“Governments can band together in a fight against China and authoritarianism, but the real threat is more from inside” – interview with Mathew Burrows

Dr. Mathew J. Burrows, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security

What would you expect to be the possible geopolitical fallout/aftershocks that will shape the post-coronavirus world? 

The obvious path that we are on at the moment is a world shaped by bipolarity, in particular by the competition between the U.S. and China. Within the West there are some common concerns about China. The Chinese side seems to feel more and more embattled, becoming more defensive in their diplomacy and announcements. There is very little multilateralism. The US pullout of the WHO, while a terrible idea, is also a leading indicator of the mood inside the Trump administration. There are other measures too: the Trump administration not allowing the US government pension system to invest in Chinese stocks; there is growing support for the repatriation of the supply chains in order to have far less dependence on China (especially for pharmaceutical supplies). If anything, I would say that we are seeing less globalisation (at least in terms of trade and investment flows), more political antagonism between the US and China and very little global cooperation. There will be less economic growth, a downturn in trade and investment across borders, and the movement of people will diminish, but none of all this will disappear unless the US and China get into a conflict which would end this period of globalisation.

There will be less economic growth, a downturn in trade and investment across borders, and the movement of people will diminish, but none of all this will disappear unless the US and China get into a conflict which would end this period of globalisation.

Can the COVID crisis become also an opportunity – a change in mindset for a more united West, especially a Europe ready to embrace the great power competition against China? Even the debate inside NATO has lately taken a China angle. Is COVID an opportunity for the Atlantic system, for reinventing the Atlantic strategic unity & solidarity?

I see Europe being ambivalent about going along with the US on all the measures that the Trump administration is taking against China: on tariffs plus a prohibition against Huawei in Western networks. I don’t think many in Europe want to be too closely aligned with the US in such strident attacks against China. They understand the US point of view and share many of the concerns, but they are also fearful of bipolarity, of getting into a world that sends everybody back to a 1950s and 1960s-style Cold War. There is another issue within Europe, a division over China, as some are increasingly economically dependent, reliant on China as an investor: for some countries in the south and east that are already bending towards China, the crisis could accelerate this path even more. Moreover, the EU took a blow in this pandemic, where every member state had to fend for itself. Certainly Italy felt that it didn’t get the support from the other member states that it was entitled to or from the EU as a whole. There is an ongoing debate about the economic recovery: who pays? Many feel that Germany and Nordic countries should be much more generous in terms of the economic recovery support. There is a lot of division, and Europe remains far from speaking with one voice.

For sure, NATO is also split. A key factor on the European side is the distress created by the Trump administration. Germans worry that the Trump administration could impose tariffs on the automobile industry, an export which the entire German economy depends on. Of course, if there would be a sudden Russian move against the Baltic states, I would still see NATO coming together. The problem to me is when there is no major live external threat like that, and given that you have different interests by all the players and a US administration that is disengaged, disintegration has the upper hand.  

Europeans are also fearful of bipolarity, of getting into a world that sends everybody back to a 1950s and 1960s-style Cold WarThere is another issue within Europe, a division over China, as some are increasingly economically dependent, reliant on China as an investor: for some countries in the south and east that are already bending towards China, the crisis could accelerate this path even more.

How would you see the EU faring in a world in which power politics, not multilateralism is again the new normal? 

This is not the world that Europe expected. A decade ago the EU was looking forward to a postmodern world in which there were far fewer conflicts, where  European integration would become the model for others. Obviously that world is not happening. What is essential is Europe’s ability to reach or retain a political consensus. In the recent crises (whether the euro-crisis or the migration crisis) the end result has instead been a deepening of the divisions between east and west, north and south. The pandemic looks like that, too, deepening the same cleavages. That is what I worry the most about. Unless Europe finds a way of overcoming these divisions, the EU will gradually disappear or become irrelevant, particularly for younger generations. In general, the EU has a tendency of coming together at the eleventh hour, but in finding a solution at the last minute it allows hard feelings and resentments to accumulate. Trying to speed up some of the solutions will help the process of binding together the community again, necessary for remaining a force on the world stage.  

