HCSS 10 years: The new geopolitical reality calls for a transformation of the Dutch Armed Forces

January 3rd 2018 - 12:13

It has become a cliché to remark that the geopolitical environment has dramatically changed over the past decade. In the 2006 US National Security Strategy (NSS), president George W. Bush declared that “America is at war.” The war Bush referred to was aimed at terrorists “fueled by an aggressive ideology of hatred and murder, fully revealed to the American people on September 11, 2001.” The context of this ‘war’, however, was one of hope and multilateralism. The 2006 strategy was founded upon two pillars. The first one was “promoting freedom, justice, and human dignity”. The second pillar was aimed at “effective multinational efforts”, with America leading “a growing community of democracies” to confront the border-crossing challenges “from the threat of pandemic disease, to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to terrorism, to human trafficking, to natural disasters.” Ten years ago, the principal security threats arose from non-state actors or from the environment, not from opposing states.

The recent NSS of the Trump administration has a quite different purport. The foreword by the president is as much about ‘I’, Donald J. Trump, as it is about global security. This is clearly the age of strongmen. Putin, Xi Jinping, Trump, Turkey’s president Erdogan, India’s prime minister Modi: all populist-nationalist leaders who govern partly through intimidation and a methodology of deliberate surprise. In this era, the first order answer to “an extraordinarily dangerous world, filled with a wide range of threats that have intensified in recent years” is not to promote a better world or to strengthen global governance. The 2017 NSS is explicitly an “America First National Security Strategy”, with narrowly defined interests: “protect the American people, the homeland, and the American way of life”, “promote American prosperity”, “preserve peace through strength” and “advance American influence”. It is very much the state that, once again, matters in the global arena.

The 2017 NSS reflects a new era in which “many actors have become skilled at operating below the threshold of military conflict—challenging the United States, our allies, and our partners with hostile actions cloaked in deniability.” Despite its distinct ‘America First’ flavor, the strategy calls for American leadership, not for isolationism. But moral leadership is lacking. This is a shame because, even in a realistic world view, support for freedom and democracy can be a powerful realpolitik weapon in competing with tyrannies like China, Russia, North Korea and Iran. It might be further argued that taking a tough stance could become a self-fulfilling prophecy in creating a conflictual geopolitical environment. But it might also be claimed that the NSS steers away from unrealistic objectives produced by the ‘end of history’ mirage. It is a strategy for an international arena in which the US faces competition with Russia and China, and challenges from North Korea, Iran and jihadis: “These competitions require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades—policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.” There certainly is some evidence to back this claim.

What do the new geopolitical realities mean for the Dutch Defense White Paper expected in early 2018? This Paper will be about restoring the basic readiness of the armed forces and the end of life replacement programs of a number of (mainly naval) major platforms, using the defense budget supplement of €1.5 billion. With this, the armed forces may once more become well prepared for crisis management operations and stabilization missions. It is far from sufficient, however, to build the combat power, key enablers and sustainability required for armed confrontations with peer competitors like Russia. Such a transformation is needed, not because military conflict is inevitable or even likely in the near and medium term, but rather to decrease that likelihood through the power of deterrence - si vis pacem, para bellum: if you want peace, prepare for war.

Hopefully the new Defense White Paper sets the stage for a public and political debate on the necessity of an additional step next to what is basically a restoration: renewing and transforming the armed forces with an emphasis on effective combat power and sustainability. Possibly the requirements stemming from ‘flow security’, so vital for Dutch prosperity, may serve as a guidance. The financial context should be the pledge (NATO summit in Wales, 2014) to increase the defense expenditure towards the guideline of 2% of GDP.

Frank Bekkers, Director of the HCSS Security Program

This post is part of a series on the HCSS 10 year anniversary. Throughout the year analysts, experts and former colleagues will publish a post reflecting on the past 10 years. 

Read the post by Paul Sinning, Executive Director

Read the post by Rob de Wijk, founder and non-Executive Director 

Read the post by Sijbren de Jong, Strategic Analyst

Read the post by Stephan De Spiegeleire, Principal Scientist 

Read the post by Michel Rademaker, Deputy Director Market and Operations

Read the post by Karlijn Jans, Strategic Analyst

Read the post by Willem Oosterveld, Strategic Analyst

Read the post by Erik Frinking, Director of the Strategic Futures Program

Read the post by Hannes Rõõs, Data Scientist

Read the post by Reinier Bergema, Junior Analyst

Frank Bekkers is Director of the Security Program. He studied Applied Mathematics at the University of Amsterdam and spent most of his career at the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), specializing in the area of Defence, Safety & Security. At TNO, he held a range of positions, including program manager, senior research scientist, group manager and account director. From 1996-1997, he worked as program manager for Call Media and Intelligent Networks for the telecom company KPN. His current position at HCSS combines shaping HCSS’s portfolio concerning defense and security-related projects with hands-on participation in a number of key projects.