Strategy, Theory, and History


In September 2015 I accompanied the Headquarters of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) to Sicily, a trip which I’ve described in a previous post. My role, in concert with my colleague Professor Niall Barr, was to act as an historical advisor to the assorted gathering of senior officers, civil servants and diplomats who generally make up the annual COMARRC (Commander, ARRC) ‘staff ride’. My job was to describe and relate actions on Sicily during the course of Operation Husky (the invasion of Sicily in July-Aug 1943) to the issues with which the ARRC is concerned; strategy, joint planning, operational level warfare, command and control, logistics, intelligence, pol-mil interface, civ-mil planning etc. These staff rides (Sicily, Monte Cassino, and the Gothic Line, all done on a yearly rotation) are fun, but hard work. Academics and assorted invitees are required to sing for their supper and the standard of contribution and discussion is expected to be high, as is commensurate with the 3 star rank of the Commander ARRC.

Truth be told, however, I am not a military historian per se.  I do many staff rides across a variety of theatres and battlefields from the Second World War, but my intellectual tangerines remain unpeeled at the thought of repeatedly reciting the movements of Division X to place B, or debating the merits of one design of tank against another. I’ve never played a wargame. I don’t get excited by guns. I don’t harbour a secret and slightly morbid fascination for the Waffen SS, and I don’t stare admiringly at portraits of Field Marshal Eric Von Manstein whilst practising how to say fingerspitzengefuhl. Moreover, I don’t particularly enjoy regurgitating a narrative of events that has been trodden over and over again into the historical dust, and I have to admit that as a truly awful chess player I place no trust whatsoever in my own armchair generalship. Perhaps most heinously, I am almost entirely agnostic regarding the Monty/Patton debate.

I jest of course. Sort of. The above is a caricature of a type of military historian, and a certain style of  military history, one that often lends itself to the apparent ‘analysis’ of operations and campaigns. But while there’s no reason why such studies should not be vibrant intellectual enquiries in their own right (please see anything by David French), in the hands of the former they too often become derivative, moribund efforts with little to offer in the way of originality or insight. As a consequence  it’s easy to understand the rather cutting observation that, ‘[M]ilitary history is to history what military music is to music’.  In fact it’s for these reasons that not only have I refused to be defined as a military historian for fear of being perceived as guilty-by-association with certain elements of the breed (no great loss, say they) but until now I have also steered clear of writing military history, for fear of the same.

But that changed after the 2015 COMARRC staff ride to Sicily. I found Operation Husky intriguing on a level that I had never encountered when pondering Operation Overlord, for example.  I think perhaps it was the remarkable terrain of the island which, to me, asked so many questions as to how one was meant to have prosecuted the campaign demanded by critics. I was also stimulated by the counterfactual logic that those criticisms implied, particularly with respect to the Allied failure to inflict a decisive defeat upon the enemy. To that end I returned to work and began to write an article on Operation Husky, which I then submitted to a prestigious journal.

The subsequent peer review was brutally dismissive. And, in retrospect, for good reason. For I had fallen into the trap of producing an example the sort of work that I had previously been so dismissive of; derivative, unoriginal, and ultimately offering little in the way of substantive insight into anything of real importance to broader debates on the subject of war. Licking my wounds, I let go of any aspirations to write conventional military history and, after a bit of thought, returned to the fray with a different perspective in mind. And that was to prove how Operation Husky, as a single, seemingly self-contained  operation of only five weeks duration in the summer of 1943, could provide tremendous insight as to the fundamental and enduring nature of strategy as described by a number of eminent theorists, namely Edward Luttwak, Antulio Echavarria II, Richard K. Betts, Lawrence Freedman and Hew Strachan.

In particular, the intent was to explore how theory provides a far more accurate explanation of events than mere description, particularly its emphasis upon the forces unleashed by the rival interactions of competing designs. In particular, it sought to focus upon war’s tendency toward paradox and contradiction, as identified by Luttwak. By  incorporating a timeline that ran from Husky’s genesis at Casablanca in January ’43 to the autumn of that same year, and by visualising the Sicily campaign as being at the centre of of a hugely diverse web of considerations not only affecting the Allies but simultaneously stretching through Axis politics in Italy, the Balkans and out to the Eastern Front, the intention was to unpick a number of issues relating to the design, control and direction of war. Firstly, by explaining the way in which Husky’s contravention of the ‘ideals’ of strategymaking was the key to its successful implementation. Secondly, by understanding the way in which rational German analysis of the situation created an entirely paradoxical scenario in which their optimum course of action created precisely the scenario they were trying to avoid. Thirdly, by using the relationship between Husky and the German defeat at Kursk to illustrate how success creates its own disadvantages. And lastly, by illustrating how the theoretical best practice of using strategy to create ‘options’ was thoroughly overturned in contact with subsequent events in Italy. It was here that Allied strategy required the straightjacket provided by certain reciprocal German actions in order to function. Yet these were actions that it realistically had no control over.

So what was the purpose of all of this, aside from satisfying my own intellectual curiosity? At heart, it was an attempt to show how operational military history requires more than a description of battles to make sense of events. Without a firm theoretical grasp of how war functions in terms of engaging rational designs with the forces of chance, chaos and contingency, then we slip into dangerously misleading territory. In particular, we derive a false understanding of how  war actually works and, most importantly, how accurately we can use military operations to serve the objectives that we desire.  Unless military history can find a way to accommodate the insights provided by theorists of war, as opposed to just theorists of battles, then not only will it forever fail to provide the necessary intellectual rigour required by scholars, but it will also (and this is perhaps the most important aspect) encourage those who read it to believe that the results of operations and conflicts can be explained by simple observable outcomes, rather than by the complex and inherent nature of war itself. In return, theorists can only justify their claims by utilising the granular detail of events provided by historians. Together, theory and history provide the requisite understanding to make sense of such complex events. To that end, it’s why I wrote Strategy, Theory, and History: Operation Husky 1943 (forthcoming in the Journal of Strategic Studies, summer 2017).

Image: British troops dashing ashore from landing craft, July 1943, via the Imperial War Museum.

Stuck in Endless Preliminaries: Vietnam and the Battle of the Paris Peace Table, November 1968-January 1969


In the anti-war film Go Tell the Spartans, set in Vietnam in 1964, the conflict is described as ‘going nowhere, just around and around in circles’. Perhaps a slightly more accurate representation can be found in the work of Franz Kafka, such as Der Prozeß, in which his protagonist seems to make progress but the process itself is endless with the goal sought remaining as futile and elusive as ever. For the United States, diplomatic efforts to reach a peaceful conclusion to the Vietnam War reflected this – lots of discussions that merely led to more discussions, as well as discussions about having further discussions – whilst the war continued in the background, and was eventually lost.

With the American escalation of the war in 1965, numerous diplomatic efforts to achieve conflict resolution existed alongside the military campaign. However, despite the veneer of seeking peace, the dominant interest of the key parties was to postpone substantive peace talks until there was a major breakthrough in the military situation. In July 1965, President Lyndon Johnson told reporters ‘We are ready now, as we have always been, to move from the battlefield to the conference table’. He also noted, ‘Fifteen efforts have been made to start these discussions with the help of 40 nations throughout the world, but there has been no answer’. These efforts included peace feelers by intermediaries but they did not include conveying any substantive negotiating position other than to propose the prospect of talks. United Nations Secretary General U Thant also attempted to get Hanoi to negotiate. However, US officials rejected a North Vietnamese suggestion for negotiations in Rangoon. Johnson also tried to combine bombing halts with offering peace feelers, but the North Vietnamese were unwilling to negotiate under these conditions. In some cases the US offered to negotiate but had these overtures rejected. In other cases, the North Vietnamese offered to negotiate, but the Americans then rejected these proposals as well. Despite many such efforts which occurred over the course of 1964-1968, neither side was willing to come to the bargaining table.

