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.

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Behind the Mali headlines, an issue of airlift

RAF C17 Transport Aircraft. Photo MoD under an Open Government Licence

By Douglas BarrieJames Hackett and Henry Boyd, Defence and Military Analysis Programme

Two weeks after sending troops to Mali to repel an advance by Islamist rebels, France has enjoyed much tactical success. French and Malian forces have retaken Timbuktu and Gao, and are now reported to have reached the last Islamist stronghold, Kidal. The main challenges ahead include sustaining these gains, bolstering the Malian military and improving governance.

But these tactical achievements come despite a continuing fragility within some French military capabilities: the limited availability of so-called ‘air platform force enablers’ in general, and a paucity of strategic airlift in particular. This general shortfall afflicts many other European countries, and in the case of strategic airlift is only now being fixed.

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The union at Europe’s heart is frayed

French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hold at press conference in Berlin. Photo: Bundesregierung/Denzel

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the Elysee Treaty – the document signed by Paris and Berlin in an attempt to turn two hostile neighbours and rivals into allies, and to ultimately lay the groundwork for the European Union. As IISS Chairman Francois Heisbourg points out in the Financial Times, it comes at a time of strain in the Franco-German partnership.

France’s Le Monde newspaper has already been very dismissive about the scheduled joint session of the French and German parliaments in Berlin’s Reichstag building today. Heisbourg writes that: ‘From the eurozone crisis to intervention in Libya and Mali, and the failed merger of EADS and BAE Systems, the differences and tensions between Paris and Berlin are palpable.’

He admits that shaping a joint strategic future takes time, but says that France and Germany have recently lost the will to overcome other national differences – a process aided by their shifting relative strength, the expansion of the EU, and the arrival of a new generation of leaders ‘who no longer carry the historical baggage of the founding fathers’.

Yet the factor that could now have the biggest impact on France and Germany’s partnership is a third player: Britain.

Read the article at the Financial Times (subscription required)


The battle south of Algiers

The In Amenas gas installation in Algeria. Photo: BP

By Virginia Comolli, Research Associate for Transnational Threats

Until it permitted the French air force to fly through its airspace into Mali this weekend, Algeria had been protesting for months that it would not welcome any outside military intervention to quell the rebellion in its southern neighbour. The hostage crisis unfolding in the Algerian desert, following an attack by militants on the In Amenas gas plant, one of the country’s largest, has starkly demonstrated the risks of reprisal.

So one of the most interesting questions is what accounted for Algeria’s change of heart. This is difficult to answer because decision-making in Algiers is famously opaque, and the country often takes an ambiguous stance on regional security issues.

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France to the rescue

Operation SERVAL au Mali

By Francois Heisbourg, IISS chairman

PARISOn 11 January, French military forces entered Mali, taking and inflicting casualties in a war as sudden as it is important.

Even at this early stage, broadly applicable lessons can be drawn from the conflict. Although the future course of the fighting is laden with risks, skillful diplomacy can turn it into a major opportunity in the struggle against international terrorism.

The French intervention was prompted by the combined offensive towards Bamako, the capital of Mali, of the three jihadi organisations which seized control of the northern half of the country last year. This unforeseen attack prompted the president of Mali to ask France for immediate help.

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Mali coup plays into the hands of Tuareg rebels

Malian soldiers take part in a joint exercise with US special forces, February 2011. © US AFRICOM

By Natalia Debczak-Debski, Research Assistant, Armed Conflict Database

Known for its relative political stability in an otherwise volatile region, Mali has often been characterised as one of Africa’s best-functioning democracies. However, a mutiny which began on the evening of 21 March resulted in a coup against the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré, just a month before scheduled presidential elections in which he was not standing for re-election.

On the morning of 22 March, coup leaders, introducing themselves as the National Committee for the Reestablishment of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDR), pledged they would ‘return power to a democratically elected president as soon as national unity and territorial integrity are restored’ in the north of the country. The committee, chaired by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, primarily accused Touré of incompetence and inadequately supporting them in the fight against the new Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) – a rebel movement seeking to establish an autonomous state in Mali’s desert north. The tension between the two groups had intensified in recent months following the fall of Muammar Gadhafi, which resulted in an influx of well-armed rebels returning from Libya.

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