Dunkirk: A Deliverance Worth Cheering

August 12, 2017 - Comments Off on Dunkirk: A Deliverance Worth Cheering

My review of the film Dunkirk and case for  celebrating the evacuation:


Newsnight Debut

August 12, 2017 - Comments Off on Newsnight Debut

Where I commented on Trump, North Korea and America’s limited options: 

Britain, America and NATO: Commons Select Committee

April 25, 2017 - Comments Off on Britain, America and NATO: Commons Select Committee

On 18 April, I was lucky enough to appear before the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, along with my colleague Dr David Blagden. We were assisting its current inquiry into the relationship between Britain, NATO and the United States.

The transcript is here, and the footage is here:


The discussion focussed on the future of the Atlantic alliance, the problems of overreliance and member contributions, and Britain’s relative strategic priorities between Europe and Asia.

While American abandonment of the continental commitment is unlikely even under the present administration, there are still risks of mutual distrust and fragmentation. Tensions persist in America’s strategic vision, demanding that European states support American primacy by rearming in ways that could accelerate the coming of multipolarity.

Given the  pressure on scarce resources and the limits on the state’s ability to ‘cut’ protected budgets, Britain needs to make painful choices about its ‘internal’ and ‘external’ balancing: internally, the size and shape of its tax base, and externally, exploiting the possibilities of Anglo-French collaboration, a strengthened ‘quadrilateral’ dialogue with the US, UK, France and Germany, and a welcome revival of ‘red teaming’ to prepare decision-makers for undesired crisis scenarios.

In making these suggestions, we drew on our current research projects on the embedded assumptions of British and American ‘grand strategy.’


Military Power in an Age of Raiding

January 28, 2017 - Comments Off on Military Power in an Age of Raiding

I was lucky enough to be invited to speak as part of the Ministry of Defence’s new ‘Force Exploration’ Cadre. Here it is.

I’m so grateful and honoured to be invited to speak. It’s a privilege to be with our military, and I can’t think of a more important time since the Cold War to ask these questions.

We might be living through the twilight of the West. At least we can contemplate it in such a beautiful part of England.

You’ve asked me to riff on ideas from my books. So my main purpose tonight is to move some product.

We’re here to worry about the problem of access, and access denial, and distance.

All against a wider backdrop, a feral new order of geopolitical struggle opens up before us. A world of contested neighbourhoods, projects of domination, and the shift of wealth and power eastwards. And that’s just the cricket.

Tonight I’ll offer three simple points:

  • The world isn’t a global village, exactly. Technology and the new distribution of power doesn’t kill distance, it also creates it, and even while our inventions can compress distance physically, it can enlarge it strategically;
  • We are moving into an age of raiding and disruption; and we too (the Brits, and maybe the Anglo-French led West) have to be raiders and disrupters; the environment we are in should make us think again, what is military force for?
  • We aren’t ready for this: that the orderly convenient world we wishfully forecast has not come; we have to get better at imagining the things we don’t want to happen. And wasn’t 2016 a year for that.

No global village

Of course, in some ways world is smaller physically: hijackers, hacks, pace of news media. And there’s cyber, though making this more than a nuisance often involves real in-person human intelligence too, and there is much about the cyber debate that sounds like the air power debate of the 1930’s.

Every invention is double edged, and our inventions now have the ability to raise costs dramatically over space. What really counts is not physical space but strategic space – the ability to project power affordably over the earth, against resistance. Our world in that sense is getting larger.

Four days before 9/11, the former Secretary of NATO George Robertson said, ‘In the global village, I am the bobby on the beat.’

In a very British way, this is an ambitious world view.

The world as a village- a shrunken and bounded place, so familiar and knowable, the planet as a thing you can reduce to your smart-phone to rotate in your hand, and patrol at will.

