The Global Strategic Shift: 2017-2021

By Robbin Laird

If you live inside the Beltway, the title of this piece can be answered simply: Donald Trump.

And for the Biden team, the challenge is to go back to the world in 2017 which in the words of former Secretary of State John Kerry, “For the eight years of the Obama-Biden administration, we led by example. We eliminated the threat of an Iran with a nuclear weapon. We built a 68-nation coalition to destroy ISIS. We forged a 195-nation agreement to attack climate change. We stopped Ebola before it became a pandemic.”

Kerry provided a good snapshot of what would be a significant threat posed by those in the Biden Administration who actually believe this.

It would be a U.S. security and foreign policy driven by Rip Van Winkle.

But frankly, the world has changed so much, this is not likely to happen, and there are a number of dynamic policymakers in the Administration who certainly realize this.

But we are helped in this exercise of thinking back to the past four years without using the T word, because one of core allies, France has provided insights into answering this challenge.

Recently, the French government issued an update to their defense policy guidance which had been issued in 2017 by the Macron Administration.

The foreword to the French Strategic Update 2021, by Florence Parly, the French Minister of the Armed Forces, underscores how different four years can be in global affairs.

“Since the publication of the 2017 Defence and National Security Strategic Review — the framework that laid the foundations for the Military Planning Law (MPL of 13th July 2018) for 2019-2025 — our strategic environment has been in a constant state of flux, as the President of the French Republic noted on 7th February 2020 in his speech on defence and deterrence strategy at the École Militaire. Certain trends that were already in play have been confirmed, while others have accelerated and a number of disruptive events have made their mark. The Covid-19 pandemic, in particular, has provoked major social and economic upheavals, magnifying divisions and power relationships, creating new tensions over resources and, above all, catalysing threats. The time has therefore come to take stock of the changes that have occurred over the past four years

“For this reason, I wanted to update the French Ministry for the Armed Forces’ analysis of the status and evolution of the strategic context.”

Of course, the document is about how France is working to deal with the evolving strategic environment and reflects how the Macron Administration sees the proper response from the standpoint of French national interests. Something that makes sense in any case for any leader of a liberal democratic power to do, rather than have a muddle headed view of internationalism.

The document highlights what are labelled as “entrenched crises and structural fragility.”

The eastern and northern flanks of Europe have remained under pressure, with conflicts in Ukraine and the Caucasus (Nagorno-Karabakh), an open crisis in Belarus, persistent challenges in the Balkans, and recurring tensions along the borders between NATO members and Russia, as the latter has pursued its military modernisation and disinformation campaigns.

 Africa remains a hotbed of open crises compounded by rivalries imported by countries seeking influence. The active interference of external powers is thus exacerbating pre-existing antagonisms in Libya, transforming the crisis into a conflict and undermining cohesion within major multilateral organisations. In West Africa, and particularly in the Sahel-Sahara region, there is a growing number of potential crisis factors. Demographic pressure and the consequences of climate change are increasing urban pressure and heightening tensions between nomadic and sedentary populations. Wherever State governance is absent or ineffective, Islamist preachers and radical movements are recruiting from the ranks of unemployed youth.

 This breeding ground for mistrust, which is conducive to contestation and to the extension of the terrorist threat, is advancing southwards to the point of threatening the stability of the coastal States of the Gulf of Guinea. Stabilisation and development efforts in the Sahel are beginning to bear fruit, thanks in particular to the support of a broader coalition of international organisations and partners who have committed themselves alongside France, including via military support. However, the disintegration of States or the fragility of their institutions is nurturing the persistence of armed groups of all types, whether religious, ideological or criminal, from West Africa to the Gulf of Guinea and as far as the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and Mozambique.

 Likewise, the crises in the Near and Middle East are changing but not subsiding. Although they reflect real progress towards normalisation between Israel and the Arab countries, the Abraham agreements signed on 15 September 2020 have not reduced instability in the region. In Syria, the recapture by the regime and its supporters of a large portion of the country has in no way led to a lasting resolution of the crisis which would alleviate the suffering of the population and allow the return of refugees. In Iraq, political progress must not eclipse the situation of a country suffering from strong popular dissatisfaction, an unprecedented economic crisis, and tensions fuelled by Iran.

 In Afghanistan, after four decades of war, the level of violence remains extremely high, despite the agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban on 29 February 2020 in Doha. The peace process and the political future of the country (Taliban takeover of the Afghan State or power-sharing) remain fraught with uncertainty and could affect our interests, through international terrorism, drug trafficking, or illegal immigration.

