Grvan Walshe: Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan may not be a strategic mistake, but it is a moral disaster.

22 Jul

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.

“Anyone who is not a socialist at twenty has no heart. Anyone who is still a socialist at forty has no mind” goes the famous line bet attributed to the French foreign minister Aristide Briand, famous for the naive Kellog-Briand Pact, which outlawed war as an instrument of policy in 1928.

Socialism, like the Kellog-Briand pact, could not survive the enounter with human nature. My own youthful optimism that, after 9/11, it would have been possible through foreign interevention to build stable and peaceable political institutions in Afghanistan, has turned out to be equally wrong. Twenty years later the United States is withdrawing its forces, and the Taliban are making considerable ground. Members of the Afghan security forces are being murdered with extra brutality, pour encourager les autres. Girls’ schools are being shut down. Iran and Russia are weighing up a return to the quagmire.

Three expanations are commonly given for this failure, and the ways in which they fall short provide a clue about the real source of the mistake. The first is that Afghans are somehow not cut out for stable politics (let alone democratic government). Yet they have voted in their millions, served the country’s new institutions, and 45,000 have given their lives fighting for its survival.

The second is that building stable institutions abroad, through missions that involve military force, is impossible. That was clearly not true in Western Europe, Asia and Greece after World War II. Perhaps more relevant are the examples of Bosnia and Kosovo, though neither has had to deal with the length of civil war that Afghanistan had suffered even by 2001, and Central America.

The third has to do with the quality of the Afghan government as dismissed for example by American international relations academics. Yet Afghanistan’s current president, Ashraf Ghani, is no incompetent in the style of South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem. He has thought deeply about state building, and written, with Clare Lockhart how to go about it.

Yet these criticisms, which at at best scratch the surface, and at worst descend into racist dismissals of the Afghanistan and its people, contain a clue to the most serious mistake we have made, which was to misunderstand the advice of British counterinsurgency veteran Gerald Templer. Templer is famous for exhorting state-builders to win over the hearts and minds of the people, but his meaning has been forgotten. Templer emphasised a distinction between hearts (the appeal to loyalty and values), and minds, by which he meant rational self-interest.

The successful construction of state authority is first a matter of transforming a country’s power structures so that the state’s institutions are able to coerce their enemies into obeying it, and then the development of a political culture inimical to the emergence new generations of internal foes. Its relation to successful governance is, sadly, less direct than we would wish. Good governance helps win both hearts and minds, but it follows from state authority and is awfully difficult to achieve without it.

It is wiser to think of a political culture as a tree that needs decades to grow than as a set of measures that can simply be implemented in a society. Until it grows strong enough to stand on its own it needs to be supported by raw power. This boils down the sustained coercion of enemies and incentives for people to become its friends and overcome the extremely strong motivation (read: bribes and threats to kill) to oppose them.

The crucial word here is sustained. As much as a foreign power may want to protect its allies and deter its enemies, it has to be willing to do so, reliably, for a long time.

Because though the West has been in Afghanistan for two decades, it proved unable to carry out to a state building plan. Separating the reconstruction of Afghanistan from the mission to destroy Al Qaeda and capture Osama bin Laden meant the anti-terrorist mission, always the more immediate priority, interfered with rebuilding. By invading Iraq, the US took on too much, severely weakened its moral and practical standing, and fundamentally weakened the relationship with Pakistan. Obama’s precipitate withdrawal from Iraq, and Trump’s abandoning of American allies in Syria reinforced the temporary nature of the American commitment.

The Taliban, in contrast, need only remind Afghans “America may be strong, and rich, but Americans come and go. We’ll be here for ever.” to win over their minds, even as their destruction of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, hostility to girls’ education, and bloodthirsty violence repels their hearts.

Biden’s withdrawal, like Nixon’s from Vietnam, may not turn out to be the security disaster many of us fear. Even if the Afghan government falls, our intelligence services are far more focused on Islamist terrorism than they used to be. It may be possible to reach an understanding with the Taliban where they will be left alone to brutalise their subjects, provided they don’t shelter groups threatening Western security. Yet even if, as the Americans did with the South Vietnamese, or indeed we did with the Ugandan Asians, we make it feasible for the people we have abandoned to Taliban revenge to begin new lives here in exile, it will have been a moral disaster.

Garvan Walshe: Orbán, Le Pen, Morawiecki. Europe’s new national populist alliance is a sign of weakness, not strength.

8 Jul

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy adviser to the Conservative Party.

Spin doctors for Marine Le Pen made a rather breathless announcement of a “rassemblement de patriotes”. Viktor Orbán’s followed suit . There is both more, and less, to this alliance than meets the eye.

More, in that it is part of a long-running effort. See this from Le Pen in 2014, or another announcement this April Fool’s day, by Orbán and Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s Prime Minister.

Less, in that this particular declaration falls far short of a full European political alliance, and relates only to the Conference on the Future of Europe, which, after a year of the Covid pandemic, has begun debating changes to the EU’s institutions.

Unlike British Eurosceptics, who were wound up by waste and fraud in European financial institutions, the parties signing this declaration are rather more exercised by attempts, such as the European Public Prosecutor, to uncover and punish the abuse of taxpayers’ money. It is I’m sure a coincidence that Orbán’s father’s agribusiness is doing so well that he can afford to build himself an enormous country house, dubbed “Putin’s Palace” by Hungarian wags.