That, we discovered, became hard enough in zones of resistance – Helmand, Anbar, Damascus – the unfamiliar, the unknown, the shocking

These days bobbies may find it harder to go on the beat, from Eastern Europe to the South China Sea. In the age of access denial, and bubbles that barricade against intruders, projecting power affordably over space against resistance is getting harder. That’s why we’re here.

Consider one of the ultimate attempts to overcome the barriers of geography and translate forces from one medium to another, conquest over water and the opposed amphibious landing. Increasingly costly, nautical radar and striking range of defenders growing. US Marine Corps ‘Expeditionary Force 21’ concept ‘will force the fleet to stay at least 65 nautical miles offshore, a dozen times the distance that existing Marine amphibious vehicles are designed to swim.’

And then, there’s the image of the US-led West as the global constabulary. It suggests a level of power, authority and knowledge that we cannot have.

I was lucky to go to work at the British staff college in that prehistoric era, the baroque days of the War on Terror.

Understandably, the gravest fears were about defeating or converting insurgents, out-governing militants on the frontier, rebuilding failed states to cure the diseases that spawned terror, and getting home. There were crises, but bounded ones.

The broader picture was optimistic: the world economy was booming; the Pax Americana was locked in; China and Russia would adopt our norms; if there was a coming superpower, it was the European Union; globalisation and the interlocking of economies phased out great power rivalries. The hardest task on the agenda was Iran’s nuclear programme.

The level of America’s relative power was the permissive cause of how we viewed military force: defence or deterrence mattered, of course, but in the background, like insurance. The edge of debate was military force as a tool of nation-building and winning the people and fixing broken states. Counter-insurgency, one guru from the Strand told me at the time, was the only game in town.

When a colleague wrote an article forecasting Russia’s revisionist aggression in Georgia and the Ukraine, and the return of great power rivalries, she was dismissed for her outmoded RealPolitik.

If there was one refrain, it was that the world was shrinking, interconnected and turbulent, where empowered non-state actors were the true danger.

There is a great confidence below that claim. Atlantic powers could tame that world back into order, with their reach and far-sightedness. The agenda became upstream, to get in early and spread around the good governance, shift forces in the right direction.

This was the language of power. It reflected an enduring assumption in our defence reviews: an expeditionary ambition, we go to places and bring order into chaos. Made possible by fact that unipolar superpower had its reach unchecked. That ease of movement and power projection was the big reality of South and East Asia too, an American lake.

Today: we don’t know exactly what’s going on, but the world is not an orderly patrollable village. Neither are we the disinterested and respected bobbies.

In particular, we should be wary of the conceit that ours is an ever more virtual and liquid world, where distance and geography hardly matter, no meaningful ‘over here’ and ‘over there.’

Never before, claims the ever-cheerful Daniel Hannan, has physical proximity mattered less in our globalized commercial age, where the internet’s distance-closing properties puts everything nearby.

For the internet itself to work, our ability to protect sub-marinal cables and sea lanes vital.

The fact that the EU is nearby, and Australia and China far away, means its weight counts.

Even in more electronic age – physical geography and the ability to secure it and the vital chokepoints and arteries – cannot necessarily get supremacy but can deny supremacy to others

Janan Ganesh, Financial Times: ‘the Heathrow debate is wonderfully grounding in its tactical basics. We are talking about a line of concrete, and aircraft no faster than a generation ago. The world economy still rests on jet engines, container vessels, warehouses, US Navy-policed shipping lanes. People and things still need to move around in real time and space.’

In Asia, where the capability balance has shifted, no longer a world of sea control but sea denial. With long range anti-access weapons systems and sensors, states with a higher stake in a contest can raise costs on interlopers, to inhibit their freedom of action. Ability to project maritime power regionally without being navally supreme.

The information domain, too, will complicate our ability to go to places and impose our will. Fragmented media environment, manufacture of news to the advantage of locals, complicates movement in the night and fog of war.

Not only can sides playing at home  project power. What is closer to home is usually more vital, and cost tolerance higher.