Crises and structural fragility feed off each other. For example, the potentially destabilising nature of global population growth 2 exacerbates existing political and socio-economic tensions in already fragile regions and is reflected in the influx of migrants and refugees into Europe.

The European periphery has been in a state of permanent instability for a decade. Continuing violence in the Sahel, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lack of economic prospects are triggering large population movements. Beyond the significant drop in irregular entries at the external borders of the European Union, recorded during the second quarter of 2020 as a result of the measures taken by States to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, new focal points for migrants in transit have developed, either informally or under State control; these could fuel a rapid and massive resumption of migrant flows. Finally, the migration issue can be exploited, as shown by the pressure exerted on the European Union (EU) by Turkey, the leading host and transit country for Syrian refugees.

As a consequence of global population growth and corresponding economic development, we are seeing a long-term and sustained increase in demand for water and energy. For historical and cost-related reasons, the majority of needs are still covered by fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal), which could still account for nearly 80% of the world’s energy mix in 2040. Although declining, global oil consumption continues to play a decisive role in trade and is slowing down the energy transition made necessary by climate change.

Thus, growing demand for gas, increasingly inaccessible conventional oil reserves and the development of non-conventional hydrocarbons are redrawing the map of production and transit zones, sometimes at the cost of growing geopolitical tensions. In future, France and Europe will be increasingly dependent for their gas supplies on countries outside the European area, whether historic producers (Russia), revived energy players (United States) or transit countries (Turkey). Finally, the Persian Gulf remains a critical source of crude oil for France and the EU — Middle East suppliers (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, UAE, Kuwait) account for one-third of world oil production and have a decisive impact on its price.

 Among the other vulnerabilities identified by DNSSR 2017, and since confirmed by the Covid-19 pandemic, flows in a globalised world are denser and more numerous, which favours the spread of viruses, complicates the response to health crises and spares no region of the world. The current pandemic has illustrated in spectacular manner the risks induced by the globalisation of production and value chains, the resulting effects of dependency — particularly with regard to China, in health issues but also in many everyday matters — and the need for stronger international cooperation mechanisms.

The document then highlights what the French government sees as “persistent threats.”

Over the next decade, the jihadist phenomenon will continue to pose a global security challenge. Whether religious or ideological, as well as social, political and economic, the structural factors that favour the rise of jihadist groups in theatres of operations are multiple and have not disappeared. Jihadists have always been able to exploit them and take advantage of the opportunities available to them. The presence of several thousand supporters and fighters, often held in refugee camps in Syria and Iraq, but also scattered in neighbouring countries and as far away as Afghanistan, is feeding a dynamic of revenge and violent engagement and preparing the next generation of jihadists.

Among the many risks to be anticipated, apart from the dispersion of foreign jihadists from the Levant, the continued marginalisation of Sunni populations and Sunni-Shia tensions must be considered as the main lever for a jihadist resurgence in the Near and Middle East in the short to medium term. Indeed, it is on this fertile soil that jihadist organisations have recently succeeded in provoking full-fledged armed insurrections.

After the disappearance of the pseudo-caliphate in 2019, the Islamic State organisation (IS) reverted to a clandestine configuration and continued to expand its franchises in Africa and Asia. Still firmly rooted in the Levant, despite the military setbacks suffered from 2017 to 2019, it retains a strong disruptive potential by maintaining an insurgent terrorist capacity, as well as by its ability to influence minds via social networks. Faced with the current crises and different regional contexts (Sahel, Yemen, North Africa, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia…), the Al-Qaeda (AQ) movement is also experiencing a revival.

In Yemen, for example, although divided and weakened by the loss of key personnel, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continues to pose a threat. In the Sahel, the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (SGIM) has also been weakened by the elimination of important leaders and its fight against Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), but it has not given up its ambition to extend its attacks beyond Mali.

Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, therefore, still have significant operational competences (bomb makers, military trainers, specialists in clandestinity, financiers…) and could have access to more sophisticated weapons in the future.

We cannot exclude the hypothesis of a re-emergence of territorialised proto-States, following the collapse of governance as well as difficulties in establishing post-conflict stability. The reappearance of jihadist sanctuaries, possibly linked to emerging insurgencies, would once again raise the spectre of a militarised and belligerent jihadist threat.

The recent jihadist attacks in France and Austria confirm the fact that Western countries remain targets of choice for jihadist organisations. Moreover, the endogenous threat has never been so high and is likely to increase further in the near future.