The changing military situation was the most important factor that led to progress in starting the process of formal negotiations. After the Tet Offensive was launched in January 1968, the US and South Vietnam had been militarily successful in the weeks thereafter both at blunting a Communist uprising in the South as well as inflicting massive losses on the National Liberation Front (better known as the Viet Cong, and officially rebranded in 1969 as the Provisional Revolutionary Government or PRG). Nevertheless, the domestic political repercussions in the US were so grave that Johnson supported more active efforts at disengagement and negotiations to end the war. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese and NLF leadership recognized that no immediate military victory or popular uprising in the South was imminent. It was set against this backdrop that these adversaries came to Paris in 1968 to begin formal negotiations. Yet the decision to pursue a diplomatic track to end the war should not be confused with a sense of urgency to bring the conflict to an end.

The location for the proposed talks proved to be the first hurdle. From the end of March until early May 1968 there was a drawn-out exchange between the US and North Vietnamese on this topic. Unlike during the Korean War, where negotiations had originally started behind Communist lines at Kaesong (the North Koreans and Chinese had rejected the US proposed alternative of a Danish hospital ship) and later moved to nearby Panmunjom, there does not seem to have been much interest in holding the talks anywhere in Vietnam. Although Johnson had stated that US officials would meet with the North Vietnamese ‘anywhere, anytime’, this was not entirely a factual statement. At first, the Americans proposed Geneva, where the 1954 talks had been held that resulted in the division of Vietnam into North and South. Hanoi rejected this on the grounds that it had ‘unhappy memories’. It then suggested Phnom Penh. This was rejected by Washington. Instead, the US offered 5 other capitals in Southeast and South Asia, including New Delhi, which was favoured by Saigon. Hanoi rejected these options and proposed Warsaw, which the US also rejected. The US then countered by proposing 9 capitals all of which were again rejected. Ultimately, after weeks of bargaining, Paris was chosen as the site to hold preliminary talks (officially referred to as ‘official conversations’ to avoid being confused with ‘negotiations’). The French Government assisted by providing a location for talks, the Centre for International Conferences – formerly the Hotel Majestic, which also served as a German military headquarters during the Occupation.

Having cleared this hurdle, another emerged. The question of ‘who’ would be invited to the talks also proved problematic. One option was for a bilateral meeting between the representatives of the US and North Vietnam, thereby excluding both the South Vietnamese and the NLF. However, as the US purpose in Vietnam was to bolster the independence of South Vietnam, it could not be seen negotiating on its behalf (rather embarrassingly the US delegation at the Korean armistice talks outnumbered the South Koreans present, whereas the North Korean delegation outnumbered the Chinese). For the Americans, equal participation by the South Vietnamese was essential for the official talks, though they were content to deal bilaterally with the North Vietnamese at the ‘secret talks’ that were later held. Hanoi and the NLF denied recognizing the Saigon government, but they nevertheless agreed to their participation. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese insisted that the NLF participate – again at the official talks but not the secret talks — since they were being held up as an indigenous and independent Southern insurgency supported by the North, rather than being a mere pawn of Hanoi as the South Vietnamese and Americans claimed they were. This proved highly controversial. As Henry Kissinger later observed, ‘In every revolutionary conflict, the acceptance of the guerrillas as a negotiating partner has proved to be the single most important obstacle to negotiations, for it obliges the government to recognize the legal status of the enemy determined to overthrow it’. Had the conference been referred to as ‘four party talks’, then this would have legitimized the NLF as being equal to the South Vietnamese. Eventually it was decided to include all four parties and simply to label them as ‘our side’ and ‘your side’, thereby avoiding the contentious issue of legitimacy. Four parties would still be involved, thus the Communists would be satisfied. On the other hand, officially the talks were two-sided, as the US and South Vietnamese emphasized publicly.

As these preliminary discussions about who would meet came to a conclusion, they were then followed with additional talks about how a meeting might be held. These discussions, which began in November 1968, were centred on questions about the shape of the conference table, how many tables there should be, and how they would be placed. These discussions became known as the ‘battle of the tables’ and would last ten weeks until mid-January 1969 as fighting continued to rage and Richard Nixon won the presidential election. From the start, it was recognized that a triangular table (with the North Vietnamese/NLF combined but the US and South Vietnamese separate) would be a non-starter as it would imply that the Communist side was outnumbered two-to-one. North Vietnam wanted a square table in order to provide further legitimacy to the NLF, and also suggested four tables arranged in either a circular or a diamond pattern. The American preference was for a two-sided table or two rectangular tables. The North Vietnamese countered by suggesting a round table. Whereas the Americans supported the idea of a round table on the basis that people sitting at the table wouldn’t have any position, Saigon then protested that a round table meant that everyone was equal which would imply that the NLF delegation were equal to the South Vietnamese government. As a result, the US suggested six variants of a round table, including a round table bisected with a strip of baize to provide a symbolic dividing line. Later the benefits and drawbacks of an oval table were debated but the idea eventually was rejected, as were two semi-circular tables, one round table cut in half, a ‘flattened ellipse’, a ‘broken diamond’ and a parallelogram. The Danish mathematician and designer Piet Hein proposed a super-elliptical table with golden section proportions – neither square nor round but midway between the two that ‘would allot the two major parties 100 inches to every 6.18 for the two minor parties all the while suggesting sovereignty with alliance’ (technically speaking this table would have a perimeter that satisfied the formula: x2.5+[y/a]2.5=1 where a=[.5][√5-1]). Regrettably there is little evidence to suggest that this proposal from a concerned outsider was taken seriously by the diplomats, much less that it was understood by the diplomats. South Vietnam pushed for two separate rectangular tables and remained intransigent on this issue. Eventually Johnson grew tired of Saigon’s obstruction and wrote to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu expressing his frustration. The deadlock was finally broken by a Soviet diplomat. Anxious to get the negotiations moving ahead, the Soviets pressured the North Vietnamese to compromise and accept a round table (4.75 metres in diameter) with two rectangular tables (3 feet by 4.5 feet) alongside for secretaries (no more and no less than 4.5 centimetres away). The table would include no nameplates, flags or markings, but would only be covered in green baize. Interestingly, the furniture used for the first meeting on January 18, 1969 – later replaced – was the same unused conference table that had been built for the aborted Nikita Khrushchev-Dwight D. Eisenhower talks in 1960. A separate dispute about order of speakers was also resolved with the South Vietnamese speaking first followed by the US, North Vietnamese and NLF. At the following meeting the order would be reversed and would alternate accordingly thereafter.

