Sir Lawrence Freedman is not only an internationally acclaimed author, but he is also the dean of British strategic studies and Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. I have a boundless admiration for this institution and I hope to enlist in the near future to the online Master’s Degree in War Studies it offers.
Sir Lawrence generously accepted to answer a few questions for this blog and I am extremely grateful for that. Here is the content of our exchange.
Russia is a constant challenge because it feels itself at threat from the West and has taken a tough stance that creates an edginess.
My point was then that the withdrawal from Afghanistan, chaotic though it was, was unfortunately expected and the lesson (not to put substantial ground forces into a civil war) had been learned a decade earlier. Russia is a constant challenge because it feels itself at threat from the West and has taken a tough stance that creates an edginess, especially as it plays a disruptive role in European affairs. It poses a challenge that is serious but should be manageable as its underlying position if weak. China has been getting stronger for the past three decades year on year, although that growth may be stuttering now. It has turned itself into a great power, militarily as well as economically, and under Xi has taken a much more assertive stance on a whole range of issues. I believe this stance will turn out to be counter-productive, but it creates a risky and dynamic situation which could spark a wider confrontation (see answer to next question).
Xi is not getting younger and I suspect he wants unification [with Taiwan] to be part of his legacy.
Lots of attention is paid to the war scenarios between China and the United States. What do you think of that possibility?
The most important piece of unfinished business for Beijing is Taiwan. China believes it is entitled to territory from around its periphery, unjustly taken from it in colonial times, so there are many potential flashpoints but Taiwan is the most serious. If Taiwan made a definitive move to declare itself independent of China that might trigger a military response, although this might take the form of a blockade before attempted occupation, which would be hazardous even without US intervention. Xi is not getting younger and I suspect he wants unification to be part of his legacy but he may also feel that China’s position will get stronger if he waits. I still think the disincentives to great power war are formidable but if one was to happen this is where it would be.
It is important for Russia to be taken seriously as a great power, not least because Putin feels that his opponents in the West will take advantage of any sign of weakness.
According to some, President Putin is a lethal threat to the West. For others, he simply wants Russia to be recognized as a great power. What is your reading of his intentions and strategy?
I think it is important to Russia to be taken seriously as a great power, not least because he feels that his opponents in the West will take advantage of any sign of weakness. His ability to keep Assad in power has given Russia standing in the Middle East, although there is no capacity to help Syria reconstruct and the rebellion is not yet over. I think he has his hands full in Ukraine and Syria.
I know it might be too early to assess the current US administration, but how would you rate the Biden presidency so far, in terms of its strategic ability in foreign policy?
I would give it higher marks than many because it has a clear policy – as we have seen with both Afghanistan and shoring up US alliances in the Indo-Pacific. Execution has not been good. It is worth keeping in mind that the Senate has yet to confirm most of his State Dept nominees and for Ambassadors to most allies, so that is not helping.
Great strategists don’t always have the occasions to show off their skills. Also, good strategy might just be staying out of trouble.
In your opinion, what world leader is the shrewdest strategist on the world scene actually?
It’s difficult, because among the major powers no obvious candidates at the moment. One might have said Merkel but her achievement was keeping the show on the road rather than any transformational breakthrough. Strategy also depends on the specific challenges faced. Great strategists don’t always have the occasions to show off their skills. Also, good strategy might just be staying out of trouble.
My blog being mainly about great books and authors, I hope you will permit me to ask you a few questions related to them. Would you agree to share with my readers the most notable recent books you read about current affairs?
I do a lot of reviewing so I read a lot. At the moment, I am into Martin Indyk’s Master of the Game, which is a fascinating account of Henry Kissinger’s Middle East diplomacy in the mid-1970s. On a similar theme of explaining the workings of diplomacy I really enjoyed Rose Gotemoeller’s ‘Negotiating the new START Treaty.’ It gives a real feel for the practicalities of negotiating not only with the Russians but also the White House.
What are your favorite books and who are your favorite authors?
My former supervisor and mentor, the late Sir Michael Howard, wrote many wonderful books and I read them all. Because I have to read so much heavyweight stuff for work, for pleasure I enjoy good comic writing such as PG Wodehouse and David Lodge or good detective stories such as Ian Rankin.
My argument is that [military] command is inherently political.
Do you have another book on the writing table? If so, would it be indiscreet to ask what will be the subject?
I am just finishing a book called Command: the politics of military operations from Kabul to Afghanistan. For once the title and subtitle explain what it is all about. My argument is that command is inherently political and I develop the point by looking at a large number of cases form after the Second World War – these are not just the obvious US and UK examples but also the French colonial wars, conflicts between Israel and the Arabs and India and Pakistan, Chechnya and Ukraine. It was a good lockdown book to write but I’ll be pleased to have it finished.
Many sincere thanks for the generosity of your time, Sir Lawrence. I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing your upcoming book, which seems absolutely fascinating.