Spring 22 Editorial
Apologies but I’m bound to state the obvious now the West’s emperor’s new clothes of liberalism have, in parts, been proven wanting by President Putin. We are witness to a gargantuan failure of Western grand strategy – a West so long wrapped up in its own hubris and sophistry. We have been presented with clear and repeated warnings: Chechnya (1999– 2000), Georgia (2008), Syria (2014–18), Crimea (2014) and even brazen attacks on British soil (Litvinenko (2006) and the Skripals (2018)) resulting in British citizens’ death or life changing injury. I regret I’m as bad as others, or have at least tagged along with collective wisdom, and have repeatedly ignored such omens in favour of our more short-term interests and unhealthy introspection. Indeed, we seem to have gone one step further and almost rewarded those shown to be wholly ill-disposed to the type of world order we champion. For instance, we all but rewarded Putin after his annexation of Crimea with an unboycotted Sochi Winter Olympics, offered a number of slapped wrists after poisonings in Salisbury, totally ignored the complete devastation of Grozny, did not stand up to our supposed ‘red lines’ in Syria and, through strategic failure in Afghanistan, suggested to the likes of Putin that the West’s authority had culminated, and the Afghan rout was an example of our moral decline. What better time for Putin to embark on a kleptocratic adventure?
Yes, we have obvious flaws in our society – that is the value of democracy in which we believe all have a right to a voice – but we have, I would suggest, allowed day to day minutiae to supplant critical long-term geo-political thinking and grand strategy needed to assure our vision of the future. Sadly, I have remarked on such several times in previous editions of this journal, but we appear steadfastly fixated, or distracted, by more popularist considerations. Ask Google what is the first duty of any democratic government and it provides a multitude of responses along the lines of “to afford protection to its citizens.” But for three decades we have pursued a peace dividend that has massively impacted defence. The question that always used to be asked in the press was, “do we have sufficient capability to retake the Falkland Islands?” Perhaps the much more sobering question, today, is “do we have the depth and span of forces to even defend our home base?”
To be fair, in justification of this decline in our defence options, we had put our faith in what we considered to be a new world order based on global economic competition and liberal capitalism, and not growth via military conquest. Afterall, it has worked for the last 70 years, hasn’t it? Yes, peaceful growth has been achieved but at the cost of amplifying strategic vulnerabilities; e.g. strategic stockpiles have been dispensed with because they are a drag on growth, and increasing over-reliance on single sources of supply in order to promote greater efficiency and growth (hydrocarbon supplies being but one example).
“But hold on” you’ll say, “why are you being so hard on us – surely the miscreant in all of this is the irrational architect of the Russo-Ukrainian War?” Or call it what it is: ‘Putin’s War’ – the chasing of a mystical sense of a greater Russia (a fervour bolstered by the hurts consequent of Soviet failure in the first Cold War) that somehow extends him the right to ignore the UN Charter and invade, with apparent little regard to the rules of armed conflict, others’ sovereign territory. All agreed, but we now find ourselves in a position where, as one commentator put it, “banks aren’t defeating tanks.” The impact of soft power sanctions is certainly not delivering effect before huge swathes of destruction have been wrought. At the same time the West looks as if it has been caught in a counter-deterrence trap, unable to support Ukraine militarily, due to Putin’s none too subtle reference to the possible use of tactical nuclear missiles.
Forty years ago, we signalled a similar lackadaisical stance when it came to the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, which led to another set of opportunist autocrats seizing the moment to deflect from their failings in Argentina. It was a watershed moment for the RN in particular. The realities of war and a fighting edge were rebuilt, or certainly reinforced, just in the nick of time before the 1981 Nott Defence Review emasculated the Service.
Rush forward to today. We have reached an even more momentous tipping point. What was hitherto considered highly improbable has become a reality. Soft power, the cheaper option, has its place but our over reliance on it to deliver influence has been found wanting. Roosevelt’s ‘big stick’ foreign, defence and security policy may need to now be adopted if the UK is to sustain its voice – its influence – in an age where it no longer belongs to any economic bloc but is still a key member of perhaps the most successful Alliance in history – that has just had a very rude awakening.
And awake it is! NATO has invoked Article 4 (triggered when one or more NATO members deem territorial integrity, political independence or security to be threatened) on occasion over the last three decades. But what is truly remarkable, following Putin’s invasion, is that eight members invoked the article simultaneously. Like it or not we are now in the foothills on a new Cold War. As Professor Till writes later in this edition, “[Russia] has become an enemy, not just a competitor.” This would suggest the UK (and her Allies) must now address questions regarding a step-up in defence spending to Cold War levels; in order to ensure it has a ‘stick’ large enough to be a credible full spectrum deterrent and able to deliver real effect where necessary to protect its and its Allies interests. The likes of Germany and others in Europe have already woken up to that challenge, but perhaps because they already lag the UK in spending against agreed GDP targets. Which leads to a supplementary question: is Putin’s War a shock of sufficient magnitude to sustain, in amongst the current economic downturn and post-pandemic recovery, the emerging practical resolve necessary for the West to defend its global interests in a new Cold War? The ‘first duty’ of any government suggests this isn’t discretionary choice despite the obvious economic challenges.
Dear reader, you will be unsurprised that this edition of the Journal is thus dominated by two strands – the Falklands in 1982 (where the focus is on the moral component of war) linked by autocratic kleptocrats to Ukraine in 2022 (where articles look more to the global consequences of the war than predicting the current ebb and flow of the conflict). And in all, there is a sense of working to fill the lacuna of grand strategies for the UK and the West, the setting of which has been avoided for so long.
And perhaps by coincidence, already in the pipeline, the next edition of this Journal will focus on the 100th anniversary of the death of Sir Julian Corbett on 21 September 1922. A number of articles are in course of production, ranging from biographical reflection (Corbett as an educator) to the understanding of national strategy (and why he considered the RN vital to the UK’s future) to wider coverage on Corbett 100. You may of course wish to submit your own thoughts on the man and his influence, or application of his theories today.
My final word must go in praise and consideration of the Ukrainians. Clearly they get strategy – as Napoleon once said, “never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” And it is plain to all Russia has made many errors. But, equally plain to see, Ukraine has played its inferior hand of cards well – over six weeks in (at the time of writing) and they have fended off a supposedly militarily superior force, and a nuclear power to boot. Why? In my humble opinion because Ukraine understands the value of the moral component of fighting power in particular, whilst the Russians seem more fixated by the physical component. In addition, the Ukrainians have reinforced important lessons: that we must all keep learning from history, we must know one’s opponents as well as oneself and we must be prepared to adapt to the circumstances presented not ones wished for (i.e. ‘we fight tonight’ with what we have and not plans based on longings for ‘jam tomorrow’).
So, given recent events, my editorial tone going forward is simple: the deepest of respect for the people of Ukraine and their just cause, and utter contempt for, and enmity towards, those who show no value to life or sovereignty or in international order.