Sir Stewart Eldon KCMG OBE
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Sir Stewart Eldon KCMG OBE is an adviser and commentator on international defence and security issues. He served as UK Permanent Representative to NATO; Ambassador to Ireland; and Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in New York. He works with private and public sector clients in Africa and has led executive workshops in negotiation and diplomatic skills.


In a presentation to City of London decision-makers sponsored by The Ambassador Partnership last October, I warned we were in a time of turmoil, violent conflict and geostrategic change.  Leadership capacity, globally but in particular in the West, was inadequate to meet the growing number of challenges, whether Climate Change or Asymmetric Warfare.  The influence of non-state actors was growing and international institutions weakening. Governments would be unable to fill all the gaps. Business needed to know what the real problems were, understand where it fitted in and develop long-term influencing networks of its own where its interests mattered.

Sadly, I have not been disappointed in these predictions. The Ambassador Partnership has been approached by several organisations for advice.  What’s been happening and what should we expect – and do?

First, threats to security are growing.  It’s now clear that Russia will not be ejected from Ukraine quickly.  We are heading for a long war.  Putin’s determination over Ukraine and to stay in power more generally has been graphically illustrated by the appalling death of Alexei Navalny.  Continuing Western support for Ukraine, both financial and military, will be critical to maintaining a stable world order.  But in the US this is held hostage by Republican concerns over immigration.  In the EU some member states are playing not dissimilar political games.

Israel’s war in Gaza has resulted in a major humanitarian crisis, which seems likely to get even worse, illustrating the limitations of Western influence on Prime Minister Netanyahu and provoking the US to expose more than ever before the extent of its disagreement with his government.  It has devalued UNRWA as a UN relief organisation and stoked antisemitism in the West. It has also resulted in continuing significant disruption to international maritime trade. Tough words from the UN Secretary-General have not been met with corresponding action.  Tensions in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are increasing - and only the US and UK have felt able to take direct reprisals against the Houthis and other Iranian proxies.  The EU has launched a naval mission to protect shipping from Houthi attacks operating in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and surrounding waters.

In late January Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger announced their plan to withdraw from ECOWAS, perhaps the most effective of the African regional security organisations. While this may have been partly due to Russian influence, exercised politically and through a rebranded Wagner Group (now said to be offering ‘regime survival packages’ in Africa), there is undoubted popular resentment at continued French military presence in the region, the failure of Western efforts to improve the economic situation and the inability of ECOWAS (in which there are divergent political interests) to broker a solution.

Second, the Global South is becoming more assertive.  This is manifesting itself in many ways, including Saudi and other Gulf efforts to diversify from hydrocarbons and increase their global economic stake; more assertive Gulf diplomacy and activity in conflict zones, China’s (largely successful) attempts to gain political and economic influence and access to critical minerals; and a generally harder international political line taken e.g. by India in the negotiation of a bilateral trade agreement with the UK. The Gulf states and others have the resources and determination to exercise real weight. It is noticeable that many of the key negotiations over Gaza have been conducted by Qatar and Egypt.

The determination of Russia to secure influence in and support from African and other countries is in marked contrast to the perceived inaction of the West (despite the real efforts being made).  Russian objectives extend not only to political support in the UN General Assembly but to critical weapons and other supplies from the likes of Iran and North Korea.  The Russian narrative chimes well with growing discontent among non-aligned and G77 countries that they have been short-changed by the current international framework.

Third, democracy will be tested in multiple elections during the course of 2024.  So far, the prognosis is not encouraging.  Argentine President Millai’s injunction to business elites at Davos not to be intimidated either by the political class or by ‘parasites who live off the state’ is no ringing endorsement of government.  Ex-President Trump’s invitation to Russia to invade Allies who do not pay their way undercuts the fundamental rationale of NATO.  Populism is alive and well, even without the blandishments of deep-fake election broadcasts.  In Pakistan, where Imran Khan’s supporters have used AI openly and legitimately, the formation of a stable government is far from guaranteed.

Fourth, domestic/electoral issues in many Western countries are pulling effort, resources and attention away from fundamental geopolitical concerns.  In the US, the Congressional impasse over aid to Ukraine is a classic example of this.  A UK analogue might be the cost-of-living crisis and the funding of the National Health Service.

