The UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) has been doing some rethinking about how it operates in peacetime, wartime and somewhere in-between. ‘Cassandra’ looks at the MOD’s Integrated Operating Concept and finds an unexpected roadmap for building peace in a world already at war, but only when read from back to front.

Something conceptually critical going on

One of the most interesting documents to come out of the Ministry of Defence (MOD) in recent years is the Integrated Operating Concept (IOpC). Recognised by one analyst upon its publication in September 2020 as representing ‘something conceptually critical going on’ within Defence, the concept has appeared frequently in subsequent MOD publications, including the March 2021 Defence Command Paper elaborating Defence’s future role and the Future Soldier paper on the role of the British Army specifically. It was also referenced in the Integrated Review, the cross-government national strategy released the same year (though it should be noted that it has not yet been adopted at the level of formal doctrine).

Critically, the document ‘distinguishes between “operating” and “warfighting”’, with the former encompassing all activities ‘below the threshold of war’. In the face of modern threats, it argues, ‘old distinctions between “peace” and “war”, between “public” and “private”, between “foreign” and “domestic” and between “state” and “non-state” are increasingly out of date’; instead we have a ‘new era of global competition’. The implications of this, though widely overlooked by the UK media, were analysed in a previous RS blog post.

The Integrated Operating Framework (MOD, Integrated Operating Concept, 2020)

The ‘conceptual component’ of the document comprises the ‘Integrated Operating Framework’ illustrated here. Under this framework, deterrent responses are seen to escalate from a ‘protective’ foundation, through ‘engagement’ towards ‘constraint’ (all of which fall within the bounds of ‘operating’). It is only once all these measures have been exhausted that the ‘warfighting’ function is entered, whilst still ‘constantly searching for opportunities to de-escalate to a favourable sub-threshold status’.

Unsurprisingly, given its authorship, the document is written from a militarised perspective. The ‘Protect’ function, for example, refers in part to nuclear deterrence, and ‘Engage’ addresses ‘train, advise and assist operations’ alongside partner military forces (often with questionable human rights records). However, I think the framework has real value; in particular, I want to turn the framework’s core assumption—that warfighting represents a rare, limited change from an otherwise-peaceful norm—on its head. And if ‘warfighting’, rather than maintaining peace, is the current norm, it may be logical to invert the IOpC’s proposed approach.

Views from the frontline

As bombs began to fall on Ukraine earlier this year, the world reacted with horror. For Ukrainians, however, this was only the latest escalation in an eight-year war. New fronts were opening all over the country, but what seemed like a fresh calamity to we distant observers was placed in a very different, and wider, context by those living its day-to-day realities. We can take a view that is wider still by adopting a postcolonial lens and listening to those who have not shared in the supposed benefits of the ‘Pax Americana’, whether since 1945 or 1990.

Take the state-level responses to the Russian invasion. The NATO-aligned Western nations flooded the region with arms and shamelessly rehashed Iraq War-era talking points about the need to defend democracy and freedom, whilst a handful of Russian allies like Iran and Venezuela tepidly defended the indefensible. Reactions from the Global South, however, were more equivocal. Mexico declared neutrality, India arranged to buy Russian oil in rupees to evade sanctions and ‘African states voted devoid of a consistent pattern’ as the UN General Assembly called for Russia’s suspension. Most surreally, the Taliban weighed in with a call to resolve the crisis through ‘peaceful means’.

But what of those actors outside of the state system? Take the Kurdish freedom movement, an international confederation of groups that emerged from the long struggle of what is often called the ‘largest nation without a state’ against the combined forces of imperialism, colonialism and ethnic cleansing, whether from the Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi or Syrian states. The movement’s umbrella organisation—the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK)—argues that ‘the war in Ukraine is the latest part of the long chain that we call the Third World War’, which it dates to the end of the Cold War in 1989/90, and this concept is central to the movement’s geopolitical analysis:

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, neoliberal thinkers had spoken of the ‘end of history’ and the ‘victory of democracy.’ Yet, today, headlines such as ‘It’s war again’ or ‘War has returned to Europe’ dominate the state and mainstream discourse in the Western hemisphere.

