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A Guide to Great Power Politics in the 21st Century
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In a world that has returned to great power rivalry, understanding the grand strategy of these powers is crucial. This book introduces ten key terms for analysing grand strategy and shows how the world’s great powers – the United States, China, Russia and the European Union (EU) – shape their strategic decisions today.

Outlining the steps needed for a less confrontational grand strategy and a more peaceful and stable world order, this lively and accessible introduction shows how the choices made in each of these ten areas will determine the course of world politics in the first half of the 21st century.

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Making strategy is a rational process: an objective analysis of how much power one has, and how much power one’s competitors and rivals have, determines which ends are feasible. Strategists make mistakes, of course. Their assessment of the environment can be wrong, they can misread the strategies of the other players and under- or overestimate their resources, they can fail themselves to commit the resources required and implement what they decided. Or they can be outwitted by the strategists of another state. If the premises of a strategy turn out to be false, or a competitor or rival is more successful, strategy must be revised through the same rational process. ‘But governments and people do not always take rational decisions. Sometimes they take mad decisions, or one set of people get control who compel all others to obey and aid them in folly’, Churchill points out.1 History is full of examples of leaders who allowed religion, ideology or emotion to trump reason, overreached, and failed.

Philip II, Catholic King of Spain from 1556 to 1598, trusted in divine providence rather than heeding his advisors who warned of the lack of resources to make war simultaneously on protestant England, the rebellious protestant provinces of the Netherlands, and the ‘infidel’ Ottoman Empire. The results of this overreach were dramatic. The Spanish armada sent against England was sunk in the Channel (1588). The northern Netherlands, the United Provinces, became an independent republic and a great power, and would enjoy a ‘golden century’ (not least thanks to the influx of refugees and wealth from what remained of the Spanish Netherlands on the territory of current-day Belgium, I cannot refrain from pointing out).

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‘There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them’, said Winston Churchill near the end of the Second World War.1 An alliance in the strict meaning of the term is a commitment between states to support each other in war. Europeans and Americans will immediately think of NATO and collective defence: a long-term if not permanent alliance to defend each other in case of aggression against a fellow member. But an alliance can also be concluded for a specific short-term purpose; and that purpose can be to make war. The great powers need allies and partners in all dimensions of international politics though, not only in the military sphere. They seek partners who will work with them to bring their particular view of the world order into practice, for example by voting along with them in existing international organisations, by joining them in creating new multilateral institutions, and by aligning their economic practices.

If one is in an alliance, one must consult one’s allies, decide together, and take action together when the purpose of the alliance is at stake. That inevitably takes more time than when one acts alone, and may lead to compromise decisions. After the 1999 NATO air campaign against Serbia, to force an end to the violence in Kosovo, the US complained of the inefficiency of such a ‘war by committee’.2 But allies bring additional resources, and may also add legitimacy to one’s actions: the more support a strategy garners from other states, the more acceptable it will appear to the domestic and international audience.

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Every state has political, economic and security interests, just like every issue in international politics has a political, economic and security dimension. Grand strategy has to be comprehensive, therefore, and tackle all three dimensions at once. A strategy that defines ends in only one dimension while ignoring the others is unlikely to achieve durable results. A state that does not develop instruments and muster resources in all three dimensions will soon run into situations in which it has no way of acting. A great power must thus surely be a power in political, economic and military terms in order to sustain its ambition to have global impact. Political power, that is the attractiveness of one’s way of life as well as one’s influence in another state or in an organisation (which can acquired by legal or illegal means), allows one to convince others to act in accordance with one’s interests. Economic power can be a carrot as well as a stick, to entice another state or to coerce it, by offering or withholding trade, investment and development cooperation, or access to one’s domestic market. Military power too can entice as well as coerce, offering assistance or threatening war.

Convincing, enticing and coercing, or hard and soft power, go hand in hand. The best strategists manage to convince the other so that they do not have to revert to coercion. but it is easier to convince or entice when the opposite party knows that you have the power to coerce it (through economic or military ways) if you decided to, even if the option is not openly put on the table.

