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16 Mei 2013


Medium Power Strategy Revisited

Some fifteen years ago I set out, in a book called Maritime Strategy for Medium Powers, some ideas as to the principles by which such powers could conduct their maritime affairs in the  foreseeable future – a future which should be subject to the minimum number of assumptions.

That caveat has been justified by events  since, principally by the destruction of the assumption that the bipolar world and associated Cold War would continue indefinitely. It is therefore an opportune moment to examine whether the theories of medium-power maritime strategy, such as they are, have survived intact or need to be modified.

One critical assumption, however, must be made and needs to be stated. It is that the nation-state is and will remain the principal unit of account in the world’s strategic dealings. That is not statement that would pass unchallenged on the other side of the world. The experience of Europe, and maybe to some extent the United States, over past years has tempted many to wonder if the primacy of the nation-state has given way to other elements of the global village : federal institutions, structure alliances, multi-national corporations, irredentist factions, non-governmental organizations, powerful and media-supported special interest groups. Those complexities and doubts are perceived as less far-reaching in this part of the globe; and for what it is worth I go along with that perception.  But, even if they are given less weight in the Asia-Pacific region, account must be taken of these developments -  for which a convenient shorthand is globalization – in any re-analysis of medium-power strategy.

If then the nation-state is our unit of account, can we examine what is meant by the power of such states ? Here we can venture a definition :  power is the ability to influence events.  And for the nation-state, its two principal components are economic and military leverage.  But there are other elements. A web of less tangible assets is available and is used :  knowledge; educational attainment and facilities; diplomatic skills; cultural and linguistic legacies; ideological influence; religious and ethnic links; post-colonial guilt. And extremely unsatisfactory shorthand for this array of levers is intellectual power.

What interests of the nation-state should its power serve ? There are two enshrined in the United Nations Charter :  territorial integrity and political independence.  They appear, specifically and significantly, in the critically important Article 2 (4) of the Charter, as interests against which no other state may use or threaten force. Yet even these core interests are not necessarily regarded now as inviolable. The territorial integrity of the former Jugoslavia, and the political independence of Haiti, are arguably both casualties of the past decade. Yet it is hard to discount the Charter and say these are not vital interests.

There is, however, in my view a third cluster of interests that are properly to be termed vital, and which for want of a more precise word may be called Betterment. It is the objective of any decent government – and most governments try to be decent most of the time – that the governed shall flourish, both economically and spiritually. Actions to achieve that objective may run counter to those of other states : often such competition can be resolved by negotiation before it turns nasty, but conflict over scarse resources, or over religious or ethnic hegemonies, can all too often erupt. It will be a concern of any medium power to be able to handle such conflicts in a way that ensures a favourable outcome for its people.

It is time to question whether the phrase ‘ Medium Power ‘ is still capable of definition. It is easy enough to say what a medium power is not. It is not a small power. Small power are not able themselves to safeguard their vital interests, not even their  territorial integrity, against a determined predator’s coup de main. A classical example in recent times is Kuwait; or Panama. Smal powers, to be even minimally secure, must live under guarantee, however much media suasion or moral strength they have. Neither is the medium power a superpower, and here the Post-Cold war world does present us with problems of definition. Is the United States now the only superpower? I would suggest that two other states still effectively merit superpower status : China and Russia. The reason I that no state in its senses, not even the USA, is going to attempt to mount a head-on challenge to the territorial integrity or political independence of either of these, and they are big enough and carry enough clout economically to ensure that the rest of the world respects their aspirations to Betterment.
If then the medium power lies between the small power that must live under guarantee, and the superpower that is effectively impervious to outside threat, how is it to view its power, its ability to influence events? It is suggested that the keywords are Vital Interests and Autonomy. Medium power, by its very nature, is likely to have few resources to spare for the exercise of power beyond what is necessary to safeguard and, where possible, further its vital interests of territorial integrity, political independence and betterment. The extent of those vital interests needs to be carefully assessed. But once that has been done, then the medium power will want to keep the levers of powers in its own hands to the maximum extent possible. Australia calls that self-reliance; my word is autonomy; I guess we mean the same thing. I defined the medium power’s fundamental security objective in 1986 as to create and keep under national control enough means of power to initiate and sustain coercive actions whose outcome will be the preservation of its vital interests. On careful re-examination, I would not wish to change that.

Another matter to be re-examined is maritime-ness as a supplement to medium-ness. Here
there does appear to have been a shift in the strategic, or perhaps one should rather say grand-tactical, pattern over the last decade, one that is not just a matter of defence fashion and one that will persist well into the next century. This is the sharply increased emphasis on joint operations. Cold War planning was dominated, on the other side of the world, by quite sharply differentiated concepts of land, sea and air warfare. Each made a contribution to the whole ( though the short-war school in Britain tended to discount the importance of the sea ), but they could be looked on as almost separate battles. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall a profound shift has been typified by the US From the Sea series of doctrinal statements and equally radical thinking in the UK featured not only in the Strategic Defence Review of 1998, but in the doctrine statements of all three services, and in joint publications, and enshrined in the amalgamation of the UK staff colleges.

At the same time, the generality of maritime-ness in the West has shrunk somewhat. That is to say, merchant shipping fleets under western flags or beneficial ownership have diminished, distant-water fisheries have declined; exploitation of offshore resources has not expanded to the extent that the visionaries, at least, expected. There is some mismatch between the developing international law of the sea, with its emphasis on national sovereign rights and the situation in practice where multinational characteristics predominate. Thus, one can see a good deal  of confusion between an increased interest in the sea for security purpose and a relative decrease in the Western perception of vital interests in the sea itself. A crude summary might be : ‘ More by sea, less at sea ‘.

This is perhaps much more an Atlantic and European phenomenon than a worldwide one. In the Asia-Pacific area, maritime-ness is a strong feature of the whole scene both economically and in security terms. Sea trades increase; exploitation of resources increases; squabbles about the demarcation of those resources simmer, bubble and occasionally explode; sea armaments are augmented more swiftly than in any other part of the world; and the area has caught the Joint bug no less than has the West. Scarcely any state in the Asia-Pacific does think of themselves as maritime, and most – certainly in the rim nations – must think of themselves as medium powers according to the definition and objective that are set out here.

Richard Hill, March 2000, RAN Working Paper No.3.

About the Author :  Richard Hill served for over 40 years in the Royal Navy in the sea and Whitehall appointments, ending his career in 1983 as Rear Admiral. He has been Under Treasurer of the Middle Temple and Chairman of the Society for Nautical Research. He has written several books on maritime warfare, strategy and arms control, notably Maritime Strategy for Medium Powers in 1986. He lectures worldwide on these areas. He is editor of The Naval Review.

Naval Strategy - A.T. Mahan


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