Rescuing Realism from Trump

November 18, 2016 - Comments Off on Rescuing Realism from Trump

President-elect Donald Trump has already inflicted grave damage on American public life, and intensified the coarsening of the republic’s politics. Even if he tacks to the moderate centre, he has incited the populace and stirred a constituency of the alienated that could easily turn on him. He will have to ride this political force if his presidency is to survive. Hopes that he will ‘settle down’ into a conventional equilibrium are blind to this dynamic. Neither will America’s diplomacy be immune from this dark carnival.

One disappointing aspect of Trump’s campaign for office, and the reaction against it, is the hardening of a simplistic binary divide in the way Americans debate their grand strategy, or the logic that should guide how they align their power and commitments. With the help of some of his critics, Trump has levelled a wrecking ball at the chances of a decent debate about America’s foreign, defence and even trading posture. This has happened precisely at the time when such a conversation is most needed.

Major states need a ‘big story’ to guide how they define and rank problems, organise their power and respond to the unexpected. Facing record levels of debt, multiple adversaries, public fatigue with the burdens of global power and an economic environment upset by Brexit and its fallout, Americans and their allies and friends badly need to engage with the question.

Sadly, this very necessary discussion has degenerated to the point where advocates of American primacy all to readily imagine alternatives as being little more than retreat and capitulation. Trump and Trumpism has attracted the accusation of isolationism. International observers are nervous to say the least. Reeling from Trump’s victory, diplomat and former political advisor Jonathan Powell warned that ‘the advent of a nativist, protectionist and isolationist US president – has finally come to pass. It is only necessary to look at who has welcomed his victory – Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and Vladimir Putin – to realise this is a catastrophe in the making.’ Trump’s ascent brought about a political realignment of sorts, where many defenders of the status quo, believers in American activist leadership, liberal hawks and neoconservatives feared Trump would wreck the foundations of a grand strategy that Washington has pursued since the end of World War Two.

Trump has not helped matters. He branded his movement ‘America First’, peddled anti-Semitic images and suggestions, and spoke darkly of alien conspiratorial forces being arrayed against embattled Americans, through diabolical secret pacts and rigged elections. It is not fanciful on one level to recognise in his movement the spirit of Charles Lindbergh and Father Charles Coughlin. The company he keeps internationally does little to assuage the suggestion that he would bully America’s allies and clients, while aligning himself with the states that are seeking to dominate their regions.

Yet Trump embodies contradictions. His associates, and rumoured appointees, include committed neoconservatives like Newt Gingrich, Rudi Giuliani, and John Bolton. These unapologetic believers in American dominance and muscular internationalism, who have shown a high appetite for military adventures and advocated the deepening and, at times, the extension of Washington’s security commitments. Trump himself has threatened to shred American alliances from Japan to NATO, and to tolerate nuclear proliferation to the Gulf and East Asia. Yet his philippics against Obama and Clinton imply an ambitious, active and violent conception of America’s role in the world. His denunciations of the Iran interim agreement seem to promise more escalation, more confrontation and a protracted presence in the Gulf. His shifting positions on Iraq – favouring and opposing invasion, favouring withdrawal yet denouncing Obama for withdrawing, advocating the seizure of oil – are an incoherent mess. According to President Obama, Trump has signalled in their discussions that he will maintain America’s alliances after all.

Where this is heading, who the hell knows? We don’t know the inside of Trump’s mind, but so far he marks the coming together of some conflicting traditions of the American Right. Trump’s openness to contradictory ideas, his volatility, is itself a problem: almost any idea could make its way in, and be promptly abandoned. Such uncertainty itself will probably accentuate the insecurity of other states.

Faced with a capricious ruler who defies traditional categories, the temptation is to categorise him in ways that assimilate to our pre-existing world view. Between Trump and Clinton there has settled an unhelpful reductio: where Clinton represents the status quo of continued American leadership and a commitment to remaining the world’s security provider and the guardian of a ‘liberal world order’, Trump represents a crude withdrawal inwards. Furthermore, at least as much discussion suggests, these are the only choices we have. This falsely collapses the many gradations and intermediate choices between primacy and isolation.

