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  • Centro para el Bien Común Global

Donnelly: “The West is yet to understand the paradigm shift in the nature of conflict in the 21st century"

Updated: Mar 8

Interview with Chris Donnelly, director of The Institute for Statecraft by Nicolás de Pedro, Associate Fellow at the Instituto de Política Internacional 

Chris Donnelly is well versed in the art of strategic thinking. He has devoted his whole professional life to this endeavour from different capacities. As a graduate of Manchester University and reserve officer in the British Army Intelligence Corps, Mr Donnelly helped to establish, and later headed, the British Army’s Soviet Studies Research Centre at RMA Sandhurst. Between 1989-2003, as Special Adviser to four NATO Secretaries General, he was closely involved in dealing with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the reform of the newly emerging democracies in Central and Eastern Europe. He left NATO in 2003 to set up and run the UK Defence Academy’s Advanced Research and Assessment Group. In 2010 he became co -Director of The Institute for Statecraft, dealing with new security threats and responses – specifically, new forms of conflict and warfare and how to transform institutions so that they are fit for today’s rapidly changing security environment. 

Chris Donnelly has written three books as well as many articles on questions of defence, security, strategy and statecraft. He has held appointments as specialist Adviser to three UK Defence Secretaries (both Labour and Conservative) and was a member of PM Thatcher’s Soviet advisory team. He has also served as Specialist Adviser on the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee and currently serves in this role on the Defence Committee. He also: is adviser to the Foreign Minister of Lithuania; is a Security and Justice Senior Mentor in the UK’s Stabilisation Unit;  is Trustee of the London-based charity Forward Thinking; serves as Honorary Colonel, Specialist Group Military Intelligence (SGMI); and, until recently, sat on the official team responsible for scrutinizing the current reform of the UK’s Reserve Forces for the Defence Secretary. 

Mr Donnelly shared his insightful thoughts with the Instituto de Política Internacional (IPI). What follows is a reflection of that conversation. 


In your opinion, what are the main changes in the European strategic environment over the last quarter century? What we should be looking at? 

The changes have been very dramatic. Firstly, the whole world is changing at a rapid pace and the speed of change is outpacing the capacity of states and institutions to adapt and remain fit for purpose. Therefore, they are finding more difficult to deal with security challenges. Secondly, we have seen a shift of global power from Europe and North America to the East. Initially this shift was based on economic strength, but now it is also on military might. Thirdly, we have seen a change in the character of conflict and competition. Thus, during the Cold War and World War II, hard military power, kinetic power, was the dominant factor. Now, notwithstanding all these new weapon systems, everything has become a weapon: information, energy, cyber, money, as well as traditional dirty tricks and hard power. 

It is much easier to understand the current context if you see the world not through the eyes of the XIX or XX century conflicts, but if you understand the world as a Darwinian ecosystem, where it is a war of all against all. All the players in Darwin’s ecology, the animals in their ecosystem, are struggling against the environment and also against one another. They are in constant conflict and competition; and that is what the world politically looks like today. The equivalent of the animals of Darwin’s ecosystem are the nation-states, sub-state actors, non-State actors, transnational organisations like Al Qaida or ISIS, or even in many occasions, ambitious individuals. Most important is to remember that, in Darwin’s understanding of ecology and of natural selection, it was not the biggest and the strongest players that survived when you have rapid change but those more able to adapt. 

Rapid change in peacetime is the real big challenge in the strategic circumstances of today. Unfortunately, at the moment, it seems to me that some of our competitors in this political and military Darwinian ecosystem are adapting to it better than we are. We in Western European countries -after 70 years of holiday from history- are complacent. We have let our strategic thinking and hard military power decline, but we have not compensated for this by developing our ability to protect ourselves from the use of other things as weapons by our opponents. 

Therefore, the speed of change and transformation of conflicts are the key elements of the current strategic environment… 

Yes, that is it; A paradigm shift in the nature of conflict that many in the West are yet to understand. 21st century war is, and will likely continue to be, a war of all against all in which everyone, from States to all kind of non-states actors, can be a player and everything can be weaponised. Hybrid threats or conflict in the grey area are about just that: ambiguity, deniability, activity below the threshold of response, etc. But it is important to bear in mind that hybrid should be understood as an all-encompassing umbrella which, obviously to me but not to everyone, includes traditional kinetic warfare as well. The immediate threat may not be to our physical existence, but rather to the society based on liberal democratic values- which we treasure.  

When it comes to the defence of Europe, NATO -an organisation that you know very well- is still the main pillar of the security architecture; but is the Alliance still fit for purpose? 

NATO is a very important organisation. Indeed, it is a crucial one for our future security. People think of NATO as a military organisation, but NATO is primarily a political organisation. Its own mechanisms for dialogue and consultations are what gives NATO its capacity to get nations together to talk, discuss and work together. Therein lies NATO’s true strength. However, it needs to adapt itself more quickly or it will become obsolete in the face of today's worlds’ rapid changes.  

Internal disagreements and the lack of strategic coherence or a common enemy are pushing some observers to questioning whether NATO can still be considered a real alliance, what do you think about it? 

