Great power politics means greater dangers
As the US confronts Russia and China, Europe is divided and Nato’s future uncertain. Britain must look for a new role after Brexit
Macron and May: France opposes UK involvement in EU defence (©Stefan Rousseau — WPA Pool / Getty Images)
January always brings a glitzy but ultimately vacuous public contribution to geopolitics. The World Economic Forum in Davos is where the great, the good and the not so good party and pontificate, free from the burden of any policy implications. It is entirely in keeping with Donald Trump’s temperament that he gave the keynote speech, yet failed to grapple with the biggest strategic reassessment by the US since the end of the Cold War. The previous month Trump’s National Security Strategy had proclaimed the return of great power competition. This was swiftly followed by Jim Mattis’s National Defence Strategy, which elevated competition with Russia and China as the predominant strategic threat to US security. This sudden shift in focus was a long overdue acknowledgement of reality. The Economist immediately made “The Next War” its cover story. However, General Paul Selva, vice-chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged, “We should have recognised [this threat] ten years ago.” In these pages as far back as 2014, when Crimea was annexed, we have stated that great power conflict had returned. The majority of opinion was dismissive of this view, naively underestimating Vladimir Putin’s durability and ambition. Trump’s continued failure to publicly acknowledge the threat to Western democracy from Russian interference leaves both the United States and his own presidency vulnerable.
The world as viewed from the White House and the Pentagon has changed dramatically since 2014, when the NDS’s predecessor, the Quadrennial Defence Review, was published. Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy and the last Quadrennial Defence Review both explicitly mentioned the UK, effectively placing her first amongst the European Nato members. Trump’s NSS only mentions the UK (or indeed any European country) as sources of domestic terrorism and the UK, also as a trade partner. The NDS doesn’t mention the UK at all, at least in the unclassified summary.
Unlike Davos, the Munich Security Conference in February is where defence ministers meet and policy is announced. This year’s agenda was marked by relief that Trump’s first year was not as catastrophic as many expected, as well as the ongoing issue of Brexit. Discussion of America’s reappraisal of the balance of power and its European impact was strangely muted. Instead, Theresa May outlined a post-Brexit security bargain with Europe. In it, she continued to prioritise anti-terrorism over defence and in so doing she offered a solution to yesterday’s problem. She all but ignored the fact that America’s new strategic focus will redirect Nato’s priorities towards great power conflict. The defence bargain she outlined reversed long-standing UK objections by offering to support and work with a more integrated EU military, in return for continued decision-making and participation in joint procurement. Although seemingly pragmatic and potentially a great deal for the UK, May’s offer assumes that the UK military remains such an attractive partner as to be able to dictate terms. In reality it received a low-key response due to the precedence it would set, not to mention profound uncertainty about Britain’s ability to maintain military credibility, despite meeting Nato spending targets.
Wrangling over Brexit obscured the more important question, whether the UK and the EU member states within Nato agree with America’s new view of the world. Many European politicians view Trump himself as the key challenge for the West and hope that he is simply an aberration in US politics. There have long been disagreements on significant matters of foreign policy, such as how to handle Russia, the nature of military intervention, and the Iranian nuclear deal. Previously these have been papered over by the primacy of the “War on Terror”. Even that project has come under considerable strain with operations in Syria exacerbating a number of political fissures, not least with Turkey. Unlike previous transatlantic disagreements a much more fundamental split about the nature of the world is emerging.
As a result there is reason to question whether EU countries will fall into line with US strategy. If they do not, the ramifications for Nato are serious. Most European Nato members face a domestic terror threat not replicated in the continental USA. Furthermore, China remains only of peripheral geographic interest, unless a south-east Asian conflict results in America triggering Nato’s Article V. For instance, would EU members of Nato really want to support a bellicose American president in Korea?