We do not have to settle for a reductionist choice between primacy and isolation. America is a major power with interests well beyond its water’s edge, with an interest in securing the commons, and need not run the experiment of outright withdrawal. It is also an overburdened power saddled with a $18 trillion debt and a population and infrastructure that is in need of ever greater investment. To survive as a great power, Washington needs to lower and redistribute those burdens, play harder to get, and watchfully accommodate other rising states. Trump’s destabilising offerings are no way to shape world order, but neither is a failing status quo, one that is putting America and its allies on collision course with Russia and China.

This is not the place for a detailed policy manifesto, but there should be room in the discussion for a realist alternative of managed multipolarity. The current dispensation, and the pursuit of unchallengeable American primacy, grows from two atypical moments that can’t easily now be replicated: the immediate post-war period of the late 1940’s, when America’s material strength was artificially high relative to the war-ravaged powers of Eurasia; and the mid to late 1990’s, the short-lived unipolar moment that could not survive the very American-driven global economic boom that fuelled the rise of rivals. From its share of world product, to the ability of other states to raise costs militarily on US intervention, this is now a different world, a more historically ‘normal’ one where other states are rivals and partners at the same time, where bargains and compromises are needed, and where resources are scarce.

How can the US coexist and share power, in Eastern Europe and the South China Sea? Can it not at least explore the possibilities of an informal set of modus vivendi agreements? This would be distinct from appeasement, where one actor makes unilateral and persistent concessions to satiate another. Rather, it would take two to tango, require reciprocation and mutual compromise, and could be withdrawn. For instance, a commitment not to enlarge NATO further, with greater Russian restraint in cyberspace and on NATO’s eastern periphery? In the South China Sea, greater limitations from Beijing on its territorial claims, in exchange for multilateral compromise and the formation of a maritime strategic reserve? Much of this renegotiation could be informal and incremental, avoiding loss of face.  Within NATO itself, you don’t have to be a Trumpist to recognise that an intensified discussion about burdens and commitments is needed, especially the need for a stepped-up Anglo-French role. For the alliance as a whole, the days of the ‘free ride’ are over.

To be sure, this might not work. It might merely encounter rejection, or lead others to detect weakness. This is entirely possible. The point is to give it a try, to reveal the preferences of America’s rivals, and hold out the opportunity for more stable co-existence. Should it lead to predatory expansion, the offer of accommodation can be withdrawn. Diplomatic bargaining has a long history of failure. But it also has a long history of success. In the tradition of classical realism, which places a strong emphasis on consequential diplomacy, accommodation is always difficult and usually impermanent. To prevent the unthinkable, though, we must think harder about how American power can adapt and help bring about a negotiated universe. Repeatedly invoking the ‘liberal world order’ and resisting any measures of limitation or restraint is not working, and will not work. We have just endured a campaign light on substantive detail, and heavy on slogans. Crude choices and false binaries are the stuff of demagogic politics. If they dominate the urgent questions of world order, God help us.

On Rules and Order

September 24, 2016 - Comments Off on On Rules and Order

I recently wrote this piece at The National Interest, arguing that we don’t, can’t and never will live in a ‘rules based’ world order, despite the frequent claims that we do.

Butch Bracknell wrote a critique of my argument here.

My response to Butch is here, below. Hopefully we will keep our dialogue going, and I’ll post up any further ripostes:

I am grateful to Butch Bracknell’s response to my article, and say that not just as a throat-clearing protocol of debate. This question matters. It goes to the heart of the kind of world we live in, the world we ought to strive for, and above all, what kind of world is possible. Bracknell’s critique is terse but full of ideas that need unpacking. I hope readers will forgive a lengthy response.

His argument, in brief, is that I judge the concept of a ‘rules based’ world order by a false standard. There is a rules based order, he claims, only it is not omnipotent and neither does it have to be. What’s more, the test is whether rules shape behaviour: and they do. They have normative power, informing actors’ decisions about how things should be and how they ought to behave. States care about legitimacy and mostly comply. Non-compliance with a set of rules does not nullify those rules. Deploying a domestic law metaphor, Bracknell notes that people violate criminal laws in Chicago, but those laws still are valuable, and withdrawing them would make things worse. America’s obligation, he concludes, ‘is to continue to strengthen the international order, not to undermine it because it is occasionally imperfect or ineffective.’

