‘If the EU fails, we can say goodbye to the liberal order’ – an interview with Samir Saran, President of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi.

To what extent is Europe important for the future of the world order? Europeans feel like they count less and less on the world scene.

Europe is, paradoxically, the single most important geography that will define the future trajectory of the global order. If Europe remains rooted in its fundamental principles – of being democratic, open, liberal, plural, supporting a transparent and open market economy, defending rule of law, the rights of individuals, freedom of speech – the world will have a chance of being liberal. If the European Union is split between the north and south, east and west and we see a large part of it deciding to give up on the Atlantic project and align with more authoritarian regimes – which is quite tempting, due to the material side attached to the choice – that will be the end of the Atlantic project. An EU that is not united in its ethics is an EU that will eventually write its own demise. How will Europe swing? Will it be an actor, or will it be acted upon? 

I have the belief that post-pandemic EU, as a political actor, will see a new lease of life. A new political EU may be born as the pandemic ends. Unless that happens, I believe this is the end of the European Union itself. It is a do it or lose it moment. Unless Europe becomes strategically far more aggressive, far more expansive, aware of its role, obligations and destiny you will see an EU that fades. For me, the most important known unknown is the future of Europe. Will the EU hold? Will the 17+1 become more powerful than the EU 27? Which way will the wind blow on the continent? Will it really be the bastion of the liberal order or will the liberal order be buried in Europe?

The Indo-Pacific is the frontline for European safety

We’ve been used to only existing as part of the transatlantic relationship. In the past few decades, Europe has never really seen itself as an individual actor, but rather in coordination with the US. That is something that is starting to shake now. Do you see Europe acting on its own terms, as a global actor, in the positive case in which the member states do get their act together? Are we rather going to continue to act together with the US? Or find some other partners?

I suspect that with Brexit, you might see a far more cohesive EU, organised around the French military doctrine and French military posture. With an absent UK, I have the feeling that the political cohesion of the EU will increase and that the EU will be far more coordinated in its approach to the geostrategic and geopolitical questions. France realises that by itself, without the size of the EU, it might not be a significant actor. A French military presence will be compelling only if it acts on behalf of the EU.

Europe believed that it could change China by engaging with them, however I suspect China will change the EU before the EU changes China.

In terms of other partners, Europe has made one error. Europe believed that it could change China by engaging with them, however I suspect China will change the EU before the EU changes China. The mistake that the EU makes is that it imagines that an economic and trading partnership will create a degree of political consensus in Beijing. Nevertheless, Beijing is not interested in politics, but in controlling European markets. 

What Europe should do is to consider the importance of India. If the European continent needs to retain its plural characteristics, South Asia is the frontline. What is happening today between India and China is actually a frontline debate on the future of the world order. The Himalayan standoff is just the first of the many that are likely to happen unless this one is responded to. If China is able to change the shape of Asia and recreate the hierarchical Confucian order, don’t be surprised if the fate of Europe will follow the same path. If Europe needs to feel secure in its own existence it needs to create new strong local partnerships – with India, Australia, Indonesia, Japan. The EU needs to see itself as an Indo-Pacific power. The Indo-Pacific is the frontline for European safety. If the Indo-Pacific was to go the other way, the mainland is not going to be safe.

What do you think about the CEE’s role in the new emerging order? We see an increased competition for hearts and minds here. How could India help, in an environment of increased competition and active engagement of China in this space?

The Central Europeans are going to be the centre of attention for many actors. China will buy their love, America will give military assurances and so on. In the near future, many actors will realise the importance of the CEE, simply because it is these countries that will decide which way Europe finally turns. In some ways they are the swing countries, the swing nations that are going to decide whether Europe remains loyal to the ideals of its past or decides to have a new path. CEE countries are in many ways the decisive countries.

CEE has two important options and two important pressures. The options: will they be able to create a consensus (between the Chinese, the Russians, the Old Europe and the new countries like India) or will they be an arena for conflict? Can we create a ‘Bucharest consensus’, where the East and the West, North and the South build a new world order and the new rules for the next 7 decades? If you play it wrong you might become the place where the powers contest, compete and create a mess.

There are also two pressures. Firstly, there is an economic divide in Europe. You are at a lower per capita income, you need to find investment funds for the infrastructure, employment, livelihoods and growth, which results in an economic pressure that needs to be tackled. Therefore, Europe will have to decide if the provenence of the money matters. Does it matter if it is red or green? Does it matter if they come from the West or the East? That is one pressure that needs consideration. How do you meet your own aspirations, while being political about it? 

The other pressure is the road you want to take. How do you envisage the future? Is it going to be a future built on cheap manufacturing? Being an advanced technological society, are you going to be the rule-maker of the Fourth Industrial Revolution or its rule-taker? Secondly, the nature of the economic growth that you are investing in becomes another pressure. This is the second choice that the CEE will have to make. In that sense, I believe that India becomes an actor. As we have experienced this in the past 20 years, we are one of the swing nations that could decide the nature of the world order, thus we may share this experience with you. We have also decided that we don’t want to be a low-cost manufacturing economy like China, but rather a value-creating economy, building platforms. Even if we have a small economic size, we have a billion-people digital platforms, digital cash system, AI laboratories and solutions. 

What is happening today between India and China is actually a frontline debate on the future of the world order. If China is able to change the shape of Asia and recreate the hierarchical Confucian order, don’t be surprised if the fate of Europe will follow the same path.

As we move into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the tyranny of distance between Europe and India disappears. We don’t have to worry about trade links, land routes and shipping lines. Bits and bites can flow quite rapidly. As we move to the age of 3D printing, to the age of quantum computing, of big data and autonomous systems, the arena where we can cooperate becomes huge. 

India gives Europe room to manoeuvre, room to choose. When it comes to choosing, besides the traditional American and Chinese propositions, there is also a third one – India, a billion-people market.

Do you expect that there is going to be a shift in the EU toward reshoring and ensuring that manufacturing is not captive to Chinese interests or to Chinese belligerence?

I think that we are going to see a degree of reshoring everywhere. It is not going to be only a European phenomenon. Political trust is going to become important. Political trust and value-chains are going to affect one another. Countries are going to be more comfortable with partners who are like-minded. They don’t have to agree on everything, but they should be on the same ideological and political spectrum. 

There are two reasons for this. One is the pandemic that we are currently facing and in a way it exposed the fragility of globalisation as we know it. The hippie and gypsy styles of globalisation are over. I think that people are going to make far more political decisions. The second is that as we start becoming more digitalised societies, individual data and individual space are going to be essential, thus you don’t want those data sets to be shared with countries whose systems you don’t trust. Value is going to increasingly emerge through intimate industrial growth, far more intimate in character – it is going to be about the organs inside your body, it is going to be about the personal experiences, about how we live, transact, date or elect. They are all intimate value chains. The intimate value-chains will require far greater degree of thought than the mass production factories that created value in the XXth century.

The EU may be setting the format for managing our contested globalisation

You mention the rising value of trust, as a currency even. In Europe, we often point out that we are an alliance based on values. But even our closest partner, the US seems to be moving in a much more transactional direction, let alone China and others. You are describing a worldview that is relying increasingly on shared values, at least some capacity to negotiate some common ground, on predictability, whereas in many ways it seems that things are moving in the opposite direction, a much more Realpolitik one. Is this something that is going to last?

The pandemic has brought this trend to the fore. People are going to appreciate trust and value systems more than ever. But I think this was inevitable. If you would recall, India used to be quite dismissive of the EU, calling it “an Empire of gnomes”, with no strategic clout. But if you look at the last two years, India has started to absorb, and in a sense to propose solutions that the EU itself has implemented in the past. India came up with an investment infrastructure framework in the Indo-Pacific that should not create debt trap diplomacy, should create livelihoods, respect the environment and recognise the rights and sovereignty of the people. India came up with this when it saw that the Chinese were breaking all rules and all morality to capture industrial infrastructure spaces. The Americans under Donald Trump also came up with the Blue Dot American project for the Indo-Pacific – a framework that was based on values. Whenever you have to deal with a powerful political opponent you throw the rule book in there. If you don’t want to go to war with them, you will have to manage them through a framework of laws, rules and regulations. The value systems are a very political choice. They are practices and choices enshrined in our constitutions and foundational documents. Therefore, dismissing values and norms as being less political or less muscular is wrong. The EU, “the empire of gnomes” that was much criticised for the first two decades as weak and not geopolitical enough, may well become an example for other countries. If it remains solvent, a vibrant union, and if it is not salami-sliced by the Chinese in the next decade, the EU may well be setting the format for managing our contested globalisation.

This pandemic is the first global crisis where Captain America is missing

How does India see the future of the Quad? Usually the Quad is associated with a certain vision of the Indo – Pacific, free from coercion and open to unhindered navigation and overflight. Are we going to see the emergence of a more formal geopolitical alignment or even an alliance to support a certain vision about Asia?

