation ladder that now extends from peace, though uncertain instability, hybrid warfare, crisis mismanagement, limited conventional warfare, major conventional warfare, nuclear warfare, and ultimately hyper warfare.  In some important respects Kahn’s ladder has become a toolbox with all elements of all forms of warfare being used with different levels of intensity at all points of escalation.  Russia gave the world permanent revolution. It now offers continuous warfare.

Continuous warfare leaves Western leaders facing several dilemmas. How can they make Western society more resilient and yet remain open at one and the same time? Given the continuum that now exists between security and defence, and between criminality, terrorism, and enemy state action, just how should the total security spend be organised in pursuit of what security policy objectives? What balance of investments must be made between defence and offence, and between civilian and military tools and instruments?  Above all, can total war lead to total security and defence, and what price (in all its many forms) would Western society have to pay for such a defence?

Kahn once wrote, “The final outcome of benevolent, informed, and intelligent decisions may turn out to be disastrous. But choices must be made; dies must be cast”.  My sense is that Western leaders are a long way from reaching the informed bit as yet. Happy days!

Julian Lindley-French   

Tuesday, 9 May 2017


“How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?”
Charles de Gaulle

Steyning, England. 9 May. What will a Macron presidency mean for France, for Europe, and Brexit Britain? It seems strangely appropriate to be writing about the victory of French President-elect Emmanuel Macron not far from Hastings. Listening to some of Macron’s fierce anti-British rhetoric during the campaign one could be forgiven for thinking Britain might face another battle thereof; 1066 and all that! Still, a bit of ‘ros-bif frapping’ during an election campign in France, works just as well as frog-bashing over here. Theresa May is hard at it as well.

It is certainly a relief that Macron has seen off the challenge of the Rightist Marine Le Pen. She would have been Donald J. with ‘belles’ on if she had taken the Elys e. Thankfully, by winning some 66% of the second round vote Macron now has a decisive if strangely lacklustre majority behind him. He will need it. The challenges France faces are immense. The country is mired in debt, its banking system creaky at best, and it as divided a country as Britain is these days, if not more so.

If Macron means what he said about reforming France expect early fireworks. Le Pen accused Macron of being the harbinger of ‘globalisation sauvage’ beloved of ‘les méchants anglossaxons’. There is little evidence this alumnus of the ultra-elite ENA is that, but he does seem to recognise that if France is to be made fit for twenty-first century competitive purpose wholesale reform of the labour and finance markets must take place. This course will put him in direct confrontation (and early) with powerful vested interests, such as the union conglomerate the CGT and the other big four union conglomerates. In the past French presidents have repeatedly backed down in the face of their wrecking opposition to reform. It will be clear very quickly if Macron is really prepared to take on France’s deeply-rooted anti-reform blocs.

Another stern political challenge will be getting much of his programme through the ‘assemblée nationale’.  Given the very putative nature of ‘en marche’ the political party he created means it is unlikely to form a majority after June’s parliamentary elections. Ironically, the most likely allies for Macron could be the centre-right in the form of ‘les républicains’, at least younger Generation X members of parliament. The Old Guard on the centre-right, such as Juppé and Sarkozy despise Macron for denying them power which they had thought theirs by right after the disastrous Hollande years.  Perhaps Macron might seek to fashion some form of German-style Grosse Koalition or GroKo. It will not be easy.

Macron also wears his pro-EU leanings on his sleeve and has called for the rebirth of the Franco-German axis as the driving force behind deeper political and monetary union. He has also called for the EU to be ‘reformed’, but just how and in what direction is as yet unclear. Clearly, Macron will need to forge a substantive position on the EU and quickly, precisely because France is far more central to the Union than Britain ever was. The test could come relatively quickly. With the loss of Britain’s net 12% contribution to the EU budget would Macron really be willing to reduce the burden on the urban taxpayer of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidy?  The CAP continues to swallow 40% of the EU budget but French politicians and farmers view the CAP in much the same way the British Left see the National Health Service; an ancient holy relic that is above and beyond reform.

One thing Macron will have to resolve and quickly is the balance to be struck between further Europeanisation, globalisation and modernisation for and in France.  After all, Macron will not modernise France through the EU, which is simply protectionism writ large. One reason Brussels is so angry about Brexit is because the EU needs British taxpayer’s money for as long as possible to put off the ‘evil’ day when the consequence of the EU’s own inertia and the dark reality it hides finally bites.