Let’s start with our points of agreement. I have no quarrel with the suggestion that rules exist, that they have an effect, and that this is a non-trivial part of international life.

My argument, quite simply, is that our world, for all its rules, is not fundamentally ‘rules based,’ at least when it comes to the strongest states when they are make some of their most historical decisions.

The overriding issue here is what the concept ‘rules based’ means, if anything. To say that it is ‘rules based’ is implicitly, and necessarily, to exclude or at least marginalise other possible things the world could be ‘based’ on. To say ‘based’ is to suggest hierarchy. If it doesn’t mean that rules are the overriding, overarching and fundamental determinant of global interactions, at the expense of other forces that could drive international life, then what precisely does it mean?

Bracknell’s alternative test is so low as to be banal: ‘whether the norms affect state and state actors’ behaviours, not whether one hundred percent compliance is achieved.’ In that case, the phrase ‘rules based’ borders on meaninglessness. Other forces, too, shape behaviours: insecurity, honour, greed, resource scarcity, or domestic politics. What elevates ‘rules’ above these? To claim that a global system is ‘based’ on something is more ambitious than merely suggesting one variable has an effect.

For us to take ‘rules based’ seriously, Bracknell is right that it does not have to be ‘omnipotent.’ But it shouldn’t be impotent either, regarding the behaviour of major powers on major questions. And this is the embarrassing reality for legalists. At critical junctures, involving high-stakes issues, where major states are concerned about their most pressing interests, the rules become impotent, or at least very weak.

The overwhelming evidence is that the world is also ‘based’ on ‘rules violation’, as every great power sets rules aside at will.  These violations may not be the majority pattern. But they are major transgressions of such significant quality that they cast the central thesis into doubt. To say that the rules and the doctrine of strict rules-observance is ‘intact’, after Iraq, Kosovo, the South China Sea, Tibet, the Crimea, and the flouting of international courts, with impunity, by every one of the permanent five states, is laughable. It calls to mind the joke about the man who asks Abraham Lincoln’s widow after their night at the theatre, ‘aside from that, Mrs Lincoln, how was the show?’

Bracknell argues that occasional non-compliance does not shake the order. “A law does not lose legitimacy because a few bad actors choose to disobey it.” This is where his domestic analogy breaks down. We are not talking about a few bad actors breaking the law in a governed city, with a police force deterring and pursuing offenders and a legal system, backed by force, upholding the law. It is more like a post-apocalyptic Chicago, with no government or supreme authority, and unaccountable and predatory major gangs violating laws with impunity, yet continuing to insist others obey. Observing that, we would say that the rule of law had collapsed. We wouldn’t be cheering ourselves up by citing cases of weak offenders being rounded up by stronger ones.

One final issue. Bracknell and I agree that the US ‘should strengthen international order, not undermine it.’ Contrary to the implied claim, it is not me barracking for chaos and Bracknell barracking for order. Rather, ours is a dispute about competing concepts of order. We have different ideas of what ‘order’ means.

I think the prudent pursuit of ‘order’ means adopting a more restrained, more accommodating and more measured multipolar and power-sharing diplomacy, backed by deterrence and material strength, and that this may involve compromises on rules.  Obeying or imposing rules might threaten, not bolster, international order. Should Washington have bowed to the UN’s ‘sole’ authority over Kosovo? Should Washington consistently obey the law even where conscience or interest make violating it compelling? Should the prospect of a P5 veto override the urge to intervene? Faced with illegality or atrocity, what should we choose? Four-word phrases, no matter how often repeated, won’t resolve the dilemma.

Bracknell, by contrasts, confuses and conflates ‘order’ with ‘rules’, and fails to recognise the tensions and dilemmas between the two distinct concepts. This is what I meant, when I suggested that the fallacy of legalism is to suppose that rules can supplant power politics. By confusing rules with order, Bracknell demonstrates that legalism is not a ‘straw man’ but a real thing indeed.

