hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 18 August 2017

Britain’s Armed Forces must not become a Strategic Snatch Land Rover

"The government must and will ensure that our Armed Forces are always properly equipped and resourced."
August 2017 letter of Sir Michael Fallon, UK Secretary of State for Defence, to Mrs Sue Smith, expressing regret for the July 2005 death of her son Private Philip Hewett in Iraq.

Alphen, Netherlands. 18 August.  This morning the British news contained a story that reminds me of the importance of responsible, independent analysis in a democracy.  The job of the analyst is to analyse. In my case I do this as a well-informed citizen in an effort to make political elites, and the bureaucracies that serve them better at what they are supposed to do in my name. Call that hubris if you will, but I see it as my duty. Unlike some I am not trying to destroy elites, or make them fail, and I fully recognise how difficult the task of government is in this fractured age.
The letter Sir Michael wrote to Mrs Smith is one for which I applaud him, even though it comes only after a Supreme Court decision, the Human Rights Act, and the Sir John Chilcot report into Britain’s role in the Iraq War. The letter rightfully states: "The government entirely accepts the findings of Sir John Chilcot in the Iraq Inquiry in relation to Snatch Land Rover….I would like to express directly to you my deepest sympathies and apologise for the delay, resulting in decisions taken at the time in bringing into service alternative protected vehicles which could have saved lives."  At the time of Private Hewett’s July 2005 death the soldiers called the Snatch Land Rover ‘mobile coffins’, so vulnerable were they to roadside bombs.

However, another statement in that letter suggests the Government have really not learned the lessons which are the implicit purpose of the letter. It goes onto state, "The government must and will ensure that our Armed Forces are always properly equipped and resourced." So, why is London failing its own test?  Why is London still fixated with the appearance of defence at the expense of its substance? The reality is that in spite of the mantra that Britain is one of few NATO members that meet the 2% GDP defence investment pledge, a dangerous gap is opening up between Britain’s stated defence-strategic ambitions and its military-strategy reality.

Take the new heavy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth which entered Her Majesty’s Naval Base Portsmouth for the first time this week, amidst much public fanfare.  Regular readers of this blog and my books will know I am a firm fan of the two new British carriers. Properly equipped they will not only afford Britain national strategic assets, exert influence ‘weight’ far beyond their 70,000 tons, they will also enable London to provide coalition maritime-amphibious command hubs for NATO, European, and the wider Allied military groupings which will be the military-strategic method for much of first half of the twenty-first century.

And yet London is screwing up the strategic opportunity the carriers represent because as ever appearance comes before substance.  Yes, HMS Queen Elizabeth provided an excellent photo op for Prime Minister May this week.  And yes, my analysis suggests that if the British properly funded their stated ambitions Britain’s armed forces would, again, be amongst the world’s best – which is precisely where they should be. And yet, London is stalling on the investment of offensive and defensive systems the ships need to do the jobs they are designed to do.  Worse, a mixture of inadequate spending and poor spending is forcing the Service Chiefs to make hard decisions that are rendering Britain’s armed forces as unbalanced as at any time possibly in a couple of centuries. And yet the defence pretence continues, a recipe for military disaster in this most unforgiving of ages.

Britain’s armed forces are fast becoming a Potemkin Village Force (PVF), which looks good, but peer behind the façade and one finds an overstretched little bit of everything, but not much of anything force.  London invests in bits of a powerful force, whilst at the same time cutting the defence budget needed to invest in the other bits vital to ensure its proper functioning, even in the possible high-intensity conflict Prime Minister May warned about this week. The problem with such a political strategy is that whilst it might fool ‘Joe Public’ for a time, and thus serve some short-term political utility, it does not fool Britain’s allies, and certainly does not fool Britain’s adversaries.
Sir Michael Fallon is one of Britain’s better defence secretaries and has fought hard to protect Britain’s armed forces from the obsession of HM Treasury with sound money at the expense of sound defence. If Sir Michael really means what he writes, and that he is committed to ensuring Britain’s armed forces are properly equipped and resourced, then this moment is the crunch time! The next few years could mark the last time Britain has to prepare its military for a dangerous future that London itself acknowledges, and which given Britain’s relative power in the world, it will be unable to avoid.  The operations Britain’s armed forces are likely be called upon to conduct are growing daily bigger, more intense, and more dangerous.
What to do? First, properly fund the commitments made in the 2010 and 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Reviews (SDSR), and end the current game of political charades with Britain’s defence. Second, use SDSR 2020 to re-establish a link between reality, strategy and British defence policy. Third, stop funding counter-terrorism and the nuclear deterrent at the expense of Britain’s conventional force.