By the time this ‘battle of the tables’ had been resolved, the inauguration of Nixon was only one week away. Thus, any opportunity to negotiate a peace in 1968 was undermined by the emphasis for more than 8 months on procedural matters – and this merely to get the four parties to the first meeting to begin official talks. Once the talks began, there was a return to procedure – agreeing an agenda, developing ground rules for further talks and naming the talks (South Vietnam referred to a ‘Meeting on Vietnam’, North Vietnam and the NLF a ‘Paris Conference on Vietnam’, and the US called them ‘Vietnam Peace Talks’ or the ‘Vietnam Conference’). For four more years, these talks went nowhere. By contrast, the less formal ‘secret talks’ between the US and North Vietnam that began in February 1970, also in Paris, would drag on for only 2.5 years without any progress. Only in the autumn 1972, following the failure of North Vietnam’s ‘Easter Offensive’ and the reluctant adoption of a new policy by the Hanoi Politburo to achieve a political victory in the South, was ‘progress’ finally made. Along with American pressure on Saigon to accept a deal, this led to the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973 and the US military withdrawal two months later. However, despite all the time and effort expended on formalities over the years, resolution of the underlying political disputes driving the conflict was indefinitely postponed rather than seriously addressed.  As fighting continued despite the Accords, this led to further talks in the summer 1973 that resulted in a slightly revised ceasefire agreement but no real changes in the behaviour of the antagonists. Meantime, a separate series of talks between the South Vietnamese and PRG at La Celle-St. Cloud that were intended to settle the future political composition of South Vietnam remained deadlocked on procedural issues and rarely progressed beyond agreeing to an agenda. By the spring 1973, the Hanoi Politburo chose to abandon its short-lived policy of achieving a political victory in South Vietnam, choosing instead to revert back to a military solution as soon as its depleted forces could be reconstituted. Despite the years of diplomatic effort, ‘peace’ in Vietnam was finally ‘imposed’ with the Communist conquest of the South in April 1975.

Image: Paris peace talks Vietnam peace agreement signing, 27 January 1973, by Robert L. Knudsen, via wikimedia.

Soldiers and Social Change


Military personnel are rarely placed at the centre of analyses of social and political change in the twentieth century. The growing consensus that the wars of the twentieth century ‘laid the basis’ for important reforms, most notably the birth of the modern welfare state, has been driven almost exclusively by studies of the home front in war; too rarely have scholars investigated how citizens at the battlefront have affected change. This significant historiographical omission appears anomalous in the light of the central place occupied by the citizen soldier in the western democratic tradition.

By exploring the contribution of service personnel to New Zealand’s great experiment in social citizenship in the Twentieth Century, in a new paper in The English Historical Review, I take a step towards filling this gap in the historiography. The article outlines the contentious background to the 1943 New Zealand general election and investigates the role of soldiers, airmen and seamen in the Labour Party’s success. Labour’s victory ensured that party politics remained active and confrontational in New Zealand for the duration of the Second World War. With a strong majority, Labour had a mandate to run the country and the war as it saw fit; it was able to continue its social and economic agenda, including nationalisations and social and employment reform. This third successive electoral victory for Labour ensured that the balance in New Zealand politics lay firmly to the left. In the decades following the war, National (the opposition) adopted Labour’s social welfare agenda and became increasingly inclined towards a policy of full employment. So great was the significance of the victory in 1943, that Robert Chapman has argued that successive Labour triumphs in this period ‘set the terms of political debate and action [in New Zealand] for the next forty years’.

The election, however, was a very close affair, a much narrower contest than Labour’s ultimate majority of 12 seats indicates. In fact, with the civilian votes counted, it appeared that the Government was very close to defeat in six key seats. It was only when the armed service votes were added to the domestic totals that the Government survived by narrowly holding on to all six seats. Had National won these constituencies, the House would have been split evenly between the two parties and there is every chance that the Government would have fallen, with profound implications for the war effort and the shape of the post-war political economy of New Zealand. Peter Fraser, the incumbent Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party, later commented, ‘it was not only North Africa that the Second Division had saved’.

That the soldiers’ vote saved Labour in 1943 is well documented in the historiography. However, to date, in spite of a growing corpus of work on voting behaviours in New Zealand, there is no in-depth study of the factors that may have affected why the soldiers voted overwhelmingly for Labour. In a series of posts in Defence-in-Depth, I will engage with the key findings of my new article and argue that a spirit of social cohesion emerged from the exigencies of combat cohesion, with profound results for the soldiers’ voting preferences.

In the first of these posts, I will outline one of the main outputs of the study – a social class profile of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF); the first statistically robust social class profile, as far as this author is aware, of any army in the Second World War. Such information is usually considered essential to understanding voting behaviours and social change.

In a second post, I will explore in depth the hopes, aspirations and political views of the 2NZEF. This will be done by using reports based on the censorship of soldiers’ mail and by studying the detailed returns that show the number of votes recorded for each candidate at each polling-place in the election. The weekly and bi-weekly censorship reports describe in detail the attitudes and state of morale of the 2NZEF. They were compiled from roughly 7 per cent of the total number of letters sent home by New Zealand soldiers during the war; thus, they provide a reliable documented insight into the concerns of the 2NZEF and can be considered analogous to sources such as Gallop Polls and Mass Observation studies in terms of their significance for historians of social and political change in the twentieth century. The detailed returns of each polling-place in the general election offer a rare opportunity to gain insight into the dynamics of the military, as opposed to the civilian, franchise at a key moment in the political and social evolution of a country.

War, as George Orwell wrote, ‘above all … brings home to the individual that he is not altogether an individual’. The posts on Defence-in-Depth to follow, will demonstrate that parties, such as Labour, which harnessed this ideal and emphasised the role of the state in arbitrating between sectional interests in society were better placed to benefit from these dynamics than those which emphasised personal freedoms and the market economy. For the soldiers who fought, and the communities they represented, the meaning of the war went far beyond victories and defeats on the battlefield. In the case of New Zealand, Labour’s great experiment in social citizenship in the twentieth century could have foundered had it lost the 1943 general election. The votes of service personnel politicised by their experience of the Second World War proved decisive. A spirit of social cohesion emerged from the exigencies of combat cohesion, with profound results for the future of New Zealand.

Image: Lieutenant General Edward Puttick accompanying Prime Minister Peter Fraser on a tour of the NZ Divisional Supply Company and men of the Divisional Petrol Company in the Volturno Valley area in Italy, during World War II. Photograph taken circa 30 May 1944 by George Robert Bull, via Wikimedia commons.

Brexit has given an impetus to reshape Europe’s foreign, security and defence policies


This post originally appeared on the LSE’s Brexit Blog – a multidisciplinary, evidence-based blog run by the London School of Economics and Political Science. Follow the LSE’s Brexit blog on Twitter @lsebrexitvote

Foreign policy, security or defence are traditionally considered matters of ‘high politics’, i.e. areas over which governments are particularly keen to maintain control. In the context of European integration, however, the heads of state and governments of EU member states have agreed on a rather wide range of political and legal instruments to facilitate coordination and cooperation in these bastions of national sovereignty. Despite the comparatively low degree of institutionalisation which characterises these policy realms, and even though national governments have demonstrated time and again that they find it difficult to give up the driver’s seat when it comes to strategic foreign policy decisions, numerous initiatives have demonstrated that EU member states frequently do see an added value in a joint approach to international politics.

While a rather large body of academic literature has analysed the preconditions for and various forms of cooperation in foreign, security or defence policies in Europe, Brexit has given new impetus to such enquiries and shifted attention to the relevant frameworks, including the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) and Permanent Structured Cooperation. As the literature on these and other foreign, security and defense-related aspects is rather vast, Dr. Benjamin Kienzle and Dr. Inez von Weitershausen created an online compendium to provide researchers and practitioners with an overview of academic publications. Focusing on six key areas, namely

  • strategy,
  • policy-making,
  • British contributions to EU policies,
  • Europeanisation,
  • EU-NATO relations, and
  • developments that occur in the context of Brexit,

the Reader is designed to enable an informed and fact-based discussion about the potential and anticipated consequences of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union in the area of security and defence. 

