The First Victory…


The last few years have witnessed a feverish period of remembering Britain’s military and the battles it and others fought during the Great War (what I recall increasingly vaguely as having been referred to at school more commonly as the First World War). A centenary is a historical marker worthy of reflection, particularly for a conflict which involved such horrendous levels of personal sacrifice, human cost and social change. Its place in the psyche of global historians past, present and future is beyond question; for Woodrow Wilson it was “the war to end all wars”, an argument and descriptive term that continues to generate a literature and passionate level of debate all of its own such as can be found in a recent article in The New York Times and Hew Strachan’s 2003 review essay. It certainly led to the fall of kings and ended empires and changed political systems whilst also altering the way conflict was discussed and understood both at the time and still today during the current continuing period of reflection (DefenceInDepth.co has carried on its pages a series of excellent discussions about various aspects of this war which have left this reader much better informed about the catalyst for what followed).

The extended period of recollection which has dominated recent years has rather crowded out a public appetite for discussion of the war that followed. This is a pity as there are still veterans – albeit in ever small numbers – who remain to offer first-hand accounts. The announcement in January 2014 that the Normandy Veterans’ Association was to disband was one of many during recent years as memberships dwindle but there remain men and women with powerful and urgent stories to tell of the Second World War. A range of seventy-fifth anniversary events, defining moments in Britain’s military and cultural psyche such as Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, have passed by with only the briefest of popular reference.

It is fortunate, however, that there remains a considerable academic interest in the second global conflict of the twentieth century. There are various reasons expounded for why there was a Second World War. I have never really seen the ‘controversy’ in A.J.P. Taylor’s 1961 “revisionist argument” in which he “reconnected the First and Second World Wars and drew attention back to Versailles” and simply offered an entirely logical examination of events that continues to underpin our understanding of why Europe once again slid into a second, and even more brutal and destructive war. Explicit to his thesis was an exhausting earlier conflict which resulted in a poorly considered and triumphalist peace. This in turn helped produce an increasingly reflective body of domestic opinion which challenged the merits of an internationalist approach, military intervention and, more generally, the use of force as a lever of national power. It sounds familiar – indeed the replay of more recent events seems difficult to escape – but the degree to which there remained, even after the war had begun, an apathy amongst leading elements of British society for what was viewed as an ill-considered moral crusade against Nazi Germany can easily be forgotten. In this context Lord Owen’s fascinating new account (‘Cabinet’s Finest Hour’) is particularly timely as it attempts to re-focus attention to the political drama of May 1940, albeit whilst in its epilogue also musing on more recent Westminster dramas.

The focus for many historians and the public at large may have been fixed somewhere between 1914 and 1918 but as the recent most welcomed additions to the literature have demonstrated (notably including the first volume of Dan Todman’s hugely impressive ‘Britain’s War’), there certainly still remains considerable opportunities to scrutinise the war that followed the twenty-year peace and the themes and events that contributed to its structural foundations. To this end, in my latest book, The First Victory: The Second World War and the East Africa Campaign, published this week by Yale University Press, I have attempted to explore one of the many gaps and look at what has been viewed by many as a peripheral military campaign. I previously had the opportunity to introduce to the Joint Services Command and Staff College this almost entirely overlooked strand of the Second World War as a case study for examination. In the supporting instructor notes I summarised it then with the following paragraph:

Fighting began in early July 1940 and ended in November 1941; the principal Allied offensive actually began in the January. Just eleven months later the 70,000 strong British-led force had succeeded in defeating an Italian army of nearly 300,000 men, in the process capturing 50,000 prisoners and occupying 360,000 square miles all at a cost of 500 casualties and just 150 men killed. It was a varied and wide-ranging conflict that witnessed many different types of military operations. These ranged from commando raids to long mechanised pursuits, mountain assaults and a protracted attritional battle. Added to this was an often decisive use of airpower, a triumphal amphibious landing and a generally incredible feat of logistical planning. In the process Mussolini’s East African Empire had been destroyed and the British Empire had secured its first significant wartime victory.

Having now had the opportunity to study in considerable depth the battles fought in British and Italian Somaliland, Ethiopia and Eritrea drawing upon primary sources from Britain, Kenya, South Africa, the United States and (even) Australia, this remains a reasonable description. Thanks to a bold and imaginative publisher who was willing to take a risk with what might have seemed too obscure an event to attract popular attention and a fantastic editor, I have been hugely fortunate to be able to see another book made available for public scrutiny and I hope they will accept my contention that there was huge operational and strategic significance in the crushing victory secured by British and Commonwealth forces that fought in East Africa. But at the same time – and just as importantly – in so doing I hope I will also have highlighted that there still remain a great many gaps in our knowledge of the Second World War which I and many of my colleagues in the department are actively doing our best to tackle.

[An addition to this blog will be published in November 2016 at http://yalebooksblog.co.uk/ marking the anniversary of the campaign’s end]

Images taken from ‘The War Weekly incorporating War Pictorial’.


Trafalgar Day, History Rhymes, and Russians in the Channel


The Battle of Trafalgar holds a special place in British history. The victory of 21st October 1805 is wound into the fabric of the nation: visitors to central London cannot help but awe at Nelson’s column and the surrounding square built in honour of his greatest achievement.

The importance of the Battle and the manner of the victory also holds a special place in the minds of British naval officers, for whom Trafalgar Day remains a source of pride and a connection with their service’s glorious past. This was true as much a century ago as it is today, particularly for one of the titans of the Edwardian Navy: Admiral Sir John Fisher.

Familiar to history for his ‘ruthless, relentless, remorseless’ reform of the Royal Navy and his championing of new weapons such as the submarine and HMS Dreadnought, Fisher was also acutely aware of the tradition in which he followed. He was fond of reminding friends and colleagues that he had been nominated as a candidate for entry to the Navy by Admiral Sir William Parker – the last officer to have been a captain under Nelson himself. This sense of history led Fisher to ensure that, when he learned that he would assume the office of First Sea Lord in the autumn of 1904, the date of his appointment was made for October 21st. Fisher relished this connection with the past, writing to supporters in anticipation of ‘our opening day on Trafalgar day’.

It is often remarked that Fisher was not a fighting Admiral – he last saw combat in 1882 during the siege of Alexandria and, despite a string of fleet commands, never led a force into battle. Yet his administration of the Admiralty began with an incident that very nearly pitched the Navy and the country into war, and one which will witness an uncomfortable parallel this week.

