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SDSR Group Meeting: British Security in the Age of Trump

The Strategy and Security Institute’s ‘SDSR Group’ met on Monday 20th February to discuss ‘British Security in the Age of Trump’ at the LSE in London, with gratitude to its hospitality. As it happened, the date was a significant one. It was the one month anniversary of President Donald Trump’s incendiary Inaugural Address, which promised a new epoch of narrowly transactional nationalism, economic protectionism and a war to exterminate Islamist terror. And our meeting coincided with a debate in the House of Commons on the future state visit, where British MPs and the wider public confront the tension between material interests, moral values and compromise in international life. The meeting was chaired by Professor Patrick Porter, Academic Director of SSI, held under the ‘Chatham House Rule’, so that without attribution, we can summarise the main themes of discussion.

Our emerging theme was that the coming of Trump has triggered discussion of central issues of British diplomacy that are long overdue, placing Britain in a particularly awkward triangular position between an unpredictable and revisionist US President, and a European Union whose own future appears turbulent. It is difficult to do justice to the richness of the conversation, but we can identify the following sub-themes: the nature of Trump’s Washington as an international actor, and what is happening within that ‘black box’; the rationale and conduct of the Anglo-American relationship; and the capabilities needed in Whitehall as it picks its way through the chaos.

With the help of a member of the group who has just returned from Washington DC, where the turbulence of Trump’s first month in office has raised the question of whether his project and presidency is sustainable on its current velocity. Trump’s ultimate base, and the platform of his power, is his appeal to a white nationalist ideology, often though not always articulated in coded form, which is linked to a broad ‘cradle to grave’ Keynesian social-economic vision. Trump’s vision is in important respects inchoate, mixing a desire to withdraw with a nostalgic determination to revive the unbounded War on Terror. Trump has helped deliver the commanding heights of political office to the Republican party, though it is unclear how long it will take for conflicts of interest, conflict with the ‘deep state’ and corruption allegations to erode his support on the Right. Ironically, for those who wish that the new administration will moderate, one source of hope is the emergence of a military power centre in new appointees, with the ironic result that General Jim Mattis, the new Secretary of Defence with his more orthodox approach to issues from alliances to torture, has become a hero for European liberals. Alongside these possibilities, Trump is neither the beginning nor the end of this phenomenon of revolt. Thanks to the grievances unleashed by the collapse of the old industrial base, the hollowing out of local industry and civil society, the rise of tribalizing identity politics, and an increasingly fragmented and noisy media environment, Trumpism will endure after Trump. There is an important parallel question about the presidency itself: some argued that historically, even seemingly subversive presidents can often be brought into line and constrained by their staff, and the foreign policy establishment.

The main ‘exam question’ for the group is how Britain should navigate the strange new landscape. We debated just how saliently Britain’s SDSR assessment of 2015, in general terms, forecast the major problems the country now faces, if not in exact scenario form, in terms of the generic difficulties. The need to construct an effective process of strategy-making was agreed on, beyond the creation of formal institutions and codified documents. Britain must also confront its basic assumption of American unipolarity and American support in its national security strategy: it is built on the premise of American support, not only in terms of formal alliance solidarity but in terms of which capabilities are dispensable. There was agreement that the Anglo-American relationship’s success must build on capable mid and lower tier diplomats and officials forming effective relationships, as well as a more clear-eyed and realistic account of what exactly can be achieved at high-level talks. The real question about Trump’s behaviour vis-à-vis London is not whether the government should voice objections to specific policies, but whether it should hold the relationship hostage to them, such as Trump’s polarising executive order on travel from some Middle Eastern and North African countries. A range of views were heard on the desirability and ‘specialness’ of Britain’s relationship with the United States. Some argued that for Britain to exert influence, it must lead the way in properly financially committing to defence, given Washington’s increasing demand for European contributions. Others suggested there are opportunities for Britain to help Washington relax tensions with Moscow, improve its security environment and reduce defence spending. Finally, there was disagreement on just how far Britain should make ‘hard security’ part of its forthcoming bargaining process with the European Union, and the extent to which alliance commitments and contributions should stand separately.

Whatever the imponderables, the coming of Trump will force Britain to confront a range of painful choices that it thus far has avoided or postponed. These include the functioning and purpose of its alliances, the extent to which it can safely assume an enduring American continental commitment, the balance between Moralpolitik and Realpolitik, and the very preparedness of its political class for negotiating complex foreign policy questions.

New Research on Army Future Reserves 2020 by Dr Sergio Catignani, SSI and Dr Victoria Basham, Cardiff University 

Progress has been made in implementing the Army's Future Reserves 2020 reform programme, but more must be done if reservists are to be used effectively to fulfil the nation's defence objectives, according to the preliminary results of a new study.

New research from Dr Catignani and Dr Basham highlights the potential challenges of meeting the targets and also opportunities for the Army Future Reserves 2020. Their emerging findings suggest that if all Reservists are to feel 'valued and valuable' further changes are still necessary. Please follow the link for further information.

The Spectator Magazine 18 July 2016 - Publication by Dr David Blagden: Eleven criticisms that will be levelled against Trident today.

Dr Sergio Catignani hosts “Veterans in Transition” Workshop

Dr Sergio Catignani, SSI Senior Lecturer in Security & Strategic Studies, hosted a two-day workshop (17-18 March 2016) at the SSI, titled “Veterans in Transition”, in which academic and research support colleagues from the William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences (University of Massachusetts – Boston), the Veterans and Families Institute (Anglia Ruskin University) and members of the University of Exeter Politics Department met to discuss veterans’ and veteran family members’ experiences in transitioning from military service to civilian life. Mental health issues borne out of veterans’ combat experiences as well as the support that veteran support that charities and community interest companies provide in order to facilitate transition and recovery from mental health issues were also explored. A local community interest group, The Farm-Able Project, which aims to increase the health and wellbeing of participants by offering opportunities to work with land, also attended the workshop.

Strategy and security experts address the joint committee on the national security strategy

SSI continues to inform UK security debate. On 14 March 2016, Professor Patrick Porter appeared before the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy. Both he and Dr David Blagden also submitted written evidence. Both written submissions, the transcript and the video of the hearing can be found here.

Strategy and security experts address select committee over defence review

Experts from the University of Exeter appeared before the Defence Select Committee on Tuesday, November 24th to give specialist comment on the new Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).

Professor Patrick Porter and Dr David Blagden, from the University’s Strategy and Security Institute, addressed the committee members about details announced in the SDSR - the government's foremost document on defence strategy – to the House of Commons on Monday.

Their appearance follows a written submission, produced by the experts along with General Sir Paul Newton, to the committee for its current inquiry,'Flexible Response? An SDSR checklist of potential threats’.

The submission builds upon the professional experience of General Newton in the field, and as former head of the MOD’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre and Commander Force Development & Training.

It also draws on the published research of Dr Blagden into the implications of multipolarity and the rise of new powers, and the work of Professor Porter on both geopolitics and the problems of uncertainty in national security strategy.

Speaking ahead of the select committee appearance Professor Porter, who is also part of the University’s Politics department said: "We are delighted to be contributing to the SDSR hearing at a critical time for the UK security debate, following the work that SSI has done under the leadership of General Sir Paul Newton."

The SDSR, which was outlined to MPs by Prime Minister David Cameron, is designed to review the threats to the UK and what capabilities the nation's military needs to respond.

Amongst the announcements made by the Prime Minister were the formation of new strike brigades, equipped to deploy across the globe and use the army's new generation of Ajax armoured vehicles, the addition of nine new Boeing P8 maritime patrol aircraft, and a 10-year extension to the operational lifespan of the RAF's Typhoon jets and upgrade work to give them ground attack capabilities.

View a recording of the meeting.

Strategy and security institute submission to the house of commons defence select committee 

In response to the Defence Committee's call for written evidence, we have submitted three papers. Each paper 'stands alone' but together they represent a set of observations about the nature of the threats facing UK and Government's capacity to anticipate and deal with them.

Sir Paul Newton uses MOD as a case study to illustrate a lack of capacity - and inclination - in HMG to 'think the unthinkable'. In paragraphs 14-19 he suggests practical, proven steps that could be taken (including by the Defence Committee) to weigh threats, test them against UK's ability to respond, and so plan more effectively.

Prof Patrick Porter notes that the UK faces a deteriorating security environment. A complex mix of revolution, geopolitics and war could produce a simultaneous set of problems in forms that are hard to foresee, beyond the capacity of its overstretched resources. 

Dr David Blagden observes that key changes in Britain’s threat environment owe to the ongoing return of major power competition and conflict to the international system. He suggests improvements in UK threat assessment processes to better handle such an emerging threat landscape.

Read the full submission.

SSI hosts high-level workshop on legal aspects of 'hybrid warfare'

The event, convened in collaboration with the NATO Office of Legal Affairs and the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, brought together senior legal advisors and experts from across the UK and NATO for a two-day seminar, held in Exeter. Read more.

SSI accepted into niteworks, mod's research and consultancy network

SSI Director Sir Paul Newton, is delighted to announce that SSI has been accepted into the MOD's research and consultancy network 'Niteworks'. This will enable SSI and the University more widely to make a tangible impact on UK and International defence and security thinking. For more information on Niteworks, refer to the document Practical, Impartial Responses to Complex Defence Problems

Strategy defence and security review team visit Exeter

"The first duty of any government is the security of its population. So it was with considerable relish that the Strategy and Security Institute (SSI) hosted a workshop for senior members of the Cabinet Office and Ministry of Defence staffs, at its Knightley base. The day was an opportunity to explore the challenges that confront the authors of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR15), which is due to be published later this year. Chaired by SSI Director Sir Paul Newton, the theme was 'relevant UK hard power' with academics and members of SSI's honorary network flagging the questions the on-going SDSR must address, and suggesting possible solutions - in line with SSI's remit to engage in applied strategy not mere commentary.

Paul Newton's briefing was on the need to enhance the evidence base on which structural and budgetary decisions about military capability are based, drawing upon his experience, including with the US military and from his participation in SDSR10. A paper from Prof Patrick Porter on 'marrying force with diplomacy' argued for a re-invigoration and resource re-balancing in favour of UK's Diplomatic Corps. This was complemented by Dr Andrew Rathmell's briefing; his insights on 'the whole of government effort overseas' drew upon his wide-ranging experience in Whitehall, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and more recently, Tunisia where he works on building local governance capacity. Honorary SSI Fellow Maj Gen (retd) Kevin Abraham reflected on the achievements and some missed opportunities in SDSR10, and in particular, the need for more rigorous follow-up of policy decision to ensure they result in coherent action. Academics from the GW4 (Bath, Bristol and Cardiff) joined their Exeter and other colleagues for a fascinating and (hopefully) useful policy-informing day.

Prof Mark Goodwin, the Deputy Vice Chancellor, welcomed the Whitehall group to Exeter. He noted that the opportunity to contribute to the strategic analysis that will help set the policies and priorities for the Nation's security for the next five years and beyond, was exactly the sort of impact the University had envisaged when it established SSI.”

Reservists: Your country needs your employees

Dr Sergio Catignani, Senior Lecturer in Security and Strategic Studies along with Dr Victoria Basham were quoted on the article Reservists: Your country needs your employees published on 18th June 2015 by CIPD. The two academics are working on an ESRC/MoD-commissioned research project entitled Sustaining Future Reserves 2020, specifically examining the pressures of service on the home and work lives of reservists.


SSI students compete in NATO sponsored Geneva Cyber 9/12 Policy Conference

In April 2015 students from the Security Strategy Institute represented the University of Exeter at an international cyber policy conference hosted by NATO and the Atlantic Council in Geneva. MStrat students Ari Basen, Jonathan Alvis, and Rory Stewart were tasked to develop and present policy options to address a hypothetical nation-state sponsored cyber-attack against a NATO member state. The students actively applied the oral and written policy briefing skills developed throughout the MStrat course to advise senior policy makers from NATO, the EU, and various global internet security firms.

This was a tremendous opportunity for all of us to showcase our skills on such an international stage,” said Ari Basen, the SSI Cyber Team Coordinator. “The MStrat course prepared us brilliantly for this competition by having us develop MINSUBs [Ministerial Submissions] and oral briefs on a wide range of issues from combating ISIS to next generation UCAV procurement considerations.” 


The global village myth: war, and the limits of power

Professor Patrick Porter has presented his recently published book The Global Village Myth: War, and the Limits of Power at CATO Institute in Washington DC. 

According to Washington elites, revolutions in information, transport, and weapons technologies have shrunk the world, leaving the United States and its allies more vulnerable than ever to violent threats like terrorism or cyberwar. As a result, they practice responses driven by fear: theories of falling dominoes, hysteria in place of sober debate, and an embrace of pre-emptive war to tame a chaotic world. Patrick Porter pushes back against the decades-old globalist fad, arguing that technology has not overcome distance, and that the world has changed less than threat inflators suggest. He concludes by noting the disastrous policies the globalists have produced and by pointing the way toward a more sensible and restrained strategy.

Download the video of this event.

Download a podcast of this event.

Further investment in SSI: news of staff changes

We are delighted to announce that Professor Patrick Porter has assumed the role of Chair in Strategic Studies.  Patrick is the author of the critically acclaimed ‘Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes’.  He knows SSI well having spoken on our courses in Knightley on a number of occasions. 

Congratulations to Professor Paul Cornish on his appointment with RAND Europe in Cambridge.  Paul played a key role in the establishment of SSI and a critically important role in designing the MStrat and then turning the concept into a proven, unique programme.  We look forward to welcoming him back as a visiting speaker.

With two members of the SSI core team being recent recipients of major Research Council grants (Drs Sergio Catignani and Catarina Thomson) we are in also the process of appointing a additional Lecturer and will take this opportunity to reinforce our core strength in strategic and war studies.

Finally, SSI welcomes Dr Jamie Shea, NATO’s current Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges, as a member of our small core team. Jamie brings a wealth of experience of applied strategy; a senior member of the NATO staff he offers a unique perspective on contemporary security challenges.