Britain still has a part to play in global security affairs—so long as it can afford the billby Jay Elwes / March 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
“I tend to think that China is not going to become like the United States,” said David Petraeus, the former US general, as he pondered the relationship between America and its new super-power rival. “Our relationship is likely to become increasingly rivalrous.”
Petraeus, who led Coalition forces in Afghanistan, commanded the surge in Iraq and served as Director of the CIA, spoke exclusively to Prospect ahead of the publication of a new edition of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, for which he has contributed a new foreword. Petraeus is currently a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center.
Addressing Russian and Chinese long-term ambitions, he said that “both governments clearly assign considerable importance to the development of significant military capabilities.”
“In both cases, moreover, in recent years,” said Petraeus, “these governments have shown greater willingness to flex and indeed exercise their growing military capabilities in order to pursue their policy priorities.”
And that has been occurring, “even as they also seek to advance their strategic purposes through the use of a variety of non-military tools as well.”
And how might the west respond to China and Russia’s ambitions—and actions?
“Strategic dialogue at very senior levels can also be useful, as can firm, albeit not provocative, actions, when appropriate.” Ministers might ponder those words as they weigh the response that Britain will mount to the attempted assassination of the Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.
And what about Britain’s neighbours—are the nations on the continent doing enough to oppose ambitious, authoritarian states? “European nations bring significant, useful capabilities to any military and intelligence endeavours,” said Petraeus. But, he added, “very few NATO nations do all that they should in the defense arena, in particular.”
“Given the European economic recovery, the aggressive actions of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and the emergence of the most complex array of security challenges since the end of the Cold War,” he said, “European countries clearly should shoulder more of their tasks associated with their national security.”
As for Britain, his assessment of the country’s defence capabilities comes with a caveat. “The 2025 force that has been described for the UK would be quite significant,” he said, referring to the MOD’s plan to develop, what it calls “a raft of cutting-edge capability.” This will include new carriers, hunter killer subs, aircraft, drones and special forces capabilities. “I hope the resources for it can be found,” he said.
Two weeks before the exchange with Petraeus I spoke to John Sawers, the former head of MI6. In our conversation he raised the possibility of a trans-Pacific confrontation between the US and China. I mentioned this to Petraeus.
“I think he is right in his concern surrounding the possibility of confrontation between the US and China,” he said. “Indeed, there have been quite legitimate and growing American concerns over the past couple of decades.”
Politicians in the US on both sides of the political divide have been increasingly worried “about actions of China in the South and East China Seas, in cyberspace, with respect to its rapid military build-up, in certain economic and trade respects, and over the missile and nuclear programs of North Korea.”
As for the agreement by North Korea and the US to hold talks, Petraeus noted that there were “many competing explanations offered for why Kim Jong un has been willing to meet with President Trump.”
This includes the Korean leader’s desire to be seen as “a figure of consequence by meeting with the leader of the world’s pre-eminent superpower.” It may also signal that the sanctions in place against North Korea are beginning to bite which may threaten Kim’s political domestic powerbase.
Turning to his attention to the Art of War, and the deep lessons that he sees as embedded in the book, Petraeus struck a reflective note.
“War is a quintessentially human endeavour—the most serious and, indeed, invariably the most tragic of all human endeavours. That is why I tend to think that history and even literature, more than political ‘science,’ are the best guides for understanding war.”
“The most important thing in war—as in public policy more broadly,” he said, “is the ability to see clearly the situation you are in for what it is and not to mistake it for something else.”
As a principle for navigating the era of denied state-sponsored assassinations, cyber-warfare and media manipulation, Petraeus’s words will take some beating.
The Art of War by Sun Tzu, for which General Petraeus has contributed a new foreword, is published by Everyman’s Library this month