The Quad is going to acquire greater importance in the coming years. It is going to expand beyond its original 4 members. We’ve already seen South Korea and the Philippines joining the discussion recently. We are going to see greater emphasis by all members doing a number of manoeuvres, projects and initiatives together. The next 5 years will be the age of the Quad. The pandemic started this process. I see three areas where the Quad can be absolutely essential.

One is in delivering global public goods, keeping the sea lines open and uncontested so that trade, energy and people can move with a degree of safety and stability. In a sense, I see the Quad replacing the Pax Americana that was underwriting stability in certain parts of the world. 

The second area is going to be around infrastructure and investments in certain parts of the world. I see the Quad grouping many initiatives that will allow for big investments in countries which currently have only one option – China. The Quad will be able to spawn a whole new area of financial, infrastructure and technology instruments closer to the needs of Asians, South Asian, East African, West Asians including the Pacific Islands. The Quad will be the basis of this kind of relationships in the upcoming years.

Thirdly and most importantly, the role of the Quad will be to ensure that we won’t reach a stage where we have to reject the Chinese. None of us wants a ‘No China’ world, because all of us benefit from China’s growth and economic activities. Many of us have concluded that the only way to keep the Chinese honest in their engagements, economical or political, is to be able to put together a collective front in front of them, not negotiate individually. The EU has done that longer than anyone else and that’s why the Chinese don’t like the EU and apply a ‘divide and conquer’ methodology to get more favourable deals. The Quad is in many ways an expression of that reality, as well of that the middle powers in Asia and Pacific (Indonesia, Australia and Japan) will have to work together, sometimes without the Americans, to negotiate new terms of trade and new energy, or technological arrangements. The Quad in many ways is also the ‘make China responsible’ arrangement, an accountability framework which will keep the Chinese honest and responsible actors in the global system.  

The next 5 years will be the age of the Quad. The Quad in many ways is also the ‘make China responsible’ arrangement, an accountability framework which will keep the Chinese honest and responsible actors in the global system.

Do you also see this trend extending into the political sphere in a kind of collective endeavour both in Asia (through the Quad) and in the West (starting with Europe perhaps) to build a new kind of world order? Do you feel that this ‘middle powers concert’ is one possible way to go? Or do you believe that we are going to be disappointed, as we were by the BRICs, when some of the members drowned in their own domestic problems? 

We are part of a world that doesn’t have any superpowers. The last superpower was America, and that ended with the financial crisis ten years ago. Ever since, we have been literally in a world which had quasi-superpowers like the US, to some extent Russia, the Chinese, but there was no real hegemon that could punish people for bad behaviour and reward people for good behaviour. 

Some of the most interested actors in the Indo-Pacific in the last two to three years happened to be the UK and France. A few years ago, they sensed that if they want to be relevant in the future world order, as it is built and as it emerges, they need to be present in the debates that are unfolding in this part of the world. Both partnered with India – to do military manoeuvres, to create maritime domain awareness stations, to invest in infrastructure and to create clearly the beginnings of a new order that might emerge from here. We will have to create these coalitions to be able to get things done.

The pandemic tells us something which is also quite tragic. Ever since I was born I have never witnessed a global crisis that did not have America as a response leader. This pandemic is the first global crisis where Captain America is missing. What makes it even more complicated is that the successor to Captain America has caused the crisis. Hence, you have the old power, which is absent and engrossed in its own domestic realities, and the new power that has been irresponsible and has put us in this position. Both the previous incumbent and the new contender don’t have the capacity to take action in this world by themselves. This tells us that building a coalition of middle powers is absolutely essential. It is not a luxury, it is not a choice. This is something concerning our own existential reasons that we must invest in.

Do you see this coalition of middle powers as some sort of a ’league of democracies’? It is a concept that was previously advanced by John McCain and now Joe Biden is embracing as his overarching framework for foreign policy. Do you see the potential for creating this league of democracies as some sort of manager and defender of the liberal international order?

I think it is inevitable. Technology is so intimate that we are not going to trust our data with folks we have a suspicion about. Thus, it is this reality that makes this coalition of democracies and like-minded countries inevitable. Even if we may never call it that, it is going to become that. We are going to notice countries engaging in these intimate industries with others who are similar, who are like-minded, who have similar worldviews. Still, this process may take longer than we have. We do not have the luxury of time, because we are going to be destroyed, divided, decimated and sliced in the meantime.

A few countries will have to take leadership – either the French, the UK, the EU itself, or India, or all of them. Until there is an agreement on a big vision for the new world order we must agree to an interim arrangement and have to create a bridging mechanism that takes us from the turmoil of the first two decades of this century to a more stable second half of the century. We don’t want to go through two world wars in order to achieve this unity, as we did in the past century. We need to have some other mechanisms that will prevent conflict, but preserve ethics. 

In this context the EU-India and the CEE-India projects are essential. It is us who have the most at stake, because our future is on the line. The more the world is in turmoil, the less we will be able to grow sustainably. It is our interest to create and invest in institutions and informal institutions that could preserve a degree of values and allow for stability.

Such a coalition reuniting countries from Central Europe, Western Europe and from Asia (such as India, Australia, Japan) will normalise the behaviour of both America and China. I do not think that they behaved responsibly in the last few years – one because of its democratic insanity, and the second because of its absolutist medieval mindset. Along these lines, you have democratic failure at one end and a despotic emergence at the other end. We need to ensure that democracy will survive and that the middle powers will be able to normalise this moment.

What is Russia’s role in all this? Is Russia going to be on our side? Or is it going to be on China’s – considering that sometimes they seem to, although their agendas perhaps align only when it is opportune for both of them?

Russia has an odd reality. It is a country that has a very modest GDP (the second smallest within the BRICs) but it is also a country that is possibly the second most powerful military force in the world. A big military actor with a very small economic size. This is creates a policy asymmetry in Moscow. It has very little stakes in global economic stability or global economic progress, but it has huge clout in the political consequences of developments around the world. The Russians have somehow to be mainstreamed into our economic future. Unless Russia is going to have an active role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution or have real benefits, their economy will stay in the 20th century and therefore their politics is going to reflect a 20th century mindset. If they are included in the economic policies of the future, their politics will evolve too. It is not an easy transition. Nevertheless I would argue that the Russians have to be given more room in European thinking so that they don’t feel boxed into the Chinese corner. The last thing that we should be thinking of is giving Russia no option but to partner with the Chinese. Perhaps the immediate neighbours (the CEE) will not be open to a partnership, taking into account their political history. But countries like India would be able to offer space for manoeuvre. In that sense, India could be a market, a consumer, an investor in the Russian economic future and the CEE-India partnership could become important. Can we together play a role in normalising that relationship? Can we give the Russians an option other than China? If Russia’s economic future is linked to ours, it doesn’t have to be in the Chinese corner. The Russians are not the Chinese. The Chinese take hegemony to a whole new level; the Russians have this odd asymmetry that defines their place in the world. This asymmetry should be addressed with new economic possibilities and incentives. 

The rise of the Middle Kingdom

We’ve been discussing how to react to a world that is increasingly defined by China. But what are China’s plans? What does China want? 

I do not know their plans, but I can tell you how I see China’s emergence, from New Delhi. I define it through what I call the 3M framework.

Firstly, I see them increasingly becoming the Middle Kingdom. Chinese exceptionalism is defined in those terms. They believe they have a special place in the world – between heaven and earth. They will continue to defy the global rules and they will not allow the global pressures to alter their national behaviour or domestic choices.  So we will see the first M, the Middle Kingdom, emerge more strongly in the years ahead.

This pandemic is the first global crisis where Captain America is missing. What makes it even more complicated is that the successor to Captain America has caused the crisis.

Secondly, this Middle Kingdom will make use of modern tools. They see Modernity as a tool, not as an experience. In that sense they use it to strengthen the Middle Kingdom, not to reform and evolve. Such tools include digital platforms, the control of media and a modern army with modern weapons to control and dominate. 

Thirdly, the final M deals with a Medieval mindset. They are a Middle Kingdom with Modern tools and a Medieval mindset that believes in a hierarchical world. We are a world which has moved away from the hierarchies of the past. The world is more flat, people have equal relationships. The Chinese don’t see it like that. They see a hierarchical world, where countries must pay tribute to them. They sometimes use the Belt and Road Initiative to create the tribute system or the debt trap diplomacy to buy sovereignty. Likewise, they use other tools to ensure the subordination of the countries they deal with.

These three Ms are defining the China of today.

Samir Saran curates the Raisina Dialogue, India’s annual flagship platform on geopolitics and geo-economics, and chairs CyFy, India’s annual conference on cyber security and internet governance. He is also the Director of the Centre for Peace and Security at the Sardar Patel Police University, Jodhpur, India. He writes frequently on issues of global governance, climate change, energy policy, global development architecture, artificial intelligence, cyber security, internet governance, and India’s foreign policy and authored four books, the latest of which is called ‘The New World Disorder’. 

