The age of ‘fast power’

French paratroopers land outside Timbuktu: Photo: French Army Communications Office

By Dr John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive of the IISS

We live in the age of ‘fast power’. Our sense of stability, and indeed the rise of insecurity, is dramatically affected by the speed with which events happen and the very many different agents of power with which governments and the private sector have to deal with. Power today is more plural than ever before and adequate responses to its malign use have also to be more various.

Governments, and the defence and foreign ministries that serve them, have to be readier to act at speed if they are to shape, rather than be shaped, by changing events. In the past, strategists asked if a country had ‘soft’ power, ‘hard’ power, or ‘smart’ power. Today they must assess the quality of a state or of an alliance’s ‘fast power’ if they are to make a proper appreciation of the capability to respond to threats and to change.

For strategists, military power is still the most important component of power because it has the greatest coercive influence when judiciously exercised. But military power mixes today with ‘diplomatic’, ‘economic’, ‘financial’, ‘market’, ‘people’ ‘reputational’ and ‘idea’ power. If there is a balance of power today, it is only the balance between these different types of power. This is the new reality with which leaders must cope, and the proof lies in the way battles were fought in 2011-12.

The German state fought the power of the market, the Egyptian army the power of the people; states in economic decline found their international reputation weakened, those with financial power gained more diplomatic clout. Well-promoted ideas, whether jihadist messages or nationalist appeals, rallied quick support. Their perceived evil effects were often blunted by swift action, whether through drone attacks or use of cyber techniques.

These realities mean that our century has gained a neo-Darwinian flavour: it is not so much ‘survival of the fittest,’ as ‘power to the most agile’ that is the operating maxim. It is speed, rather than heft, that can determine diplomatic and even military victories – the creation of financial advantage and the establishment of political leadership. Speed has become an attribute of power and a necessary condition of success in this fast-moving age. ‘Fast power’ – the ability to shape events at speed effectively – is seen as vital. Militaries prize rapid deployment forces, financial houses computer-generated trades, diplomatic establishments the quick ‘win’ of the special envoy. ‘Fast power’ of course risks being mistaken power, which is another reason why the sense of instability is heightened, as governments, businesses and others are forced to react at such speed to events that shift at such pace. And fast power, like any other form of power, is most effective when it operates in ‘formation’. Yet the ability of governments to consult and settle on coordinated action seems perversely to have slowed, just when it is required to accelerate.

In 2013, the ability to deal with rising insecurity in many regions of the world will depend hugely on how diagnosis is harnessed to prescription, and how quickly it is converted to sound public policy, anticipating where possible, reacting where necessary. Yet if speed is necessary, so is momentum, and sometimes the maintenance of momentum requires strategic patience, the ability to exercise prudence in the cause of a more settled and long-term solution. Balancing speed with patience, and choosing correctly, will be the measure of effective strategy. As always, inspiring others to be suppliers, rather than mere importers, of security will also be the sign of leadership, and has become all the more necessary as Western powers exhibit strategic fatigue from the long engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Speed was necessary this January in Mali. The chance that rebels might arrive in the capital city, Bamako, would have given them too great an advantage and too large a lead in their efforts to establish a significant sanctuary for terrorist activity.

France acted as the ‘catalytic power’ in deciding on intervention; broadening the coalition of support to the Malian government and delegating to local actors became almost immediately the next phase. The priority to assist Malian forces to control their territory is one that other European powers will want to assist in, while the active deployment of special forces could conceivably engage other allies, including from the Gulf. Animating the relevant regional organisation, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to take an increasing role will be essential.

Whereas in the past, ‘regional solutions for regional problems’ became a liberal slogan, it has now become a necessary purpose of well-judged Western policy. There is simply not the capability for the habitual exporters of military power – the US, UK, France, and a few others – to initiate, let alone sustain the operations so frequently called for. ECOWAS will have to hold territory, while a political solution that has region-wide support gets shaped.