Key Findings

Strategy-related work discusses to what extent the EU as a whole possesses a ‘grand strategy’ and in how far the convergence of national strategic thinking has allowed for the emergence of a common European strategic culture. As the majority of studies conclude that there is some degree of convergence, but only few argue that there exists a strategic culture that is shared across member states as such, the question arises whether in strategic terms the UK is closer to other actors and how this will be reflected in its policy priorities post Brexit. Yet, in general terms, the literature on strategy reveals fairly little interaction between British and EU strategic thinking, in terms of both the existence and analysis of the various strategic approaches to foreign, security and defence policy.

Concerning policy-making, the Reader reveals that while there is widespread agreement in the literature that the UK, together with France and Germany, has played a key role in the making of European foreign, security, and defence policies, systemic analyses on the role of each of these EU member states individually remain relatively scarce. Rather, key debates in the literature focus on how power influences cooperation among the ‘Big Three’, the roles of institutions in the policy-making process, and the development of informal norms and rules. As the literature furthermore suggests, the multi-layered and often cumbersome policy-making process in the EU could become even more complex as an important external voice is added to the existing decision-making process after Brexit. Finally, insights into the central role of informal policy-making arrangements suggest that once the UK leaves the formal structures of the EU after Brexit, these less-apparent efforts to divide labour and achieve sustainable outcomes could indeed remain a crucial feature of foreign, security, and defence cooperation in Europe and even grow in importance over time.

The Reader also sheds light on the UK’s contributions to EU policies in terms of political support and capabilities, showing that parts of the literature suggest that Britain has been of considerable value for EU foreign, security, and defence cooperation. Stressing London’s support for the enlargement of the EU, initiatives to bring Europe closer to NATO, and attempts to further the development of the Common Security and Defence Policy, often in cooperation with France, these accounts contrast, however, with insights regarding the UK’s minimal or even negative influence on the CSDP and the CFSP more broadly. In particular British attempts to block permanent military structures in the EU are used as a prime example in this regard. Meanwhile, a major gap in the literature on British contributions is identified with regard to the lack of systematic analyses of capabilities in terms of personnel, military hardware, logistics or intelligence – a fact which arguably reflects the low degree of European cooperation in this area.

A review of the phenomenon of Europeanisation reveals that the penetration of British systems of governance through the dual processes of ‘uploading’ and ‘downloading’ has been addressed in numerous ways. While some scholars stress the converging policy contents as well as institutional changes which are meant to increase the UK’s relationship with and its influence in the EU, others underline that Whitehall has maintained an overall sceptical attitude and sought to resist the influence of EU foreign, security, defence policies on UK positions and activities. Among the reasons suggested for the apprehension of parts of Britain’s foreign policy elites are geopolitical considerations, institutional blockages, and the Euroscepticsm that characterises in particular the older population. Against this background, whether and how Europeanisation will continue after Brexit is questionable, as the tools, forums, and mechanisms which so far have been crucial are likely to undergo a number of changes once the UK is no longer a regular member of the EU.

In terms of EU-NATO cooperation, the literature analysed in the Reader suggests that, in line with its self-perception as a ‘transatlantic bridge’, the UK has traditionally been one of the staunchest supporters of a close relationship with NATO, whereas other member states pushed envisioned the EU as the primary actor in providing military security in Europe. Moreover, the scholarly literature has underlined the successful cooperation between NATO and EU institutions within the C/ESDP framework, highlighting in particular the 2002 ‘Berlin Plus agreements’[1], and relations at the political and strategic level. Despite these cooperation and coordination mechanisms, some authors see the relationship between between the EU and NATO mainly in terms of competition. These voices tend to stress that C/ESDP and NATO cover the same political areas and compete for political space, influence, and resources.  As the literature furthermore suggests that there is still a subliminal conflict between ‘Atlanticist’ countries, which give preference to NATO and transatlantic relations, and ‘Europeanist’ countries, which prefer an independent EU as a European security actor, a future key question is if Brexit will strengthen the coordination or the competition between NATO and the EU.

As consensus on the security and defence implications of Brexit has yet to emerge, many relevant peer-reviewed journals have not yet published research articles on the topic. Exceptions include journals with a clear policy focus such as International AffairsSurvival, and the RUSI Journal. These articles either argue that Brexit will not have major negative security and defence repercussions, especially in the short term, or they express scepticism about any net security benefit for either Britain or the EU after Brexit. A number of studies have also developed scenarios and possible steps forward. Contextualising recent developments, they tend to share the assumption that continued cooperation between the UK, the EU and specific member states is the best way to preserve both national and European interests. Overall, however, this kind of literature is still in its infancy and it is difficult to predict how it will develop during the next couple of months and years.

In general, the Reader finds that the academic literature does not offer a coherent picture of the UK’s relationship with and contribution to the EU, and therefore does not allow for straight-forward responses regarding the security and defence implications of Brexit. At the same time, it appears, however, that informal groups and decision-making processes, the intricate relationship between NATO, the EU, and their member states, and the future of transatlantic relations will emerge as particularly interesting avenues for future research.

Image: An author talks to soldiers at CatterickContains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

History & Policy


As the annual Advanced Command and Staff Course at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom progresses toward its conclusion, the students will shortly divide into three separate modules for the final term. One of those, the ‘Ends’ module, will draw the students into deeper consideration of the dynamics and processes underpinning the formulation of policy and strategy. Having already been exposed to more abstract considerations of these subjects earlier in the course, the intention behind this phase of the course is to revisit these ideas and to understand their formulation and implementation in a more practical sense. Exposure to concepts will be reinforced by their application to case studies, and there will be a particular emphasis upon aspects of strategy and policy as yet untouched by the course, notably understanding (to an extent) the range of psychological and cognitive influences upon decisionmaking and which are such a crucial aspect of how states choose to exercise power in the international arena.

One thing the students will be asked to consider is the relevance of history to contemporary policymakers. How, exactly, does a grasp of historical precedence inform decision-making in a useful sense? How does a knowledge of the past inform one’s understanding of the present, and the future? – particularly when the past is such an ideologically contested morass of rival interpretations. These debates strike to the heart of a debate of growing significance within the academic discipline of history itself – that of the utility of history to policy and to government.

There are many both within and beyond the profession to whom the notion that a study of the past can inform debates about the present appears deeply problematic, if not entirely fanciful. If historians have not yet reached consensus over the causes of the First World War, the notion that they can point to the future with any degree of certainty seems highly dubious. Facile statements along the lines that those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are destined to repeat them are complicated somewhat by Christopher Bassford’s pertinent observation that even those who learn from the mistakes of the past are also destined to repeat them; such frailties being a fundamental aspect of human behaviour as explained by a number of cognitive and psychological constraints.

But history has a role, surely? Otherwise, as Niall Ferguson laments, the international arena is ceded in perpetuity to the political scientists, the economists, the lawyers and the tech-geeks, who will continue to grip the attention of the policymaking elites. An elite, moreover, whose numbers will less and less be drawn from history departments as that subject slowly eats itself in the solipsistic cosmos of the modern university. Thus, as Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the United Nations in Obama administration observed, hugely important decisions as to how the US will choose to confront the rising power of the Chinese, for example, will be taken in policymaking environments where,‘[H]istory is not present enough in senior decision-making discussions, there is just not enough knowledge of history in the room’. Her point, ultimately, was that the expertise required to ascend to senior policymaking positions is rooted in alternative intellectual traditions that may not necessarily suit such situations.

