James Lindsay: ‘Biden’s foreign policy is not simply a restoration’

In this Eastern Focus interview, dr. James M. Lindsay, senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), explains that Joe Biden sees his core global challenge as being less about promoting democracy than preserving it. 

What would you expect to fundamentally change under a Biden administration in terms of foreign policy vision? To use the vivid image of the book you co-authored together with Ivo Daalder – “the Empty Throne” – will we be present at a restoration? To what foreign policy traditions are we going back?

I would frame President Biden’s approach like this: He is looking to recover a tradition of American leadership in the world that Donald Trump turned his back on. From Truman to Obama, American presidents believed that American leadership served not just its own interests, but the interests of others. The United States led the creation of a world order that Americans believed advanced and protected their interests even as it helped others. Donald Trump’s America First rejected that idea, arguing instead that America’s engagement in the world produced costs that greatly exceeded any benefits. That’s why America First morphed into America alone. 

From Truman to Obama, American presidents believed that American leadership served not just its own interests, but the interests of others.

Joe Biden, like almost all post WW2 presidents, believes in the virtue of American leadership. But it is important to note that his foreign policy is not simply a restoration. He understands that “you can’t step into the same river twice”. Things have changed. You can’t ignore the fact that we had 4 years of America First foreign policy and America’s relations with many of its closest friends, allies and partners have been damaged and are in need of repair. The Biden team – composed of serious, seasoned, experienced foreign policy hands – understands that they face a very different situation compared to when they were last in government. They know that America’s diplomatic relationships need to be repaired. They also recognise that many US partners worry that a Biden presidency will represent only a temporary return to a traditional US foreign policy. An old saying applies here: Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. Can Biden deliver on his agenda and on his promises? A skeptic can reasonably say that Americans voted for Donald Trump once, so what’s to stop them from voting for him again?

‘The policy of engagement with China hasn’t worked’  

Let’s discuss the different strands existing in the Democratic Party vis-à-vis the great power competition. In the end the return of the great power competition has become a core feature of the contemporary international relations. It is no longer the 1990s or 2000s. The Democratic Party is no longer the one of the 1990s or 2000s. For example on Asia in particular “there is a new generation that emerged” in the words of Eric Sayers that displays a competitive-minded approach to Beijing (and here I would include Kurt Campbell, Ely Ratner, Kathleen Hicks, Mira Rapp-Hooper. 

When we talk about the Democratic Party we first need to recognise that there are divisions within the party, including on foreign policy with splits between doves and hawks. Second, for many and perhaps most Democrats, job number one is not foreign policy, it is not restoring American leadership abroad. Instead it is about getting America’s domestic house in order. Indeed, many Democrats see two reasons why a successful foreign policy depends on fixing domestic problems.  One is to persuade the American public that investments and actions overseas are worthwhile and not detracting from success at home. That is why the Biden Administration quite consciously uses the phrase a ‘foreign policy for the middle class’. The second reason is that America’s ability to lead has historically rested on American power, on the appeal of American values (soft-power), and on a reputation for competence. The United States was always the can-do country. It was the country where the president said on the Inauguration Day that in 10 years we would land a man on the moon and then did just that. It is safe to say that over the last dozen years the reputation of the US as a can-do power, as a competent power, has taken a blow. That happened first with the financial crisis in 2008-2009 and then again with the bugled response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For many and perhaps most Democrats, job number one is not foreign policy, it is not restoring American leadership abroad. Instead it is about getting America’s domestic house in order.

At the same time there has been a sea change in foreign policy thinking over the last decade among both Democrats and Republicans. A consensus has formed in Washington that the policy of engagement with China hasn’t worked.  Visions of what the engagement policy was supposed to produce varied, but the core belief was that we would invite China into this rules-based international order and that China would over time benefit from joining, realise the benefits, and then become a responsible stakeholder. The conclusion today– and this is a broadly held view in the United States – is that this bet didn’t pay off. We have witnessed particularly since Xi Jinping came to power a more assertive China that is seeking not to blend into the existing order, but to revamp it in a number of ways.  Beijing’s engagement with that order, particularly on trade, has been strategic in the sense of exploiting the rules to benefit China economically, while not actually embracing them.  This view of Chinese behaviour is something that unites the American firsters with a Biden return to American leadership. So the question becomes one of how you act on this changed perception. 

Donald Trump’s answer was America First: we exert our power, we are the most important economy in the world and we can force China to bend to our demands. After 4 years the results are in on that experiment, and I would suggest it failed. China is stronger because the basic premise of Trump’s strategy of an America that can do it alone was wrong. Trump ran against allies saying they didn’t do enough, and then pursued a foreign policy which asked the US to deliver more. It didn’t work. So the Biden response is to work with our friends, partners and allies to come up with common responses to actions by China, whether in the military sphere, the economic sphere or on human rights. This is easier said than done, because even if you are going to get people to agree that China needs to be deflected or challenged, you get disagreements over where it should be challenged, how it should be challenged, who should do the challenging and who should foot the bill.

Biden argument isn’t we can contain China, but to persuade the Chinese not to do things to challenge our interests and our values. So the policy is not containment, but challenging Chinese behaviour that violates international norms.

It is certainly the case that the Biden foreign policy is going to look different than Trump’s on a number of issues – think climate change, human rights – but in other areas it is going to be similar. Of course not in tone. We’ve left behind the time when foreign policy is made by tweets at 3 a.m., we’ve left behind the time when senior administration officials disagree publicly over what the policy is, and we’ve left behind the time when the president makes foreign policy on the fly. Now we have a more disciplined, coherent, methodical administration. But the premise remains that China remains the challenge. We need to be very careful here. The Biden argument isn’t we can contain China, but to persuade the Chinese not to do things to challenge our interests and our values. So the policy is not containment, but challenging Chinese behaviour that violates international norms. We see that when we are talking about Taiwan, freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea, and China’s human rights abuses. In this context the big question becomes – can the U.S. marshal sufficient support from its traditional friends, allies and partners? 

But in these diplomatic efforts it is not just what the US does that matters. What others do also matters, particularly the Chinese. And they are clearly following a strategy of divide and rule that seeks to prevent Biden from building a coalition of states that will pressure China.

‘Reaganism doesn’t fit the situation the US finds itself in today’

Are we on the verge of a paradigm change or rethinking in terms of the role of state/government domestically? A Reagan in reverse? Or a Rooseveltian New Deal 2.0? Trillions will be spent on infrastructure, social benefits, green economy. Not long ago, the national debt used to be understood as the biggest threat to the US national security. Are you worried by the skyrocketing debt levels? Isn’t this spending spree financed through a large deficit a danger for the US strategic solvency?

It’s too early to say whether we will talk about Biden’s presidency as we do about Reagan’s or FDR’s. President Biden certainly hopes to usher in a paradigm shift at home even as he reinvigorates the US approach to the world abroad. Americans have lived for four decades under the echoes of Reaganism and its insistence that Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem. Reagan prefaced that claim, however, with the words “in the present crisis.” Biden and his supporters argue that whatever the wisdom of Reagan’s advice four decades ago, it doesn’t fit the situation the US finds itself in today. Forty years of disdaining government action has left America’s infrastructure in tatters, weakened its social safety net, and accelerated economic inequality. The solution, especially during a pandemic, cannot be turning to the same set of failed policies. Rather, government must act, and it must act boldly.

Of course, big actions come with big price tags. Growing public debt is a concern, even if deficit hawks have been wrong for decades in insisting that fiscal ruin lies just around the corner. And for all the talk about Biden’s spending plans, it is worth remembering that the US national debt jumped by more than a third on Donald Trump’s watch while  America’s pressing infrastructure and social needs went unaddressed. 

Forty years of disdaining government action has left America’s infrastructure in tatters, weakened its social safety net, and accelerated economic inequality. The solution, especially during a pandemic, cannot be turning to the same set of failed policies. Rather, government must act, and it must act boldly.

Biden’s argument is that the greater risk at the present moment is doing too little than too much. That is a bold bet to make. If it pays off, the US economy will grow faster, making the debt easier to carry, solving a lot of domestic problems along the way, and putting US foreign policy on firmer footing. If the bet fails, then the national debt could pose a future danger. But should the US should ever reach that day of financial reckoning, a succession of presidents and Congresses who ducked America’s fiscal challenges rather than address them would need to share in the blame. 

While there is a new awareness on the disruptive rise of China, including in projecting its power and influence in Europe through companies, strategic assets and regional formats, there is no particular hurry in embracing a great power competition mindset in Europe. The recent investment accord with China is a case in point. What are implications for the transatlantic relationship? Do you see any potential strategic convergence between the Europe and the US in counterbalancing Chinese influence and projecting a common euro-Atlantic front?

