The red-line of chemical weapons and Syria.

Softly confirmed reports are of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government in a small town in the Allepo region. As the western powers sought to confirm the contested accounts of these developments talk of ‘red-lines’ and ‘responsibility to intervene’ emerged.

Some brief thoughts, in no particular order:

How we know what we know: given the debates around the intelligence on Iraq (see the Panorama programme on Monday night) as well as the reports that will and have come out of Butler and Chilcot, the burden of proof that ‘the west’ will need to have will need to be strong. Another campaign under false-flags will play very badly, and exactly where is the money and capability to prosecute a difficult war?

Real threats: one of the real threats from chemical weapons in this operational environment is the unsecured use. Secured use at least has a clearer set of influence metrices that could be used to mitigate or prevent its use – in an unsecured use, these influences are diffuse, obscured, and fluid – it makes them more unpredictable. It also makes them more portable – and therefore uncontained. That puts them into the global threat orbit.

Killing norms: an estimated 60,000 people have already lost their lives in Syria in the contest over who can rule the space. Very few of these deaths are likely to have been ‘nice’ and it might just be me, but I struggle to see the radical difference or escalatory effect of deaths by unconventional ordnance as opposed to conventional ordnance. If we are going to intervene because of the use of chemical weapons, we should have been intervening before: people were still dying unpleasantly over a political struggle. No-one is going to the pearly gates more pissed off that they died one way or another. It also sets a precedent – given that in the 80s and early 90s the international community were unkeen to intervene in Middle Eastern chemical attacks in Iran/Iraq/Kurdistan.

The means to an end: is to secure Russian influence in the Middle East. Without this, the removal of Assad is all but impossible. If the Russian government sees that it is no worse off, or even better off with a replacement, we could reasonably assume that their position would move. To try and write Russia out of the Middle East will be to create a Syrian conflict that cannot be contained.

The safety of friends first / fracture lines: looking at a conflict map of the Middle East makes it quite clear that the Israeli Prime Minister is quite correct when he talks of their being massive threats in the region. Increasingly he has them stacking up on his borders. The old mantra of ‘solve the Israeli-Palestinian question and you’ve solved peace in the Middle East’ is now a historical relic. There are far bigger problems in the Middle East, they’re all across religious/ethnic identity lines and they are not contained by the Westphalian niceties of boundary lines. Therefore, a plan for the security of the Middle East has to include our own allied bulwark of democracy – Israel – as the protected red-line. And for the rest of the region (which now in terms of joined up insurgencies – be they dormant, a little active or fully-fledged spreads all the way across to west Africa) greater attention needs to fall upon demilitarisation and trade-aid. The disconnect of insurgent from his base of support lies in satisfaction and economic growth – no-one goes to war on a full stomach as the adapted phrase goes. Poverty, strong and historically mal-formed rhetorics, and an abundance of conventional weaponry is making a very significant part of the globe ungovernable. No wonder some folk argue for a wider Atlantic community, a pivot towards Latin America.

If you break it, you own it: The new first rule of interventions is that if you break the country, you own it. And walking away (a’la Iraq and Afghanistan) is possible, but doesn’t really help anyone. An intervention in Syria (which is predominantly broken in governance terms) would still trigger the maxim, I think. Whilst the historical resonance is poor or problematic, a Syria-under-mandate might be the smartest way to proceed – think Bosnia under Paddy Ashdown, but with more people involved. Perhaps the role the UN should be playing is in being able to step in as a collective civil service/government with a core remit to ensure that the four governance strands are improved and that the outcome should always be a return to local rule when stability is in place: it would be the best way of dispersing financial and operational risk and responsibility.

Be wary of those who want immediate interventions, be wary of those who say trust the intelligence, and have no sustainable and viable plans for stability – these are 30year plans, not 5years twitchy and out.  In this war, the competition is potentially our best friend….


Defence Acquisition: the wisdom of elders

Fresh some several years of hyper-active reforms, and a lot of intensely reflective thinking, the MoD would have been disappointed to read the Defence Select Committee’s mauling of its industrial strategy, or to be more accurate, lack of strategy.

This is a little unfair. The MoD has a strategy and it’s a clear response to several factors that come from Whitehall (internal debates around institutional design, the place of the UK in the world, stance etc) and external sources (mainly the economy), but the problem is in its radicalism. In a recent article for World Defence Systems, that I think is imminent, I said the government’s defence reforms had been typified with a radicalism born of conservatism – they’re spinning ever more rapidly to achieve a very stable set of end-goals that can be tracked over time. SDSR (and its foundational NSS document) could be seen as a radical reining in of the UK’s overseas role, but then Libya happens and it looks like salami-slicing and strategic disjuncture etc etc. And the evidence that Mark Phythian and I provided to the Select Committee began its intellectual origin at this point: that SDSR reoriented the UK into less interventionist activity, and – more importantly – a sticking plaster pathway to get through to 2015. So, in our Defence Studies piece (behind the publisher’s wall until April) we noted that Libya effectively buried the SDSR because of this critical disjuncture in aims, whilst in our Political Quarterly (which is free to access) piece we noted that the follow-on activities after SDSR might change the nature of bureaucratic governance in the UK. The Defence Select Committee’s report also raised questions about how effectively the government would keep control of procurement under a GoCo arrangement (where the company is owned by the government but run by a contractor, or a consortium of contractors).

The classic arguments used to justify a GoCo arrangement locate themselves around private industry being able to drive down costs, and drive up efficiencies. Fine. But there’s very little evidence of this happening across the full spectrum of government activities. The comprehensive work of the NAO to look into the financial models the government uses highlights the problems of needing incredibly precise contracts to nail down a financial arrangement and the punitive costs of deviating an inch from it, which seems to happen with monotonous regularity. After all, it’s a complex world with complex needs. So, the wisdom of going down an internally outsourced route, which is what the GoCo amounts too, relies on a truth to the maxims that private is cheaper and industry knows better. Smart procurement felt a more comfortable concept, in all honesty. Why are our public institutions immune from more efficient rationales? There are no inherent reasons… but strangely it persists.

The second major criticism levelled by the committee was about a lack of strategic direction – that equipment savings, job protection, and protecting the British research base could be better secured if the MoD knew what equipment was critical to national security. If the MoD knew this, they would have a better idea about what they were going to ring-fence and protect. The committee went on:

“We believe the absence of a strategy which supports appropriate national sovereignty puts the UK at a disadvantage against competitor countries. Furthermore we do not understand how we can have confidence in a national security strategy which does not show a clear grasp of what is needed for the defence of the United Kingdom and how this can be ensured.”

So, the idea of buying-off-the-shelf was effectively scotched as a panacea option. Which is a bit of a blow to the National Security Through Technology white paper released in February 2012, which broke the historic link between the UK defence industrial base and UK security.

So, where to go now? The SDSR was unusual as a defence review in as much as its review point was established from the outset (2015) and thus one could reasonably assume that it would be reviewed in, er, 2015. But two years on, it is still receiving a monthly drubbing in the press, and by Parliamentarians and by humble academic scribblers. It seems unconscionable that it won’t be revisited before 2015.. but how can it be? For instance, the sort of inter-service row that was had in the run up to the SDSR will look like Aunt Sally’s quiet picnic on Ditchling Beacon compared to a middle-of-the-cuts version now. And Tory MPs who are feeling cross about bleating middle Englanders like me moaning on about reforms to universal benefits and married tax allowances etc,  disappointed with the angst in Parliament over gay marriage, Europe, triple-dips etc are unlikely to want to see their government robbed of the ‘friend of the military tag’ so soon after nabbing it back from Labour.  The Prime Minister is one of the government’s biggest assets, but he’s collecting problems for fun at the moment.

We normally talk of salami-slicing vs radical surgery in defence reform. The problem is that the radical surgery keeps coming in slices. And the sensible retreat from overseas commitments was rapidly replaced with renewed interventionism (which intellectually I’m not opposed to). Whether the current suite of policies are underpinned by good sense or not, defence policy looks like a badly thought out mess. Most of the stakeholders involved in it seem as pleased as Porsche owner being given a moulding Mini-Metro as a courtesy car.

Intellectual and practical incoherence, stakeholder disaffection and continual bad-press from all quarters need to be thought about clearly and perhaps in the following blank-paper terms:


  • Who owns strategy?
  • Are these people in the best institutional or workload place to be doing it (all sorts of factors mitigate for and against strategic thinking. From my own perspective it requires time to reflect and play with ideas, and it requires the right sort of information at the right quality to be put in front of people. Is this happening?)
  • Who is responsible for managing and including stakeholders?
  • Is there a clear 5, 10, and 30 year vision?
  • Do we know how to get to each of these markers?
  • What kind of head-room is defence operating with, and what issues does that pose? (and let’s be clear, we know that the budget is under serious pressure despite the promise of increases in equipment monies. So, can we guarantee if we cut something that we can keep the saving to make something else better? If not, then the government needs to think about how it is incentivising reformists.


There are plenty of answers to these questions already out there in various literatures. But many of them (most of them) sit within the ‘yes, but’ mould of thinking. Defence policy doesn’t need ‘yes, but’, it needs ‘here are the expected, anticipated or known-unknown threats and now here are the capabilities that we think best match these threats exist, with the money we’ve got or can reasonably ring out of the Treasury’.

Select Committees are getting good at holding government to account. It’s time for government to match them with good answers.


Ps- the wisdom of elders title is a little random. It refers to an expert witness cited next to Phythian and I, who is both very wise and of distinguished service and years.


Syria, Mali, Algerian gas-works and ‘Open Source Everything’

Read any government security document, any of the national security strategies produced by a now large number of states and you will get a feel for the proliferation in the number of threats they feel they face. The preamble will normally contain a paragraph explaining that after the Cold War or after 9/11 everything got a little more complex, a little less explicable.

Heightened complexity in the international system appears to have coincided (and is only partially causally linked) to the increased levels of activity/ improvements in technology, social media etc. The rate at which information can be collected has increased, even if the sort of information being collected is broadly the same.

The problem of accounting for events like the Algerian gas-plant siege a few weeks ago (or the development of the insurgency in Syria, or in the hijacking of the state in Mali) for state-based security organisations is that their resources allocated in such a way that it logical for them to be looking the wrong way when this happens. It would be unlikely – although we can’t be sure, obviously – that there’s a bod in every security community across Europe pondering the safety of gas-plants in the ME and Maghreb. So, when this happens the information required to rapidly come down the pipe needs to be hastily scoped and drawn in. And this got me thinking about Robert Steele’s ‘open source everything’ manifesto (I declare the interest that Robert has written a chapter for the Routledge Handbook on Intelligence that I, Mike Goodman and Claudia Hillebrand have compiled and which will be in a good bookshops from August, and that he and I have corresponded at length about these issues), and how it could be used or applied in these circumstances. I have my own take on this, and I’ve provided the link above to the source: Robert also has a good search on his name I think so I’d guess he’ll correct me in comments too! But my wonder is more in the aggregation of huge quantities of information.

If we assumed that insurgents or terrorists leave an electronic detritus of chatter (be it closed loop phone or some other form), movement data, financial data, and the chatter of their associates, family etc and local media reports etc etc, then the actual ‘intelligence’ required to identify, contain and roll-back a threat or ‘black-swan’ event should be there, right? No-one – it seems – can totally avoid leaving the sort of trail that could be used in anticipating an event, so the issue is in collecting the data in a way that makes sense, and making predictions on it (lenses through which we understand the world). And that made me wonder about how one could translate this kind of regional or localised intelligence into a western European perspective: does it need expert ciphers to do so? Or can it be done with generalists? This fits into one of my side projects, which is thinking through how to make better use of scholarship in the ‘real world’. Would a more open source arrangement provide the sort of information to be better resilient to these black-swan events? This is not to say that the current arrangements are ‘bad’ or ‘failed’, but just like in defence it seems that there’s a constant circle to be squared of ‘more’, ‘more diverse’ and with relatively static methods or money.

Relatedly, some years ago Milja Kurki (who might be the smartest person I’ve ever met) and I wrote a paper about the intersection between intelligence studies and IR theory. We never published this paper and for their pains my final year students get to read it as a tiny part of the reading list for my final year option. Whilst we felt that the field was under-theorised, the paper we wrote never really connected up to the reality of intelligence work adequately enough. The two communities or endeavours seemed immune from each other – indeed to try and overlay one on the other seemed to produce an immune system response. But with the benefit of some years to cogitate on it, and having thought about the work of people like Steele, Fuller, Cairney (as above), I think the missing element from this paper was the realities of complexity:

  • Things in the international system tend away from equilibrium and not towards it as most IR theory suggests
  • The international system tends to chaos and not order (and the level of chaos might be reduced to the level of individuals, making generalizable lessons problematic)
  • Man-made uncertainty shocks, or ‘black-swans’ to use other language, are mostly resistant to accurate advanced prediction. Thus one main function of theory – to predict – is always likely to fail. Using a different approach we could learn lessons quickly enough to be able to deal with a problem or series of problems close enough to the source that in effect it looked like prediction and pre-emption.

The issues all fall-down to how to best use (in terms of creating the right institutional frameworks and having the right cultures) the information available, and in that we need more thinking work into whether alternatives genuinely stack-up.


Our enemy’s enemy, is never better…

I’d like to go further than the Faceless Bureaucrat did an hour or so ago.. I should also know that amongst my students he has become ‘the freelance bureaucrat’ for no good reason at all (my first years just read the FB-Betz exchange on freedom of speech as alternative reading on the reading list).

Anyhow, my proposition and provocation is simple:

The enemies of our enemies have universally proved to be more problematic than the original enemy. Certainly in the last fifteen years.

* Saddam was decidedly horrid, but after Gulf War I was also decidedly stable. The situation that followed him, the influence of Iran in the country, and the new leadership are no improvement (if you can see past some flawed elections).

* The Taliban were not to our taste, and a threat via the harbouring of training camps, but the situation that has followed is a dysfunctional money-pit and a rapid return to the 1980s…

* In Zimbabwe, the international clamour to replace Mugabe went quiet when it was assessed that the military and security hierarchy that sits to his left and right were even more dangerous than he is/was.

* Egypt looked promising, then Morsi got excited and decided he was Mubarak-redux, and from a international politics perspective, Mubarak was a force for stability and constructive engagement with Israel (contested, for sure).

* Libya.. we got excited about the opposition, but we didn’t know who they were or what they were intending and that’s gone badly too.

* And now Syria, where the opposition groups we’re all officially quite excited about have allegedly massacred Alawite’s (who have broadly supported Assad).

So, like an emergent isolationist from my previous muscular liberal past… I say again, all of the enemies of our enemies, are worse devils than the ones we know… We should have moved for strategies of containment.


Moral vacuums and chemical weapons

Chemical weapons are rotten.

Really horrible. Like the most disgusting things you can think of. They even belong to that most rancid of clubs – the WMD club. Urgh. And no-one wants to belong to that club… Well, apart from quite a large number of developed nations.

(don’t ruin the urgh… there were feel-good points to be had from the urgh).. apologies. Urgh.

To think clearly about the possible use of Syrian chemical weapons (and surely policy people should be thinking chem-bio, right?) we need to stop the editorialising about just how urgh they are. Saying chemical weapons are horrid is no more compelling a statement than to say that teenagers are stroppy, academics are not natural socialisers and that large French people carrying cars are not terribly reliable. We need to think in a moral vacuum, rather than to get caught up in the sort of statements that constitute motherhood and apple pie. We did, afterall, make this mistake with another leader in the middle east called Saddam, based on the notion that we rightly considered that he went hunting in Berkshire.


So, allow me to very temporarily occupy a moral vacuum (don’t panic, I’ll square it with the vicar next Sunday).

If I was a middle eastern tyrant with a civil war that wasn’t going my way, and a chemical arsenal at the end of a series of phonecalls, I’d probably be thinking this:

* The use of any socially unacceptable weapon is to cause a shift in the pattern of the fighting. Gas in WW1 was used to try and revive some mobility to the frontline (to make the cavalry useful again), to ruin the morale of the enemy (afterall, if they’re scared of gas they might decide to run away) and if used properly to kill more of them without having to leave the comfy concrete confines / muddy, rat infested confines (delete as applicable) of the trench to do so. The same is true now. Will it transform the battle space? Will it scare them (ie convince some to defect, dissuade others from joining, persuade supportive communities to change their minds)? Will it kill lots of them in a way not achievable at the moment? I don’t think it’s for me to fill in those blanks, even sat in my temporary moral vacuum.

* Furthermore, the use of socially unacceptable weapons is also dependent on the tricky judgement call of whether the person firing them is going to win. And that’s not really known before the command is given: it’s why the command might be given. So, you might – in the role of tyrannical leader – decide that you’ve seen Gaddafi sodomised with a rifle and then killed in a not terribly pleasant manner, and that even if you fire your nastiness upon the enemy it might a) not alter that outcome or b) you won’t get hanged for war crimes because the international criminal court is all a bit against capital punishment. The penalties for firing don’t appear to be much different to the penalties for not firing, bar some bad press in the history books.

* But but but, the international condemnation will be un-be-lie-va-ble. There will be strongly worded statements in the UN. IN THE UN, no less. I don’t mean to be rude about the UN or any other international organisation, but if you have a government who have been put in the pariah box for, what, 30-odd years at least (probably the whole of the 40 years), I’m not sure that a very notional telling off from the UN is really going to cut any mustard (gas or otherwise). Yes, there are two major state actors commonly seen to be propping up the Syrian government, and yes, the use of chemical weapons might well cause those countries to consider that this is nuisance has moved too high up the nuisance meter to be ignored. But a canny actor in that part of the world, with cross-cutting ethnic tensions that run regionally (rather than nationally) might decide that in all the, er, create tension that could be caused from a few well judged mischiefs that survivability was still possible.


My point is this: within the moral vacuum some truly unpalatable acts might look palatable. From within and outside the vacuum we could observe that the comparison with Iraq holds very little water: in terms of military capabilities, connectivity with the west and friends elsewhere, established patterns of regimes being overturned, of the number of imprisonments and deaths of previous regime leaders etc etc.

Outside, however, we can use the lesson of the vacuum to say one very clear thing: western policy makers are going to need to think radically beyond the hackneyed lines of ‘persuading the Russian and Chinese governments to do more’, or the thinking around Iraq, or sanctions, or strongly worded letters to The Times to prevent this kind of escalation. If I wasn’t so in love with the whole democracy thing, I’d ask why we didn’t just focus more on regional stability and leave considerations of western style human rights and democracy as awkward details for someone else to think about. Afterall, when I wrote that the Egyptians were about to drink a cup of sick in 2010, it was a different cup I was thinking of, but this one doesn’t contain orange juice either. The ‘democratic’ revolutions in the Middle East (broadly defined) are going to generate precisely no better a situation for western policy makers than those regimes that went before. Bastards-we-understood, have been replaced by bastards-we-don’t-have-a-clue-about and that doesn’t strike me as particularly sensible (and no, I can’t work out which side of the vacuum jar that comment comes from). Current Syria has never really been on our side, a new Syria is almost guaranteed not to be. We need to think in old-school terms about containment and stability, and less about the schadenfreude of giving someone a kick who we have thought of as a pain.

The instant retorts – if they come – will be about atrocities and human rights. These retorts are entirely correct. As a human being, I entirely agree and all the human stories are horrendous and tragedies in their own rights. They cannot be underplayed. It doesn’t appear that statesmen always have this human view.. and thus we should try and understand this as a means by which to dealing with it.


All in it together? The utility of universities to military, security and resilient activities

As you will already know, this is a minor hobby horse of mine, and I return to it here, partly as an act of public thinking (as in thinking in public, not a higher form of public intellectualism.. that would be a stretch for this time on a Monday morning and in general, really). For context, I write this whilst thinking about putting pen to paper for a more serious report on it, and I would welcome input from anyone here, or offline to my email address – click the link on the right. What I am particularly after is some blunt advice about how universities (not limited to war studies and related fields, but engineering, materials, maths, IT, design schools etc) can better engage with the defence community (widely defined)? Are there things we don’t do, that we could do, or things we should do that would drive a benefit? This ditty largely muses on university education and these wider concerns: it’s a starter for ten. My refined thoughts – which will be done and dusted by May 2013 I will make available here.

Intellectual drivers: 

As people of this parish know I was lucky enough to work at the Defence Studies Department for a while and indeed to convene the MA in Defence Studies for a time. At the time I felt this put me rather more in touch with the working lives of a transnational collective of mid-to-high ranking military folk than the contracted hours of my diary really allowed. I now look back with some fondness about that proximity, and particularly of the small group work we did on the MA course as a very high level exchange of views. I remember some of those people vividly, and given our discussions I’d warrant they might even remember me too. Crucially, for the purposes of this short scribble, it felt like that sort of work that would translate into an impact on someone’s working life (minor, perhaps, but an impact). In the civilian sector, we prepare young minds for the world of work, we provide a grounding of knowledge and the transferable skills to operate both academically and vocationally. The balance between that intellectual grounding and the vocational after is the subject of some increasingly noisy debates in the UK: for those interested in some of them, they should head to the newly formed Council for the Defence of British Universities.

So, one core of the business of universities is preparing minds that will engage internationally for the UK.

But is the balance in preparing them for the sake of the individual or for higher purposes such as competitiveness or national interest? The so-called ‘post-Browne era’ would provide one with the idea that the balance is for the individual, but the needs of the country (where are our innovators, are economic growth champions, our ‘want to do betters’?) would lead me to believe we need to think more seriously about providing a platform for individuals to succeed in a way that benefits core objectives of the nation. Put another way: we’re being thrashed off the park by our competitors and we seem to have sleep-walked or been duped into a situation where we cannot compete. For me, this is more a problem that sits with schools, than it does with universities. As any fool knows, the earlier in life you try to learn something the easier, the better, the higher the curve that can be experienced. Gove’s reforms of what – in Britain – we call state schools, but Americans call public schools, have been dismissed as an ideological dogma let loose. But, stuck on my soap box, and as a parent and a school governor, he is absolutely correct. I sit as a minority of one on my governing body in favour of academy status – not because I particularly enjoy radically changing stuff, but because it’s the only way to ensure improved performance and delivery of academic skills. By a circuitous route it is one way to improve literacy contact time from non-existent to reasonable (and still nowhere near at foundation stage the norm of 3 to 4 hours a week within fee paying schools): world beating innovators are not created by providing people with just enough reading skills to function basically at a shop. If given a free-hand, I would turn the local schools into a large ‘free school’, as a way of freeing up the school to focus on creating the sort of wealth creators that my part of the UK badly needs. But there is also a balance for universities to strike between individual enrichment (and the individual is paying more and more, the state in the first moment, but then the individual) and the interests of a competitive state with global interests and threats. Connection to security – a future pool of talent able to compete, a future pool of talent able to create and use competitive technologies, and to better understand the mix of cultures that will blend opportunity and threat.

I am grateful to the suggestion of my e-friend and colleague Robert David Steele, for his wisdom on education, and his firm belief that once we’ve taught youngsters the basics we should give them internet technologies for free and let them find their own routes to knowledge: this free-marketeering approach to open-source everything is as fascinating as it is paradigm breaking and uncomfortable as a result.


Read any copy of the Times Higher in any week and you’ll see that university finances are under stress. This is stress from a general economic contraction, and the knock-on this has with potential-student sentiment (and ability to pay?) and business investment in R&D. The THES produced some indicative data of where individual universities sit financially, and it’s clear that some of the non-research intensive universities are in for a very bad time indeed. There may be closures. Even with the well endowed research intensive universities there is extra pressure on money, and where this pressure exists a greater requirement to ‘get out there’ and make some connections. So, universities are offering a huge amount of supply as a part consequence of, and just at the time of a contraction in demand (well, budgets… I’m sure the desire for the right sort of engagement exists). They are also offering this supply as a contingent element of the  research assessment procedure – so double supply, dwindling demand. So, part of my first paragraph request for blunt views concerns a recalibration of this supply and demand relationship. The supply side knows that it needs to supply and is (mostly, save for a hardcore of those who’d rather be pure than employed) keen to supply it. It guesses at what it needs to supply, and hopes to God to find someone to demand.. The demand side doesn’t currently have much money and needs good value and strong results. Both need to be ‘smart customers’ and ‘smart consumers’, because otherwise we’re just wasting time and effort and not strengthening our core national interests.

So, finance is a key problem in higher education because without it we cannot do high end research, advance knowledge, nor teach future minds. But we also cannot carve out the areas of highly competitive activity that puts us at an advantage as UK Plc against our rivals. Should universities retain their position as a state-sponsored skunkworks, and what level of control is required for that to work?

There is a Keynesian argument for retaining universities as engines of local economic growth, and there are some very interesting statistics that I’ve seen on how that works (a relatively small university supports 3 non-university jobs in the local community for every one university job supported, for example). But instead of relying on a narrow economic Keynes, I would like us to find a scale of activity – in this case in securitized research – that we could put forward an adaptive Keynesian argument: ‘we are vital to the national interest’.

Network Centricity

Universities sit as knowledge hubs in a wider network of knowledge providers and creators. If there weren’t already universities they’d have to be invented for this purpose. It’s the fine nuance of the relationship – of how they perform these roles and tasks – that needs working out.

University staff also sit in these networks, with each other, with alumni in academic or non-academic jobs, and with practitioners. The same can be said of our alumni. The challenge is, therefore, how to make the best of the network. And by this I don’t mean some grand Facebook or Linkedin conundrum, although that might be part of the picture, but of how to make the best of these networks of learning and engagement to do something that fulfils the needs of organisations that do need to be conscious of a bottom-line, but which also serve a national function.

Universities are not the most important aspect – by a long stretch – of national security and resilience, but they are an important component in the machine. They partly supply the human and scientific resource for our military endeavours, and provide some of the global reach the country enjoys. But this cog in the machine undoubtedly needs some better definition, and some lubricating dialogue and form to actually serve the country properly. As I say, any thoughts more than welcome and any used will be acknowledged, if appropriate.



9/11: Eleven years on, is it time for our liberalism to be more, not less, muscular?

For my parents generation the epochal moment, the moment ‘that changed history’, was the assassination of Kennedy. And they can all tell you where they were when they heard the news.

For my generation, it is 9/11. The endless replaying of the aircraft tipping its wings as it flew its last fateful yards and the landmark towers collapsing cemented this as an atrocity that would endure in the mind. Many connected this event to Pearl Harbor, certainly in its character and intent. Pearl Harbor had little of the multi-media connectivity that 9/11 had (obviously) but the comparison is not as stupid as might be first thought: a rare attack on US soil, rather than US interests abroad; aggressive provocation by a group seeking a re-writing of the global order; bringing the US out to defend liberal values abroad. Historical comparisons like this are difficult because they always so closely nested to the context of the time they occurred in, but it works up to a point.

The intervening time has seen wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and note the RUSI report yesterday, fronted on Radio4 by Professor Farrell of this parish, that said the Taliban now regretted allowing AQ to reside in Afghanistan, something which had been hinted at for a while now) and a step-change in border control surveillance and the connection between the ordinary citizen and various intelligence agencies.  As has been noted ad nauseam, some of these developments we’d probably rather we didn’t know about, or didn’t happen at all. Rendition and torture (regardless of the definitional niceties played out by all sides) have attracted opprobrium and more relevantly have helped to radicalise more folk.

But the point of this post is rather simple actually, and I think gets lost in all the noise surrounding radicalisation, counter-radicalisation etc etc..

That point is that the west has a set of defensible ideals that it should not be ashamed to uphold vigorously, as it did sixty-six years ago: freedom of speech (including within limits, tolerance of marginal views and ways of life), freedom of association, freedom from state interference, all being equal the access to prosperity, and the ability to change the government.

It would be right to point out that the west needs to do some of its own housekeeping to uphold these values internally (and it clearly does  - for a wonderfully written and caustic view of our current political elites see link) but we should not get lost in the relativist backwaters of everyone’s inequality is fair enough. The west has asserted values that have improved the life experience of individuals for at least the post-war period, and brought relative prosperity for the majority of people living through it. Now that this prosperity has atrophied, it is time to reassert the values and conditions that underpinned it, and not to get sucked into lowering our standards to those of emergent nations.  President Bush was ridiculed when he called for a democratic revolution in the Middle East, but he proved to be surprisingly prophetic, as the early inklings of a democratically based revolution have occurred in that region. It is now time for the values the underpin the progressive success of the west in the post-war period to be the lasting legacy, the phoenix from the 9/11 ashes. It is time for the our liberalism to be more, not less muscular.


Assange, various governments and the cul-de-sac of misfired moves

Anyone approaching this subject must do so with some trepidation. Everyone involved in it appears to have got terribly excited. Getting terribly excited is bad for policy-making. Excited is the opposite of effective. This is why revolutionary governments tend towards the basket-of-frogs-with-party-hats-on zone reasonably quickly, or at least within forty years…

And the commentariat have also got excited. That’s within their remit (mostly) and bless them as being excited sells whatever deadtree press or online thing they write for. So, I’m going to go for the most sober line I think of. Because if you can’t write soberly on an academic blog that doesn’t have an income stream.. where can you?
So, we have Julian Assange holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in Kensington, and claiming asylum on the basis that he fears current and future persecution mostly from the Americans, but via the British and Swedish along the way. And the Ecuadorians agree with him.

He’s wanted for questioning on some (very unpleasant) allegations that seemed to flare up, go away, and then come back again. And whilst all of this is contested, the particular circumstances, timeline and dynamics involved in the Swedish legal machinations have led his supporters to strongly suggest that the allegations aren’t the real problem, it’s all just about getting Assange to America to face charges of assisting the enemy. His supporters say they have evidence, or certainly informed clues (but none of it publicly available), that American authorities are lining up to prosecute Assange and in extremis not just to take the oxygen of publicity away from him, but the oxygen of oxygen too. If that were true, it would make it very difficult to extradite Assange from Europe: the prevailing European laws prohibit extradition to countries that maintain the death penalty for the specified charges. But I haven’t seen any legal opinion yet (amongst the excitable commentary) as to whether the US could extradite him on spec charges of being of pain-in-the-rear and then feed the higher charges in afterwards. Once he was in the US, I assume this is possible and besides exactly which of the UK and Sweden would tell them that was naughty?
In going to the Ecuadorian embassy, Assange played on one of the oldest and firmest international traditions – the inviolability of an embassy. I don’t want to meander into excitable territory – I had a good breakfast, and I don’t want the dust unsettled – but this inviolability is the lubricant in the diplomatic machine. Not even head case governments’ troop into embassies to extract people they don’t like. Rarely even in wars. And a raft of former British ambassadors to ‘interesting’ places filled the airwaves yesterday saying their jobs would have been impossible if host countries thought it acceptable to raid embassies. If for no other reason, think of the intelligence problems of having host country security personnel crawling over an embassy, containing sensitive files, cryptography etc. It is actually beyond the pale. Which then raises the question of the relative value of Assange (I will return to the law in a minute) in diplomatic terms. Is one man with a website (albeit a highly embarrassing website if you happen to be a diplomat who has written cables in the last five years) worth overturning well established precedent and international law for? I’m not sure yanking even Pol-Pot from embassy is worth the upheaval of this precedent… not unless someone else can fund the enhanced security that would be needed at every single British embassy around the world. As much as I love my country, I realise that other misguided fools are not so keen. So, as to his relative value – well, for all the talk of upholding binding obligations (yes, true and fine) there is a sort of determination here that seems out of kilter with the norm. We held on to Pinochet like he was some kind of family member, and we don’t seem to be able to get rid of people labelled hate preachers no matter how hard we try. The excitable and non-excitable commentariat simply don’t know what the diplomatic value of Assange is because we’re not privy to the behind the scenes discussions.
The Ecuadorians have accused the British Foreign Office of threatening them. The FCO has replied that it was merely outlining the position as they saw it. The most likely scenario is that some well-meaning desk officer in Quito thought they’d gently lean on the Ecuadorians who – after all – are not known for being bastions of human rights and fair play (recent upheavals have been messy). And they thought the gentle lean would mean that Ecuador would see the correct path, and all would be over. Well, Assange would be in the news again, and a load of high profile backers would stumble over their tofu slippers to say what an outrage it all was, but ultimately all would be fine. But the Ecuadorians hadn’t read this script and had, what is termed in diplomatic circles, a hissy.


