May 20 Editorial

May 2020 Editorial

NASSIM Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan described a Black Swan event as: “First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact.’ Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.” I am in no doubt the COVID-19 crisis meets the second criteria, but does it meet that of the first and third?

It is somewhat ironic that, in the very year of yet another defence and security review (the latest in a long line of repeated reviews – eight in the last 30 years), we find ourselves at a tipping point previously highlighted as a primary threat to the UK as far back as 2010. At each review we nodded sagely but then, collectively (as ultimately it is the public who hold the vote) agreed to take ‘risk’ against such carefully crafted strategies. And under-fund them, as by and large to do so would be convenient and avoid interference with our insatiable appetite for quick fixes and simple solutions, and deliver more immediate satisfaction. Well we now are learning what such myopia can deliver – as hitherto ‘risks’ are realised.

There is no doubting the societal and economic upheaval COVID-19 will cause – depending on what you read and who you follow this could well dwarf the impact of the 2007-2008 financial crash. But perhaps even more important than that, this tipping point appears to be accelerating a range of macro trends, some of which I pointed to in my last editorial.

And if I was to pluck one of those out for further examination it is hegemonic competition. China, and indeed Russia, have both deftly managed the information battle – adjusting the facts to suit their narratives. In particular we now see the Chinese government sweeping under the carpet the fact that it suppressed, last November, news of the emergent virus; a delay that enabled it to get a global foothold. Now China has achieved a measure of domestic order, as the pandemic moves away from them (perhaps – I remain sceptical it is that simple), and its economy restarts, it has decided to enter a moral high-ground tussle with the USA, just as America belatedly recognises the crisis within its own borders.

And Russia, who for months has repeatedly hit the denial button, seems to want to take advantage of the situation; not just through misinformation but by a range of activities that will test Alliance resolve and test its robustness. For instance, the US administration’s messaging in Italy has not been received well – it has given an impression of retreat at a moment of critical need. Meanwhile the Russians, notwithstanding how reportedly unusable their aid package might be, has attempted to fill that gap. After such a shock people will remember where their friends are, reported La Stampa. And around the UK, just as the pandemic starts to have major impact, we see a surge of Russian warship deployments testing our responses – coincidence?

Pushed hard, there is undoubted potential for miscalculation in the near future – whether nations sense an opportunity to ‘steal a march’ on their competitors or whether their interests are directly infringed by those nations manoeuvring for advantage in the aftermath of the pandemic. Certainly, we are going to be paying for this outbreak for decades (given the immense shock already to the world economy) and the mettle of the Alliance, and that of the global rules-based system, will be sorely tested. The question is how should we act?

The blame game is an obvious route. Perhaps, post pandemic, we will need to consider, as some have already suggested, reduction in sovereignty given there is now a legitimate argument that all nations now need to be able to inspect others to assure collective biosecurity. But just blaming solves nothing – a key article in this edition covers this point as we must, at least some of us, lift our eyes to ‘the day after’. And not just to recovery but opportunities to truly learn and implement change necessitated by this ‘non-Black Swan’ event.

What does that mean in the UK and especially for Defence? That is undoubtedly for the forthcoming Integrated Review. But I would opine three key principles that I believe must be adopted in that work (I offer them up as a challenge for you to write in response in subsequent editions – getting a grip on the current situation means hard talk and clear argument is needed to help shape and inform the path to a sunnier future):

• Always Expect – we have been great in predicting all kinds of futures and writing strategies to address them and then underinvesting in the conclusions of that work. Competition for resources in the UK will be great after this pandemic – such must not undermine our ability to grow and protect such interests world-wide. COVID-19 has taught us the lesson of unacceptable risk – the consequence of unpreparedness.

• Value Experts – after three years of Brexit, where experts were routinely belittled or undermined, we’ve now realised their true worth. Experts aren’t overly certificated ‘wunderkinds’ but those who mix the rigours of academic development with the benefits of experience; all of which requires time to develop. As Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, argues expertise and intuition is not some magical property that arises unbidden from the depths of one’s mind. It is a product of long hours and intelligent design, of meaningful work environments and particular rules and principles.

• Foster Experience – we seem to crave, in pursuit of efficiency, lean flat structures and repeatedly cull what is considered fat. But what is lost in the cull? Depth and breadth of professional experience and resilience. And it results in an inevitable acceleration of the reinventing-wheels-machine. It also begs the question whether our structures become developed more for peace than constructed for conflict, where redundancy is essential.

No matter the size of the tragedy we now face, one thing is certain we have come a long way in caring and control of pandemics since that of the 1918-19 Influenza pandemic; where the mitigation we can apply today will substantially reduce the level of casualties and death. And with the sense of getting things in proportion I will conclude this editorial on what should have been a year to remember the sacrifices, 75 years ago, that resulted from a magnitude of death and destruction we can barely comprehend today. Putting it simply, it is estimated that the Second World War killed, globally, more people than are alive in the whole of the United Kingdom today (i.e. by 1945, 70-85 million people or 3 per cent of the world’s population in 1940). Its impact still shapes the geo-politics of today three-quarters of a century later.

On this 75th anniversary of VE day, on 8 May, we should reflect on the Royal Navy’s role in that war. Too often its role is dismissed as something of a sideshow by those less versed in the import of the war at sea. Accordingly, and I make no apologies for the length of the articles (after all self-isolation and social-distancing does bring the advantage of proffering more reading time) in this edition that expand on the debt to our forebears we all owe.

I look forward to your contributions to future editions – there is a huge amount now to discuss. And please remember VE Day was but the beginning of the end, VJ Day marked the end of the Second World War on 15 August 1945 – in the next edition of this journal I would love to publish articles focused on that Indo-Asia-Pacific hemisphere of war, recognising in doing so that WWII perhaps started, well before the invasion of Poland in 1939, in Manchuria in September 1931.

Bruce Williams