World not a village even in the case that is supposed to be the ultimate globalised threat, of terrorism. After the Berlin market truck atrocity, my friend Raffaelo Pantucci at RUSI argued that in the age of globalisation, nowhere is safe and civilians have no borders. Maybe we aren’t safe anywhere, but the distribution of threat is uneven, and I’d still rather take my chances in a western capital than Aleppo. Globalisation is a choice, not a fact, and there are things we can do to disrupt, block, and constrain international terrorism.

After  9/11 and after Paris 2015, globe trotting jihadis struck hard in our heartlands only to be gradually strangled over space and time. For Al Qaeda, losing a state sponsor and scattering into a network may have purchased resilience, but it sacrificed control and cohesion. Territorial organisation matters, and we can contain it into being a nuisance.

We should remember Lord Salisbury, who once argued that to prevent threat inflation, we need bigger maps.

The Age of Raiding

Let’s now reverse the picture, and step back from the mindset that we are the ones being disrupted.

We do have an ‘expeditionary bias’ in visions of future operating environment. That we are having to overcome access denial, ‘going’ a long way to project power, through theatre entry, raiding or stabilisation missions.

It is not hard to understand why this is the case: this has been the dominant pattern for some time, as the UK mostly in coalition has projected power over far distances as an interloper, enforcing its will in hostile environments far from home.

Might it not be that Britain may have to practice access and area denial as well as overcoming it? A revisionist Russia has for some years now been probing and harassing British offshore waters and airspace. Escalating rivalries between NATO states and Russia, or even major war, could lead to confrontations in the Baltic or North Seas. Western forces may need to be able to impose access/area denial in these cases, as well as attempting to ward off Russian naval offensives from there and the ‘GIUK gap.’ We should think more about obstructionist and ‘defensive’ tasks of our North European neighbourhood.

This suggests we should return to a basic question. What is our military force for?

I would suggest that it is not primarily an instrument for political solutions, if that means solving and eliminating problems.

It was hard enough to make that work in earlier more unipolar days. It is not primarily suited to the elaborate purposes often ascribed to it: as a means for influence, or signalling resolve, or credibility, or status. It is not, as John Nagl once insisted, there for the transformation of whole societies – at least not the way he meant.

In the age of access denial, and multipolarity, and a redistribution of power and wealth, we should recognise three core tasks: defence, deterrence, and disruption.

If we are skilful and lucky, we can contain and limit and reverse threats, ward off aggression, dissuade predators, not usually eradicate them.

The Chinese called it Barbarian Management.

The Byzantines, too, conceived force in these terms: ‘Replace the battle of attrition and occupation of countries with lightning strikes and offensive raids to disrupt enemies, followed by rapid withdrawals.’ Not only conserves power, but preserve a multiplicity of enemies to become allies, or fight one another.

Or today’s IDF: ethos of limited war, where problems are rarely solved, only managed. They put it brutally, like ‘mowing the lawn’ or ‘cutting their nails’, and sometimes forget their own teachings. But there is a more focussed effort to align ends with means. More violent, in a way, or more conscious of its own violence, but also more self-restrained.

This will be difficult, because for us military force is often conceived an instrument only justifiable against a fictitious standard borrowed from the atypical circumstances of world war two, the desire to end threats decisively. The end result, however, is rarely final.

Beyond defence, deterrence and disruption, using force effectively is wildly difficult. Signalling one’s toughness and resolve to impress others can too easily look like threatening action. Wars of credibility, like Vietnam, appear to onlookers as failures of judgement, and only add to the pressure to look strong and make extrication harder.   In any case, it doesn’t usually work. We’ve fought many defensible wars, but they didn’t have the added bonus of scaring off thugs. We stopped Galtieri but then got Saddam. We stopped Saddam but then got Milosevic. We got Milosevic but then got Bin Laden. Bush got Saddam, and Putin struck Georgia anyway. Almost as though the whole world isn’t about us.

We are not ready for this

Habitual thinking, built-up cherished, unexamined assumptions that we don’t want to probe too closely

As someone says in The Big Short: ‘The truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.’