I always worry about making generalisations about Europe. Europe has a robust set of countries that see some things alike and see some things differently. My sense is that overall, many Europeans are reluctant to get caught up in a great power competition. They believe that if they can minimise their exposure that they will maximise their benefits. But Europeans will find it difficult to avoid choosing sides. At the end of the day there are some issues that they can’t avoid. There are a number of Chinese policies that do concern people in Europe: human rights, Hong Kong, climate change – where the contribution of the Chinese power plants is a huge part of the problem – or regional intimidation. There are also European concerns about China’s predatory economic policies, namely, that China doesn’t play by the rules of the game but rather uses the rules to exploit others and create dependencies. 

Many Europeans are reluctant to get caught up in a great power competition. They believe that if they can minimise their exposure that they will maximise their benefits. But Europeans will find it difficult to avoid choosing sides.

Some European leaders recognise that Europe has to confront the reality of China. But will Europe embrace the challenge? This will be influenced by several things: one is how well Europe is doing in tackling its own internal problems. 

Another is how well the US plays its hand. The reality is, much as we extoll the transatlantic relationship, it has been buffeted over the years by all kinds of spats–on trade, the Iraq War, and the Vietnam War to name a few. So disagreement among friends is not unknown or uncommon and we should not idealise the past. We never had a moment of pure consensus, there always have been divisions. One of the tests will be how well the Biden administration understands the current state of relations–how adept are they working with their counterparts in Europe? Part of the success there is going to require the US not only to ask others to do something, but for the US to be willing to listen and give something. 

Another factor to have in mind over the next 6 to 12 months is what is China going to do? Is Xi Jinping going to moderate his behaviour? One obvious strategy for a great power facing a potential opposing coalition is to create divisions in that coalition – whether by offering investments to Greece or the Czech Republic or negotiating favourable deals with the EU as a whole.

‘The West was built around the notion that we were democracies and that we shared several core beliefs’

Do you see the ‘alliance of democracies’, in itself a very Wilsonian concept, at the core of the Biden vision the way to restore US leadership and defend the liberal international order? Is this a realistic construct? The theoretical democratic solidarity is often trumped by pragmatic commercial interests. 

The conversation we are having on Joe Biden’s call for a summit of democracies suggests that democracies working together is a novel idea.  I would argue that for the last 75 years, the United States has led an informal league of democracies. The commitment between the United States and Europe, the transatlantic relationship, was never simply about shared interests. It was also about shared values and shared governmental approaches. This is not to say that NATO always had countries that were democracies – the outliers were for a time countries like Greece, Portugal or Spain. 

But the general thrust of the West was built around the notion that we were democracies and that we shared several core beliefs: first, allowing people to change who governs them is a fundamental, universal value; two, it is the best way to arrange public affairs; three, we have an obligation to enable others to enjoy the benefits of democratic government. To me this is not something far-fetched, it is something we’ve been doing all along. We’ve been engaged in working with our fellow democracies on a whole range of issues.

The commitment between the United States and Europe, the transatlantic relationship, was never simply about shared interests. It was also about shared values and shared governmental approaches.

There is also this naïve assumption that you can only have a universal organisation like the UN, or a condominium of great powers like the Congress of Vienna, or regional organisations. The reality is that you can have a multiplicity of approaches. There is nothing wrong with having different forums, in part because you are trying to mobilise different people around different issues. I don’t accept this technocratic approach in which we have neat organisational lines and a hierarchy.

I will note that the importance of thinking about ourselves as being democracies is that it reminds us – whatever differences we have over digital taxes, subsidies, and the like – is that we share a fundamental commitment to a way of governing ourselves that we should not lose sight of. There is a tendency in human affairs to let small details take away from understanding what your common humanity is. It is important for us to work together. 

Organisations remind people of common interests or create them. When China goes about selling the BRICs it is consciously trying to create a conception that these countries – different in so many ways in terms of economic interests, culture and political systems – share something in common and can thereby forge some common bases of action. That same logic applies even more strongly to building around the democratic core. It is more a philosophy that we need to recognise that as democracies, for all the differences that we might have on some particulars, we share core assumptions about the world and the international order.

‘It is hard to argue that US foreign policy interests would be better served by abandoning a commitment to democracy’

Is it too much to say that there are echoes of a Truman-esque moment in terms of US grand strategy? And I am thinking here to the emphasis of democracy vs. autocracy as an inflection point and as the contest of our times. The interim NSS guidance published in March talks in these broad terms and it suggests a grand strategy that aims at consolidating the democratic/free core. In the end, it was the core message that Biden himself projected during the recent Quad, G7 and NATO summits.

There are echoes of Truman’s foreign policy in Biden’s. Today, as then, the United States finds itself embroiled in a great power competition. Today, as then, that peer competitor insists that its political and economic model is superior to democracy and free-market capitalism. And today, as then, that peer competitor stirs alarm among many of its neighbours with its ambitions. 

There are, of course, also important difference between the world today and the world of the late 1940s. The US and Chinese economies are deeply intertwined, whereas the US and Soviet economies were essentially disconnected. Both Beijing and Washington might like to reduce their mutual interdependence, but that will be hard to do. As a result, each capital has important economic incentives to favour cooperation over conflict. 

Biden sees his challenge as being less promoting democracy than preserving it. That is why he has repeatedly framed his task as leading “the world in fighting to defend democracy.”

Another important difference is that democracies are far more common today than they were seven decades ago – and they have shown that they can prosper. True, we have witnessed a significant democratic regression over the past dozen years, including in the US, as January 6 attests. So Biden sees his challenge as being less promoting democracy than preserving it. That is why he has repeatedly framed his task as leading “the world in fighting to defend democracy.”

That task is easier to state than to accomplish. An immediate problem is the obvious deficiencies in America’s own democracy. It’s hard to lead a cause when others doubt your virtue. Beyond that, Washington’s ability to influence the success of democracies elsewhere has always been limited, and it has often sacrificed its democracy goals to secure other foreign policy ends. Biden is already confronting these limitations and trade-offs in places like Haiti, Myanmar, and Tunisia. Like many of his predecessors in the Oval Office, he will be criticised for fecklessness and hypocrisy because his rhetoric and actions won’t always align. But it is hard to argue that US foreign policy interests would be better served by abandoning a commitment to democracy. 

There is a major debate about Taiwan these days in both US and US alliance system in the Indo-Pacific (especially Japan). We’ve seen even calls of ending US strategic ambiguity vis-à-vis Taiwan. To some extent the whole debate echoes the one that we’ve seen after WW2 about including/excluding South Korea in the perimeter of the American national security. And we know how that particular one ended. What has changed in the US perception and how important is Taiwan for the US security?

For all of the talk on Taiwan, US policy has not changed on a fundamental level and isn’t likely to change any time soon. The core principle, which goes back to 1979, is that the US adheres to a One China policy: the US does not regard Taiwan as an independent country. That is why the US doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Taipei. US relations with the island are governed instead by a piece of Congressional legislation – the ‘Taiwan Relations Act’– which essentially requires the US to support Taiwan and to work to ensure that any reunification with the mainland happens peacefully.  

But tensions have risen in recent years because of the confluence of two things. 

One is that Taiwan has emerged as a model of democratic evolution: from what had been an authoritarian system to a flourishing vibrant democracy that is not just successful in terms of elections but as a flourishing economy with incredibly competent leadership. Just look at how effective Taiwan  – despite its close ties with China – was in preventing the COVID-19 pandemic from upending its society. If the US is at one end of the spectrum with a flawed response to the pandemic, Taiwan gets the gold star as top of the class. 

How do you deter Beijing? What are the right steps to prevent an escalation in conflict? What steps should you avoid because they will accelerate a conflict? Sometimes acting can provoke.

The other element has been the increased aggressiveness of China. As Chinese rhetoric has increased and as Chinese actions have become more threatening – crossing the ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) and testing the Taiwanese defense perimeter – the question arose over whether the United States is sufficiently signalling its support for Taiwan. The Trump administration moved away from a 30 year policy of keeping official contacts at a low level and Beijing obviously reacted harshly to that. The United States also stepped up arms sales to Taiwan. I anticipate that the Biden administration will continue that policy. That said, the Biden administration, like all the American presidencies, seems set to abide by the One China policy. It will say that reunification should take place on peaceful terms, and in no way should China coerce, intimidate or force Taiwan into a reunification. Of course that raises a major question. Xi Jinping has intimated if not said outright that China may consider non-peaceful means for achieving reunification.  What will Washington do if China does move forcefully against Taiwan?One of the challenges for the US government is to figure out how to prevent that situation from happening. How do you deter Beijing? What are the right steps to prevent an escalation in conflict? What steps should you avoid because they will accelerate a conflict? Sometimes acting can provoke. On the other hand, not acting can invite aggression. Trying to find the sweet spot or the Goldilocks spot – something that is not too hot and not too cold, not too big and not too small – is a test of diplomatic skill. 