Equally, would America come to the aid of Turkey or one of the Baltic States if they invoked Article V? Russia, which is implicitly seen as a secondary threat to China in the US, is a more direct threat in Europe. Nonetheless, it remains a divisive issue within the EU. It is plausible that an operational bifurcation might emerge within Nato, with the US focusing on countering China, and the EU concentrating on Russia. This could cement a division of labour that eventually results in a split.
This isn’t just a question of diverging interests and values. Hidden in Mattis’s NDS was a far more important acknowledgement of changing material circumstances that has largely been ignored. He wrote: “For decades the United States has enjoyed uncontested or dominant superiority in every operating domain. We could generally deploy our forces when we wanted, assemble them where we wanted, and operate how we wanted. Today, every domain is contested — air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace.” In three sentences he acknowledged that the US can no longer rely on unassailable hegemonic power. Clearly this will have important consequences for America and her allies in the practical exercise of military power. The great unknown is whether this decline in US power is permanent, a slow drift to a state system that would have been familiar to the titans of early 19th-century statecraft, Metternich and Castlereagh. Certainly, the NDS is prioritising preparation for future great power conflicts at the expense of fighting today’s war against non-state actors such as IS.
Since the Clinton administration, successive secretaries of defence tried, unsuccessfully, to move away from the so-called “two-war strategy”, the ability to fight two wars concurrently. In addition to the crippling cost, many argued that the so-called Third Offset Strategy would allow vastly superior technology to defeat enemy forces. In 2012 Obama reduced the strategic posture to “defeat and deny”. This meant defeating an enemy in one territory, while simultaneously denying another territory to an aggressor. The NDS has created a paradox. Whilst stating that the US faces two distinct challenges from China and Russia, and a variety of smaller regional threats, actual capability will be cut back even further to “defeating aggression by a major power; deterring opportunistic aggression elsewhere and disrupting imminent terrorist and WMD threats”.
After two long counterinsurgency campaigns there is significant doubt as to whether America’s armed forces are structured to meet great power conflict. During the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, China and Russia modernised with precision strike systems, mobile nuclear missiles and area-denial capability. It is not clear how the NDS will match the threat of great power war on one front, let alone two with actual capabilities.
The only serious answer to this conundrum is that the US will outsource much of the defence burden to her allies. Successfully implementing the NDS will require US allies such as India to contain China, replicating Nato’s containment of Russia.
Already, American retrenchment has reshaped several regional power dynamics. Australia’s tumultuous relationship with the US under Trump and shared concern with Japan over China has seen an acceleration of defence ties between the two. Equally, Hanoi appears to have reversed five years of confrontation with Beijing to adopt a far less confrontational approach to China.
It is not just America’s allies who are paying close attention. In the Middle East the US appears unable or unwilling to prevent escalation in the Syrian conflict. The downing of an Israeli F-16 and the retaliatory strike by Israel are evidence of America’s weakening ability to control enemies and allies alike. Hezbollah ominously called it “the start of a new strategic phase”. Russia, Iran and Turkey are all pursuing campaigns within Syria, and the US seems powerless to restrain any of them.
While Israel is primarily concerned with Hezbollah and Iran, the reality is that the powerbroker they have been courting is Russia, not the US. It is likely that the jet was shot down with Russian knowledge. There are echoes of the shooting-down of the Malaysian Airlines plane over Ukraine in 2014. The denial of airspace by Russia is strategically significant. The ability to do so in multiple theatres only emboldens Russia. In February nearly 200 Russian mercenaries were killed in US reprisals for their attack on American forces in Syria. Not only is America falling far short of “deterring” Russia, proxy war is now a serious risk.
America has inadvertently granted Putin’s desire for great power recognition. His lesson from Ukraine and Syria is that military action tips the balance of power in Moscow’s favour with few negative consequences. Russia limited Nato’s expansion, simultaneously sending a clear message to her client states through the invasion of Ukraine and Georgia. The uncertainty is whether Putin’s future strategic ambition will be realised through further direct military action or more subtle intervention in Western democracies.