The interview was conducted by Oana Popescu and Octavian Manea, as part of the Central Europe-India Forum Initiative created by the Observer Research Foundation (India), Keynote (Czechia) and GlobalFocus Center (Romania).

“It is more than a trade war between US and China, it is a hegemonic rivalry” – an interview with Kuni Miyake

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo. A former career diplomat, Miyake also serves as special adviser to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Cabinet. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Japanese government.

How would you characterise the post-COVID Indo-Pacific security ecosystem from a Japanese perspective?

One thing is for sure: pandemics accelerate and in many cases deteriorate already-existing tendencies. For this reason, I focus on the big trends. In the case of East Asia there are several such tendencies. One, China is on the rise. Two, the United States is becoming more and more inward-looking, if not isolationist. What’s happening now is quite similar to what we witnessed in the 1930s: you have a new rising regional power that considers the status quo as something to be adjusted, and therefore it can be changed even by force. With that in mind, the rising power challenges American hegemony in the Western Pacific by force. That is exactly what Japan did in the 1930s, but China is doing it on a scale 10 times bigger. In the case of Japan we attacked Pearl Harbor and we started a war. China is not that stupid. But nationalism is an opium. Once you start using it, you cannot stop it until you destroy yourself. That happened to Japan, and I am afraid that something similar could happen to China. These trends have been exacerbated and accelerated. 

Nationalism is an opium. Once you start using it, you cannot stop it until you destroy yourself.

What would you expect to be the key pillars of post-Abe foreign policy? What will change? What will be the continuities?

Shinzo Abe is one of the few politicians in my country who really understands the global strategic environment and the imperative to maximise the national interests in the middle of such difficult circumstances. Fortunately, he stayed in power for almost eight years. If you have this time you can create a sort of a legacy which could last longer. Mr. Suga has no choice because he was part of the Abe foreign policy. I always say that foreign policy is also politics, and all politics is local. If you want to make a commitment in your foreign policy, the biggest opponent are not the foreigners but your fellow citizens inside your country who are opposed to new ideas. Therefore, in order to achieve a diplomatic goal, you need to convince the opponents inside your country. That is something Abe did and Mr. Suga did himself. That’s why I call Mr. Suga a part of the Abe foreign policy. He will just continue doing it. But Shinzo Abe was a Ferrari, a super car, and even if you drive a super car, if the streets are congested you cannot go anywhere. Mr. Suga is no Ferrari or Lamborghini, but if you find the right route and streets, you can go anywhere. Abe created a great environment for Japan to maximise its national interests. Abe’s legacy will stay.

The most worrying issue is the outcome of the US elections. This is a wild card. If Trump is re-elected we know how to deal with it. If Biden becomes president, probably his policy wouldn’t be dramatically different from the current administration. The main reason is that the geopolitical transformation in East Asia has been so drastic that it has really started a strategic rivalry between US and China. This is more than a trade war, it is a hegemonic rivalry. The Americans fear that one day China might challenge the U.S. hegemony in the Western Pacific and even replace the US in East Asia. This is not something episodic, but a strategic and structural trend which the pandemic has accelerated.

A key component of Abe’s foreign policy legacy is the Quad. How does Japan see the future of the Quad? What is the next stage in the development of the Quad? 

Too frequently we refer to China and the CCP. The Quad is not an alliance, the Quad is not NATO. It is a much looser sort of a forum because we don’t want to define it clearly. If you define it clearly then only a limited number of countries can participate. So we should make it open. India has finally joined. It took us 14 years. We started talking about the Quad in 2006. Foreign Minister Taro Aso told US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in Hanoi in November 2006 that it was important for Japan, Australia, India, and the US to get together to discuss security issues in the Asia-Pacific, but at that time Ms. Rice did not respond positively. We may not see an expanded Quad in the foreseeable future. But what is more important is to keep the Quad united, to make it as loose as possible, so that more countries can join later in the future. The Quad is a good idea, but it is not NATO and shouldn’t be another NATO.

The Quad is not an alliance, the Quad is not NATO and shouldn’t be another NATO.

In June the implementation of the Aegis Ashore anti-missile system was canceled by Japan. At the same time there is currently a major debate in Japan about whether the SDF should develop counterattack capabilities, specifically acquiring attack missiles. What do these trends suggest about the national security policy, specifically about deterrence? 

Here the real issue is how we define our defence policy. There is a very long debate about what we mean by ‘exclusively defence-oriented’ defence policy. Exclusively defensive defence policy means nothing. It is a tautology. It is a strange kind of debate which we have continued for the past 60-plus years. It is time to rethink it because our potential adversaries have more military capability than before, and that requires more deterrent capability on the part of the Japanese side. Therefore it is not a debate between whether or not we should be able to attack enemy bases. It is not that simple. What is more important is a discussion about the qualification of the exclusively defensive posture of our defence policy. My argument is very simple, because defence policy consists of two elements: deterrence and attack capabilities. So try to deter your potential adversary first (so enhance the deterrence power to discourage enemy attacks), and if the deterrence fails you should be able to attack. As far as Japan is concerned, under the current constitution, we should put more emphasis on the deterrence side rather than the attack element. It is time for us to adopt a ‘deterrence-oriented’ defence posture.

Is Washington’s plan to withdraw troops from Germany particularly worrying for Japan? Do you see any ripple effects for the broader US posture in the Indo-Pacific, or questions about US credibility? 

The question is what are the stakes of the US presence in Europe and East Asia? There is of course the cultural angle – we are allies and share the same values. But the US is also a naval maritime power in the Indo-Pacific, where the economies are growing fastest. Therefore, the US might withdraw some troops from Europe to reinforce the deterrence posture in the Indo-Pacific area. But of course, this shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. You have more US Army troops in Europe while we have more US naval capabilities. In Asia what we need are the amphibious Marine units who can fight on the waters. It is a delicate balance, but the Europeans may have to keep in mind that the American priority has already shifted from Europe and the Middle East to Asia.

What does China’s most recent international behaviour (the border clash, the knock-out of Hong Kong freedoms, the bullying of Taiwan) expose about Beijing, its plans, ambitions and grand strategy? For sure this is no longer Deng Xiaoping’s China – “Keep a cool head and maintain a low profile” mind-set. Is this a sort of a wake-up moment? 

The reasons behind the recent self-assertiveness are the following.

Firstly: China is now a major power. It is not weak anymore. It has enough military power to realise its military and political ambitions. Secondly: the element of nationalism as part of the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. The legitimacy of the CCP consists of three pillars: China is one and united; their victory over Japan in the Patriotic War; and they finally found the third, which is the economic development in the late 1970s. This last element really divided the nation, because it widened the gap between the rich and poor. This is something that over time will destroy the legitimacy of the CCP. That’s why these days they have become excessively dependent on the nationalistic propaganda. The danger is that it is like opium, because once you start using it, you cannot stop it. 

Thirdly: the imperial personality of Xi Jinping. He thinks that it is time for China to strike back. With these three elements combined, China cannot stop assuming an assertive posture in the foreseeable future.

Xi Jinping thinks that it is time for China to strike back. China cannot stop assuming an assertive posture in the foreseeable future. 

When you visited Bucharest a few years back you warned about a power vacuum in the South China Sea that Beijing will take advantage of. What are/should be the lessons to be learned by the international community from the South China Sea? 

It is too late. We missed the opportunity a few years ago before they started landfilling and creating artificial islands. Once they were there and deployed all the weapons systems it became too late. In wartime these are highly vulnerable, but in peacetime it means that China is dominant inside the first island chain. We are located on the first island chain. As the US Marines say, they are already in the area and they are not going to move away. They are there to stay and defend their positions. What we can do now is to prevent the Chinese Navy especially from going out of the first island chain. In order to do that they will need more powerful platforms, which will be basically very vulnerable as the American forces transform in the future. 

Biden or Trump? Who is better for the US system of alliances?

Japan is an exception. Japan is the only nation among the allies of the United States which benefited most from the Trump Administration. Europeans suffered more than they gained. Of course, we suffered too because of the inherent unpredictability of the administration. A Biden presidency will be much more predictable. If Donald Trump is elected again maybe Shinzo Abe can play a role again. If I were Mr. Suga, I would nominate Abe as his special envoy.

Are you worried about intra-Democratic party ‘civil war’ between the Biden moderates and the radicalised progressive wing?

Yes, once Biden wins, another battle among the Democrats will resume. I hope this will not damage the foreign and defence policy of the Democratic party.

“We are still in a world where military power translates into geopolitical power. If Europe wants to sit at the table, it needs military capabilities” – an interview with Ulrike Franke (ECFR)

Dr. Ulrike Franke is policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Her areas of focus include German and European security and defence, the future of warfare, and the impact of new technologies such as drones and artificial intelligence.