And one might argue, if noting the objections above with respect to ideological contests and the often facile tendency toward crude and simplistic comparisons across time, that history is rightly shut out of the room lest the historians within engage in lengthy yet ultimately profitless intellectual sparring. But if one steps back from the pointless requirement to identify the concrete ‘lessons’ of history and instead adopts the perspective offered by the French historian Marc Bloch, then a far more profitable intellectual approach offers itself. As Bloch himself states, ‘the traces left by past events never move in a straight line, but in a curve that can be extended into the future’. The emphasis then should be not upon seeking to understand direct similarities between specific events past and present, but to discern the themes across time that underpin their direction of travel.

An illustration of this is superbly illustrated by a gifted young historian, Martin Bayly. Nephew of the great Imperial historian Christopher Bayly, Martin’s PhD on the subject of early British involvement with Afghanistan (written while at DSD) was subsequently published in 2016 in the form of Taming the Imperial Imagination: Colonial Knowledge, International Relations, and the Anglo-Afghan Encounter, 1808-1878 (Cambridge University Press). So, what might possibly be the relevance of that particular period to contemporary policymakers and analysts considering, say, the problems of Afghanistan and Iraq post 9/11? Or perhaps the problems of Syria and Libya today? Popular understanding would suggest that the utility of history in this instance lies in providing lurid warnings of the ‘Graveyard of Empires’, the inherent resistance of indigenous peoples to external actors, and the impossibility of imposing political control over an ethnically and tribally stratified society. Such observations are not entirely misplaced, but they are hackneyed. They also obscure facts that lend an entirely different perspective of matters if one takes Afghanistan as the historical template. For example, the British may have suffered military reverses in Afghanistan on a number of occasions, but they protected and indeed enhanced their strategic interests over decades of engagement with that country. Similarly, although portions of the Afghan population were highly resistant to the British presence, significant segments were entirely receptive and the ‘popular’ revolt of 1841 was caused not by widespread xenophobia but by the economic turmoil of military occupation and the disenfranchisement of specific elites by British advisors. Lastly, the trope of a perpetually unruly people must somehow account for the four decades of calm and stability under the Shah regime 1933-73. Too often then, crude and ill-defined stereotypes of past events are invoked by the unthinking to provide ‘lessons’ going forward.

But such basic correctives are not the value of Bayly’s contribution to the debate. His is a far more discerning and thoughtful reflection on the experience of the early Anglo-Afghan encounter and its impact upon the machinery of government. As a consequence he captures ideas of relevance to any modern or future policymaker. These might centre upon the way in which powerful States conceptualise ‘unknown’ spaces and, in their attempts to subsequently conquer and control such spaces, the ways in which complex understandings are simplified for policy ingestion, thus converting knowledge into a form of ‘policy science’. Additionally, one might wish to consider his portrayal of the growth of ‘knowledge communities’; networks of ‘experts’ articulating the seemingly simple cause and effect relationships of highly complex problems, helping the state identify its interests and framing the issues for collective debate. Consider too his unveiling of the way in which renewed interest in the regions in which these experts specialised, and their courting by the policy elites, meant that the manner in which they presented their work might be deliberately crafted to attract such policy attention. All of these issues were not only symptomatic of the early British encounter with Afghanistan, but are the sorts of timeless observations – examples of Bloch’s historical ‘curve’ into the future – that genuinely matter in the way that we interpret undertakings of the sort seen in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, and visualise those to come. This is the sort of informed understanding of the past that really matters to those in the corridors of power, those who will always be prone to believing that it doesn’t apply to them.

Roll on the Ends module!

Image: group of Afridi fighters in 1878, via wikimedia commons.




Concepts of grand strategy generally stress the requirement of governments to outline clear strategic goals, and to ensure that all elements of national power are co-ordinated by ministers and senior officials (civil service and military) to achieve them. In recent history, one state achieved the apparent success of devising a ‘total’ strategy and of establishing a bureaucratic framework to implement it. That state was South Africa, governed at that time by the apartheid regime of the National Party.

Up until 1974-1976 the National Party had established and reinforced a system of white minority rule in South Africa itself, as well as an illegal colony in Namibia. Pretoria had withstood international condemnation of racial oppression and also the generally ineffectual insurgencies of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO). However, the April 1974 military coup in Lisbon led to the end of Portuguese imperial rule in Angola and Mozambique, and the takeover of power by two national-liberation movements (the MPLA in Luanda and FRELIMO in Maputo) with a pronounced hostility to white minority rule. The downfall of Ian Smith’s regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was also imminent.

To add to Pretoria’s troubles, the failed South African military intervention in Angola in 1975 (Operation Savannah) led Fidel Castro to send a Cuban expeditionary force to aid the MPLA, and Cuba maintained a sizeable task force in Angola until 1991. Moreover, the MPLA’s victory in the Angolan civil war encouraged greater anti-apartheid militancy and activism within the black majority in South Africa, as demonstrated by the popular rising in Soweto in April 1976. The National Party’s response to this combination of external and internal crises was shaped by the Defence Minister and (after 28th September 1978) President, P. W. Botha, aided by the high command of the South African Defence Force (SADF).

South Africa’s 1977 Defence White Paper was influenced in part by the writings of the French strategist, General Andre Beaufre. It presented an apocalyptic image of a ‘total onslaught’ by the Soviet Union and its allies – including Cuba, Angola, Mozambique, the ANC and SWAPO – to effect a Communist takeover of South Africa, aided by anti-apartheid activists and movements both within and outside the country. In response Pretoria would adopt a ‘Total National Strategy’ that would harness all means at its disposal to defend apartheid and undermine its enemies. The result was the militarization of South Africa’s domestic and foreign policy, encouraged by Botha, General Magnus Malan (his successor as Defence Minister), and the head of SADF military intelligence, Lieutenant General Pieter van der Westhuizen, a thuggish securocrat who could very well have provided Hollywood with one of the villains in Lethal Weapon II.

There was a self-serving and disingenuous rhetoric to ‘Total National Strategy’; the apartheid regime had continually claimed to be the defender of the nation against Communist tyranny, recognising that this helped both rally the white community’s support, while also cajoling the Western powers (notably the USA, Britain and France) to treat it as a Cold War ally. The aspirations outlined in the White Paper did not prevent inter-departmental squabbles from erupting between the SADF, police, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the National Intelligence Service. Nonetheless, ‘Total National Strategy’ did reflect the very real sense of paranoia that affected the white elite, in particular the politicians and policy-makers of the de facto War Cabinet, the State Security Committee (SSC).

What did this new strategy mean in practice? Firstly, it involved a campaign to destabilise the ‘frontline states’ that were backing the South African and Namibian national liberation movements, with Angola and Mozambique as the principal victims. Both countries became the target of South African aggression. Angola itself was subjected to eleven major cross-border incursions by the SADF between May 1978 and December 1988 which were ostensibly directed against ANC and SWAPO bases, but which also involved punitive strikes against the Angolan armed forces. Furthermore, Pretoria waged proxy wars against Maputo and Luanda, arming and equipping the UNITA insurgency led by Jonas Savimbi in Angola and the RENAMO movement in Mozambique, thereby exacerbating two civil wars which devastated both countries.

The second part of ‘total strategy’ involved state terrorism, involving the assassination of apartheid activists abroad, and death squad violence against domestic opponents conducted by the police (with its C-10 unit) and the SADF’s ‘Civil Co-operation Bureau’. The barbaric killings conducted by these ‘third force’ units were investigated by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee set up after the apartheid regime’s fall, as were the covert efforts by the police and SADF to instigate internecine violence in the black townships between the ANC and its political rival, Inkatha.