Dr. James M. Lindsay is senior vice president, director of studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg chair at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He is a leading authority on the American foreign policymaking process and the domestic politics of American foreign policy.

Moldova’s Resilience: the story of a fragile state

Moldova may be a fragile state today, but it has made a political breakthrough due to the snap elections in 2021 that brought pro-reform political forces to power. This unique breakthrough should be regarded as the largest “window of opportunity” ever available to work on (re-)building a country’s much-needed resilience.

There is a conventional assumption that Moldova is a “failed state”, which does not at all fit the situation on the ground, where the country shows a surprising degree of resilience. It is worth distinguishing between one’s ability to survive and the ability to “bounce back” or “forward”, which is common to the standard, rather academic, definition of resilience. A more practical approach to resilience comes from international development organisations, which view resilience as “the ability to absorb and recover from shocks”, “while transforming” taking into account “long-term stress, change and uncertainty”.[1] Therefore, to understand where Moldova stands, the following analysis looks at the shortcomings that restrict its capacity for resilience, on the one hand, and the factors that have helped it stay afloat and withstand internal shocks, on the other.

Four aspects are the most important to assess the constraints under which a state operates and from which the degree of resistance can be deduced: (1) state authority; (2) enforcement of the rules; (3) control of violence; and (4) the provision of public services. In as far as Moldova is concerned, primo, despite the reliability and predictability deficit, the country still has sufficient internal and external authority to be part of and comply with international agreements. Segundo, the authorities can still set rules, respecting and importing the legislation of the global standard-setter, the EU, although they face challenges in ensuring proper enforcement. Tertio, it is true that Moldova does not represent a battlefield for military confrontations. However, there is a prolonged unresolved post-Soviet territorial conflict, which holds the country back and perpetuates uncertainty for national and regional stability and security. Cuarto, unlike a “failed state”, Moldova has public authorities that do provide services. Obviously, they may not always be of adequate quality, but the population has access to them, accepting their widespread imperfections and likely shortages, largely due to a lack of alternatives.

The Fragile States Index paints an accurate picture of the year-on-year decline in Moldova’s state performance, from the 57th place in 2006, to the 103rd in 2021 (out of 179 countries). Such decline is consequential for the state’s potential to generate and display resilience.

This mixed picture described above does not intend to underestimate the actual steadfast decline that Moldova has experienced throughout its 30 years of existence as an independent state. On the contrary, the nuances that describe the state at different levels of state affairs are indicative of the unevenness of existing resources and capacities. In addition, these have eroded over the last decade and even reached a dangerous point when the governing system fell into “state capture”[2] mode in the period 2015-2019. The Fragile States Index[3] paints an accurate picture of the year-on-year decline in state performance, from the 57th place in 2006, to the 103rd in 2021 (out of 179 countries). Such decline is consequential for the state’s potential to generate and display resilience. There are many problematic areas. The economic stagnation is acute, more recently due to the inefficient tools applied to mitigate the 2020-21 COVID-19 pandemic crisis. The growing public distrust of state institutions, except the church and the military, has put the state in trouble. Amid multiplying adversities, such as droughts, torrential rains, floods, all accelerated by climate change, state institutions do not benefit from the close understanding and cooperation of a skeptical society. As a common characteristic, citizens find themselves in distress at home due to economic hardships or frequent political crises and uncertainty. Alternatively, they plan to emigrate as one of the most common survival strategies among Moldovans of all age categories. The country’s fragile budget balance finds itself under severe strain due to declining demographics, which creates cascading effects that far outweigh the country’s long-term financial stability. In short, without solid human capital, which becomes scarce or underdeveloped due to the lack of financial resources from the state, the capacity to generate resilience, from the national to the individual level, is limited.

Vulnerability everywhere, but some areas need immediate attention

Based on the OECD’s Resilience System Analysis (RSA)[4], which operates with six dimensions of resilience – financial, human, natural, physical, political and social – this analysis aims to emphasise only those that are considered to have the highest destabilising potential in the face of an eventual local or external shock.

To begin with, the endemic corruption constitutes the greatest vulnerability in the political realm, undermining democratic practices, primarily good governance, and affecting the preparedness of state institutions. Therefore, instead of catering exclusively to the public interest, institutions begin to serve private objectives that are often mixed with political loyalty in the distribution of public finances. This problem is widespread among the heads of the local public administration, state agencies and the courts. The Corruption Perception Index[5] has always identified high levels of corruption in Moldova, with the worst ranking in 2016, when it came in at the 123rd place out of 176 countries. Public polls also attest that corruption has been leading the list of the population’s main worries: concern with the extent of corruption has grown from 5-7% in 2010-2012 to 20-25% in 2020-2021, to the point where it is perceived as being as important as economic development and the improvement of living conditions[6].

The endemic corruption constitutes the greatest vulnerability in the political realm, undermining democratic practices, primarily good governance, and affecting the preparedness of state institutions.

Another problematic aspect is the great distrust of the judiciary in Moldova, which may have social implications. More precisely, the inability to enforce the rule of law leads to the loss of strategic state assets and other types of office abuse. This affects citizens’ trust in public authorities and their willingness to be cooperative, as clearly shown by the slow vaccination process during the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the state’s responsiveness to a crisis can become fragmented, slow and ineffective. The monumental combination of corruption and lack of professionalism in the judicial system revolves primarily around a few specific themes. The many lost cases in the European Court of Human Rights, due to questionable decisions issued by local judges, have costed the public budget large sums (about 19 million euro in 1998-2020[7]). It is worth remembering here the facilitation of the “Russian laundromat”[8] by a group of at least 13 Moldovan judges[9], who helped divert about $ 18-20 billion from Russia by legalising fictitious debts that enabled transfers from Russian enterprises and banks through Moldovan banks further to offshore companies[10]. Finally, another severe episode of political favouritism and lack of professionalism was represented by the annulment of local elections in the capital city of Chisinau in 2018[11].

Last but not least, in terms of physical resilience, Moldova lacks a reliable power supply due to (in)direct dependence on electricity and gas supplies from the east. Russia’s unpredictability and its weaponisation of energy for political purposes has turned inherited connectivity from the Soviet era into a structural weakness today. The electricity sector depends on supplies from Ukraine, but even more from Moldova’s breakaway region (Transnistria), which being a de facto Russian exclave can turn into a geopolitical card at any time.[12] Under pressure from the Energy Community and EU assistance, national electricity procurement has become more transparent in the last 5 years. However, there is little interest from Ukrainian suppliers, due to the Cuciurgan power station[13] situated in the Transnistrian region, that produces electricity based on Russian gas for which it does not pay. As a result, the Moldovan gas operator “MoldovaGaz”, 50% of the shares of which are owned by Gazprom, continues to accumulate debts to Russia, now amounting to more than $ 7.4 billion[14]. The unresolved gas debt problem debilitates the energy sector as a whole. A similarly complicated situation is observed in the gas sector that is undergoing tectonic changes through the implementation of the EU’s Third Energy Package (since 2009). However, the country is still in the process of separating the producer from the supplier, which may break the Russian monopoly. The gas pipeline connecting Moldova with Romania, expanded in 2014-2020, is a way out towards greater diversity and predictability in terms of geography of supply, especially in the cold season. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the Romania-Moldova gas pipeline is supposed to be operational in 2021, direct contracts with Russia still appear to be more attractive, due to direct price negotiations with Gazprom. Romania’s energy system could provide a valuable boost to energy resilience, after the high voltage line in southern Romania is connected to the centre of Moldova, which is forecasted to happen by 2024.

Russia’s unpredictability and its weaponisation of energy for political purposes has turned inherited connectivity from the Soviet era into a structural weakness today.

Russia’s unpredictability and its weaponisation of energy for political purposes has turned inherited connectivity from the Soviet era into a structural weakness today.