I would prefer to put it in a different way. During the Cold War there was a common enemy, the Soviet Union. But whenever any other conflict arose involving one member of the Alliance but not others, it did not come into Alliance politics or involve NATO at all. For instance, the US war in Vietnam or the British war in the Falklands never became an issue for NATO. The challenge that NATO faces today is not exactly the lack of a common enemy, but the lack of a single common enemy. Thus, although its allies all share the same list of threats, they do not share the same order of priorities. The challenge for NATO is to develop a strategic concept that understands the diversity of the threat today and creates an interface between its members that allows them to contribute to dealing with the threat in a measure appropriate to the importance of it for them. 

What needs to be done with no further delays? What is the most urgent? 

To begin with, NATO has all the mechanisms to change and can do it. But to make the organisation effective it needs at least two immediate things. Firstly, it needs much more investment by the allies, because after all an Alliance may become more than the sum of its parts but without its parts is nothing. There are no NATO troops. Hence, the member nations need to reinvest intellectual resources in NATO to adapt it to this new form of conflict and warfare. Secondly, the nations themselves need to reinvest in their own power, but not just around hard power, but their ability to mobilise, deploy and employ all the forms of power you need today to fight this new form of conflict. That requires a lot of national investment because, unless the member nations invest in both traditional forms of defence and new forms of warfare, the Alliance will atrophy because it has and is nothing without the member nations. 

If that is the urgent, what is the important? What would be your advice for those at the NATO HQ thinking in the next decade or beyond? 

Firstly, I think we need to amend the Washington Treaty. We need to take out one single word in article 5. We need to remove the word “armed”. So instead of an “armed attack” it should read “an attack”. Secondly, we need a new strategic concept that gets the member nations to understand that a threat to one is still a threat to all, but this threat will come in different forms and from different directions: Bring together nations that see threat mainly from the South or mainly from the Middle East or mainly from Russia or mainly from China. That strategic concept will not be easy to create but it is certainly possible, and I know there are people in the NATO system working on it at the moment. Thirdly, to put more efforts in to studying today’s world as well as to studying history, because none of these new weapons being used against us -like information, or energy, or economics- are exactly new. It is new in the way they are being used and combined, and it is new to our current leaders. 


Russia and China appear in the horizon as likely strategic competitors, is Europe, be it through the European Union or NATO, ready to deal strategically with them? 

The good news is that the EU and NATO are wholly complementary, and the challenges apply equally to both. We have within our ranks in Europe adequate competence and expertise to deal strategically with Russia, China and anybody else that comes down the field. But the bad news is that we have not harnessed and used that competence adequately. There are people out there able to do it, but our Governments, the EU and the NATO are not using them adequately. Our Governments tend to think of everything in terms of crisis management instead of adopting a long-term strategic thinking. The lack of strategic coherence is a serious deficit across Europe. Strategy requires a different approach and in order to be able to handle someone who is attacking us strategically, as Russia and China are doing, we need a strategic response. Doing otherwise allows competitors to divide us and make us weaker. Alas, over the last twenty-five years our democracies have suffered a loss of strategic awareness. Europe has not kept its strategic thinking mechanisms healthy and active. We allowed them to deteriorate for a variety of political reasons. As a result, driven by political-electoral cycles, we have a lack of understanding among our governments of strategy, of the nature and seriousness of the new threats, and indeed of how the new world works. China and Russia do not share these failings. Hence, the short answer to the question is “no”. 

What is your opinion about the EU’s role against this background? 

The EU has extremely good qualities, but it has had also some negative impacts. In my experience, unlike the view you often get reading British newspapers, the EU is full of highly intelligent, hard-working and really committed individuals. However, the EU has sucked out from national governments, administrations, some of the best, most talented and committed civil servants. When those men and women get to Brussels, something is lost in the process. The Brussels system seemingly includes no mechanisms for giving the EU strategic thinking for creating a foreign and security policy. Therefore, the expertise which is lost to their national governments does not create in Brussels a compensating European strategic thinking or strategy-making capability. Consequently, we end up today with strategic thinking deficits both in the EU and in most if not all of its Member States. 

Think-tanks can channel bilateral initiatives within Europe, valuable also for the EU or NATO at large. Do you think that a potential UK-Spain strategic dialogue would be a worth effort? What do you think Spain and the UK can learn from each other? 

Absolutely, it is a worthwhile effort. With Brexit looming, the UK needs to be linked practically into Europe more effectively. It is wrong to think that Brexit means the UK will not be part of Europe. Of course, it will. It has to work with and be part of Europe and bilateral relations would be particularly useful in that regard. Spain and the UK are complementary and can learn from each other also because they are looking in different directions. For instance, the UK can learn a lot from Spain about the problems in North Africa and the Sahel nexus, including all illicit traffics coming from Latin America to Europe through this region. 

Another issue that is worth addressing bilaterally is how to generate defence from small budgets. Perhaps in different measure, but this is clearly a shared problem. Both countries spend an increasing amount of money on education, welfare and social services and are then finding it increasingly difficult to meet the cost of defence inflation. Likewise, both countries need to rebuild in the public mind an understanding that defence is not simply paying an insurance policy, it is investment in the nation and its development. If we have small budgets and very expensive equipment like aircraft carriers, submarines or satellites we should start also thinking about how to do things differently. In other words, to get our governments and armed forces to think differently about how to generate power. How to achieve the same effect at lesser cost. The UK and Spain working intellectually and practically together will produce a better understanding of and solutions to the common problems than if we only do it singly and alone. 



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