Underpinning this dominant discourse is a basic Eurocentric assumption: the myth that the world has lived in peace since 1945 and that the world order established under the hegemony of the United States has largely kept the bellicose tendencies of competing capitalist states in check… This dominant reading ignores the other side of the story. For in the meantime, numerous ‘hot’ wars have been fought since 1945. Beginning with the Korean and Vietnam Wars, followed by the Yugoslav Wars and NATO’s bombing of Serbia, two wars against Iraq, the wars in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere in the world. It is no surprise, then, that especially for societies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the Ukraine crisis once again reveals the hypocrisy and double standards of the West when it comes to the value of human life, migration, or the sovereignty of nation-states.

—Academy of Democratic Modernity, “Assessment of the Current Political Situation: The Third World War and its Impact on Kurdistan” (2022)

Or, for a more poetic assessment, take the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), a predominantly indigenous movement which has autonomously managed a sizeable territory in southern Mexico since an armed 1994 uprising in response to the adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In a statement issued shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, they declare that ‘we do not support one state or another, but those who fight for life against the system’. They stand not for any nation state, but with ‘those who, like us…are engaged in the struggle for life in Ukraine and Russia… our relatives in resistance and rebellion’.

What is to be done?

Just as we understand that the Ukrainian perspective is valuable in placing the latest Russian invasion into its proper context, if we accept that the postcolonial, internationalist and non-state-aligned perspective of movements like the Zapatistas and the Kurdish freedom movement is similarly valuable, and that we are caught up in a ‘world war’ between powerful forces and marginalised groups around the globe, what should we do about it?

I believe the Integrated Operating Framework, viewed in reverse, provides a roadmap. If we abandon the Framework’s language of competition and domination and recognise instead that we’re just as much caught up in those forces as others, and that seeking to control them for our own fleeting advantage is a fool’s errand, where might the map take us?

The most immediate step is to get out of ‘Warfighting’. We must, ‘constantly [search] for opportunities to de-escalate to a favourable sub-threshold status’. This could mean many things, from deploying peacekeepers to supporting non-violent forms of resistance. Only once such peacemaking efforts have been successful can we begin the long, slow work of building a sustainable peace.

First, we must ‘Constrain’ through rebuilding the so-called ‘rules-based international system’, its credibility left in tatters by the US invasion of Iraq and subsequent War on Terror, just as much as by Russian actions in Ukraine. Calls for Russian military commanders (and Putin) to be tried for war crimes belie the willingness for Western states to shelter their own war criminals from prosecution. If international law is to have any constraining effect, it must constrain all equally, and this should not be left solely to activist initiatives like the Belmarsh Tribunal.

Second, we must ‘Engage’ with all parties, as fraught as relationships between them will surely be, in order to stand any chance of re-incorporating Russia and Belarus back into the international system. Perhaps more crucially, we must not make the mistake of conflating the people with the state, especially where those states have little to no democratic accountability. We must engage with Russia, yes, but more importantly we must engage with Russians, who will still be here when Putin’s kleptocracy is a distant memory. ‘At the very least Western governments should offer funding for humanitarian aid…to mitigate the impact of Western sanctions on ordinary Russians.’

Finally, we must ‘Protect’ ourselves and others from the kind of instabilities and deprivations that lead, invariably, to conflict. Interdependence is unavoidable, but we must not simply swap dependence on one set of unsavoury regimes for another each time the political winds shift.We must encourage efforts to ensure food and energy security for the most vulnerable (and often least resourced) nations, and demand that our leaders ensure the same at home (or, if they will not, build democratic alternatives ourselves). Similarly, if our current brutal border regime results in granting powerful leverage to authoritarian states like Turkey, Morocco or Belarus, we must do everything in our power to change those policies (as though there were not already overwhelming humanitarian reasons to do so). And suffice it to say there can be no place for nuclear weapons in such a world.

So, as the papers cry out that ‘war has returned to Europe’ we must recognise that it never really left: it hid, largely out of our sight beyond the territorial boundaries of the continent, but a constant, violent reality for those further afield. However this present battle is resolved, the world war will continue. If we are to stand any chance of achieving genuine security, we must move beyond the ‘liddism’ that is the natural consequence of a limited perspective and instead listen to those who are looking in from outside, whose daily reality is on the front-lines of the wider conflict that we are so insulated from. By making this conceptual shift, we might also see how UK defence thinking has (unwittingly) provided a ready framework for plotting our course out of this state.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Cover image from The Integrated Operating Concept, MOD, 2020.