What potential do you see for truly projecting a geopolitical Commission, especially in a post-pandemic Europe? What are the critical ingredients for a successful geopolitical Commission? Over the past years, France was very active in advancing bold visions for the future of Europe that were received with little enthusiasm in Berlin. Is a Franco-German alignment on a geopolitical Europe agenda more or less likely in a post-pandemic context? 

This is the big question for the EU at the moment. In my view, the first step in shaping a geopolitical EU would be for the Union to define in a clear way the interests it has in the world, and to communicate them. But this interest-focused thinking is something that the EU is not very comfortable with, and Germany in particular is neither comfortable, nor used to doing it. The second challenge is finding agreement among the 27 member states on various issues, whether it is on Russia, China or anything else. It is often difficult to get to a unanimous decision among the 27, which is why Ursula von der Leyen has proposed qualified majority voting on some foreign policy issues, especially in the areas pertaining to human rights, as she pointed out in her latest State of the Union speech. 

For now, the EU still struggles to be a geopolitical actor. And Germany in particular appears not ready for the EU to be a geopolitical actor. The current situation in the Mediterranean is a good illustration of this. There are still important voices in Germany who believe that the EU – even in this specific instance – should be an honest broker and an arbitrator rather than an actor. But this is a dispute between an EU member state and a non-EU member state! The idea that here the EU could be an honest broker is rather surprising, but that is what you hear from Germany. France is taking on a completely different vision; they argue that this is an EU member state, so of course we are taking sides and we are sending support to the Greek. This is a perfect example where you see the difference in approach between France and Germany when it comes to a geopolitical EU. 

With regard to COVID, I don’t think that it will have a major impact on European foreign policy, or that will contribute to a geopolitical awakening of Europe. Rather, at least at the moment, the consequence is that geopolitical issues have been pushed into the background  – and we’ve seen this in the von der Leyen speech – because there are other things that seem to be more important at the moment.

The three decades following 1989 have been extraordinarily  stable and, well, weird, geopolitically speaking. But for my generation this was normal. We are absolutely not prepared for a world where geopolitical power play is again the primary language.

To what extent are Europe and Germany ready for a world where the return of great-power competition is becoming the new normal? Thomas Bagger in Washington Quarterly was emphasising the lessons that his generation took on board from 1989 that influenced their worldview – convergence, multilateralism, the belief that Germany was no longer threatened and that the future was more about development aid and mediation. It is very much a mind set that slows Europe down in the geopolitical arena as opposed to all the other major players. Put more broadly, is a generation shaped by the ‘end of history’ mindset ready for a world in which the “jungle grows back”?

I very much liked Thomas Bagger’s article, and I am in the midst of writing a follow-up article which looks at the question from a Millennial point of view. I thought what he said about his generation, the legacy of 1989 and how it influenced the thinking of his generation was very interesting. But what he may not have thought about so much is what this means for my generation, who didn’t experience 1989, but grew up in the world that was shaped by it. The three decades following 1989 have been extraordinarily  stable and, well, weird, geopolitically speaking. But for my generation this was normal. We are absolutely not prepared for a world where geopolitical power play is again the primary language. This is true for Bagger’s generation, but it is even more true for my generation, as we never learnt this language. This, in my view, explains why Germans have so many problems with geopolitical, strategic thinking. 

But this is not solely a German problem. The EU, as an organisation, also struggles with this new situation, because it wasn’t built with a geopolitical mind set either. I like the rhetoric about the geopolitical EU but if you look at the State of the Union speech that Ursula von der Leyen gave recently, she didn’t mention defence with one word. And on geopolitics, she ran through the list of the foreign policy challenges but didn’t advocate a particularly strong position on any of them. Changing this will be difficult  and it will be particularly difficult as the biggest country in the EU is particularly unprepared  for this. 

Let’s unpack a bit the issue of strategic autonomy. How far from each other are Paris and Berlin on this issue? Which are the main disagreements? To me a very divisive issue, especially in the CEE space, is the French instrumentalisation of the Trump factor in order to push for strategic decoupling and become more independent from the US.

By now, more people are talking about “European sovereignty”, or European strategic sovereignty rather than autonomy. Many found that autonomy sounded too much as if it was directed against the US. So today the term is strategic sovereignty, rather than autonomy, although the idea broadly remains the same. But in any case, there is a certain level of ambiguity, which allows everyone in the EU to define the concept in a way that suits them.

The general idea behind European sovereignty is that the EU, that Europe, should become more of a geopolitical actor. In my view, this is a good ambition for the EU to have. But one can already see that different countries emphasise different elements. Germany for example, seems to support the idea because it is something that could help bring the 27 EU members closer together, which is a German priority. France, on the other hand, tends to be much more focused on concrete outcomes, even, sometimes, at the detriment of European unity. Plus, there is the defence question; European sovereignty includes a defence element, but the extent to which the EU should be or become a defence actor is controversial. In the European East, many worry that a too ambitious EU may undermine NATO. So there is still a lot of work to be done before the EU can claim sovereignty. 

To sum up, Germany seems more focused on process as a team-building effort, while France is more interested in the concrete ends.

It depends on the context, but this is something we are indeed seeing when it comes to the issue of defence and military cooperation. Germany has always focused more on the common part of common defence than on the defence part. Germany likes building up European defence because it helps strengthen EU unity.  Therefore, the creation of common security structures, from PESCO to the EDF was seen in itself as a victory. France, on the other hand, is more interested in the defencepart of common defence, and therefore points out that the establishment of common projects does not mean anything yet.

How realistic is a potential strategic convergence between Europe and the US in counterbalancing Chinese influence in the post-COVID world? Or will mercantilist pressures (very high in Germany for example) trump geopolitics?

Over the last few years, the EU, and Europeans broadly speaking, have woken up to the fact that China is not just an economic competitor and rising power, but an ideological and strategic competitor. For quite a long time, China has been seen primarily through economic lenses, this has only changed recently. For Germany, a big wake-up call was the acquisition of the German robot maker KUKA by a Chinese investor. More recently, the aggressive disinformation campaign on COVID by China reminded Europeans that China’s geopolitical power is an issue. 

There is now more cooperation between Europe and the US on the issue, although the US’s stance is much more clear-cut than the European one. Also, on this topic, the Trump administration has caused a big problem, in particular regarding public opinion. In some countries, there is such a rejection of the US under Trump that people have begun to wonder whether a more dominant China would really be so bad. European policy-makers are still broadly transatlantic in their thought process, but the last four years of the Trump administration have destroyed a lot of goodwill among the European population and this will come back and haunt the US when it comes to teaming up with Europe on China. If Trump is re-elected, I think that it is going to be much harder for Europe to work with the US on China.

Finally, Europe has a unity problem when it comes to China. Among the 27 EU member states, there are different views when it comes to China. Of course economic interests are big here. As long as there are countries in Europe that struggle economically and feel that they are being helped more by China than by the EU, the European bloc will have problems.

Germany has always focused more on the common part of common defence than on the defence part. Germany likes building up European defence because it helps strengthen EU unity. France, on the other hand, is more interested in the defence part of common defence.

Having in mind the broader trends impacting the character of contemporary war, what should Europe prepare for? There is the pressure of geopolitical rivalries and that of the high-end war. At the same time with everything that is happening in the broader MENA space, it may be a dangerous illusion to think that we are beyond the post-9/11 campaigns and the stabilisation operations.

The biggest problem is that Europe needs to prepare for all eventualities. I study new technologies and it is true that this is an area where Europe needs to do much more – but at the same time it can’t neglect more conventional threats. European countries need to retain a conventional military capability. They will remain important for operations, be it stability operations or for defence. Even if we don’t use it – we are still in a world where military power translates into geopolitical power. If Europe wants to sit at the table, it needs military capabilities. This is the reality with which a lot of people are not necessarily comfortable or don’t like but I very much believe that that is still the case. So the big challenge is that Europe needs all the above: conventional military capabilities and new technologies.

Over the past few years, the US has invested constantly in searching for a new offset strategy, going beyond a precision-guided munitions regime and focusing on what is often called algorithmic warfare (combat operations dominated by intelligent weapons and platforms using artificial intelligence as the core, but also enablers like big data, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, and intelligent control). Does Europe have a similar effort?

I don’t think Europe has a similar effort as the third offset strategy. But I don’t think that this is surprising, or concerning – even in the Cold War, even for the first and second offset strategies, the big ideas of reinventing, rethinking warfare and conflict always came from the US. 

That being said, of course there is a lot of thinking being done all over Europe about the future of conflict. It doesn’t necessarily happen at the EU level. But at the national level you do have quite a few people thinking of the future of warfare and conflict, especially in the UK and France, which makes sense, as they are the big military powers of Europe. One big challenge is how to continue working with the EU, what will new technologies mean for joint operations, such as within NATO. Interoperability will be a big challenge, and it is essential to figure out how to work together and make sure we don’t end up with an interoperability gap at the NATO level.