At the end of the day the consequences of defence pretence and aspiring to play a strategic military leadership role with a military of insufficient capability or capacity are profound.  Somewhere, sometime, some poor British sailor, soldier and/or airman/woman will be sent into action inadequately equipped and poorly protected. They will be effectively asked to fill a gap, at an elevated risk to their own lives, between the empty utterances of politicians and the deadly reality they face on the ground.

My recent hard-hitting blogs Lizzie Goes Forth… and …as Britain’s Military Sinks, took a lot of criticism from some high bureaucrats, and not a few senior military officers. The hard truth for London is that my concerns about Britain’s unbalanced defence policy are correct, and those responsible know that to be the case.  The reason I am an analyst, why I do what I do, and why I will not be co-opted to support nonsense, is because of my citizen’s support for the men and women who defend me.  And, if politicians, senior bureaucrats or career-sensitive senior military officers find that politically inconvenient – tough!

London, stop turning Britain’s armed forces into a kind of strategic Snatch Land Rover!

Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Fire and Fury? A Korean Peninsula Crisis Briefing

“A bluff taken seriously is more useful than a serious threat interpreted as a bluff”.
Dr Henry Kissinger

Headline: In spite of some modest easing of rhetoric overnight by the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) Kim Jong-un, the causes of a crisis with its roots back in 1945 have not been addressed. The paradox of the latest Korean Peninsula Crisis is that it is clearly in the interests of China, the ROK, the United States, and other powerful regional actors such as Japan, to maintain strategic and political stability on the peninsula and across the wider region. However, the leadership of North Korea believes it can only survive if it promotes instability by threatening ever more devastating forms of warfare.  The strategic context and military-technological character of the crisis are turning a twentieth-century rupture into a twenty-first century world crisis that will continue unless the DPRK changes policy and/or people.

Relative power of key players (all figures from the CIA The World Factbook website unless otherwise stated):

China: estimated 2016 gross domestic product (GDP) $21.14 trillion, which makes the Chinese economy the world’s biggest using purchasing power parity. Estimated 2016 population: 1,373,541,278. Official defence expenditure amounts to 1.9%, although the US suggests that in 2016 China spent the PPP equivalent of c$140bn (SIPRI). China is an advanced nuclear power with intercontinental ballistic missiles, both land and sea-based, that is also developing significant military power projection capabilities.
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea): whilst figures are hard to obtain the CIA estimates the North Korean economy to be worth some $40 billion per annum. This makes the DPRK one of the very poorest countries in the world.  Estimated 2016 population: 25,115,311. Effective estimates of actual North Korean defence expenditure are also hard to find. However, whilst the official budget for 2017 was set at 15.8% GDP, the Korean Times suggests the armed forces have consumed 25% of GDP for several years and that defence expenditure is set to increase. $10 billion spent each year by a militarised state on a militarised low-income economy explains the size if not the effectiveness of DPRK armed forces. US Defense Intelligence Agency estimates that the DPRK is on the cusp of becoming an operational nuclear power with some limited intercontinental ballistic missile capacity.
Republic of Korea (South Korea): the South Korean economy in 2016 was estimated at $1.934 trillion, making it the world’s fourteenth largest economy using PPP. Estimated 2016 population: 50,924,172. South Korea spends around 2% GDP per annum on defence giving Seoul the world’s 40th largest defence budget. In 2015 the ROK spent some $36.4 billion on its armed forces (Trading Economics).  The ROK is a non-nuclear power, with no intercontinental ballistic missiles.
United States: the US economy in 2016 was estimated at $18.56 trillion, making it the world’s ninth largest by PPP. Estimated 2016 population: 323,995,528. Estimated defence expenditure in 2016 was 3.29% GDP or $611.2 billion (SIPRI). The US is the world’s leading military power with Advanced nuclear systems intercontinental ballistic missiles, both land and sea-based. However, unlike any other power US forces are spread the world-over.