When the issue becomes intense, as was recently said, rules are powerful against the powerless, but powerless against the powerful. Hence Bracknell’s nod to the problem of the Africa-targeting bias. The millions killed and maimed in unauthorised and unpunished great power wars, like the many victims of warlords beyond the writ of the state, recede to the background when Bracknell affirms that ‘Some actors, unmoored from an internal moral or religious regulation of the desire to kill other humans, are nonetheless deterred by the prospect of arrest, trial and imprisonment.’ Some.


Iraq ‘Chilcot’ Inquiry: Dogma, not deception, is the main warning

July 16, 2016 - Comments Off on Iraq ‘Chilcot’ Inquiry: Dogma, not deception, is the main warning

I have recently written and spoken about Britain’s Iraq ‘Chilcot’ Inquiry, to help inform debate and in preparation for a book about the subject.

My article appeared recently in The National Interest, here. I was also lucky enough to speak at the Royal United Services Institute’s half-day conference on the subject, the talk is posted at Academia Edu here.

The Reluctant Case against Brexit

June 18, 2016 - Comments Off on The Reluctant Case against Brexit

The National Interest has kindly published my thoughts on Britain and the EU Referendum. A reluctant case against leaving an imperfect Union – indeed, staying in to check the excesses of its zealots:

Comments to Parliamentary Committee

March 17, 2016 - Comments Off on Comments to Parliamentary Committee

This week I was lucky enough to appear before the UK Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, footage here and transcript here. I also submitted some follow-on written answers to questions a voting division prevented being asked, will post them shortly.

The discussion encompassed issues my own research has focussed on. These include the strengths and weaknesses of public national security strategy, how the government can enhance evaluation and testing of assumptions and wishful thinking, and how to prepare wisely in the face of uncertainty.


The Weight of the Punch: British Power and Ambition

March 7, 2016 - Comments Off on The Weight of the Punch: British Power and Ambition

I’ve just written an article at War on the Rocks, The Weight of the Punch, an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Britain’s National Security Strategy and its Strategic Defence and Security Review of 2015.

Another Intervention in Libya? What’s at Stake

February 11, 2016 - Comments Off on Another Intervention in Libya? What’s at Stake

Should a US-led coalition intervene in Libya, with force, for the second time in five years?

This week, I was lucky enough to appear before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, alongside Professor Malcolm Chalmers from RUSI, and Chris Stephen, Libya correspondent at the Guardian. Here are some brief thoughts, building on our discussion.

The bottom line, up front: there is a case for a limited and focussed campaign to check the Islamic State’s expansion in the country, to fit the broader strategy of containment. The UK and the international community have real (though limited) interests in doing so.

At the same time, our first responsibility in conducting a military campaign is to ‘do no harm’ – or at least do minimal harm – to that country’s effort to establish a constitutional government, and to prevent sliding into anarchy. Libya’s destiny is primarily a matter for Libyans. Our job is to check IS’ expansion without making Libyans’ job harder.

Libya today is almost a shattered state. It is fragmented between rival factions (and factions within factions) and rival parliaments. Oil production – its main source of wealth -has plummeted badly since 2011. In this atomised society, there is even more than one institution that calls itself the Libyan National Army. If that isn’t bad enough, Libya is also an arena for Gulf Arab rivalries. There is currently a painstaking effort to pull together a unity government of ‘National Accord’, but the details are dividing Libyans and the process appears fragile.

Beyond compassion, why should we care? The Islamic State has a foothold there. It is expanding its presence. These Islamist zealots believe in the coming apocalypse and think Al Qaeda is too soft. But they are also opportunistic, exploiting divisions, making practical alliances and absorbing former rivals where they can.  IS has also seized the overthrown dictator Colonel Gaddafi’s coastal home town of Sirte, and a stretch of territory on either side. Somewhere, his ghost is laughing.

This raises two fears. One, that the Islamic State if left unchecked could use the country as a sanctuary, and as a staging post for more terrorism abroad. In the words of Libya’s ambassador to the UAE, might this turn Libya into IS’ ‘gas station, ATM and airport?’

Secondly, there are broader dangers. Further destabilisation could drive yet more people to flee North Africa into Southern Europe, with all the upheaval this brings. The security interests of the Medieterranean world and beyond are at stake.