You are specialised in drones. What role will drones and swarms of drones play in enhancing deterrence? Such solutions could be contemplated in better securing the Eastern flank. 

I don’t think that the current generation of drones have a big role to play in the inter-state wars, or for deterrence. The current generation of drones are particularly good in asymmetric conflicts, where you enjoy air superiority, but they are vulnerable to contested environments. That being said, smaller countries benefit quite a lot from having more airborne capabilities, and this is something which we are seeing right now in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where both sides have used drones extensively.

A lot of work is being done on the next generation of unmanned systems that have more autonomous capability, are harder to find, faster etc. This changes the situation, as it means that they will be more of a challenge for  air defence. Swarming especially is an area where a lot of work is being done. Swarms are particularly thought to be a great way of overwhelming the enemy’s air defences, which are not built and optimised against swarms of 100 or 1000 attacking drones. 

But what we should never forget is that it will not be only our side trying to get this technology. I do see a danger of an arms race when it comes to ever more capable AI-enabled autonomous systems.

Macron’s has simply looked at the map of the world, he has assessed Europe’s interests and Russia’s interests and he has concluded that we need to find some kind of modus vivendi with Russia and that the current situation is just bad for everyone.

It seems that there is a different mood and tone in Berlin vis-à-vis Russia, driven by what happened in Belarus and particularly by the poisoning of Navalny. Will such a stance last? Should we expect a change also in Macron’s plans of rapprochement with Russia?

This isn’t my primary area of expertise. If I had to speculate, I wouldn’t  think that Navalny’s poisoning is going to change the approach substantially. After all, it is not as if Macron had been saying “let’s work with Russia, they are going to be our friends.” I believe that the French government is entering into talks with Russia with open eyes. They are aware of the spoiler role that Russia has been playing with regard to European stability for the last 5 to 10 years. The poisoning of Alexey Navalny hasn’t changed this assessment.In my view, Macron’s has simply looked at the map of the world, he has assessed Europe’s interests and Russia’s interests and he has concluded that we need to find some kind of modus vivendi with Russia and that the current situation is just bad for everyone – which strikes me as a valid point. But France has not done well in explaining its approach, particularly to the Eastern Europeans. I think it was some misunderstanding among the Eastern Europeans that France wants a new partnership with Russia, but I don’t think this is what they are trying to do. 

“We didn’t think it was going to be a peaceful world:” Brent Scowcroft & the world he helped fashion

Almost exactly thirty years ago, on August 2, 1990, Brent Scowcroft sat on a small airplane. Crammed in the seat in front of him, their knees touching, sat George H.W. Bush, the President of the United States. Bush spent the flight on the phone, calling up leaders around the world.

Scowcroft, who was the American President’s principal foreign policy advisor, was madly revising the speech Bush was going to give at their destination in Colorado – he had to make it compatible with the things that had happened the day before. Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s dictator, had sent his troops to invade neighboring Kuwait. The entire world was now watching the United States. The Cold War was almost over. The Berlin wall had fallen. Two Germanies would soon become one. Faced with naked aggression in a somewhat less-than-crucial context, would American leaders look the other way? Or would they conclude that it was in their country’s interest to intervene?

He had had “absolutely no doubt” about Bush’s determination, Scowcroft subsequently recalled (1). A few days later, after landing back at the White House, Bush told journalists that “this will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” And another few months later, an international coalition led by US military forces defeated Iraq’s army, with broad reverberations throughout the international system (2). Brent Scowcroft died a few weeks ago, on 6 August 2020. He was 95. Today, the question on many an analyst’s mind is whether America was very much a different country three decades ago, or whether Washington’s key policymakers back then were a different type of people.

Despite Bush’s clear words and Scowcroft apparent lack of doubt, the decision to intervene had not come easy. “Yours is a society which cannot accept [ten thousand] dead in one battle,” Iraq’s dictator had told the US envoy in Baghdad before his daring move. He was implying that Americans had no stomach for long wars in far-away places. For as long as America’s capitalist democracy had been engaged in a deadly battle with Soviet totalitarian communism, leaders in both Washington and Moscow had had little choice but to intervene. But now the Soviets were down and the Americans were surprised by their sudden success, the Iraqis reasoned. The world seemed remarkably unrestrained. These circumstances “will not happen again for fifty years,” an adviser told the Iraqi dictator. It was the “opportunity of a lifetime.” Moscow had its own fish to fry and Washington would swallow his land grabbing, Saddam concluded (3).

“We were trying to set up a method of behavior for the post-Cold War world,” Scowcroft later remembered, and this was the key moment where Washington needed to set the tone for the future.

The Iraqi despot was not alone with his assumption. Before boarding for Colorado, Bush and Scowcroft had attended a meeting that seemed to reach that very conclusion. The US government’s key policymakers had congregated for an hour at the White House. “There was sort of a fait acompli atmosphere,” Scowcroft later recalled (4). All gathered had agreed that they had to protect Saudi Arabia – it was inimical to US interests to permit any power to “gain dominance over Gulf oil supplies,” Pentagon planners had argued before. But the world needed oil, and Saddam would provide it, the officials at the meeting had concluded. Liberating Kuwait was “not viable,” budget officials concerned with the costs of a potential deployment had opined. Military leaders doubted whether their political masters possessed the resolve to go to war over Kuwait. Some had even argued that the crisis offered an “interesting opportunity” to boost production and drive down the global price of oil – to the benefit of US consumers. Dick Cheney, Bush’s Secretary of Defense at the time, later remembered that the general feeling had been that most citizens of Kuwait lived “in the south of France anyway.” (5)

Mere hours later, jam-packed on their small plane, Scowcroft told Bush that he was very disturbed at the tone of the morning meeting. It had skipped over “the enormous stake the United States had in the situation, or the ramification of the aggression on the emerging post-Cold War world.” (6) First, there was a regional dimension. Washington wanted to stabilize the Gulf, and Saddam’s actions were reinforcing old antagonisms. Also, neither Iraq nor Iran could be allowed to dominate the region, and Saddam’s incursion was threatening to start tilting the balance in his direction. However, the second – the global order – dimension was dominating. “We were trying to set up a method of behavior for the post-Cold War world,” Scowcroft later remembered, and this was the key moment where Washington needed to set the tone for the future. (7)

In other words, had the remaining superpower allowed a rogue dictator to do what he wanted, others would have registered the message. Scowcroft, together with his principal White House staffers, worked in the background. Luckily, upon further consideration, various other decisionmakers throughout the US government came to the same conclusion. By the time of the next meeting on the crisis, the tenor had changed. “This is the first test of the postwar system,” Larry Eagleburger, the Deputy Secretary of State, underlined. If Saddam succeeded, “others may try the same thing.” This would be a “bad lesson.” The world would become a more dangerous place – with long-term negative consequences for America’s goals of constructing a liberal and democratic global order. Both US security and prosperity would suffer (8). The bottom line was that the US leadership had to accept the costs of intervention now in order to prevent larger future threats to the national interest.

And yet, Bush’s choice – as preordained as it appears in the rearview mirror – was anything but easy (9). For instance, US military leaders were aware that high losses would once again damage their reputation and, hence, their position within the American society. Scarred by the war in Vietnam a few decades prior, military commanders wanted the armed forces to have the support of the population. Their “number one priority was to rearrange the relation with the American people,” a former official told me a few years ago. Thus, military leaders pushed the President to authorize an overpowering but very expensive deployment – they believed that decisive force would end the war quickly and save (American) lives. (10)

This type of military expedition ultimately delivered a crushing victory, but significantly increased Bush’s political costs in case of defeat. Towards the end of August 1990, Bush met Secretary of State James Baker – who was also his best friend – at the White House. Baker cautioned that the Iraq crisis had “all the ingredients that brought down three of the last five Presidents: A hostage crisis, body bags, and a full-fledged economic recession caused by [expensive] oil.” Bush replied: “I know that, Jimmy, I know that. But we’re doing what’s right; we’re doing what is clearly in the national interest of the United States. Whatever else happens, so be it.” (11) Thus, when the military leadership asked for very large forces to be dispatched to the Gulf, Bush – at Scowcroft’s advice – listened carefully and then stood up and said, “You’ve got it. Let me know if you need more.” He then promptly walked out of the room, leaving everyone stunned. (12)

Bush, Scowcroft, and many of their advisers believed that the international arena remained a highly competitive environment. Thus, they thought it was “romantic” and “wrong” to imagine that history could have ended.