The Baltics remain vulnerable to Russian influence or attack. Russia maintains a high level of operational preparedness and has run exercises three times as often as Nato in the past three years. There are echoes of the Cold War: Russia’s sheer numbers may simply be too great for Nato quickly to deter an attack. The real bottleneck would be logistics. Moving military assets within Europe and from America to Europe would take too much time.
Uncertainty about the strength of transatlantic ties, Brexit and worsening security on its borders have pushed European powers towards greater defence integration. In December, 25 member states launched the Permanent Structured Cooperation for defence (Pesco), allowing further military integration within the EU. The UK spent years vetoing European defence integration to prevent a rival force to Nato. Although able to participate as an external partner, Britain will currently be excluded from Pesco’s decision making. While Pesco is not a “European army”, it is worth remembering that there is also no “Nato army”: both represent military capabilities that exercise together and can operate under a unified command.
Pesco’s creation, currently largely symbolic, is also probably the starting point for a unified European core within Nato. Whether the UK participates or not, it is almost certain to erode Britain’s place as America’s European lieutenant.
At the moment Nato’s European strategy is based on deterring a Russian attack, rather than the more ambitious goal of stopping one. Pesco goes some way towards giving European forces greater coordination in achieving this in the face of uncertain US commitments to Europe.
In a high-profile op-ed article last year, Trump advisers H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn gave “a clear message to our friends and partners: where our interests align, we are open to working together to solve problems and explore opportunities”. This is a worryingly narrow definition of a military alliance. Nato used to be held together by a sense of indivisibility between values and interests. Certainly, the liberal international order which Nato was implicitly committed to defending has changed since its inception in 1949. Nonetheless, certain values such as a commitment to freedom, democracy, human rights, international law and international institutions were seen as fundamental and perhaps a distinctly American introduction to Atlanticism. The mixture of widely appealing values coupled with a willingness to disproportionately shoulder the costs of defence explained why other countries were prepared to accept American leadership. If this was Empire, it was Empire by consent. Trump’s world has little place for such ideas, and so the glue that held Nato together is slowly dissolving as the American model of international order loses its appeal.
It is far too easy to simply blame Trump for this. An equally significant divergence of values has opened within Europe. There is now a big enough split emerging between liberal democracies and revisionist, ethno-nationalists that many European member states must be asking themselves: what values might they find themselves fighting for and who will they be fighting alongside? Europe seems to be awakening to an unpalatable reality. If we transport ourselves back to 1989, many in Europe and the US believed that the end of the Cold War was about oppressed people grasping the universal truths of modern Western liberalism. It now seems that for many of the people of Eastern Europe the revolutions of 1989 were simply a rejection of Soviet imperialism. It is unsurprising that these countries will not accede to assisting in solving the refugee crisis. At its most extreme Poland and Hungary are involved in significant revisionism over their involvement in the Holocaust. This split is not just an ideational division with the EU. Poland in particular has been keen to pursue a more aggressive strategy towards Russia that means its defence doesn’t just rely on Nato.
No wonder that the increasingly difficult search for common values threatens European as well as transatlantic cohesion. Just before Davos the German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel articulated an increasingly common refrain from within Western Europe: “In the past, we could rely on the French, the British, and especially the Americans, to assert our interests in the world. We have always criticised the Americans for being the global police . . . but we are now seeing what happens when the US pulls back. There is no such thing as a vacuum in international politics. If the US leaves the room, other powers step in.” He was referring to the current paradox of US foreign policy: structurally everything looks the same but if you look more closely purpose and values are being eroded and this is being exploited by the principal challengers to liberal democracy. As the American commentator Daniel Drezner noted, when the leader of the most powerful country embraces a vulgar form of realism, seeing the world as a Hobbesian arena of self-interest rather than a “global community”, it all but guarantees reciprocity by everyone else. This new reality was not lost on Gabriel. Buried in his critique of Trump was an acknowledgement that the future for Germany, and by implication the EU, will have to embrace a form of “self-help” that dispassionately prioritises interests over values. As he put it, “If you focus solely on values, you won’t find success in a world where others are relentlessly pursuing their interests. In a world full of meat-eaters, vegetarians have a tough time.”