The year 1904 was one of rapid change in the international scene. After decades of tensions, Britain and France has signed the Entente Cordiale in April, bringing to a close twenty years of animosity and suspicion between the two in the colonial sphere. This rapprochement was threatened from the outset, however, by a war between Britain and France’s respective allies in Asia: Japan and Russia. The two Asian powers had been embroiled in a conflict for regional supremacy since February 1904, during which time London and Paris had worked hard to avoid being drawn in to the fighting in honour of their alliance commitments (to Tokyo and St. Petersburg respectively). This uneasy state of affairs was put to the test the day after Fisher arrived at the Admiralty, when Russian attempts to reinforce their faltering Pacific Fleet precipitated a crisis in the North Sea.

The Russians had faired poorly in the Far East during the course of 1904. The Japanese had caught the Tsar’s Pacific Fleet at anchor at Port Arthur and disabled several capital ships with a surprise torpedo attack in February, whereafter the Russian’s had struggled to regain the initiative against a modern, effective adversary. In an effort to redress the balance, Tsar Nicholas II dispatched his Baltic Fleet on the long journey to reinforce the beleagured Russian squadron in the east. British naval intelligence had long been sceptical as to the Russian Fleet’s efficiency, discipline, and fighting capacity, but the passage of the squadron through British waters remained a source of diplomatic tension. Relations between Britain and Russia had been strained for over a decade as the Tsar’s forces agitated along the North-West Frontier of India and the government was in no mind to aid the Russian passage. The British Fleet was thus on high alert as the Russian’s made their journey south towards the Channel.

The detail of what followed remains unclear, but it appears that the jittery Russian crews mistook a crowd of British fishing vessels off the Dogger Bank for a swarm of hostile torpedo boats and, fearful of the fate which had befallen their comrades in the Pacific, opened fire. The result was chaos. Russian ships fired upon each other, reported phantom torpedo hits, and let loose hundreds of shells at the unsuspecting fishermen. That none of the fishing vessels were sunk bore testament to the accuracy of naval intelligence’s appreciation of the Russian’s fighting capabilities, but at a time of great international uncertainty the affair very nearly escalated into a major crisis. The British Prime Minister, Arthur Baflour, was incandescent and initially inclined to unleash the might of the combined British Fleets upon the unsuspecting Russians. Admiral Fisher reported to his wife that ‘it has very nearly been war again. Very near indeed…’ The Russians obdurately refused to accept responsibility, Balfour’s brother lamenting ‘their inveterate habit of trying to take back in detail what they have conceded in the gross’. This intransigence obliged the British, who were unwilling start a war over the episode, to concede to international arbitration over the issue. In the meantime, the government closed the Suez Canal to the Russian ships, forcing them to take the Cape route to Port Arthur. The delay only postponed their fate: the Russian fleet suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905. The Japanese victory was so complete that the Admiralty larconically described it as ‘equivalent to Trafalgar.’

A little over two centuries since Nelson triumphed over the Franco-Spanish Fleet and some 112 years after Britain and Russia almost went to war over the Dogger Bank incident, Russian warships will again visit British waters this week. The venerable Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and a number of escorts departed from Severomorsk and ports in the Baltic late last week, bound for the eastern Mediterranean. The Royal Navy and its NATO partners are preparing to escort the Russian armada on its highly provocative passage through the English Channel, which may indeed occur on the anniversary of Trafalgar itself.


HMS Dragon with Russian Aircraft Carrier ‘Admiral Kuzetsov’ in 2014 via flickr.

The US are also keeping a close eye on the Russian flagship, not least due to the risk of her long-running history of mechanical problems resulting in her needing assistance during her voyage. Fishermen in the vicinity of the Dogger Bank may also be advised to keep a weather eye on the Russian ships, if history is any guide.

The Kuznetsov will add relatively little to Russian military capability in the eastern Mediterranean. Experts on Russian military affairs highlight the chronic shortage of pilots trained to operate from her and point out that her lack of catapult launchers will preclude planes taking off with a full payload of weapons. A tacit acknowledgement of her ongoing shortcomings is the fact that she will undergo a full refit upon return from the deployment in 2017.

Nevertheless, her deployment reminds us that, as Hew Strachan commented, ‘geography provides strategy with an underlying continuity.’ Britain’s position off the north-west coast of Europe means places her, as it has done for centuries, astride the key lines of maritime communication between Europe and the rest of the world. Just as she acted as a ‘breakwater’ obstructing German ambitions to world power in Admiral Fisher’s era, geography and capability make her the European country best placed to patrol NATO’s maritime flank in the event of Russian hostility. Her will to accept this role is less clear. With the arrival of the new aircraft carriers drawing closer these are exciting times for the Royal Navy, but the government has still yet to answer the vexed question of how many escorts will accompany them. Without the necessary support, the carriers may indeed become ‘exquisite capabilities’ or worse, critical vulnerabilities for an over-stretched Fleet.

The Russian’s will demonstrate the symbolic value of a carrier when they pass through the Straits of Dover this week. Nelson, Fisher, and today’s Royal Navy will be hoping that the Queen Elizabeths will afford Britain both prestige and military power.

Image: Lord Nelson atop Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square via wikimedia commons.


A Kuwaiti oil field set afire by retreating Iraqi troops burns in the distance beyond an abandoned Iraqi tank following Operation Desert Storm.

Do we need international history?

Defence-in-Depth is pleased to welcome Prof Joe Maiolo – Director of the Sir Michael Howard Centre for the History of War, and Professor of International History – to the blog. If you would be interested to contribute a guest post please contact the editors: Dr Amir Kamel and Dr David Morgan-Owen


International history is not in vogue. Ambitious doctoral students gravitate to international relations theory, or, to one of the more fashionable historical research themes such as transnational or global history. While the study of how transnational processes such as migration, the diffusion of ideas or trade shaped contemporary life is important, the neglect of international history is certainly regrettable and perhaps even dangerous.

It is worth reflecting on when and why the field took shape to appreciate its values and purpose. The study of diplomacy dated back to the renaissance and nineteenth century historians such as Leopold von Ranke brought rigor to the study of foreign policy making. But the study of international politics as a whole, or more precisely the inner workings of the system of states, only began with the outbreak of the First World War.

In Britain, a group of liberal intellectuals met regularly to discuss how future great wars could be prevented by establishing a new global order. At a time when the popular press and propaganda blamed Germany and its allies for the war, these progressive thinkers, many of whom became leading lights in the League of Nations movement, took a different tack. They saw the origins of the great war not in the policies or actions of any one state, but in what the philosopher Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson described in the title of his 1917 book as The European Anarchy. For Dickinson and others of his intellectual circle, the unbridled pursuit by the great powers of their selfish policies generated the forces of nationalism, imperialism, and militarism, which conspired in the summer of 1914 to cause a great war.

