IISS Chief Executive John Chipman introduces Strategic Survey 2017, assessing a year of rising threats and weakening global alliances. 

John Chipman introduces Strategic Survey 2017. Credit: IISS

Remarks by IISS Chief Executive John Chipman at Arundel House, London, September 20 2017. Download this text as a PDF.

Good morning and welcome to Arundel House for the launch of the 2017 edition of Strategic Survey, our annual assessment of geopolitics covering the year to mid-2017.

I am joined by four colleagues here on the stage, and with others deployed on the front row, ready to answer your questions. To begin, I will outline our principal conclusions and some highlights from this, the 51st edition of Strategic Survey.

The year to mid-2017 witnessed a dramatic fracturing of alliances and strategic relationships internationally that previously had been held to be safely solid. Much of the damage was self-inflicted. Substantial efforts will be required in 2018 and beyond to repair these alliances and partnerships.

The NATO Alliance was buffeted by repeated warnings from the incoming US administration that its support would be moderated unless rapid, real increases were made in European defence expenditure. The unease was compounded by the prospect of the US cutting a grand bargain with Russia over the heads of its allies. Turkey’s authoritarian drift, and its allies’ reaction to it, placed a further strain on NATO.

In the Pacific region too, US allies had reason to doubt the durability of the US commitment, as Washington’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement left a gaping hole in its Asian strategy that is yet to be filled. While the US remained resolute in the face of North Korea’s provocations, not all of its allies held so firm. South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, chose to freeze and, later, only ‘temporarily’ resume the US deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile-defence system, meant to protect South Korea, and US troops serving there, from North Korea’s shorter-range missiles. Pyongyang’s serial provocations did, in time, lead Seoul to adopt a more robust stance.

Institutions suffered too. The EU27 maintained unity over the UK’s prospective exit, but intramural tensions with Poland and Hungary sorely tested the bloc’s values. The EU’s internal preoccupations had the effect of releasing destabilising dynamics in the Western Balkans that, allied with Russian meddling and organised crime, put Europe’s southeastern neighbourhood at heightened risk.

In the Middle East, the one regional institution that had appeared at least reasonably stable, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), began to tear itself apart as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain sought to coerce Qatar to cease financing terrorists and interfering in their internal affairs, by closing borders and cutting ties. The strident nature of the public diplomacy on both sides left the impression that damage to the integrity of the GCC could well be permanent.

The fracture of these various partnerships and alliances opened fresh opportunities for states dissatisfied with the status quo to reap gains and widen the fissures. Compared to the defenders of the status quo, the challenger states exhibited a superior ability to devise and implement strategies to achieve their more limited goals. We are living through a moment in which domestic concerns are tying down the democracies to a greater extent than their authoritarian rivals.

In Europe, Russia has taken advantage of the EU’s internal preoccupations and partial US disengagement to probe for weaknesses in the Western Balkans, which—having been largely bypassed in the expansion of the EU and NATO—is Europe’s soft underbelly. In parts of the sub-region, Moscow has been rebuffed; but that has done little to blunt its appetite. Russia is using the full sweep of state power and capacities to create dependencies, cultivate clients and undermine rivals. Intelligence professionals and others point to a witches’ brew of cyber activity, information warfare, support for political movements and tacit promotion of various types of illegal activity.

This ‘disruptive engagement’ runs alongside more classical security challenges that Russia, dissatisfied with the current security system in Europe, is posing. Military developments and deployments, including ones that probably breach the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, are overt and threaten Europe’s balance of power. These military challenges will force NATO continually to develop more robust policies of deterrence and defence. 

In the Middle East, Russia and another challenger power, Iran, have exploited America’s detachment to consolidate their dominance of the Syrian battlefield and strengthen their client, President Bashar al-Assad. Russia has consolidated its military presence in the country and become the dominant force seeking to broker a settlement between Assad and his opponents in Syria.

More disturbing for the regional balance of power, however, is the way in which Iran has used the Syrian conflict to extend its reach into the Levant. Through its support of various Shia transnational militias in the south of Syria, and given its other proxy relationships, Iran has effectively established political influence and territorial contiguity through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.

This was the context in which the GCC’s Qatar crisis erupted. An organisation established in large measure to stand up to Iran appeared willing to lose one of its members that had been suspected, inter alia, of being too close to Tehran. Qexit – the prospect of Qatar leaving the GCC – has not yet become an accepted neologism, but it was openly discussed. The UAE, in particular, has argued vociferously for a new set of relations in the Gulf.

Saudi Arabia may yet come around to the view that fracturing an organisation which should be a force multiplier for Riyadh is not strategically smart. It will insist at a minimum on Qatar moderating its support for extremist movements and the editorial line of Al-Jazeera Arabic, as a precondition for resuming normal relations. Even if that happens before the year-end, the damage to the GCC may be permanent. It is possible that the organisation will wither away.

In the Asia-Pacific, China redoubled its efforts to promote its Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, after America walked away from the TPP. As President Xi Jinping approached the late-2017 Chinese Communist Party congress, his efforts to consolidate his position and announce China’s powerful arrival on the global stage intensified. In spring 2017, the Belt and Road Summit brought together 29 heads of government and one thousand other participants to Beijing to promote Xi’s signature geo-economic project, which involves more than 60 countries.