In his dealings with Britain Macron will have to a choice to make – friend or foe? He will not be allowed to be a perfidious both. His campaign rhetoric on Brexit was aggressive to say the least, calling the vote to leave a ‘crime’ (so much for democracy). He is also calling for a ‘Europe First’ policy that would see British firms excluded from lucrative EU-backed large public projects, whilst expecting Britain to allow French firms to be able to compete for such projects in the UK.  Critically, he threatens to scrap the 2003 Le Touquet agreement which would in effect mean France passing onto Britain large numbers of illegal immigrants that should have been processed in France.

Macron will need to be careful because Britain is a top five world economic and military power, and a UN Security Council Permanent Member. If he seeks to burnish his pro-EU credentials by leading the charge toward a punishment Brexit he can say goodbye to the Franco-British strategic partnership nd he would damage NATO. It is obvious speaking to people round here the British people are up for a fight with echoes of 1940 clearly part of the mood. Britain and France need each other and Macron would be well advised to seek to act as friend of both London and Brussels so that a deal can be fashioned.

However, his greatest challenge will be to simply keep a Le Pen out of power in 2022.With the population of the Middle East and North Africa slated to double by 2050. And, with little suggestion that governance, economies of hope will improve to match such a population explosion France will be in the front-line of the coming immigration invasion. Emmanuel Macron, slayer of populism? Forget it!
Macron is young (39), acutely ambitious, and clearly very able. He will need to be given the agenda he inherits.   Reforming France, the EU, and maintaining good relations with Britain whilst trying to manage immigration, combat populism, and maintain the standing of Paris in Europe and the world is a Herculean task.

Macro-France or micro-France? Bon chance, M. Macron!
Julian Lindley-French               

Monday, 1 May 2017

Britain Must Not Sacrifice Defence for Aid

Alphen, Netherlands. 1 May. In 2017 Britain will be the world’s third biggest defence spender and second biggest aid donor. Indeed, according to IHS Janes Britain will in 2017 spend £54bn or $66bn on defence, whilst the British government’s own figures show that London will spend some £13bn or $17bn on aid and development. Hoorah!

And yet Britain’s defence budget is apparently again in crisis with some estimates suggesting Britain’s armed forces face a £20bn/$26bn funding gap between defence commitments and defence investment. This gap matters. The entire point of Britain’s defence strategy is to leverage the power of alliance and coalitions by acting as a leadership hub or ‘framework’ power in the worst-case event of multiple and simultaneous crises. Crises in which the US could suddenly find its armed forces stretched to the point that they could not deal effectively and quickly with each and every crisis.  Any further retreat from SDSR 2015 would destroy that strategy at a uniquely sensitive political moment. In other words, for all the fanfare about how much Britain spends on defence London does not in fact invest enough to meet all of its stated foreign, security and defence policy commitments.  Hence the short-term political attraction of a short-termist political retreat from strategy; London’s eternal curse. What is the cause of the crisis, what are the implications, and how can it be ‘fixed’?

The word is that after the June 8 general election Prime Minister May may well renege on key elements of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR 2015). Specifically, Britain’s commitment to create by 2024 a 50,000 strong war-fighting division could be further delayed or abandoned, as well as vital funding cut for the pivotal Joint Force Command. She could also decide to downsize the purchase of Apache attack helicopters, as well as the nine Boeing P8 maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) vital to the defence of both the nuclear deterrent, and the future deployed maritime/amphibious force.  Vitally, stocks of munitions essential to enable a war-fighting force to keep war-fighting are likely to be maintained at dangerously low levels for the unforeseeable future.

What are the causes of this crisis? The crisis has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the recent devaluation of the pound and the consequent dollar increase in the cost of equipment. However, at root the cause is the sleight of political hand London has consistently employed to pretend it spends 2% GDP on defence to meet the NATO Defence Investment Pledge. In my November 2015 evidence to the House of Commons Defence Committee I warned of this very crisis and used facts to support my case. To cut a long story short by including the cost of the nuclear deterrent, pensions and other financial liabilities, together with the cost of civilian intelligence agencies in the defence budget, the ends, ways and means of Britain’s defence no longer add up. In other words, Britain can afford a strategic nuclear deterrent, world-class intelligence services, or a power projection conventional force, but not all three at the same time on this budget.  