After the war, liberal internationalist benefactors such as the Welsh industrialist David Davies and the Scottish philanthropists Daniel Stevenson invested in the ‘scientific’ study of international relations to combat the chauvinistic nationalism prevalent in public debates about international affairs, which included professorships in international history. As Stevenson put it, the kind of jingoistic national history that had been typically taught across Europe before the war had created ‘among the peoples from childhood onwards a spirit of antipathy, ill-will and even hatred of other peoples … [he was] convinced that the teaching of history internationally and as far as practicable without bias would tend to substitute for this spirit a spirit of international co-operation, peace and good will …’.

While Stevenson overestimated the capacity of a cosmopolitan education to promote international cooperation, the idea that a dispassionate and systematic analysis of international events from multiple national archives and perspectives could offer fresh insight was vindicated in the debate about German ‘war guilt’.

To counter the claim that Berlin had deliberately launched the war in the summer of 1914, the German foreign ministry began to publish its pre-war diplomatic documents. Other countries followed the German example to absolve themselves from responsibility and to blame on others for the war. For the burgeoning field of international history, this ‘battle of books’ of the 1920s was a tremendous boost. Suddenly historians had access to the secret diplomatic papers of most of the major powers and with them they could piece together how national foreign policies and actions interacted with each other, and appreciate the way in which misperception and miscalculations engendered mutual mistrust and fear in the decade before 1914. The upshot was that revisionist historians in the 1930s concluded that war had come not as the result of a premeditated plan hatched in Berlin, but inadvertently in the midst of a great power crisis that had spun out of control.

The debate about 1914 continues to this day, but the quality of that debate and our understanding of the causes of the other big wars that have blighted Europe and the world since the fifteenth century increased markedly with the multi-archival methods and systemic approach of international history. The field moved from the narrow assigning of blame to answering profound questions about causation and the nature of world politics.

The premise of international history is that states are not autonomous units, but are parts of an interconnected states system. The structure of system shapes state behaviour and the interaction of states can produce forces and outcomes that are beyond anyone’s control or intent. Understanding why the nineteenth century and Cold War were, for example, periods of relative long peace and stability, and why the eighteenth century and first half of the twentieth century were war prone, demands that historians grasp the structure, the sources of power and ideas that prevail in international politics. The documents from multiple national archives about foreign policy making only make sense in that systemic context. This is the approach of the best works in the field, most notably Paul W. Schroeder’s masterpiece The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848 (Oxford, 1994).

With the end of the Cold War, however, the study of international history fell into decline, and was widely regarded by the profession as a relic of a state-centric historiography that could be safely neglected. The threat great wars appeared to recede as the forces of globalisation fashioned a new borderless world. Historians thus turned their attention to transnational phenomena such as migration, political activism, social and cultural movements, the creation of intellectual networks, cultural clashes and the expansion of world trade and finance, and the proliferation of non-governmental organisations and the development of human rights norms and practices. All of this work is important. In the last two decades we have learned a lot about how non-state interactions and exchanges have shaped the modern world, more so than any analysis of state-to-state relations would have revealed. In fact the founders of international history would have welcomed this effort to transcend the narrow national/state perspective in historical research.

However, the elaboration of transnational and global history did not mean that the states system and the horrific violence that it could produce was in any way less important than we had previously thought. Indeed, the dark side of globalisation – one that global and transnational historians neglect – has been the escalating lethality, speed, and global reach of the nation-state’s means of destruction, a development that has not ceased since the explosion of the first atomic bombs over Japan in 1945. Since the 1990s some historians appear to have forgotten that the great expansion of the transnational sphere from the 1970s onwards occurred in the shadow of a strategic nuclear deadlock between the superpowers.

New areas of research and developing fresh approaches is the lifeblood of academic disciplines, but scholars have an unfortunate tendency to foreclose on the insights, goals and values of previous generations in their rush to stake out claims to originality and importance. International history began a century ago in an effort to understand the cause of war and the conditions of peace. Conflict in the Ukraine, endemic war in the Middle East, maritime disputes in Southeast Asia, the rise of nationalist-authoritarian politics all over the world and global arms rivalry are all ominous reminders that the imperatives and ideals that inspired the foundation of international history a century ago are as pertinent today as they were then.

For a fuller treatment of these issues, see my essay ‘Systems and Boundaries in International History’, The International History Review (2016).

Image: A Kuwaiti oil field set afire by retreating Iraqi troops burns in the distance beyond an abandoned Iraqi T-55A tank following Operation Desert Storm, via wikimedia commons.


Soft Power and Hard Brexit


Much has been written about the British vote to leave the European Union and its wider implications. It is perhaps the UK’s most important strategic decision in a generation or more. However, concrete predictions and forecasts about the post-Brexit future are still confined to the realm of uncertainty and speculation. This is particularly true for the twin themes of British access to the EU’s single market and EU immigration into the UK, which will dominate the Brexit agenda for the foreseeable future. Yet, as a recent roundtable on the security and defence implications of Brexit at the Joint Services Command and Staff College has shown, uncertainty is also the dominant feature in less central areas. In short, even leading security and defence experts cannot be sure about what is going to happen in their areas of expertise. The future EU-UK relationship may not be as complex in security and defence matters as it is in the economic and commercial field. After all, European security and defence integration is not particularly deep, as I argued already before the referendum. But it is contingent upon uncontrollable factors in other areas. For instance, EU-UK cooperation in defence procurement is dependent upon the type of access the UK gains to the EU’s single market, as Prof Matthew Uttley pointed out during the roundtable. It may even be influenced by the way President Putin of Russia is able to exploit the post-Brexit situation, as Dr Tracey German warned during the same event. The good news is that none of the roundtable participants expected a worst case scenario for EU-UK relations in matters of security and defence, although such a scenario certainly remains a possibility. Prof Luis Simon emphasized that the UK will remain a major political and military power even outside the EU. And Prof Malcolm Chalmers highlighted that the UK will remain a member of NATO, Europe’s most important defence organization. A completely different question is, of course, if the EU or Britain will actually gain any security and defence benefits from Brexit. And there were few, if any, positive answers to this question.

