The state of strategy

I recently wrote this short piece as a farewell to my students at British staff college in their magazine. Its about the state of strategy in the UK today. Its a touch overwrought, but was written after reading headlines about economic crises, mounting debt and the expansion of the war in Libya.

On the day of writing, a glance at the news suggests there should be every reason for a renaissance in British strategic studies.

A fiscal crisis threatens to engulf the economies of Europe. American hegemony is increasingly under challenge with record deficits and debt as a more multipolar world looms. Rising Asian giants invest in blue-water navies and rattle sabres over contested maritime territories. Saudi Arabiaand Iran, the geopolitical heavyweights of the Gulf, confront one another in an intensifying struggle for influence that has been spiked by a popular revolutionary upsurge and a fear of foreign-backed subversion in their frontier states. Alongside the hopeful worldwide talk of human rights and democracy, the classical language of Realpolitik returns, of rival blocs, client states, cold war and even a nuclear arms race. As before, the fatal interaction of revolution, reaction and ambition could light the torch of a regional war, or worse.

In the UK, the government struggles to reconcile its refusal to entertain ‘strategic shrinkage’ with depleted economic and military power. A convergence of dwindling resources, defence inflation and popular demand for other services combine to make our high-tech forces increasingly unaffordable. For the fourth time in a decade, we are at war with a sovereign state. Attempting to wage a liberal intervention on the cheap with standoff weapons, a limited effort at enforcing a no-fly zone becomes an expanding commitment. We now have a war of regime change now with British military advisors on the ground and a weighty responsibility of no certain duration or ending. As our power contracts, our commitments widen. The dialectic of ends, ways and means is ruptured.

Are we, then, on the cusp of a renaissance in strategic thinking in this country? 

We can only hope. Alas, the evidence points the other way. The study of strategy – the role of war in world politics, the prudent pursuit of security and the national interest, and the endless effort to align power and interests- remains marginal in our universities. It occupies only a modest share of our the curriculum in military education. It is not a driving force of our national politics and little separates our politicians over British grand strategy. During the recent strategic review, fundamental aspects of British power and identity were effectively taken off the table of debate: the nuclear deterrent, the Anglo-American relationship, the need for an expansive ‘global role.’ These questions are not presented for open discussion even within our American-inspired architecture of a National Security Council.  We hardly study strategy, we hardly argue about it, we hardly talk about it. 

Strategy is at heart the study of power politics, and ‘strategic studies’ privileges the state as a central player. It is not exclusive to political realism, the pessimistic tradition that accepts insecurity, anarchy and power politics as facts of life. But it is most strongly associated with it. Yet as the American colossus John Mearsheimer observed on one visit to this country, politics and IR departments are mostly dominated by idealists in many forms who have largely purged political realists from their ranks. The British academy is full of sophisticated people. But it lacks a healthy balance of opinion. Which is ironic for an academy that prides itself on the ideal of ‘diversity.’ A prudent vision of international politics must somehow marry morality and power, utopianism with calculations of real strength. And war is the ultimate political and moral subject. Without strategy, without the effort to align our power with our commitments and values, it is killing without purpose.

In the interwar period of the twentieth century, historian E.H. Carr denounced the intellectuals of his time for their neglect of power and their unbalanced embrace of utopian idealism. He might have been speaking of us, in the twenty first century, where slogans that recognise few limitations (‘punching above our weight’, ‘global player’, ‘force for good’) and the dubious mantras of globalisation theory have replaced deep strategic reckoning to the point where it is very difficult to define the national interest, let alone consider how to pursue it. And this precisely at the moment when it is needed. The equilibrium of the Pax Americana threatens to unravel in the Gulf and in East Asia, the very future and character of its model of democratic capitalism itself is being recast, and European states must confront a long postponed question: what to do now that theUS  is drawing down and shifting its geopolitics from West to East. Grand and meaty questions are on the table. Are we prepared to grapple with them?

If this article has any audience, it is a class of military professionals amongst whom our future senior officers and service chiefs will come from. You are not, or should not be, sidelined from the debate we need to have. You will advise governments on the design and purpose of our armed forces. And you should be consulted on what constitutes our national interest. Civil military relations should not be conducted as a matter of civilians pronouncing on policy and the military receiving and executing it. It is supposed to be a dialogue – an unequal dialogue – but a dialogue none the less, where you educate policymakers and wider society on the nature and limits of organised violence and its place in the nation’s statecraft. It is a political debate, and as well as being ultimately obedient to civilian authority, the military cannot and should not be apolitical. Strategy should happen in your minds, not just ‘somewhere else.’

On a more personal note, this is my final year at Staff College and at King’s. As Churchill said of cigars and booze, I can report that I have got more out of teaching military officers, and reaped more rewards from them, than they have gotten out of me. They will no doubt agree. So long. And good luck.

(Btw, to the magazine editors, I don’t have your current details. If you don’t want me to leave this up online, let me know and I’ll take it down!)

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