The moral implications of ‘total strategy’ should not be forgotten. Thousands died in township violence in the late 1980s-early 1990s, and the wars in Angola and Mozambique cost an estimated million deaths. Both countries were further impoverished as a consequence of the civil war and RENAMO – South Africa’s proxy – became notorious for its atrocities against Mozambican civilians. Yet there were also counter-productive consequences of Pretoria’s strategic decisions which the SSC were never able to resolve.

Firstly, with reference to the efforts to coerce the frontline states, Pretoria’s aims were contradictory. Was the objective to force Luanda and Maputo to abandon support for the black liberation struggle in South Africa and Namibia, or to achieve regime change? With Mozambique, the diplomats of the DFA believed that they had achieved a significant success with the Nkomati Accords of 16th March 1984, in which Botha and his counterpart Samora Machel agreed to stop supporting each other’s internal opponents. South Africa had forced its neighbour to stop backing the ANC, but van der Westhuizen’s military intelligence service continued to arm RENAMO regardless. In Angola, there was a mismatch between Pretoria’s appeals to President Eduardo dos Santos for mutual restraint, and the attacks by SADF special forces against strategic targets such as the Cabinda oil-fields. A US State Department mediator remonstrating with van der Westhuizen complained that the raids ‘tell the MPLA that you want to kill them, not do a deal’. The SADF intelligence chief’s reply – ‘I agree’ – demonstrated the lack of co-ordination in Pretoria’s Angolan policy.

Secondly, the proxy wars with neighbouring powers carried with it the risks of escalation. This was demonstrated by the Cuito Cuanavale campaign of September 1987-March 1988, when Pretoria responded to an Angolan government offensive against UNITA by sending a brigade of 3,000 troops across the Okavango River. An initially successful onslaught in which the SADF mauled the MPLA’s army culminated in an inconclusive siege of the government outpost of Cuito Cuanavale. Furthermore, in November 1987 Castro decided to reinforce the Cuban task force in Angola, raising its strength to 50,000 troops. The influx not only enabled the Cubans to reinforce Cuito Cuanavale, but also launch an armoured drive Southwards towards that threatened Namibia with invasion. US and Soviet mediation in the summer of 1988 averted a South African-Cuban clash, and SADF veterans maintain that the Angolan campaign of 1987-1988 was a victorious one for them. But the fact remains that by June 1988 South Africa was on the verge of fighting a total war.

Finally, the ‘third force’ operations of C-10 and the Civil Co-operation Bureau in South Africa itself threatened to undermine the rule of law itself. The SADF and police death squads became complicit in organised criminal activities such as ivory smuggling and arms trafficking, and the instigation of internecine violence between the ANC and Inkhata threatened to plunge the country into outright anarchy. By the time of Nelson Mandela’s release on 11th February 1990 the survival of white minority rule had become a lost cause. The only question was whether apartheid would perish with an apocalyptic race war, or whether South Africa could make a largely peaceful transition to democracy and majority rule. Thankfully, South Africans ended the latter rather than the former, but this was no thanks to the securocrats of the SSC.

So ‘total strategy’ was a failure, and anyone looking at South African history between 1978 and 1994 is entitled to ask him or herself why the National Party could not have avoided over a million futile deaths and all the atrocities associated with them – in South Africa and also neighbouring states – by waking up and smelling the coffee a lot earlier than it did. Yet there is a more fundamental point about strategy itself that can be gained from studying the latter years of apartheid: You can articulate a clear objective for implementation, and provide a clear institutional framework for the means of state power to be employed to achieve it. But it will be of no avail if the basic premises behind your strategic goals are fundamentally flawed.

Image: South African paratroopers on patrol in Namibia during the border war. Picture taken from Wikipedia Commons, posted by en:User:Smikect.

The British Army & the Chilcot Report: Strategy isn’t the answer


This post originally appeared on The Wavell Room – a new blog to encourage the discussion of thinking within the British armed forces. Follow the Wavell room on Twitter @wavellroom

The long-await report of Sir John Chilcot’s commission on the Iraq War is feeding a dangerous illusion in the British Armed Forces: that the absence of an effective strategy was the key reason for the failure of the coalition in the War in Iraq.

The Chilcot report condemned the political decision making process which led to Britain embarking upon the war in 2003 in commendably robust terms. Its critique has been welcomed by many as a vindication of democratic government and of the efforts of the British soldiers, sailors, and airmen who laboured for ten years for seemingly little effect on the ground in Iraq. However, elements within the British Armed Forces have taken a series of incoherent and short-sighted ‘lessons’ from Chilcot’s findings.

The greatest amongst these is that a ‘lack of strategy’ – as one senior general involved in the campaign recently put it – was the key reason for failure of the coalition to establish its desired end-state of a democratically elected Iraqi government. If one takes an accurate view of what strategy is – a process encompassing resources, techniques, and objectives – then this viewpoint might hold some credibility: the objectives of the coalition were ill thought out and unrealistic, and therefore ‘strategy’ was compromised from the outset.

However, all-too-often this is not what is meant when military personnel discuss the War, or Chilcot’s report. Rather, they express the view that a ‘lack of strategy’ after the decision to intervene was the root cause of ultimate and inglorious withdrawal. To adopt this stance is fundamentally to misunderstand what strategy is, and to take a dangerously over-optimistic view of the capabilities of Western armed forces.

To achieve success, the process of strategy requires the constant balancing of (1) material, morale, and financial resources, (2) methods of their employment, and (3) the aims of a given endeavour. What one sets out to do, is thus integral to whether one can achieve such a balance. In the case of the War in Iraq, what the coalition set out to achieve was unclear, ill-conceived, and hugely over-optimistic to the point of arrogance. As a result, it was chronically under resourced and poorly supported from the off. No amount of ‘strategy’ or smart thinking after that point could therefore achieve the balance necessary to produce results, as the objectives and investment were fundamentally mis-matched.

The laudable military tendency towards a ‘can do’ attitude was a key part of this failing in 2003, as the Army in particularly campaigned in favour of intervention. This impulse has been widely criticised since, as has senior officers failure to stand up to the Blair government. However, in it’s attitude to the Iraq War, politicians, and to ‘strategy’ today, the Army seems to have learnt few ‘lessons’ from this experience. The illusion that better ‘strategy’ after intervention in 2003 could have produced ‘victory’ stems from the same unrealistic assessment of what military force can deliver which preceded the decision to embark upon the War in the first instance.

It may be ‘unhelpful’ to point out that circumstances exist in which the Army may have no option but to operate with no realistic chance of ‘victory’. In conditions of non-discretionary conflict, the Army must obviously be prepared for such an eventuality. However, it must also be prepared to make obvious to its masters that in wars of choice, discretion may often be the better part of valour. Coming to terms with the legacy of Iraq is an important step in this process, and this requires the Army to admit that the intervention was not a failure due to a lack of ‘strategy’ after the decision to join the invasion. The entire episode was fundamentally ill-conceived from the start – strategy failed before boots hit the ground – and no amount of Clausewitzian manoeuvring thereafter could change that fact.

Image: protestors at the publication of the Chilcot report, via flickr.

Hybrid War: The Perfect Enemy


Why does hybrid war cast such a long shadow over Western conceptions of future threats? The ubiquity of the idea of hybrid war is interesting given the many serious problems with the concept.