It could be argued that the most likely – or as some would argue, the most desirable – outcome of Brexit is no or only very little change of the current state of affair of European security, at least in terms of hard power. Although Prof Uttley cautioned that there is the possibility that a weaker pound means that the UK can buy less military hardware abroad, especially in the United States, the capabilities and structure of the armed forces in both the UK and the remaining EU member states will be largely unaffected by Brexit. Other classical power attributes such as population, geopolitical location or GDP will also remain by and large the same after Brexit. Likewise, European nations will retain their power to coerce other actors on the world stage, in particular if the UK joins the other EU member states in coercive actions such as imposing sanctions. However, the roundtable at the Joint Services Command and Staff College drew the audience’s attention to another, perhaps even more important form of power, namely soft power or, citing its standard definition, ‘getting others to want the outcomes that you want’. According to Joe Nye, who coined the term at the beginning of the 1990s, ‘The soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority)’.

While British culture may change only very slowly after Brexit, it are the UK’s political values and foreign policies where Brexit may have its most immediate impact. In the eyes of other nations, leaving the European Union is a sign that the UK is going to be more inward-looking and less committed to advanced forms of international cooperation. Perhaps quite tellingly Theresa May is the first Home Secretary to move straight into 10 Downing Street since Lord Palmerston in the 19th century. What is also clear from the magnitude of the Brexit decision is that – paradoxically – the UK’s relation with the EU will be at the centre stage of British foreign policy for years to come. In other words, even though the UK may want to re-emphasize its traditional political values of an open, outward-looking power committed to international cooperation by re-enforcing its ties with the United Nations, the Commonwealth and other international institutions, the necessary resources to do so will be absorbed by the more pressing need to implement Brexit, especially if it takes the form of a ‘hard Brexit’ that will sever the ties between Britain and the UK in a more profound way. So, despite the difficulty to gauge the exact knock-on effects of these developments, it is very likely that in a world of growing political populism other nations may want to follow the British example to withdraw from international organizations and re-nationalize their foreign and security policies. This, however, would certainly not be in the long-term national interest of the United Kingdom, as it depends for its own security on an open international system based on cooperation. In fact, such developments would be an ironic – and tragic – effect of its soft power: getting others to want the outcomes that the UK does not want by following the UK’s lead. In short, although we will always have NATO, as the Brexiteers (rightly) highlight, it are the intangible, hard-to-predict factors that we have to watch out for in the long-term.

Image via public domain pictures.


Is Russia turning Ukraine into a Fragile State?


Following the Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing hostilities in eastern Ukraine, the Poroshenko government has struggled to revive the country’s economy. In 2015, the country’s economy was reduced by 12 percent and inflation reached 48.7 percent. IMF loans and EU financial packages have saved Ukraine from financial collapse. More importantly, Ukraine has faced a humanitarian crisis that has attracted little attention in the West. Almost 10,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands have fled to avoid the fighting.

According to the Fragile States Index, published annually by Foreign Policy, the country fulfils most of the criteria of a fragile state: refugees and internally displaced persons, ethnic unrest, poverty and economic decline, lack of state legitimacy, massive human rights violations, warlordism, fragmentation of ruling elites, and external intervention from Russia. Although post-Soviet Ukraine has suffered from many structural problems (e.g. corruption, high unemployment), the Russian intervention has significantly undermined Ukrainian sovereignty and has turned the country into a fragile state.

In fact, the Russian leadership has followed a ‘policy of fragilization’ vis-à-vis Ukraine by using the large Russian minority in the eastern provinces. The Kremlin has mobilised ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in order to delegitimize the Ukrainian state in the short run and possibly divide it in the long run. Putin and his local allies have capitalized on eastern Ukraine’s grievances relating to the highly centralized nature of the state, chronic corruption, and hostile attitudes toward the Russian language. Therefore, Moscow has called for the federalization of Ukraine as a means to control the country’s foreign policy orientation. More specifically, the Kremlin has supported a federal system where each region would elect its own leaders and enjoy widespread economic and cultural autonomy, including the right to develop relations with Russia.

The Russian strategy has been well-calculated because ethnic mobilization almost inevitably leads to confrontation with state authorities. If there is a military response to the rise of a secessionist movement, a cycle of violence is unleashed that can be described as follows:

Ethnic mobilization >> state military response >>  violence against civilians >> glorification of victims and demonization of perpetrators >> more violence

Such cycles of ethnic violence have provided the pretext for Russian interventions in other former Soviet republics (e.g. Moldova, Azerbaijan, Georgia). Eastern Ukraine clearly fits this model: it is an ethnically diverse region with a large Russian community that has been mobilized against state authorities; the Ukrainian government has escalated the crisis by targeting civilians; locals have rallied around the separatist leadership which has blamed Kiev for the violence; finally, ethnic Russians have taken arms to defend themselves. Therefore, Russia has a “moral obligation” to help them and enforce peace.

The use of citizen militias, volunteers from abroad, criminal gangs and possibly Russian special forces has allowed Moscow to deny any direct involvement in the conflict. Thus, the Russian leadership could still hope to play the role of the mediator between belligerents and avoid the alienation of international allies like China. In any case, the privatization of war is a new element in the Russian military thinking. The Kremlin has traditionally maintained tight control over its military; the use of proxies goes against the Russian military culture but it allows Moscow to achieve plausible deniability.

The Russian intervention has provoked a nationalist backlash contributing to the rise of the Ukrainian far right. It is only after the Russian annexation of Crimea that far right parties, like Svoboda and Right Sector, gained enough support to form their own militias. The Ukrainian authorities have attempted, rather successfully, to control militias and integrate them into the national army. Despite its limited electoral appeal, the far right has become a de facto ally of the Kremlin since both have targeted the Poroshenko government. Consequently, the Ukrainian government was forced to reintroduce mandatory conscription which is highly unpopular among the general public.

The current hostilities in the eastern provinces have only deepened ethnic Russians’ enmity toward Kiev, making it all but inconceivable that the region will ever become a normal subject of the Ukrainian state. Furthermore, the fragilisation of Ukraine could encourage the Kremlin to follow a similar strategy in the Baltic States. The time has come for a new policy of containment toward Russia.

Image: Map of the ‘2014 Russo-Ukrainian War’, ‘2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine’ or ‘2014 Russian military intervention in Ukraine’. (Includes ‘2014 Crimean Crisis’ and ‘War in Donbass’). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


The Battle of the Somme and German ‘Battle Management’


On 1 July 1916, the infantry of British 4th Army and the French 6th Army launched what their strategic leadership hoped would be the beginning stages of a decisive campaign against the German army in northeastern France. Initially, the German strategic leadership welcomed the start of the Anglo-French  offensive on the Somme, believing it would be quickly and bloodily defeated. However, it slowly became apparent that this offensive was on a scale and intensity hitherto unseen on the Western Front. Similar to the German offensive at Verdun earlier in 1916, the battle along the Somme was above all else a Materialschlacht — a battle of material — that demanded the German army develop new methods of command and control. While tactical action was important, providing frontline units with the men, munitions, and material required to maintain their line proved to be one of the battle’s greatest challenges and greatest feats. Between the beginning of the battle on 1 July and its end 141 days later on 19 November, ‘battle management,’ rather than traditional concepts of command or leadership, became the decisive factor in ensuring a German defensive victory on the Somme.