So, now the Ecuadorians cannot back down – not happily – or they’ll look like a small post-colonial state who tried to make a big point and then had to back down. And the British government cannot afford to back down or they’ll presumably get a clip round the ear from Uncle Sam, and also be pilloried from most sides. At the moment, they also look like they’ve have a collective hissy, which is the sort of excitable position that makes for bad policies…it’s very un-FCO.
And that leaves the Swedes.

And the Swedes, as they have in other situations, could interview potential suspects outside their territorial area. There are suggestions this has been offered to them. But the Swedes – with the European Arrest Warrant booklet in their pocket – have decided they want face time. And really it has come to the point – in layman’s terms – where they either need to poo or get off the pot (charge Assange or not). Because to do so – either via an interview in the UK or by video-link – would provide clarity. If charged there would be far fewer objections to him being extradited: only a very small minority could reasonably complain. If not-charged, and positively indicated that this was the end of that particular process, then the US could bring an extradition request to the UK (if they did that now, they’d sit behind the Swedes in the line). This would at least bring the issue to a neat head.

So, sorry Sweden, but it’s your turn to be pragmatic. And to start building Saabs again. Great cars, Saabs.. why did you ever let Saab go bust… Because no-one else is going to be pragmatic, and this is going to end up in one of the most voluntary diplomatic cock-ups of the modern era unless you are.


Having a free press involves allowing accredited people to say things that we don’t like within a legal framework (which sometimes includes a public interest defence) and to hold officials to account, and to be protected to do so. This is, after all, how Watergate broke and broke a Presidency. Legal systems are the means by which vengeance is put to one side and due processes and equity come to the fore. For my part, I don’t think that our common understanding of what journalism is has caught up with the internet revolution – and perhaps in time the settled position will be the traditional status quo. But these questions are important, not just with reference to Wikileaks and Assange, because it is precisely because these new media outlets are neither settled as one thing or another that their legal protection or ostracisation are so fluid and contested. What we can observe is that this particular form of the freemarket seems at distinct odds with any form of regulation: further friction seems guaranteed.


No longer trimming the fat.. more hacking out vital organs

Well, the East of Suez debate is finally resolved.

And the waving of the arms and the gnashing of the teeth about Blair’s doctrine of military interventionism? That’s probably history too, and not quite in the way we’d all have imagined, and a lot quicker to boot.

Still, we have a commitment to the nuclear deterrent, which is certainly very important when all the institutional, equipment and personnel rungs required to provide a ladder of escalation have been consecutively snapped… oh, wait.. that can’t be right? But, regardless, we’re still at the top table. Hoorah! It’s a great day for Britain.

Several quick points:

We need a new strategic articulation. Be it within a new NSS or something equivalent. This needs to be clearer about exactly what are our priorities, and why. That should have been the starting point, not that backfill after the armed forces were dragged through the abattoir.  Those involved in the Public Administration Select Committee have continually revisited this point in the press since October 2010.

General Sir Peter Wall made is clear in his announcement this week that the UK was now only capable of doing things in coalitions. That’s worthy of a new strategic articulation on its own. It has been true since the mid-1980s and it is considerably more true now. But it sounds like bad news for those islands in the South Atlantic to me.

The cuts to the army mean we could only be involved in Afghanistan OR Iraq. That’s not mid-sized military power stuff. That’s a serious diminution of the ability to project power and influence in both absolute terms (kinetic) but in soft-power terms.. why would the US (aside from intelligence liaison) be interested in the British view?

The new plans seem to be premised on the idea that personnel being made redundant will want to stay on as active reservists. There is some compulsion to remain a reservist now, but the plan to rely very heavily on the TA (to the tune of well over 25,000 men) will require a long-term step change in culture. As John Gearson, Jack McDonald and I suggested in our review of the Defence Estates last year there are ways of doing this, including by engaging private industry in ways that allow for some ‘sharing’ and ‘fluidity’ between industry and armed forces: essentially by creating a new compact.  My concerns would be that the lead-in time for this size of reserve force are long (leaving the UK exposed) and that there is unlikely to be sufficient good will amongst those who are wielding their redundancy notices to do so. (What consideration given to the support services required to help people coming out of the military with late coming PTSD or who find redundancy as traumatic as those in civvy street do?)

