War, Peace, and Power

By Julian Lindley-French

“What is the cause of historical events? Power. What is power? Power is the sum total of wills transferred to one person. On what condition are the will of the masses transferred to one person? On condition that the person express the will of the whole people. That is, power is power. That is, power is a word the meaning of which we do not understand.”

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Abstract: War is a very, very, very, bad thing. One can, of course, prevent war by capitulating but given the nature of a regime like Putin’s that is close to being as bad as war itself. The alternative is to force the ‘other’ to avoid war. That can only happen if deterrence is credible which in turn needs coercive power in all its form and a demonstrable willingness to convince the threat that such power will be used irrespective of the risk.  Deterrence is a ‘contract’ between friend and enemy that to work both sides must believe.  Right now, Putin, Xi and others simply do not believe most Europeans mean what they say.  However, strong NATO’s ‘family of plans’ at the end of the day there are two critical failings in Western deterrence: endemic short-termism allied to the hard truth that Putin wants to wipe Ukraine of the face of the European map far more than many Western leaders want to defend it by giving Kyiv NATO membership.

Hope over experience?

How do democracies deal with autocratic regimes for which war is an end in itself? It is perhaps no surprise that it was a Russian, Leon Trotsky, who said, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you”. The war in Ukraine is the most dangerous single event to have taken place in Europe since World War Two and yet I am increasingly bemused by the wishful thinking of Western leaders.  Despite all of history’s eloquence, misplaced hope seems once again to be triumphing over bitter experience.  A proper understanding of just how dangerous this war in Europe is would see a plan in place to end it on terms favourable to Ukraine and the West. There is no such plan. Just a vague hope the inadequately supported Ukrainian counter-offensive will prevail and then see…

Peace and war?  From my experience there are three kinds of politicians all of whom are by and large hard power illiterates.  The first group is made up of idealists who go into politics to realise the ‘Europe’ or whatever Utopian dream they have.  Members of this group love the sound of their own voices which generate far more heat than light.  They fail. The second group is political psychotics who are in politics for themselves but brilliant at pretending they are not. This group avoids any issue from which they cannot personally profit and tend to have far more ambition than either talent or principle. The third group is full of managers who lack both political vision and strategic ambition.  These are the ‘short termers’ who see politics as little more than an extension of this week’s bureaucratic struggle and country’s as little more than health services with a state attached.

All the above are abetted but rarely aided by high bureaucrats who prefer power without accountability and disparage the Great Unwashed because they are far more highly qualified than the average citizen even if they are far less qualified than me. Versed in cutting the shoddy day to day deals that is the stuff of contemporary European politics.  It is these people we charge with crafting consistent strategy and conducting statecraft across soft and hard power in pursuit of grand strategic ends they simply do not understand.  Their very nature makes it impossible to see the viewpoint of the ‘other’ or ask the most important questions. What matters to them is to appear to us that they know what they are doing.  In peacetime such a charade is not so important, at times of war and peace it is.   

Tipping points and bullet points

The problem is that the geopolitical implications of the Russo-Ukraine War are enormous, but most Western leaders, particularly in Europe, are geopolitical pygmies simply unable to understand the dangerous situation into which they have led the democracies. All the above is evident at this tipping point in the European epoch-defining Russo-Ukraine War, although one would be hard pressed to realise that from the contemporary political discourse in Western Europe. First, Western European leaders only see power in terms of self and the short-term. The Russo-Ukraine War is part of a wider systemic struggle that is not unlike the interbellum between World War One and Two. Whilst the war in Ukraine could lead to World War Three the way we democrats conceive of both needs to stand alone and interact.  One the one hand, a concerted response (yet to happen) to the war needs different approaches, solutions, and planning.  Equally, it is that very response will shape what happens after the Russo-Ukraine War and much of the geopolitics of the twenty-first century.

We also need to separate Russia and Putin, at least to some extent and at least for now.  This is because there is little worth discussing with Putin given that the very reason for his war on Ukraine is his warped worldview and his screwing up of Russia and its economy.  There are a whole host of back-channel contacts between the West and the Putin regime to end the war and they all founder on the same rock: Whilst one day the West will need to find an accommodation with Russia if for no other reason than it is there, any such accommodation must be subject to its management.  There can be no such accommodation with the current management because war is the very ethos of a militaristic Kremlin that NEEDS war and a narrative ’empire’ to justify its failing domestic power.  Having failed to grasp the opportunity for modernisation in the 1990s Putin and his cronies can only now double down on a fantastical past.

If one concludes that the West is involved in two ‘wars’ at the same time even if its leaders are in denial about it that begs a series of further questions. First, what is the balance those of us backing Ukraine must strike between enabling Ukraine to achieve its legitimate war aims (which Ukrainians agree on but which the rest of us do not) AND defending ourselves against the developing pan-spectrum of information, digital, technology, and fighting war? Second, and even more importantly, what are the criteria for making such an assessment?  Third, how can we in the West plan to prevent such wars when the very reason many in the West are supporting Ukraine is so that we can continue to deny we are at war?  Ukrainians fighting the war that our leaders prefer not to think about.

The incapable in pursuit of the indefensible?

The essential dilemma is thus: what actions would end the war equitably without the West fighting Russia and prevent future war without bankrupting the West.  It is precisely for such challenges that statecraft exists. Statecraft is the judicious and considered application of power over time and space and in all forms.  It is not science; it is art, and it is precisely what the West needs today.  Our leaders, as ever, have focussed on an entirely different question: what can we agree on?  In other words, the focus of statecraft has been on cohesion rather than effect even if the preservation of such cohesion comes at the expense of desired effect. The gap between the two is about as wide as the River Dnieper at its widest. Closing that gap will, as ever, rely first and foremost on what an increasingly irresolute and capricious US first decides what it is ‘we’ want. The rest of us? We have become the incapable in pursuit of the indefensible using our own self-willed weakness as an alibi for the very failure we claim to lament.

The Russo-Ukraine War has revealed the dangerous split in the West between two groups.  Those in power across much of Western Europe in particular who cling to the false belief that the ‘old’ European security order must be rescued, and that this Russia can still be accommodated within it.  They see such ‘strategy’ as the rational consequence of managing decline rather than delaying oblivion. The other group, of which I am a member, comprises those of us who believe the very purpose of Russia’s aggression is to bring a wrecking ball to the entire institutional structure underpinning peace and order in Europe. They wish to return Europe to the anarchy that is a balance of power.  It was the Europe of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Stalin, and Hitler.  It is also the Europe of Putin.  

So, what does Putin want? Putin has a deranged vision of Mother Russia which in his mind is full of the romantic but dangerous nationalism Tolstoy wrote.  It is a vision underpinned by a warped sense of glory built on a mythical past that never happened.  The contrast with many Western leaders is striking.  Several of them seem not to like their countries, are ashamed of them, or simply believe them to be doomed and thus all that can be done is to manage their decline. The one thing both Putin and such Western political and bureaucratic elites can agree upon is the vital need to ignore the views of the frightful irrational people they rule over. Rationality is the great gate keeper to power in European democracies, but it is defined by the economists and lawyers who dominate European governments in particular. Economists are incapable of understanding why human beings do things, whilst lawyers simply believe law is power. It is not. Neither economists nor lawyers understand the power of geopolitics. One reason for the mess Britain is in is the naiveté of economists and their misplaced belief that globalisation would ensure peace.  The only thing that it ensured was Chinese enrichment at the expense of the West, and London’s kowtowing to Beijing given China’s hold over many of Britain’s institutions.

War, Peace, Power…and Risk

Consequently, there is a dangerous flaw at the heart of the entire Ukraine-enabling ‘Western’ strategy – Western leaders do not believe Ukraine can win.  For that reason what passes for ‘strategy’ is not linked to any form of applied statecraft.  Much of this is due to the utter risk aversion of a pacifistic decadent elite cowed by their failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. Putin is a product of Western pacifism and failure and only possible because these same leaders now believe they can take no action that involves risk.  Most strategy and all action involve risk for without it there is not the slightest chance of realising aims for which ‘strategy’ or rather change is ‘designed’. Statecraft is about the effective management of strategy, actions and risk over time and space in such a way that one’s interests are realised without undue cost.  For statecraft to succeed there must first be a clear understanding about the desired goal. What is now clear is that a new European security order will be needed, and that ‘we’ in the West will at some point need to impose it and manage it. Only then can we in the West pose THE war and peace question Moscow too must sooner or later confront: does Russia wish to be part of Europe, distinct from it, or a danger to it?  If Putin does indeed want to play the role of strategic hooligan, he must be made to understand there can be no conceivable action or risk the Kremlin could take from which Russia or the Kremlin could possibly benefit.

In essence, what these leaders are doing is purposely but dangerously de-linking the war in Ukraine from the wider war even if a Ukrainian defeat would not only make the wider war more likely but also hasten it. The reason they are doing this is because they still lack a firm understanding of the consequences of a Ukrainian defeat.  This in turn reveals a profoundly dangerous managerial approach to geopolitics bereft of the very thing that defines it – hard military power!

It is true that Western leaders are not interested in war, but war is already taking an ever-closer interest in them, their people, and their countries.

Julian Lindley-French

Photo Credit: Sunguk Kim on Unsplash