It is said that history rhymes. To some observers the current pandemic brings parallels with the type of world in which Spanish Influenza was spreading after WWI – intense geopolitical competition, inward focus and protectionism, nationalism on steroids and nation-first type of responses, democratic recession, a crisis of international architecture, all wrapped up in a profound economic recession. What can be done to avoid/ tame such an interwar cycle? What lessons should we be reminded of?

We should be very worried about the economic recovery. High unemployment and income stagnation could bolster populism and widespread discontent in those countries where the middle class are already under pressure. If you look at the economic recovery after 2008, it led to more inequality and to a part of society, the lower middle class, feeling its interests were not being looked after, that they were losers. The bankers got bailed out, it was the ordinary guys that paid the price. So if you have another iteration of the same pattern, you will create a class that feels that they have few stakes in society or in a democratic government that doesn’t work for them. This would be a very dangerous turn of events, and we know that part of what happened in the 1920s and 1930s was a middle class which felt dispossessed (by the combined conditions generated by WWI and the economic collapse that followed). Consequently, it didn’t have any particular faith in democracy and saw its salvation in strong leaders. That could happen again, although we are much more sensitive to the signs of that happening. The tendency with many economic crises has been that they do prop up the strong, and those that are weaker pay the biggest price. This has to be our number one concern. Another concern should be not to fall in the trap (which we see the US falling into) of seeking shelter under protectionism, even if the feeling against China is running very high. This is another lesson of the 1920s and 1930s, that protectionism may feel good in the short term, but it will make it harder to recover in the long run.

Unless Europe finds a way of overcoming internal divisions, the EU will gradually disappear or become irrelevant, particularly for younger generations.

These days we see the revival of an old idea meant to fix to some extent the crisis of multilateralism, but also to respond to the new revisionism – a global concert/alliance of democracies (supported in the past by John McCain, embraced today by Joe Biden, promoted in a certain version also by Heiko Maas). Is such an idea feasible and operationalised?

I am not sure that it solves what I think is the real issue. People lost faith in democracies because they don’t seem to be working particularly well for the less skilled or the lower strata of the middle class. There are very few people in the US that think this democracy works. So governments can band together in a fight against China and authoritarianism, but the real threat is more from inside than from the outside.

Are you worried about the domestic resilience of the West? Are we already too far in this process of polarising ourselves and becoming more like Sunni vs. Shia/Hutu vs. Tutsi? Can we come back? 

During the pandemic there was an initial period where people were coming together. Congress passed in record time the 3 trillion dollar stimulus and rescue plans. In the recent weeks it has returned to the old pattern of partisanship. The pandemic seems to be reinforcing the division between Blue and Red states. Blue states like New York and California have suffered far more so far than Red ones. At the same time Donald Trump openly tries to deepen these divisions as part of his strategy is to keep his base mobilised. It is very hard for both sides to work across the aisle, because they are stuck in a system in which they derive more advantages from this polarised atmosphere. Partisanship is deeply entrenched. In the long run, you may have more populism on the left, the kind of Bernie Sanders type of socialism focused especially on providing free university tuition and better healthcare to those struggling in the middle class. What certainly will be different for the US is that the state is going to be a lot more powerful as a result of it having to save the economy in this pandemic. In this context, it is very likely that we are going to see a revival too of the Tea Party on the right, opposed to the big government and to moving the US closer to the European model.

Is the West, and especially Europe in danger of over-learning the lessons of the post-9/11 campaigns, in the sense of ‘never again’? Everyone is running away from the liberal interventionism, stabilisation operations or R2P today. But sometimes they might be needed. Can Europe recapture the patience of winning the peace? Especially in a world in which Europe continues to be affected by MENA instabilities that could be even more significant in a post-pandemic world?

High unemployment and income stagnation could bolster populism and widespread discontent in those countries where the middle class are already under pressure. If you look at the economic recovery after 2008, it led to more inequality and to a part of society, the lower middle class, feeling its interests were not being looked after, that they were losers.

I don’t really see anybody prepared to do what the US and NATO did in the Balkans in the 1990s. In Europe the main effort will be to protect itself against huge flows of refugees. The effort will be focused on not allowing the crisis to get to the worst-case scenario. It will be an effort to drive down some of the worst outcomes of conflict, but not to really settle them. 

In the 1990s, the West — both the US and Europe — was at the height of its power, which also made it confident of solving others’ problems. Hence the wish to solve the world’s ills, from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, to the disintegration of Yugoslavia. There are groups today within Western societies — NGOs and civil society — that remain activists. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done enormous good in combatting disease in Africa and other developing regions. But because of the internal problems, Western governments don’t have the means or bandwidth to solve the world’s big problems. Instead of offense, it’s defence. They get involved if there is the threat of the conflict having the potential to spill over in the form of terrorism, threatening the West. And then the effort is to seal off the problem, not solve it. Syria is a prime example. The US effort was geared to combating ISIS, not supporting the rebels against Assad.     

Dr. Mathew J. Burrows serves as the director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He was appointed counselor to the National Intelligence Council (NIC) in 2007 and director of the Analysis and Production Staff (APS) in 2010. He was the principal drafter for the NIC publication Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds.

Interview: “Illiberalism was born out of post-Communist trauma”

Stephen Holmes, is a Professor of Law at the NYU School of Law, New York and co-author, together with Ivan Krastev, of The Light That Failed. A Reckoning published in October by Allen Lane (an imprint of Penguin Books). In a work of startlingly original political psychology, two pre-eminent intellectuals propose that the post-1989 world order has been characterised by 30 years of what they call The Age of Imitation – a period of Western democratisation in which Eastern European values would be bent to the liberal fiscal, cultural and moral politics of “integration”.

The INF is dead. Now what?

By Michal Onderco | Rotterdam

On 2 August 2019, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, signed by the United States and the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, ended. The United States formally withdrew from the treaty, although it had already been clinically dead at least since the US suspended its compliance with the treaty in February 2019. The United States had already publicly accused Russia of noncompliance five years ago, during the Obama Administration.

At that time, the State Department noted (in a bureaucratic document outlining compliance with arms control agreements) that “[t]he United States has determined that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty”.

A year later, the United States added a detail, noting that the violation was related to a groundlaunched cruise missile which Russia had developed. The US strategy at that time seems to have been to bring Russia into compliance, but also to develop its own potential responses to the violation.

 Russia for her part denied engaging in such activity, and instead also charged the United States with having violated the treaty. European countries’ response to the end of the INF should be based around stepping up their defence spending and commitments. Such steps would help Europeans to address the security vacuum emerging after the collapse of the INF, and would also reinvigorate Europe’s defence posture and strengthen its position within NATO.

The birth and the death of the INF found Europe in different states

During the Cold War, the treaty was of crucial importance for Europeans, who would have been the primary targets of Soviet intermediate-range missiles if conflict broke out between the USA and the Soviet Union. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, European leaders voiced concerns about Russian missiles, particularly the SS-20. For European policymakers, and especially West Germany, the development and deployment of the SS-20 tipped the balance of forces vis-à-vis any future conflict between West and East decidedly towards the Soviet Union.

Germany, as well as other Western NATO nations, demanded that the US react with the development and deployment of equivalent missiles. Yet Europe’s publics mainly perceived the crisis in the light of possible nuclear holocaust. Hundreds of thousands of citizens went onto the streets to demonstrate against nuclear weapons and in favour of nuclear disarmament.

The domestic pressure on Western European (democratic) governments was enormous. The mass protests were memorable: in 1983, over half million people came to the Malieveld park in the Hague to protest against nuclear war and oppose the deployment of American nuclear weapons in Europe.

The conclusion of the INF treaty therefore helped European leaders to solve two problems: both the external security problem, and the domestic public pressure. As opposed to the massive protests against intermediate-range missiles in 1980s, the Russian violation in the mid-2010s was not met even with a shudder. By that time, nuclear weapons had fallen out of the public’s attention, and Europe – convulsed by the Greek debt crisis and the migrants streaming across the Mediterranean – simply did not pay attention.

