Interview with Moritz Brake, Kapitänleutnant and Lecturer for Maritime Security and Strategy, University of Bonn
The European: Mr Brake, the European Union (EU) is currently facing adversity, geopolitical competition and a broad range of social, ecological, juridical and political challenges. Is the Union strong enough to master these challenges?
Moritz Brake: The EU needs to act strategically and pragmatically to face increasing geopolitical rivalry in a multipolar world – but it also must remain true to its democratic value base, for it is the foundation of all its strength. The so-called “commons” – the sea, “big data”, cyber- and outer-space – do not just pose opportunities, they are key areas of competition in a world increasingly influenced by great-power rivalry.
The European: What do we have to do to not just be mere bystanders of events?
Moritz Brake: First of all, the EU has to muster the will to act. The forthcoming Strategic Compass of the Commission needs to be sufficiently concrete! Despite significant progress in some fields, the EU still lacks many of the necessary instruments that support its political leadership in carrying out a coherent grand strategy. To enable what Helmut Schmidt called ‘Gesamtstrategie’, a civilian-military staff is needed that considers all dimensions of foreign and domestic policy, integrating information on all strands of potential concern to our society in its strategic outlook and contingency-planning. Knowing what might threaten us, how we can prepare for risks and how we can seize and create opportunities is key to furthering European interests and defending our values with our allies and partners.
The European: You mentioned allies, this is NATO with the US as leading power. Is America back again?
Moritz Brake: After a disastrous four years under President Trump, the US has returned as a responsible ally. Still, we must be aware that America is shifting its attention and power towards the Indo-Pacific region.
The European: Russia ought to be a partner but has shifted away from Europe.
Moritz Brake: I think there are limits to what Russia can achieve if it continues on its confrontational course with the west and the EU. President Putin’s short-term gamble with Crimea destroyed Russia’s hopes for a powerful place in a multipolar 21st century. And its recently increased military pressure on Ukraine only deepens the dilemma Russia is facing. Still, if offered only half a chance to improve its own position at the cost of the EU, Russia will most likely grab it.
The European: China is claiming to be only an economical great power.
Moritz Brake: With China seemingly far away from Europe, falling for this narrative might be a likely mistake for Europeans. But there is no denying that Peking’s bid for great-power status has a rock-hard military dimension: it is reinforcing its nuclear and naval forces continuously, has become increasingly autocratic at home, and muscular in its foreign policy, especially in its maritime neighbourhood.
The European: Great Britain has left the EU; what are the consequences in security and defence?
Moritz Brake: Let me say it this way: as regrettable as Brexit is on many levels, a major obstacle to closer European military integration has disappeared. In addition to this, there is reasonable hope that British strategic resources continue to be closely coordinated and aligned with the EU’s.
The European: What are the main challenges for the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP)?
Moritz Brake: Two mutually supportive perspectives need to be addressed, both domestically and internationally: first, the EU is called upon to create positive conditions for sustainable human development – as expressed in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and second, it needs to prevent its own destruction, its disintegration, and fend for survival in the face of adversity – as associated with a traditionally more pessimistic view of international relations.
The European: And the returns of military power?
Moritz Brake: The Union is right – but seemingly too eager – to believe that we live in an era of diminishing returns on military power. With nuclear armed great-power conflict an unacceptable prospect, it is evident that military power has lost a great deal of its utility.
The European: Military power will continue to be relevant.
Moritz Brake: Absolutely. It remains relevant to deter potential aggressors, manage rogue states and violent crises of the “new war” or “low intensity” kind. Military power will also play its part in enforcing international governance by policing otherwise ungoverned spaces like the ocean or outer space.
The European: In this regard, the EU seems to be lagging behind in providing competitive sea power…
Moritz Brake: … right, compared with the substantial naval build-up across the region in south-east Asia – especially on the part of China – we run the risk of “missing the boat”. EU navies have been substantially cut back over the past decades and the “hard-power” element for smart EU sea power is being dangerously neglected. On top of this, China’s expanding militarisation is not restricted to its official armed forces. Civilian maritime endeavors, such as fishing, have long since acquired a paramilitary dimension. Furthermore, the civilian instruments of sea power are also quietly slipping out of Europe’s hands: over 93% of global shipbuilding happens in Asia now, while over half of the world merchant fleet is owned by Asian companies.
The European: What about the free passage of goods across the world’s oceans?
Moritz Brake: All states in the globalised economy vitally depend on maritime security and global ocean governance. No modern economy can prosper without access to the sea and its maritime transport networks. However, there is no guarantee that this will continue at all times unhindered by malicious interference of state or non-state actors. As long as great-power conflict seems a possibility, the EU needs nuclear weapons at its disposal – something which, at least by proxy at present is covered by the French force de frappe.
The European: Enough to deter Russia from attempting any mutually destructive military adventures on European borders?