The UK’s Brexiteers still loudly proclaim themselves to be Trumpian meat-eaters. Indeed, the whole point of the Brexit project was to disengage from pan-European institutions and values to better pursue the UK’s direct interests. The implementation of Brexit is still proving internally divisive for both parties and the burden of a coordinated policy plan has yet to emerge. We are no closer to knowing what post-Brexit Britain will really look like as we edge closer to the “no-deal” precipice. Jacob Rees-Mogg asserted that the “UK will become a vassal state” if the Article 50 timetable is not extended in March. This has become an acutely accurate observation in the realm of defence. Leaks suggest that our Brexit negotiators are trying to skip the transition phase and move directly to a new security and defence relationship the day after exit.
Despite President Macron’s high-profile January visit to the UK, during which he heralded a new era of Franco-British bilateral military cooperation, it is France that is the most vociferous opponent of the UK’s involvement in European defence. Under Macron France has rapidly increased its defence spending with the most likely explanation being that she intends to exploit Brexit in order to replace the UK as the key pillar of European defence within Nato. Whatever form Brexit takes Britain’s future role as Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe can no longer be taken for granted.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has recently echoed Mattis’s concerns about Russia, while frantically attempting to secure his own eleventh-hour defence review. The return of great power competition highlights the significant danger which successive defence cuts have created and the urgent need to tackle the military ambiguity created by Brexit negotiations. General Sir Nick Carter, the professional head of the Army, issued grave warnings at the start of the year that the UK is trailing Russia in defence spending and capability, creating a particular vulnerability to the mix of threats faced. His warning echoed a starker assessment in 2016 by the outgoing commander of joint forces command, General Sir Richard Barrons. He wrote: “Counter-terrorism is the limit of up-to-date plans and preparations . . . there is no top-to-bottom command and control mechanism, preparation or training in place for the UK armed forces [to defend home territory] . . . let alone do so with Nato.”
It is hard to imagine a stronger warning that the UK is struggling to defend itself, its values and interests. The default assumption has been that Nato will provide the security blanket Britain needs and that we will more or less continue joint operations with our European neighbours under the auspices of Nato.
Since September 11, 2001 the UK’s two counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have disproportionately shaped today’s armed forces. As Barrons put it: “The current army has grown used to operating from safe bases . . . against opponents who do not manoeuvre at scale, have no protected mobility, no air defence, no substantial artillery, no electronic warfare capability.” This is particularly troubling because if Mattis’s assessment is correct the type of military now required is far closer to that of the Cold War.
Despite Williamson’s protestations to the contrary, it seems likely that this defence review will, like those of the preceding decade, be dictated by budgetary constraints rather than strategic imperatives. Most importantly, Britain is unlikely to be able to match her American partner’s strategic reorientation to great power conflict. Britain’s economic constraints have conspired with the political realities of European diplomacy post-Brexit to leave the UK particularly vulnerable.
Without a serious review of strategic priorities, the UK might find itself militarily misaligned with the US. Trump is unlikely to allow even as close an ally as the UK to outsource conventional military deterrence to Nato, while diverting her defence budget to counter-terrorism. It is simply incompatible with the logic he applies to international affairs.
When Americans talk about sharing the defence burden it appears they are no longer talking the same language as Europeans. Where the UK would once have bridged this divide we are too distracted by Brexit to address the increasingly precarious alliances that still just about protect us. American support and Nato unity should no longer be taken for granted as they were in previous decades. Equally, the EU may simply choose to march towards further military integration without formal UK decision-making. Either event would dramatically weaken the UK, but both together would be disastrous.