European response to the end of the INF should be based around stepping up the defence spending and commitments. Such steps would strengthen Europe’s position within NATO.

However, to be fair, the United States was also not exactly forthcoming with information, and shared only very few details with its allies. Therefore, while US analysts such as former State Department official Steven Pifer accused European governments of not confronting Russia about the violations in its bilateral interactions, the Americans did not make it any easier for Europeans by withdrawing and classifying much of the evidence of Russian noncompliance.

Conversely, European countries realised the gravity of the situation only when it became obvious that the United States would withdraw from the treaty. Numerous Western European governments, alarmed at the erosion of the treaty they saw as fundamental to their own security, perceived the situation as the epitome of their strategic predicament in 2019.

 European countries rely on the United States in strategic questions, even though the interests of the United States seem to diverge from theirs, and are confronted by challenges which Europe cannot address on its own. The end of the INF was a sign of tensions easing at the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new era, in which international institutions (whether treaties or organisations) held a promise of a more orderly future for European countries.

The end of the treaty punctures that image for Europeans. The collapse of the INF has special relevance for the Central European region. Intermediaterange missiles are often thought to influence the balance of power on the battlefield, rather than having an innate strategic importance (although it is arguably difficult to consider any use of nuclear weapons as non-strategic).

For numerous observers, any potential conflict between NATO and Russia will start in Eastern Europe, and will therefore involve (or at least take place on the territory of) Eastern Europe. The Eastern European countries should thus be most concerned about the collapse of the INF and its aftermath.

However, the governments of these countries, with the exception of governments in Poland and the Baltics, have remained conspicuously silent. The Polish and Baltic governments have, compared to their Western European counterparts, been more critical of Russia, and have raised louder appeals for the United States to provide a deterrent solution.

The European predicament

Because European countries did not possess the relevant technological capabilities, they usually left strategic discussions to the Americans and Russians, in order not to engage in what German political scientist Ulrich Kühn called “arms control without arms to control”.

This led European policy-makers to resort to “seeking allied unity” and calling on Russia to return to compliance with the treaty. European analysts, the above-mentioned Kühn prominent among them, suggested solutions as varied as strengthening missile defence, rotational deployment of bombers, and the deployment of conventional-tipped sea-launched ballistic missiles on US submarines in European waters.

While such solutions are within the realm of the technologically possible and politically feasible, they might potentially be strategically destabilising and could increase the chances that nuclear weapons might be used. For instance, a recent review by Beatrix Immenkamp of the European Parliament’s Research Service ruled out every solution offered as being impossible, either because it was technically unfeasible or because the necessary political will was lacking.

However pressured and worried about the United States’ future commitment to European security the European countries are, they nonetheless realise that they have no replacement for the key role that the United States has played in European security since the end of World War II. However, the potential for the use of intermediate-range missiles creates a different type of challenge to Europe than to the United States, particularly due to the former’s geographical proximity.

European countries should support the development of a conventional deterrent, including developing A2/AD capabilities. These could give Europeans a bargaining chip.

 While the end of the INF unties the United States’ hands in a certain way (especially in relation to responding to China’s development of intermediate-range missiles and the future of American alliances in Asia), for Europe the end of the treaty opens up the option of nuclear war on the continent. Although this problem is particularly acute in Eastern Europe, the whole region is caught in this predicament.

For the same reason, the European countries need to consider their own unity in the aftermath of the INF’s end. Such unity is important both for the symbolic image of Europe as a global actor, as well as for the adoption of any future Europewide solution to the INF crisis.

Therefore, while Europeans should not stop seeking cooperative solutions together with the United States, they should also think about the potential steps that they themselves could take to mitigate the threat from Russian intermediate-range missiles in the future. The first step in mitigating this threat is to think about what scenarios might lead to the use of intermediate-range nuclear weapons, and then think about how to prevent any such scenarios from emerging through deterrence.

One of the most likely scenarios for a future nuclear conflict between NATO and Russia usually revolves around a miscalculated Russian attack on NATO’s Eastern flank, one in which Russia would start to lose ground. To prevent such a scenario, European countries should support the development of a conventional deterrent, including developing capabilities in the anti-access and area-denial fields.

There is no doubt that such a development would be a sea change from the practices of the past, but the upside of such capabilities is that Europeans might actually build capabilities which Russians might want to limit, which could give Europeans a bargaining chip for future negotiations on intermediate-range missiles.

Cross-domain deterrence offers another avenue for deterring future conflicts. The principle of cross-domain deterrence is to deter attack in one domain (in this instance, nuclear) by developing tools in another domain.

For European countries, there are multiple possible options. European countries could, either within the framework of NATO or outside it, develop deterrent tools in cyberspace which could significantly deter Russia from ever contemplating the use of intermediate-range missiles.

To ensure long-term security in the region, the countries on the continent need to start thinking and acting for themselves .

Of course, it remains questionable whether such tools could persuasively signal Europe’s willingness to use them, and whether they would lead to more stability or not, but offensive cyber weapons provide an option for Europe. The framework of Permanent Structured Cooperation within the EU creates an opportunity for both economies of scale and opening new avenues for European cooperation. The potential is enormous, especially for Central European countries, to both expand their industrial bases and to develop their own defence capabilities.

What not to do and the way out

One pipedream that European countries should not continue chasing is bringing Russia into compliance with the INF, or attempting to revive the INF in its original form. For starters, it seems that neither of the original parties to the INF is unhappy with its collapse. However, Europeans should recognise the fundamental security considerations at play.

If Russia considers intermediate-range missiles as fundamental to its security, it is very unlikely to give them up. The same applies to the dream of universalising the INF through a global regime. Not only are the United States and Russia uninterested in such treaty, but China – about whose intermediate range missiles both the US and Russia are concerned – as well as other countries currently developing such missiles also have no interest in limiting such development.

While the costs of developing technological, military, and political solutions are sizeable, the domestic political costs should not be forgotten. While European societies are no longer aroused by the potential of nuclear war, they are in no way pro-nuclear. However, citizens also tend to be sensitive to military expenditure, and would probably be opposed to steps which could be seen as escalatory towards Russia.

However, the aversion to nuclear weapons among European publics might provide a conduit to supporting the deployment of responses to Russian norm-breaking. The post-INF crisis should make it clear to European countries that, as much as they need to work with the United States to maintain their security, the interests of the United States are different from those of European allies.

Primarily, the United States – like Russia – is concerned about developments in China, and might therefore view the collapse of INF through a different lens. Proposals to develop European capabilities should not mean the end of cooperation in NATO. However, they would mean a development of European military muscle – something that even the United States has called for within the framework of NATO.

Relying on American-supplied solutions will not address the security concerns felt in Europe. To ensure long-term stability and security in the region, the countries on the continent need to start thinking and acting for themselves. In the same way as the European countries learn to represent each other’s interests in trade negotiations, they should get serious about security considerations, especially the Central and Eastern European member states.

Even if Europeans have a natural predilection for negotiations – and some analysts suggested that Europe should negotiate with Russia on a future grand bargain for European security – Europeans know too well that it is much easier to negotiate when one has something to offer. The fate of Europe’s counterparts when it comes to trade negotiations should have taught them that.

“The US has an enduring interest in preventing Europe from falling under a potentially hostile hegemon”

Interview with Elbridge Colby, Director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. He was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development from 2017 to 2018, during which time he served as the lead official in the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the DOD’s principal representative in the development of the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS).

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Election interference in the digital age – building resilience to cyber-enabled threats in the EU

At the onset of the digital revolution, there was significant hope – and indeed an expectation – that digital technologies would be a boon to democracy, freedom and societal engagement.
Yet today – although it is clear that this cannot necessarily be attributed to digital technologies – we note with concern and disquiet that the world has experienced twelve consecutive years of decline in democracy and freedom. At the same time, we are witnessing the rise of what might be dubbed as ‘digital authoritarianism’.