Winter 2021 Editorial
Perhaps the trait I most admire about the Dutch is their tendency to express themselves in a direct, straightforward fashion. It is an honesty that at times is uncomfortable to live with. In the UK we are, perhaps, the past masters of compromise; looking for merit in any argument and attempting to be scrupulously even handed, even when the truth is perhaps staring one in the face.
Covid-19 continues to mete out painful lessons about our mortality and vulnerability. It has, as many have opined, widened fissures in the fabric of our country and is catalysing rapid change away from previous certainties. Thus, I have decided the theme of this edition is about stripping away pretences and shining a stark light on where we think we are, or should be, by being more ‘Dutch’.
Yes, in amongst the tsunami of bad news, there has been good news. Take the Prime Minister’s statement on the progress of the Integrated Review. Ostensibly very encouraging (so far) but as one senior British interlocutor put it: “Let’s hope the light at the end of the tunnel is not a mirage. The Integrated Review outcome, and hits as a result of effectively no increase in RDEL, will cause consternation to those who thought the £20bn plus uplift over the next 4 years (unexpectedly good news) resolved defence funding problems.”
Notwithstanding such concern, at least we now have the benefit of a clearer national vision. We are to be a ‘Global Britain’, ‘free’ to make our future outside of the European Union – now the hard bit, we have to describe what that means. Looking back, as some do to so called glory days, is pointless. The world has moved on whilst we have been largely devoted to introspection over the last decade. The call to lift one’s eyes to the new horizon, and to the new grand strategic game, rings out from a number of compelling articles in thisedition, which do not pull their punches.
And lifting one’s eyes, by gaining a perspective of how others see us in this new game, is critical if we are to advance that global vision – again articles in this edition share some thoughts on that. But to encapsulate or summarise a trend in thinking from beyond our shores, perhaps I might best quote another well-informed and respected antipodean interlocutor when I asked the rather direct question, “What do you really think of the Royal Navy and UK Defence?”
His response: “Seen from here in the Indo-Pac region, despite recent spending announcements, there is something of a jaundiced view about the UK and the future of the RN. A view that considers the RN to have become entrapped by its resource asset accounting system – set by RDEL (Resource Departmental Expenditure Limits) and CDEL (Capital Departmental Expenditure Limits), into an immoral methodology of reductionist spin. The critical factor is what the UK Armed Forces (if indeed it is still an Armed Force) spend on RDEL, specifically including research. DSTL is inadequate – the privatisation of UK Defence Research in 2003 was a national disgrace. When the UK last competed on the global stage, it spent 15% of its Defence budget on research and development – a key futures lead indicator. Today it is less than 5%. The UK literally stopped thinking 20 years ago, when Defence research was privatised – maybe even from the mid-1970s, on
joining what became the EU. From an Australian perspective – as one of the few global Western countries to be ‘coping with Covid-19’ through a combination of volunteerism, rapid quantitative community testing, expert contact tracing (at least in NSW), capacity and luck – welcome to the real world. A world of having to think, fend and fight for yourselves. Until the UK Defence budget clearly restores its investment in thinking (research and people) and RDEL, then there can be no confidence in a UK return to the global stage – where you are missed and wanted! Carriers alone will not cut it. Kindly, we ask UK to consider: where have you been these last 45 years?”
So, having asked, the answer is clear that true friends abroad are not convinced. Accordingly, we start 2021 at a low ebb in so many ways. Bravado and swagger, or assumptions as to what is our rightful place, measured by the size of our economy or even size of the Navy, won’t work. Acceptance of harsh realities is needed. We have a mountain to climb to regain true influence in the world if we are to protect our national interests around the globe. A world where relationships will necessarily now be more transactional and not depend on historic emotional bonds (that frankly we have done little to foster anyway). A new model where the likes of the peoples of Hong Kong will not be left to fend for themselves against the might of authoritarian regimes such as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Like it or not we now live in a continuum where the distinction between war and peace has been blurred. Indeed, we must now build to operate, as some term it, in a sub-threshold war. We haven’t yet adapted our thinking enough for the new paradigm, or accepted we are already in conflict by other means with some competitors – cyber being the obviousexample but, perhaps, all the more insidious, is the ‘integrated’, all state levers of power, approach now being used subtly against our national and allies’ interests.
So, ignoring Covid-19 for a moment, what are the more obvious features of that global security continuum as 2020 ended? Starting with a politically damaged USA (harm that has direct impact on the global notion (and credibility) of democracy and the West’s favoured rules-based-system) we now see a substantially more strident China (having grasped the pandemic opportunity it is now flexing its muscles more than ever before, as we reach the centenary of the CCP), an increasingly irregular Russia (that will use all means fair or foul, irrespective of international norms, to forward its oligarchical interests) and a raft of other players; including a neo-Ottoman Turkey (and its complex relationship with Russia and ambitions in Libya, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh and Somalia) and a febrile and frustrated Iran (currently largely hemmed-in but nonetheless threatening). And all that before you get back to issues such as NATO’s future or North Korea or, perhaps the biggest elephant in the room, Climate Change. And on that latter issue, you will see later in this edition, especially given that COP 26 is scheduled for November this year in Glasgow, I am proposing that Climate Change becomes a key strand running through our discourse in 2021; with a headline exam question: “What are the challenges for the Royal Navy operating in a Net Zero 2050 World?” I would encourage you all to engage in what will, as a result of the UK’s Net Zero 2050 policy, shape all aspects of the future of UK Defence.
I wrote at the beginning of this editorial that I believe we need to be more ‘Dutch’ in our discourse. The window of opportunity for Britain finding its feet post-Brexit is vanishingly small. We can’t afford time in debate that marvels in the Emperor’s new clothes. Rather we need to address what really lies beneath that veneer. I look forward to you being part of that dialogue – don’t hold back! And in doing so, buck the trend of what I perceive as growing incuriousity in many; that is consequent of, and directly proportional to, the proliferation of social media outlets – whose brevity and anonymity invariably leads to polarised and incomplete debate and, in the real world, division and strife (as amply demonstrated in Washington DC just six days into this new year).
Quotes of the Quarter
“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you
managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing
is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in.”
Harukai Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
“Sweet are the uses of adversity; which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a
precious jewel in his head.”
William Shakespeare, As You Like It (Act 2 Scene 1)
Publishing Dates for 2021–22
All articles submitted to the Editor for publishing in the Naval Review journal should be
with the editor no later than the following dates:
- Monday 22 March 2021 for the Spring 2021 edition
- Monday 21 June 2021 for the Summer 2021 edition
- Monday 20 September 2021 for the Autumn 2021 edition
- Monday 20 December 2021 for the Winter 2022 edition