On June 10th, against the stunning backdrop of Cornwall’s Carbis Bay, President Joe Biden of the United States and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom signed the New Atlantic Charter. As the signing took place one of Britain’s new 70,000 ton heavy aircraft carriers, HMS Prince of Wales, could be seen sailing majestically offshore. It was no coincidence. Eighty years ago in August 1941 Winston Churchill had arrived in Canada’s Placentia Bay on board another brand new symbol of the might of the Royal Navy, the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Churchill was there to meet US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the midst of world war at a crossroads of history as the sun was setting on the imperial age and dawning on what would prove to be the brave new Atlantic world.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said of the Placentia Bay meeting that, “This was a meeting which marks forever in the pages of history the taking up by the English-speaking nations, amid all this peril, tumult and confusion, of the guidance of the fortunes of the broad toiling masses in all the continents, and our loyal effort, without any clog of selfish interest, to lead them forward out of the miseries into which they have been plunged, back to broad high road of freedom and justice. This is the highest honour and the most glorious opportunity which could ever have come to any branch of the human race”.
Like the New Atlantic Charter the 1941 Charter was a deliberately ambiguous call to arms. The US was still four months away from entering World War Two. However, Roosevelt still wanted the British to sign up to America’s soon-to-be war aims, whilst Churchill was desperate for American military equipment to stay in the fight against the Nazis. At the meeting both agreed the Axis powers had to be defeated and, at Roosevelt’s behest, a new world order be established thereafter based on the twin principles of self-determination and free trade. The Atlantic world was born.
In fact, Churchill and Roosevelt disagreed about pretty much everything else. Churchill even believed he could interpret the Charter’s call for self-determination in such a way as to preserve the British Empire. Roosevelt, rightly, was having none of it and viewed European empires as part of the problem. Roosevelt’s gross strategic miscalculation came later in the war when he thought her could co-opt Stalin’s Soviet Union into becoming a partner in his vision of a United Nations and a Free World. The Americans also miscalculated the destabilizing effect of the rapid de-colonisation they insisted upon which helped the spread of the very Communism the US so came to fear in the 1950s.
The New Atlantic Charter
Implicit in the New Atlantic Charter of June 2021 is another crossroads of history and, not without some irony, the end of the Atlantic age. Yes, the Western democracies will still afford the world a cornerstone of democratic peace, but given the shifting correlation of forces (à la Lenin) they will no longer be able to do it exclusively, not even mighty America.
In effect, the New Atlantic Charter marks the beginning of a new Free World Charter, which is why it was signed in the margins of the G7. A call to arms for democracies the world over to stand up to the new techno-absolutism of China and Russia and reinvest in the great institutions of multilateralism which eventually grew out of the Placentia Bay meeting.
It was against that Grand Strategic backdrop that the NATO Summit of Heads of State and Government took place. This is the season of summits. The previous week the G7 graced Cornwall’s wonderful north coast, and Biden also met Putin in Geneva. The latter event had personal echoes for me. In November 1985 Gorbachev and Reagan went for the famous ‘walk in the woods’. I was working just around the corner. It would be tempting to suggest such meetings are merely the theatre of geopolitics, but with Great Power competition (or GPC as the US State Department now calls it) back in vogue these meetings matter.
It is always a bit of an ego-massage for authors when reality follows ‘art’. Much that was agreed at the summit can be found in the pages of my new book “Future War and the Defence of Europe” (Oxford: Oxford University Press). The Allies agreed to draft the ‘Next’ Strategic Concept by the June 2022 summit (just read the book!). They also adopted the excellent NATO 2030 Agenda. Crucially, NATO finally recognized that the Alliance must adopt a new defence and dialogue dual track approach to China. The rise of China as a military power of geopolitical weight is forcing the Americans to further stretch their already over-extended forces. Any such factor that weakens US forces also weakens NATO and the American security guarantee to Europe. Indeed, anyone who suggests China has nothing to do with NATO is, to use a phrase, brain dead.
The theme of a new dual track ran throughout the summit. On the dialogue side of the NATO ledger there were calls for a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia. On the defense side a new NATO Innovation Fund is to be set up and something curiously called the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic or DIANA (must be a British thing). There was also agreement to extend capacity-building support for Partners and some waffle about climate change and reducing further the carbon emissions of Europe’s already very small armed forces (Bonsai climate change?)
NATO 2030: the real test
For me the center-piece of the summit was the adoption of the NATO 2030 agenda and the agreement to draft of the Next Strategic Concept for the Alliance. Both matter, or at least they should matter, because this time all of NATO’s nations need to actually mean what they sign up to. It is getting too dangerous for the usual NATO summit declaration bromide because the next decade will be tumultuous and dangerous and if peace is to be assured NATO deterrence must be reinforced if it is to work in all cases including the worst-case. The worst power Great Power case for NATO over the next decade is an engineered high-end emergency that takes place simultaneously in the Indo-Pacific, Middle East and Mediterranean, the Arctic and Europe and which stretches US forces thin the world over.
In such a scenario credible deterrence would rest on the three major European powers leading a NATO European pillar able to act as high-end first responders. In other words, NATO 2030 and the forthcoming Strategic Concept will only be truly credible as foundations of the Alliance’s core deterrent mission if they also commit NATO Europeans to the creation of a high end European Future Force able to act across the multi-domains of air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge. A robust and fast European force will become even more important as emerging and disruptive technologies enter the battlespace and 5D warfare is employed against Europeans across the spectrum of disinformation, deception, destabilisation, disruption and implied or actual destruction. Indeed, artificial intelligence, super/quantum computing, big data, machine learning, drone swarming, hypersonic weapon systems are the future of ultra-fast warfare and must thus also be the future of NATO deterrence.