With IS closing in on the country’s oil terminals and facilities, the very survival of the Libyan economy could be jeopardised. We can’t know exactly what more deterioation could bring in its wake. But we aren’t keen to run the experiment.

Before judging how to address the problem, a tiny note to liberal interventionists and R2P advocates. This was precisely the kind of chaos that the ‘something must be done’ faction confidently forecast would happen if we didn’t join the hostilities in 2011. If this ‘textbook’ ‘model intervention’, this exercise in ‘smart power at its best’ shows one thing, it is the lethality of untempered good intentions, especially when accompanied by swagger. President Obama reportedly was hesitant about the campaign in 2011. Evidently, with good reason.

History, however, happened. Judging on what we can know, now intervention in some form looks likely. Haunted by both the failures of intervention, and the failures of non-intervention, governments are understandably uncertain not whether but when and how to step in.

So what is the nature of the problem? Firstly, we should not interpret the emergence of IS in Libya as the sign of a resurgent, metastasising movement that poses a dire threat to our very existence.

On the contrary, IS raises its flag in Libya because it is suffering from the cumulative pressure that the US and its allies and other adversaries are applying on many fronts. IS is a protostate, as well as a terrorist movement, that seeks to rule territory and extract resources severely to fund its operations. Incrementally, gradually, frustratingly slowly, the current containment strategy is successfully strangling it.

Consider the indicators over the past year. IS’ expansion in its heartland ‘caliphate’ territory has been curbed. Airstrikes and ground operations have starved it of spectacular military victories to follow its most galvanising conquest, of Mosul in 2014. It has been evicted from Ramadi, Tikrit, and Baiji. This matters, because IS relies upon the mystique of world-historical victories to keep attracting recruits and edge ahead within the competitive jihadi marketplace. Slowly, combined pressure traps it within a ‘hammer and anvil’ dilemma. IS fighters cannot easily mass to mount offensive operations, as they will present large targets. But if they disperse for security, their effectiveness as a fighting force is weakened.

For those who fall under its rule, and those who migrate to join the show, IS offers a harsh purital rule and a high-taxing, extractive regime that bleeds dry the land it fights to defend. A flight of people and capital will probably follow. Defections are reportedly rising, though evidence is patchy. There are greater restrictions now from Turkey on the flow of fighters into Syria. Airstrikes and interdiction have badly damaged IS’ oil business and depleted its revenue. Only last month, as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights revealed, IS halved its jihadis’ salaries, its diminishing resources being split between fighting and governing. Even its own public preachments suggest that the tide is turning: IS’ own Media Centre has shifted its theme from triumph to endurance in the face of affliction.

This does not preclude more theatrical terrorist attacks like Paris. But those strikes too are a response to increasing adversity, not a symptom of a jihadi juggernaut. Libya is a concern to address. But for countries like the UK, the sky is not falling.

How, then, to intervene sensibly? The nature of the problem here is the difficult symbiosis between waging an effective military campaign to disrupt IS, while at the same time working hard to prevent the campaign accelerating the country’s unravelling.

Any prudent intervention should steer clear of the twin temptations of doing nothing or ambitously trying to fix the country. We can’t afford, and don’t have the political will, to insert a large stabilisation force into the country. Going by the rough rule of thumb in counterinsurgency, that an occupier needs 20 troops for every 1000 people, that would require 130,000 troops, an order of magnitude that is too costly and would probably generate resistance. We are talking about checking the advance of around 5-6000 IS fighters. Our society cannot continue fighting intensive large-scale COIN campaigns, and neither can our reduced and stretched armed forces. A ‘rollback’ strategy, or an effort to foist one ‘strongman’ on the country, would be a cure worse than the disease.

So a more limited campaign of selective airstrikes and advisory/training missions, married with special forces and working with locals is the most viable route. The trouble lies in the ‘misalignment problem‘, the tendency for  international forces and their hosts to have conflicting interests as well as common ones. Selecting worthy partners for assistance carries the risk of unintentionally fuelling conflict, by empowering some at others’ expense, driving fresh antagonism, undermining the effort at political reconcilation, and implicating the West with bad governance into the bargain.

