Speaking on the European Union’s Common Security and Defense Policy is the strategy equivalent of talking paint dry. Europeans need a test—similar to Alan Turing’s for determining whether artificial intelligence can successfully mimic human thought and action or not—for the many EU, NATO, and national defense strategies which plaster the walls of Europe’s rickety and aging grand villas. Do they at least mimic reality?
Defense strategy in Europe is a sort of ‘Strategic Reverse Half-Nelson.’ This is achieved by turning the strategic telescope around so every threat looks much smaller than it is and then halving the number by putting the telescope in front of Nelson’s blind eye. To that end, most European states decide first how much of a military they wish to afford then write strategy to fit. This is not exactly how strategy works.
Technology is the future of defense strategy. Take the soon to be ‘flooded’ 65,000 ton British aircraft carriers. The Royal Navy no longer launches ships but ‘floods’ them, which strikes me as somewhat nautically oxymoronic. HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will be in service until 2070 if that is someone else has not ‘flooded’ them both long before. And that’s the essential point, by 2070 who knows what technologies will be out there and who will have access to them. It is therefore vital that technological redundancy be central to both strategy and technology design.
Unfortunately, strategy is written by liberal arts majors under the command of liberal arts politicians. Strategy talks much of futures together with power, history, partners and responsibilities. Change is also mentioned a lot. However there is little real understanding of what actually drives change, mainly because change costs money. Therefore, as guidance for planning most defense strategies are not worth the paper upon which they are written. Indeed, they are invariably about the political moment not the strategic future.
Just look at some of Europe’s recent great works of strategic art. Strategy for Paris and London goes something like this:
“For some strange reason Johnny Foreigner cannot forgive us for being strong in the past and being horrid and would love to give us a good kicking. Moreover, given we your leaders have made a complete mess of your society, everyone hates us both at home and abroad. However, we will list all of the things we should be doing to secure you, but as we are basically broke and have no idea what to do we will also talk a lot about aspiration. To make you feel better we will however build a few extremely expensive big, floaty things or even more expensive small, fast flying things and put lots of flags on them. Sorry.”
For the rest of Europe strategy goes like something like this:
“We have horrible neighbors who are now our ‘friends.’ However, you really cannot trust those people. We also have formerly strong allies who once promised to defend us from our horrible neighbors but did not. Therefore, both our neighbors and allies must now pay for our defense. However, as a sign of good faith we will send one doctor to support the strategic flights of fancy beloved of the formerly strong so long as she is nowhere near the front line.”
And then there is Germany, the strategy of which can be thus summarized:
“We upset everyone in the past but now we are back. However, we really promise to be very nice this time and we will call ourselves ‘Europe.’”
Strategy in Europe has thus become the antidote to strategy; it is a way of avoiding strategic reality by either pretending the world is not as it is or by recognizing only as much threat as somebody else can afford—the Americans.
Henry Kissinger once complained that he could never call Europe in an emergency as there was no telephone number. Today there are a myriad of telephone numbers, but all Kissinger would get if he called is the same answering machine message: “We value your partnership but we are sorry all of our leaders are busy right now building ‘Europe.’ However, do leave your name, rank, and telephone number and we might one day get back to you. Please go on defending us and have a nice day.”
There is some good news. Neither of Britain’s new aircraft carriers will be called HMS Invincible as this would certainly guarantee their ‘flooding.’
Strategy, capability, technology, and affordability are intimately intertwined and defense strategy must thus be established on a proper understanding of all elements. Too often it is not. Something Alan Turing would have all too readily understood.
Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisory Group. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.