What conclusions can be drawn?

First, geostrategy, both security and economic, needs to be given more prominence in Western political debate.  This is far from easy in a global election year but business, if it wishes, can help provide the rigorous analysis necessary to provoke reflection and allow hard truths to be recognised.  In the UK, media organisations have recently sponsored substantial studies on health and education; a Commission on fundamental security requirements could make a similar positive impact.  It would need to address social and cultural issues, as the current UK debate on national service indicates.  There would necessarily be some difficult discussions, including in relation to the UK’s perception that it remains (or ought to remain) a serious global security player.  For decades now, senior US military figures have expressed concern at the declining state of Britain’s military capabilities. On a brighter post-Brexit note, Europe is looking to partner even more closely with the UK militarily.

Second, mass matters.  It is not sufficient in matters of hard and economic security to rely on diplomatic smoke and mirrors (even if those mirrors are properly funded). Recent commentators on Ukraine have argued correctly that while new technology is crucial in defending Ukraine, tanks, infantry and ammunition matter hugely too. President Zelensky’s plea at the Munich Security Conference for more Western weapons and economic support should be taken very seriously, not least in the light of Ukrainian withdrawal from Avdiivka.  

There are lessons here for Western governments in determining the size and structure of their militaries as well in maintaining sufficient equipment stocks to fight and win a long war.  The Russian economy is on a war footing but of NATO countries only Finland has taken strategic steps to ensure that guarantees for the necessary materiel and supplies are in place.  A non-military analogue lies in maintaining and developing critical national infrastructure. This includes in advanced European countries, such as Norway and Sweden. Even in the near future, politically attractive social and health spending may need to give way to these fundamental requirements.  Perhaps it is time to start setting defence spending benchmarks in terms of the Dollars, Pounds or Euros necessary to meet actual NATO and national requirements rather than percentages of GDP that fluctuate in output according to prosperity.

Third, international institutions are already changing and will change further.  Within NATO, the Polish Army has roughly doubled in size in the last 10 years and aims to expand by another 100,000 including reservists.   The wartime strength of the Finnish military is estimated at 280,000 with 23,000 active personnel. Sweden will bring a further 24,000 active personnel and 31,800 reserves, but needs to scale up personnel, materiel and combat ready units.  All three Armed Forces are well equipped and technologically advanced.  Once fully integrated into the NATO Command Structure, the Finnish and Swedish contributions will significantly change implementation of the defence of NATO’s northern flank.  There is also likely to be a change in the balance of NATO appointments with some established Allies like the UK (with an Army of now less than 80,000) losing out to those who contribute more.

In the UN, the credibility of the Security Council has been damaged by prolonged differences among the P5 over Syria and Ukraine.  It remains to be seen what effect the Secretary-General’s interventions over Gaza will have, but overall the regard in which the organisation is held seems likely to be damaged further.  Within the constraints of the UN Charter the G77 majority are increasingly active, but the barriers to significant reform are such that states may simply choose to deprioritise the UN rather than attempt to change it.

In Europe migration and illegal immigration are presenting new challenges to established legal instruments and conventions with some governments tempted to challenge properly arrived at international legal decisions.  While the COP process has had some successes on Climate Change its effectiveness is far from guaranteed.

Another manifestation of the decreasing potency of existing international institutions is the growing number of national or multinational initiatives designed to address new problems such as Artificial Intelligence, Internet Governance, Hydrocarbon Diversification and Critical Minerals.  All are at a relatively early stage but there is at least a recognition that these issues cannot be tackled by governments alone and that there must be a role for the private sector and other interested actors.

All these changes will place increasing demands on national leaderships.   So far few are responding well. Populist campaigning speeches, including those delivered by ex-President Trump, do not lend themselves to a rational assessment of where national (and indeed global) interests really lie.  In the UK, the government’s evident difficulty with the Courts (who are only implementing laws made by Parliament) does little to encourage respect for state institutions.  

Better and more inclusive strategic assessments and plans are required.  If governments cannot provide them, others should.


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