Options for increased resilience

Resolving or at least mitigating the aforementioned vulnerabilities that undermine Moldova’s resilience requires the proper functioning of state institutions, public trust in these institutions, and decision-makers driven by the public interest. One way to improve the preparedness of institutions in the face of a crisis, from the local authorities to the national law enforcement sector, is to counter corruption through zero tolerance policies, capacity-building and the empowerment of the integrity agency, to restore the trustworthiness of the public sector. A reliable general prosecutor and court system are also of the essence. The state’s response capacity requires a solid mechanism of early warning systems and crisis management in the field of hybrid or conventional threats. However, more than that, state authorities need the public to trust them so as to follow official instructions during critical situations, such as a pandemic. For this, the comprehensive cleansing of the judiciary is essential, as it can restore the credibility of protection against abuses committed by corrupt public servants. Furthermore, a reliable judicial system will strengthen state structures, making them more accountable and therefore resistant to all kinds of uncertainty. The physical infrastructure is also of the utmost importance. Therefore, the weaknesses of the energy sector should be resolved sooner rather than later, especially given the geopolitical characteristics of this problem that gives Russia important levers on Moldova’s energy sustainability. Functional interconnections with Romania, as well as Ukraine, may be the best solutions for investing in the country’s energy resilience.

Resolving or at least mitigating some of the core vulnerabilities that undermine Moldova’s resilience requires the proper functioning of state institutions, public trust in these institutions, and decision-makers driven by the public interest.

Moldova may be a fragile state today, but it has made a political breakthrough due to the snap elections in 2021 that brought pro-reform political forces to power. This unique breakthrough should be regarded as the largest “window of opportunity” ever available to work on (re-)building a country’s much-needed resilience. The pandemic and the multiplication of natural disasters in neighbouring regions, caused by climate change, together with new adversities such as cyberattacks, show that resilience will become one of the most valuable assets that a country must have in the coming years.


[1] OECD, Guidelines for Resilience Systems Analysis: How to analyze risk and build a roadmap to resilience, 2014, https://www.oecd.org/dac/conflict-fragility-resilience/Resilience%20Systems%20Analysis%20FINAL.pdf

[2] Denis Cenusa, The Downfall of a Captured State, New Eastern Europe, 2019,  https://neweasterneurope.eu/2019/11/13/the-downfall-of-a-captured-state/

[3] The Fund for Peace, Fragile States Index 2021, https://fragilestatesindex.org/

[4] OECD, Guidelines for Resilience Systems Analysis: How to analyse risk and build a roadmap to resilience, 2014, https://www.oecd.org/dac/conflict-fragility-resilience/Resilience%20Systems%20Analysis%20FINAL.pdf

[5] Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index 2016, https://www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2016/index/nzl

[6] Institute of Public Policy, Public Opinion Barometer, 2010-2021, http://bop.ipp.md/en

[7] CRJM, The Republic Moldova at the European Court of Human Rights in 2020, https://crjm.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Nota-analitica-CEDO-2021.pdf

[8] The Russian Laundromat, 2014, https://www.occrp.org/en/laundromat/russian-laundromat/

[9] Cotidianul.md, 2020, https://cotidianul.md/2020/10/21/ce-spune-fostul-sef-al-procuraturii-anticoruptie-despre-cei-13-judecatori-din-dosarul-laundromat-ce-scapa-de-invinuiri/

[10] Anticoruptie.md, 2015, https://anticoruptie.md/ro/investigatii/justitie/prin-intermediul-sistemului-judecatoresc-din-r-moldova-au-fost-spalate-18-miliarde-de-dolari-din-2010-incoace-ii

[11] Moldovans Protest Nullification of Chisinau’s Mayoral Election Results, 2018, https://www.rferl.org/a/moldovans-protest-nullification-chisinau-mayoral-election/29316498.html

[12] Intellinews, 2017, https://www.intellinews.com/moldova-resumes-electricity-imports-from-transnistria-123028/

[13] US International Trade Administration, https://www.trade.gov/country-commercial-guides/moldova-energy

[14] IPN, https://www.ipn.md/ro/presedintele-moldovagaz-datoria-fata-de-gazprom-este-una-comerciala-7965_1070511.html

Moldova: It’s not an East vs. West competition, but good vs. bad governance

The double victory by Maia Sandu and the pro-European and pro-reform Party of Action and Solidarity was the easiest part of the quest to reform the Republic of Moldova. A ”gangrene” of corruption has long been affecting Chișinău and there will be hardened resistance against any attempt to alter the system. This resistance will be twofold: from within the system and from external actors which are interested in maintaining the country in a grey area.

In July 2021, the Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), led until recently by country president Maia Sandu, won an unexpected comfortable majority in the Moldovan Parliament. With a strong anti-corruption message, the party got 52.8% of total votes, surpassing the pro-Russian Bloc of Communists and Socialists (BECS), which came in second, with only 27.1%, and the SOR Party, led by fugitive oligarch Ilan Shor, which got 5.7% of the votes. This score gave PAS 63 mandates out of the total of 101 in the new Parliament.

The electoral campaign was fought over two main opposing messages. Once again, BECS proved that they failed to understand why Igor Dodon lost the recent presidential elections by a wide margin[1]. It chose to rely on the same geopolitical messages: „East v. West” and an anti-EU rhetoric, promoting anti-Western values and disseminating slogans of the type “we will not sell our country”. As a result, BECS failed to persuade voters, even in the Russia-dominated northern part of the country. Corruption scandals and incompetence in governing the country took their toll on the party’s ability to mobilise voters.

PAS ignored geopolitics entirely and focused its campaign on anticorruption and good governance.

PAS, on the other hand, ignored geopolitics entirely and focused its campaign on anticorruption and good governance. This proved convincing for a large part of the population, including in Russian speaking counties. Boosted by Maia Sandu’s presidential victory and with an excellent campaign at grassroots level, PAS won more votes than it had expected. From the start, organising snap elections was in itself an unexpected victory for Maia Sandu, since no party – with the exception of PAS – was interested in this sort of outcome. The new government, led by Natalia Gavriliță, former Minister of Finance in Maia Sandu’s Cabinet in 2019, has been sworn in in early August.

What now?

The decisive victory comes with very high hopes and expectations. The citizens voted in favour of an anticorruption agenda and against the oligarchic system. And this is what they expect: quick results in the fight against corruption and better economic perspectives. Resistance to reform is, however, extremely high in a country riddled with corruption and organised crime. The results of the elections only give a first signal that power may no longer remain in the hands of a small group of oligarchs.

There are multiple challenges that the pro-reformist movement led by Maia Sandu will have to overcome. Reforming a corrupt system requires time, political will and well-trained human resources. Finding reformists within the system, in the public administration, secret services or the judiciary, willing to support the reform agenda, may be particularly difficult in a country affected by systemic corruption and mass migration. Delivering fast results – as expected by the citizens – may thus prove difficult.

The pattern we witnessed during the election campaign – oligarchs with diverging positions creating ad-hoc alliances against Maia Sandu and her party – will increase exponentially when the new government attempts to put a stop to corruption schemes. Oligarchs continue to control key institutions in the Republic of Moldova. Unsurprisingly, Maia Sandu’s first promise was to reform the judiciary. She pointed out clearly in a recent interview for EuroNews: “This is about eliminating the corrupt judges and the corrupt prosecutors from the system”.

The media is also far from being independent and most TV stations and outlets are still controlled by oligarchs. This gives them the opportunity to undermine the reforms that will be initiated by the new government, flood the public space with fake news and conspiracy theories and attempt to control public narratives. In a recent analysis by the Romanian Center for European Policies (CRPE) and the Foreign Policy Association (APE), focused on what Romania should do to support the pro-reform agenda in Chișinău, one of the key recommendations was to support strategic communication and independent media through technical and financial assistance. This would give a boost to the new government to better communicate their agenda to the citizens. 

The pattern we witnessed during the election campaign – oligarchs with diverging positions creating ad-hoc alliances against Maia Sandu and her party – will increase exponentially when the new government attempts to put a stop to corruption schemes.

External threats are equally dangerous. Through local proxies, the Russian Federation controls numerous political actors, media outlets or representatives of the Orthodox Church. This provides it with important public channels to disseminate their agenda and mix in pro-Kremlin messages and anti-EU ones. Eroding public support for the European Union through targeted messaging will be the main purpose of the Kremlin over the next few years.

External support for the reform agenda

Nevertheless, Maia Sandu and her party have some key allies in their task to reform the corrupt system in Chișinău – most importantly, the citizens who voted overwhelmingly in favour of their anti-corruption agenda. This has shown, once more, that slogans cannot replace actions and public trust in politicians can be earned only if competence and integrity are key characteristics of the political leaders. In the long run, the new government in Chișinău will also enjoy the support of Moldova’s key Western partners: The European Union, the United States and Romania.