Putin himself is relevant to one of the alliance’s other aims: keeping national vetoes on EU foreign policy. Their presence has allowed Russia and China to delay and even block sanctions against them and their allies, such as Belarus’s Alexandr Lukashenko, while Le Pen’s own party put itself $11 million in debt from a Russian bank.

A third piece of the puzzle is their opposition, in the name of sovereignty, to the EU’s rather delayed efforts to protect the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary in Poland and Hungary.

A recent spat over a Section–28 style law in Hungary and “LGBT free zones” in Poland has stiffened the EU’s resolve, with Mark Rutte, Holland’s Prime Minister, hinting that Warsaw and Budapest might do better to avail themselves of Article 50 if they have a problem with the supremacy of European law built into the EU’s governing treaties.

But the danger of Huxit or Polexit is rather exaggerated. This is not so much an alliance of patriotes, as for the capture and diversion of EU funds.

Moreover, the national populists’ protector in the White House has gone, replaced by a man who considers Putin a “killer” and the restoration of liberal democracy a central part of his foreign policy.

Their domestic position is also rather less steady. Marine Le Pen’s party failed to impress in France’s regional elections. Law and Justice is on course to lose the next Polish vote, following the emergence of a new moderate-conservative Polska 2050 party. Even Orbán is behind an opposition alliance in the polls, with an election due next year.

This vulnerability is probably behind the anti-gay culture war, which is proving at best a damp squib domestically, and a strategic error at a European level. Hungary (and to a lesser extent Poland) have operated a bargain with Austria and Germany, whereby they gave Austrian and German manufacturing firms good conditions close to Western Europe’s old border, and in exchange Germany, in particular, has overlooked corruption and the dismantling of democratic institutions.

This had caused grumbling in the rest of the EU, but not, until now, much political will to address it. Whereas on migration Orbán and Law and Justice were able to count on sympathy from significant portions of the European public, on gay rights they cannot. Instead of dividing Western Europeans, this culture war unites them.

Second, the creation of a common post-Covid recovery fund, under which Poland and Hungary stand to benefit significantly, changes the calculus. Europeans don’t mind helping each other out of the Covid mess, but are asking: why should we pay for these bigots? Furthermore, the Commission this week demanded revisions to Hungary’s plan to spend the recovery fund, because of weak anti-corruption safeguards.

Weakening at home and friendless abroad, the populist alliance finds itself on the back foot. The five pro-integration political groups are pushing for democratic reforms: from making the Commission answerable to the parliament, extending voting rights in national elections to all Europeans, giving elected institutions more power over EU taxpayers’ money, and the EU more power over areas such as foreign policy and the rule of law. The national populists can dilute these proposals but, unless they can win national power in a large member state like France or Italy, they stand little chance of stopping them altogether.

The proposals that emerge will not be to the liking of Warsaw and Budapest (or traditionally Eurosceptic capitals like Copenhagen). Nevertheless there is impetus to go beyond the Lisbon Treaty in the name of “European sovereignty”, but also to ensure oversight of the new common European debt. Here the old dilemma between widening and deepening Europe reemerges.

Countries in the west, led by France, (a partially-accurate shorthand, because the Baltic states would also be keen) prefer to deepen, and would not mind if a sufficiently large coalition went ahead to build new structures into which the laggards could later be incorporated.

In central Europe, however, there is a strong stategic as well as economic interest in keeping the Eastern and Western halves of the continent together: that’s why Germany has so far been reluctant to meet Hungarian and Polish provocation head on, and is wary of a “multi-speed” Europe. But France also knows that a deepening project without Germany would not be viable, so some sort of compromise needs to be made.

The effect of the national populist alliance, paradoxically, is to define the minimum of what the new Franco-German compromise must contain: end of foreign policy vetoes, democratic oversight of funds, and effective mechanisms for protecting the rule of law and guarding against state capture. Their gay rights culture war risks giving Western Europe the political will to enact it.

Garvan Walshe: Iran’s new President will be a headache for the West – and a nightmare for Iranians themselves

24 Jun

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party

Ever since the Iranian revolution in 1979 was monopolised by Islamists, Iranians’ democratic aspirations have been crushed under theocratic dogma. The Islamists didn’t have it all their own way, however. Though they managed to install Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader, they were forced to tolerate an elected parliament and presidency.

Sometimes, the regime saw fit to allow loyal dissent, as when Muhammad Khatami held office between 1997 to 2005, as did Hassan Rouhani, who won in 2013 and 2017 – balancing the legitimacy gained by allowing a broad field of candidates to run, with the risk of an unacceptably liberal candidate winning.

Despite the efforts of the Guardian Council, which has the power to “cancel” unsuitable contenders, candidates unsuitable to regime hardliners have been elected with alarming frequency. With the exception of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first term in 2005, majorities of Iranians have endorsed the most “reformist” candidate allowed to take part at every election in the last 24 years.

In 2009, public support for Mir Hossein Moussavi was so high that the election had to be rigged in Ahmadinejad’s favour, sparking off a huge popular protests. The uprising, known as the “Green Revolution” was put down with savage repression, which the Obama administration observed closely while standing idly by.