Today, the very idea of NATO deterrence must be expanded to create a new form of escalation dominance from hybrid war to cyber war to ultra-fast hyper war demonstrating to all and any adversary that any incursion onto Alliance soil would simply not be worth the risk. Credible deterrence is always built around a relatively strong conventional military force. Therefore, what should ideally emerge from the NATO Summit would be an Allied Command Europe Heavy High-end Mobile Force that could quickly to deter aggression AND support national forces in front-line states. At the very least, it is vital that NATO with the big three Europeans to the fore re-conceptualise Alliance deterrence and the far greater role Europeans will need to play therein. The sad reality is that they will not for all the strategically myopic and illiterate reasons discussed above.
NATO’s Black Elephants and Swans
So, everyone is happy? No. There were, as ever, a herd of Black Elephants and a flock of Black Swans at the summit. As my friend Professor Paul Cornish has said, “The real threat to NATO and its cohesion are Black Elephants; risks that are widely acknowledged and familiar (the ‘elephant in the room’) but ignored. When the elephant can no longer be ignored it is passed off as an unpredictable surprise (a ‘black swan’) by those who were slow to address it. NATO’s biggest Black Elephant is the reluctance of its member countries to spend on defence.” The elephants and swans come in the shape of the three most powerful European states Britain, France and Germany (you can decide who is a swan and who is an elephant).
These three very significant powers are the core of NATO’s European pillar and yet the relationship between them is toxic as the strategic implications of Brexit play out. Indeed, anyone who believes the implications of Brexit for NATO are limited should think again. The tensions are now so great that the credibility of NATO deterrence and defense is now at risk.
Credible deterrence rests upon sending an adversary a clear and believable message that any use of force will incur unacceptable costs. NATO deterrence has always rested on three pillars: a sufficiency of relative military capability (usually American); a demonstrable strategic commitment to bear the risks and costs of deterrence; and tight European political cohesion during crises. Unfortunately, the China-imposed global over-stretch of US forces has revealed the crisis at the heart of NATO deterrence caused by the dissonance that exists between the three major European powers and their commitment to afford deterrence to other, smaller NATO allies at the geographical margins of the Alliance.
Such strategic dissonance is not entirely due to Brexit. It is partly due to sheer selfishness because none of them are really threatened by Russia or, for the time-being, China, and they know it. Britain is significantly increasing its defense budget but much of the new money will be on new things, such as cyber. London is also grappling with a host of post-Brexit domestic issues and has become overly bureaucratic, risk-averse and fragile. France is also struggling with a host of domestic issues. Macro-Gaullist Paris is also unable to give up on the Gaullist fantasy that the EU can do ever more on defense. The EU and PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) have a hugely important role to play at the heart of a meaningful EU-NATO Strategic Partnership but the Union will never replace the Alliance. Paris will deny such ambitions but deep down they are still there.
Paris is also adopting an extreme hard-line interpretation of the Northern Ireland Protocol to inflict real damage on the sovereign integrity of the only other truly strategic power democracy in Europe – Britain. Emmanuel Macron’s offensive statements on the position of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom represents wholly unacceptable interference in the affairs of an Allied country. It is also utter hypocrisy and irresponsibility because Macron would never accept that Corsica is similarly semi-detached from France. Consequently, I have now abandoned my life-long francophilia. France is no longer my friend. As for Nordstream, Germany seems more interested in developing mercantilist relationships with China and Russia than sharing the burdens and risks of deterring them that its size and weight in Europe demand of it. Berlin is abjectly failing to properly prepare the Bundeswehr for its vital future role as the core land deterrent in Europe. And then there is COVID and the additional debt all Europeans must soon confront.
Hubris and history
Perhaps the most important event is one I have not yet mentioned. I addressed the Brussels Forum that took place in parallel with the NATO Summit. I did not pull my punches. First, NATO is far more in the business of deterrence than in the business of defense. Second, given the nature of twenty-first Great Power competition North Americans and Europeans will need NATO and each other more not less. Third, Europeans are going to have to do far more for their security and defence if the Americans are to continue to afford their post-war guarantee. Fourth, if today’s NATO really has to defend in a high-end emergency some of our fellow Europeans will be in the deepest of trouble. In other words, the greatest danger NATO faces is hubris.
On December 10th, 1941, four months after Churchill and Roosevelt had met in Placentia Bay, HMS Prince of Wales was sunk by Japanese aircraft off the coast of what was then British Malaya. The decision to send her and the ageing battlecruiser HMS Repulse to those far-off waters without any air cover was an act of profound hubris caused by the profound gap that existed at the time between Britain’s ambitions and her capabilities for which some eight hundred and forty Royal Navy sailors paid with their lives.
The New Atlantic Charter, the G7, yesterday’s NATO summit and the Biden-Putin meeting in Geneva are important moment precisely because they signify another crossroads in history. For a changing West it must not become another lesson in hubris. Indeed, all those who attended the G7 and NATO summits should reflect on perhaps the most important lesson of history: hubris is the father of catastrophe and catastrophe is timeless.
Defence is about doing.