General Sir Nick Carter KCB, CBE, DSO, Chief of the Defence Staff of the United Kingdom, was born in 1959. He joined the British Army in 1978. Back then, eastern Europe was still under communist control, and the Soviet 3rd Shock Army was poised to charge forward against the British Army of the Rhine in overwhelming force if, God forbid, war was ever to erupt. Outside of Europe, civil wars were tearing Africa and Latin America apart. For instance, in the two years before Carter joined the army, civil wars broke out in Angola and Mozambique. By the time they ended, about a half a million people had died in Angola and a million in Mozambique. When Carter was still the most junior of junior ‘Ruperts’ (as British soldiers call their officers), China invaded Vietnam, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Reagan was elected president and deployed Pershing missiles to Europe, and so on and so forth. Yet, according to a speech Carter gave this week to the Royal United Services Institute, all that was nothing compared to the chaos we face today:
It is hard to remember a time when the strategic and political context was more uncertain, more complex and more dynamic – instability, it seems to me, is the defining condition. The threats to our nation are diversifying, proliferating and intensifying very rapidly. The global playing field is characterised by constant competition and confrontation, with a return to a former era of great power competition – reminiscent, perhaps, of the first decade of the 20th Century.
The General must have a very poor memory (well, he was an infanteer!). Either that, or he was blithely unaware of what was going on in the world when he was young. He adds:
Ambitious states such as Russia, China and Iran are asserting themselves regionally and globally in ways that challenge our security, stability and prosperity. This is overlaid by the threat from non-state actors such as Daesh using terror to undermine our way of life; it is complicated by mass migration- arguably an existential threat to Europe; and compounded by populism and nationalism. The multi-lateral system that has assured our stability since 1945 is threatened.
Aagh! How often do I have to say this? The world post-1945 wasn’t stable, not in the slightest. The post-war period witnessed massive changes in the global order, as the great European empires fell apart with remarkable rapidity, bringing scores of new countries into existence. These new states all too often collapsed into internal conflicts, which were then exacerbated by the two superpowers as they supported one side or the other as part of the global struggle for power. In comparison, the current day is a period of remarkable placidity. There is, it is true, an arc of conflict stretching from Mali and Libya in Africa through Yemen, Syria and Iraq and into Afghanistan, but outside of that area the world is doing pretty well compared with the past. And perhaps even that area would be doing a lot better were it not for the glorious exploits of the British armed forces, which have done such a good job bringing stability to places such as Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The good general should think a bit about that.
General Carter is also wrong to say that the multilateral system is ‘threatened’. For sure, some multilateral institutions are having troubles, as witnessed by Brexit and the European Union. But in reality, more and more states share more and more connections in multilateral institutions than ever before, and the number of such bodies is increasing all the time, with numerous new regional organizations coming into existence in the past 20 years. The countries of the world have never been more intertwined.
So what’s all the fuss about? Carter provides a clue. As he told RUSI:
Countries like Russia and China have studied our strengths and invested carefully in new methods and capabilities that are designed to exploit weaknesses. … Worryingly, many of these systems are now in the hands of proxy states. No longer can we guarantee our freedom of action which we have taken for granted, certainly for at least the last thirty years, from air or sea and on land.
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and its allies, especially the USA, have enjoyed seemingly untrammeled military power. They’ve used it to topple regimes, invade foreign countries, and attempt to impose their preferred forms of government and economics. Now, the balance of power is shifting, and this ‘freedom of action’ can no longer be ‘taken for granted’. This seems to be General Carter’s real gripe. If the British military had used its power wisely in the past 30 years, then I might have some sympathy with him. Unfortunately, the British armed forces took advantage of their freedom to act with arrogance, recklessness, and incompetence, creating havoc far more often than they brought peace, justice, and stability. As a former British Army officer, it grieves me greatly to say this, but it is surely true.
The alleged ‘freedom of action’ was always something of a myth – it rested on an assumption that nobody could resist Western military power. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere we’ve seen that that is simply untrue. Freedom of action in practice meant simply a licence to do stupid things, annoy a lot of people, and provoke a hostile response. If that no longer exists, then, contrary to what General Carter says, it’s not a cause for alarm. Rather, it’s a cause for celebration.