What would be the implications of a retreat from SDSR 2015? Britain‘s already rocky credibility would take a further, possibly fatal, blow.  May would certainly damage US-UK relations just at the moment President Trump is due to visit the UK, and at a time when she is in desperate need of US support.  Transactional Trump is clear; May will get US support to ease any potential Brexit damage, but only if Britain is seen to support the US, particularly over the use of force. She would also weaken a key pillar of Britain’s influence during the coming Brexit negotiations. For all the theatrical nonsense that emerged from the EU’s anti-British Brexit mini-summit on Saturday, most EU member-states know only too well that if they push punishment of Britain too far the British people may well turn around and say (to use Yorkshire diplomatic language) ‘OK, bugger off and defend yourselves’.  

However, NATO would likely be the biggest victim of an SDSR retreat and Britain’s influence within it. Tomorrow I will head to Brussels for meetings in NATO HQ about a major new report on NATO Strategic Adaptation for which I am the lead writer. The Steering Committee comprises some of the Alliance's leading diplomatic and military figures. The message will be clear; the Alliance must be properly ‘adapted’ to meet the manifold challenges, risks and threats of the twenty-first century. At the very least that means all the NATO nations spending 2% GDP on defence as a minimum and spending it well. Britain has a chance to lead by example, it must not miss that chance.

What options are available to London to fix the crisis? Diverting some of Britain’s enormous aid budget is one option, at least for a time. Now, I am not one of those who get too exercised by the solemn commitment of London to spend 0.7% GDP on aid and development. The power and influence a state exercises comes in many forms, and one such lever is effective aid spending. Unfortunately, Britain’s aid spend too often works against Britain’s security and defence interests. The absence of a coherent strategy and the need to meet a fixed spending target leads to a mad scramble at the end of each financial year to find projects upon which to spend. Consequently, as the House of Commons has shown, millions of pounds of unaudited British taxpayer’s money probably finds its ways into the coffers of despots, criminals, and even terrorists. It is for that reason a direct link can be established between the amount London chooses to spend on defence and the amount it spends on aid.

Uncomfortable policy choices will now need to be made. The options are fourfold: withdraw from SDSR 2015 and face a concomitant loss of influence and credibility; increases taxes to ease the defence funding crisis; move moneys from other parts of the foreign and security policy budget; and/or drive further ‘efficiencies’ in spending.  If SDSR 2015 is to be salved, and with it Britain’s defence credibility, London must contemplate acting on at least three of the four options; raising taxes, driving forward efficiencies, and shifting some money from the aid budget. After all, the first responsibility of the state is the defence of the realm.

For Britain to withdraw from its SDSR 2015 commitments at this particularly ‘strategic’ moment would be a dereliction of national duty and once again reveal the strategic malaise at the heart of Whitehall; a Britain that recognises only as much strategic threat as political short-termism can afford.  It is time for London for once to be grown-up about defence.

Little Britain or what? 

Julian Lindley-French

Thursday, 27 April 2017

One Song Russia

Austin, Texas. 27 April. Kalinka is the one Russian song that everyone in the West knows. It can often be heard wafting across the station concourses and grand open spaces of large European cities played by motley crews of begging musicians. If one had not visited Russia and experienced its rich musical culture one could be forgiven for thinking it is the only bloody song the Russians have. This week here in Austin, Texas, I attended the policy equivalent of one song Russia. It was an exercise in creative fantasy I have not experienced since the Cold War and which worries me.

The conference itself was great. Entitled Russia and the West, and organised by my old friend Sharyl Cross, Director of the Kozmetsky Center at St Edward’s University, it was a real pleasure to engage with some very senior and very bright Russian colleagues. Sadly, far from convincing me that dialogue with Russia could soon bear fruit, both my Russian colleagues and I came away realising just how difficult such dialogue will be.  
The one song message was incessant. Russia is not only a great power, it is to all intents and purposes a superpower - just look at a map. Russia has this super economy, that is as rich in talent as it is in resources, and unencumbered by high debt. One American, very supportive of the Russians, went as far as to suggest that Russia is the economy of the future and that everyone should invest therein. The US, on the other hand, was doomed to decline and to be eclipsed by Russia. However, the best lyric of this fanciful song came from a respected and leading Russian academic who suggested with a straight face that only Russia and the United States can shape Europe and the world and must therefore re-establish the kind of bilateral relationship once ‘enjoyed’ by the US and USSR.  Hybrid warfare? What hybrid warfare?

After I had stopped spluttering it was my turn to sing. Russia, I pointed out, has an economy which according to both the IMF and the World Bank is less than half the size of the British economy. Russia’s armed forces might be impressive but they are a growing burden on a relatively small economy. Russia’s demographics are going the wrong way, and because there is no separation of law and state investors will continue to hedge their bets when dealing with or in Russia. The size of Russia?  It is a curse, not a blessing. As for Russians and Americans again talking over the heads of Europeans about the future of Europe – dream on!
To be fair I had kicked off hostilities by asking my Russian colleagues what I had thought was a simple question; what does Russia want? What are the policy outcomes it wants to generate from its current actions? The most I could elicit was a sense that because the ‘West’, whatever that is these days, does not listen sufficiently to Moscow’s song, and that the only way to get ‘our’ attention is to hammer on the door extremely loudly. You see Moscow has been forced into action by an unreasonable ‘West’ which refused to respect the ‘red lines’ Moscow says it once established on EU and NATO enlargement, and refuses to acknowledge Russia’s right to a security buffer zone around its borders and an extended sphere of influence.         

Sadly, I am forced to conclude that until Russia awakes from its current power dream and re-enters reality it will be very hard to talk to Russia. Indeed, whenever I brought up ‘inconvenient’ issues that divide us, such as Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea, or its aggressive actions against the Baltic States, I was told that if ‘constructive’ talks are to be established I should focus on a different agenda, i.e. Russia’s agenda.
Russia and the West share opposing world-views. Russia wants a return to a Europe in which the West accepts that Moscow has the right to interfere in the internal affairs of states around its borders and beyond. Westerners like me believe very definition of an independent state is its right to choose the alliances and unions to which it wishes to belong. Therefore, I can never, nor will I ever, countenance the idea of Russia having ‘special rights’ to interfere in the internal affairs of others, most especially the Baltic States. That is not to say I reject the idea that Russia has legitimate rights and interests in its dealings with NATO and EU members. However, such rights and interests must be pursued in a legitimate and constructive manner, which is sadly not the case today.

The tragedy is that I am no Russophobe. I have studied Russian history and I have a deep respect for Russia and Russians, and I fully understand how history weighs heavy on Russians. And yes, I would love to have better relations with Russia. However, until a profound change takes place in how Russia sees itself in Europe and the world I cannot see how anything other than maintenance can take place in what is today a deeply mothballed relationship.
Which brings me back to my question; what does Russia want? The real problem is that Russia does not know what it wants. It knows what it does not like, but not what it wants. This is why Russians find it so hard to answer such an essentially simple question. Rather, Moscow resorts to historical reflex and throws its considerable weight around, descends into self-pity…and then blames others.

Russia today is a habit in search of a fix, an itch in search of a scratch. And, until Russia sings another song it will be hard for the rest of us to listen.
Julian Lindley-French   

Friday, 21 April 2017

Maggie May Makes Hay!

“Men [and Women] who are capable of real action first make their plans and then go forward without hesitation while their enemies have still not made up their minds.”
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

Alphen, Netherlands. 21 April. First, a very Happy Birthday to both my bosses; my wife and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Second, let me define for you the meaning of ‘to make hay whilst the sun shines’.  It is to make the most of any given circumstance or opportunity. British Prime Minister Theresa May is certainly ‘making hay’. Her not-so-surprising call of a ‘snap’ June 8 General Election has caught many off-balance; friends and opponents alike. The likelihood that she will win is clear, what is less clear is whether she will get the thumping parliamentary majority she seeks to do what she thinks she needs to do. So, what are the domestic and international reasons for Theresa May to call what will undoubtedly be dubbed ‘May’s Brexit Election’?

1.               Consolidate her Brexit negotiating position in Parliament: As soon as the courts stopped her using royal prerogative to trigger Article 50 to begin Britain’s departure from the EU to my mind a general election was inevitable. There were simply too many barriers, and too many Trojan horses that could undermine her Brexit negotiating position. Although the Labour Party supported the triggering of Article 50 its deep divisions mean it is likely engage in a form of guerrilla warfare throughout the process if for no other reason than to keep it slavishly pro-EU membership happy. Add unstable Labour to the contrarily pro-EU SNP and the EU fantasists in the Liberal Democrats, as well as the small, but influential rump of anti-Brexiteers to the left of her own Conservative Party, May could be politically ambushed at any time during what are going to be fraught negotiations with Brussels.

2.               Consolidate her Brexit negotiating position within the Conservative Party: It is not just the Tory left she fears. She will at some stage have to face down the implacable EU-hating Tory right. At some stage a deal will be reached with the EU (hopefully) and that will require compromises that many on the right of her party will find unpalatable. With a large majority that she had personally won at the ballot box May would have a personal mandate that would enable her to see off any challenge from the right.

3.               Make the most of the shambles that is the Labour Party: The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has never been weaker. Decent man of the Left that he is, his socialist/pacifist/redistributive vision for Britain simply does not chime with much of the key constituency in any British election – Middle England. His ‘chiming’ rings particularly weak with older, patriotic Middle England who simply cannot see Corbyn as prime minister and, crucially, will vote in very large numbers to keep him out of Downing Street.

4.          Weaken the Scottish secessionists: Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish Nationalist Party did spectacularly well in the 2015 general election winning 56 of the 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland. Now that Sturgeon has been in government in Edinburgh for some time there are signs that her ‘blame the English for everything to gain independence’ strategy is beginning to wear thin with centrist Scottish voters. It is hard to see how Sturgeon could do better than 2015 at the June 8 elections.

5.               Shore up her negotiating position with the EU: Leaked documents overnight from the European Commission reveal not only its negotiating position, but also the extent to which the EU is morphing from democratic union into a form of dictatorial empire which seeks to punish any member-states that dares countenance leaving the EU. May is clearly going to face one hell of a fight with Commission, and its rubber-stampers in the European Parliament. The Commission’s attempt to impose the European Court of Justice on a post-Brexit Britain will turn ugly if she is to resist the Commission’s colonial/imperial strategy. For that she will need to be politically strong at home, not least to see off the EU dreamers and fantasists in parliament.

6.               Make the most of Britain’s strengths: As the Commission was preparing to commence hostilities yesterday 800 British troops were arriving in the Baltic States to lead part of NATO’s efforts to ensure credible deterrence against Russian intimidation. Next week RAF Typhoon fighters will fly to south-eastern Europe to help protect the air space of Bulgaria and Romania. The real danger from an overtly hostile and aggressive Commission Brexit negotiating position is that very quickly the British people will begin to ask why they are being expected to defend people and states who are part of a bloc that seems determined to damage Britain for an act of democracy. If that happens NATO will not be insulated from the strategic and political fall-out of Brexit.
7.               Fight the Brexit money fight: The real Brexit fight with the EU will come down to money. The EU is about to lose some 16% of its entire budget. There are only 6 EU member-states which pay 67% of the entire EU budget and the loss of the British money will impose more cost on those few states that in effect part for the EU. Britain has an economy worth some $3 trillion which is larger than 20 of the EU 28 member-states combined. The loss of British money could in effect bankrupt the EU, which is why Brussels is demanding a €60bn ‘divorce’ settlement. May will face a tough fight over money.

8.               Eventually get a sensible Brexit deal through Parliament: At some point a sensible, negotiated deal will be reached. Such a deal will involve the British paying some not insignificant moneys into the EU budget for some time to come. It will also need to involve sensible, transitional arrangements on trade and people. Given her current slim majority of 17 in the House of Commons when she presents the deal she could be held hostage by a mix of Brexit deniers and Brexit hardliners.

9.               Reinforce May’s own personal political legitimacy: The decisions that are going to be taken over the next five years will be truly historic for both Britain and the rest of Europe, with profound implications for NATO and Britain’s wider strategic relationships. Theresa May became prime minister by Conservative Party fiat when David Cameron resigned after the Brexit referendum. May needs a general election to reinforce her own political authority, legitimacy, and indeed capital, during what is going to be a bumpy five years.

Taking all of the above together it is hard to see that Prime Minister Theresa May had any other choice than to call a snap election. Faced with either being seen as a strong Margaret Thatcher or a weak John Major, May has clearly opted to be the former. However, whether or not she achieves her strategic and political aims with this election, well that is a completely different question.

It is never dull in Blighty these days!

Julian Lindley-French