After a seven-day preparatory bombardment, 40 British and French divisions supported by some 2,500 artillery pieces attacked the German 2nd Army along the Somme with the initial objective of seizing the Bazentin Ridge, where the second German defensive position was located. On 1 July, Fritz von Below’s 2nd Army comprised 15 divisions, supported by some 600 light and 246 heavy artillery pieces. With the Entente onslaught, the German High Command rushed reinforcements to the hard-fought 2nd Army. Already by 5 July, elements of 11 additional divisions had been drawn in from around the Western Front to plug gaps in the 2nd Army’s line. Additionally, 27 heavy artillery batteries were drafted in. The 2nd Army quickly formed ‘Gruppe’ around new and existing army corps commands. These were necessary particularly to provide some command and control for the increasing number of artillery units thrown into the battle. These new Gruppe also formed an important constant in the battle; these command teams stayed in the frontline for long periods during the battle while divisions came and went. Indeed, divisions lasted on average two weeks in the frontline before being forced by high casualties to be replaced, while Gruppe might remain for months.

The numbers of units involved in the battle on the German side had grown so large that the German High Command decided to create a new command structure to handle the battle. On 19 July, a new army, the 1st Army, was formed out of the units north of the Somme River under the command of Fritz von Below, with the noted defensive specialist Fritz von Loßberg as its chief of staff. The 2nd Army commanded units south of the river and was led by the highly experienced Max von Gallwitz with Bernard Bronsart von Schellendorf as his chief of staff. One of the key advantages of this new command structure was logistics. In the First World War German army, armies were responsible for providing the logistical framework from the frontline back to the home front; each army on the Western Front had its own line-of-supply network [Etappen] to keep its units supplied.

Two armies on the Somme meant two independent means of keeping the frontline units going, and this was very much needed. In addition to the enormous stores of food required by the 750,000 men of the two armies and their horses, the 1st Army calculated that each fighting division required 100 tonnes of engineering material — wood, cement, barbed wire, etc — per day. Further, each division required 5,500 hand grenades and 10,000 flares of various colours every day. These added up to 150 train wagons per day. The German army also found the battle placed extraordinary demands on clothing, with a division requiring up to 5,000 tunics, 5,000 trousers, and 5,000 pairs of infantry boots per month.

The battle of the Somme was above all else an artillery battle. The British and French attackers used artillery in an attempt to batter down German defences and defenders prior to infantry attacks. The German 1st and 2nd Armies tried to create a wall of artillery fire to protect their own infantry. The numbers of artillery barrels used by the defenders rose dramatically as the battle progressed. At its start, the 2nd Army had about 850 light and heavy artillery pieces; by early September the two armies had between them some 1,700 barrels. As a consequence, the numbers of rounds fired skyrocketed. In the month of July, the German defenders fired some 3,566,500 rounds. By October, this had risen to almost 6,377,000 rounds. Obviously, there were peaks and troughs throughout the battle. On 1 July, the artillery of the XIV Reserve Corps fired some 120,000 rounds, with one battery alone firing some 4,600 rounds. The single highest expenditure of munitions came on 26 September, when the two armies fired more than 200,000 rounds of the main calibers (7.7, 10.5, and 15 cm). As a result of the battle, the German army on the Western Front increased expectations for the average daily expenditure for each artillery piece. For example, 7.7 cm field guns were expected to have a daily rate of 375 rounds per gun up from 250 before the battle.

The voracious appetite of the artillery needed to be fed, and this came in the form of munitions trains. The German army had set loads for these trains, with one train delivering 26,880 7.7 cm rounds, 12,000 10.5 cm rounds, or 6,000 15 cm rounds. Indeed, usage of munitions trains became the standard way of measuring artillery expenditure in battle during the war. The scale of the munitions usage can be seen by the fact that in July and August, the German army went through 587 field artillery munitions trains and 372 heavy artillery trains, a far higher rate than at any point in the war to date. The unloading of these munitions trains and the distribution of the munitions to the frontline commands were handled through the Etappen of the two armies. Moreover, the armies each maintained special artillery depots, which served to replace worn out and destroyed artillery pieces, but also to repair damaged weapons, and these numbers were considerable. Between 26 June and the end of August, the German defenders lost 1,068 field guns and 371 heavy artillery pieces to enemy action or to wear and tear.

At the same time the 1st Army was created, a new Army Group Gallwitz was formed under the command of the 2nd Army commander, Max von Gallwitz, and was given overall command of the battle. One of the key functions of this level of command was to manage the large numbers of units flowing in and out of the battle. As we have seen, divisions lasted for an average of two weeks before needed to be replaced. Over the course of the battle, 96 German infantry divisions fought on the Somme, the equivalent of three-quarters of the German army on the Western Front, and many of these fought more than once. With divisions and corps focused on fighting the battle and armies on supplying this combat, the army group could pay attention to the strengths and weaknesses of individual combat divisions. The battle drew in so many divisions that the German High Command recognised that an army group formed of two armies was insufficient to manage divisional rotation effectively. Accordingly, at the end of August a new army group, Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht, was created comprised of four armies. This created a much larger pool of divisions upon which the army group could draw to supply the battle with manpower. ‘Fought-out’ divisions could be withdrawn before they reached the point of collapse, sent to quite sectors of the army group front to rest and refit, and fresh divisions inserted as their replacements. (Often, divisional artillery was kept in place and served as reinforcement for the incoming artillery, which increased the significance of the Gruppe staff in coordinating the artillery battle.)

All of this meant that for the higher leadership of the German defenders, the corps, army, and army group commanders, the battle of the Somme demanded new means of ‘leading.’ As a Materialschlacht, the battle put careful and efficient management of resources to the fore. The creation of more-or-less permanent corps commands, splitting the battle between two armies, and last the creation of a standing army group all served this purpose. Each of these levels of command helped provide resources to the front line. The permanent corps (Gruppe) provided staff and support for the artillery battles. Each of the armies came with their own lines-of-communication service (Etappentruppe). Finally the army group managed the flow of divisions between armies and into and out of the battle. Increasingly, the tactical battle, where traditional ideas of leadership and command were more significant, was the preserve of the divisions and below, while the higher commands, whether based in a chateau or not, managed the battle. If any of these levels of command failed in their tasks of supplying different elements of the battle, than no amount of tactical brilliance on the part of the frontline commanders and their troops could have rescued the situation. The battle of the Somme brought home forcefully to the German army that ‘management’ was as important to victory in battle as ‘leadership.’

