Great War to Total War

To the north and east of Paris lie two of the great medieval cities of France, Amiens and Reims, both possessed of spellbinding cathedrals that have played a central role in the history, and especially, the monarchy of France. The cathedral of Reims sticks in my mind because the marathon/semi-marathon of Reims starts directly in front of it and the early morning view through the stained-glass windows is as inspiring as any sporting setting.

The cathedral at Amiens – where the skull of St John the Baptist was reportedly brought – stays with me for a different reason. Amongst its many tombs and graves it has a tablet to the memory of Raymond Asquith whose life story is an impressive, near caricature of the elite of his generation – he was a distinguished scholar (Balliol and All Souls), part of the London intellectual scene and notably the eldest son of prime minister Herbert Asquith.

At the age of 38, Raymond Asquith, father of three children, led a charge at the battle of Flers de Courcelette (September 1916) and was shot in the chest. He reportedly lit a cigarette, so as to distract the attention of his men from his injuries but died later.

At a time when Europe has commemorated Armistice Day, Raymond Asquith’s particular story is a reminder of several factors – the intertwining of French and British history over the past one thousand years, the fact that elites were once very close to wars and their consequences and in the case of the First World War, how the tactics of war proved disastrous.

Today, elites are far away from the ‘front’ in many respects, France and Britain are still locked in a close, troubled relationship, and the tactics of war have changed greatly.

For some, the dreadful end to the first period of globalization (Great War) echoes to the end of the second period of globalization in the sense that geopolitical tension in general and a Great Power rivalry (US-China) looms large in the newsflow. Anyone who has read in detail the build-up of the German and British navies in the early 20th century will worry that America and China are following a similarly dangerous path – China has more ships than America, America has better sailors, generally better equipment though China it seems has more tricks up its sleeve (hyper sonic anti-ship missiles).

What is more interesting and worthwhile (than predicting a naval battle in the South China Sea) is the way in which the idea of war is changing. In previous notes I have referred to the Russian (Gen Gerasimov) doctrine of total war, which is a view of conflict that covers many strategies such as cyber, border testing, propaganda, and covert attacks, for example. This approach is very much in display across Eastern Europe – the encouragement of discord in Bosnia, the hollowing out of Hungarian politics and in particular the harnessing of Belarus as a form of geopolitical attack dog against the EU.

An excellent steer as to the tactics of ‘total war’ is David Kilcullen’s ‘The Dragons and Snakes’ where he examines the new, unconventional forms of conflict pursued by the likes of Russia and China. One striking example Kilcullen describes is Russia’s efforts to drive immigrants and asylum seekers through the border with Norway, the aim being to test Norway’s reaction, its border security and to generally aggravate NATO (by the way, recently, the cables of a Norwegian undersea surveillance system have mysteriously been cut). To a large degree this tactic is being repeated in Belarus. The suspicion that most of the immigrants have been flown into Belarus suggests that sadly for the immigrants, this is a manufactured crisis that targets the EU’s sensitivity to the migrant issue.

The build-up of Russian troops in Belarus and in Ukraine is also threatening, though in my rather amateur view does not portend an outright conflict but rather represents Russia’s aggressive way of delineating the limits of its tolerance for NATO. It is hard to see what gain an outright military conflict might bring for Russia.  If a full conflict in Ukraine is triggered, by instinct is that the USA in particular will surprise to the upside in terms of the vigour of its response.

In the past five years Russia has extended its military footprint around the world – notably in the Middle East and lately through African countries like the Central African Republic where the activities of Russian mercenaries have had ugly consequences. What remains to be seen is whether foreign policy adventures can, in the eyes of the Russian people, substitute for sluggish economic growth and a horribly mismanaged response to COVID.

What is also critical is the response of NATO and the EU. The situation around Belarus is complicated by many factors – consider that Poland recently bought drones from Turkey, though Turkish Airlines has flown some of the migrants to Belarus, and also that Turkey – a NATO member – imports lethal, sophisticated arms from Russia, whilst also facing off against it in multiple theatres. Consider also the position of smaller Baltic states like Lithuania and Estonia who foreign and security policies has been becoming more vocal and sophisticated, and who will expect the full diplomatic support of larger countries like France.

A savvy approach would be to try to reduce migrant flights into Belarus and in my view to double up on sanctions on the Lukashenko regime and to more robustly support Belarus’ pro-democracy movement. The USA will not be displeased either if this spat lead’s Germany and the EU to reconsider their energy ties to Russia. As for Russia itself, this latest move, sadly and unnecessarily in my view, deepens the divide between it and Europe, and is yet another cleavage in an increasingly fractured post-globalization world order.

Have a great week ahead,


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