Background to the crisis: The current crisis is set against the backdrop of history and, on the face of it at least, the latest crisis on the Korean Peninsula would appear to reflect and repeat history. On the one side there is a small Communist state (DPRK or North Korea), backed by a powerful Communist neighbour (China). On the other side there is a more powerful but still modest capitalist liberal democracy (ROK or South Korea), backed by the world’s most powerful such state (US). Equally, there are limits to the extent history can be used to understand current events.
The origins of the Korean Peninsula Crisis can be traced back to a 1945 agreement between the US and Stalin’s USSR by which American forces would liberate Korea from the Japanese as far north as the 38th Parallel, and Soviet forces would complete the liberation to the Chinese border. On 26 June, 1950 the Korean People’s Army (KPA) invaded the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Korean War began. In July 1950, following the June invasion and the swift retreat of South Korean forces, the US and other Western countries operating under a UN mandate and under the command of General Douglas F MacArthur, began to engage the KPA and eventually pushed them all the way back up the Korean Peninsula to close to the Chinese border.

On 25 October, 1951 Chinese (PRC) forces suddenly entered the DPRK and defeated ROK forces decisively at Puchkin, and on 1 November defeated US forces at Unsan.  In April 1952 PRC forces attacked UN forces as part of a major push south down the Peninsular in an effort to take the ROK capital, Seoul. Chinese forces were held back at great cost at the Battle of Imjin River by the British Army’s Gloucestershire Regiment (‘the Glorious Glosters’) and by the British-Belgian 29th Infantry Brigade. The Chinese thrust was blunted and UN forces were able to regroup to halt the Chinese advance. The war became a stalemate and on 27 July 1953 the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed and the Demilitarized Zone created on the 38th Parallel.  The war has never formally been ended.

Assessment: The 2017 conflict and the 1950-1953 war share several of the same strategic rationales. In 1953 China did not want a US-friendly state on its border, and sought a buffer between ROK and China. The US and Japan did not want a Communist regime so close to Japan at a time when the Cold War was gathering pace and anti-Communism was at its peak in Washington. Significantly, the regime in Pyongyang at the time was Stalinist not Maoist, meaning it looked towards Moscow rather than Peking (as Beijing was then known in the West) for protection. However, by boycotting its permanent seat Moscow enabled the US to get a resolution through the UN Security Council. Moscow also indicated it would not intervene against such a UN force in Korea, leading some in the Truman administration to fear Moscow was in fact seeking to weaken the US defence of Europe.

There are several important differences between 1951 and 2017. In 1951 China under Mao Zedong was a large but essentially weak and volatile strategic actor the main weapon which was manpower. 2017 China an emerging nuclear superpower.  North Korea was a Stalinist dictatorship in 1951 with more links to Moscow than Peking, which had a powerful conventional force but no nuclear weapons.  The DPRK is now believed by the US Defense Intelligence Agency to have a first generation nuclear warhead similar in punch to the atomic bombs which were dropped by the US in August 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and which were the equivalent of 12-15,000 tons of TNT.  The DIA believes DPRK has successfully miniaturised the warheads to fit atop a viable Hwasong series intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The Hwasong 12, 13 & 14 missile systems all seem to have ICBM capability with ranges anywhere from 6000-12000 kms. Whilst in theory such systems could reach continental North America, they do not as yet pose an existential threat to the US. However, a nuclear-armed DPRK poses an increasingly serious danger, most notably to Japan, and US forces in Guam and on Okinawa.

Analysis: DPRK aims appear to be twofold; to force the neighbours and outside powers to continue to buy off Pyongyang with ‘free’ exports, and to maintain discipline over a militarised society. Even if this current crisis is resolved, the US and the ROK assure the DPRK that they do not seek regime change in Pyongyang, and China acts as a de facto security guarantor for the DPRK, future crises will inevitably occur unless the regime changes policy tack fundamentally, or is changed.  Nor can sudden change in the DPRK be ruled out. Analysis of economic data suggests that the DPRK is no longer economically viable without significant resource injections from abroad.  There is also some limited evidence that North Korea is becoming socially, and possibly politically, unviable as well.