The Administration focused instead on negotiations over Iran’s illicit nuclear programme, which expanded, under Rouhani’s presidency, into an attempt to give the reformists practical economic benefits in exchange for strategic détente and the postponing of nuclear enrichment.

To the long list of the baleful consequences of Donald Trump’s presidency must be added the collapse of the agreement negotiated by Obama, Britain, France, and Germany (with Chinese and semi-sincere Russian endorsement), known as the JCPOA.

The Biden Administration is trying to revive it, and extend it to cover limitations on missiles and the operation of regional militias, which Iran supports in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.  But it faces a new obstacle in the new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi.

Raisi was handed his election by the simple expedient of disqualifying all serious opposition candidates, including Khomeini’s suprisingly reform-minded grandson Hassan, who withdrew under presssure. Raisi won, of course – but turnout slumped by 25 points to just over 48 per cent, denying him popular legitimacy.

Some Iran-watchers, such as Karim Sajadpur think the regime has something else in store for Raisi, who is already being promoted to “Ayatollah” on state TV (in fact, he holds the lesser rank of Hojetalislam). The current Supreme Leader, Khamenei, is 82 and even if rumours of his illness from prostate cancer are exaggerated, he won’t be around for long.

Raisi, who presided over the execution of 5000 regime opponents, including women and children, in 1988, and is personally under US sanctions as a result, would be a strong bulwark against an Iranian version of Gorbachev taking over.

The chances of him winning a fair election were obviously slim. In addition to the longstanding pro-reformist tilt in public opinion, there was an extended, nation-wide working class revolt in 2019 that was put down with ferocious violence, before it petered out because of Covid. The pandemic, too, has been devastating for Iran, which had one of the earliest and most severe first waves and continues to struggle with the disease.

But allowing the people let off steam came second to burnishing Raisi’s credentials this time. The reformist movement has now been sidelined, and excluded from even the hope of power. The Revolutionary Guards’ control over foreign policy and the economy has been bolstered. Expect military adventurism in Yemen and though Hezbollah to continue. The next few years will be a headache for the West and a nightmare for Iranians.

The regime of 1979 is entering its late, ossified stage. It has lost internal drive, except for meteing brutality out to its opponents, and the self-enrichment of its military-industrial elite. It will become brittle as the dwingling number of genuine supporters ages, and is insulated by its power from the fate of their compatriots.

Late dicatorship, when everyone knows the regime is based on lies, but stays outwardly loyal out of fear or greed, can however last quite some time – as observers of Mubarak’s Egypt or Lukashenko’s Belarus can attest. Unlike there, the Iranian regime appears capable of institutionalising itself. Unlike Franco or Trujillo, or indeed the Shah, there is no single patriarch to be dethroned. The autumn of Iran’s patriarchy looks like it could be a very long one indeed.

Garvan Walshe: So you want Islamists kept out of government? Well, I’ve news for you. They’re going into it. In Israel.

10 Jun

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party

“A Shura council!” “A Shura council!”. One can almost imagine Israelis’ voices rising levels of indignation not seen since Neil Kinnock denounced Derek Hatton for sending redundancy notices around Liverpool in taxis, as they heard that the fate of a coalition assembled to oust Netanyahu hung on the decision of clerics.

Getting rid of Jewish clerics’ influence over Netanyahu featured in the minds of Israelis who voted for Yesh Atid, the largest party in the incoming government. To have them replaced by Islamic clerics was hardly part of the plan.

Still, if Paris was worth a mass for King Henry of Navarre, the Protestant French, Jesusalem must be worth a Hajj.

Ever since corruption drove his predecessor Ehud Olmert to prison, Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics through his skill at mobilising the resentment of successive groups marginalised by an elite of which Netanyahu, the son of a historian, and himself a former Israeli Ambassador to the UN, was self-evidently a leading member.

The core of his support were the Mizrachi, as the descendants of Jews from the Middle East are known. He built up his coalition by adding to them, whether through Likud – or through Avigdor Lieberman, who left Likud for his own Israel Beiteinu Party, supported by immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Netanyahu also proved better able to attract the votes of the Ultra-Orthodox parties than his rivals. New Jewish nationalists also gravitated to him, rather than a left they considered naive in its dealings with the Palestinians and attitude to Iran.

As Israel went through four stalemated elections in the last two years, the parties making up Netanyahu’s Knesset majority changed. He alienated former allies with his ineradicable double-dealing and opportunism. But each time, he somehow managed, with feats of unparalleled ingenuity, to conjure up the 61 seats needed to keep hold of power. This time round, it became clear that his prospects were pinned on Belal Smotrich’s far-right “Religious Zionism” party.

What nobody expected him to do was to try and snag some of Israel’s Arab population (whom he notoriously denounced for voting “in droves” in 2015). This he did by making overtures to the Islamist Ra’am (which styles itself the United Arab List, but which should not be confused with the separate, also Arab, Joint List).

Though it didn’t help him get a government together – because an administration composed of Jewish supremacists and Islamists was too much even for this Maradona of politics – it did succeed in legitimising Arab parties as coalition partners.

After a hiccup caused by the outbreak of brief hostilities with Hamas, Ra’am’s muftis in suits eventually were persuaded to join the astonishingly disparate group of Netanyahu’s long-time opponents, and recent exes.