Region-led initiatives have been the norm in Syria, not necessarily to the very best effect. But the absence of a UN consensus coupled with the fear of long term embroilment in the Levant has meant that individual states, especially from the Gulf, have done a good deal of the strategic running: the United Arab Emirates (UAE) organising military forces, Qatar and Saudi Arabia supplying funding and equipment, and Iran maintaining its support for the regime.

While the ‘Lebanonisation’ of Syria continues amid huge loss of life, the geopolitics of the Middle East would be as profoundly changed by a surprise early solution to the conflict as by its lengthy extension. As the US and European powers will not be in the forefront of the security solution, the authors of a new dispensation will be primarily local. The ‘new local’ is in fact, an evolving term of art to describe the current strategic realities. The Global Agenda Council on Geopolitical Risk of the World Economic Forum, (of which this writer is a member), concluded in its 2013 risk assessment that: ‘governments are more shackled by regional concerns and their domestic constituencies at the expense of tackling larger-scale global issues that need collective leadership to resolve’.

In this context, as the report argues, there is a de-globalisation of risk, in that not every local conflict is connected to a central strategic order. But the realisation that not every ‘local conflict can go global’ in turn can induce a sense of brinkmanship, even recklessness, in local actors, that tests the resolve and patience of concerned global players and heightens the sense of instability.

Understanding what can be contained and what might spill over is the crucial strategic judgement that needs to be exercised. Timing is of the essence. In 2013, a careful strategic patience will have to be exercised concerning Iran and its nuclear programme. Serious talks have been difficult to revive. The Supreme Leader is in charge, but with presidential elections scheduled to take place in the summer of 2013, it is hard to imagine a breakthrough deal maturing before, or one coming soon after, the polls are held. Most independent analysts continue to judge that 2014 is the more likely year for the Iranian nuclear programme to reach a crucial stage; yet both Israel and Gulf Arab states will be nervous about an earlier breakout capacity. The ever elusive ‘grand bargain’ with Iran that could include some loose cooperation over Afghanistan post-2014, will continue to be advocated by many as the correct goal of Western policy. However, the numerous domestic constituencies in the West, the Middle East and Iran itself that would need to be placated for such a bargain to be struck make it unlikely. Managing the Iranian nuclear programme’s challenges, alongside a degenerating Syrian situation, will require a large effort of diplomatic agility.

Europe’s security chiefs in 2013 will be preoccupied with the near-abroad challenges of Africa, the Middle East and Southwest Asia in a year in which the US is bound to reconfirm its ‘rebalancing’ towards Asia. Last year, the pivot, as it was first styled, was animated in part by the ‘strategic demand pull’ from America’s Asian allies, some of whom were concerned that American indifference would leave them exposed to a self-confident China. Since then, territorial disputes between China and Japan and China and other claimants to the South China Sea have worsened. Both the US and Asians will want to know how Europe can contribute to Asia’s delicate strategic balance. The revised French defence White Paper will no doubt contain its own mini version of the pivot, but in general, Europe is seen as having declining influence and clout strategically.

As close strategic allies of the US, and with huge interests in the high-growth Asia-Pacific, Europeans will be asked in 2013 what their role in Asia can be in the coming years. Asian security will depend on variable engagement by many different powers. That is no less true in the other regions of the world. Western states will on the one hand appreciate stronger regional roles played by local actors, but also worry that regional states might craft solutions or take initiatives that run counter to perceived Western desires. That is the reality of a more egalitarian strategic order.

A reasonable goal for Western players in these different regional theatres is to stay in the strategic management game and keep their relevance. That will often mean acting quickly to shape diplomatic outcomes and to influence security agendas.

Western states will inevitably see a decline in their relative ‘hard power’ as military budgets continue to shrink and the appetite for the use of military power dissipates. What they must continue to cultivate is their fast power. The intelligent and timely use of coercive force, coupled with agile diplomacy and joined by effective coalition building, can still be strategically significant.

Strategic extroversion is itself an asset. As the growth engines of the global economy shift southwards, Western countries need to retain their speed and flexibility of action abroad. In a fast-moving world, the absence of fast, decisive strategic thinking and diplomatic action will leave those in the slow lane out of the traffic.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Security Times, a special edition of the Atlantic Times produced for the Munich Security Conference 2013.


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