Finally, the situation in the countries around the Mediterranean should be closely monitored.

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems is a growing threat, as illustrated by the worsening North Korean and Iranian nuclear proliferation crises, as well as the continuous upgrading of certain ballistic missiles and the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian theatre3 . The CBRN threat has also diversified and is no longer limited to theatres of operations. The repeated use 4 of chemical agents to spread terror or to poison has reinforced the sense that a taboo has been broken. The threat is therefore real, including on national soil, and it could be amplified by expected developments in synthetic biology.

While a major health crisis and not a chemical or biological threat, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed real fragilities in Western States, from warning mechanisms to health systems, which could foster opportunistic exploitation.

In the nuclear field, the adoption by some States of opaque, or even useoriented, nuclear postures seems increasingly at odds with the classic codes of deterrence, as it forms part of a strategy of intimidation or even blackmail that could provoke escalation. At the conventional level as well, we note the dissemination of effective anti-access / area denial (A2/ AD) capabilities, modern combat aircraft or missiles of all types which, in becoming accessible, help to embolden regional powers.

Thus, Iran is pursuing its nuclear programme in violation of its commitments under the JCPoA, particularly with regard to its stockpiles of low enriched uranium and heavy water, authorised enrichment levels, R&D and the installation of centrifuges.

In addition, Iran is failing to cooperate fully with the IAEA in verifying its nuclear obligations. Tehran is also pursuing the development of its ballistic and space programmes, conducting numerous operational launches and tests aimed at improving the range, accuracy and penetration of its delivery systems — in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231. Iran also continues to transfer ballistic systems and technologies to regional non-state actors, both in Lebanon and Yemen.

Similarly, the strategic challenge posed by North Korea, which is disrupting regional and ultimately global strategic balances, has only increased since 2017: the United States failed to obtain concrete guarantees on the country’s denuclearisation at the 2018 and 2019 summits, while Pyongyang has shown its determination to develop an operational nuclear arsenal of intercontinental range and has made continuous, significant progress.

Since May 2019, North Korea has resumed conventional and short-range tests and, at the end of December 2019, openly raised the possibility of resuming its long-range nuclear and ballistic tests, on which a moratorium had been agreed in 2018. Beijing and Pyongyang also appear to have realigned their regional ambitions. While China is still promoting the “denuclearisation of the peninsula”, it seems that neither the definition of the terms nor the purpose of the process satisfies the expectations of the international community.

Contestation of the international order is leading to multi-dimensional competition between the international powers extending to all domains of confrontation. The resumption of strategic and military competition, whether by Russia or China, is now acknowledged.

Relying first and foremost on a range of non-military resources (instruments of disinformation and propaganda, capacity for clandestine action, etc.), the strategic intimidation posture developed by Russia is also based on the political priority given to the development and modernisation of sophisticated military capabilities, whether conventional (A2/AD), non-conventional (private military contractors or proxies) or nuclear.

The resurgence of Russia’s military power, in contrast to the country’s economic and demographic decline, is based on upgrading nuclear components, developing new weapon systems, some of which are destabilising5 , and modernising conventional forces.

For example, by establishing anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities along its borders, designed to force any attacker into a major escalation, Moscow could pursue both defensive and coercive aims (“aggressive sanctuarisation”), depending on the circumstances. Moscow can now project forces (occupation of the Crimea and the Donbass, intervention in Syria), deploy a strategy of intimidation throughout neighbouring States and beyond (Arctic, Caucasus, Balkans, Mediterranean), degrade the Western powers’ freedom of action and make itself a key player in the management of regional crises. As has been demonstrated, particularly in the Levant, Russia has become an opportunistic and agile power, with a rapid projection capability.

The People’s Republic of China, meanwhile, has doubled its defence budget since 2012, making it the second largest in the world, while expanding its nuclear arsenal and developing new systems6 . The deployment of a carrier battle group beyond the South China Sea illustrated these new ambitions in terms of power projection. In response, the United States, whose military budget had stabilised 7 below $700 billion between 2012 and 2017, has since increased expenditures to $720 billion and has made competition between the major powers the main determinant of its defence policy.

In this environment, competitors are using new means to gain dominance or, in the words of the document, there is “increasingly widespread use of hybrid and multifaceted strategies.” These strategies interact with accelerating trends and overlapping crises to create a very dynamic and even explosive situation.