This stretches from the solidly left-wing Meretz, to the clue-is-in-the-name Yamina (“Right”) party – taking in Lieberman’s (Russian-speaking, pro-capitalist), and the generals-in-mufti Kahol Lavan in along the way.

Anchoring the coalition is the centrist-secular Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid the handsome, pint-sized former TV host.

It even includes the anti-Netanyahu party led by Gidon Sa’ar, a former Likud minister, which obtained a disappointing six seats, despite its George Lucas-inspired name: A New Hope. All that’s missing, I suppose, is The Empire Strikes Back – calling for the restoration of the Briitsh Mandate.

The formal vote to swear in the new administration will take place on Sunday. Though Netanyahu continues to snipe at the edges of Yamina, the Joint List will find a way not to oppose it, even if he dislodges some of their more reluctant members. Once their support is taken into account, the new government can count on 66 out of the 120 MKs.

Provided Netanyahu doesn’t manage yet another feat of political escapology, his fate now looks rather bleak. The repeated elections have managed to slow down his trials in multiple corruption cases, but he’s now run out of time. The cases involve favours offered in exchange for positive newspaper coverage, the regulation of telecommunications – and the straightfoward receipt of cigars, champagne and jewellery for him and his wife. With Wikipedia reporting that the cigars and champagne were worth $195,000 but the jewellery only $3,100, Sara Netanyahu, at least, has cause for complaint.

As he follows Olmert to the dock in Jerusalem District Court, he can at least console himself that he isn’t being judged by the Shura Council, whose view of champagne inclines towards the negative.

Garvan Walshe: Lukashenko’s air piracy. By way of western response, sanctions are only a start. Here’s what we need to do next.

27 May

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party

Alexander Lukashenko has stopped pretending he’s anything better than a gangster. Roman Protasevich was paraded on TV after his kidnapping with visible bruises. The message is clear: we grabbed him, we tortured him – and we don’t care what you think. He might as well have taken out that AK–47 he’s fond of carrying ,and screamed: “what are you going to do about it, punk?”

But what, indeed, are we going to do about it? International opinion is coalescing around a set of economic sanctions, and the US, EU, UK and other diplomats are working out the details. It could usefully be accompanied by a coordinated expulsion of Belarussian diplomats by all NATO members, just as Russian diplomats were expelled following the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal. This is the minimum that can be expected, and will provide a modest deterrent against other small regimes contemplating something similar.

It is nowhere near enough.

While twentieth century dictatorships consolidated power by cutting themselves off from the democratic world, in the twenty first they exploit globalisation to corrupt democracies. They think we’re too greedy, fond of a quiet life, or exhausted after 20 years fighting Islamist terrorism to impose costs on dictators.

Mention of the latter pre-9/11 suggests a parallel today. Just as in the case of Al-Qaeda, which had bombed a US barracks in Saudi Arabia, attacked the USS Cole destroyer, and whose precursor made the first attempt to level the World Trade Center in 1996, we have ignored warnings about a significantly greater threat to peace and security, because facing the truth was inconvenient.

We made the mistake of hoping that tit-for-tat reprisals against Islamist attacks would be sufficient, when we needed to work out how to marginalise and sideline the full spectrum of Islamist activity. After 20 years of trial, and (considerable) error, we’ve settled on a combination of measures, from military strikes through humanitarian aid, counter-extremism prevention, and education progammes at the soft end. We came to understand that we had to neutralise the Islamists’ strategic aim to build theocratic dictatorships, and not merely blunt their tactics.

Lukashenko, Putin and Xi Jinping want to destabilise and weaken the West by undermining the system of international norms we’ve built up since 1945. They take advantage of our naivety. We made the mistake of letting countries without democratic politics and rule of law into the system by pretending to ourselves that the economic integration would be to make them liberal. This exposed our societies to infiltration by emboldened autocracies instead.

They have put a former German Chancellor and a Scottish First Minister on their payroll, have gained access to critical nuclear and telecommunications infrastructure, and broadcast their propaganda and disinformation on our airwaves. They use the openness of our free market system against us, by operating through front organisations (The gory details of the Russian element to this can be found in Catherine Belton’s excellent Putin’s People). The well-known abuse of social media platforms with fake accounts are just an extension of this technique. Lukashenko’s abuse of counter-terrorism protocols to dupe the Ryanair flight into landing, and then seizing Protasevich, is from the same playbook.

Our mistake was to extend the deeper elements Western of international cooperation, which relied on a sense of shared interest in keeping the system together, to countries that want not merely to free-ride on that system, but actually pull it apart.

This now needs to be reconfigured to deal separately with trusted and untrusted states. Trusted states can be kept within the system, but untrusted states need to be let in only on more sceptical terms. The automatic snap-back sanctions in the JCPOA Iran Deal are an example of mechanisms that could be used. The China Research Group proposed taking a similar stance in its Defending Democracy in a new world report (in which I was involved). Flows of foreign investment, support for think tanks, universities, and other forms of influence need to be brought under heavier scrutiny. Real “beneficial owners” need to be identified, and intelligence capability be built so this goes beyond a box-ticking compliance exercise. Media backed, directly or indirectly, by regimes that restrict media freedom should be denied broadcast licenses.