China is quickly developing high-tech weaponry and platforms that will in time make it a peer competitor to the US, and is extending its reach beyond its immediate region, most symbolically by its opening on 1 August 2017 of a logistics base in Djibouti. Once his new term and politburo are formalised, President Xi can be expected to insist more resolutely that the Chinese point of view on regional and international matters be more widely respected – and even catered to.

The states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are already alert to the strategic swagger demonstrated by a confident Chinese leadership and the approach, akin to the Monroe Doctrine, that it is taking to South China Sea issues. ASEAN celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017, but its efforts to present a coordinated approach to regional security were hobbled by some of its members adopting a hedging strategy towards China. Any Code of Conduct ultimately agreed between China and ASEAN would probably not be robust enough to ensure uncontested and unfettered access to the international waters of the South China Sea and its features. Washington’s engagement with the region will have to be resolute and consistent if the ‘principled approach’ to regional security it favours is to be maintained.

North Korea was another challenger state that moved closer to securing its objectives over the past year, though it is difficult to ascribe this to US distraction—Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programme was the one issue that consistently held the new US president’s attention. Yet the efforts of the US, Japan, South Korea and China to constrain North Korean behaviour failed. In 2017, North Korea’s ballistic-missile and nuclear tests accelerated in a breathtaking manner. North Korea very likely has the capacity to hit South Korea, Japan and US forces in the region with a missile-delivered nuclear weapon. Its longer-range capabilities are in much greater doubt. The two-stage Hwasong-14 has a maximum range in excess of 7,500 kilometres, and may be able to reach the US West Coast if armed with a warhead weighing 650 kilograms or less. A new design, one that also has the range to threaten the entire US mainland, could emerge in late 2017 or early 2018.

In addition to launches associated with the development of an ICBM, Pyongyang will continue its efforts to create a submarine-launched ballistic missile. The Pukguksong-1 has been test-fired from a launch tube fixed to a submerged barge, but not from a deployable submarine. Future tests will feature launches from North Korea’s one submarine. In the longer-term, Pyongyang will need to build at least two or three more submarines before it will have an operational sea-based missile force. In parallel, flight trials of the land-based version of the sub-launched missile, the Pukguksong-2, will continue.

Alongside the latest raft of Security Council sanctions, targeted measures might slow the pace of North Korea’s progress. The fuel – a form of hydrazine – used by the Musudan, Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 is produced in only three countries: the US, Russia and China. Cutting the supply, or introducing contaminants to the fuel, would seriously impede North Korea’s missile programme. So too would the introduction of computer viruses or other defects via electronics that North Korea imports.

However, breaking the rhythm of North Korean activities will require concerted diplomatic effort by powers in and beyond northeast Asia, and a departure from the so-far iterative efforts to implore change. North Korea will not agree to arms-control measures to limit testing, in the absence of a major US diplomatic initiative focused on Pyongyang, which does not appear likely. Ultimately, China and the US will need to cooperate more on a denuclearisation strategy for the Korean peninsula.

The resources required to meet many of the rising challenges—whether in the sphere of nuclear non-proliferation, information warfare, terrorism or the use of proxies—probably exist, if they are correctly deployed. India, for instance, is concerned at the pace of China’s military modernisation and its geo-economic presence in South Asia through the Belt and Road project, especially the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. It also has a strong interest in upholding the rules-based order in the Indian Ocean region and beyond. While India has long defined itself as a non-aligned power averse to defence collaboration with a Western state, a careful approach on the part of the US and other partners may be positively received. How India chooses to play a role in the defence and security architecture of Asia in 2018 and beyond will be crucial in determining whether there can be a regional concert or a balance of power that does not rely uniquely on the nature of the US–China relationship.

This is one example of a broader reality: that there is a limit to what ad hoc coalitions and state-to-state collaboration can achieve in the face of complex global threats. No state can be immune to external threats in today’s networked world, many of which can most effectively be tackled by collective action.

The rebuilding or in some cases repurposing of alliances and institutions depends partly on leadership. America seems for the moment to have laid down the baton, preferring a series of transactional and conditional arrangements. China is bending some states to its will, but its values do not inspire others to follow.

A more collective approach, rather than one relying heavily on the leadership of an individual state, is perhaps the most likely route to the renewal of effective alliances and institutions—although group leadership is less easy to construct and practice than leadership by a single state. Yet here a problem arises that is not unique to the White House and the empty offices at the State Department and DoD, for many states in the Western camp are today caught in a strategic muddle.

The tempo at which threats emerge and crises evolve, demanding a response, is stretching government capabilities and invites principally reactive approaches. Many Western states are preoccupied with domestic challenges that distract from considered strategy and sustained execution. It does not help that in a number of states, leaders make frequent adjustments in policy without reference to government colleagues, legislative branches or the policymaking institutions that normally would produce considered options and measured outcomes.

Of late, authoritarian states have been handing out lessons to the mature democracies in how to marshal and deploy the full range of state power to secure their strategic goals. They have also done a better job of defining those goals. State and non-state actors that resent the status quo can nimbly disturb and infect the strategic landscape. Their appetite to take risks to change facts on the ground to their benefit has increased. It should surprise no one if this happens more often, on numerous fronts at the same time. Geopolitical volatility is persistent and widespread, close to home and far away. It requires the kind of close attention and careful analysis that the IISS is committed to providing through this Strategic Survey and by many other means throughout the year.

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