Category Archives: Current Affairs

Patrick Porter on the Libyan intervention


Dr. Patrick Porter, currently of King's College London, has a worthwhile blog called The Offshore Balancer that is a great read regardless of the topic. Patrick is one of many great exports from Down Under and is the author of the brilliant Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes (published in the UK by Hurst, in the US by Columbia University Press, in 2009) which I highly recommend.

Patrick can only be described as a classical realist and it is his application of this worldview to 21st century issues, along with his fine prose, that makes him worth noting. His recent postings on events in Libya are particularly refreshing.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Diplomacy, Strategic Theory, Thucydides, U.K. Defense Policy

Choose your argument, take thirty paces …

With thanks to the always interesting Zenpundit blog.

I am thinking a great deal these days about how I might sharpen my own arguments – not because I have found myself seriously challenged in any way (though that would be welcomed), but I do have a creeping feeling that my arguments are becoming somewhat obtuse. Time for a reality check and a reassessment of long-held assumption.

I think the flowchart above is pretty cool – if only I had this when debating in pubs with my Socialist counterparts back in my college days in the UK (yes, with a capital 'S' – the term in America is something of a joke and those who merrily bandy it about have obviously never met one; in short: President Obama is many things, but he is no socialist)!

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Britain’s Looming Strategy Deficit

With the UK economy in worse shape than many can remember it is hardly surprising that spending cuts across the government are needed. What is surprising is the short term thinking that has prevailed over one spending cut in particular – defense. The Daily Telegraph reports that the Ministry of Defence will see a loss of 16,000 personnel across all the services, with the RAF taking the bulk of the losses. The Daily Telegraph report observes that "If implemented, the cuts will mean that Britain will almost certainly depart
the world stage as a major military power and become what military chiefs
call a “medium-scale player”."

Any cuts, regardless of their rationale, are unpopular. Yet these cuts seem destined to come back to haunt the British government in years to come. This is because the proposed defense cuts have not been matched by an adjustment of British foreign policy ambitions. William Hague is probably the most intellectually suited man for the job of British Foreign Secretary in many years, and has emphasized emerging powers (the BRICs) as a focus of British foreign policy, as well as a continuing focus on the Transatlantic relationship with the United States. There is much to admire in Hague's foreign policy, though a hint of a deeper strategic malaise is evident in the following quote from a speech by the Foreign Secretary in early July:

    Fourth, the nature of conflict is changing. Our Armed Forces are
currently involved in fighting         insurgencies or wars-amongst-the-people
rather than state on state conflict, they are involved in counter-piracy
operations rather than sea battles, the projection of force overseas
rather than homeland-based defence. And security threats themselves are
more widely dispersed in parts of the world which are often difficult to
access, lawless and in some cases failing, where the absence of
governance feeds into a cycle of conflict and danger that we have yet to
learn to arrest but are likely to face more often.

This is utter nonsense, and bewildering. First, the nature of conflict has not changed – as any decent strategist from Clausewitz through to Colin S. Gray will tell you. This is not a semantic concern – such a statement implies a fundamental misapprehension about the nature and purpose of war and the underpinnings of the international order. Second, while it is certainly true that UK armed forces are currently fighting insurgencies, it does not mean that state on state conflict has been relegated to the dustbin of history and if the Foreign Office's idea that the future of conflict is basically
that which we are fighting today (and not fighting terribly well, it
might be said), then there are some very worrying assumptions wandering
the corridors of King Charles Street. And third – and bewildering – threats are certainly diffused and emanate from ungoverned/ungovernable spaces, just as they always have (as an aside, it is remarkable that people view the Cold War as the norm in international politics not as the aberration it really was), but it is notable that such threats are on a global scale, thus inferring the continuation of the traditional British global role.

What does all this mean in the face of a large cut to the British defense establishment? When senior politicians, officials and commanders state that somehow the nature of conflict has changed it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of war and statecraft. There is nothing new under the sun, and insurgencies are nothing new in the history of war or the British Army. The nature of conflict is eternal – peoples will fight in order to achieve their preferred political order – yet its character (i.e. how they fight) is forever changing because of changes in societies, technology, culture, and politics. To say that today's insurgencies represent a change in the nature of conflict is to confuse the shifting character of war with its eternal purpose. In the case of today's insurgency in Afghanistan, it is technology and the global political context of that conflict that makes it unique in terms of its character. In practical terms, this view of conflict suggests that senior figures in the British government seem unable to see things for what they really are and are thus primed to violate what is perhaps the most important advice offered by Clausewitz that "the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking."

There also seem to be worrying signs that the British foreign policy establishment has convinced itself that it can discern the future shape of the strategic environment with sufficient confidence, namely the future is like today! This will only mean trouble for Britain's armed forces that seem poised to have any sustained capacity for full spectrum operations decimated. As a result, a number of Hague's foreign policy assumptions will be found wanting at crucial moments.  A global British foreign policy will ring hollow without an armed forces able to have the global reach and capacity to back it up.

The austerity measures underway in the Cameron-Clegg government are necessary, and defense should not be exempt. But to perpetrate the notion that an activist, global foreign policy can succeed without a military able to support it in a sustained manner across the spectrum of conflict is a fallacy. If defense spending in the U.K. is to be cut, then there must be a concomitant review and subsequent trimming of British foreign policy ambitions. Anything less will produce a strategy deficit that the British taxpayer will be paying for decades to come, and British servicemen and women will be paying for even more dearly.