The multidimensional crisis caused by the pandemic is acting as a catalyst for the major threats and trends previously identified, while at the same time degrading the response capacities of States. Widespread health protection measures have had unprecedented consequences on the global economy, leading to the most severe economic recession since 1929.

The remedial measures announced by States (relocation of activities, repatriation of strategic production, etc.) foreshadow an at least partial decline in the internationalisation of the economy.

The crisis is also focusing almost all the attention of the international community, at the risk of neglecting other issues that are just as worrying but long-term.

 President Macron has been at the forefront of those in Europe who see shaping a more geopolitical Europe capable of greater strategic autonomy as the response which France and Europe need to make to position themselves to deal with such a strategic environment.

And in such a context, the role of the United States has changed over the past two Administrations to where France and Europe need to do a much better job taking care of themselves.

One should note that another major ally has reached the same conclusion on the other side of the world, namely, Australia.

It is really less about the personality of the incumbent of the White House, than longer term strategic trends.

And this is how the French government in this document expresses this position.

American security policy is undergoing a long-term refocus, already initiated under the Obama administration (“nation building at home”) and now formalised in several official documents. Washington intends to reduce its engagement in theatres perceived as secondary, in order to concentrate on strategic competition with the major powers. In particular, the emergence of China as a strategic rival — its considerable military and technological investments, its expansionism in all directions and the resulting tensions in Asia — as well as Russia’s military modernisation efforts and the posture of intimidation adopted by Moscow, pose a challenge to the pre-eminence of the United States. In return, the firmer stance towards China in particular is the subject of bipartisan consensus in Washington.

This focus on strategic competition is accompanied by a more or less gradual military disengagement from theatres of operations in which U.S. forces have long been engaged, such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Washington also expects its allies and partners, in particular those hosting U.S. forces on their territory, to take on a greater share of the “burden”, thus allowing resources to be redirected towards American priorities (innovation, multi-dimensional force model refocused on high-intensity operations).

 Analyses on the return of strategic competition, at the heart of this refocus, are shared by many of the United States’ allies, starting with France. However, the conclusions that have been drawn by Washington since 2017 are problematic in several respects. The weakening of the international order should give rise to renewed efforts in support of multilateralism and arms control, rather than a move away from them.

Similarly, it would be dangerous to overlook the continuing threat of jihadist terrorism or to leave regions plagued by instability to fend for themselves, as they provide opportunities for the ambitions of emboldened global and regional powers.

Finally, the overly exclusive focus on competition with Beijing, and the resulting temptation to restore a form of bipolarity based on the alignment of allies, could be inconsistent with a complex, resolutely multipolar world.

 Between a general aspiration to disengage, demands to allies, and occasional military re-engagement, the global orientation of U.S. policy is unclear and makes transatlantic consultation indispensable. Since 2017, the Trump administration had multiplied signs of mistrust towards multilateral organisations, whilst also giving the impression of mixing commercial and security interests according to a transactional approach. On all these issues, the new American administration could opt for international cooperation, in contrast to the unilateralism pursued since 2017; it would then be up to the Europeans to firmly seize any such overtures.

The strategic shift of Europe and the United States, both with regard to each other, and in terms of the global environment, is unfolding in the context of an evolving Russian and Chinese global strategy.

This is how the French government expresses this evolution.

Russia and China have actively developed their power strategy, exploiting available opportunities and neglected areas, as illustrated during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Although its economic leverage is constrained, Moscow today remains determined to deploy its strategic ambitions, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, and even in South-East Asia and Latin America. Its renewed military capabilities, its private military contractors, its immaterial capabilities and its diplomatic influence allow it to project itself more easily into more distant theatres. Faced with Moscow’s strategic opportunism, and given the central role played by Russia on issues that directly affect national security interests, France has opted for a balanced response that combines firmness and engagement, which has made it possible to initiate a candid dialogue with Russia.

As far as the People’s Republic of China is concerned, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed some of the strategic ambitions and modes of action of the Chinese regime. Openly acknowledging its strategic rivalry with Washington and exploiting all the opportunities that have presented themselves, over the last three years, Beijing has developed a diplomacy that is both active and aggressive; raised its actions of influence to a global level; bolstered efforts relating to espionage, technological appropriation and wielding its new economic and industrial weight; and, finally, demonstrated its military resolve.

Reinforced by Xi Jinping since 2012, this basic trend marks a turning point in the development of Chinese power: now endowed with unprecedented capabilities, Beijing intends to weigh more directly on global issues and to assert its strategic aspirations.