For more on how the German army fought the battle of the Somme and the lessons it drew from this battle, see my Journal of Military History article on the subject.

Image: A German munitions factory in early 1916. Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1970-047-37 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

26.11.2015 Выгрузка зенитных ракетных комплексов С-300 (авиабаза «Хмеймим», Сирийская Арабская Республика)

Russia and the use of force


The first anniversary of Russia’s intervention in Syria has been marked by the collapse of talks between Russia and the US on a ceasefire agreement, and a fierce assault on Aleppo by the Russian-led coalition. In the year since Moscow first intervened in Syria, initiating airstrikes against Islamist targets, the conflict has broadened further, triggering a war of words between Russia and Turkey, and now between Russia and the US. The Russian military intervention in September 2015 took the West by surprise and bolstered Russian claims that it is a major power with a key role to play within the international system. It also drew attention to the apparent ineffectiveness of Western efforts to date, allowing the Russian leadership to launch implicit criticism of the West’s inaction. During a meeting with President Vladimir Putin earlier this year to discuss the Syrian operation, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserted that Russia has ‘consistently advocated establishing an intra-Syrian dialogue’ but had been disappointed by the lack of will of its ‘partners’, a situation that he believed had begun to change since the start of operations by the Russian Air Force. Thus, it would appear that a key lesson that Moscow has drawn from its involvement in Syria is that the use of force is an effective tool to utilise in pursuit of its strategic objectives.

Since Putin came to power in 2000, the Kremlin has demonstrated an increased willingness, and ability, to use the military lever to achieve broader strategic and foreign policy goals. Despite this, many in the West continue to be surprised by the primacy of hard power in Russian policy-making, particularly the use of force. The 1990s were a period of turmoil and change for Russia. Putin took power when the country was perceived to be at its weakest, both domestically and internationally, encapsulated by the disastrous first attempt to quell separatism in Chechnya in 1994. Russia was initially unable to convert its extensive (numerically at least) military capabilities into military and strategic success, and thousands of Russian troops proved unable to secure the tiny republic. One of Putin’s first priorities on taking power in 2000 was to halt the perceived decline of the Russian armed forces, which have undergone a comprehensive programme of reform and modernisation. The 2008 conflict with Georgia, the first Russian offensive operation against a foreign state since the end of the Cold War, demonstrated the renewed ability of the Russian armed forces to fight conventional wars, following years of conflict in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. The military action, an extension of policies that served to reinforce Russia’s coercive efforts in other post-Soviet states, also acted as a warning that Russia will not stand by and let countries in what it considers to be its ‘zone of privileged interest’ integrate more closely with Western organisations. Medvedev himself stated his belief that the events of 2008 were vital for Russia ‘for it to feel strong and not disintegrate—irrespective of how those events may be interpreted in other countries. This was important, first and foremost, for ourselves’. This reflects a determination to re-establish Russia’s authority as a strong state that is capable of influencing events within the global arena and pursuing an independent stance on international issues. The 2014 annexation of Crimea and increasing support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine were indicative of a far more confident Russia, one that is determined to counter the perceived expansion of Western involvement within its ‘sphere of influence’ to ensure that it remains the predominant power in the post-Soviet area, using force if necessary.

Moscow’s intervention in Syria, which began in September 2015, initially appeared to have been a significant foreign policy coup, ending Russia’s isolation from the West less than two years after its annexation of Crimea. Casting its mission as part of an international coalition against IS, Russia again took the West by surprise in March 2016, when Putin ordered the withdrawal of the bulk of Russian forces from Syria, announcing that they had achieved their objectives. The West seems powerless (or perhaps unwilling) to halt the bombardment of Aleppo, despite the large number of civilian casualties. This is perhaps partly because there is very little understanding of what Russia is seeking to achieve through its use of military force in Syria. Certainly, the 2015 National Security Strategy (NSS) made it clear that the Kremlin considers Russia to be a major power within the global system, one that has a key role to play ‘in tackling major international problems, the resolution of military conflicts, the maintenance of strategic stability and of leadership in international law and inter-state relations. Russia’s proactive and often ambiguous use of force (across the post-Soviet space and now the Middle East), has been related to a variety of issues, not least an attempt to counter the attraction of the EU, NATO and the West, with hard power tools of coercion and threats. Russian involvement in Syria has undoubtedly demonstrated that it is now able to project power beyond its own strategic ‘backyard’ and that it is determined to play a global role. Encouraged by its use of the military lever in Syria, Russia is likely to take an even more assertive line on the global stage over the coming year and will seek to boost its international influence by both hard and soft means.

Image: Unloading of anti-aircraft missile systems S-400 via wikimedia commons


European Strategic Autonomy after the Brexit


Prof. Biscop is the Director of the Europe in the World Programme at the Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels, and a Professor at Ghent University. He is an Honorary Fellow of the European Security and Defence College.

The EU Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy (EUGS) is one of the most ambitious EU documents on defence to date. Presented to the Heads of State and Government by High Representative Federica Mogherini in June 2016, the EUGS is the first document to put forward the objective of strategic autonomy. Not a moment too soon, as security challenges inside and around Europe are rising, while the US has made it clear that it will not, and cannot, solve all of Europe’s problems.

The operational dimension of strategic autonomy comes down to the ability to act without the US whenever necessary. From that follows the industrial dimension: having a defence industry that can produce everything that this requires, notably the strategic enablers.

The EUGS sets out four major military tasks: to help protect the European way of life at home; to maintain stability in the broad neighbourhood; to maintain the freedom of the global commons; and to contribute to United Nations collective security. Together, these four tasks represent a clear increase in the burden placed on Europe’s armed forces.

The neighbourhood especially presents a challenge. The emphasis is on increasing resilience and building capacity, but where war is ongoing, the EUGS also commits the EU to protect civilians and to consolidate local ceasefires. That entails deploying troops on the ground with serious firepower, backed up by air support and ready reserves, who will not necessarily seek out and destroy an opponent but who will fight when the civilians for whom they are responsible are threatened. Without that determination, the EU will not have created a safe zone but a trap. For many Member States, land operations with such a high potential of combat go far beyond anything that they have recently undertaken, certainly in an autonomous European framework.

