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How should we best prepare for multi-front crises?

In a speech delivered on 15th January, Grant Shapps, the Defence Secretary, underlined the need for British armed forces ‘to be able to deliver the outcomes we need in multiple theatres at once.’ This is no easy task, and will require the careful management of resources and priorities, as well as pursuing non-traditional approaches to diplomacy and security. And there is a chance more crises will erupt as simmering tensions reach breaking point. So the United Kingdom (UK) must prepare for multiple future scenarios, and make tough decisions in the process. How can it best do so? The Council on Geostrategy asked six strategic experts in today’s Big Ask.

James Black, RAND Europe

Hostile actors such as Russia, the PRC, and Iran purposefully seek to exploit seams and deficiencies within the decision-making apparatus of democratic governments such as the UK, or collective systems such as NATO or the European Union. Adopting a systems thinking approach and a long-term view on competition, they hope to run down the finite stores of political, financial, and human capital of Western institutions, including a UK Armed Forces and defence industrial base suffering from decades of underinvestment at 2% GDP; to sow division and uncertainty into our national debates through disinformation and subversion; and, ultimately, to exhaust our collective will to bear the costs of resisting their revisionist ambitions.  

This polycrisis is a high-stakes test of whether Britain has addressed its shortcomings when it comes to the making and implementation of grand strategy. The 2021 Integrated Review and its 2023 Refresh rightly catalysed efforts to better join up strategy-making across government, and to deepen collaboration with industry, academia, civil society, and allies. Defence has similarly been working to implement a ‘campaigning mindset’ which better coheres previously disparate tactical activities as part of a more proactive effort to promote strategic advantage over the UK’s competitors.

Still, substantial bureaucratic, cultural, and financial barriers remain. Most pressingly, perhaps, there is the added risk that an election year will see politics turn further inward, focusing on the domestic and parochial. To address the systemic foreign and security policy challenges of 2024 and beyond, political leaders of all stripes need to be brave and engage in an honest and robust dialogue with the British people about the threats they face, the options and trade-offs available, and the costs that will have to be borne, both to secure our national interests and to defend our values in a precarious world order.

Hillary Briffa, Council on Geostrategy

The business world has an acronym which captures aptly our current times: VUCA. Volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. To tackle crises on multiple fronts will therefore require policymakers to adopt another innovation from industry: a ‘systems thinking mindset’. As this author has argued previously, this involves understanding how levers pulled in one area will impact upon other areas. 

Thinking about cause and effect all the way up and down supply chains, and not solely at the end stage, is a perfect example. The problems in the Red Sea do not just matter for London shoppers waiting for their goods; they impact upon grain exports, energy markets, and so on. Responses must factor in these cascading effects. 

Additionally, multiple crises will require many partners to address different issues. Yet, the UK is often blinkered and not creative enough in recognising the potential of different partnerships. To put it bluntly, Britain does not engage as strategically as it could with African, Latin American, and many Pacific partners. It has an anti-Russia and increasingly anti-People’s Republic of China strategy, and other partners only feature insofar as they fit this narrative. The UK, rather, should spend time really getting to grips with what a range of smaller partners – which make up the global majority in our increasingly multipolar world – want, need, and can offer in-turn. After all, we have come this far by doing things the old way: navigating the turbulent road ahead now requires us to try something new.

William Freer, Council on Geostrategy

Multi-front crises are not anything new, but something which the UK has not faced for some time. The Cold War and the War on Terror both included a domestic and foreign element. But for both eras the threats essentially came from a single source (the Kremlin in one case and terrorist training camps scattered across the Middle East in the other) and were the only serious threats of their time. Not since the Second World War has Britain faced such a serious array of simultaneous threats as it does today. However, looking back through history, to the Second World War and beyond (e.g., the Napoleonic Wars), there are lessons which can be extrapolated, the three most important being:

  1. Invest the resources necessary to secure national interests – current defence spending of 2.1% of gross domestic product is simply not enough;
  2. Effective diplomacy is key, from alliance building to disrupting the relationships of your adversaries. Ensuring Britain has the bandwidth within government to carry out fluid and flexible diplomacy which can build and maintain minilateral groupings will be crucial in the years ahead; and,
  3. Prioritisation will be needed, as the UK will never be able to do everything it wants to; even with more investment resources are finite and ensuring that they are not spread too thin will be a constant challenge.