The DPRK has repeatedly tried to 'globalise' the conflict because it needs the US to be an enemy for the regime of Kim Jong-un to survive. However, the cost of regime survival is increasing.  At the end of the Cold War in 1989 Russia withdrew the protection of its nuclear umbrella from DPRK. Since then Pyongyang has invested huge amounts of its very limited resources to develop nuclear weapons, with tacit support from Pakistan and some suggestion that Ukraine has provided some key missile components. Successive US Administrations and the Group of Six (G6) states of which it is a part, and which includes China, have failed to prevent DPRK efforts to acquire such weapons. DPRK conventional forces also pose a profound to the ROK, most notably the 20 million people in Seoul and its environs, which is only 30 miles/50 km from the 38th Parallel. If any pre-emptive military action is taken to prevent Pyongyang from resorting to nuclear force it is likely that China is the only power truly in a position to undertake such action.
Beijing seems sensitive to American concerns. Unusually Beijing supported the US and UK drafted United Nations Security Council Resolution 2237 (UNSCR 2237) imposing more economic sanctions on the DPRK. China has in the past two days appeared to have begun to impose economic sanctions on North Korea in critical areas such as iron, lead, coal and fish products. These actions clearly indicate that Beijing does not approve of the actions of Kim Jung-un’s regime.  The Chinese have also ordered the People’s Liberation Army to prepare to move to the border with North Korea.

However, the crisis cannot be disentangled from the growing strategic tensions between China and the United States in East Asia, and the wider Asia-Pacific grand strategic region.  Over the past fortnight Washington has sought again to exercise freedom of navigation in the South China Sea which Beijing claims for its own. And, on Monday, the American again attacked China for stealing intellectual property. In other words, the 2017 Korean Peninsula Crisis has all the makings of a classic great power stand-off, tinged with nuclear weapons, and if not now, certainly in the none-too-distant future.  This is precisely what Pyongyang would like to see happen.

US Options: US strategy is essentially designed to convince Beijing that Washington sees the threat to the US and its allies in the region as so severe that Beijing must take action.  In return, China must be assured that the ROK and US will not seek to enforce the unification of the Korean peninsula, and thus remove a buffer between Chinese and US forces.
Given the nature of the crisis, and the complexities and difficulties enshrined within it, the balance of US efforts should remain focused on a diplomatic solution. The US achieved some diplomatic success at the United Nations with the July adoption of UNSC Resolution 2371, which seeks to cut 33% of the remaining exports of North Korea.
Beyond deterring Pyongyang, and assuring the defence of the ROK, Japan, and of course the US territory Guam, none of the offensive military options open to the Americans are very attractive. Subject to the agreement of ROK President Moon Jae-in, the US could send more THAAD (Theater High Altitude Air Defense) anti-missile systems to both the ROK and Japan. However, the number of THAAD systems is limited, and such a system could do nothing to prevent mass artillery strikes by DPRK forces on Seoul. It takes 45 seconds for an artillery shell fired from one of the several thousand guns dug into south facing slopes of mountains just north of the 38th Parallel to strike Seoul.  
What Role Europe? Beyond imploring Beijing to help resolve the crisis America’s European allies could have an important role to play. First, Europeans must give unequivocal backing to the US in the face of any threat to the American and South Korean peoples. Second, Europeans must strengthen sanctions against DPRK if the regime does not change tack. For example, the Netherlands still exports some €2m worth of goods and services to DPRK. Third, six EU member-states have embassies in Pyongyang, including Britain and Germany.  There should be a concerted European effort to establish back-channel diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang.

Conclusion: Effective crisis management by China and the United States – the two key players – will require consistent and considered policy, balanced and clear messaging, constant contact, and the separation of other issues of mutual contention from the Korean Peninsula Crisis.

Pyongyang appears to be engaging in but the latest round of force blackmail, this time with a very nuclear edge, to gain more resources and thus more time for the regime. The DPRK has repeatedly used this stratagem in the past with some success. It is clear that Supreme Leader Kim Jung-Un is prepared to to the brink of war, but it is as yet unclear if he really would fight such a war, as it would almost certainly lead to his own demise. This is especially the case given that China has indicated to the DPRK that Beijing would not support Pyongyang in a nuclear war with the Americans.

Above all, the US needs to be clear about the outcomes it seeks. At present Washington appears to want to both deter the DPRK, and compel Pyongyang to de-nuclearise at the same time. US strategy is thus insufficiently clear.  This lack of clarity over desired outcomes impacts upon the Administration’s crisis messaging. Discipline is vital with all the key US actors involved from the President down engaging in and committing to a series of carefully calibrated messaging. Here the new White House Chief of Staff Kelly and National Security Advisor McMaster have a vital role to play in imposing discipline and thus separating crisis management from White House ideology.

The American message must be consistent; the US does not necessarily regard the DPRK as an enemy, and will not start hostilities, but any hostile military action taken by Pyongyang will inevitably lead to the collapse of the regime.

Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Crash! The Ides of August 2007


“There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life, Is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat; And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures”.
Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare

August 2007

Alphen, Netherlands. 9 August. This blog is devoted to big stuff! Ten years ago today something really, really big began to happen which would have profound geopolitical consequences for the West, and the wider world.  BNP, a well-regarded French bank, suspended three mortgage investment funds because management was no longer sure of their value. It was the harbinger of what is now believed to have been the worst financial crash since at least the 1930s, and which was caused by power and money becoming too close. The ensuing intertwined banking, financial, economic, and political crises effectively marked the end of the West’s dominance, and the start of a new age of Great Power competition that sees ‘might’ steadily eclipsing ‘right’.  What was the real cost of his disaster, why did it happen, and what are the continuing geopolitical implications?

The financial cost of baling out the broken Western banking system, and trying to save the political skins of a failed elite was staggering.  According to the International Monetary Fund the crash cost $11.9 trillion to ‘fix’, which is about the size of China’s annual GDP, or about $2000 for every person on the planet.  In 2009-10 the crisis consumed a fifth of the entire globe’s annual output, costing developed countries some $10.2 trillion.  Due to the overbearing importance of their respective financial sectors to their respective economies, the British and American taxpayers bore a particularly heavy burden.  The cost to the UK taxpayer of supporting broke banks and mortgage lenders has cost some 81.8% of Britain’s GDP. The diversion of taxpayer’s money also crippled the public finances, with sectors such as defence particularly hard hit.  In 2006, the US budget deficit stood at around 2.5% of GDP, in 2009 it leapt to 13.5%, whilst the UK deficit in 2006 was some 2.6% of GDP, whilst in 2009 it leapt to 11.6%.

The Casino Causes of the Crash

There were several factors that caused the August crash. However, at its most simple the crash was caused as much by an accounting failure as a banking failure, as the need for money outstripped the availability of money.  Indeed, the crisis began because bank debt became too high leading to a sudden and catastrophic weakening of actual bank balance sheets, as opposed to the fantasy balance sheets many banks had been peddling. When crucial inter-bank lending, which was central to a system of flawed risk mismanagement, suddenly collapsed each bank looked to save itself.  The rest, as they say, has become a sorry history.

However, there was a range of deeper, structural, and cultural factors that were also at play, not least so-called ‘casino banking’. Rapid globalisation had seen the demand for financing grow rapidly beyond the ability of even the largest Western banks to meet.  The banks sought to close the resultant financing gap via the use of increasingly complex ‘financial instruments’, labyrinthine forms of mutual lending which also saw a steady increase in interlocking mutual risk.  Much of that risk was embedded in investments that ignored the traditional fundamentals of sound banking, such as the US mortgage sector and so-called ‘sub-prime loans’, which were not only hidden in financial instruments, but also backed by major ‘too big to fail’ American financial houses, most notably Lehman Brothers.  A mixture of ignorance, short-termism and ‘we’ve never had it so good’ demand led to banks taking on excessive debt or ‘leverage’ which far exceeded the capital reserves of many of them.  Such risk was justified by the false belief that if it was spread across the entire financial system ‘risk’ itself was effectively banished. In fact, all casino bankers did was to put the entire Western banking system at risk.  In August 2007 this house of cards began to crash down.   

In 2010 the banking crisis turned into a sovereign debt crisis when the growing cost of money became too great to fund for fragile states already mired deep in debt.  Some Eurozone countries were particularly hard hit because they had been bingeing on borrowing since the Euro’s creation in 1999.  With the advent of the Euro the many structurally weak European economies organised around Germany, such as Greece, Italy, and Spain, suddenly discovered that they could borrow at the same low interest rates as Berlin, as the early ‘naughties’ saw the cost of money for them plummet.  Many of them over-borrowed in the false belief that the Eurozone also implied debt mutualisation and that, in the event of any crisis, German, Dutch and the taxpayers of wealthier northern and western European states would bail them out.  For a time it suited the Germans to accept such risk as the Eurozone created a German export boom, and helped offset the high cost of their domestic productivity, enabling Berlin to escape from a long period of economic malaise. In August 2007 the cost of money to ‘Club Med’ began to shoot up.  Several were effectively bankrupted, most notably Greece.  It is a crisis yet to be resolved.

America and Britain? See no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.  The US and UK governments simply ignored the dangers traditionally associated with excessive public debt, preferring instead to see their financial sectors as tax bonanzas to exploit at a time when low taxes and high spending were in political vogue. Consequently, the years prior to 2007 had seen sound regulation of the banking and wider financial sectors effectively abandoned as the respective governments backed New York and London as world financial hubs. The US could console itself that if its banks were too big to fail so was the US, given that much of the world held dollars in their reserves as the reserve currency. Britain was not so lucky. The situation was made far worse for the British by a Labour government which, prior to 2007, allowed personal debt to spiral, and a dangerous property bubble to develop. Britain was made even more vulnerable by an excessive level of government borrowing in the run-up to the crisis in the guise of investment. 

Geopolitical Consequences

The strategic consequences were profound, and continue to be so.  The crisis, and the bankers who caused it, destabilised the world as the ability of the leading Western states to exercise influence and power dramatically declined.

In 2007 US influence was already on the wane given the failing campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. The fact that the crisis originated in New York further damaged America’s reputation for sound strategic leadership, particularly in Europe.  Most Western countries reacted to the crisis by imposing austerity programmes that radically reduced the level of public debt by stringent cuts to public expenditures. However, income inequality grew rapidly to politically toxic levels as those at the lower end of the social and economic pile were hardest hit by efforts to re-establish sound money.  The political implications are there for all to see as crisis clearly played a profound role in Britain’s 2016 decision to leave the EU, as well as the election of President Trump in the US.  In Britain’s case this can be partly explained by the interaction between open door immigration, and a sudden and catastrophic recession that came close to a depression, with all the subsequent and consequent political and social tensions thus created.

The search for sound money also undermined sound defence. Europeans cut their defence budgets by 30% between 2008 and 2014. However, such cuts not only saw a loss of ‘men’ and materiel. It also critically undermined the strategic ambition of key Western powers, most notably Britain and France.  Worse, an on-paper economically far weaker Russia was emboldened by the crisis. In 2008 Russia invaded Georgia and began a programme of military modernisation and strategic agitation that continues to this day. Several Middle Eastern and North African economies, already challenged by weakening demands for oil and gas, allied to a boom in the number of young people they had to feed, educate and employ, also became dangerously unstable.
However, perhaps the most telling consequence of the crash was the rapid relative rise in the power and influence of China. China was a responsible actor during the crisis, using its large reserves and dollar holdings to help prevent a collapse of a system that served its strategic ambitions well. China also used the crisis to begin to exert influence far beyond its borders, most notably in Europe. Beijing achieved this ‘strategic objective’ via a series of ‘strategic’ loans and investments that had the effect of weakening transatlantic political and economic bonds, the strategic consequences of which have yet to be fully grasped. Like Russia, China also invested in its armed forces and began to expand what Beijing sees as its rightful hegemony across much of East Asia with the creation of a far-reaching Exclusive Economic Zone, and by establishing illegal military bases in the South China Sea, the strategic consequences of which are again yet to be fully grasped.

Winners and Losers

There have, of course, been winners and losers.  The winners at the geopolitical level include the world’s illiberal Great Powers, such as China and Russia, who have begun to tip the balance of power in their favour away from the West.  At the political level incumbent authority has lost much of its prestige, and popular trust in Western government has by and large collapsed, opening the door to hitherto marginal populists and radicals. And, of course, the very bankers who helped cause the crisis were not only propped up by their far poorer compatriots, but continue to enjoy incomes that others can only dream of.  Too big to fail, too grand to jail?

The real losers? You and me.  Savers have been robbed of millions of euros/dollars/pounds of interest as interest rates were driven lower by central banks in an effort to maintain some level of economic growth.  Taxpayers continue to bail out banks, whilst in the Europe the European Central Bank is quietly transferring huge amounts of ‘public’ money to prop up failed banks, most notably in Italy. As for debt mutualisation, expect to hear more about that after September’s German federal elections…but certainly not before.

Greed and Power

Ultimately, the financial crisis was the result of greed and Western political, bureaucratic, and financial elites becoming too close.  The result was that principles underlying good politics, effective oversight, and sound financing were abandoned.  Such closeness reflected the trend, particularly prevalent in the EU at the time, for elites to remove power ever further from the people in the name of ‘efficiency’ and give it to unelected bodies in the name of institution (i.e. elite) building. Democratic oversight was effectively replaced with sham forms of ‘accountability’ further ‘overseen’ by sham democracy. Little has changed.

The limited good news is that today the banks are more stable than back in 2007 because of the extra capital they are now required to hold. However, there is absolutely no guarantee that a still fragile system could not rapidly collapse in the face of another financial or economic shock.

The future?  The relative decline of the West looks likely to continue, and with it the emergence of strategic competitors in many forms.  It need not be this way.

You were screwed. We all were!

Julian Lindley-French 

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Passchendaele: Why Democracies Fight Wars

“I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele)”
Siegfried Sassoon, Memorial Tablet (Great War), October 1918


Alphen, Netherlands. 2 August, 2017. Why do democracies fight wars? Monday marked the centenary of the start of the Third Battle of Ypres, or ‘Passchendaele’, as it has come to be known.  The operational objective of Field Marshal Haig’s ‘offensive’ was to seize what passes for high ground to the south and east of the Belgian town of Ypres (‘Wipers’, to a lost generation of Tommies), en route to seizing the Belgian ports, including Antwerp, from which German submarines were operating. The strategic aim was to bleed Germany white through a battle of attrition, which in 1917 seemed the shortest bloody route to eventual victory.  In fact both sides bled and profusely in a battle lasting over a hundred days that was gruesome even by the standards of that most gruesome of wars. In the struggle between men, mud, machine guns, and military mayhem some 500,000 were killed, of which 300,000 were British, Imperial and Dominion forces. Canada came of age as a nation on the shallow, blood-soaked rise beneath Passchendaele village, as the bravery of its young men carved a blood-soaked maple leaf in mud that freed the spirit of a new nation from an old one.

Third Ypres

Like many Britons (at least the ones educated enough to know that World War One even happened), and as someone who knows Ypres and its environs, as I write I am thinking of those young men who saw their youth eviscerated in the murderous morass of ‘Third Ypres’.  And yet my focus is not the history of a battle, nor indeed the appalling suffering of those who engaged in it. In fact, in some important strategic and tactical ways Third Ypres marked a shift in the war in favour of the Allied cause.  No, my focus is on what the commemorations of that epic battle say about democracies, particularly European democracies, their attitude to war today, and the danger that systemic war is being made more, not less likely. 

Sunday’s BBC coverage of the commemoration of the battle was for the most part refreshingly honest, and yet still failed to place Third Ypres in its strategic context. As history was ground up to fit the values of this age the BBC still said far more about the defeatist, pacifist Britain of today, than the Britain that a century ago fought and ultimately won a war as vital to the freedom of Europe as World War One Part Two; World War Two. 

There was, sadly, the usual coterie of ‘commentators’ and ‘experts’ presenting the ‘facts’ of the past through the politically-correct lens of today.  There was also the now normal, and dare I say North American-inspired, Oh, What a Lovely War, Blackadder Goes Forth nonsense. World War One was a kind of European civil war in which a collection of ostensibly civilised states, led by clinically-insane leaders, engaged in form of mass societal suicide as part of a an epic macabre theatre d’absurde.