Libyans like all of us are political, and increasing their capacity to govern and fight technically does not address the political problem, that others sometimes use the resources and capabilities outside powers give them for purposes we don’t like. We can’t control much of Libyan politics, but we can and should work hard to be discriminate. If this means taking more time and maintaining strong restrictions on airstrikes, then this is worth it. There are some practical steps that intervening powers can take, to avoid unwittingly exacerbating problems from economic collapse to the flight of people, creating a fertile ground for IS to recruit.

This means we need to work harder to insure against unintended consequences. An intensive diplomatic effort to get Gulf partners behind the unity government process is one move worth trying. Another is establishing coordinating mechanisms like joint command centres for intelligence collection and battlefield coordination for a better chance of avoiding entanglement in other conflicts, and some conditionality on assistance to armed groups. Furthermore, the focus ought to lie on a specific centre of gravity rather than on general stabilisation, namely the protection of oil production capacity. To give the creation of a new political settlement a chance means preventing IS doing the one thing that could destroy the economy and thereby undermine the legitimacy of any new order. The Islamic State is a real thing that threatens the country. It is also, potentially, a wonderful excuse for opportunists on the ground to abuse.

Distance itself counts. Libya’s geography limits the direct threat IS can pose and presents it with some notable disadvantages. It would be difficult for IS to export high volumes of oil, which would be vulnerable to interception at sea. Hostile factions and militias abound. There aren’t the same sectarian rivalries that IS can expoit in the Middle East. And IS’ setback last year in Derna could be the pattern of things to come, expansion followed by severe misrule, followed by resistance and revolt. In the meantime, European states can work harder to improve intelligence and counter-terrorist co-ordination, putting more barriers in the spaces in between.

The hardest part of this debate lies not in Libya, but domestically. There is a bipolar quality to foreign policy debate on both sides of the Atlantic. In recent times, public debate has lurched from ignoring mounting problems in Libya, to overreacting and branding dangerous situations as first-order ‘existential’ or ‘mortal’ threats. Containment may be the most sound strategy, but another terrorist attack at home could bait a reckless counter-reaction. Precisely at the time where sustained pressure is working, a little proportion is due.

There is a case for intervention, but one more mindful of a possibility than recent Strategic Reviews, that we may wish to act abroad in the name of the ‘golden thread’ of good governance, stability and development. But in acting to bring order, we can unwittingly be agents of chaos.

Intervention in Libya should focus on achievable goals, concentrating on what our troops are actually excellent at doing: helping others in fighting, capturing and holding ground. This is not a grand ‘solution’ – that is not in our gift – but part of a long-term strategy to contain the Islamic State while it slowly destroys itself. This would serve our security interests, while giving Libyans a chance to breathe and negotiate their own political future.





Appearance before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee

February 11, 2016 - Comments Off on Appearance before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee

On Tuesday 9th February, I appeared before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, for their session entitled ‘Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options – oral evidence’.

The video is here, and the transcript of the hearing is in pdf here.

To help inform debate, I drew upon some earlier research and thinking about strategic problems, in my RUSI article on geography and security here and my forthcoming article on uncertainty and classical realism in the European Journal of International Security, the final draft of which I have posted on ‘’ here.

Some further thoughts to follow!

Article in The National Interest on Grand Strategy

December 11, 2015 - Comments Off on Article in The National Interest on Grand Strategy

Hal Brands and I have just published an article in The National Interest, defending the concept and practice of grand strategy against the charges of David Edelstein and Ronald Krebs.

Here it is.

This draws from Hal’s excellent book, What Good is Grand Strategy, and from a current article I am working on, ‘Is Grand Strategy an Illusion?’. Stay tuned!

Appearance before the House of Commons Defence Select Committee

December 11, 2015 - Comments Off on Appearance before the House of Commons Defence Select Committee

On 24 November 2015, I appeared before the House of Commons Defence Select Committee along with a colleague (Dr David Blagden), to comment on the recently issued ‘Strategic Defence and Security Review’ of the UK. Our comments build on our published work, on great power rivalries in David’s case, and my work on the themes of uncertainty and geopolitics: