The Annual TAG Report: Elephants and Swans

Elephants and Swans

The Annual TAG Report


A Personal Review by Professor Dr Julian Lindley-French, Chair of The Alphen Group

15 January, 2021


This TAG Annual Report is my personal take on the Group’s activity in 2020 and my reflection on the outstanding analysis offered by its members over the past year. Perhaps the dominant theme in both our PREMIUM blogs and the virtual ZOOM conferences we held was the search for priorities in uncertainty and the urgent need to better understand the balance of risk faced by Americans, Canadians and Europeans. COVID-19 dominated news and lives in 2020 but the pandemic also accelerated systemic change with China possibly a clear ‘winner’ with all the profound strategic implications such a ‘victory’ would entail. However, China is not quite yet and enemy and some hope still possibly a partner. Given that the nature of the threat China poses, and indeed the opportunities it could afford COVID-19 ravaged economies remains unclear and it is that uncertainty over China that is doing as much to divide the West as any overt act of coercion by Beijing. What price are Europeans in particular willing to pay for partnership with China what price would the transatlantic relationship pay for it?  What of the West itself? During the final tumultuous months of the Trump administration some Europeans even seemed to be playing with the prospect of diminished Atlanticism with calls for European ‘strategic autonomy’ one moment offering to strengthen the transatlantic community, the next moment threatening to replace it. Implicit in all these debates was the search for a renewed sense of strategic purpose. This raised another question: will Germany ever be able to lead Europe? 

2020 was also a year of expansion for the TAG and I had the honour to welcome to our fold Professor Yves Boyer (France), General (Retd) Sir James Everard (United Kingdom), Admiral (Retd) Giampaolo di Paola (Italy), Professor Zaneta Ozolina (Latvia), General (Retd) the Lord Richards of Hurstmonceux (United Kingdom), Professor Sten Rynning (Denmark), Paul Schulte (United Kingdom) and Colin Robertson (Canada) and Ambassador Alexander Vershbow (United States). It is great to have you all on board.

Swans and elephants

During one of our virtual ZOOM conferences one TAGGER suggested that, “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.”  I agree.  Black Elephants are indeed a major risk to the Euro-Atlantic community and the wider security and defence of Europe. However, it is black swans which could prove the most deadly.   

Judy Dempsey in her TAG blog “Multilateralism Buckles Under Corona” spelt out the consequences of both elephants and swans. The post-1945 order was in bad shape, she said, even before the Coronavirus swept across the globe. “In the midst of the pandemic, it is barely surviving with few prospects of being revived”.  Holger Mey in his TAG blog “Dealing with Risks” offered an insight as to why. Those who were surprised by the outbreak and world-wide spread of COVID-19, Holger suggested, had either no understanding of biology or history or both.  Everything that happened was foreseeable and foreseen as well as predictable and, indeed, had been predicted. In April, another TAG v-Conference went further. “COVID-19 should have been predicted. The response to it will dominate the political and strategic agenda on both sides of Atlantic for the foreseeable future”. 

It was striking the extent to which TAGGERS also believed that the pandemic has accelerated strategic trends already in play.  The TAG believes not only that strategic competition with China will increase in 2021 but that distracted Western policymakers will remain too reactive and too slow to respond. The Group was scathing in its assessment: “The West has naively connived in its own vulnerability and must now seek a more balanced relationship with China”. The sense was that lazy assumptions about the benefits of globalisation far from promoting mutually beneficial interdependence could lead to a distinctly unhealthy form of dependence on the no longer so Middle Kingdom. And, whilst “Globalisation will not end but rather slow down a process of re-regionalisation is also likely to ensue”.////  The TAG also called for “a full and dispassionate assessment of COVID-19 crisis management”. This is because far from being a crisis of globalism, COVID 19 is rather the first global crisis of twenty-first century nationalism” and that only a properly considered “functionalist response will counter nationalism”.

Strategy, action and leadership

Germany epitomises and exemplifies the difficulties Europeans have not only in dealing with risk but also confronting it by establishing and implementing the necessary strategies. The dilemmas implicit therein also beg a further question: who is to lead?

Anna Wieslander suggested Germany should lead the way towards a truly European Pillar in NATO. Anna said that a “European pillar in NATO” is an old idea whose time has come. Rather than pursuing more confusing debates on “strategic autonomy”, “European Army” and “European Defense Union”, concepts that makes little sense to many, the 21 states that are members of both NATO and the EU should focus on defining and developing the European pillar in NATO”. However, “…the responsibility falls on Germany, who is well suited as the traditional unifier in the EU and with a defense which is mostly integrated into NATO”. 

Alexandra Schwarzkopf agreed, but had no illusions about the domestic challenges to a strengthened German leadership role. In “Making Security a “Kitchen Table Topic” in Germany” Alex was clear: “Seventy-five years after the end of World War Two, Germany is a major economic and democratic power. I think it is time for us to assume more responsibility worldwide.  And especially given our past, we should vigorously contribute to the defense of our allies and the democratic world order to which post-War Germany owes so much”. However, “To do this we need a societal debate – a kind of citizens’ forums – about German foreign and security policy as part of a broader debate about its strategic role in the world of the 21st century. The most populous and biggest economic power in the EU cannot be a bigger version of Switzerland. Germany’s “strategic beauty sleep” must end”. Most TAGGERS would echo such sentiment. Neither Europe nor Germany can be a bystander to the history that is to be made this coming decade.  

The effective management of risk pre-supposes a firm grip of such risk and the policy priorities which flow thereafter. At the core of understanding is information. Canadian TAGGER Colin Robertson highlighted the extent to which black swans and elephants are compounded by the role of fake news in sowing confusion and discord. Colin was clear: “Disinformation is a clear and present danger to liberty and representative government. Technology, especially artificial intelligence, have amplified its threat.  The liberal democracies need to get their acts together. This means investing in science, restoring civics to the curriculum, teaching critical thinking, relentlessly exposing and penalizing the sources of disinformation. Having failed the test of self-regulation, social media must be held accountable through government regulations and enforcement. Governments need to be more forthcoming with the public. Transparency is the best disinfectant for disinformation”. 

Change and strategy

Change, of course, has profound consequences for order and structure. An enduring theme throughout the 2020 was the impact of such change on institutions and their respective members and the importance of considered strategy to ease the crises of ends, ways and means from which the EU. NATO and the nations are grappling.  The TAG is first and foremost a policy network and made two formal submissions. The first was in support of the Secretary-General’s NATO Reflection Group and the second the UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. 

The TAG submission to the NATO Reflection Group did not pull its punches about the need for a new NATO Strategic Concept reflective of the need for Europeans to do far more for their own security and defence. “NATO is ultimately a European institution for the benefit of Europeans. The NATO Reflection Group can do the Alliance a great service if, like Harmel, it confronts NATO’s hard realities. If not, it is simply another exercise in political self-deception in which political cohesion is given more importance than credible defence and deterrence.  The hardest of those realities is thus: for the transatlantic relationship to continue to function, and NATO with it, Europeans will need to do far more for their own defence, and become better able to support the Americans when they so choose.  Given the investments such an outcome will entail European leaders will also need to better protect and inform their people and make both them and the critical systems that support them far more resilient in the face of Russian coercion and terrorism”.

Such firmness and clarity over strategy was also apparent in the TAG submission to the UK Integrated Review. In spite of budgetary pressures from Brexit and COVID-19 Britain must maintain its highly-skilled, high-end armed forces and seek to reinforce the security and defence of Northern Europe, the Arctic and the Eastern Atlantic. Consequently, IR 2020 must strike a balance between cost and threat and afford a vision of Britain’s future role and its defence out to 2030. However, there was also a call for innovative thinking. As the TAG stated, “The pooling of several departmental budgets could promote greater efficiency and effectiveness in pursuit of National Strategic Objectives, but only if the ends, ways and means crisis from which UK Armed Forces (UKAF) suffer is also addressed”. 

TAGGER Paul Cornish took up the theme of strategy in his TAG blog, “Tanks for the Memory”. As Paul said, “The fate of the MBT [main battle tank], and any other military capability, should be decided neither by quasi-historical projections, nor techno-fetishism, nor cost – but by strategy. Strategy is an attempt to engage with a future that is not merely uncertain, but fundamentally unknowable. But it must nevertheless be engaged with – decisions must be made in the present for the strategic posture of the future. It’s at this point that cash-conscious governments like to tell themselves (and the rest of us) that perhaps the future is less unknowable than is supposed, that they have the singular skill of peering into the future and finding, when they do, that the future is, uncannily, not too worrying and can, most conveniently, be managed on an even more limited budget or with some technological ‘fix’. Fine – but I’d prefer a MBT to a crystal ball any day”.