Why Passchendaele

Here’s the very unfashionable thing: World War One had to be fought by the democracies, a ‘long’ war was the only way to defeat Kaiser Wilhelm, and Third Ypres was far better fought by the Allies than contemporary convention permits. In 1914 Wilhemine Germany as an aggressive, expansionist, autocratic state beset by internal contradictions and weaknesses that emerged from a militaristic and ultra-nationalistic Prussian elite. At Oxford I became a devotee of the German historian Fritz Fischer, whose book Germany’s War Aims in the First World War, (Griff nach der Weltmacht: der Kriegzielpolitik des kaizerlichen Deutschland 1914-1998) demonstrated conclusively, and yet controversially (even in the Federal Republic of Germany of the 1960s), that Kaiser Wilhelm and the Prussian elite planned, triggered, and executed World War One as policy. In other words. World War One was no accident or tragi-comedy of mutual strategic error.  

Like most autocracies the Kaiser desperately needed a swift victory as the Germany of the time was simply not strong enough on its own to prevail. The Kaiser, and more specifically the Schlieffenplan, were thwarted because the Western democracies, albeit in concert with autocratic, Tsarist Russia, were just strong enough to prevent the rapid victory Berlin envisaged, as it sought to turn the rest of Europe into a form of colony.  However, the Western democracies, albeit very different to today’s democracies, as was the America of the time, as ever took time to muster the martial energy and the many industrial, military, and ultimately manpower advantages available to them.  It was in that meat-grinding gap between Wilhelmine Germany’s initial plunge into war, the blunting of German military ambitions (the miracle on the Marne et al), and the eventual defeat of the Kaiser with the decisive British 'Blitzkreig' victory at Amiens in August 1918, that the hell of Passchendaele took place.  

Passchendaele Today

There is an old saying to the effect that whilst ‘you’ might ignore war, war will not ignore ‘you’.  Today, ‘we’ look back at Passchendaele as if such a battle was a curious if deadly artefact of ‘ancient’ history that could never again come to pass in Europe. Indeed, there is a kind of wilful, naive denial in the Europe of today about such political events, as we seek to will away systemic war. This view is normally reinforced by the laudable, if equally naïve view that if one adheres to one’s ‘nice’ values, and purposively ignore narrow interests, systemic war simply can never again happen.  Indeed, ‘it must never happen again’ is invariably the pious sub-text of commemorations. And yet a twenty-first century Passchendaele is not at all unthinkable. In the 1930s there was another name for such piety; appeasement.

Wars are not prevented because ‘nice’ people are ‘nice’, and in so being see no evil, hear no evil, or think no evil of others, however ‘evil’ they may be. Wars are prevented because ‘nice’ people, and the oft not-so-nice people who are charged with leading and defending them, are given the means to prevent decidedly not-at-all nice people believing a quick war might, just might be a viable policy option to in an invariably domestic extremis, that by definition is equally invariably of their own making. Or, to put it another way, it is a profound mistake for liberals to see the world of the illiberals through liberal eyes.

In this world there are more than enough not-so-very-nice at all people who clearly believe the very ‘niceness’ of the European democracies is in fact a weakness that yet again makes ‘limited war’ a possibility.  And, that such a very quick war would, of course, achieve clear war aims – domestic and foreign - decisively. However, history demonstrates that wars are always limited until they start. Indeed, those who start such wars have traditionally done so firm in the belief that their ‘might’ will trump ‘right’, often because ‘right’ has decided that weakness is strength firm in the belief that systemic war must never happen again.

How to Prevent Passchendaele 21#

Rather than appease reality for fear of history, or lose themselves yet more deeply in misplaced globalist or Universalist ideology, Europe’s democracies must again think about how to fight such a war. The leaders of democracies today are bound by the same responsibility to strike the same balance between deterrence and defence as they were then.  However, it is a balance that can only be struck by properly understanding, and at least matching, the capability of potential threats.

That peace aim can only be credibly achieved by demonstrating that the democracies are not only thinking about future war, they are even preparing to fight one. Only such ‘posture’ renders the political threshold for autocracies so high that even starting a ‘limited war’ is simply not worth the risk. Remember, such regimes have a very different view of the utility of war than democracies, and set the political threshold for war at a much lower level.

Why democracies fight wars? To prevent them. Sassoon was right; war is hell. However, Plato was, sadly, also right: “Only the dead have seen the end of war”.

Have a nice day!

Julian Lindley-French