We need to consider whether we have adequate intelligence capability to keep tabs on influence by twenty-first century autocracies, and to protect our citizens and residents from their extraterritorial operations. One wonders whether Greek security services, for example, had any idea of the Belarussian KGB’s plot to kidnap Protasevich. Protecting democratic opponents of these regimes ought now become a priority for Western security agencies.

Belarus’s air piracy should be a wake-up call for the Western alliance. Just like twenty-first century terrorism, twenty-first century authoritarianism doesn’t stay within its own borders. Keeping it out of ours and those of our allies has become a matter of highest importance.

Garvan Walshe: After a year of lockdown, Madrid’s voters aren’t the only ones who want freedom

13 May

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party. He grew up in Madrid.

Libertad – Freedom – was the single word on the posters that brought Isabel Diaz Ayuso a landslide victory in Madrid last week. Her campaign won all across the city-region, even in the so called “red belt” in the former industrial south of the city. She benefited from the left’s division, the collapse of the right-liberal Ciudadanos party, and the autotoxification of the hard-right Vox, Spain’s version of UKIP.

Her victory, however ,points to something more profound in successful conservative movements: liberty. Despite Covid, Ayuso kept the bars, restaurants, theatres and music venues open, and their owners and workers rewarded her with their vote.

In a city where people live in small houses, but will often have two if not three meals out every day; and where the metro, even when on strike, is said to be forced to run an essential peak service at 4am to help people get home from nightclubs, this was of overwhelming importance.

Yet her message ran deeper, and has implications for the not dissimilar strategy being pursued by Boris Johnson (a man at least as Bacchanalian as the average Madrileño). It works on two psychological vulnerabilities of leftism that conservatives can exploit if they suppress their own authoritarian and miserly instincts.

The first has to do with how fashionable health authoritarianism has become on the left, partly as an import from the US culture wars (If Donald Trump is against it, it must be a good idea), but also out of the greater sense of interdependence that goes with being left wing.

Modern egalitarian arguments owe a lot to this idea: our actions affect others in many ways, and our own situation is the result of others’ actions. The objective is to try and minimise how much our chances in life are affected by these, from industrial accidents caused by unscrupulous employers, to the consequences of being born to rich or poor parents.

These arguments only half-convince in normal times, because we recognise that while our actions indeed have consequences, it’s not reasonable to hold us account for all of them. We mock a strict-liability world (think of those American coffee cups that warn about the drink they contain being hot) and expect people to take their own responsibility for many of the risks of living in a free society. We distinguish between risks it is the duty of the state to mitigate, like murder and robbery, and risks people should assume themselves, like riding a motorbike.

A pandemic is different, however. Until vaccination programmes got going, it was as though each of us walked around carrying a gun that had a small chance of shooting people who happened to be nearby. It may seem strange to many readers of this site, but that’s not too different from the mindset of parts of the left: of course our actions all affect each other — but they see injustice by the powerful, where we see liberty.

It’s an echo of the postwar argument for maintaining rationing because it improved the quality of food (and health outcomes) for the poorest. What it did not do was improve their freedom, and the desire to regain it, now that the war was long over ,contributed to the Tory election victory in 1951.

Similar arguments persist. Here’s the Guardian extolling the benefits of a “lockdown day”, or as Methodists might have called it a “sabbath”. In contrast, Ayuso’s and Johnson’s evident desire to allow people to get on with their lives brought voters out in their support.

If that is an uncomplicated lesson for the freedom-loving Tory, the second argument has a sting in the tail. By keeping as much of the economy open as possible, Ayuso didn’t so much help her electorate, as allowed them to help themselves.

Because though it should be obvious to everyone that people don’t like to be abandoned, and prefer to be helped than left to suffer misfortune on their own, they would rather, if at all possible, overcome adversity through their own efforts, and if they must be helped, feel that the assistance has come to boost their own work, not to replace it.

So as the levelling up strategy comes to be implemented, the government needs to remember to do it in a way that increases the agency people in those communities come to feel and aims for self-generating economic growth rather than largesse dispensed from the state. Rachel Wolf had a good list of specific policies on this site earlier this week.

The result in Madrid shows the importance of the political emotions behind these good technocratic ideas. People need to feel in control of their lives and communities again, and this need is now at its strongest after a year of repression and enforced passivity. Doing so will require considerable discipline to suppress the centralising, risk-minimising instincts of Whitehall, but the rewards for the Conservative Party, could be as great as they were for Ayuso.

Garvan Walshe: Modi, India’s strongman, has weakened his country abroad as well at home – through his terrible Covid mismanagement

29 Apr

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party

The great practical benefit of democracy over other systems of government is that it avoids the bad king problem. It limits what the executive is allowed to do, constraining it by law, and through an adversarial political process. It provides elections and, sometimes, automatic instruments, such as term limits, to get rid of kings who have turned – or just turned out to be – bad.

Military insurrection by Bolingbrokes doen’t cut it against modern day Richard II’s. The great danger is the opposite: sloth born of checks and balances, divided authority, and risk aversion. This is what pushed the EU into its agonisingly slow vaccination programme.

Hence the plea for special powers to deal with emegencies, from the time-limited rule by decree, used by Indira Gandhi, to wide-ranging secondary legislation in India and elsewhere, or our own Defence of the Realm Act. A constitution, as the American Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, wrote, should not be “a suicide pact”.

