CESRAN Blog

Decline and Fall 2016?

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Edward Gibbon “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”

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The West is in trouble. Whatever one might think about President Erdogan’s post-coup power grab he understands the ebb and flow of power. This week Erdogan went to St Petersburg to meet Russia’s President Putin less than a year after Turkish aircraft shot down a Russian plane. The implications of the trip are clear; given Turkey’s difficult geopolitical and geographic position Ankara’s best option is to back the ascendant power. Ever since Turkey joined NATO in 1952 Ankara has taken the view that alliance with the West affords Turkey the best chance of security. That assumption would appear to be changing.  Why?

There are many afflictions undermining the power and influence of the contemporary West. The very fact that an insurgent such as Donald Trump is so close to the White House is already profoundly shaking the confidence of America’s allies and partners in the value of US leadership. The obsession of European leaders with Project Europe at the expense of all else is doing real damage to the West’s strategic brand. It is now obvious that the EU far from aggregating European power on the world stage is accelerating the retreat of Europeans into an obsession with values and legalism. However, it is the focus of to many elites in the West on short-term political and/or financial gratification at the expense of long-term strategic probity that is doing the real damage.

Let me highlight the point by citing two examples of this problem over the past week or so from my own country Britain; the stalled deal with China to build a new nuclear power-station, and a leaked report on the relative capabilities of British and Russian armed forces.

Last week new British Prime Minister Theresa May ordered a review of a deal under which China would have funded the construction of an as yet untested French-designed nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in return for China being able to build another showcase reactor at Bradwell in Essex. This desperate deal was the brainchild of the strategically-illiterate Cameron-Osborne duopoly.

The fact that such a deal could have ever been contemplated reflects the political stupidity of what passes for British energy policy. When I was a kid I used to work in a pub at Oldbury-on-Severn right next to a nuclear power station at a time when Britain was the world leader in civil nuclear power. However, the ‘power’ of the green lobby, and the political obsession of several governments with renewables when it was clear such technologies could never meet Britain’s energy needs led Britain down an energy dead-end. It also highlighted the cost of the ‘little politics at the expense of big strategy’ problem that has dogged Britain for years.

As for China there is nothing in Beijing’s behaviour of late in the South and East China Seas or in the levels of Chinese state cyber-hacking or Chinese espionage that would suggest Beijing is ever going to be a real strategic partner of either Britain or the West. London must understand that Chinese state funding for such projects is only undertaken as part of what Beijing perceives as Chinese state, i.e. geopolitical interests. What are Chinese interests? To weaken Britain’s ability to act as an independent strategic actor by imposing a level of British dependence on China, and in particular to weaken London’s still vital strategic partnership with the United States.

Even on commercial grounds this deal is madness, on strategic grounds it is full on insanity.   To then compound the problem by giving an illiberal power such as China unheralded and utterly unwarranted access to key components of Britain’s critical nuclear energy infrastructure simply demonstrates the retreat from sound ‘strategy-fying’ which has afflicted London for far too long.

And then there is Russia. This morning a leaked report from the British Army’s Land Warfare Centre publicly confirmed something of which I have been aware of for some time – Russian forces could now out-think, out-manouevre, and out-fight British and all other European forces. General Sir Richard Shirreff, NATO’s former military No. 2, and for whom I had the honour of working briefly when he was commander of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, is a friend and colleague. He was attacked by London’s chattering classes earlier this year for publishing a book entitled 2017: War with Russia.  His assailants had clearly not read the book.

What is really interesting was why Shirreff was attacked. The general thrust of the criticism seemed to be that Shirreff was a warmongering general who was bothering people with an uncomfortable reality and that he really did not understand that the idea of war has been banished because it is neither politically-correct nor politically-convenient. Indeed, the abuse, for that is what much if it was, was little more than strategic and political decadence from a political and intellectual class in London too many of whom seem unwilling or unable to comprehend that really, really bad things can still happen in world affairs. And, that it will fall to states like Britain to stop it and if it happens do something about it. Syria?

So, decline and fall? Not quite. The good news is that Prime Minister May seems to have adopted a far more sober view of British strategic interests than the strategically-illiterate Cameron and the mercantilist Osborne. The fact that the British Army is beginning to properly address the issue of relative power suggests strategic realism might be returning. And, Prime Minister May is surely right to review the Hinkley Point deal and hopefully kill it; the French reactor does not work, the Chinese must not be able to use energy as a geopolitical lever on Britain, and the British taxpayer is being screwed by both.

It is time the West got a strategic grip and that can only happen when leading powers like Britain start again to put strategy before politics. Then the likes of Turkey will again believe that their security can only be afforded by allying with the liberal powers against the illiberal powers for that is the choice all of us must now make.

As for Mr Trump???????????

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