Maia Sandu’s victory in November 2020 brought immediate improvement to the relationship between Chișinău and Brussels. Key support programmes were restarted, and the Union promised a large post COVID-19 recovery package for Chișinău, worth EUR 600 million. This recovery plan entails macro-financial assistance and technical support in exchange for progress on the reform agenda.

Chișinău will need both financial and technical assistance to implement reforms. Moldova, Europe’s poorest country and one heavily affected by mass migration, has been in a grey area for decades and in deadlock between Moscow and Brussels. The “pro-European” governments that led Chișinău in the past were by no means reformist. This reality consistently affected the relationship between the two capitals and derailed Moldova’s EU course.

For the first time, Chișinău has reformists both at the level of the Presidency and the Parliament. This gives Moldova a chance to speak with one voice with its key partners and donors.

It is up to the future government to deliver reforms and attract new funding to support key investments that would boost the economic perspectives of the country.

What role for Romania                                                     

Romania is Moldova’s key commercial partner and main donor and it provided the most substantial support for Chișinău during the COVID-19 pandemic. Romania, however, also supported extensively the governments of fugitive oligarch Plahotniuc and it ignored Maia Sandu’s reform agenda until quite recently. Romania bet on Plahotniuc, not Maia Sandu – a particularly risky choice, since the coalitions backed by Plahotniuc were very unpopular.

A window of opportunity has arisen once more to push for real change in Moldova. Romania must rise to the occasion, if it truly supports a pro-reform agenda in Chișinău. Support by Bucharest must continue and even be accelerated with financial and non-financial assistance, but only in exchange for the implementation of reforms.

An analysis carried out by CRPE and APE underlines 9 short term priorities that should be discussed immediately after the new government in Chișinău is sworn in: a new financial agreement to replace the 100 million EUR agreement signed 10 years ago, of which 60 million EUR remain unspent, a development plan for Moldova correlated with the new financial package from the EU, support for finalising key infrastructure and energy projects or support programmes for independent media and civil society (Romania recently announced a financial package for the civil society and media).

Romania should step up its game and support Moldova when it needs it most, this time, supporting individuals who deliver real, tangible results in advancing Chișinău’s European path. The strategic partnership between the two countries must be renewed and support for key strategic projects must be prioritised.

It will not be easy

Maia Sandu won landslide victories last year: winning the presidential elections, forcing snap elections against all odds and, most recently, the historic win by PAS in the parliamentary elections. This shows that power is not solely in the hands of a few oligarchs, but the difficult task is yet to come.

Delivering reforms, sometimes unpopular ones, will come at a cost and will meet with strong resistance. It is unclear if PAS can undertake reforms concerning all major issues at the same time – it should probably prioritise them. PAS is a young party, well-meaning, but without experience in managing unreformed and very corrupt public systems. Results may be delayed, while citizens expect them extremely fast. Any delays may erode the party’s popularity.

Slogans cannot replace actions and public trust in politicians can be earned only if competence and integrity are key characteristics of the political leaders.

The new government and the new pro-reform majority will need all possible support from Moldova’s Western partners. Anti-Western and anti-reform actors, both within and from outside the country, will surely strive to undermine the government and, indirectly, to affect trust in the EU and in Western values. This political majority is, however, Moldova’s best chance to consolidate its democracy and its course towards EU integration, including the possibility over the medium term to become a potential candidate and afterwards a candidate country for EU membership.


[1] In November 2020, Maia Sandu won the 2nd round of presidential elections by a substantial margin, with more than 57% of votes, surpassing Igor Dodon.

How a boiling Black Sea is slowly cooking NATO frogs!

The recent harassment of the HMS Defender near Crimea is just the latest episode in a broader Russian behaviour to claim waters illegally and challenge freedom of navigation. In fact, for quite some time, Russia is practicing a form of hybrid warfare at sea – warns Admiral (Ret.) James Foggo.

Seven years after the Crimea annexation, the Black Sea remains what has been called the ‘soft underbelly of NATO’. How do you see the transformation/the changes in the Russian way of warfare and what worries you about them? There is a term that I found very useful in this context coined by David Kilcullen in his most recent book where he talks about a special type of warfare, that of liminal warfare  – essentially ‘riding the edge’, exploiting the ambiguity of blurred lines of conflict to challenge an established order and exert control on key parts of the regional commons – practiced in a certain ecosystem, a geographical area ‘transitioning between two states of being…that are in limbo, that have ambiguous political, legal and psychological status’.

My introduction to the Black Sea took place in early 2011. In 2010, I became a one-star admiral in charge of Submarine Group 8 in the Allied Submarine South that included the navies of the Southern Mediterranean and Black Sea region countries that operated submarines (Greece and Turkey). At that time, we were bringing the Arleigh Burke Class Destroyers to Rota, Spain as Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF). It was our desire to use those ships in multi-mission capacity, not just for missile defense, which is their primary mission, but to perform other multi-missions: anti-submarine warfare, anti-air warfare, maritime interdiction operations, etc. The US DDG is really a versatile platform. We sent one of these destroyers then to the Black Sea for the first time and the Russians were not happy about it. The Burke Class Destroyers have the ability to carry the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) and the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3)–the best ballistic missile interceptor in the world. When the Russians protested against the destroyer sailing in the Black Sea on a legitimate Montreux convention request, the response of the Sixth Fleet Commander at the time—Admiral Harry Harris was –“Well, send another one!”  The important lesson learned here is that you have to be present for both your allies and partners to receive reassurance and to let others that want to challenge you know that you are going to be there with like-minded nations in solidarity. In other words, “Virtual presence equals actual absence!”  Eventually, the Russians got used to a US DDG entering and operating in the Black Sea.   

As this relationship progressed with the post-Soviet era Russian Federation, there was actual dialogue, we had joint military activities with their forces.  Every year, it became a milestone event to build and approve the “Russia Work-Plan.” Everything done in collaboration with Russian Forces was approved at the Secretary of Defense level. In fact, during the run-up to the Olympic Games in Sochi we had two ships in the Black Sea, but then out of the blue came the illegal annexation of Crimea and the Russia Work Plan ground to a halt. We should have seen this coming after the 2008 attack on Georgia but for some reason we didn’t. As a community of western allies and partners we were completely surprised. This was accomplished through what David Kilcullen calls liminal warfare or essentially hybrid warfare by a different name. Personally, I don’t like the “little green men” expression, but I do appreciate and understand hybrid. Undermining a sovereign nation can be done without firing a shot through intimidation, spawning social or nationalistic unrest, capitalising on social-media and utilising the new domains of cyber and space in coordinated attacks that occur under the threshold of a NATO Charter Article 5. All these things happened and now Crimea has been annexed and there exists a continuing tension along the border in Donbas or what is often called a frozen conflict. Sometimes this area heats up, as we saw most recently with the build-up of a 100,000 Russian forces along the line of demarcation between Crimea and the rest of the Ukraine.  In the final analysis, I was relieved that the Russians stood down, but they proved they can do this quickly and that it wouldn’t have taken much to go from an exercise to a real-world operation and cross that line in Donbas. Accordingly, we need to continue to maintain our presence in the Black Sea – the soft underbelly of Eastern Europe.

The boiling frog scenario

What does the hybrid component mean when applied to maritime issues? I think we’ve seen a glimpse of that when we look to the Russian actions in the Azov Sea or in the broader Black Sea ecosystem.

Hybrid or liminal warfare conveys that something is “brewing” as I said earlier, and brewing below the threshold of an Article 5 violation. We have this expression in the West called the “boiling frog.”  The frog sits in a pot of water that is slowly brought to a boil. In the final analysis, the temperature change is so subtle over time, that the frog never realises that it’s been cooked. Some of the incremental changes or encroachment that have taken place in the Black Sea region during the last decade and my tenure of seven commands in Europe remind me of the boiling frog scenario. 

You have to be present for both your allies and partners to receive reassurance and to let others that want to challenge you know that you are going to be there with like-minded nations in solidarity. In other words, “Virtual presence equals actual absence!”