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Grand strategy is more than planning. Planning is necessary: the strategist needs to plan how to mobilise the resources that the strategy requires. He must also plan for the implementation, simultaneously or successively, of the various instruments that he has chosen to achieve his desired ends. The force of habit and the weight of procedure often reduce this to a linear process: budgets are allocated, the means are acquired within that framework, and then put to use in the same way as before, without exploring alternative ways or reassessing the ends. This creates the false impression that whenever the ends are not met, the answer simply is to increase the means or, in military terms, to put more boots on the ground. Such a mechanistic approach leads to unimaginative and hence sub-optimal strategy: ‘ends + ways + means = (bad) strategy’, as Jeffrey Meiser puts in an appropriately formulaic manner.1 What is missing is creativity: the stroke of the imagination, and occasionally of genius, that will lead the strategist to combine instruments in new ways, or to design entirely new instruments, and to settle on novel ends in order to safeguard the interests of the state. Even a genius has to take into account the available resources, of course; that is why Field Marshal Slim wrote that ‘Imagination is a necessity for a general, but it must be a controlled imagination’.2 Nevertheless, creativity makes all the difference; that is why strategy is an art as much as a science.

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‘No operational plan extends with any certainty beyond the first clash with the main enemy forces’, taught Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, architect of military victory in the wars of German unification that Bismarck triggered between 1864 and 1871.1 Or, as Field Marshal Slim put it more laconically: ‘I should have remembered that battles, at least the ones I had been engaged in, very rarely went quite according to plan.’2 It is another military adagio that applies to grand strategy as a whole. The other players have a strategy too, hence implementing one’s own strategy requires agility: the willingness and the decision-making structures to rapidly and flexibly adapt strategy to changing circumstances. Deciding on grand strategy usually requires long debates and complex procedures, however, involving many entities within the state: different parties or factions, different ministries, the armed forces. Once the decision is taken, those players usually are reluctant to make great changes, for fear of upsetting the equilibrium between them, or of domestic political consequences. It is only human that the people who have signed off on the strategy become attached to their ‘beautiful’ strategic concept and their ‘perfect’ plans – but that is a decidedly unstrategic attitude. The principles of grand strategy may be summarised in ten words and carved into stone (or so I pretend), but actual strategy should be subject to constant assessment and review. ‘A little more time, a little more help, a little more confidence, a few more honest men, the blessing of Providence and a rather better telephone service – all would have been well!’: every scheme can be a close run thing, as Churchill indicated.

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Making decisions on grand strategy takes courage: vital interests are at stake, so the consequences of failure may be grave, especially if one is engaged in active rivalry with another power. This is a different kind of courage than gallantry on the battlefield, of course; it is the courage to take responsibility, which is a requirement for strategic success, as Sir Hew Strachan notes.1 Every decision is based on imperfect information, and one can never fully know the intentions of the other powers – the fog of diplomacy is as real as the fog of war. Accepting a degree of risk is inevitable, therefore, or one would never make any decision – and indecision and inaction have consequences too. The French and British policy of non-intervention in the Spanish civil war (1936–39) in practice amounted to a weakening of the legitimate Republican government, for Italy and Germany did militarily support Franco’s rebellion, and London and Paris had no intention of stopping them. In such cases one must agree with Talleyrand, who defined non-intervention as ‘a metaphysical and political term that means more or less the same as intervention’.2 Sometimes, of course, not acting really is the best course to take. But not acting must be a conscious decision, because one assesses that one’s interests are not sufficiently at stake to warrant action; it must not be the result of inertia or mere risk aversion.

In grand strategy avoiding failure is not necessarily the same as success. By escaping from the European continent through Dunkirk, the UK between 26 May and 4 June 1940 narrowly avoided the destruction of the British Expeditionary Force.