In particular, our failure to take Russia seriously, on both sides of the Atlantic, and our illusions about the permanence of the liberal order

 Russia as a serious great power, not the ten foot tall monster but neither an inconsequential fading force

In SDSR 2010, the government understandably looked to make savings in the wake of a fiscal crisis. Britain’s credit-worthiness was a strategic priority.

This desire, however, encouraged a wishful assumption that the security environment would be benign, or benign enough, to take a breather and rebuild the economy. Security problems there would be, mostly in the realm of failed states and terrorism. A return of great power rivalries was an unwelcome suggestion.

SDSR 2010 mentioned Russia twice: once about reducing energy demand, and one about general ‘security dialogue.’

Consider, the multiple warning signs that had flashed by 2010:

  • In March 2009, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that NATO enlargement was a source of threat, and that Russia might find gas customers in Asia.
  • In September 2009, Russia’s Zapad Military Exercise rehearsed a clash with NATO around Belarus, spreading and culminating in a first-use nuclear strike on Warsaw.
  • Russia frequently probed Britain’s airspace and offshore waters. The highest number of contacts with Russian submarines since 1987.
  • Russia military doctrine in 2010 designated NATO a source of military danger.

This was not a new Soviet Union or Cold War. It was the return of history. Russia was determined to dominate its back yard, to restore some imperial stature, to oppose Western expansion into its orbit. We can disagree about the wisdom of trade and military expansion into the region. We have no right, though, to be shocked.

Why then, did we miss these signals? Recall that this was the time of gestures, the ‘reset’ button, and high-minded NATO concepts. When Mitt Romney claimed Russia was a geopolitical foe with imperial ambitions, President Obama cheaply quipped that the 1980’s wanted their foreign policy back. Chancellor Osborne scoffed at the suggestion that we should retain kit designed for a clash on the German plains. Security minds assured us that interstate confrontation was an outmoded fallacy.

The state scrapped the Advanced Research and Assessment Group. ARAG’s Russia Analysis Section forecast that Russia with its mixture of subversion, force and propaganda would reassert itself in the Ukraine. Its loss was a blow to our intellectual ability to analyse the region. ARAG had to go, because, in the words of the Commander of Joint Forces Command, ‘the world had changed at that time’ and ‘the decade of campaigning around Iraq and Afghanistan’ overshadowed other things.

Because we wanted a commercial, rules-based peace, combating only guerrilla insurgents of the Third World, we fancied other states did too.

Two blunders came together, mirror imaging (the belief that others defined their interests the same way) and presentism (the hopeful delusion that the future resembles the present).

Personally, I think we shouldn’t have expanded our alliance up to Russia’s frontiers, and that we have provided opportunities for cynical Putinism. We did it, though, NATO is a vital strategic interest, we must make it work, and Moscow’s adventurism must be opposed, just as both Russia and NATO have to find a way to co-exist, with a stable deterrent, across a dangerous front line.

The Defence Select Committee, rightly, suggests that a new Conflict Studies Research Centre be created to remedy this blindness.

Harder still is recognising the shocking return to normality in the big diplomatic picture, the nature of this emerging multipolar world, where rival states compete and collaborate at the same time. Russia, like Britain, is an important part of the effort to prevent an Iranian nuclear programme. China is vital to the restraint, if there is to be restraint, on North Korea. There are hard years ahead.


We’re in a Dark age: not just in familiar sense of bad things happening, but we lack evidence and reliable knowledge about what’s happening and why. It’s hard to talk with a cool head when we’re in dark and the tectonics are shifting violently under us.

When dangerous multipolarity last menaced this country, and the United States wasn’t sure this was a horse with backing, it was the words of an affectionate and critical foreigner – Alice Miller- who helped swing American opinion:

I am American bred

I have seen much to hate here – much to forgive,

But in a world in which England is finished and dead,

I do not wish to live.


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.