Monday, February 19, 2018

"2020: World of War" - Paul Cornish, Kingsley Donaldson

Amazon link

This from Page 278 of "2020 World of War":
"The latter part of the twentieth century saw everything possible done to encourage globalisation and cooperation in the liberal international economic order and to exclude conflict and competition from world politics.

In the process, war was dismissed as a means of resolving disputes and particularly as a means of exerting power over, and gaining control of, weaker neighbours. This was a laudable position to adopt, in principle, but it also represented the triumph of hope over experience.

And the curious outcome was that the war/peace paradigm, which encourages a narrow, binary outlook on strategic challenges, was made even less useful by our having declared one half of it to be irrelevant.

The second ingredient in a future-proofed strategy, then, is a willingness to see international security for what it is and might become, rather than for what we might wish it to be. "
It's easy to be misled by the casual use of abstractions. To believe that the international elite is truly global, that it soars above nation states, and that contemporary war-fighting is no more than police action against juvenile actors yet to grow up and smell the coffee.

It remains the case, however, that politics dominates economics. States continue to have interests (no doubt guided by the interests of their dominant economic elites) and the world does not subsist under a single world government.

It is an American fashion today to view with something like contempt Europe's post-WW2 cultural pacifism, its underspending on defence and its ineffectual military capabilities. Yet this chiding hides a convenient truth: pacifistic Japan, under-militarised Australia and weak Europe are all locked securely in place beneath the US military umbrella. If war is politics by other means, then the US's Asian and European allies are in no shape to resist American political objectives, if push were ever to come to shove.

It is the intention of Russia, China and sections of the Middle-East (notably Iran) to resist the present American empire which creates the fault-lines in current international relations. But given the immense disparity between American military power and that of its adversaries, doctrines for traditional cold-war-style tank engagements and ICBM-duels have been augmented by a new portfolio of techniques of asymmetric warfare.

It is within this, more complex battlespace, that Paul Cornish and Kingsley Donaldson have set their book.


The term 'American empire' is not generally acceptable. The Chinese communists used to accuse Britain of being 'America's running dog': that's still less acceptable, even when cleansed of its derogatory associations. But if you can't accept that America is a suzerain ("a dominant state controlling the foreign relations of a vassal state but allowing it sovereign authority in its internal affairs") your strategic analysis is bound to be flawed.

Cornish and Donaldson operate within the conventional myth that the UK has substantial foreign policy and military autonomy and this vitiates their analysis. But as we shall see, their book is mostly organised around a sequence of worst-case, illustrative scenarios and is in any event analysis-light.
1. China aims to reacquire Taiwan through a feint against Australia. It conspires with Indonesia to create a scandal around Australian rejection of overladen refugee boats. The Chinese navy hoves into view to guarantee the refugees' safety (and to intimidate the Australians). Unexpectedly, the American Seventh Fleet responds aggressively. Shots are fired ...
This is the well-rehearsed 'rising China' scenario - which is rather distant from the UK's immediate military concerns.
2. In the context of a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and increased Chinese engagement with Pakistan, tensions between Pakistan and India hot up and they confront each other at the nuclear threshold.
Another well-rehearsed scenario which has marginal impact for UK military strategy.
3. Al-Qaeda and Islamic State create a seemingly-improbably alliance and foment a coup in Egypt, economically buttressed by IS's capture of Libya's oil. This scenario draws useful attention to the economic and political fragility of Egypt.

The resulting North African Caliphate is well-poised to strike at Europe amidst the thousands of refugees now fleeing across the Mediterranean. Europe's response is limp-wristed and hand-wringing; America passively observes from a distance.
The focus on Egypt's vulnerability is interesting. Europe's political disunity and military uselessness will cost it dear on issues where America's core interests are not engaged.
4. A complex act of UK terrorism (downing an airliner with a ground-to-air missile) with roots in the African-Arab conflicts in the Sahel.
The scenario, involving the covert involvement of a major UK arms manufacturer, seems far-fetched. There appear no obvious lessons except the usual acknowledgements of the difficulties of combatting small-actor terrorism sourced from distant parts.
5. An EMP cyber-attack on London is used (cleverly) to set up a Russian-controlled botnet targeting the Baltic states. This is a prelude to a Russian invasion of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
A far-fetched and over-elaborate scenario for an already over-familiar narrative of Russian 'near-abroad' consolidation.
6. A model of Brexit which includes a hard border with Eire plus an independent Scotland with an all-too-porous border. Combine with a resurgence of kinetic Republicanism for a perfect storm of drug smuggling, people smuggling and bombs.
This scenario looks overblown, but simply extrapolates many issues already familiar in countries like Italy and Greece. Not an existential crisis for the British state.
7. A combination of several of the scenarios above: a conflict between China and America around an American 'freedom of the seas' operation in the South China Sea; a simultaneous Russian incursion into the Baltic states; Jihadi acquisition of hundreds of European tourists in a collapsing Tunisia and Morocco coupled with mass-migration across the Mediterranean; Islamic insurgency in Turkey. Finally, the American Imperium, backed up in a division of labour by its trusted allies, manages to partially roll-back the crisis.
A contrived exercise in wishful thinking.

And that's it. Those are the scenarios. Some things to note.

  • No scenario involves a modern state-on-state assault on the UK. At no point does Britain's nuclear deterrent (in reality a distributed component of America's nuclear deterrent) engage.

  • Large-scale, potentially existential crises revolve around Russia and China. These are areas of genuine concern, but ones where the UK has a vanishingly small autonomous role.

  • The lower-level conflicts - Islamic insurgencies, uncontrolled migrations or domestic nationalisms - are extrapolations of current problems; there are few new ideas beyond targeted 'police actions' and improved surveillance.

The last chapter is called 'Conclusion':
  1. Don't be a linear thinker - the certainties of the Cold War are well behind us
  2. Be realistic - as in the introductory quote above, don't fall for wishful thinking
  3. Generate a reinvigorated strategic culture and be adaptive to new threats.
Yes, this is indeed a take-home lesson worth paying good money for.


Next post: British military strategy in the next five years.


  1. I agree that it is filled with these scenarios, and not much analysis. The authors saw it as an update (or homage) to a book:
    "The Third World War" by General Hackett from 1978. How similar it is in style to that book I dont know.

    1. I was just overwhelmed by bland.


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