For example, beyond Russian actions in Georgia in 2008 and the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, I was the Commander of Naval Forces Europe in 2018 when the Sea of Azov incident (where Russian FSB vessels fired on, rammed and captured Ukrainian naval vessels) took place. The regulation of the Sea of Azov is different than the regulation of the Black Sea or other body of waters under the UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS). The Sea of Azov is regulated by a bilateral agreement between Russia and Ukraine that was signed in 2004. As a result, it is the business of these two signatories to resolve their differences in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, thereby limiting what Western powers can do on the other side of the Kerch bridge and up to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol. Nevertheless, when I was the Naval Forces Europe Commander, I said both publicly and privately, that left unchecked the West might see an export of this protocol/pattern of bad behaviour from the Sea of Azov into the Black Sea. In other words, the Russians could export this protocol of restricting access to the Sea of Azov to the rest of the Black Sea. I believe this is exactly what happened recently, coincident with the build-up of Russian land and air forces near Donbas, followed by Russian Navy forces announcing a number of closure areas in the approaches to the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea throughout this summer and into the fall. This is a form of hybrid warfare.

They tried the same thing during the Trident Juncture 2018 off the coast of Norway and the Norwegians told me it was the first time that they had seen a declaration of a closure area for a missile exercise in their EEZ very close to their territorial waters, as well as in the middle of Trident Juncture maritime operations. When you declare closure areas, under the auspices of the UNCLOS – you don’t “own” that piece of ocean. The oceans are called the “global commons” for a reason. Nations declare closure areas to notify their intent to conduct dangerous military activities (like a missile exercise) for the benefit of civilian traffic in the impacted areas. It is intended to be a safety mechanism but can be abused to cut off sea lines of communications and normal transit routes. This is what is happening today—it is an unfair practice and it should be stopped—so what can you do about it?  There is no reason you can’t sail into those areas, particularly if nothing is going on at the time. Demonstrating the will and the ability to project power and presence is very important. Both sides eventually get used to it. It is important to challenge this kind of hybrid warfare at sea with presence operations that are non-hostile. 

It is also important that in doing so, we reduce the chance of mistakes and miscalculations on the high seas during close encounters between US/NATO and Russian warships. There needs to be a broader NATO multilateral agreement on this and I would suggest that NATO Navies conduct a closer examination of the Code on Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) for risk mitigation during “unplanned” encounters, particularly in the Black Sea.

Let’s reflect a bit on the broader consequences of Russia investing massively in counter-power-projections bastions to neutralise some of the traditional features of the American/Western way of war. How do they change local balances of power? What worries you the most? How should US and NATO forces change how they operate in such increasingly non-permissive environments?

This should not come as a surprise to the West. It was back at the turn of the millennium, around 2000, when it was recognised at least in Washington, in some think tanks and amongst the strategic minds in the Pentagon – one of these was Andy Marshall, who was the head of the Net Assessment – that an anti-access/area denial strategy was a very real and rather inexpensive manner in which to secure an area of a coastline or airspace against any potential threat or amphibious landing of an opposing force. Early in this century, we started to see the build-up of the highest density of weapon systems (an interlocking system of coastal missiles, interceptor aircraft, air-defense systems, surface ships, and submarines) in one geographic area – Kaliningrad in the Baltic Sea. It was really the first A2/AD bastion that was created in this post-Cold War Russian Federation world. An A2/AD strategy can be very effective. It builds on the proliferation of weapons of asymmetric warfare and although it is effective in protecting a coastline, it can also reach out much further than territorial waters and into the open ocean where it can restrict the ability of commercial shipping to conduct freedom of navigation on the sea lines of communication in international waters.

When talking about A2/AD, I always refer back to a famous war game in the United States called Millennium Challenge where a retired Marine Corps officer, Lt. Gen. Paul van Riper took command of the Red Force (the opposing force) and created an A2/AD strategy that was so effective that the exercise had to be re-set and had to start over. Over time, because the A2/AD strategy has been successful, particularly the Russians and now the Chinese are both investing their resources to protect their interests and project power far from their respective coastlines. Who would have ever thought that the Russians would have established such a significant presence in Syria? In fact, they’ve created an A2/AD cordon around Syria and out into the Mediterranean which raises tension in the Eastern Mediterranean. With the annexation of Crimea in Black Sea they’ve done the same thing with S-300 and S-400 systems that form a cordon of early warning well beyond 12 miles from land. There are also increasing numbers of reported incidents of GPS jamming or spoofing in the Black Sea and other maritime domains where we operate. These are all functions of the expansion of the domain(s) of warfare from what used to be 3 domains (land, sea, air) into now 5 domains (+ cyber and + space).

One of the things I’ve told to my friends in the Black Sea was that if this A2/AD strategy is being effectively employed by our adversaries, why don’t you try it yourself? In fact, building a network of connected surveillance along the coastline is exactly what Romania and Bulgaria are doing. The challenge is to connect on the other side with Georgia, Ukraine and Turkey as well.

It’s becoming very busy in the Black Sea, especially when you add the 6 Kilo class submarines (2 that are operating in the Eastern Med, 4 that are operating in the Black Sea) that carry the very capable Kalibr cruise missile which Russia proved works very well in combat. With the reach of the Kalibr weapons system, they can essentially target any capital city in Europe. We need to know where those vessels are at any one time. This can be very challenging.

The need for a new NATO maritime strategy

The traditional discussion when you try to counter any A2/AD posture is either to incentivise allies to build their A2/AD capabilities, or to adopt an ASB (Air Sea Battle) kind of thinking. Is this also part of the broader picture that NATO should have in mind for the Black Sea ecosystem?

The new strategic review that was conducted by NATO happened to be led by one of CEPA’s own Dr. Wess Mitchell, a brilliant diplomat and scholar. To my great delight the report underscored the need for a new NATO maritime strategy. The last one was published in 2011, before of the return of the Russian Federation and the rise of China as a peer competitor. 

Oftentimes when a crisis occurs, we are late to recognise it because of a failure of indications and warnings: we are not paying attention to signals and then we respond by “running to the sound of guns.” I had two grandfathers in the First World War in the trenches and my father hit the beach in Normandy after D-Day—they ran to the sound of guns…

An A2/AD strategy can be very effective. It builds on the proliferation of weapons of asymmetric warfare and although it is effective in protecting a coastline, it can also reach out much further than territorial waters and into the open ocean where it can restrict the ability of commercial shipping to conduct freedom of navigation on the sea lines of communication in international waters.

In the NATO maritime domain, oftentimes we will also run to the sound of the guns. Is it in response to a snap exercise in the High North or the Arctic region? Is it in response to high tension in the waters off Kaliningrad or is it in response to the most recent build-up in Donbas both at sea and on the land?  

With a strategy you have a plan. There are branches and sequels to that plan. These plans are adapted to geographical regions, like the GRPs. When you have a plan then you understand what tools, capabilities and what capacity and types of ships you need to successfully deter or defend. When you articulate those types of platforms and the capabilities that go with them (anti-air warfare, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare), that costs the Alliance in terms of resources from individual nations or NATO Common Funding. A strategy can provide some form of coalescence and agreement on who provides what to support the plan.

The last piece of the puzzle that is really important about any strategy is what we in the United States call a Time Phased Force Development Doctrine (TPFDD) – i.e. who goes first and when and where do follow-on forces arrive?

Incorporating all of these things in the paragraphs preceding will constitute a maritime strategy that is much overdue.

The Fourth Battle of the Atlantic

What are the implications for the West of what you call the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic? How should NATO adapt its maritime posture to deal effectively with it?

When I coined the expression the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic with my brilliant co-author, Dr. Alarik Fritz back in 2016, neither of us realised how popular that expression would become.

At the time, we were sounding the alarm on the fact that ‘Russia employs an “arc of steel” from the Arctic through the Baltic and down to the Black Sea. Russia has the capability to hold nearly all NATO maritime forces at risk. No longer is the maritime space uncontested. For the first time in almost 30 years, Russia is a significant and aggressive maritime power’.

This response to our warning order on the return of the Russian Federation (particularly in the undersea domain) was met with strong resolve on the part of the Alliance. We are able to assign an extra fleet to augment the 6th Fleet and MARCOM and our NATO Allies in deterring and defending the euro-Atlantic theatre. When people asked me during my time as Naval Forces Europe Commander—Is the US withdrawing from Europe?—I said absolutely not. Let’s look at some recent events. We just re-inculcated the Second Fleet that’s been decommissioned for a while. We agreed to create a Joint Forces Command HQ in Norfolk, Virginia to bolster the pillar of the transatlantic bridge from North America to Europe. That was a significant event and expenditure of resources on the part of the United States. Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, USN, has done a great job taking that organisation from initial operational capability to full operational capability. He deployed forward and took command of the BALTOPS and established an expeditionary HQ in Iceland in advance of one of our Carrier Strike Group deployments.

It should be also stated that the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic is not only about the Atlantic Ocean. It is also the other oceans and seas that connect with the Atlantic Ocean including the Arctic Ocean, Baltic Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea. In fact, the Arctic Ocean represents the trans-Polar bridge between Northern Europe and the Barents Sea in the Western Pacific. It is an area of common ground between the Pacific and the Atlantic and Northern Europe and it brings us together with our Asian allies and partners. In this region, encompassing the coastlines of eight bordering Arctic nations, including the Russians (they have 40% of the coastline and a lot of the natural resources are on their continental shelf) we have a new arrival—a self-declared “Near Arctic Nation” – China.

The Baltic Sea is another important region. Like the Black Sea, it is a closed area of water, you have to get through a strait to get there, so there is a choke point. It is a thriving economic area and nobody wants to disrupt that through major power conflict or regional crisis. We want it to be calm, prosperous, stable, secure and safe for all the Baltic Sea nations. The same situation exists in the Black Sea or Mediterranean Sea. The concept of the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic and how you respond to it or how you prevent it from getting worse is important to all these important bodies of water.

The precursor to war becomes the war itself

You commanded one of the biggest post-Cold War exercises of NATO – Trident Juncture 2018. Core dimensions of NATO adaptation after Crimea annexation such as VJTF or NRF were exercised then. What were the lessons that you’ve learned from Trident Juncture 2018?

It remains the most successful NATO exercise since the Cold War. For me, Trident Juncture was the pinnacle of my 39-year career and the chance to command a force of 50,000 NATO soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines on-board 70 ships, 265 aircraft and 10,000 tracked or rolling vehicles.  It was an Article 5 exercise and even though we used a fictitious adversary’s name, as reporters continued to press me I acquiesced that it was all about the Russians and our ability to deter and defend in the euro-Atlantic theatre. We spend 90% of our time deterring but we wanted them to understand that we are capable of moving a very large preponderance of force into the territory of a NATO nation whose sovereignty had been violated in order to defend it.

Under the Total Defence Concept, we received tremendous support in Norway from “Viking” military and civilian forces alike, including hoteliers, air traffic controllers, cab drivers, barbers and stevedores. The logistical statistics were stunning for the period of the exercise: 58 container ships arrived, 2100 containers delivered, 150 road convoys conducted, 1 million meals served, 660 tonnes of laundry washed, 35,000 beds established in the field.

It was the equivalent of moving 7 brigades in about a month. There was significant planning up until that event and in the future we are not going to have the time to plan in this time horizon, but what Trident Juncture demonstrated was that there is an incredible dependence in the Alliance on logistics and military mobility.

Liminal or hybrid warfare is not going to result in great tank battles in the Fulda or Suwalki Gaps. It is going to be these little pressurised pockets of intimidation below the threshold of article 5 and the boiling frog scenario – it happens and it’s done before we know it.

The Russians were also invited. They were able to see with complete transparency what NATO accomplished during the exercise. We demonstrated what we wanted to – that the NATO alliance is extremely strong, cohesive, capable and so… don’t mess with us!

Trident Juncture contributed to deterrence not only just in the High North and Arctic but also all the way to the Black Sea. The more you raise the risk calculus for the adversary, the less likely they are to cross the line. In the case of hybrid warfare in Ukraine (not a full member of the Alliance), the risk was low enough to make it attractive. I think that’s what’s gone through the Russian leadership’s decision calculus. In particular, Russian leadership concluded that it could cross this line and take this territory without firing a shot, and so they did it.  

We must consider this carefully in preparing for the future.  Liminal or hybrid warfare is not going to result in great tank battles in the Fulda or Suwalki Gaps. I don’t think that traditional symmetrical warfare is what is going to happen. It is going to be these little pressurised pockets of intimidation below the threshold of article 5 and the boiling frog scenario – it happens and it’s done before we know it. In conclusion, I submit that if the precursor to war becomes the war itself, then we’ve got to re-evaluate the whole manner in which we conduct warfighting. I think that is where we are today. The next battle of the Atlantic is going to look a lot different than the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic that we are fighting today.  Let’s do what it takes to be ready for it…

Excerpts from this interview were previously published in Small Wars Journal and Cronici Curs de Guvernare (in Romanian).

Admiral (Ret.) James Foggo is a distinguished Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Over the last decade in Naples, Italy, he served in multiple major commands as Commander, Naval Forces Europe/Africa; Commander Allied Joint Force Command, Naples; Commander, U.S. Sixth Fleet; Commander, Submarine Group 8; and Commander, Submarines, Allied Naval Forces South.

Who Summons the Dragon? China’s demand-driven influence in Central-Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans

A political and economic regional comparison

Based on a mixed-method methodology cross-cutting the political/economical divide, our latest brief shows that while China wants to increase its economic and political influence in the region, there is a significant difference between the story we hear and the facts we see. Despite China’s efforts to leverage vulnerabilities in the region, its political influence seems to be still relatively low.

Brad Allenby: “Pluralism was designed for a time when information moved more slowly”

In this wide-ranging interview, Brad Allenby – a Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics at Arizona State University – warns us about the transformational impact of technology (including AI) on the existing institutions and shares his insights on the future of war.

Writing about the rise of AI, Henry Kissinger pointed out his concern with “the historical, philosophical and strategic aspect of it. I’ve become convinced that AI is going to bring a change in human consciousness exceeding that of the Enlightenment.” What worries you about the rise of AI (especially as the rise of AI happens in a context where advances in biotechnology and neuroscience seem to be opening new frontiers)?

One of the difficulties is that AI is one of those technologies like electricity, an enabling one across the technological frontier. We are going to be using it in the car navigation systems, in cellphones or refrigerators. It is not that we are going to have this integrated AI as a technological threat in the same way that we perceive a nuclear weapon. AI is going to enable new behaviors and new activities, which is one source of problems—just think about the intervention of the Russians in the 2016 American elections. At the same time, you are also going to have fundamental changes in the assumptions that underwrite our institutions. If you look at the American political system today we are arguing about the First Amendment [on freedom of speech]. But AI as integrated into social media, and the amount of information that we are generating means that that is an irrelevant question. If you can’t get on social media you don’t have free speech. You have AI integrated with other things acting in ways that are destabilising for the existing institutions. This is our biggest problem. The rate of change is accelerating, it is going to be more profound, so we are going to need to be able to develop new institutions that are much more agile and adaptive, and yet at the same time more ethical than the ones they are replacing.

How do you see the impact of AI and big data on democracy and pluralism at a time when the public square has increasingly moved online? Can they make democracy and pluralism more resilient and healthy, or are we going to see the opposite: AI-enabled malign information campaigns, tribalism on steroids (with societies that become divided along Hutu vs. Tutsi lines), or even Orwellian states where comprehensive surveillance is dominant?

Especially because there are so many dimensions to these changes, I think that you can’t predict; the only thing you can really do is to create scenarios. It is not an unreasonable scenario to ask if the integration of AI, the party and private firms into a network in China, which is part of the Social Credit System (SCS) doesn’t give authoritarianism a significant jump in fitness. Meanwhile the difficulty with pluralism is that the pluralistic structure was designed for a period when information in particular moved much more slowly. You see that in the First Amendment and with the checks and balances system. These are fine until the rate of change and technological reality decouple them from the governance system. Institutions that were designed for a low-bandwidth world suddenly find themselves overwhelmed by information flows. Once that happens, pluralistic societies have to think deeply how they reinvent themselves, because their authoritarian competitors are already reinventing themselves. A reasonable scenario is that the changes tend to weaken pluralism and tend to strengthen soft authoritarianism.

If the US is going to be successful going forward, it is going to have to figure out how to create a pluralism that embraces tribalism.

In this context, the thing to keep an eye on is how different cultures manage to use the integrated capability of the emerging cognitive ecosystem — 5G, social media, AI, the Internet of Things. Are they able to use that in ways which augment the effectiveness and the power of the state and party? Or does it rebound on their system in such a way that it fragments even more? The Chinese are putting together the Social Credit System (SCS) which integrates all of those. Everyone depends on the social credit system. You have a high credit score and you can get in airplanes, in trains, you can go to certain colleges. It becomes a very powerful way of nudging behaviour. They are creating a structure where unless people behave the way you want them to, they are going to hurt themselves.

Are the 21st century autocracies better positioned to compete and master AI/cognitive infrastructures than democracies?

