How do you solve a problem like (North) Korea?

This week saw the most recent ballistic missile test on the Korean peninsula. We outline below four key questions about what happened, why it matters, how the US will respond, and what happens next. The North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programmes highlight the limits of coercive diplomacy and raise the possibility that the US President Donald Trump might be forced, unless (and even if) he tries to reinvigorate negotiations, to accept a nuclear deterrence relationship with North Korea, alongside a strategy of containment and covert action.

What happened?

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, more commonly known as North Korea) tested a ballistic missile in the early hours of Tuesday morning, which reportedly travelled a distance of nearly 600 miles in about thirty-seven minutes. Together with the missile’s lofted trajectory of 1,700 miles, this performance has prompted experts to claim the test as a significant development in the North Korean ballistic missile programme, representing a capability at or near intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) range, potentially threatening as far as Alaska.

Why does it matter?

North Korea has been testing ballistic missiles for decades. It has also developed and tested nuclear devices since 2006. Events this week do not mean that North Korea has suddenly developed a deliverable nuclear deterrent: experts believe that North Korea already has a small number of nuclear warheads and the means to launch them into the Republic of Korea (‘South Korea’) or even Japan. The reason this week’s test was significant is that it implies a significant step change in the range of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent and its ability to threaten the United States directly.

Development of such a capability does not, of course, signal an intention to use it. In fact, the most obvious strategic justification for long-standing North Korean efforts to acquire a nuclear deterrent is that this capability would increase the security of the regime by deterring US military action against it. The plausibility of this argument is implicit in most of this week’s coverage of US President Donald Trump’s limited range of options for the ‘pretty severe things’ his administration is contemplating in response to the latest test. Most commentators agree that the risks of preventive military strikes are already too great, because of North Korea’s current ability to deliver nuclear, biological, chemical or simply massive conventional counter-strikes against South Korea and Japan.

Put simply, North Korean thinking is that the stronger its deterrent, the less likely the Kim dynasty will be to follow the Hussein or Gaddafi dynasties into the dustbin of dictatorship history. It’s not difficult to see why this is a persuasive argument in Pyongyang. As the then US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in October 2016, denuclearization is ‘probably a lost cause’ as North Korea sees its nuclear deterrent as its ‘ticket to survival.’

If the North Korean nuclear programme is purely defensive, you might argue, what’s the problem? Optimists about nuclear proliferation have made similar arguments in the past, pointing to the unprecedented period of relative peace between great powers in the nuclear era. In contrast, more pessimistic voices highlight the outsized risks of nuclear proliferation, especially in the case of smaller, poorer regimes of questionable stability and technical competence in safeguarding their respective nuclear arsenals from accidental or unauthorised use. For example, has Kim, fearing a pre-emptive US strike, delegated responsibility to more junior commanders to use existing biological, chemical or nuclear weapons to retaliate against South Korea? We don’t know, but this possibility increases the escalatory risks of any potential US preventive strike.

Aside from the risks of nuclear accident or spiral of escalatory conflict, a North Korean nuclear capability to attack the continental US could reduce the credibility of its nuclear umbrella protection of allies like South Korea and Japan. Might this spark a regional arms race, encouraging South Korea and Japan to develop their own respective nuclear deterrents? If it does not, Kim Jong-un might feel emboldened to take more provocative or adventurist actions, e.g. further moves against any perceived rivals or enemies abroad, like the recent assassination, using a nerve agent, of Kim’s half-brother in Malaysia. North Korea already acts like a pariah state, but its acquisition of a deterrent against the US might encourage it to act even more provocatively.

This week’s missile test does not mean that North Korea possesses such a capability today. It is probably several years away from being able to launch a nuclear-armed ICBM attack on the US at any scale, but its rapid recent and likely future progress suggest that it will eventually develop this capability, absent a fundamental shift in underlying factors – not least on-going US-led efforts to counter this programme.

How will the US respond?

North Korea’s very pursuit of a deterrent against US military action has sparked deliberations in Washington about whether preventive strikes might be feasible. The reason for this is simple: successive US administrations have expressed firm commitment to a denuclearized Korean peninsula and have repeatedly stated the unacceptability of a North Korean nuclear deterrent that threatens the United States.

The US has long pursued five parallel lines of policy towards North Korea:

  1. The large and long-standing US military commitment to South Korea and Japan, including a recent enhancement of South Korean missile defences with the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense (THAAD) system. THAAD is not uncontroversial: South Korean President Moon Jae-in has temporarily delayed its deployment amidst domestic concerns, whilst China and Russia fear THAAD’s implications for their own nuclear-armed missiles.
  2. Over 25 tortuous years of post-Cold War US-North Korea diplomacy. Various inducements, including food and economic assistance, have been offered to North Korea in return for abandonment or at least suspension of its nuclear and missile programmes. These talks require the US to collaborate closely with its allies – most systematically as part of the 2003-09 six-party talks (between the US, North Korea, South Korea, China and Japan) – but have been marred by mistrust and bad faith. For example, President Obama tried to broker a deal for a North Korean test moratorium in February 2012, just two months after Kim Jong-un assumed office, only for the deal to be wrecked by a North Korean satellite launch the following April.
  3. In the absence of diplomatic progress, the US leads international efforts to (patchily) implement economic sanctions on North Korea, but progressive advances of North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programmes underline the limitations of this coercive diplomacy. As part of this and the broader diplomatic process, the US has tried repeatedly to encourage China to intervene more effectively to change Kim’s course of action, assuming that China has greater influence over the regime, if only it were willing to use it.
  4. Since at least the second term of the Obama administration, the US has reportedly pursued a ‘left of launch’ cyber programme to disrupt North Korean ballistic missile tests, to say nothing of the possibility of other, still-as-yet unreported covert activities against the regime.
  5. The US has long invested in national missile defence, developing a controversial (because very expensive and of currently questionable efficacy) programme of interceptor missiles.

This patchwork of overlapping measures has not prevented continued development of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. A former US under secretary of state for arms control, Robert Joseph, wrote earlier this week about continuities in North Korea policy across the three most recent US administrations: whilst ‘their rhetoric has differed markedly, all three presidents have accepted the same basic assumptions and employed the same economic and diplomatic tools with the same results.’ What then are President Trump’s options? His national security apparatus is reportedly considering a range of possible responses, including last-resort military action. The problem, as Ankit Panda and Vipin Narang wrote yesterday, is that the ‘window for thinking about disarming North Korea by force without guaranteeing millions of fatalities has probably long closed.’

A preventive strike should be rejected because of the potential for escalation and massive casualties. Mr Trump is therefore left with various options that resemble amplified versions of his predecessors’ diplomatic strategies, commencing with Trump’s first six months spent in conversations about North Korea with South Korea, Japan and China. Now, like Mr Obama in 2009, Trump has witnessed a fresh North Korean missile test early in his presidency. The administration should respond by continuing to improve defensive and deterrent responses to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, as well as exploring options for more vigorous covert action to undermine North Korean weapons programmes.

Mr Trump should also commit fully to a fresh exploration of whether negotiations could be resumed along the lines of the six-party talks. He is likely to find a more willing partner in newly-elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in than any counterpart Mr Obama had in Seoul. This changed dynamic could be important, but there are good reasons to be sceptical about the prospects for successful diplomacy, including genuine doubt about North Korean good faith and whether there is an agreement to be negotiated that would be acceptable to both Mr Trump and Kim Jong-un.

North Korea appears determined to retain its status as a nuclear-weapons state, so much so that it wrote its nuclear status into the North Korean constitution in 2012. US insistence on a North Korean commitment to denuclearization before negotiations restart is therefore likely to guarantee that talks won’t happen. If Mr Trump were to waive this precondition, there is still the issue of the price of any deal – a combination of economic assistance, security guarantees, improved political and trade relations, even a formal peace treaty – that would persuade North Korea to suspend its nuclear and missile tests. Could Mr Trump make such a deal? Would he even want to? He would encounter strong domestic political resistance, but as Leon Sigal noted earlier this year, the longer the US delays new talks, ‘the greater the North’s bargaining leverage will be’ – a point underlined by this week’s missile test.

Shifting gears on denuclearization, could the US accept some form of nuclear deterrence relationship with North Korea? The two states have sustained a relationship of conventional deterrence since 1953, and North Korea’s first nuclear test was in 2006, so this provides some evidence that North Korea is amenable to the logic of rational deterrence. However, this may be a concession too far for Mr Trump, who would risk the political legacy of being the president who let North Korea finally develop a weapon capable of threatening the US. A president rhetorically committed to ‘so much winning, you’ll get tired of winning’ is unlikely to warm to a policy easily depicted as losing.

Apart from political feasibility, there are legitimate doubts about whether a nuclear deterrence relationship with North Korea is a desirable outcome for America and the wider world. Although there is an argument that North Korea has been a more rational actor than many give it credit for, the Kim regime is also aggressive, insular and paranoid. Adding nuclear-armed ICBMs to the mix is a recipe for severe concern, whether regarding deliberate actions, nuclear accidents or miscalculation. Surely no-one is keen to replay the Cuban Missile Crisis, casting Trump and Kim as Kennedy and Khruschev?

The problem is that there may not be much of a choice. President Obama’s approach of coercive diplomacy and covert action – sanctions and sabotage – probably slowed the rate of North Korea’s progress, but reducing the speed of progress is not an effective curb on future development. Of course, Mr Trump should intensify these efforts. He should also explore new ways to counter the North Korean regime’s information war on its own people. But sanctions, information operations and covert action are unlikely to bring about swift regime change.

The North Korean regime has demonstrated considerable resilience. It is unwise to bet on the Kim regime imploding under the weight of its own pathologies any time soon. If Mr Trump fails to restart fresh negotiations and secure a test suspension, it is only a matter of time before North Korea crosses the red line of developing a reliable capability to threaten the continental United States with nuclear attack. The cost of intervening militarily is already too high. The price and feasibility of a deal are unknowable without renewed talks, but the diplomatic well has been poisoned by the failure of previous negotiations. In the meantime, containment and deterrence are Mr Trump’s only options.

Who knows what comes next?

As the late Kenneth Waltz once argued, ‘no country will press a nuclear nation to the point of decisive defeat. In the desperation of defeat, desperate measures may be taken, and the last thing anyone wants to do is to make a nuclear nation desperate.’ Assuming that North Korea has a survivable second-strike capability – and it would be supremely reckless not to assume this – the risk of attacking North Korean nuclear and missile sites is too great to contemplate, given the possibility of retaliatory strikes against South Korea and Japan, bringing the loss of hundreds of thousands, even millions of lives. As an aside, it is also worth pausing to consider how plausible it is to imagine that the US could commence serious attack planning and preparations, necessarily in concert with its South Korean and Japanese allies, without indicators and warnings becoming discernible to North Korea, either through its own intelligence gathering or a third-party tip-off. If Kim were to perceive any US military preparations in the region as a prelude to a serious attack on his regime, he may pre-empt such an attack by launching a major strike against South Korea and Japan.

Mr Trump might gamble, of course, that the appearance of credible preparations for a military strike might expedite more diplomatic urgency in Beijing, fearing the consequences of regime collapse in Pyongyang. Intensified pressure on the Kim regime might bring it back to the negotiating table, but the risk of miscalculation and miscommunication here is considerable. It would be better for Mr Trump to pursue a less coercive approach to the issue of talks, but even here there could be no guarantee that Kim would then negotiate in good faith. Moreover, even if Kim could be coerced or persuaded into good faith negotiations, his freedom of action may be constrained by domestic factors. Could the US and China offer Kim enough inducements to make him seriously consider a test moratorium, still less a roll-back, of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities? Much would likely depend on the reliability of Kim’s hold on power in the event of such a loss of face in his backing away from North Korea’s proud, constitutionally-mandated nuclear status. In extremis, might North Korean hard-liners execute a coup d’etat if they perceived Kim to be losing his nerve and capitulating to America?

Mr Trump has plenty of options at the margins: improving defensive and deterrent measures; working to enhance the effectiveness of sanctions; further investment in US national missile defence capabilities; and possibly even intercepting future North Korean missile tests. But these incremental steps would only delay and increase the costs of North Korean nuclear and missile programmes: development and testing would doubtless continue, bringing ever closer the prospect of a reliable, nuclear-armed ICBM deterrent targeting the continent US. The strategic and political unacceptability of such an outcome is what motivates calls for a preventive military response, as advocated recently by US Senator John McCain. Even if North Korea’s biological, chemical and nuclear munitions were insufficiently hidden or protected by the regime, it surely cannot be a high confidence assessment that a US preventive strike would eliminate the possibility of a survivable, second-strike capability. In this context, a preventive strike should be regarded as an unacceptably bad choice.

Mr Trump might fail to find the basis for renewed negotiations with Kim Jong-un. In fact, he may not even try particularly hard to find it. He will probably opt for a tougher, less ‘patient’ iteration of Mr Obama’s sanctions and sabotage. Such a strategy would essentially guarantee that North Korea will further improve its nuclear and missile programmes throughout Mr Trump’s presidency. With preventive action too costly and negotiations at an impasse, Mr Trump is left with the tripartite approach of containment, nuclear deterrence, and covert action to slow North Korean programmes and try to accelerate regime change. This is far from an ideal situation, but it is where we now are. For all the understandable focus on the Russia question, it is how Mr Trump handles North Korea that will be the most immediately consequential and defining foreign policy issue of his administration.

Hamburgers at dawn? Why this week’s Trump-South Korea meeting matters

The idea of US President Donald Trump chowing down hamburgers with the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Kim Jong-un, and Republic of Korea (ROK) President Moon Jae-in may, I admit, seem a little surreal but, if the next two days of Moon’s first meeting with Trump go well, it is not entirely beyond the realms of belief.

Whilst one-to-one statesman-to-statesman meetings are often overhyped, with much of the wrangling over policy being undertaken by officials behind the scenes in the months before, some tête à têtes really are important. Summits between world leaders are not necessarily a success purely based on the policies discussed, the bilateral relations agreed, or ‘the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you have ever seen’ being served. No, sometimes it all just comes down to that old intangible: chemistry.

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Jeremy Corbyn’s National Security Council

During the election campaign, I looked at two salient national security issues: whether to expect a Russian information operation to influence the outcome of the election and what Jeremy Corbyn’s impact might be on UK national security policies.

One week on from the election, I argue in this blog that, in the uncertain context of ongoing talks between the Conservative and the Democratic Unionist parties, the Labour party should begin serious preparations to undertake the national security responsibilities of government at an unprecedentedly early stage in the electoral cycle. 

With the parlous parliamentary position of Prime Minister Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn can credibly talk about preparing Labour for the prospect of re-entering government. Whilst the ‘preparation for government’ strand of work usually intensifies at a much later stage of the electoral cycle, the uncertainty caused by Mrs May’s surprise election and its unexpected outcome should encourage Mr Corbyn to continue his effort to project himself as a credible alternative prime minister, charming and disarming his national security critics.

From a national security perspective, encompassing joined-up thinking about foreign policy, defence, development, domestic security and resilience, what should Corbyn do to signal his preparedness to govern? If I were in a position to advise him, I would highlight five factors for successful preparation to assume the national security responsibilities of being prime minister: people, processes, policies, presentation and pace. I would also recommend some concrete steps to structure an alternative approach to national security, including: the recruitment of a national security adviser; the configuration of a national security cluster in the Shadow Cabinet; a decision about whether and under what circumstances Mr Corbyn should commit to retaining the National Security Council (NSC) apparatus; and the immediate commissioning of an alternative national security strategy, to articulate the underlying principles of a Labour approach to national security and to review the security-related impact of Brexit.

Some might counsel Mr Corbyn to be as quiet as possible about national security and instead steer the political agenda onto other issues. But, collectively, these measures would represent both a statesmanlike response to the challenges of being a prime minister-in-waiting and a shrewd political intervention to address decisively the continuing criticism of his national security credentials.

People

It might be tempting to jump straight into questions about policies and strategy, but the most important issue for a presumptive leader to address is who to appoint to key positions. Getting the right personnel in place is crucial, as is the development of a clear sense of how the leader intends to use these people. There are some structural factors that will shape good decision making about personnel: (1) prospective advisers need to offer wise counsel and, ideally, subject-matter expertise (it helps here if advisers are recruited with relevant career experience in foreign affairs and security issues, and from a pool beyond that narrowly constrained by active party membership); the leader needs to exercise good judgement in recruitment, and should be willing to take advice from a broad church in selecting the right people; (2) the leader needs to be able to trust advisers and, if a close and effective working relationship doesn’t already exist between them, the prospective advisers need to be able to gel with the leader and the leader’s existing team, but this factor has an important caveat: leaders shouldn’t undermine the advisory process by creating an ‘echo chamber’ or ‘group think’ environment, in which everyone thinks the same way and no-one is prepared to offer challenging advice to the leader. Down this road lies trouble, as Theresa May arguably found with her election manifesto.

It takes dedicated effort to ensure that the advisory process runs smoothly and channels multiple perspectives to shape high-quality advice and recommendations for the leader and Shadow frontbenchers. To that end, Mr Corbyn should recruit a national security adviser, not only to provide foreign, defence and security advice to Corbyn himself, but also to manage the people, processes and structures that shape that advice. Such an adviser would have to wear several hats simultaneously, equally adept at advising Corbyn, winning the respect and trust of Shadow frontbenchers as an ‘honest broker’ within the system, guaranteeing that no-one’s voice is neglected, and also in managing the secretariat of advisers and researchers supporting the Shadow Cabinet, as well as out-reach work to the communities of national security expertise within and beyond the wider party, including those unable or unwilling to commit to more formal engagements with the party.

There are several possible models for such a recruit. They could, for example, be a suitably-qualified MP – Dan Jarvis might be one possibility – or else an expert from outside of the House of Commons, such as a Labour peer or similar figure with diplomatic or military expertise, or another similarly well-credentialed, ‘late career’ professional. Alternatively, Mr Corbyn could look beyond Westminster and Whitehall, to an academic or (perhaps unlikely) a private sector security specialist. The key is to identify someone with the right blend of credibility, expertise and flexibility to juggle the different responsibilities of the role and to establish the necessary working relationships.

Processes

Recruiting the right people is a sine qua non for effective preparation for government, but it is a necessary rather than a sufficient condition of success: with poor processes, even high-calibre personnel can fail. And even the most perfectly-designed processes can fail, especially if leaders are unwilling to embrace them and ensure that advisers and other actors similarly abide by them. Everyone needs to know who is responsible for what, how lines of reporting should operate, and that the integrity of the process will be enforced and upheld from the top.

Opposition is fast-paced, reactive and demands that politicians do more, with less support than when in government, most notably without access to the vast supporting machinery of advice and expertise provided by the civil service. This puts even more of a premium on good organisation and processes, to optimise outcomes with scarce input resources. There is also an emerging body of good work to draw on in opposition, for example the Institute for Government’s long-running work supporting politicians from different political parties to prepare for government.

Opposition is also a good opportunity to commission reviews, especially reviews that the government itself has decided not to undertake. For example, Mr Corbyn should instruct his national security adviser to review the structures and track-record of the NSC since 2010, including the role of the national security adviser, with a view to informing a clear, public decision taken by Mr Corbyn about whether, as prime minister, to retain, reform or replace the NSC and its supporting machinery. Such a move would both be good in itself (there are important questions about how the national security secretariat could be improved, both in the options it presents to ministers and in the breadth of experiences and depth of expertise it recruits to fill its positions) and an important signal that Mr Corbyn takes seriously the business of preparing to assume the national security responsibilities incumbent on prime ministers, including creating an open process to reach out to expertise beyond his close circle and even the wider party.

Another dimension of this effort should be for Mr Corbyn to make maximum use of existing opportunities to access the official national security machinery. For example, as a Privy Counsellor, Mr Corbyn is entitled to receive briefings of classified intelligence; he should take every opportunity to receive such briefings and integrate them in his preparation to become prime minister. Separately, Mr Corbyn should lobby, both privately and publicly, for the prime minister to invite him to attend NSC meetings that involve issues of clear, cross-party strategic significance for the UK. Such meetings have historically been rare, ad hoc, and on the initiative of No.10, but Mr Corbyn should seize the initiative and indicate an eager readiness to participate.

Mr Corbyn should also commission another review from his national security adviser: the Labour party should produce an alternative national security strategy, articulating the Labour perspective for an alternative conception of national security, and explicitly addressing the impact of Brexit on UK domestic security, diplomacy, military and provision of development assistance. This would constitute the central focus of policy development, and offer a structured starting point for national security planning during a possible future election campaign.

Such an endeavour might be criticised as being politically naïve, presenting an opportunity for the government to attack the resulting document, subverting the traditional dynamic in which it is the opposition party which criticises the substantive policies and strategies created by government. But this is a shallow objection, one that misses the deeper benefit to the nation of an opposition party undertaking constructive, substantive efforts to develop a coherent approach to national security. There is also an obvious political pay-off for Mr Corbyn, in his quest to overturn long-standing preconceptions about his shortcomings on national security issues. And strategic development could embrace Mr Corbyn’s stated preference for open, collaborative processes, soliciting the active participation of party members and supporters.

In the two National Security strategies produced under the Conservative-Liberal coalition and majority Conservative administrations since May 2010, the underlying principles of UK policy have been consistently articulated as protecting the UK, projecting its power and influence overseas, including by promoting UK values abroad and bringing prosperity to the UK economy. At such a high level, the articulation of such principles gives readers little sense of how decisions are taken in practice, especially in circumstances of trade-offs between two or more of these principles, for example, in the promotion of UK values when this conflicts with the prosperity imperative to win foreign contracts for British companies. The importance of strategic development and the identification of such principles is that it provides a context in which clear policy goals can be determined and specific means chosen to pursue them.

The Labour party manifesto has already signalled the party’s commitment to make different decisions in such cases, for example by advocating an embargo on arms shipments to Saudi Arabia due to the humanitarian impact of the Saudi military intervention in Yemen. It is easy to imagine that Mr Corbyn’s conception of what Robin Cook famously described as a foreign policy with ‘an ethical dimension’ would be markedly different from that conceived by Mrs May and prime ministers of the recent past.

Mr Corbyn’s election address on foreign policy, delivered at Chatham House, was a first step in articulating this alternative approach, including a scepticism about elective foreign interventions that goes with the grain of current national sentiments. To pursue this issue in a broader, deeper context as part of an integrated national security review would enable Mr Corbyn to highlight a serious commitment by the Labour party to prepare a coherent programme for government at a time when the current Conservative government’s freedom of action on foreign policy and military intervention has been undermined by Mrs May’s self-inflicted reduction of her parliamentary mandate and the distraction of all-consuming negotiations over Brexit.

In opposition more generally, the major national security-related process questions facing Leaders of the Opposition relate less to preparing for government and more to the assembling of the relevant parts of the Shadow Cabinet, configuration of advisory roles and the flow of information and decision-making within the party. There is already a formal structure of policy-making within the party itself, as well as Shadow Cabinet-wide processes.

But there is also an opportunity to shape the national security process in opposition so that it more closely aligns with and prepares for practices inside government. For example, collaboration between the foreign affairs, defence, development and other relevant portfolios (e.g. domestic security and surveillance aspects of the home affairs brief, and resilience aspects of the energy and environment briefs) could be fostered at the levels of Shadow frontbenchers and political advisers by creating formal national security clusters. These clusters could be underpinned by regular meetings and collaborative position-taking, perhaps chaired by Mr Corbyn or his national security adviser, and drawing on external expertise to brief the senior team and help them to shape the party’s response to national security issues. As I have argued elsewhere, a more deliberative, open approach doesn’t guarantee better decisions, but it’s much less likely to fall foul of the pathologies that can afflict decisions made by small, insular groups with imperfect information in conditions of uncertainty.

At the supporting level, this cluster should be serviced by a secretariat comprising co-located political advisers and research staff from across the relevant frontbench teams. Supporting staff should not be balkanised or siloed into individual teams, comprising separate fiefdoms of individual Shadow frontbenchers, but should instead collaborate under collective, and yes, even centralised leadership (again under the auspices of Mr Corbyn’s national security adviser), to ensure that coherence and synergies are created, that no issue drops between two or more stools, and that the unforced errors of ‘mixed messages’ and confused communications are eliminated. Both policy advice and communications should be integrated into a coherent whole (a Shadow National Security Secretariat), which would lead to better outcomes than independent, parallel lines, especially with the inevitable resource constraints of opposition. An engrained habit of close cooperation would improve subsequent cross-departmental relations once in government, when Shadow teams immediately disperse across Whitehall and are quickly engulfed in their respective departmental bureaucracies. If good habits aren’t already deeply entrenched, relapse into decision-making pathologies is all the more likely.

Policies

Once the right people and processes are in place, policy development can commence with alacrity. I covered some of these issues in a pre-election blog about Mr Corbyn’s possible impact on national security policies. At the risk of offering heretical advice, Mr Corbyn might learn a lesson from the Conservative party. In fact, I have already offered this advice above, when recommending that Corbyn should commission an alternative national security strategy. Whilst in opposition, David Cameron commissioned a similar review as part of a wider effort to shape a future agenda for his party in government. This process generated plans that shaped Mr Cameron’s 2010 national security reforms.

Structured policy planning, bringing in as many relevant internal and external perspectives as possible, and overseen by a designated review chairperson, is a good idea, but it can also be a lengthy, inflexible process. Such a process would be potentially unhelpful and cumbersome if a snap election were caused by the collapse of Mrs May’s government. The key, therefore, is to keep policy development processes sufficiently adaptable and agile, for example by producing shorter, intermediate outputs to faster time-frames, thereby providing the infrastructure necessary to feed into a surprise election campaign.

The party would not, of course, be starting from an entirely blank slate next time, as policy development work was on-going before the recent general election campaign, and had produced positions on the renewal of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent, as well as its distinctive position on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and a more unambiguously challenging approach than Theresa May’s to the Special Relationship with the US in the Age of Trump. Viewing national security policies holistically, the party can identify areas for cross-portfolio scrutiny, such as the public and private sector risks posed by cyber-attacks, the need for a clear position on collective defence on NATO’s eastern flanks, and prospects for a more coherent and effective UK policy towards the manifold threats posed by Russia.

Presentation

Policy development in opposition, and the personnel and processes that support this effort, are necessarily constrained by resource scarcity to a far greater extent than political parties face when in government. Mr Corbyn does not yet have the support of a Prime Minister’s Office and other government departments to help him to shape national security policies. Given the importance to the nation of solid preparatory work undertaken by political parties during opposition, there is a valid national security argument that more public funds should be invested in facilitating such work. Even within existing capacity restraints, however, more could be done to improve its effectiveness. This capacity gap is all the more significant given that Corbyn’s perceived weakness on national security issues was a persistent line of political attack by the Conservative party and its media supporters both during and even long before the election campaign. Of course, the continuing fall-out from the election has probably blunted the impact of Conservative cries of ‘coalition of chaos,’ in light of the elaborate dance between the Conservatives and Democratic Unionists, and its implications for the integrity of the UK government’s role in the Northern Ireland political process. Irrespective of all this, a leader of the opposition has the opportunity to make several symbolic decisions that signal preparedness to address these issues.

In this light, there is a clear presentational imperative for Mr Corbyn to announce the creation of a national security adviser and related structures, and then to imbue this process with a vigorous sense of momentum (no pun intended) by personally engaging with it. Mr Corbyn’s process, largely devoid of access to classified material, can also afford to be considerably more open and transparent than Mrs May’s, so an additional presentational advantage is afforded by the possibility of publicising Mr Corbyn’s efforts to project the appearance and reality of credible, structured national security preparations for government. This could be in the form of releasing the agenda for meetings, publishing intermediate and annual outputs, like policy position papers and the alternative national security strategy. Committing to a disciplined process of creating a publicly-available national security strategy, including a related process of review and revision in consultation with party stakeholders and external experts, would be a major step in signalling the party’s preparedness for government and Mr Corbyn’s personally greater stature and credibility in national security issues, as he seeks to present himself as a plausible prime minister-in-waiting.

Pace

Finally, it should be emphasised that recruitment, review and reform of the party’s processes and policies will inevitably take time. With the equivocal outcome of the election, and uncertain future of a minority Conservative administration, time is quite possibly in short supply. Again with a nod to presentational factors, it is important for Mr Corbyn to signal clearly, decisively and swiftly that action is being taken to prepare for government.

A transitional arrangement should be put into motion in the next few weeks, recruiting a trusted team to produce a blueprint and timetable for recruiting staff and implementing this reformed approach to national security issues. This transition process could itself learn from the experience, in a different but related context, of US presidential transition teams, including what makes for successful and failed transition processes.

During election campaigns, opposition parties are afforded access talks with the civil service to prepare for the potentiality of government. Outside of election campaigns, opportunities for such contact are severely limited, which is why Mr Corbyn should make the most of what opportunities he has as a privy counsellor. But political parties in opposition can still take seriously their responsibilities to prepare for the challenges they would inherit in government. There are better and worse ways in which to do this. Learning from history, relevant comparative experiences and the research literature, assembling an experienced and effective team, and implementing necessary reviews and reforming internal processes, are all ways in which Mr Corbyn can signal quickly to the electorate, and indeed to the civil service, that his rhetoric about preparing an alternative government is matched by a practical commitment to putting the groundwork in place.

National Security and the ‘Corbyn Effect’

As a mark of respect, most political parties suspended national campaigning on Sunday 4 June, after the London Bridge terrorist attacks of Saturday 3 June. The 2017 general election campaign has now been interrupted twice by terrorism, the first incident being the 22 May bombing in Manchester.

The judgement to postpone national campaigning on Sunday was appropriate in the immediate aftermath of an attack, but it also highlighted the fact that national security issues have become central to political arguments during the final few weeks of the election campaign. This blog, the second of ICSA’s security-themed election posts, assesses one of the election’s major issues, namely how voters should think about the likely national security impact of Jeremy Corbyn should he become prime minister on or after Friday 9 June.

When Theresa May was 24 points ahead in the polls after she called this general election, few of us could bring ourselves to think seriously about Jeremy Corbyn’s likely impact on UK foreign, defence and security policies if he were swept into office on Friday 9 June.

Even now, witnessing the setbacks to Theresa May’s campaign – the ‘Dementia Tax,’ leading from behind by sending Amber Rudd to the leadership debate, difficult questions about her record in government – and an associated sharp reduction of her lead in the polls, it’s worth remembering that pollsters can make mistakes.

Nevertheless, with some polls now putting May’s lead within the margin of error, it seems like an appropriate time to ask the question: how would the ‘Corbyn Effect’ change UK national security policies and decision-making?

There are plenty of ways of trying to answer this question, some more nuanced than others, e.g. the Telegraph’s persistent series of stories about Corbyn and Sinn Fein/PIRA. In this post, I want to adopt a more balanced view by incorporating as much relevant context as possible, to show that the answer to this question is actually more complicated than it first appears.

Coalition and other constraints on Corbyn

First, a lot depends on the nature of a putative Corbyn Ascendancy: are we talking about a majority Labour administration, a minority government, or a coalition with Corbyn in the driver’s seat? This matters, as the dynamics of a prime minister’s support in parliament constrain the freedom of action to pursue preferred policies. Coalition might even strengthen a prime minister’s hand vis a vis his or her own party – for example, did coalition with the Liberal Democrats enable David Cameron to delay calling a Brexit referendum for five years? But it is difficult to think of another foreign policy or security issue where the Liberal Democrats could be said to have had a similar impact. A lot depends on parliamentary arithmetic and the ability of a prime minister to deliver a parliamentary majority in support of his policy, as Cameron found out in August 2013 when defeated in the House of Commons over military action in Syria.

Constraints are also imposed on leaders by opposition from within their own political parties. You can see evidence of this in Corbyn’s approach to compromising with his parliamentary party by, for example, appointing a Shadow Defence Secretary, Nia Griffith, whose personal views about the nuclear deterrent don’t exactly seem identical with his own. That, and Labour’s clear manifesto commitment to renewing Trident, would seem to close down one major national security issue associated with the Corbyn Effect: Trident renewal. Of course, if Corbyn succeeds in his mission to occupy No.10 then he would have emphatically neutralised the main criticism levelled against him by his fellow Labour MPs, namely that he cannot win elections. This might empower him to pick a Cabinet more closely aligned to his own views on defence, especially deterrence. Whether he could then secure the votes in Parliament to scrap the construction of the four new Dreadnought-class submarines that would carry the Trident missile is another story, even if he could rely on the votes of staunchly anti-Trident Scottish Nationalists.

Corbyn’s credibility on nuclear deterrence

Another major nuclear issue that would be left open, however, is the credibility of Britain’s nuclear deterrent under Corbyn: it is the prime minister’s decision alone what orders to issue to the Captains of the UK’s nuclear-armed submarines, and deterrence effectively relies on adversaries believing that a prime minister might authorise a nuclear attack.

The credibility of the UK deterrent and the UK’s commitment to collective defence within NATO are two major issues that fall squarely under the umbrella of the Corbyn Effect: how would adversaries and allies alike react to the election of a life-long peace-campaigner to make executive decisions about the UK’s commitment to defend allies against aggression and, in the last resort, to use Britain’s nuclear weapons? There is also the matter of Britain’s position in arms treaty negotiations, such as the Nuclear Ban Treaty currently being advocated by many states at the UN. So far, the UK and other nuclear-armed states refuse to participate, dismissing the Ban Treaty as unrealistic. The UK’s negotiating position regarding such initiatives could change overnight with Corbyn as PM, although this wouldn’t necessarily imply plain sailing for ratifying such a treaty.

It’s also worth turning the common understanding of the Corbyn Effect on its head: the most heated and difficult questions faced by Corbyn in the Question Time special on Friday 2 June were about his willingness to mount a nuclear response to attacks, e.g. from North Korea and Iran. First, we need to be clear that ballistic missile attacks on the UK from Iran or North Korea really aren’t highly probable events in the short or medium term (i.e. the entirety of the likely duration of a Corbyn premiership), given the limited respective, current capabilities and intentions of both those regimes. If voters think Iran or North Korea currently can, or would seriously want to, conduct a nuclear attack on the UK, then the government, experts and the media have done voters a disservice in failing to educate the public about the nature of the national security threat posed by nuclear proliferation and the development of ballistic missile capabilities.

There is, however, an adversary that already possesses sufficient nuclear weapons and the ballistic missile capability to attack the UK, namely Russia. Even Russia, of course, has little incentive to execute such an attack against the UK. And Russia would arguably have even less incentive to attack the UK should Corbyn enter No.10 after Thursday’s election, assuming, as seems plausible, that Corbyn would be likely to pursue a less resolute line than Theresa May on sanctions against Russia or the Alliance’s steps to enhance collective defence on its eastern flank.

Corbyn and collective defence

Russia may be unlikely to attack the UK, but Russian annexation of the Crimea and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine have raised fears amongst NATO allies that Putin may turn his attention to the Baltic states. What can we say about the Corbyn Effect on the credibility of British commitments to its NATO allies? Against the backdrop of a decade of increasingly-emboldened Russian information operations and military action, it is reasonable to assume that NATO allies would be concerned about the prospect of a watered-down British commitment to collective defence. But it’s also reasonable to believe that the waves generated by Corbyn would be smaller than the waves already caused by President Trump’s position on NATO.

Put differently, if Vladimir Putin has a secret plan to emulate his 2014 Crimea playbook and exploit an ‘entirely spontaneous, in no way Moscow-directed’ separatist movement in an Estonian city like Narva, to what extent would Putin’s decision-making calculus be affected by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the UK prime minister?

It’s clear that Corbyn – a former chair of the Stop the War coalition – has a strong, deeply-engrained preference to try to talk away any and every conflict. As a humane impulse and basic starting point, this is entirely commendable. The relevant question for Corbyn as a prime minister is when and under what circumstances he would concede that measures beyond negotiation were necessary, up to and including the order to use military force. Does Corbyn see military action in defence of the UK’s NATO allies in the same, sceptical way that he sees elective wars in North Africa and the Middle East.

It is relatively easy to imagine Theresa May placing the UK at the forefront of the Alliance’s efforts to secure a strong US response in the event of Russian hostilities on NATO’s eastern flank. It is frankly harder to imagine Corbyn doing the same. Not impossible to imagine, especially given pressure from within his own party, but it would be a less confident forecast. Of course, there’s a relevant, further question about whether such British and wider Alliance overtures would tip the balance in US decision-making, which would undoubtedly be the most consequential factor in Putin’s mind.

Corbyn, Trump and the Special Relationship

This segues neatly to an equally important question: how exactly would Corbyn and Trump get on, and how much would such an ‘odd couple’ pairing actually matter for the health of the ‘Special Relationship’? After all, prime ministers and presidents have not gelled personally in the past, and the bilateral relationship has survived. The imperatives driving US policy don’t currently appear much affected by UK concerns, so it’s difficult to imagine that Corbyn’s likely more publicly-critical stance would have much more than a marginal impact on Trump’s decisions, e.g. to cut US development assistance and the State Department’s budget, or his intended withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Nor would a Corbyn administration’s likely greater reluctance than May to consider escalating the UK military contribution in Syria, or anywhere else, be something that you could envisage weighing significantly in the balance when President Trump makes a decision about whether or not to order another missile strike or troop deployment: America First, after all.

Corbyn and domestic security

In a general election campaign blighted by two terrorist attacks, domestic security is an even more salient issue than it would otherwise have been. The Conservative attack line is that Corbyn is ‘soft on terrorism’. There is ample historical evidence of Corbyn’s association with Irish Republican and Middle Eastern extremist groups, and Corbyn has previously equivocated about ‘shoot to kill’ policies. He also has a consistent record of voting against anti-terror legislation, though it should be added that a head-to-head comparison between Corbyn’s and May’s parliamentary voting records on counter terrorism since 2000 demonstrates that May herself opposed some anti-terror measures before 2010.

Corbyn’s major foreign policy speech of the election campaign, delivered at Chatham House, made a cogent argument, echoing the Iraq Inquiry testimony of former Security Service boss Baroness Manningham-Buller, that elective foreign wars have been contributory causal factors increasing the terrorist threat to Britain and British citizens abroad. The Corbyn Effect would undoubtedly lead to a very different policy regarding Middle Eastern conflicts, including less British military intervention, more concerted and vocal diplomatic pressure against human rights abuses in Middle Eastern states.

We can legitimately debate the precise extent to which British involvement in military action in Iraq, Libya and Syria has been a contributory, causal factor that has motivated British jihadists to travel to war zones and/or perpetrate attacks in the UK. We cannot, however, ignore the significant increase in this domestic security threat in recent years. Corbyn’s riposte to Conservative criticisms about his record on terrorism is to counter-punch on Theresa May’s record on this very issue, although his punches had (until today) been more restrained than former David Cameron aide Steve Hilton, who called for May to resign for failing to protect Britain from terrorist attacks.

It is important to emphasise that ministerial responsibility for counter terrorism, which May had as Home Secretary from 2010 to 2016, in no way makes her directly or uniquely responsible for failures to stem the flow of British jihadists to and from Iraq, Syria or Libya, any more than a successful terrorist attack or series of attacks implies a lack of professionalism by or insufficient investment in the police or security services. But the ability of law enforcement and domestic security services to meet this and other threats is a direct function of the government’s investment in their respective capabilities, and of the overall strategic and policy direction that the government sets out. May can certainly be judged on this basis. In fact, the underlying premise of her ‘strong and stable’ election slogan implies that May wants to be judged on her security-related credentials.

At a time of sharply rising threat from domestic terrorism, May’s close personal association with existing counter-terrorism policies and reductions in the numbers of serving police officers, including authorised firearms officers (albeit whilst ring-fencing the separate counter terrorism budget), had until the last few weeks provoked fewer critical appraisals than might have been expected during the campaign.

Some experts predict that the current jihadist threat to the UK could span another decade or more. In this context, how are we to quantify the possible impact of a Corbyn premiership on the UK’s ongoing response? It is by no means clear that Corbyn’s stated, alternative approach – addressing more rigorously the socio-economic conditions that contribute to radicalisation, significantly increasing police numbers, his new-found commitment to police anti-terrorism powers, and his long-established criticism of the interventionist strand of British foreign policy – would lead to demonstrably worse outcomes for UK domestic security than we have seen since 2010. Assuming one take’s Corbyn’s campaign pledges at face value, May’s security edge over him looks less obvious. This highlights the paramount importance of the question of Corbyn’s credibility: Corbyn has made efforts to reassure voters on these issues, and the Labour party has produced a manifesto that does not offer ‘unalloyed Corbynism’ on defence and security issues, but what will voters make of these reassurances and this more balanced offer, especially when the Conservatives are pushing the line that Corbyn is not credible on these issues?

The machinery of government

Many column inches have been filled with stories about the close-knit circle of advisers surrounding Theresa May, and the fissures between Corbyn’s inner circle and the wider parliamentary Labour party. In general, bunker mentalities make for poor decisions. A more deliberative, open approach doesn’t guarantee better decisions, but it’s much less likely to fall foul of the pathologies that can afflict decisions made by small, insular groups.

Whoever wins the general election, it is possible that changes are in store for the Whitehall machinery supporting national security decision-making. For example, the Conservative manifesto waxed lyrical about the value of Britain’s ‘diplomatic service’ but only mentioned the positive impact of the UK ‘aid budget’ – a possible sign that DfID may be subject to machinery of government reforms, possibly by re-absorption into the Foreign Office (floated again recently in the pages of the Spectator), which would turn the clock back to before May 1997.

Other changes may occur closer to the centre of government. In less than a year in office, Theresa May had replaced the incumbent national security adviser with Mark Sedwill, an official with whom she had an established track-record of collaboration at the Home Office. Were Corbyn to become prime minister, it would be consistent with May’s approach if he decided to seek a new NSA, one more aligned to his world-view. The important issue here is to ensure that concern for the personal relationship and ‘fit’ between a prime minister and NSA doesn’t inhibit that NSA from providing strong, independent and challenging advice to the prime minister.

One criticism you hear about the current National Security Council apparatus is that it could do a better job of ‘multiple advocacy,’ that is to say, of presenting competing options to ministers, bringing heterodox advice into the picture, and that it could benefit from more of a ‘challenge’ function being built into the system. It would be good to see a fresh effort to explore these issues after the election, irrespective of who is prime minister. Corbyn may or may not plan to retain, reform or abolish the existing national security council (NSC) apparatus – if, indeed, he’s really given the mechanics of government much thought up to this point. But it is easy to conceive of a significant challenge to policy orthodoxy coming from Corbyn himself, his No.10 team of advisers, and his NSC-attending ministers, i.e. Chancellor John McDonnell, Home Secretary Diane Abbott, International Development Secretary Kate Osamor, and Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry (assuming that Corbyn doesn’t invite Alex Salmond or Angus Robertson to occupy that role, in a surprise Labour-SNP coalition). For example, the Labour manifesto charts a very different course in some strategic diplomatic relationships, e.g. with Saudi Arabia.

Whether such changes would lead to better outcomes for UK national security depends on several factors, not least Whitehall’s ability to adapt to and deliver on Corbyn’s distinctly different agenda, as well as the extent to which ‘Team Corbyn’ could themselves adapt to the responsibilities of government, and the difficult task of ensuring that the governing machine is optimally configured to support their decision-making. This shouldn’t mean immediately winnowing out existing officials, replacing those suspected of insufficient loyalty to the cause, but rather of being sufficiently confident and self-aware to recognise and address inevitable shortcomings and gaps in their new team’s skill-set and experience. As with Tony Blair in May 1997 (about the only Blair-Corbyn parallel I can think of that actually holds), there is very limited experience of government, or of running other large organisations, in Corbyn’s Leader’s Office and Shadow Cabinet. Failure to use effectively the expertise and skills available in Whitehall and elsewhere is a major limiting factor for the potential success of any incoming administration.

Forecasting the Corbyn Effect

None of this should be taken as an indication that I think we will wake up on Friday 9 June to the bright dawn of a Corbyn premiership, or to the prospect of protracted days of coalition or minority government negotiations that ultimately lead to Theresa May’s departure and Jeremy Corbyn entering No.10. But were Corbyn to achieve victory where Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband failed, it would make the 2017 general election one of the most storied in British political history.

General elections are essentially ‘two-horse’ races to become prime minister, and, please excuse the metaphor, the horse which had enjoyed a commanding, ‘strong and stable’ lead just a few weeks ago appears to have a weaker, much less stable lead today. Corbyn’s victory would be a high impact, low probability event – a true Black Swan. We know enough nowadays not to place undue weight on polling, but we’d also be remiss if we didn’t begin to think seriously about the implications of a surprise Corbyn victory for all aspects of British government, not least national security. On reflection, those implications are more complicated than you might think. A less credible nuclear deterrent, yes; a less credible commitment to come to the aid of an ally on NATO’s eastern flank, again, probably, but arguably a less consequential one than those allies’ current perceptions of the vacillation on this issue in the White House. These would be significant changes in the UK’s national security posture and they should not be downplayed. What of foreign or domestic security policies that would expose the UK to a greater risk from terrorism? Here, the case against Corbyn rests on his career-long preference for dialogue with extremists and what now appears to be his equivocation about a ‘shoot to kill’ policy.

But Jeremy Corbyn can hardly be blamed for the precipitous rise over recent years in the domestic threat posed by jihadists, even if the corollary, that Theresa May herself is directly culpable, is probably less plausible to most voters than it apparently is to Steve Hilton. Whoever emerges from Thursday’s election as prime minister, the government will continue to face a significant terrorist threat. It will also continue to face decisions about whether and in what circumstances to use British military power abroad. Theresa May clearly banked on these issues being trump cards for her to play against Jeremy Corbyn during the campaign. In truth, however, this approach appears to have rebounded somewhat. Some voters will undoubtedly decide against Corbyn on the basis of his past associations and his stance on nuclear deterrence. But for other voters, Corbyn’s views will chime with their sense of fatigued wariness about successive prime ministers’ interventionist impulses.

As Andrew Bacevich has put it in the US context, there is a growing perception that ‘Killing people and bombing things has become a substitute for policy and indeed for thinking. Where there should be strategy, there is a void.’ In the context of such scepticism about the wisdom of recent national security policies, policies with which Theresa May has so closely identified herself, a sufficient number of voters just might decide to give Corbyn a whirl. The probability of that outcome may be low, but it is not zero. It should therefore have prompted more careful reflection during the campaign than has been the hallmark of debate about the ‘Corbyn Effect’ on national security.

Why hasn’t Russia hacked UK political parties? Or has it already?

What are the chances of a high-profile hacking of a UK political party between now and the General Election on 8 June? How helpful is it to try to quantify this probability? These are questions we asked ourselves recently at the International Centre for Security Analysis (ICSA).

On one hand, no previous UK general election has seen anything like the public release of hacked data that marred the November 2016 US presidential election. We have, after all, only just emerged from a major national referendum campaign with significant strategic implications, and a General Election the year before that, and neither of these campaigns were publicly blighted by hacking.

On the other hand, high-profile hacking episodes appear to be an emerging fact – the new normal? – in efforts to subvert the electoral processes of western democracies. And it’s worth pointing out that ‘fake news,’ deception and information operations have a long pedigree in British politics – the October 1924 General Election and the Daily Mail’s publication of the ‘Zinoviev letter,’ for example.

So, from one perspective, the question ought to be: ‘Why haven’t we already seen a similar dump of hacked emails in Britain?’ We identified at least five hypotheses consistent with the (to date) absence of hacked data online:

  1. UK political parties’ cyber security is too strong;
  2. UK political parties are too boring, so there isn’t anything sufficiently useful or interesting to release;
  3. State actors (like Russia) are less interested in the UK General Election than they were in the US or French presidential elections;
  4. State actors are interested, but the snap election announcement left little time for a sustained operation to yield useful data;
  5. A hacking operation is indeed underway, but these things take time and luck, maybe data has already been stolen, but the high-profile release is being held back until closer to election day.

In our view, points (1) – that UK party politics is unprecedentedly difficult as a target of cyber-attack – and (2) – that UK politicians are either too boring or too virtuous to leave behind embarrassing digital traces – can be discounted for several reasons.  First, although we note that the National Cyber Security Centre has recently offered to assist political parties with cyber security issues, there have been several reports in recent years of UK politicians and their advisers using private webmail to discuss policy issues, suggesting that lax information security practices are not unknown in British politics, and regarding the ‘boring virtue’ of politicians, we simply point, as a counter example, to the continued existence of the tabloid press. To this we could obviously add several other rebuttals, such as that the absence of a real scandal is not a barrier to the creation of ‘fake news’ scandals (as is alleged to have been at least partly the case in France with the Macron leaks).

In our list of competing hypotheses, this leaves (3), (4) and (5): either the UK general election just isn’t as important a target as the US or French presidential elections, or perhaps Theresa May’s snap election announcement has made an effective cyber operation much more difficult to execute in the limited time, or on-going cyber-attacks are encountering the kind of difficulties that routinely beset them (e.g. reliance on waiting for a lucky break, like targeted users clicking on links in phishing emails), or, finally, the operation is on course, merely waiting for the moment of maximum impact to release a damaging cache of data.

These hypotheses are less easy to dismiss, especially with no access to the internal deliberations of hostile foreign intelligence services or the governments that direct their activities (for short-hand, we’ll just say ‘Russia’ from now on, but there are clearly other threats too). It is certainly possible that, with finite capacity, Russia prioritised resources to the known quantities of the US and French elections, meaning that – whatever the desirability of an attack on UK political parties – any operational activities are at an earlier phase, not well placed to intervene in a June General Election.  (We read today, for example, that at least some apparently unsuccessful efforts were made earlier this year by an unknown hostile party to hack the private communications of a small number of MPs.)  If we don’t see a similar episode to the release of hacked emails in the US or France, one possible explanation would indeed be that the UK had a lower priority in the Russian operational pecking order during this time-period.

But there are several competing explanations that would also be consistent with this series of events.

For example, one competing scenario is that a concerted effort is indeed underway to hack political parties – presumably the Conservatives, as we don’t really see what Russia would gain from damaging Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral prospects.  (But maybe Russian intelligence agencies are just very thorough, so who knows?)  These operations are difficult, they take time, and they rely on a significant dose of good fortune, in the form of poor security practices by individuals or systemic shortcomings in the targeted organisations.

Just because we might not see a public release of hacked data during the election campaign, this wouldn’t be conclusive evidence that an operation wasn’t underway to hack British political parties. In fact, it wouldn’t even mean that such an operation had been unsuccessful: Russia has the capability to intervene directly in elections by leaking covertly acquired information, but that doesn’t mean that it always will do so. Traditionally, intelligence agencies collect information to inform the political masters’ decision making: British political parties could indeed have been hacked, but the data might have been used secretly to inform officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Presidential Administration, rather than to execute an overt intervention during the General Election campaign.

So, it’s clear from this brief round-up that there are few hypotheses that could be completely dismissed should a leak fail to occur, excepting the hypothesis that Russia both has the information and intends to leak it.  If they haven’t done so by 8 June, we should at least be able to assume that they had reconsidered, but we couldn’t take it as confirmation that no information was stolen, because such information could be used differently, to inform Russian decision-makers, or perhaps it could be stock-piled for a future, more overt use.

In analysing these competing hypotheses, we find it most plausible to believe that a combination of scenarios (4) and (5) is true: hacking is difficult, time-consuming and relies on luck, so whilst Russia might be keen to stage this kind of operation, the surprise of an early general election has made it even more difficult than usual to execute. This explanation could be amplified by elements of scenario (3), in the sense that resource- and other structural-constraints could mean that operations against the US and French presidential elections had had the effect of pushing the UK to a lower-tier targeting status over this time-period.

On this basis, especially in the apparent absence of similar operations during the 2015 General Election and 2016 referendum campaigns, we have reached the tentative conclusion that it is unlikely that a similar hack will occur before 8 June. How unlikely? Let’s say we’re as sure as we were that Donald Trump would lose the November 2016 presidential election. We certainly wouldn’t recommend betting on our forecast.  But in forecasting political events you’ve got to start somewhere, and then continuously revise those forecasts in the light of subsequent evidence.