Tokyo. What a city of uber-contrast. A concrete-scape beyond an eye’s leap that crawls and then creeps before eventually soaring and swooping around the old Imperial palace at its heart. This mega-city is periodically punctuated by serene oases of intimate greenery in which water, rock, and flora tease the imagination back toward a Japan long gone. Escaping the Eurozone trouble bubble and the shallowness of a London reinventing daily ways to mask its political impotence, I have come to a country where tragedy means something. 

Not the Greek tragedy/farce that passes for disaster in Europe, but a country that this year faced a freak of nature that no human defence could endure:  Tohoku, the hydra-headed disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant catastrophe (not too strong a word) that on 11 March rent apart a swathe of Japanese society. What lessons we Europeans could learn from this great land about civil-military partnership. 

The Richter 9-scale earthquake and subsequent 16 metre-high tsunami left 16000 confirmed dead across three prefectures, with 4000 still missing, and 20,000 rescued at a financial cost of some $309 billion. The Japanese Self-Defence Force (JSDF) deployed some 107,000 personnel—some 50% of the force— rapidly in support of the civilian authority,. The JSDF was supported ably by 117,000 US personnel and troops from a host of regional powers in a model of co-operative large-scale disaster relief. 

Strange then that I have just had the honour of addressing the hugely impressive annual International Symposium of the National Institute for Defence Studies (NIDS) about NATO’s failing efforts to make a civil-military partnership ‘work’. Following on from the Vice-Minister of Defence and General Oriki, the man who led the disaster relief, and preceding Brigadier General Crowe, the Deputy Commander of US Forces, Japan I was struck by how the joint determination to create a “dynamic defence capability” sits in stark contrast to the defeatism and cynicism in European governments and militaries about making civil-military co-operation a reality. And yet, given the gap between forces and resources, such synergy remains the future if Europe is to have any chance to influence its security environment. Rather, the petty-minded, strategy-free, process-led little politics of so many European capitals still affords bureaucratic vested interesst every opportunity to get very little out of a very limited effort. Looking for a reason for a failure to grip the Eurozone fiasco? Look no further. 

However, it was not the big stuff of strategy that I bang on about that made the real difference in Operation Tomodachi. It was a sound system for effective information-sharing supported by responsive logistics – getting the right people, in the right place at the right time. Sure there were failings and lacunae. Effective government and governance in the three North-East Japan prefectures had been to all intents and purpose paralysed. Transportation hubs had been wiped out. The JSDF had to invent a more joint approach to operations on the hoof and closer collaboration with the private sector would have enhanced the effort, not least with the Tokyo Electric Company, owner of the radiation-spewing Fukushima nuclear facility, which for three days failed to inform the Prime Minister’s Office of the full extent of the nuclear disaster. And yet the most telling event was the re-opening of tsunami-ravaged Sendai Airport one month after the tragedy, opening the way for materiel and personnel to flood in. 

Specifically, what came across from all the main speakers was a determination of all the main actors – civilian and military alike – to do whatever was necessary to get the job done. Flexibility, adaptability, and creativity were the key. At one point blanket over-flight rights for Australian C-17s was provided simply by adapting tourism laws! The close working relationship between the JSDF and US Pacific Command (PACOM) built up over many years of exercising and joint experimentation was critical because it engendered those all important commodities – solidarity and above all trust. 

Looking back at Europe and its faltering efforts to create a meaningful civil-military partnership from afar it is evident that the problem is not technical but as ever political. Nothing is possible in today’s Europe. Everything is too hard and too difficult. Afghanistan is failing, money is but a memory, strategy is but a distant dream. Sadly, I am now watching this malaise affect former advocates of partnership. Many are now slinking away from support fearful that their careers will be blighted by the paucity of strategic and technical ambition that is the stuff of the current crop of political mediocrities who lead us. 

Talking Tohoku here in Tokyo I am once again convinced that a strong civil-military partnership is central to what passes for European strategic culture and by extension that of NATO. It must be fought for and fought through the current morass of political nothingness that is can’t do Europe today. 

Admiral Lord Fisher once famously said, “Gentlemen, there is no more money. Now is the time to think!” It might be worth a try. If you do not believe me, senior commanders, I invite you too to come to Tokyo and talk Tohoku. You might learn something.

Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.