It is vital therefore that the implications of this and the other tasks are spelled out and fully taken on board by the political and military leadership. The EUGS provides for a “sectoral strategy” on defence to do exactly that, under the heading, recently announced by the High Representative, of an Implementation Plan on Security and Defence. What this really is, of course, is an EU defence white paper.

The EUGS itself calls for “full-spectrum land, air, space and maritime capabilities, including strategic enablers”. The white paper must now quantify the four military tasks and the desired concurrency: How many operations, of which size, should Europeans be able to undertake simultaneously, without relying on non-European assets?

When a new strategy demands strategic autonomy, it would be contradictory to set too modest a level of ambition. Some now propose to focus on the autonomous deployment of a brigade, presenting this as an increase as compared to the ambition to have two battalion-size Battlegroups on stand-by. That, of course, is the wrong point of departure: the existing EU level of ambition is the Headline Goal – to deploy and sustain up to a corps of 60,000. It is the Headline Goal that must be revised – upwards.

For sure, if after a Brexit the British contribution is withdrawn from the EU’s Force Catalogue, it will create gaps that in the short term cannot be easily filled by the existing capabilities of the remaining Member States. But the Headline Goal was set in 1999, for a Union of 15 Member States. A revised Headline Goal will be a target for a Union of 27, with 1.35 million troops and a total defence expenditure of $200 billion. At the very least, the current Headline Goal should remain eminently feasible.

But with such overall numbers even an increased Headline Goal can be achieved over time – on the condition that defence integration is pushed much further. And an increased Headline Goal will be necessary if Europeans want to be able to deploy, simultaneously: long-term brigade-size stabilisation operations and a high intensity crisis management operation of several brigades and squadrons in the neighbourhood, as well as long-term naval operations, and battalion-size contributions to UN peacekeeping, while engaging in capacity-building and military cooperation.

In light of the crises in Europe’s neighbourhood and the global geopolitical tensions, this level of ambition is none too high. It is but the reflection of the rhythm of operations of the last decade. Maintaining and, over time, even increasing the Headline Goal is the realist option therefore: in view of what is necessary, but also in view of what is possible, looking at Europe’s military potential. Realism not only means not setting unachievable objectives – it also means not setting the bar too low and underexploit the potential that is there.

Furthermore, after the Brexit, Britain will still be in Europe, and British forces will still be there. If a crisis on Europe’s doorstep demands intervention, Britain is more likely than not to be a part of it. Even though UK will no longer be involved in defence cooperation under the EU flag, in practice EU strategic autonomy, at 27, can therefore still be pursued in the context of European strategic autonomy, at 28, assuming a British contribution on an ad hoc basis.

Mogherini has planned for the white paper to be adopted before the end of the year. Subsequently, the detailed catalogues of capability requirements, existing capabilities (minus the UK), and shortfalls will have to be updated. This will take time, but immediately after the adoption of the white paper, the European Defence Agency (EDA) can already update the Capability Development Plan (CDP), which was foreseen in 2017 anyway, and generate a first set of capability priorities in order to steer national and multinational efforts.

These priorities can then be incorporated into the NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP) as well. Only if the next iteration of the NDPP takes into account the capability requirements of European strategic autonomy, notably with regard to enablers, can a capability mix be created that allows EU Member States to do all: to contribute to Article 5, to undertake non-Article 5 operations with the US and the other non-EU Allies, and to launch autonomous expeditionary operations alone.

The white paper is key to the industrial side of strategic autonomy too. Under the next framework programme for research (2021-2027), the European Commission will, for the first time, provide significant funding (of at least €500 million) for defence research. The white paper and the resulting capability priorities must become the formal guidance for the use of these new funds. Industry must serve the Member States and their armed forces, not the other way around.

Finally, Member States need not wait to take action. The only way to achieve the capability targets will be further cooperation and integration, at two levels. At the EU-level, making full use of the EDA and Commission funds, to acquire the necessary strategic enablers. And at the level of various clusters of Member States, to create larger deployable formations through a combination of far-reaching pooling and specialization. The EU as such can facilitate cooperation in clusters, but only the Member States themselves can initiate it. They should do so as soon as the EU white paper is finished

At that point, two simultaneous processes should thus take off: while the EU institutions prepare a new iteration of the CDP, one or more clusters of Member States coming it at it from the other side should immediately announce the start of closer military integration between them, in order to demonstrate a number of shorter term results. For results is what we need.

For a detailed analysis, see http://www.egmontinstitute.be/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/egmont-papers-87_v1final.pdf.

Image: HRVP Mogherini presents EU Global Strategy to NATO Sec General Stoltenberg, June, 2016, via flickr.


EU Governance: Troubled internally and when used as a foreign policy

Dr Amir M Kamel

The foundation of the European Union (EU) is built on the belief that the pooling of natural resources creates a framework for interdependence, which in turn eliminates the potential for conflict. As I noted in my previous Defence-in-Depth piece The EU: A model for economic governance?, this ideal is rooted in Liberal economic thought which became a priority following the end of World War II. The Brussels based entity has succeeded in its goal of eliminating conflict between the European member states since its foundation, and has extrapolated this idea when dealing with foreign actors in the international system. However, there have been complications in this process which have led to a less than successful EU interdependence-based foreign policy in action.

Internally, the EU has been faced with barriers and issues surrounding the successful implementation of its foreign policy since the foundation of the supra-national organisation in 1951. These include barriers surrounding the over-bureaucratisation and politicisation of issues. Aside from these aspects, a further set of more nuanced issues have surfaced when the EU’s interdependence-based foreign policy has been implemented outside of the European continent.

In an article in International Affairs titled Trade and peace: the EU and Gaddafi’s final decade, I argue that the failure in the case of Libya was largely due to the fact that Brussels failed to take into account the environment in which it deployed its interdependence-based foreign policy. I also made corroborating arguments for a further two Middle Eastern state case studies in my book The Political Economy of EU Ties with Iraq and Iran. The key takeaway point from this research project has been that the EU faces a set of barriers when flexing its attempts at governance on an international scale.

These barriers vary from case to case and can broadly be put into two categories. First, each country in which the EU implements its interdependence-based foreign policy has a unique history, culture, context, set of internal, external and strategic interests which are in play. Such an amalgamation of characteristics makes for a complex environment in which to implement such a Liberal-orientated policy. This was particularly the case in Libya, Iraq and Iran.

Second, the economic interests of the actors involved evidently plays a predominant and in some cases, a usurping role when implementing the EU’s interdependence-based foreign policy. These actors can be in the guise of European leaders, policymakers, businesses, etc… and their counterparts in the country with which the EU is interacting with (in foreign policy terms). Empirically speaking, this has led to situations where economic incentives, such as demand for energy or a drive for profits in the private sector, have taken precedence over the political goals of limiting and eliminating the potential conflict.

Consequently, unless the factors in the first category are understood and then accounted for, and the factors in the second category overcome, the EU’s interdependence-based foreign policy will continue to face the same barriers to success.

Image: The European Quarter (aka Quartier Léopold) in Brussels, containing the headquarters of the different EU institutions. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Degrade and Destroy: Winning the War against DAESH

Dr. Andrew R. Hom

In late June 2016 the ESRC-funded Moral Victories project and KCL’s Department of Defence Studies convened a workshop, entitled ‘Degrade and Destroy: Winning the War against Daesh?‘, which brought together leading experts from the academic, military, policy, and NGO communities to consider the problem of confronting DAESH (ISIS) – both in terms of the results and consequences of extant approaches and of possible alternatives. This day-long meeting was designed to foster knowledge exchange and impact by bringing multiple sectors together for a sustained dialogue. It featured spirited discussions about the use of air power in counterterrorism operations, the linkages between DAESH and the greater Syrian conflict, the humanitarian toll of that conflict as well as regional counterterrorism operations, and the intriguing but largely overlooked question of whether Daesh is an enemy or a threat to the UK and its allies. This latter point in particular prompted some interesting discussions amongst the diverse group who attended.

One of these debates focused on whether DAESH should be seen as primarily a political rather than a military or strategic problem. Is DAESH a properly apocalyptic organisation bent on ‘hastening’ a global cataclysm or is it actually pursuing a territorial caliphate as an alternative to the Western states system? Although elements of both intermingle in DAESH propaganda, they are two distinct objectives with very different implications. If thoroughly apocalyptic, DAESH would likely present a genuinely existential problem, although even here a military response plays directly into its apocalyptic vision. Viewed as more traditionally political in the sense of governing territory, DAESH looks like an adaptable, goal-driven organisation availing itself of various means and messages.

After the fall of Mosul and its initial declaration of a caliphate, DAESH first tried to establish administrators in its territories and to project power to the rest of the world. While the specific means of accomplishing these were no doubt repugnant (e.g. brutal Sharia governance at home and hostage executions turned into spectacles), at issue here is their links to DAESH’s ultimate ends. Indeed, DAESH proved inept at public administration and management – it could not distribute public goods effectively and Sharia law did not enable a viable alternative to a social welfare platform. However, it was only after coalition airstrikes began to reduce DAESH’s territorial gains that its rhetoric shifted toward international terrorism as a religious duty. This supports a trend long known to terrorism experts, which is that attacks abroad signal the weakening of an organisation at home and its pending failure as a political programme. Once again this highlights the fundamental importance of a clear vision of what winning a confrontation with DAESH actually means. Air strikes have been successful at checking DAESH’s territorial ambitions, yet they have also driven DAESH toward a strategy of international terror. These paradoxes of military superiority highlight a parallel question: should we respond to violent non-state actors as if they were states themselves, or do asymmetric problems require novel and perhaps asymmetric responses?

Conventional military power has little effect on the ‘caliphate of the mind’, which DAESH spreads with remarkable effectiveness using social and traditional media. Regardless of the material situation on the ground, such propaganda will continue to appeal to young, marginalised, and misogynistic young men who seek a combination of thrill-seeking and meaning-making. One way for the UK and allied governments to resist the organic diffusion of the Jihadi’s claim to fame is to: 1) resist the urge to invoke overblown, national security rhetoric in the wake of localised or small scale attacks, as this valorises the actions of individuals and small groups; and 2) adapt Cold War programmes of ‘civil defence’ or preparedness protocols to train citizenries to employ standard response procedures in active shooter and rudimentary assault situations. The aim here is to reduce rather than magnify the material and political effects of terrorists’ actions and to focus on societal resilience rather than on large-scale transformations of regional and international political, legal, and strategic orders. It is also a shift that would likely deliver significant cost savings.

Going further, Western governments might even consider an ‘asymmetric’ means of engaging the ‘global Muslim subject’ by issuing a blanket apology for the War on Terror – not as an admission of defeat or sole guilt but as an unexpected step that requires dialogue while also recognising the global importance of Islam as a faith and Muslims as a people who have been disproportionately affected by powerful states’ response to the actions of a razor thin minority of their co-religionists. A public apology flies in the face of the accepted logics and conventional wisdom about the war on terror, a fact viewed by many at the meeting as its strongest endorsement.

Thinking about the politics of confronting DAESH returns us to a central question: Does DAESH represent an actual material and existential threat to the UK and its allies? DAESH is clearly an enemy of the systems, values, and politics enshrined in Western, liberal democratic states. Yet this is not the same as a threat. There was a consensus in our meeting that distinguishing more carefully between enemies and threats would help clarify the menu of political and strategic options for dealing with DAESH and similar actors. Terror attacks abroad and territorial gains within the Levant – especially within two struggling states such as Syria and Iraq, whose issues the UK and its allies helped create and have displayed little facility in resolving – do not rise to the level of a national or international security threat, except for when Western governments treat them as such and act accordingly. Threats require urgent security responses, enemies do not – as was ably demonstrated by the UK and its allies throughout much of the Cold War.

In addition to reframing thinking and discourse in a way that provides greater room for manoeuvre, distinguishing DAESH along these lines offers the opportunity to focus on the sorts of long-term conditions that enable terrorist organisations to emerge in the first place, conditions that are often closely linked to state failure, economic inequalities, and large-scale humanitarian disasters. It would also allow states that are party to the UN Refugee Convention, as the UK is, to begin think about how to meet their obligations to the international community’s most vulnerable peoples without framing this issue as a matter solely of terrorism and security. In general, it would allow the UK and its allies much greater freedom to deliberate how to meet emerging adversaries and issues like DAESH with a full set of political tools rather than only the pointy tips.

Although particular groups will rise and fall, regional and international terrorism are likely here to stay. Yet while specific tactics and dispositions will surely evolve, at root terrorism represents a remarkably narrow and indeed brittle approach to territorial control, political power, and international recognition. Facing a problem that is both sticky and limited, and combined with the underwhelming record of the post-9/11 years, it makes sense for leading states like the UK and its allies to explore more supple forms of response. One way to do this is to re-inject politics, understood in the most expansive sense, into counterterrorism.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.