“Information Is Part Of The Spectrum Of War”: A Throw-Back Interview With Sir Richard Shirreff


After the Debating Society’s Q&A one year ago with Commander Sir Richard Shirreff, former NATO Supreme Deputy Allied Commander of Europe; Cameron Ridgway and Lisa Veiber had the chance to ask him some questions on current international affairs that same year.

Wessex Scene: There was a career fair at the university today and BAE Systems, the arms manufacturing firm, was there recruiting for graduate jobs. Some have argued that the university should not be engaging with arms manufacturing, as BAE sells weapons to countries such as Saudi Arabia. What do you think of BAE’s presence at the university and how essential is the arms industry in the current international situation?

Sir Richard Shirreff: If BAE wants to recruit high-quality graduates, I can’t think of a better place to come than Southampton. These firms are looking for high-quality graduates because these are companies that are at the cutting-edge of technology in a whole range of areas. I think it reflects very well in Southampton that they want to recruit heavily here, that’s great. You raise some interesting questions about defence and defence companies. The fact is that without high-quality weaponry we would not be able to defend ourselves and our allies. So, generally speaking, that means that it is a good thing. We need defence companies.

However, the use of weaponry is about applying politics as well as ethics and morality at the same time. I think democratic society remembers that arm forces are rightly subject to the control of the democratically elected government, and we have to assume that our government will apply the rule of law in the deployment of military weaponry. It’s not BAE systems that make decisions about the use of weaponry. I deplore the use of British-made aircraft in the bombing of Yemen and the civilian casualties. This is dreadful, but the best the British can be doing is to stay close to Saudi to influence, persuade and get them to behave and use the weaponry in a more precise targeted way to avoid these outrageous scenes, rather than to stand back and start shouting because this will not change anything.

WS: You talk a lot about defence and the perception that the British are moving back in the world. You also said that a lot of countries are not meeting their 2% of GDP commitment to NATO. In terms of that, would you say that defence is weakening across the Western world?

SRS: There is no question about it, America remains strong, but there’s no question that it is a lot like the 1930s with a weak West democracy, but America faces an autocrat that increased the defence budget substantially. Defence is much weaker because we have lost capabilities. Once capabilities are lost, it is incredibly expensive and time-consuming to rebuild them.

WS: What are the implications of that?

SRS: The implication is that paradoxically it makes things more dangerous because wars happen through weakness. The strong principle country can decide that the way it can achieve superiority is by taking advantage of a weaker country without deterrence. If you want peace, prepare for war because that way you can deter the worst case.

WS: There is speculation that Donald Trump is being reigned in by the so-called ‘three generals’: John Kelly, H.R McMaster, and James Mattis, so who hold sway of the presidency? Is it controlled by generals or does Trump have his way?

SRS: The president of USA has sway. He is the commander in chief, his decisions are subject to democratic process but he is still the man in charge. Let’s hope that the decisions are made as a result of the influence of those generals and others.

WS: Trump has come under fire, in part due to his ‘incontinent twittering’ as you described it. Does the way he engages with the electorate, the US and the wider world undermine the US position in regard to diplomacy, and in particular defence?

SRS: I think it does because if the president says something, we have to assume that he means it and that is what the US position is. So any unguarded comment will be treated as such and can lead to miscalculations, particularly in the North Korean context. So I think it is a concern.

WS: In the North Korean context, there has been a recent development of crossing the  border between Russia and North Korea. Is Russia becoming more influential with regard to North Korea?

SRS: Putin is very influential as far as North Korea is concerned. Russia has a short border with North Korea in the north-east. China will always be THE player and influencer with North Korea because of the size. Nevertheless Russia has taken advantage of economic and other perspectives, the opportunity is created by « incivility? » in North Korea but equally, Russia could be a force for good in containing any dangerous action by the North Korean government and in the Middle East.

WS: You criticised the … challenged used by the Kremlin. Is information war now the way forward in terms of competing for propaganda and the fact that … presents information as news?

SRS: Information is part of the spectrum of war. It’s not the way, but it is a critical part because it’s all about influence with which comes clever and sophisticated propaganda. We’ve got to be prepared to counter and contest the information space in a way that arguably the West contested the information space in the cold war with BBC1. That’s not straightforward and requires considerable efforts.

WS: Trump recently condemned the Iran nuclear deal and asked Congress to re-certify it, which is potentially the end of US support of the deal. Yet, Russia, UK and all other signatories are standing by the deal. Is that undermining the boundaries of Western defence and is that perhaps the end of the political association that has been made between those signatories?

SRS: I don’t think it is the end of the deal yet. I hope so. Trump can’t walk away from a deal that has been signed by multiple signatories, UK included. That deal is a very good example of the international community coming together to broker a very important deal which has the potential to remove the threat of Iran becoming a nuclear arms state. There are all sorts of issues and complications, for instance, some people in Iran are in support of extremism and jihadism but nevertheless, it is the best hope we have to avoid a confrontation with a nuclear-armed Iran. My gut thinks the deal will survive the efforts of Trump to undermine it.

WS: Has there been a Trump effect on US foreign policy so far?

SRS: I think there has, the most obvious effect has been the impact on NATO and raising the question of the defence of Europe and America. Since 1949, the defence of Europe has depended from that total certainty that whoever is in the White House from whichever party, America will always come to the help of a country member of NATO under attack.

However, Trump raises the question of that as a candidate, and although his people and team have said we shouldn’t worry about article five and that America continues to support and lead NATO and contribute largely in armed presence, we haven’t seen yet a statement from Trump of the endorsement of article five, that is not the way he acts. We all assume and hope that the responsibility of power takes to a more responsible approach on foreign policies but it hasn’t happened.

WS: How likely is Trump’s impeachment?

SRS: I can’t answer that. It would be speculation. All I will say is when the Americans start an inquiry they don’t stop it, they just keep on digging. We will have to wait and see what happens.

Missed Sir Richard’s Q&A? Read our live blog of the event.


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