Democracies in particular have a big problem. In the Constitution of the US we have this strong split between the military and civilian powers. That is great until your adversaries adopt a whole strategy of civilisational conflict (and both the Chinese and Russians have done it), in which case you are in trouble. Your military knows that it is a threat, but it is over the civilian infrastructure, so they can’t intervene. The pluralistic response may become more chaotic, and very importantly, it begins to take longer. The problem with authoritarianism has always been that it was fragile. But designed properly, a social credit system can not only nudge citizens to behave the way the authoritarians want them to do, but it can also detect when there are issues that might affect the legitimacy of the authoritarian. It can become a way of channeling information upwards as well. Designed right, the traditional problems of authoritarianism are ameliorated by this integrated AI/human capability. If that is the case, then you have pluralism getting more and more chaotic, more sclerotic, and you have soft authoritarianism becoming more effective.

The West: too successful to adapt?

During the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was a hugely disruptive force that reshaped the international system and the balance of power globally. Some benefited and others lost. Are we in the early stages of a similar competition between the West and the Rest, spearheaded by a new technological revolution? With what implications?

Yes, we are. Successful institutions are going to be successful because they are fit for the current environment. That has been true for 200 years of Western models of governance. That also means that when things change fundamentally, they are the unfit ones. It is very hard for a successful organisation to adapt. AT&T used to be a great telephone company, but along comes internet telephony and AT&T goes away. The same is true of very successful governance systems. The problem that the Americans have is that they’ve been successful, and that is going to inhibit their ability to adjust to a world where the fundamental assumptions underlying those institutions have changed. Internationally, we may be entering a period where we are moving toward a kind of neo-medievalism: rather than having a single power we are going to have competing local power dynamics that tend to disrupt international commerce and could lead to higher levels of violence.

The amount of information that is available, the too many different stories, create an information overload so people fall back on their core narratives, not because they are stupid but because they are forced to. The only way they can continue to make sense of the world is to fall back on a tribal narrative that is more a matter of belief than of applied rationality.

This new type of medievalism might happen also inside the states not only in the international system. Tribalism is on steroids, the space for compromise-oriented elites is shrinking. This is a huge pressure for the US, as it used to function under the logic of E pluribus unum.

It is a problem that particularly the Americans have. To the best of my knowledge we never really had a world power that didn’t have an exceptionalist narrative. The problem is that today in their pursuit of identity politics the Americans have managed to destroy the integrating social narrative. The exceptionalist narrative in the US is very weak. Over time the US will become less competitive because tribal interests are going to grow to dominate the body politic. If the US is going to be successful going forward, it is going to have to figure out how to create a pluralism that embraces tribalism. That is going to be very hard. Tribalism, identity politics are here to stay. It is important to understand why. Individuals are information-processing mechanisms. If you fundamentally change the information environment you are going to perturb the performance of individuals and their institutions. Technologically-enabled trends are slowly undermining the core assumption of a pluralistic society — the individual as a rational citizen. That is exactly what we’ve done in the last 10 years. The amount of information that is available, the too many different stories, create an information overload so people fall back on their core narratives, not because they are stupid but because they are forced to. The only way they can continue to make sense of the world is to fall back on a tribal narrative that is more a matter of belief than of applied rationality. In short, a shifting away from System 2 thinking (predisposed to slow, applied rationality), back to System 1 thinking (predisposed to fast, emotional, intuitive thinking). That means that tribalism is not only going to continue, but strengthen.

The era of civilisational conflict

You have written a lot on the changes that affect conflict and war. What significant trend-lines do you see as shaping the future of conflict?

To me the deeper question is what fundamental structures have to change as we move into an era of ongoing, low-level civilisational conflict. Unless and until something dramatic happens, that is going to be the state of the world. If that is the case, what works and what doesn’t? You might say that clearly the military-civilian divide embedded in the US Constitution is obsolete and you should rethink it. That is never going to happen, but the deeper you get into what is happening to those assumptions, the more those kind of fundamental changes may need to be thought through.

But back to this paradigm change. The easiest way to think about the civilisational conflict is that over the last 30 years, the US has become the preeminent traditional military power. If you are China or Russia you are not going to be able to accept that that limits your freedom to protect what you feel are your vital interests. So you are going to figure out some way of developing effective asymmetric warfare and strategies. Overall, strategic and technological imperatives are changing how war and conflict are framed, generating a shift from military confrontation to a much broader and complex conflict waged across all domains of civilisation. Both Russia and China have gone in the same direction moving toward coherent theories of 21st-century conflict, and contemplating the inclusion of all dimensions of a civilisation in a very deliberate, strategically integrated process of long-term, intentionally coordinated conflict. You see this trend with the so-called ‘Gerasimov doctrine/New-generation warfare’ and the ‘Unrestricted warfare’ doctrine of the Chinese, and the implication is that all elements of an adversary’s culture and society become fair game for conflict. It does mean that you will be constantly attacking across that entire frontier. The idea that war is restricted to certain times and certain forms of combat becomes obsolete. Something that we need to recognise is that Russia is in constant war with the West; they have been over a long time, and they are continuing to fight it. The problem that NATO has is that it is more like a digital system. It is either on or off, it is either war or not. With the Russians it’s analogue. That is not something that the West is well designed to meet, either in terms of strategy or institutions. As much as the West may not like it, our adversaries have chosen civilisational conflict, and that is where we are. We need to adapt.

You can see the different ways in which major powers structure, for example, their cyber-activities. The Russians tend to use both internal government and criminal organisations. The Chinese tend to keep their high-technology companies very close and integrated with the state, so the party, the state and the private companies are all generally aligned in their behaviour. The Americans tend to let their companies go and view their private sector as being the innovative sector. That kind of fragmented approach means the Americans are unable to coalesce and align, even informally, the way the Chinese are. They have a different idea of what constitutes a civilisational conflict structure than the Americans do.

Something that we need to recognise is that Russia is in constant war with the West; they have been over a long time, and they are continuing to fight it. The problem that NATO has is that it is more like a digital system. It is either on or off, it is either war or not. With the Russians it’s analogue.

How do you see the implications of the emerging cognitive infrastructure for the traditional Boydian OODA loop? Visions of the war of the future talk about ‘algorithmic warfare’, where decision dominance is of the essence.

Conflict at the level of world powers of all kinds is going to be faster, more complex, and more systemic. Being fast and understanding your environment better – accelerating the OODA loop beyond the point that your adversary can follow – is going to provide the strategic advantage. At the same time, there will be many conflicts, such as in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, that are going to be low-level communal and tribal violence powered by deep ideological differences – the so-called neomedieval environment. Speed, agility, access to large data pools, and adaptability are key, so the nations that figure out how to do that – how to get inside the OODA loop of one’s adversaries – are going to dominate over time. The West is not doing particularly well on any of those metrics, which should be a cause of concern.

What do we want to save about the ancien régime?

What are the implications of how we should think or rethink about the resilience of a pluralist democracy?

If pluralism is going to prosper, it needs to develop a way to reinvent itself from the foundations up. In doing so it may lose something that we value, but that is because it is becoming obsolete. In some ways we should think about the task as sitting down in 1788 – what do I want to save about the ancien régime? Because things are going to change and are going to be different. France was France before 1789 and it was France after 1789. So the question for the West is, what kind of West do we want to be?

Let’s also discuss the main ethical implications. People fear a future where robots might control us. What principles should regulate/govern the use of AI? Do you see the potential to educate and programme the intelligent machines in the spirit of the 10 commandments? Or are we becoming too much dependent on the old assumptions when imagining the future?

All of the above. I think we are already too dependent on the assumptions that were valid during the first Enlightenment, but they are going to change. The first Enlightenment didn’t fail – it succeeded brilliantly, but now it has obsoleted itself. The second Enlightenment is going to require us to rethink our ethical structures. As far as robots are concerned we are going to find that we have a far more complex environment, but the ethics are not part of what the robots bring to the table. We always tend to think about the robots and AI as being kind of like us. But they are not going to be. We are the product of the things that were evolutionarily necessary for a species like ours to prosper and become the dominant species on the planet. But there is no reason why the Internet should develop that same cognitive structure. For humans, emotion is among other things a shortcut to decision-making. If the situation is too complex, emotions kick in and we respond. An AI should not have the same constraint. It may have different ones, but it is not going to think the way we do. It is going to think profoundly differently. We keep thinking of AI as the Skynet. It may not be Skynet, it may be like Google maps or Alexa, that just become more and more part of your life.

Brad Allenby is a Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics and co-chair of the Weaponised Narrative Initiative of the Center for the Future of War at Arizona State University.

Parts of this interview were published in Romanian in the printed issue of Cronicile Curs de Guvernare, No. 91.