Ultimately, Bush and Scowcroft’s choices were grounded in a particular reading of international affairs and, implicitly, of the post-Cold War era. “We didn’t think it was going to be a peaceful world,” Scowcroft later remembered his and the President’s thinking. “We thought it was going to be a messy world.” (13) Francis Fukuyama, who was at that point the deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, had just advanced his famous and popular end-of-history thesis: With communism dead, nations would converge, and conflict would be avoided. But Bush, Scowcroft, and many of their advisers believed that the international arena remained a highly competitive environment. Thus, they thought it was “romantic” and “wrong” to imagine that history could have ended. Regional disputes, long suppressed by the US-Soviet competition, would be reawakened, and new “political and economic” forces would be “unleashed.” Without the US global engagement, Washington’s international politico-economic designs would be imperiled.(14)

Today, we face a chicken and the egg problem. We see how Donald Trump, the current US President, is abandoning long-held American responsibilities. Was America so different three decades ago that it brough people like Scowcroft and Bush to power to served its interests at that point in time? If this is the case, we should brace ourselves – any American President will be transactional, less interested in global order and stability, and more likely to question the utility of the transatlantic alliance. Conversely, maybe the United States did not change that much, but the people who governed it three decades ago were different individuals, with different priorities and different ideas. Should this be the case, there is hope. Maybe the next President will be able to go back on some of the steps this Administration has taken, especially towards mending Washington’s relationship to Western Europe. In any case, the future remains interesting and uncertain. What is certain is that Scowcroft wisdom will be sorely missed.

References:

  1. Philip Zelikow and James H. McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 61, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project, released August 2020.
  2. The best overview is Richard N. Haass, War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010). For a more recent narrative, John Gans, White House Warriors (New York: Norton & Co, 2019), 89-114.
  3. Cited in Jeffrey A. Engel, When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 381 and 388.
  4. Zelikow and McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 59.
  5. Sandra Charles, “Memo for Haass: Minutes from NSC/DCM, August 2, 1990, on Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait,” January 22, 1991, Bush Library, Richard N. Haass Presidential Meeting File CF0118-019, NSC Meeting – August 2, 1990 Re: Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait; Philip Zelikow, “Interview with Dick Cheney,” March 16, 2000, 55, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project; and Norman Schwarzkopf, It Doesn’t Take a Hero: The Autobiography of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf (New York: Bantam, 1993), 297.
  6. George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 317–18; and Richard Haass, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order (New York, New York: Penguin Press, 2017). Also, Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 9.
  7. Zelikow and McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 61 and 72–73.
  8. John Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (New York: Random House, 2015), 426; and Andrea Mitchell, “Interview with Brent Scowcroft,” November 7, 2007, Princeton University Library, James A. Baker Oral History Project.
  9. For the same conclusion, see Stephen Knott, “Interview with Richard Haass,” May 27, 2004, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project.
  10. Interview with Joint Chiefs of Staff official, March 2018, Washington D.C. See also Schwarzkopf, It Doesn’t Take a Hero.
  11. James A. Baker and Thomas DeFrank, The Politics of Diplomacy (New York: Putnam, 1995), 277.
  12. Robert M. Gates, “The Scowcroft Model,” Foreign Affairs, August 13, 2020.
  13. Philip Zelikow, “Interview #1 with Brent Scowcroft,” November 12, 1999, 52, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project.
  14. Brent Scowcroft, “Memo for Bush: US Diplomacy for the New Europe,” December 22, 1989, Bush Library, Scowcroft Collection, 91116 German Unification (December 1989). Also, “Memo for Bush: Your Meetings in Brussels with NATO Leaders,” November 29, 1989, and “US Policy in Eastern Europe in 1990,” January 1990, Bush Library, Scowcroft Collection, 91116 German Unification (November 1989) and NSC Collection, Robert D. Blackwill Chronological Files 30547-010, January 1990. For Francis Fukuyama’s essay, “The End of History?,” The National Interest, no. 16 (Summer 1989): 3–18.

Warfare in the age of dragons – interview with Dr. David Kilcullen

Dr. David Kilcullen is the author of the newly published The Dragons and the Snakes – How the Rest learned to fight the West, Oxford University Press.

The genesis of the book goes back to February 1993 with the confirmation hearing of James Woolsey as director of the CIA. At the time he captured well the strategic Zeitgeist of the emerging unipolar era – “we have slain a large dragon, but we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes. And in many ways the dragon was easier to keep track of.” Today, the dragons (Russia and China) are back again.

Robert Kagan was talking about the (geopolitical) jungle that grows back. Your latest book has more of a Game of Thrones (GOT) vibe: the return of the dragons. In short, from GWOT [Global War on Terrorism] to GOT. The emerging changes to the character of war, the ways in which the dragons are practising warfare are at the core of your new book. Based on your observations, how did the character of contemporary war change?

The book is about military adaptation. It’s about how both state and non-state adversaries responded to us in the period since the Cold War. We created the fitness landscape within which all of our adversaries are adapting, and the event that created that was the 1991 Gulf War. It showed everybody how not to fight the US. The next big event was the 2003 invasion of Iraq that showed everybody that you can fight the US and you can succeed, but you need a completely different model – small modular low-profile groups that operate autonomously among people in a protracted conflict. What we’ve seen in the 17 years since we invaded Iraq is that adversaries have learned from each other and also reacted to the environment that we created by avoiding and going around our conventional strength. 

Today we live in a security environment where the dragons operate and fight like snakes (embracing non-state types of activities like cyber-militias, subversion, political warfare) and where the snakes have acquired the capabilities of traditional dragons and sometimes fight like a state. That poses for us a dilemma going forward. If we are thinking about the future of war, we can’t just decide to stop worrying about terrorism and to get out of dealing with the snakes, because that threat is real. We can’t just go for great power competition, because we are dealing with hyper-empowered non-state actors that now have access to all kinds of technology and capability that didn’t exist a decade ago. We can’t just ignore that. By the same token we can’t continue to primarily focus on non-state actors, because states have adapted and evolved specifically to exploit our tunnel vision on terrorism since 2003. I emphasise 2003 rather than 2001, because it was the invasion of Iraq that got us bogged down, not so much Afghanistan. The 2003 moment highlighted the limits of the Western way of war – a very high-tech precision-centric approach that emphasizes battlefield dominance and is characterised by a narrow focus on combat.

What we’ve got to do is cover a much broader range of threats with a much more agile approach, which suggests to me a lighter footprint, with greater emphasis on agile responses to a wider variety of threats in a wider variety of places. We have to become more capable of dealing with both state and non-state threats at the same time and in many of the same places. In Syria, for example, we have significant non-state threats but also state adversaries that are playing a multi-level game. That is actually pretty typical and is happening in many of today’s operating environments. The traditionally neat distinction between conventional and unconventional warfare is breaking down and we are going to need forces that are cheaper, more agile, more modular and are able to respond in a seamless fashion to a wider variety of threats. We need to be swing-role: a multi-role aircraft can do multiple missions but can do only one mission at a time, while swing-role aircraft can seamlessly shift in mid-mission to a different type of task. That is the kind of mindset that we need to be emphasising – forces that can do not only multiple things, but can transition seamlessly among tasks in the middle of a mission.

China has dramatically broadened its definition of warfare beyond what we consider to be war.

Is this more along the lines of what general Charles Krulak was arguing in the 1990s with his three-block war concept (humanitarian, peacekeeping, high intensity), shifting from one to another, but with a new dimension – great power competition?

It is beyond the three-block war. It is more like 16-block war with multiple domains – cyber, space, political and economic warfare, alongside the physical and electromagnetic domains. One of the points I make about China is that we are dealing with an adversary that has dramatically broadened its definition of warfare beyond what we consider to be war. In fact, what they do in practice is to mobilise multiple dimensions of national power that are way beyond our traditional military domains. Even if we could conceive of a lot of what the Chinese are doing as warlike, it is not clear that the Ministry of Defence of any Western country would be in charge of the response. We need to think carefully about reconceptualising what we mean by war.

Russian way of warfare

I think one important question that should be raised is what did the dragons learn from the snakes of the post 9/11? I mean the attacks on cohesiveness and legitimacy, subverting the rules of the road, shaping hearts and minds, the grievances they are cultivating and exploiting – all are features reminding of an insurgent repertoire. To me the dragons of the day behave like insurgents, they are really insurgent powers trying to overhaul a certain type of international order.

The clearest example here are the Russians that in the Western Military District have actively copied ISIS models of warfare to create super-light brigades that operate in a distributed fashion with small combat teams and a weapons mix similar to what we’ve seen from ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria]. They have directly copied the ISIS manoeuvre model in the way they are operating. Another example is also Russian: Moscow fielded a wide array of autonomous and new armoured systems into the Syrian campaign, learned important lessons and triggered a series of adaptations based on that operational experience.