Pauline Heinrichs, King’s College London

Multi-front crises can be a helpful diagnostic tool for understanding systemic flaws within the existing system. While Shapp’s recent concern that we are in a ‘more dangerous world’ – times can always feel exceptional when we live through them – is understandable, we should use this diagnostic tool to develop a forward-looking and comprehensive security strategy which thinks with climate change, not against it. 

Domestically, this requires an understanding of energy security which is not haunted by the ghosts of the fossil fuel past for which taxpayers already do and will pay an even higher price. Instead, we need to understand energy security as investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and the insulation of homes. It also means thinking through the policy consequences beyond meeting ill-conceived short-term objectives. Issuing new oil and gas licences is simply incompatible with achieving the legally binding Net Zero target and a national security strategy which deserves the name.

Internationally, this requires an understanding that climate diplomacy needs trust, something which is helped by the acknowledgement of historical responsibility, leadership and consistency. This includes supporting the loss and damage fund, addressing climate justice concerns, delivering international climate finance and setting regulatory standards which enable the move away from fossil fuels. Lastly, multi-front crises are not addressed by or met with populist rhetoric, divisive electoral campaigns and the imprisonment of climate activists. Security in a warming world means instead a politics of accountability, foresight, and compassion.

Joshua Huminski, Mike Rogers Centre for Intelligence and Global Affairs

In the best of times, the multiple regional and systemic crises facing the UK and United States (US) would be challenging enough. The possible re-election of Donald Trump in November this year, however, introduces a complicating variable in an already complex equation. The uncertainty over his policies, the unpredictability of his personality, and the threat of an administration more effective in enacting Trump’s ideas means long-term transatlantic planning is even more challenging than it would be in otherwise ‘normal’ times.

To offset this risk, Britain should double-down on its efforts to engage with the US Congress – newly elected, re-elected, and sitting members alike. Congress will serve as a key check on Trump’s policies, especially should the Democrat opposition hold a majority in either chamber. To the British Embassy’s credit, Congressional outreach is both solid and effective, as is engagement with the broader policy community in Washington. Translating this legislative outreach and policy engagement into action will prove critical, especially under a Trump presidency.

At the operational- and working-levels, Washington and London should also work to ring-fence key programmes and plans from political turbulence. This means disconnecting, such as is possible, the political machinations between Downing Street and the White House from the working-level activities. This is a key lesson from the first Trump presidency – there will undoubtedly be unavoidable fallout from president-to-prime minister interactions, but preventing these from affecting critical bilateral work must be the priority.

Marina Miron, King’s College London

For the UK, it will be essential not only to focus on the wars which have sparked up across the globe or simmering tensions threatening open conflict, specifically in the Middle East and Europe, but also on less blunt tools of influence which can be much more powerful than kinetic force. And while the UK acknowledges the threat of cyber-attacks from Russia and the PRC, it is important to understand that cyber-attacks against computers in the cyber-technical realm are just one strand of Russia and, to a certain extent, the PRC’s information war efforts. 

The realm which is much more vulnerable and difficult to protect is not computer networks but the minds of the British population. Internal destabilisation using cyberspace and the physical domain – through cyber-psychological operations and front organisations often associated with Russia’s intelligence services – is an existential threat as it can lead to an implosion from within. Essentially, this is what Russian information war theorists argue

To address this challenge, the UK will need to design a multilayered approach which encompasses not only top-down government solutions but also involves the private sector as well as broader civil society. It should be a joint effort to withstand not just disinformation, which is a small part of the information war, but the much broaderer operation aimed at polarising Western societies, with Britain being no exception.

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