As an international plea from a rising great power, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) testifies at another level to China’s intent to exert a greater influence on its environments, to reshape certain configurations (even beyond the South China Sea) and to become the central hub for the trade flows of globalisation. In this perspective, the development of a first-rate military capability is as much a quest for status as an operational ambition.

The extension of its interests beyond its regional periphery requires China to invest in operational armed forces with an expeditionary capability. Visible in the construction of its naval base in Djibouti or the development of its naval aviation capacities, this desire to project itself aims to give Beijing the capacity to reduce vulnerabilities along maritime corridors, but also to protect its interests, as well as its nationals abroad, more directly. Moreover, while its public nuclear doctrine remains centred on “no first use”, the rapid development of China’s deterrent capabilities raises questions.

Capable of promoting diplomatic alignments, weighing more directly on international organisations such as the WHO or the WFP, taking long-term action in the field of information or exerting influence on major political groupings such as the European Union (use of the “17+1”), China has become a “systemic rival” for the EU, while remaining an economic competitor and sometimes an important diplomatic partner.

 The global strategic dynamic is thus being significantly reshaped which has implications then for how regional competition is playing out.

This is how the French government expresses this evolution.

The American refocus on rivalry with China is also bolstering the confidence of countries such as Iran and Turkey, which are seeking to assert themselves as regional powers and are tempted to seize strategic opportunities to consolidate their status or advance their interests, at the price of growing adventurism. In so doing, these countries are participating in the contestation of the world order in the same way as Russia and China, or even in concert with them.

Indeed, while these powers are often competitors, they have at the same time shown that they can overcome their divergences in order to squeeze out Western powers. This trend, of which the Astana format (Russia, Turkey, Iran) on Syria is the most significant illustration, can be seen in a large number of crises: Libya, Venezuela, Afghanistan, etc. It further weakens international and regional organisations by developing transactional models for resolving crises.

In spite of the economic loss caused by the restoration of U.S. sanctions and serious internal setbacks (impact of the Covid crisis, destruction of a Ukrainian Boeing aircraft, regular demonstrations), Iran is seeking to maintain its status as a regional power through its involvement in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts. Its support for the regime of Bashar al Assad has enabled it to strengthen its strategic corridor towards Lebanon and its regional economic interests. Iran is also striving to turn Iraq into their own “strategic backyard” and to provoke an American withdrawal. Tehran relies on political and military proxies, in particular certain Popular Mobilisation militias, and gives them support, including transfers of military equipment.

These same militias are today jeopardising the establishment of a truly representative Iraqi military and thus the stabilisation of the country, while at the same time being an instrument of the struggle led by Iran against the United States on Iraqi soil. In Lebanon, Tehran can also count on Hezbollah which, while increasing its political role, has reinforced its regional stature thanks to its intervention in Syria and its role as advisor to other Iranian proxies.

Moreover, Iran intends to strengthen its influence by linking the theatres of crisis together. By supporting the Houthi rebellion or by capitalising on the frustrations felt by the Shia communities of the Arabian Peninsula, as well as by the Palestinians, to promote the “axis of resistance” concept, Tehran is trying to influence or force the hand of its Gulf neighbours.

A NATO member since 1952, Turkey occupies a key position in the defence and security posture of the Alliance (control of the straits, military bases). In spite of its domestic difficulties, R. T. Erdogan wants to make Turkey an indispensable player in Central Asia and the Middle East but also in Europe. Ankara has thus developed an offensive foreign policy aimed at establishing Turkey as an international power that does not hesitate to impose itself using strong arm tactics, in the Mediterranean, Libya or the Caucasus, using all the levers at its disposal, sometimes regardless of its Alliance membership or international law.

Since January 2020, Turkey has positioned itself as a major player in the Libyan conflict, providing military support to the Government of National Accord, including violations of the arms embargo. Through its military intervention, it has succeeded in changing the local balance of power but has also reduced the possibility of a diplomatic settlement of the crisis by provoking an increased Russian presence.

The ongoing reconfigurations are in turn leading to changes in the posture of the other regional players: the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Israel or Egypt, which are seeing their strategic environment deteriorate, while the U.S. seems hesitant over its regional involvement.

Certainly, this is a strategic assessment from the point of view of the French government.

It is also a good look at how to think about the last four years, if you are not using the optic of Donald Trump.

And it is the world which the Biden Administration is entering, and simply arguing that “America is Back” is not realistic nor effective guidance.

The French 2021 strategic update can be read in PDF below:

Strategic review 2021

Or in e-book below: