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When Defence Planning Comes to Nought

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Lily Ong

In a 15th-century priory nestled away in a prestigious neighbourhood of Geneva, an exclusive audience gathered on the gorgeous grounds of a university before His Excellency Geoff Hoon, who had served as the Defence Minister of Britain in Tony Blair’s Cabinet. He was speaking as part of the Geneva Lecture Series conceived and conducted by Professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic.

“Dramatic world events can render irrelevant the most thoughtful of planning,” started Hoon, as he highlighted five significant world events that have served that kind of impact over the last eight decades, with the Cold War in 1941 as the first event.

“It led to the subsequent division of Germany and the occupation of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union, which in turn triggered the first major western policy responses, namely Western Union in 1948 and NATO in 1949,” stated Hoon.

“The Cold War climaxed with the detonation of the Soviet atomic weapon in 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. The 1955 Warsaw Pact emerged as a counterweight to NATO and crystallised the demarcation lines.”

Hoon recalled how Western Europe’s higher living standard and political freedom motivated Eastern Europeans to “vote with their feet” as they migrated westwards.

Highlighting the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 as the second event, Hoon reminded the audience how close to nuclear conflict the world once came.

“Most are unaware, but it was only revealed in later days that a compromise was reached for the US to remove its nuclear weapons from Turkey, in return for the Soviet’s removal of theirs from Cuba.”

The missile crisis led to Khrushchev’s proposal of a direct line between US and Russian leadership, and the creation of the Non-Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties.

Next on Hoon’s list was the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1990 and the Soviet Union in 1991.

“While these two events reduced the threat of nuclear conflagration, they also eradicated the containment of broader discords, as seen from the eruption of violent conflicts at the West’s doorstep, from Yugoslavia to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia to Serbia,” Hoon paused before adding, “As defense minister, I ordered troops to Bosnia and Kosovo but encountered the arduous challenge of finding and deploying rapidly, flexible and agile forces.”

Hoon continued his list of events with the 9/11 attacks in September 2001. He stunned the audience by divulging how an old tourist map was relied upon due to the lack of intelligence and a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan’s geography.

“When it was evident that we needed boots on the ground, the US joined forces with the North Alliance while I took charge of procuring forces globally. However, I faced a deficiency in supporting troops and equipment, such as logisticians and heavy aircraft.”

In admirable humility, Hoon acknowledged that the lack of experience and capabilities in a hostile and primitive environment eventually led to the withdrawal from Afghanistan. He admitted that a large proportion of Afghanistan’s population was neither prepared for, nor receptive to the radical changes, and favoured the predictability of the Taliban rule over the foreign democratic style of governance.

The last event Hoon mentioned was all too familiar to the audience.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February revealed a colossal intelligence failure on the Kremlin’s part not to have anticipated the level of resistance of Ukraine. At this stage, there is no solution, and neither side is a clear winner,” said Hoon, “Truss’ calls for the return of Crimea to Ukraine as part of a peace deal are also unrealistic.”

Despite noting how the invasion has spurred countries to increase their defence spending, Hoon concluded his speech with a piece of sobering advice.

“The growing focus of the US in the Pacific, especially in the event of an attack on Taiwan by Mainland China, may pivot them away from Europe and leave the Baltic states vulnerable to a Russian attack. Europe must not only spend more, but do more to enhance our own deterring capabilities against Russia.”

Geoffrey William Hoon is a former Defence Secretary, Transport Secretary, Leader of the House of Commons, and Government Chief Whip of Britain. His book, See How They Run, recounts his careers as an academic, lawyer, politician, and in international business. Along with a former OSCE Secretary-General, Ambassador Lamberto Zannier, Hoon was among the first speakers of the Geneva Lecture Series that launched on September 3, 2022. The series is part of an “Executive Masters in International Relations and Global Politics” program, which proudly hosts current and former heads of state, Nobel prize laureates, and key influencers in the world of politics, economy, security, and energy.