Hybrid war has, for example, little intellectual coherence, since different commentators define hybrid war in different ways. For Frank Hoffman, hybridity expresses the difficulty that: ‘Instead of separate challengers with fundamentally different approaches (conventional, irregular, or terrorist) we can expect to face competitors who will employ all forms of war and tactics, perhaps simultaneously.For J. J. McCuen, hybrid wars are ‘full spectrum wars with both physical and conceptual dimensions: the former, a struggle against an armed enemy and the latter, a wider struggle for, control and support of the combat zone’s indigenous population, the support of the home fronts of the intervening nations, and the support of the international community.’ NATO has defined hybrid war as ‘a wide range of overt and covert military, paramilitary, and civilian measures […] employed in a highly integrated design.’ Often, then, we are using the same hybrid war label to describe different things.

The above problem exposes another flaw: that we may be guilty of engaging in a process of generalising from the specific. Hoffman generalised about hybrid war from the specifics of the armed conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006; McCuen generalised from the specific state-building conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan; and more recently, hybrid war has been generalised as a phenomenon from the specifics of Russian activities in Crimea and the Donbas. Hybrid war seems to be redefined in relation to the characteristics of each new conflict that worries the West. To compound this problem, if we try and generalise across the different definitions of hybrid war, we are left with a concept that is so broad as to be almost meaningless. As Damien van Puyvelde notes, ‘In practice, any threat can be hybrid as long as it is not limited to a single form and dimension of warfare. When any threat or use of force is defined as hybrid, the term loses its value and causes confusion instead of clarifying the “reality” of modern warfare.’

We have also been guilty of over-inflating the value of hybrid war as a new concept. We do not need to invent a new classification of warfare to explain hybrid warfare successes. For example, that Hezbollah did better than was expected during in 2006 can easily be attributed to Israeli weaknesses, including poor strategy and a focus on low intensity operations in Gaza. Russian successes in Crimea depended upon such situationally specific factors as the presence of a large Russian population; the presence of Russian military bases; and a primed Russian domestic audience. In assuming that hybrid warfare is a uniquely effective tool we are, first, guilty of what Hew Strachan has termed astrategic thinking – of assuming that tactical and operational techniques can be successful whatever the strategic context. Second, we are guilty of ignoring hybrid warfare’s often ambiguous results. Russian actions in the Donbas, for example, have been much less decisive than those in Crimea and have involved significant costs and an increasing Russian commitment. In many respects hybrid warfare has simply become any non-conventional military strategy that worries us.

Finally, hybrid warfare is a malign reflection of what the strategist Colin Gray has termed ‘presentism:’ the tendency for each generation to see the problems that it faces as unique and to fail to see the powerful historical continuities that often are present. Mark Galeotti and Geraint Hughes have already illustrated the historical precedents for Russia’s current hybrid warfare. Proponents of hybrid wars struggle to provide a meaningful unifying definition of the concept because hybrid war actually does not have a distinct nature and it is not a separate form of war. What we define as hybrid wars are simply expressions of the inherent relational and asymmetric nature of all wars. ‘Hybrid wars’ are examples of belligerents trying to side-step the strengths of their adversaries and to focus the terms of conflict on their weaknesses. But that’s not new. If Lebanon in 2006 and Crimea and Donbas in 2014 are hybrid wars, then so is German submarine warfare in the First and second World wars; British strategic bombing in World War Two; British counter-insurgency in Malaya; or the actions of General Aideed in Somalia. These are all hybrid in the sense that they reflect the use of different tools to get at an opponent’s weaknesses whilst trying to mitigate their strengths.

All of this raises an important question: why, despite its intellectual shortcomings, is hybrid war such a pervasive concept? The answer, I think, is because it is a manifestation of our own insecurities about the world in which we live. These insecurities have two dimensions. The first concerns our own perceptions of the weakness and decline of the West. These perceptions have their roots in such things as the crisis in confidence in the western economic model created by the 2008 crash and continued weakness ever since. It reflects fear over our vulnerability and cohesion – fears over our loss of control over globalisation; fears for what we see as the basic pillars of international order: Western predominance; US-European relations; European cohesion; NATO. It reflects perceptions, as a consequence of such conflicts as Afghanistan and Syria, of our inability to deal effectively with critical security challenges. These fears also stem from perceptions regarding the internal weaknesses of western states: growing fears about the political cohesion of our societies; the rolling back of democracy; political polarisation.

The second strand concerns perceptions of the strength and guile of our adversaries. This crisis in self-confidence has been accompanied by a tendency to downplay the weaknesses of our competitors; to see only strength wielded in the service of superior long-term strategies. These problems aren’t necessarily new. Bettina Renz and Hanna Smith argue that the West’s fear of Russian hybrid war is ‘reminiscent of the West’s enemy image of the Soviet Union, which viewed the Soviet leadership as a chess master that was vastly superior in terms of centralisation, organisation and co-ordination.’

We are afraid; and because of this we have invented for ourselves the perfect enemy. We feel increasingly insecure, increasingly fearful; we have as a consequence created the image of a potent new threat from powerful adversaries who suffer none of our problems and by-pass our strengths. But intellectually, the concept of hybrid war says more about our fears than it does about any genuinely new model of war. This is not to say that that the current security environment isn’t difficult and dangerous. However, if we stopped connecting together all of our difficulties, multiplying them by the assumption of superior adversaries and then labelling them hybrid war, we might find these challenges easier to address.

Image: Russian-Belurssian military exercises in the Baltic, 2009, via

The Path to War: America and the First World War a Century On

Michael Neiberg is the inaugural Chair of War Studies at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and the author, most recently, of Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America (Oxford University Press). You can hear Mike discuss the new book here and here. The views expressed herein are his alone and do not represent those of the United States Government or any part thereof.           

People have often asked me over the past few months what I thought the United States was going to do to mark the centenary of American entry into World War I. I used to reply only half-jokingly that I figured that we would do what we did 100 years ago: we would wake up, realize there is a crisis, throw a lot of effort into it, declare victory, and then forget it ever happened.

But now that we are getting closer and closer to the event, I realize I was wrong. Nothing of the kind has happened. There have been a few conferences, terrific museum exhibits, and some efforts at the local level, but very little at the national level. The World War I Centennial Commission even failed to get any federal funding for its modest goal of building a small memorial on the long forgotten Pershing Park near the White House. I have done a few media interviews over the last few years, but the unpleasant truth is that more European media outlets have contacted me than American ones.

Why? It is certainly true that we have been more than a bit distracted here by the recent election and change of presidential administrations, but that strikes me as an insufficient explanation. There are always crises at home to discuss. If the war had been sufficiently important to Americans, they would have discussed it no matter the domestic context, and maybe even made its memory a political topic, as has happened in England and Ireland.

World War I does raise some uncomfortable questions for modern America. It is the moment when the United States directly entered the bloody game of European power politics and then tried to rewrite the rules of that game at great cost. The debates about the wisdom of that approach still echo today, most notably in the current debate about the value of international institutions to American national security.

Some people argue that the United States has a particular national amnesia about World War I. In the 1920s, Americans made an intensive effort to remember the war. Every American city and town has a major monument to World War I. They include prominent places citizens often use like Soldier Field in Chicago, the Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, and the Boulevard of the Allies in Pittsburgh. These living memorials were designed to force people to consider the war every time they went to a football game, an opera, or simply drove home.

America also has thousands of more traditional memorials to the war. New York City alone has more than 120. Art historian Mark Levitch is attempting to document them all, and I send him a photo when I come across one. They are everywhere, from plaques in New York City skyscrapers memorializing employees of a major bank to a small marker in a local college chapel to the list of the dead on a metal sign on the town square where I live.

Still, since the Great Depression, the United States has largely turned its attention away from the war. This problem of amnesia is easiest to see in Washington. The nation’s capital features an enormous, quite over-the-top memorial to World War II in a prominent place on the National Mall. It draws throngs of visitors and has become one of the most visited sites in a city full of first-class museums and memorials. It stands, of course, in stark contrast to the somber, dark symbolism of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial just a short walk away, as I imagine it was always supposed to.

But it also stands in stark contrast to the World War I memorial on the National Mall, a small marble dome dedicated to the veterans from Washington, DC. For years, it was the victim of a bureaucratic squabble. The National Parks Service, on whose land the memorial sits, refused to care for a memorial dedicated to the city, and the city claimed that it had no resources to clean and maintain it. They finally reached a deal but only after volunteers raised private money to clean it, in part so that it would not mar the view of the new Martin Luther King Memorial close by.

Americans, it would seem, have forgotten this war. Clearly, they do not hold it in their minds the way they do the Civil War that proceeded it or World War II that followed it. In part, I suspect that the frustrations Americans had with this war began quite early. Americans went to war to remove the German threat to their homeland, a threat that had been building and finally burst with the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and the release of the Zimmerman Telegram.

When the Germans laid down their arms on November 11, 1918, most Americans thought the job was done. They therefore demanded the immediate return of their loved ones from France. But their president had a much more expansive vision of reshaping the world in America’s image. To him, the military phase of the war was only one part. That vision proved to be too much for most of his countrymen. The United States Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles and with it Woodrow Wilson’s beloved League of Nations.

Thus, even though Americans remembered the men who fought, they rejected the war’s purpose, or at least the purpose as their president presented it. American war memorials are frequently a simple doughboy statue, symbolically recognizing those who sacrificed without saying anything about the cause itself. Also for this reason, we commemorate the war (as Europeans also do) on the day of the armistice, not the day of the peace treaty.

It is also true, however, that we Americans are not particularly good at anniversaries. My colleagues who study the Civil War were disappointed with the lack of introspection and serious discussion during the sesquicentennial of that major event. The 50th anniversary of many important Vietnam War events has also failed to generate much serious discussion, although the New York Times has run an excellent series on the subject. Notably, it has not run a similar series on World War I.

The problem may be amnesia on this side of the Atlantic, but my European friends have not been entirely satisfied with anniversary coverage on their side, either. Gary Sheffield found himself in a debate with the BBC over what he charged was overly simplistic treatment of a complex subject. Sir Richard Evans also sparred with Education Minister Michael Gove over the political ramifications of historical memory. These debates confirm my own view that for most people history is as much about confirming their own ideological beliefs as it is about a serious engagement with the past in all its complexity.

I fear that this anniversary will come and go in the United States without opening a space for us to debate issues of substance. We might have used the centenary to talk about America’s role in the war and how it changed in 1917; why the nation fights wars and how it seeks to end them; or how Americans have used their power to pursue both national interests and international ambitions. But I fear we will miss this opportunity. I had hoped for debates like the ones Gary Sheffield and others have had in Europe, but we will not get them. My hopes for a declaration of victory were premature.

Image: J. M. Flagg‘s 1917 poster based on the original British Lord Kitchener poster of three years earlier, via Wikimedia commons


Tweet by Tweet: Trump’s Nuclear Musings

Dr. Heather Williams

In a recent article titled ‘The nuclear education of Donald J. Trump’, Dr. Jeffrey Michaels and I catalogued almost all of President Trump’s statements regarding nuclear issues over the past thirty years. This catalogue included sources ranging from Playboy to Presidential debates. The study’s findings were both surprising and concerning.

The research revealed that Trump has been thinking and talking about nuclear weapons for a sustained period of time. In a 1984 interview, Trump revealed that he had a “fantasy” of becoming an arms control negotiator, something he has been publicly discussing ever since. The 2016 Presidential campaign focused more so on Trump’s personal character than on the substance of his views, which are now shaping national strategy and policy. His own biographical ghost-writer, Tony Schwartz, commented that if Trump became President and had access to the nuclear codes “there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.” So how worried should we be about Trump in charge of the US nuclear arsenal?

The biggest source of surprise in our study was how consistent Trump has been in his views on nuclear weapons. Since the 1990 Playboy interview, he has been concerned about the status of the nuclear arsenal and whether or not it is truly credible due to a lack of investment and infrastructure problems. He has consistently been interested in arms control to showcase his negotiating skills, whilst simultaneously remaining sceptical of deep reductions, disarmament, and any no-first-use declarations, as this would be “taking options off the table.”

In many ways, Trump’s views on nuclear weapons are nothing particularly new. Obama increased investment in the US nuclear infrastructure, which indeed is in need of attention. Additionally, Obama called for increased burden-sharing among NATO allies, though perhaps more delicately compared to Trump’s label of NATO members benefiting from a “free ride.” Furthermore, previous Republican presidents expressed scepticism about limiting America’s strategic options, including arms control.

Of course, Trump’s nuclear policies will also be shaped by those around him. For example, while Trump has consistently accused China of failing to “solve” the problem of North Korea’s nuclear development, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has stated that working with China would be preferable to any military actions. Mattis has also been a strong advocate of American leadership abroad and recently visited US allies in Asia and Europe, including a stop at the Munich Security Conference where he stated, “security is always best when provided by a team.”

But there is also cause for concern about Trump’s statements on nuclear weapons. In one very important way, Trump significantly differs from his predecessors, shuns the constraints of his advisors, and presents a nuclear risk: his use of Twitter. Many of Trump’s nuclear-related tweets raise important questions about social media as a disruptive technology. For example, recent scholarship has highlighted the importance of “audience costs” in strategic signalling, whereby if a leader fails to deliver on a threat, he/she will suffer a loss of credibility in the eyes of allies and adversaries. But what is the audience cost of a tweet? Tweets are often off-the-cuff remarks without the benefit of expert advice or fact-checking. Should tweets be interpreted as credible policy statements?

Additionally, nuclear signals are often misinterpreted, particularly in times of crisis when tensions are high and decision-making time is short. Are tweets more prone to misperception than other means of signalling? It is extremely difficult to communicate such signals in 140-characters or less- Trump has offered plenty of recent examples to help prove this point. Our study did not find any clear answers to these questions, but rather highlighted the need for further research and scholarship into these policy issues.

One example of this was on December 22, 2016, when Trump tweeted, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” This could be interpreted as reinforcing Trump’s pre-established views: he is not interested in nuclear disarmament and wants to increase investment in the US nuclear infrastructure. At the same time, it suggests an arms race, which Trump later confirmed in a discussion with Mika Brzezinski, a journalist and presenter on Morning Joe, and potentially undermines America’s commitment to organizations such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and agreements such as the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.

After attempting to decipher Trump’s statements on nuclear weapons, our study raised three big questions. First, how committed is Trump to providing nuclear security guarantees to America’s allies? The early days of the Administration have suggested it will indeed be committed to allies as demonstrated in the actions and statements of General Mattis, in particular.

Second, is there a future for US-Russia arms control? Ultimately, this will remain unclear until Putin meets Trump. While there are limited prospects for further arms control, Trump has a thirty-year-old fantasy of being an arms control negotiator and he might not want to miss the opportunity. Instead, arms control may have to get creative.

Lastly, how does social media interact with traditional means of strategic signalling? This remains to be seen. But an additional cause for concern is that of an unpredictable nature: a strategic shock. This could be positive, such as the rise of Gorbachev which offered Reagan an opportunity to pursue arms control and reduce Cold War tensions. But strategic shock can also be negative, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, which significantly shaped the Presidency of George W. Bush. Trump remains untested in his role as a crisis leader, but when the time comes, his instinct to take to Twitter may sow more confusion than security.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.