In the book, following Stephen Rosen, I draw a distinction between wartime and peacetime adaptation. When you are in wartime adaptation mode, it’s a process of unconscious evolution (and actually co-evolution) between you and the adversary. Wartime adaptation is a direct response to enemy action and one result is that over time you come to resemble your adversaries. The process works both ways: states are borrowing non-state techniques and applying them in their own ways as an enabler to conventional military operations, while non-state groups are borrowing from states. One example is the way that Hezbollah evolved from a classical resistance movement to a regional actor that operates more like a state (both in the 2006 war against Israel, and later in Syria supporting Assad), combining conventional and irregular methodologies. Another example is the way we operate now in Afghanistan with CT [counterterrorism] pursuit teams that work on the ground in ways that are very similar to how the Taliban operate. It is one example of us evolving to look like the adversary. The flip side of this is that the modern Taliban, and in fact ISIS during the fighting in Iraq and Syria look a lot like us – the way they operate with artillery, tanks and vehicles in a light cavalry swarm. They are adapting to look like us. In a co-evolution environment we are in a tit-for-tat adaptive process with adversaries. 

By contrast, in a peacetime environment – and this applies to all the countries that haven’t been so heavily involved in the War on Terrorism: Russia, China, North Korea and Iran – they were free to sit back, watch us struggle, identify strengths and weaknesses in our approach, come up with concepts to enable them to improve and build capabilities that would counteract Western dominance. In the case of Russia it’s a bit of a combination – they watched us struggle in 2003 and learned a lot from that, but they also had their own adaptive learning curve from the internal conflicts in Georgia, North Caucasus or Ukraine.

Is fighting at the edges – a new type of out-manoeuvring and out-competing the West? What does a liminal warfare playbook like the one practised by Russia entail in a frontline ecosystem?

Liminal means threshold. Liminal warfare is about threshold manipulation. It is a style of warfare that the Russians in particular have perfected, which is about riding the edge of observability, surfing the threshold of detectability so a lot of their activity is literally sub-liminal (“below the threshold” of perception), and we don’t even notice what is happening. They manipulate their signature so as to only pop up into the ambiguous zone of operations long enough to achieve very specific short term goals and then to drop back down into the sub-liminal environment before we can respond. It is about manipulating their own signature, it’s about creative ambiguity and it’s about time – operating in the blur of the “gray zone” and surging rapidly to achieve key objectives and quickly getting back below the threshold of response before we can react.

There a few techniques that they apply. For example, reflexive control, a theory with a long history in the Russian political warfare. Another is decisive shaping, where the decisive phase of operation is not the manoeuvre phase, but the pre-manoeuvre shaping phase. Some Russian strategists  want to win the operation before the first tank rolls or before the first airstrike goes in. If they don’t believe they already won, the tanks will never roll. That means that a lot of liminal warfare is political warfare, economic warfare, weaponisation of oil and gas, the use of special forces in very small numbers to work with local groups, and then rapid strike ops.

At the core of liminal warfare is the integration of political, economic, legal, military, intelligence, cyber into a single seamless mix of activity emphasising the shaping before the operation. 

In the lead-up to the Georgian campaign in 2008, the Russians engaged in a “passportisation” program where they offered any Russian-speaking Georgian citizen a Russian passport. They did that for months before the operation. By the time the operation began they had a very large number of newly-created Russian citizens inside Georgia and were able to invoke the responsibility to protect their own citizens. This whole shaping phase happened before the operation began. When we think about the manipulation of oil and gas in the Crimea operation in February 2014, mid-winter, Russian political warfare was heavily focused on targeting Germany to prevent NATO from reacting. A big part of that campaign was to say to the Germans, do you really want to pick a fight with Russia in the middle of winter, when you depend on Russian oil and gas to provide heating to a majority of German population? At the core of liminal warfare is the integration of political, economic, legal, military, intelligence, cyber into a single seamless mix of activity emphasising the shaping before the operation. All built on the idea of escalating to de-escalate: they move quickly to seize a key objective early on, presenting an enemy with a fait accompli and later de-escalate their rhetoric in order to negotiate from a position of strength. Crimea is the perfect example of this. While “escalate to de-escalate” is an idea that originally came from Russian nuclear strategy (although Russia watchers disagree whether a formal doctrine in this sense ever existed), they’ve applied it in many other fields of activity since then.

Chinese way of warfare

So South China Sea, maritime and land Silk Roads, key strategic acquisitions in the West, A2/AD posture, 5G – what is the essence of the Chinese way of warfare?

The Chinese way of war is about “conceptual envelopment”, expanding the concept of war to the point where they are able to manoeuvre in a space that is outside of our definition of conflict. In contrast with the Russians, who favour a more vertical type of escalation, the Chinese embrace horizontal escalation by expanding the spectrum of competition and confrontation to the point that battlefield is everywhere and warfare is everything. In this sense, controlling the means of technology – 5G systems, strategic real estate purchases, ports and harbours all over the world, controlling certain kinds of supply-chain and critical infrastructure investments, these are all described in the 1999 Unrestricted Warfare (written by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui) as non-military war operations. The two colonels dramatically broaden the definition of war going beyond battlefield dominance, emphasising “trans-military” and “non-military war operations” by leveraging society and the international system to achieve a military goal with non-military means. The authors of that document talk about combination strategies that mix lethal and non-lethal, military and non-military means (including criminal networks or civil organisations) bringing into play a whole variety of competitions and combining them in a seamless architecture, similarly to what we’ve been talking about with the Russians.

In contrast with the Russians, who favour a more vertical type of escalation, the Chinese embrace horizontal escalation by expanding the spectrum of competition and confrontation to the point that battlefield is everywhere and warfare is everything.

There are three broad strands in the Chinese way of war. One is Unrestricted Warfare, which later became the Three Warfares doctrine in 2006 – cyber warfare, public opinion/information warfare and lawfare. The second is the change of China from being a land-based power (which it has been since the middle of the 16th century) to being both a maritime and land power. This is a gigantic transformation. When Xi Jinping came to power, one of his first military announcements talked about the imperative to move away from the idea that the land is more important than the sea and become a real maritime power. It’s incredibly important to understand the geopolitical implications for the global security environment of China going from being a land power to now challenging the US at sea in the Western Pacific, building a militarised archipelago of islands in the South China Sea and bases elsewhere, toward being able to project power globally. The third is the conventional modernisation of Chinese land forces, which goes along cyber, space, and long-range precision fires, as well as advanced manoeuvre forces and special forces, and “informationalisation” of battle networks. If you contrast Russian with Chinese developments, Russia has a small, but very capable set of niche assets at the high end of the technology spectrum. The Chinese, in contrast, are doing high-tech at scale.

There is a sense of overlapping, in both theory and practice, between the Chinese URW [Unrestricted Warfare] and how Gerasimov is framing warfare. Do the dragons learn from each other? In the end, both are building A2/AD [Anti Access/Area Denial] zones in their immediate proximity or creating new facts on the ground (the bridge linking Russia with Crimea, the artificial islands) that give them the opportunity to claim entire regions (Azov Sea or the South China Sea).

We know that the Russians and the Chinese have exercised together, jointly, over the past few years, that they share information and compare notes. I don’t think it is clear that they are consciously collaborating, but I do think that like every other adversary that we have, they are all responding to a similar set of circumstances that we created, and even if they are coming from different starting points, they are co-evolving in a way that makes them to begin looking increasingly similar to each other. Yes, there is some collaboration, but in some ways it is more interesting than that conceptually, because they are independently co-evolving towards similar solutions, with a similar set of challenges. There is also a very significant element of territorial/spatial expansion in the way that both Russia and China think about what they are trying to do. We tend to think in a very manoeuvre-centric way, they tend to think in terms of shaping and in a spatial control way.

Obviously, China and Russia have a very different set of strategic circumstances. China is a rising power that is trying to cement its role as a major global player, whereas Russia is a power that is in a long-term decline. What the Russians are trying to do is create a sort of trade space, where they can expand their capabilities now while they still can, so that they have something to trade later, when China in particular becomes a major threat to them. One of the paradoxes here is that China and Russia are currently cooperating with each other against the West, but in the long term they are actually potential adversaries and geopolitical rivals. This is where any Western retreat is not going to result in peace and harmony, but in a new Cold War between China and Russia, rather than China, Russia and the West.

Beyond COIN

Professor Hew Strachan talked extensively in his writings about the danger of the strategic influence of operational level solutions. Is the failure to convert battlefield victory into strategic success and into a better peace the main lesson of the post 9/11 era?

I make the point in the book that we are extraordinarily good at achieving particular battlefield results, but extraordinarily bad at translating those battlefield results into long-term political outcomes. We’ve seen this in Afghanistan and Iraq, of course. The repeated failure to convert battlefield victory into a better peace remains a key reason for these inconclusive wars that ultimately contribute to internal unrest across the world.

The rise of populism in the West and the collapse of confidence in elites and establishments of all kinds are in some ways connected to the failure of our military models to deliver what they claimed. We told people for 25 years that they’ve got the best military in the world and yet they can see with their own eyes that that military isn’t delivering on the ground. So, this leads to a cognitive dissonance that results in a collapse of confidence.