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Filed under BRICs, Current Affairs, Economics, Strategy, U.K. Defense Policy

Summer Reading List

With my SAASS duties, a book contract in hand, and a manuscript to write I'm not sure how much of my recent acquisitions I shall be able to read by the end of summer, but I shall at least give it a go! I'm not including books on cyber and space power that I read as part of my day job; rather I am listing books that have sparked my interest and will hopefully provide heuristic inspiration. In no particular order, they are as follows:

1.    Charles Hill, Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order (New Haven, CT: Yale             University Press, 2010).

Grand Strategies

An erudite exploration of the reciprocal relationship between literature and strategy. Hill lays out his stall thus:

    So the argument of this book is that the world should recognize high political ideas and actions of statecraft as aspects of the human condition that are fully within the scope of literary genius, and ones that great writers have consistently explored in important ways. They were not simply using political circumstances as a background for their characters' dramas but were instead thinking deeply and significantly about the ideas themselves. The great authors not only reveal themselves aware of statecraft, some are themselves strategists, exploring ideas fundamental to statecraft and international order. p. 7.

2.    Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (New York: Harper, 2010).

The Rational Optimist

An argument that life is actually getting better, not because human nature has evolved but because culture has changed to such an extent that ideas are now subject to a Darwinian process of natural selection, ensuring that the best ideas for the continuing prosperity of humanity. Ridley writes:

    To argue that human nature has not changed, but human culture has, does not mean rejecting evolution – quite the reverse. Humanity is experiencing an extraordinary burst of evolutionary change, driven by good old-fashioned Darwinian natural selection. But it is selection among ideas, not among genes. The habitat in which these ideas reside consists of human brains. p. 5.

3.     Stephen D. King, Losing Control: The Emerging Threats to Western Prosperity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

Losing Control

An uncomfortable (for this reader) look at the emerging challenges to Western prosperity. King argues:

    It is, of course, a comforting thought that the rest of the world is embracing the spirit of industrial innovation established in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in a newly enlightened Europe and a newly independent United States. Technologies now spread more quickly to other parts of the world, a reflection of lower transportation costs and, more recently, much lower information costs. Trade between Western and emerging nations has flourished. There are more democracies now than there used to be. Yet, as I shall argue, economic progress in the developed world did not just depend on improvements in technology or the adoption of democracy. It also depended on access to 'enabling resources' – land, raw materials, migration (and, in the past, slavery) – and the ability to rig markets. The arrival on the world economic stage of the emerging nations has the potential to undermine these sources of Western prosperity, both through the emerging nations' own demands over resources that are ultimately limited and through the heightened level of cross-border competition in a wide range of markets. The West has been economically comfortable for many years: life is now becoming distinctly uncomfortable. pp. xvii-xviii.

4.    Sebastian Junger, War (New York: Twelve, 2010).

Junger War

An unflinching and unsparing insight into the rigors and horrors of modern combat, and what animates the men who fight, by freelance journalist Sebastian Junger who spent over fifteen months following (and embedded with) a platoon of the U.S. Army based in a remote corner of eastern Afghanistan.

5.    Donald Stoker, The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

The Grand Design

Stoker, a Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, provides a comprehensive strategic analysis of the U.S. Civil War. He writes:

    … this book will tell the story of the "how" of strategy in the war – its evolution and the attempts at implementation – as well as show why certain strategic decisions were made and their impact. It is not an exercise in inevitability, but it is sometimes one in contingencies. There were countless decision points along the way where different outcomes were possible. By this I do not mean that the South could have won, though this was certainly true. In my view, however, what is underevaluated, and therefore worth stressing, is that the North could and should have won sooner. The main reason behind the Union's victory in the Civil War is that its leaders eventually developed a military strategy capable of delivering the political end they desired. The question is not just how the North won, but why it took so long. pp. 10-11.

6.    Keith L. Shimko, The Iraq Wars and America's Military Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).


Shimko, an associate professor at Purdue University, argues that the U.S. and coalition 'victory' over Iraq in 1991 was due to the emergence of a revolution in military affairs (RMA). Shimko writes:

    Although others have dealt extensively with the political and strategic aspects of the Iraq Wars, this book addresses their military significance by focusing on two questions that have been at the center of the current RMA debate: What are the military lessons of the Iraq Wars for the future of American defense policy? Should the Iraq Wars be seen as a fundamental turning point in the history of warfare?  p. 25.

7.    Jonathan Sumption, The Hundred Years War III: Divided Houses (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

Divided Houses

This is the third installment of Sumption's majestic history of the Anglo-French Hundred Years War. The first two volumes can be found here and here, and in Divided Houses Sumption chronicles the period 1369 to 1393. Sumption is a remarkable man – by day he is a barrister in the British law courts (a very demanding profession) and by night has penned three volumes on the Hundred Years War (that in total come in at nearly 3,000 pages) that are widely regarded as the history of that war.

I'm not sure that the Sumption book will get my full attention given my other commitments, but I look forward to dipping into it over the coming months.

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