But something tips over when the demand for emergency measures is transformed into a demand for emergency men. This is the core of Machiavelli’s Prince : a political system can only be saved by a new man who will tear down the old structures and build something new. If he builds anything new at all. Machiavelli thought Caesar consigned to Hell for destroying the Republic, and leaving Augustus to replace it with the Roman Empire.

This was Narendra Modi’s pitch. He would take India to the next level of prosperity just as he had done in Gujarat (whether this was a dog whistle against India’s Muslims, I leave it to the reader to judge). And he has cemented unusual control over the fracious country, with an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) and control of 18 state governments (a majority of those where there are legislatures, in effect). He enjoyed a successful first wave of Covid, with India escaping relatively lightly.

As winter ended, he launched into aggressive political campaigning, most notably in West Bengal, home to 90 million people and the great city of Calcutta).His Bharatiya Janata Party held huge, crowded rallies, as cases began to surge. Infections have risen nationwide plunging hospitals into crisis as oxygen supplies run low, perhaps impelled by a British-style highly transmissible variant.

But India, though the world’s largest maker of vaccines, has not been able to get its vaccination programme up to speed, not least because of Modi’s decision to promote the domestic pharmaceutical sector by slowing down authorisation of foreign vaccines for the Indian market. The panicked government has resorted to forcing Twitter to take down content critical of its Covid response, giving Modi’s attacks on India’s democracy, which had passed largely unnoticed in much of the West, a much wider audience.

Though opinion polls for West Bengal’s state elections predict a close outcome, and voting takes place in a number of phases over several weeks, it is likely that the death toll will be laid at Modi’s door. Blaming it on the state government’s won’t wash when cases are rising everywhere, and when Modi has done so much to personalise his own leaderhip. It’s perhaps the oldest lesson in politics: if you take credit for all the success, don’t be surprised when people blame you for failures, even if deeper long-running problems contribute to them.

Modi isn’t the only elected autocrat having a bad second wave: Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Viktor Orbán in Hungary have also been overwhelmed (contrast the plight of both men, incidentally, with the political leaders of highly decentralised Belgium, which has also managed the pandemic terribly but whose will o’ the wisp government has managed to evade popular anger).

Yet unlike Orbán, whose international repuation cannot sink much further, and Bolsonaro, whose Brazil is comfortably the largest country in a stable region, India is geopolitically vulnerable. The mismanagement of the epidemic has damaged Modi’s international position, as well as his domestic standing.

Before the second wave, he could present his stewardship as a success. He might be trampling over some international norms, but he was building a stable, powerful, organised country that could be counted upon to play a major role standing up to China. His more muscular India cultivated excellent relationships with the Trump Administration, and counted on a continuity of American policy with Biden.

Now, as the UK, EU and the United States start despatching emergency aid to India, he finds himself as the beneficiary of Western charity. The interest in strategic alignment between India and the West has not changed, but the relative terms by which India is to negotiate that alignment have deteriorated as his aura of competence has evaporated.

This strikes at the core of Modi’s narrative of strength through competence because a supplicant India is precisely what he promised emancipation from, and the phenomenon most destructive of legitimacy is to have failed to uphold the essence of your political identity. If the divided opposition cannot yet seriously trouble him, his Covid disaster points Indians to the danger of government by emergency men, not emergency measures.

Garvan Walshe: Russia’s building up troops on Ukraine’s border. Here’s what we can do to stymie Putin.

15 Apr

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.

Tanks rolling towards the Ukrainian border. Paratroopers in Crimea. Mechanised troops to the Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic sea between Poland and Lithuania. A “rotational” but in effect permanent presence on Ukraine’s frontier with Belarus.

These are just the most obviously military steps in Russia’s campaign to divide and confuse the West, and test the mettle of the Biden Administration.

They come as tensions increase in East Asia, with China increasing pressure on Taiwan, and the US trying to enlist Japan into backing up the island. The question on Russia’s mind is who are the Japans – the large, democratic American allies – of Europe?

Moscow could be forgiven for thinking there aren’t any. France was suckered into attempting a “reset” in relations in exchange for cooperation in the North Africa that never materialised. How seriously can Germany be taken until it cancels Nordstream 2? And the UK has just released a review of strategy promising a military tilt towards the Indo-Pacific.

Russia’s big disadvantage is that its economy is still relatively small (its GDP is the same as that of Spain and Portugal, or the Nordic countries), and its autocratic regime needs an expensive repressive apparatus to hold onto power.

Its advantage, however, is that such wealth as it has comes from natural resources, and these are easy for the ruling elite to capture. It’s much easier for the “Collective Putin”, as the ruling elite is sometimes known, to spend them on internal security, military hardware and foreign subversion than it is for a democracy constrained by law, voters unhappy about tax rises, and expensive welfase states.

Putin’s central belief is that the world is a transactional place where raw power is decisive. He finds it difficult to understand the Western talk of values, and dismisses it as cant, just has he knows that Russian lines about non-interference in the affairs of other nations or respect for international frontiers are empty propaganda – to be used, or discarded, as convenient.

But if he cannot quite fathom the levels of trust that Western countries still have for one another, he knows how to erode it by supporting nationalists from Marine Le Pen (whose party received loans from a Russian bank) to Alex Salmond (still a presenter on Russia Today), and of course, Donald Trump.

But 2021 has worsened the strategic environment. Biden has bluntly called him a “killer”. The autumn’s elections in Germany could deliver the Greens (who are not only anti-Putin, but anti-the oil and gas from which he makes his money).

His only solid European ally is Hungary, whose government has bought Russia’s vaccine, hired Rosatom to renovate its nuclear power plant, agreed to host and give diplomatic immunity from regulatory oversight,to the Russian state International Investment Bank, and provided a permissive environment for Russian spies. Viktor Orban’s collaboration with Putin, is however, enough to neutralise the EU’s Russia policy and limit the effectiveness of NATO.

The latest military build up is another attempt to increase pressure on the alliance now that Trump is no longer in a position to destroy it. Ukraine, which was formally offered a path to NATO membership in 2008, has repeated its request to join, splitting its friends from those who profess to be afraid to “poke the bear.”

But if immediate NATO membership for Ukraine is currently off the table, there is an opportunity here for the UK to be a “North European” Japan, and anchor North European security against Russia in support of the US-led alliance. This role should naturally fall to the UK, since France is heavily committed in North Africa, and Germany cannot be expected to be decisive, especially during a year where the election coincides with Russia’s annual Zapad military exercises.

Britain is in a position to convene a coalition of European countries worried about Russia, including Poland, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and the Baltic states, possibly with Ukraine in association. A semi-formal initiative and northern analogue of France’s European Intervention Initiative, but obviously more defensive in nature, could focus on reinforcing the territorial integrity of its members, as well as security of the Baltic sea, and develop programmes of mutual assistance in civil resilience for circumstances below those that would warrant the invocation of NATO’s Article Five.

Such an initiative would, I believe, be well received in Washington, where a reinforcement of Britain’s role in the Euro-Atlantic, and not just the distant Indo-Pacific, theatre would bring significant relief.

Garvan Walshe: Merkeldammerung. Germany’s polls put the Greens within striking distance of government.

1 Apr

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party

No leader gives up the job entirely on their own terms, but Angela Merkel, who will step down as Chancellor after what will be at least fifteen years in power, came closer than most.

She had the skill to keep the coalition of voters behind her Christian Democratic Union (which governs with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union) sufficiently broad to dominate German politics for a decade and a half. She’ll leave office as one of the great centre-right Chancellors of modern Germany, along with Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl.

Known for waiting for what seems to everyone too long before making darting radical jumps, Merkel overcame the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, and even dealt effectively with the first wave of the Covid pandemic.

She saw off rivals internal (Wolfgang Schäuble) external (the AfD) and a man best described as standing just inside the tent, peeing in (Friedrich Merz).

Yet she was unable to find a successor. Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg imploded in a plagiarism scandal, Ursula von der Leyen’s mediocre efforts at the defence ministry would be repeated at the European Commission, Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer proved the dampest of squibs, while Armin Laschet was left holding the Coronavirus pandemic as the vaccination programme foundered.

Like every other centre-right party in proportional electoral systems, the CDU/CSU is struggling in a fragmenting political landscape. Party activists worry that she’s losing votes to her right, to the AfD (or, in a more liberal direction, the FDP), while larger numbers of voters defect to the Greens, who have governed impressively in Baden Württemburg (in coalition with the CDU), and who also increased their seats at the CDU’s expense in Rhineland-Palatinate.

The “Union” has a backup plan in the form of Markus Soder, the leader of the Bavarian CSU, who could replace Laschet as the centre-right’s Chancellor candidate in September’s elections, but he is now also suffering from the terrible vaccination campaign and PPE procurement corruption scandals. The Union is now polling in the mid twenties, ten points down on the beginning of the year. This doesn’t look like an election where “more of the same” is a winning formula.

The latest opinion polls have narrowed the gap between the CDU/CSU and the Greens to less than five points, and if the trend continues the Greens could even top the poll in September.

This opens up two new possibilites for post-election Germany. Until this month, it had seemed likely that a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the Greens, headed by a Union Chancellor, would have been the only way to avoid letting either the AfD or the post-communist Linke into national government.

But the green surge increases the options. A “traffic light” coalition, between the Greens, SPD (the social democrats, whose colour is red) and the liberal FDP (yellow), or a Jamaica coalition (after the Jamaican flag, because the CDU’s colour is black) involving Greens, Union and FDP would also add up to a majority. In these scenarios it is the Greens, not either of Germany’s two traditional parties, who could choose who to form a government with.

Germany’s Greens started as a conventional green party emphasising environmental politics, but have evolved into a centre-left formation without the industrial baggage of the SPD, which allows them to take clearer stances against polluting industry or in favour of immigration and accommodating refugees.

If their representation in the Berlin city government is radical (favouring rent control, for example) their adminsitration in prosperous Baden Würtemberg, home to much of Germany’s car industry, has been decidedly more pragmatic. Their independence from German industrial politics has also led them to take stronger stances against Putin’s Russia (remember that Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s former Chancellor, serves as chairman of Rosneft), and Orban’s Hungary.

A green-led government would, perhaps astonishingly, tilt German geopolitics closer to that of the United States. Transatlantic friction over Russia’s Nordstream pipeline to Germany, which both the Greens and Washington are against, would disappear. Leading the govenrment would, however, pose problems for the party in relation to nuclear weapons, with which much of its membership is deeply uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, the German Greens, which hse co-leaders, Robert Habek and Annalena Baerbock, would pursue international policy in step with the UK’s focus on addressing climate change, and upholding international human rights norms against Moscow and Beijing.  Nonetheless, they are strongly pro-European, and a Green-led German government would put renewed energy behind deeper European integration.

In September, the test for the Greens will be whether they can provide the right combination of reasssurance and change for an electorate that prized the stability and integrity Merkel provided them, but is now ready to give the system a bit of a jolt.

Garvan Walshe: The Integrated Review’s tilt to Asia could leave us vulnerable closer to home – and Putin

18 Mar

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party

The Integrated Review has emerged as two documents in one. Much of it focuses on trying to bring together different types of threat to our security – from hostile states to terrorist groups, hybrid warfare and misinformation, as well as longer term problems like climate change.

It is full of sensible recommendations for “deeper integration across government”, better crisis management, more coherent policy development and so forth. This is as fine as it is not new (remember Tony Blair’s “joined-up government”?). It would be strange policy paper indeed that advocated the promotion of incoherence and the implementation of contradictory policies.

But government always has to do many different things at once, each making compelling (but often contradictory) demands on policy, reflecting different political constituencies and requirements, and promoted by people with the different personal agendas, as is to be expected in a democracy. Addressing this diversity takes time and thought that is always in short supply. The review is part of that process of thought, and worthwhile for that reason alone.

It is also the first serious attempt at developing a new foreign policy doctrine for the UK since Brexit, and the Government has been wise to wait until the end of the Trump Administration before releasing it.

An unstable, corrupt, semi-authoritarian United States would have made an uncomfortable partner indeed in a world otherwise dominated by a resentful European Union and an assertive China. It is Biden’s restoration of sane, boring US leadership that makes a realistic post-Brexit foreign and security policy feasible. The Review is right to worry about China’s rise, and right, too, to recognise that the post-cold war world moment of Atlantic triumph is passing.

This last half decade has seen the return of geopolitics in the assertion of power by an adventurous Russia and an increasingly hardfline China.

Yet if there is cause for concern in this Review it is that the politics has crowded out the geo. Take, for instance, increasing the cap of available nuclear warheads. Perhaps it is useful to have the freedom to have more available, but without more submarines to launch them it is hard to see what practical they could it could have. It’s not as if the new Dreadnought-class submarines would have time, during a nuclear exchange, to swim back up the Clyde to reload. The proposal did, however, managed to nicely provoke the left.

It’s the “geo” that should give more pause for thought. The Review grandly divides the world into “Euro-Atlantic” and “Indo-Pacific” regions, without really acknoweledging that we’re right in the middle of one of them, and 6,000 miles away from the other.

I’m all in favour of standing up to Chinese aggression (and was even involved in this effort to come up with some ideas about how it might be done), and the Government, again, is right to reverse the beggary of the Osborne-Mandelson erea, when Falun Gong flags were removed from protestors lest they offend the Chinese premier, and the unwise and expensive contract for Hinkley Point C was agreed. Yet strategy is the art of applying means to secure ends, and this is where the Review’s “Indo-Pacific tilt” falls short.

It is indeed the case that the most serious threats to democracy and freedom on this planet are likely to emerge from the Chinese Communist Party, but it doesn’t follow from that that Britain’s main role should involve the prepositioning of military equipment in Asia.

Rather, the greater risk of conflict in Asia means that the UK’s aviation and maritime capability would be required to maintain deterrence against Russia in the event of a major conflict in Asia on which US resources had to be concentrated.

That would clearly be much harder achieve if most of the Royal Navy is in the Pacific protecting the Queen Elizabeth from Chinese anti-ship missiles. Such back-filling may not be the most exciting task but, given the facts of geography tilting to Asia, we risk finding ourselves in the position of the 1990s Colombian goalkeeper Higuita, who would pay upfield while leaving his net undefended.

It is in Europe, after all where Russia tries to make inroads, to the alarm of Poland, the Baltic states and the Nordic countries. It is to Europe’s south where the main ungoverned spaces that host terrorist training camps survive, and it is to Europe’s south-east where a difficult Turkey-EU relationship poses problems in the Western Balkans and Aegean.

And as much as the natural impulse of Brexit is to prove Britain’s openness and optimism by striking out to Asia, the Indo-Pacific tilt increases Britain’s security dependence on Europe, and in particular on the EU’s own institutions that are growing in military and policy-coordination capability. The debate in Paris and Berlin as well as the more traditionally integrationalist Brussels Rome, and Madrid now centres around achieving “strategic autonomy” (code for being able to do more without the US) for a more integrated European policy bloc. One of the strongest arguments against it has been that doing so would unnecessarily alienate the UK, whose interests also require it to contribute to European security.

The creation of such a strategically autonomous bloc has not, to put it mildly, been a British foreign policy objective over the last few hundred years, but a British decision to concentrate on projecting power in Asia would leave gaps, in the event that the United States is unable or unwilling to come to Europe’s defence. If the Government is convinved that a tilt to the Indo-Pacific is in the national interest, it needs to give more thought to who will backfill for us, and in particular our Nordic allies, when the next Russian provocation comes.