There is a dynamic interaction between strategy, technology and tactics. You have a particular strategy, which leads you to develop particular kinds of tactics and particular kinds of technologies. Once you have those technologies and capabilities in place, they actually limit your choices of strategy. You are not able to just choose any strategy, but you are channelled by the kinds of capabilities that you have. Then you start adopting strategies that privilege and optimise the effect of your existing organisation, concepts and technologies and that is what we’ve been doing really since the Cold War. We have to step back a little bit from that dynamic interaction between operations, tactics, strategy and technology, to think about adaptation as a separate thing, consider how our adversaries are adapting, consider if it is possible to shape their adaptation in ways that favour us.

A key component of the security environment that you are describing are the dragons that learned to fight like the insurgents and embraced an insurgent toolkit to fight the West – competing and subverting the Western minds for example. In this sense, shouldn’t we act more like a counterinsurgent in our response? As a former COIN [counterinsurgency] practitioner, what do you think we should preserve from the COIN portfolio? A civil-military fusion maybe?

I think there is a lot of value in our Iraq/Afghanistan experience that translates directly to dealing with today’s environment: the need for integrated civil-military effects, the requirement for robust and properly-resourced civilian agencies to partner with the military, the need for political leaders to fully engage in the problem-set, and the importance of narrative. That said, one of my key points at the end of the book is that we need to get out of the business of occupying and attempting to govern remote places over the long term in a large-scale way: we can go long, or we can go big, but we shouldn’t try to do both. So, in that sense our approach should perhaps draw more from Unconventional Warfare and Foreign Internal Defense, rather than large-scale neoclassical COIN.

Going Byzantine

How should the Western way of warfare change in order to respond effectively to the adaptations and variations in the operational environment?

There are broadly three potential courses of action.

The first is doubling-down: keep doing what we are doing now, just do it harder, spend more money on the same kind of capabilities we are building now. That is not going to work because our adversaries have already adapted, so to continue what we’ve been doing is not going to change the environment.

Secondly is to embrace the suck – accept that our primacy will decline and just try to manage that in a way that achieves a soft landing. That is not going to work either, because for a soft landing to work you need a successor that is capable enough or willing to do the job of stabilisation and friendly enough to the US and the West that it wouldn’t be a total disaster for us to allow a handover. We don’t have any such successor.

Third is some sort of a Byzantine strategy – a holding strategy to enable a potentially acceptable successor to emerge. The Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 4th century AD, while the Byzantine Empire survived for another 1100 years until the fall of Constantinople. So how did they manage to achieve another 1100 years of primacy in the Eastern Mediterranean after the collapse of the Roman Empire? In the book I describe a number of things about how they operated. They were very capable of selectively copying from adversaries in terms of technologies, techniques, ways of operating, they learned from their wide range of enemies and incorporated those lessons into their own very adaptive, flexible way of operating.

Secondly, they got out of the business of occupying and governing entire provinces as the Romans had done, and focused instead on agile mobile forces that could react at long distances to a wide variety of threats, stabilise the environment and step back. They were also able to build constellations of capable local allies that could do a lot of the work in-between interventions. They maintained a selective edge and mastered some key technologies that other people couldn’t master, such as Greek Fire, a high-tech defensive tool. Most importantly, they focused very heavily on resilience at home, on building an effective civil and military and economic system that was resilient to shock, that was not optimised for efficiency in the absence of shock, but optimised for resilience to shock. We just need to look at what is happening to COVID-19 to realise that the modern world we’ve created with Western military systems since the Cold War is hyper-efficient but at the same time is also very fragile because it relies on efficiency in the absence of shock. A Byzantine model would ask how would we make all our systems more resilient to shock? This would possibly mean decentralisation, lower tech, more play space in our systems so they don’t rely on very precise integration of multiple moving parts. An urbanised world depends on very complex interlocking systems and when one part collapses, it all collapses. We are living and watching that happen.

In a world in which the West is no longer militarily dominant, a Byzantine approach would suggest ways to hold the line – in their case for more than a millennium – in order to allow the world to change, so that there is a viable successor and the adaptive approach of our adversaries becomes less threatening.

Lastly, we need to move away from a solely battlefield-centric conception of war and embrace a more holistic approach that broadens the notion of successful strategy beyond battlefield dominance, and adopt a more flexible model of statecraft. In short, as JFC Fuller would say, the object of war is not victory, but a better peace.

War in the modern world is fought simultaneously across all domains — air, space, sea, land, cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum. It includes elements of economic warfare, political warfare and narrative manoeuvre and involves cyber-kinetic operations (cyber-ops with lethal effects and kinetic ops with cyber effects) that favour forces which manoeuvre simultaneously in cyberspace and physical space.

Please describe the contours of a reconceptualised and expanded notion of war that should become the new normal for any Western strategist.

War in the modern world is fought simultaneously across all domains — air, space, sea, land, cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum. It includes elements of economic warfare, political warfare and narrative manoeuvre and involves cyber-kinetic operations (cyber-ops with lethal effects and kinetic ops with cyber effects) that favour forces which manoeuvre simultaneously in cyberspace and physical space. Modern war is fought in a crowded, cluttered, electronically connected, mostly urban and coastal environment, against a complex mix of adaptive state and non-state adversaries who copy each other’s techniques, and are often seeking to overwhelm us through a large number of small simultaneous challenges, rather than a single big threat. They tend to prefer decisive shaping (winning the conflict before the first shot is fired) and creative ambiguity (rather than fully covert or clandestine operations) as a way to avoid our conventional strength. The most important thing we can do to adapt to this kind of war is to get out of our defensive crouch, and begin operating aggressively to shape them rather than wait to be shaped ourselves.

When discussing a future posture of the West, I am wondering if you take into consideration the idea of a concert of democracies able and willing to defend the legacy and the Western order?

The transition from US primacy might be to another leading power, but it might also be to a concert of powers and ideally a concert of democracies, involving India, Europe, Latin America and Asian democracies. I don’t think this path is particularly likely, primarily because Europe and other countries (Australia is a good example) are so dependent on US security guarantees that these actually undermine their ability to fulfil that role. In some ways president Trump’s approach in forcing European allies to do more and withdrawing blanket American security guarantees, while unpleasant and done in a very vulgar way, actually is pointing to something important, which is that we have to have countries stepping forward and taking responsibility for their own resilience and their own defence. 

Firstly, the US will not be able to carry the burden forever and secondly, the American people have signalled now in multiple elections that they don’t want to do it anymore. In many ways the coronavirus shows the equally dangerous risk of being so dependent on China economically, and you could argue that in the military sphere there is a similar risk – which is allies’ dependence on the US. Our countries are so dependent on China economically and so dependent on America militarily: the coronavirus teaches us that we need to break out of our dependence on China in the economic sphere, while in the military sphere the last 20 years teach us that we need to break out of our dependence on the US. This will be good for everyone – it will allow the US to be more agile and responsive. Small allies are never going to compete with the US-led way of war but they can specialise in other forms of war that the US doesn’t have a good understanding of. The classic example would be Estonia, which is not a major player in the system-of-systems Gulf War-type warfare, but is leading the way in creating “defensive cyber home guards” within local defense associations or preparing a defensive guerrilla warfare/resistance warfare model. If we want to broaden the alliance response, we have to focus on our comparative advantages, with different nations doing different things.

Are you worried about the domestic resilience of the West? Are we already too far in this process of polarising ourselves and becoming more like Sunni vs. Shia/Hutu vs. Tutsi? Can we come back? Our internal cohesion seems to be an easy prey for the insurgent outside powers. General Mattis warned in the last chapter of his memoirs: ”What concerns me most as a military man is…our internal divisiveness…we are dividing into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fuelled by emotion and a mutual disdain”.

The short answer is I don’t know if it is possible to recreate that sense of unity and move past the polarising divisions that have really crippled our ability to respond to the current crisis. But it is imperative to do that. Otherwise we are going to be destroyed.

The interview was first published in Small Wars Journal, in May 2020.

Dr. David Kilcullen is a professor of practice in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University and a professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of New South Wales. He served 24 years as an army officer, diplomat and policy advisor for the Australian and United States governments. In the United States he served on the writing team for the 2006 Quadrennial Defence Review, then as Chief Strategist in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau, where he designed the Regional Security Initiative and served in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Southeast Asia and the Horn of Africa. He served in Iraq as a member of the Joint Strategic Assessment Team, and as Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to Multinational Force—Iraq through 2007, before becoming Special Advisor for Counterinsurgency to the Secretary of State in 2008-2009. He was lead author for the U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Handbook, and founded the ISAF Counterinsurgency Advisory Assistance Team in 2009. Dr Kilcullen was named one of the Foreign Policy Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2009.