Coping with the unexpected

Naturally, one does not craft strategy in a vacuum and others make strategy too. The consequences of such contest are not always linear and the capacity to cope with the unexpected is the flip side of strategy and can best be summed up in one word: resilience.  

TAGGER Kate Hansen Bundt in her blog “Biden and the High North” highlighted the growing importance of China as an Arctic power. She called on President-elect Joe Biden and his team not to take their eye off the Arctic ball. China is not just challenging the US in the Deep South (of the world) and the Far East but also in the High North.  Kate reminded us of the importance of multilateralism to small Nordic powers such as her native Norway. She also reminded us of the geopolitics fast unfolding above the Arctic Circle and increasing threat posed by China’s icebreakers and Russia’s nuclear submarines in Norwegian waters, which are seven times larger than Norway’s territory.

The unexpected can also have geopolitical consequences. That was the essential message from a TAG debate on the geopolitical and defence-strategic implications of the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh. In 2021 there are no small countries far away about which we (need) to know little. The brief but brutal war in Nagorno-Karabakh saw identity, religion, nationalism, geopolitics and military technology combine. As such, it merged and masked the hitherto neat policy and strategy prescriptions the West prefers between wars amongst the people and state on state conflict and suggests escalation from one to the other could be far faster than expected. In a sense the war also reminded us that strategy is far more than words of paper. It calls for far more indicators to warn us of threat, a much greater Western understanding of the nature of threat, and far quicker responses both political and military in dealing with threat. Above all, it also reinforced the vital need for the means and the ways to undertake such a response. The war also revealed the extent to which the strategic competition underway also highlights the importance of dealing with risks and thus the willingness (or not) of major powers to take risk.  

The Chinese elephant and the American swan? 

Talking of elephants China was ever-present in TAG debates during 2020.  The TAG view was that China wants a foot in all regions of importance to Beijing with Europe high on the agenda.  In many respects the fault-lines in the TAG over China reflect those within the wider West. Some TAGGERS believe the West should seek what one called “managed reciprocity via robust engagement with China” whilst others were committed to active more containment and overt strategic competition.  Put simply, TAGGERS are unsure what to do about the Chinese elephant.  However, there was broad agreement that both Americans and Europeans must now demonstrate a shared willingness to confront the hard security choices implicit in China’s rise. 

Any such engagement will require renewed and reinvigorated American leadership given, as most TAGGERS believe, the “mother of all challenges” will remain geopolitics demanding the positive engagement of the United States in international affairs. It is hoped that under President Biden the transatlantic relationship will become more predictable, be more of a partnership and thus better able to exert “shaping power” on the world beyond.  However, business as before is unlikely to be an option for Americans, Canadians or Europeans.  COVID-19 will continue to demand Allies on both sides of the Atlantic focus on domestic matters with the available political bandwidth for foreign and security policy decidedly limited. And yes, whilst the Biden administration could well be more “decent” and better aligned than the Trump administration with European values and the ideology of multilateralism, Washington will still demand Europeans do far more for their own defence. This not just because China’s rise is stretching US forces and resources thin the world over but also because America’s internal divisions will be Washington’s main preoccupation. Like European mariners of old maybe it really is time for Europe to finally set a strategic course with a new Strategic Compass. 

Perhaps the final word should go to TAGGER Stan Sloan. In his TAG blog “(Some Worrying) Transatlantic Security Options” Stan suggested, or rather implied a choice between substantial continuity, positive radical change or negative radical change.  With that in mind I am reminded of what was said of the French fashion designer Pierre Cardin, who died in 2020. Cardin was always one step ahead of tomorrow. The danger is that Europe in particular is not one but two steps behind tomorrow. The task of The Alphen Group is show how all of us can quicken our strategic pace. We will need to! The first step? As one TAGGER memorably put it, “The European pillow must become the European pillar”. Amen to that!


Alphen, the Netherlands

January 2021