Moritz Brake: A difficult question. In order to not become hostages to “mutually assured destruction” as our only policy option, we have to be able to muster a credible defence with conventional forces as much as with nuclear weapons. However, beyond having to sufficiently deter potential Russian military adventurism, the EU’s “level of ambition” with regard to military power, sea power, its naval tool-set and the capability to project force across the ocean, is not clearly defined. How much military power is enough to back up the EU’s strategic foreign policy beyond immediate self-defence?
The European: Economically a powerhouse, is the EU really acting strategically?
Moritz Brake: The EU has considerable economic power. But without a coherent grand strategy to guide it, it has yet to recognise and use its economic toolset strategically. There seems to be a widespread readiness to consider business and foreign policy separately. This is not only dangerous in the face of adversaries that use all of their societies’ forces – including the economy – to achieve their aims, it also creates tremendous inefficiencies.
The European: You mentioned the “commons”. What role does cyber space play as a strategic element?
Moritz Brake: The digital realm or cyberspace has become just as crucial to modern societies’ success as the sea or outer space. From knowledge generation, access to information and learning, via modern medicine and all other critical infrastructure to military capabilities: precious little is left in utility, once it’s offline. Europe needs to brace itself for the confrontation that is already happening in the cyber domain and pull together loose, nationally organised strings in cyber security.
The European: And what is the role of EU industries?
Moritz Brake: The EU’s manufacturing industry could increasingly form the backbone for winning the race in AI-driven automatisation, robotics and cloud-based networked production in the so-called ‘Industry 4.0’. However, this requires the generation, storage, and processing of vast amounts of data. A field which is not dominated by European enterprises but American and increasingly Chinese ones. For success in this domain, Europe needs to take all three aspects into its own hands, including the use of AI and quantum computing to handle and secure the data that is being collected.
The European: What is your opinion on the relevance of outer space for European security?
Moritz Brake: There is no doubt about the relevance of outer space for our present, let alone future strategic position. Still, EU space policy suffers from the same lack of comprehensive strategic action that other policy areas do. This may explain why Member States and the Union jointly dedicate such limited resources to a field that has clearly been recognised as highly relevant by its US partner and global competitors.
The European: The strategic relevance of the space domain seems to be bound to increase?
Moritz Brake: Yes, because all other elements of state power are already highly dependent on space infrastructure. The economy, our communications, knowledge-transfer, civilian infrastructure and military all run with crucial reliance on space-based assets. Space infrastructure in turn depends on more than delivery rockets for satellites and launching capabilities. In-orbit propulsion, maintenance and even construction play increasingly important roles. Objects in outer space are also not out of reach of hostile interference: defence capabilities against physical attacks will matter just as much as in-orbit computing power to handle cyber-threats. This in turn requires propulsion technology that can handle the necessary payloads and endurance to not only get bigger, more capable objects into space, but also to carry them far enough to strategically relevant positions beyond the immediate proximity of our planet.
The European: Is climate part of the strategic competition?
Moritz Brake: Renewable energy and sustainability are becoming more and more important. But building a green economy is also driving a global multi-billion-dollar market in related technology. The inherent technological revolution also comes with geopolitical shifts with the creation of new dependencies and vulnerabilities, as well as a disconnection from old ones. Judging by the numbers of patents, the availability of key resources and components, as well as new installations of wind turbines or solar panels, the EU is lagging far behind and increasingly has to rely on China for its “green” transformation.
The European: Affected by climate change, migration is becoming more and more of a strategic factor.
Moritz Brake: Migration from the Middle East and the African continent is commonly identified as one of the main contemporary challenges to Europe. But it also holds opportunities to master positively or fail. One of the EU’s core interests and strategic advantages is its humanitarian value base: it must not give up on its commitment to help suffering people. It also has a lot to gain domestically and in its relationship with the regions people have fled from, if integration succeeds.
The European: And what is beyond a zero-sum game?
Moritz Brake: The EU has some key strengths to build on in contributing to a world that has so much more to offer than the spoils of a fight of all against all. First of all, its inclusive political, social and economic institutions empower its citizens and are at the heart of its successes. The EU thrives on this foundation, but the potential for power derived from this also needs to be enhanced, leveraged and directed smartly.
The European: Mr Brake, I thank you for this conversation and leave it to you to conclude.
Moritz Brake: I think it is crucial that we translate our innovative social and technological potential into the right kind of capabilities, while cultivating strategic leadership to handle them. The global “commons” are beyond the control of any single nation-state. Still, influence at sea, in the digital realm or in outer space depends on capabilities and how they are applied. Just as sea power needs shipbuilders, Admirals and political leadership, we also need to cultivate the “shipbuilders” in the digital realm and for outer space, alongside the “Admirals” who translate these capabilities into the greatest possible leverage in the hands of our political leaders. Europe needs all its power to pursue its mission that lies beyond its self-interests: our values are universal and our desire for peace is without a sensible alternative.
The interview was led by Hartmut Bühl.