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Everyone involved in making strategy must accept that inevitably they will have to face circumstances in which there are no ‘good’ options: a situation in which every course of action, as well as inaction, risks to produce specific negative effects for one’s interests. The strategist will still have to make a rational choice, and identify the lesser evil: the option that presents the best chance of safeguarding the vital interests of the state. The reticence to make stark choices even though the situation demands it is understandable, for the decision makers will be held accountable for the potential negative consequences – but it goes against the precepts of grand strategy. A state cannot retreat from international politics and fence itself off from the world: it will have to play its part. Even if a state foregoes an active role, it will for sure be the object of the strategies of its competitors and rivals.

The history of my own country, Belgium, exemplifies how it is an illusion to think that one can escape from reality. In 1830 the great powers recognised Belgium’s independence from the Netherlands, but imposed neutrality on the new state. The powers did not trust one another: by forbidding the Belgians from entering into an alliance, they made sure that none of them would dominate the kingdom. Neutrality shielded Belgium from the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. Afterwards, neutrality was raised into a dogma: the Belgian strategic establishment became convinced it would protect the kingdom forever – but in 1914 Germany violated neutrality and invaded.

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Rarely has a state safeguarded its vital interests by passively waiting for things to come. As A.J.P. Taylor wrote: ‘Those who really know what they want, get it – not necessarily of course in the way that they want, but they get it somehow. But those who hesitate between different objectives and seek only some compromise which will postpone difficulties, get nothing – not even the postponement they long for’.1 A state may, of course, adopt a defensive grand strategy in the face of current and expected threats and challenges. Or it may opt for an offensive approach, grasp the initiative, and seek to change its environment. Either way, be it for offence or for defence, a state must prepare to act: those that are not proactive will be forced to react to the strategic moves of the others. In war, if one can get into the decision-making cycle of the enemy, that is make the next move before the opponent has even had time to digest and react to the previous move, success is nearly always guaranteed. In 1940, French command and control was methodical, but slow, geared to the speed of operations of the First World War. As a result, France was systematically outpaced – rather than outgunned – by the German armoured formations.2 The American armed forces achieved a similar feat against their Iraqi counterparts in the two Gulf Wars, in 1991 and 2003. The same rule applies to grand strategy overall: the state that holds the initiative and sets the pace has the advantage over the others. Vice versa, once stuck in a reactive mode, it is difficult to focus on one’s own ends.

The very definition of a great power implies proactivity: the ambition to have a global impact cannot be realised otherwise. Proactivity should not be mistaken for aggressiveness, however: rather than in undermining or attacking its rivals, a power can also be proactive in forging alliances and partnerships, and in improving its own competitiveness. Setting out a constructive agenda in the mutual interest of various powers takes as proactive an approach as launching a military intervention. If, however, the great powers ignore the opportunities for cooperation and focus exclusively on competition and rivalry, they risk bringing about a world ruled only by Thucydides’ dictum: the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.

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‘Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.’1 The readers of George Orwell’s 1984 know that Oceania had in fact previously been at war with Eastasia, the third great power mentioned in the book, and that the alliance had probably shifted several times before already. But who the enemy is does not matter to the regime of Oceania; what matters is that there is an evil to make war against, in order to legitimise the dictatorship of Big Brother. The war is not meant to be won; waging permanent war has become an end in itself.

Great power politics in the 21st century does not resemble this pattern – yet. But the elements are there that could produce an uncontrollable dynamic leading to permanent open-ended rivalry between the great powers. In 1991, the Soviet Union fell apart and the Cold War ended; only for rivalry to begin anew between the Russian Federation, the US and the EU. Had democracy taken root in Russia and not given way to authoritarianism, rivalry might have been avoided, if the democratic regime had accepted a reduced stature in international politics. But would a democratic Russia not also have sought great power status, like its predecessor? Likewise, a hypothetical democratic China would certainly still be a great power, might well uphold the claims to Taiwan and the South China Sea, and would definitely compete globally for markets, resources and influence.

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