I do have a bee in my bonnet about the deterrent. Not because I have any peacenik sympathies, but because my reading of strategic studies suggests that mutually assured destruction only works if there is a ladder of escalation or everyone is sat on hair-triggers. So, it must surely be a sensible time to properly debate the wisdom of the deterrent as our conventional forces are shrinking into irrelevance.

Nearly two years on from the publication of the NSS and SDSR (and to continual howls of protest ever since) it really might be the time to revisit the first, and then – logically – the SDSR itself.

The fight between the Tories and Labour over the LIBOR scandal was raging in Parliament yesterday, it can only be a matter of time before the two parties turn their attentions on whose fault this defence debacle is .. the 2015 election (if it goes full term) promises to be an angst ridden affair.




Like clubbing seals: the case for Britain in Europe

It’s very difficult to love the EU. It does, after all, largely consist of foreigners.

Over there.

(I of course jest)

And whilst the Lisbon Treaty gave the European Parliament many more powers, to act like the US Congress, the general perception amongst those Europeans that the EU governs is that the central institutions are run by yet more foreigners, this time with higher level degrees, who have probably never stood for election, and who don’t much care for what the ordinary citizen thinks or wants.
I mean, imagine it. A leadership totally disconnected from the ordinary needs and wants of the citizens who, by dint of education or money have no understanding of being part of the wage earning masses, and who weren’t even elected by significant numbers of them… what a shower of poo that would be…
(I digress)

But whilst the EU project, and the golden handcuffs it has provided in the post-war period have contributed to the Germans no longer wanting to highlighting the weaknesses in other nations military defences, various previously uppity nations having a go at democracy, and the unprecedented free movement of peoples, goods and services and – even with the current omnishambles of an economic crisis – prosperity.. Euromania has hit the UK again.

And we just can’t help ourselves.

You, see if I was Prime Minister, facing the significant local difficulties of the Leveson inquiry (which I have LOL’d at.. or did I love it, I can never remember which is which), and a proportion of my donor base have the sort of tax arrangements that transformed Jimmy Carr from smug faced deliverer of caustic one liners, to smug faced deliverer of not-so-cheap-gags, as it turned out, my own class background, and how that was funded keeps being poked at in the press, and my Chancellor doing so many policy u-turns, he needed to drop the tax increase on petrol (gas) to be able to afford to keep u-turning so we didn’t have to… I’d probably press the Euro-nutter button too. It’s the easiest button in the political lexicon to press. Right after, the ‘sponging-undeserving-poor’ button. Nothing like responding to stories in the press about multi-millionaires only paying the equivalent of 1% income tax with a policy initiatives aimed at taking a few quid off some poor people. And before there are howls, those who are healthy, and yet make a living sitting at home soaking up my taxes for no readily good reason get on my thru’penny bits too.

But more digressions.

We probably shouldn’t mention that it was a Tory Prime Minister who campaigned so hard to get the UK into the EU (EEC) in the first place (Heath), nor one who oversaw and signed up to the largest extension of its powers in the 1980s (Thatcher). This only upsets people. Thatcher saw the light. When she was about to leave office. But the important point is that these people, and the bulk of right thinking centrists, and centre-right folk supported entry into and continued membership of the union because of the following inalienable truths:

The EU isn’t just a useful addition for British business, it is British business. 70% of exports, in fact.
The European trading area makes Britain more prosperous. It delays the nasty day when we’re no longer Great Britain, are just Britain instead..
The European trading area has made every man, woman and child in Britain more prosperous than they otherwise would be.
It has made every working man and woman, safer in the workplace, and less overworked too.
It has systematically raised the safety standards of consumer goods, and other consumables.
It has provided a fairer trading platform for British businesses to compete in.
For those who are interested enough, it has provided unparalleled and funded opportunities for students to spend time in universities and schools across Europe, and made it possible to create a European community of peoples unkeen to start killing each other again.

The success of the EU also reflected another truth. One not keenly understood here, for historic reasons, which is that there are very, very few countries on the planet able to make a successful, secure and prosperous go of being unitary actors. All countries below the superpower threshold are better in clubs of like-minded, or like-attributed other nations. Britain retains its place in the world because it’s a member of the EU (and a big player) not despite of it.

So, when I read in my e-version of the current bun that the Prime Minister is thinking of tying in the EU referendum with the General Election, my heart sank at the potential political opportunism. A government in crisis, and one which is unlikely to secure a second term, has unlocked the safe, got out the code book and is considering pressing the Euronutter button properly. A government which hasn’t effectively replaced the EU with another equally prosperous trading relationship, will be sailing the country down the river named decline.

So, whether you think the EU project is a bad one, or a doomed one, or one that just isn’t elected enough.. even if you think all of those things, the question is not about the EU. It’s about Britain, and whether Britain wants to retain the opportunity to be prosperous or not. We cannot leave the EU and become a grand-scale version of Jersey.. by some estimates over half the indigenous population there are on benefits, and the gap between rich and poor is beyond yawning. And for me, as someone who studies and lectures on security, we – the plucky British – are beyond independent solutions now, we rely on intergovernmental solutions like NATO. The same is true in trading and business, even if we don’t yet fully realise it. When we do, we’ll stop mucking about with Euro-referendums and instead engage properly and run the place.

Now, that would be worth voting for.