Feb 20 Editorial

Naval Review February 2020 – Editorial

Welcome to the first edition of this journal in 2020 – a new year, and decade, that starts at pace. Given that tempo, and to proffer some themes for discussion this coming year in The Naval Review, I have taken the liberty of looking in this extended editorial at some of the principle motivators that will drive the maritime contribution to the forthcoming UK Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR). All, of course, set against a rapidly deteriorating security context, especially in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, and globally amongst increasingly effective competition that is diminishing the erstwhile power of the West.

“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.” William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, Act IV Scene III)

Irrespective of one’s views, after three years of confusion we have reached political clarity in the UK, with respect to Europe, as we enter the new decade. But as Shakespeare stressed, grasping new opportunity needs to be taken “at the flood” if one is to succeed. And if our policy is now a future as global Great Britain, not part of any bloc, then failure to pivot defence and security to address those new circumstances risks both national interests and international standing. Many will say we can’t afford such optimistic, forward leaning, policy. I would opine we can’t afford not to – certainly if we are not to sink to a level of a lesser Britain (in terms of our ability to influence in global affairs to promote our future prosperity) where we will inevitably fall prey to the machinations of greater powers or power blocs – and as if to reinforce this point, it is telling we start this decade playing catch-up when it comes to unfolding events between the USA and Iran.

We entered the last decade challenged by the fallout from the 2007-08 global financial crash. But perhaps we still had confidence in a global rules-based system and the potential for a healthier global economy through advocacy of a social liberalist doctrine. However, this received wisdom papered over many cracks. It was, in the main, a self-serving Western view; it did not recognise the reality of new players who had joined the ‘great game’ just as the West’s political, economic and military credibility had been undermined by a series of failures, including a decade of inconclusive counter insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps of more import, such received wisdom failed to recognise that so many people felt forgotten or increasingly marginalised; to the extent that civil unrest, across the globe, escalated from a relatively narrow group of countries in the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 to now a phenomenon seemingly spreading across all continents stretching round the world from Chile to Hong Kong.

As if this turmoil wasn’t enough, whether in the UK or wider afield, the last decade saw growth in the single most complicating factor – a deficit in trust. Collectively there is less trust in globalism and the benefits of rules-based order and more hope now in divisive popularism
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(however misplaced). So, with increasingly fractionated and polarised populations trusting less – especially when it comes to authority or experts – we enter 2020 dominated by strongman geopolitics, with an accompanying eastward shift in the centre of gravity in world power; to which we have reacted somewhat incoherently in the West. In particular, in Britain, we have been seduced more by political introspection rather than on issues upon which our livelihood and security depend.
Piling on further complications on that, one might term the 2010s the ‘dystopian data decade’; where access and manipulation of data to deliver misinformation has reached hitherto unheard levels.

And if that is not enough, the backdrop of climate change (through whatever cause) risks physical changes to the map of the world with huge consequences for all nations and their societies which we can no longer ignore (as an article in this edition highlights). Pressed by growing climate activism, the tipping point of a rapid decline in our hydrocarbon-dominated global economy might well be closer than we imagine – where will the balance of power rest when oil reserves no longer prop up global players? Who are the next hegemons in such a world turned upside-down?

I apologise if this paints a pessimistic picture as we enter the 2020s. But I would suggest we must know where we are stepping-off from if we are to prosper in what already has the makings of a hugely challenging decade; where people are currently swayed more by emotions than fact. Untrammelled rhetoric is now the motivator assisted by a deficit in trust.

But should one be gloomy? No, not if one believes we as a country can adapt and accept all problems are ‘wicked’ requiring an adeptness in international affairs that used to be our hallmark. Our strength as a nation has been the ability to spin many plates, to work the complexities of multiple friends and allies, and even adversaries, to remain confident that we have something to offer. The irony is that part of our strength stems from knowing that other folk also have something to offer and that we can take their ideas on board without being belittled ourselves. That systemic, strategic belief in diversity is a huge strength.

Was it Lord Salisbury who said, “No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe doctors, nothing is wholesome; if you believe theologians, nothing is innocent; if you believe soldiers, nothing is safe.” I would suggest we must put a lie to that salutary perspective. Let’s not over-dramatise. Let’s just spell out the hard facts of what it takes to survive in the modern world: credible, professional, feared and respected armed forces, operating in all domains as part of a joined-up whole-of government approach to the world’s challenges.

SDSR 2020 must reflect this. Undoubtably there will be economic and political pressures to under-arm, cut corners, hollow-out and promote division to neuter opposition by experts and to divide and conquer Service interests. All such tactics have been employed, repeatedly, in the past in an attempt to ‘have our cake and eat it’. Up to now, we have, to an extent, got away
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with such a ‘smoke and mirror’ approach when it comes to the standing of our armed forces in the world. But now we, as a country, have consciously placed ourselves at a tipping point where our move to increased self-reliance, non-bloc attached, nationhood exposes us to significantly harsher global scrutiny and testing than hitherto.

At the merest whiff of cordite from the SDSR starting gun we have already seen, in the popular press, those who want to short-circuit the processes of the SDSR by jumping aboard old hobby horses to defend their sacred cows – apologies for the mixed metaphor but to quote Prime Minister Johnson it is “time for the slaughtering of sacred cows.” Rebuttal of such narrow minded lobbying by those on old hobby horses are ‘must reads’ in this edition of the journal.
What has not yet appeared in the UK press is the conclusion that, having rejected the idea of being part of a politico-economic continental bloc, this new national policy must shape future strategy that is dominated by what it is to be a maritime nation – once more! Professor James Holmes (Professor of Strategy at the US Naval War College) once referred to Australia as “a maritime nation without a maritime culture” – we risk falling into that trap. Australian strategists recognised the reality of their geography in their 2016 Defence White paper and pivoted, accordingly, to the maritime.

Meanwhile, we in the UK have had over two decades of undervaluing and undermining the components of capability, from whatever Service, necessary to address our interests as a maritime nation. As a consequence, we start the new decade with the balance of defence related components of capability skewed to address yesterday not tomorrow.

Availability, readiness and punch – a ‘fight tonight’ mentality – must surely be watch words in a less predictable global environment that requires skills that can rapidly adapt across the spectrum of crisis and at distance from the UK. No wonder SDSR 2020 will have to reprioritise and refocus the UK’s defence lever. And from a naval perspective the discussion on ‘poise’ and/or ‘presence’, in the last edition of the Review, is central to that reshaping.

So, to this edition of your Review. Unsurprisingly it has to reflect post 2019 General Election reality. But in many respects our discourse over the last two years has looked to the inevitability of the next SDSR. And to offer my final two-pennyworth, I think we now have to rediscover our humble self-confidence and appreciate the willingness of other nations to see us take a lead in a way that doesn’t belittle other contributors. The world wants a voice that speaks in a manner different from Presidents Xi Jinping, Macron, Putin or Trump. But to reclaim or maintain our place in the world in a post-just-part-of-the-EU construct we need dynamic, communicative, well-informed individuals (and The Naval Review is therefore a must-read and must-contribute part of the process) who know how to lead and know how to follow. The “game is afoot!”

Bruce Williams