The Return of Strategic Thinking: An Interview with Lieutenant General Ton van Loon Pt. 2

Imagine a poker table. There are 3 big guys, and 27 little guys. The big guys are playing individually, and they are playing hard. The smaller ones, however, are falling over each other arguing on which move to make next. The big guys represent the United States (US), China, and Russia. And the little guys? That is what the European Union looks like in the global sphere at the moment. Is there a way out of its current situation?

Ton van Loon is a Lieutenant General of the Dutch Army (retired). Van Loon led missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and he was commander of the German-Dutch Army Corps. He now teaches at military academies, is a senior fellow at a German think-tank, and a regular guest lecturer at several universities, such as Leiden University. Sphaera Magazine has gotten the opportunity to interview him. The interview addresses the departure from the model of the post-Cold War order, the new global economic and military reality of the EU, and the case for Strategic Thinking. 

Since the interview covers many issues, we have decided to divide it into two parts. The previous part discussed the historical and economical elements of the EU as well as the rise of non-state actors and the internet. Now we will talk about dependency, military elements, and Strategic Thinking.

Beginning of Part 2

Tudoran: A point I want to address is dependency. Dependency on foreign resources and foreign manufacturing is the biggest criticism the EU is receiving at the moment. Regarding resources, Europe’s reliance on Russian oil, gas, and coal is often used as an argument. Moreover, when it comes to manufacturing and technology, for example phones, none are produced in the EU. The market share is divided between Samsung, Apple, Huawei, and Xiaomi (Statistica, 2020). Samsung is the only one who shut down its last factory in China, and that was in October 2019 (Sammobile, 2019). The rest of the companies still produce their products in China. What are your thoughts on this economic dependency regarding Russia and China? What are the security risks linked to it? 

Van Loon: For me the biggest problem is not dependency on Russia or China. It is dependency itself which is becoming problematic. COVID-19 has painfully demonstrated that reliance on production in other countries is fine until there is a crisis (and shortage). 

This of course also applies to access to natural resources, gas from Russia, rare earth minerals from Chinese controlled Africa. Just as problematic is the reliance in the field of military equipment. Reliance is the problem. It is very important to figure out where the balance between free trade and national safety nets should lie. Of course this is particularly so when there is a de-facto monopoly situation. 5G networks, just as much as gas pipelines and crucial military equipment, should all be looked at from the perspective of national interest. This does not mean we should not work with other countries, but we should make sure we are not dependent. I referred to Heiko Mass before, he also underlined this issue as he talked about the need to “develop something like technological sovereignty in Europe” (Maas, 2020). From a military perspective, do we really want to be dependent when it comes to vital equipment?

Perhaps a serious debate is needed on the benefits of the Rhineland model where business is regulated and profits for shareholders are balanced against job creation and added value to society.  Of course, profits need to be made but the social impact of jobs and unemployment cannot be simply ignored. In that sense a trade war has an impact on the economy but perhaps more importantly on the social fabric of our nations.

Tudoran: You mentioned Strategic Thinking during the guest lecture. Can you explain what it means?

Van Loon: That is a good question. Clausewitz gives us one possible answer. Strategy is the necessary response to the inescapable reality of limited resources. No entity, regardless of size, has unlimited resources. Strategy, therefore, is about making choices on how we will concentrate our limited resources to achieve competitive advantage. The key bit is that a nation must define its vital interests and then develop a plan (a strategy) to secure these vital interests.

We also need to realize that new approaches are needed to deal with new challenges. Militaries are still relevant, but many critical requirements are civil. “Hybrid” responses require arrangements that encompass both civil government organizations as well as key private sector entities. Strategy is the necessary response to the inescapable reality of limited resources. No entity, regardless of size, has unlimited resources. Strategy, therefore, is about making choices on how we will concentrate our limited resources to achieve competitive advantage. The key bit is that a nation must define its vital interests and then develop a plan (a strategy) to secure these vital interests. That is what I meant when I talked about strategic thinking.

Tudoran: How would you apply Clausewitz’s Strategic Thinking in the EU’s relationship with other countries? Could you provide some examples?

Van Loon: First of all, one way in which the nature of warfare has changed (in relation to Russia) is now referred to as “Hybrid”. Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, defined hybrid warfare as a “combination of the use of irregular and conventional military methods, as well as elements from cyber, economic and information warfare, and political pressure”. Russia has used hybrid warfare to stir campaigns, obscure information, and ultimately sow divisions. 

Russia will use all its resources to get what it wants, but in relation to NATO countries stays below the threshold that could trigger article 5. The only way to deal with that is to do the same. For example if Russia threatens the Baltic states we can deploy the NRF but why not decide not to buy their gas for a couple of months? Or kick them out of the BICs system? Or deny VISA to the oligarchs’ daughters. Clausewitz is right: it is all about will. 

The approach to China is similar albeit different. Painting China as the enemy, thereby cutting off diplomatic channels and refusing to buy its products might not be in Europe’s strategic interest (Van Loon and Verstegen, 2019). When I say we need manufacturing back within EU borders, it doesn’t mean not trading at all with China. What I mean is we need more equal footing. Again, we can’t be on their waitlist when a crisis occurs and we don’t have the necessary facilities.  We should look carefully at Chinese influence expanding in Africa and the way China uses money to buy influence even in Europe itself.

Note also that I talk about Europe, the EU is only part of Europe. We need to understand that the mechanisms are not necessarily the EU institutions. They could also be NATO or even smaller bilateral or multilateral arrangements. Think about a networked solution where the EU is an important but not the only hub.  

Tudoran: So from our discussion, what I understand is that the Europeans need to adapt. Europe, the EU, needs to tackle dependency on foreign resources and manufacturing. Moving away from cheap and easy solutions that make us vulnerable to blackmail is the first step. The second one would be to invest more in our military capabilities, as the US will not pay our fees forever. Last but not least, all of these actions to be done under the auspices of Strategic Thinking, but not as individual countries, but rather as a union of 27 countries. Have you got any last remarks?

Van Loon: It was the previous Dutch defence minister Jeannie Hennis that said in 2016 “Europe has to grow up”. This is not just about 2% or not, it is about realizing that national sovereignty cannot be taken for granted. To remain free to make our own choices and free to promote our own values in a globalised world of competing major powers, ability to act at European level is the very prerequisite for sovereignty at nation-state level. That does not mean we must move away from NATO, on the contrary with a stronger Europe NATO will also be stronger. Only a strong Europe that defines its own interest and the strategy to deal with this will remain an attractive alliance partner for the US.

One final thought. We live in a world where everything is seen in some sort of competition. Recently Fukuyama has written a new book that might well be the start of a new phase in history (Francis Fukuyama, 2018). Of course, it is not the book itself that necessitates the review of security policy but just as in the nineties it provides food for thought about the way we have been looking at security interest for the last decades. One central question Fukuyama now asks himself is how the logical development towards liberal democracy has resulted in a whole series of authoritarian leaders.

The shifting focus towards identity has created a relatively new critical vulnerability that opponents can exploit using hybrid tools. The fact that groups of people are desperately looking to define their identity and the resulting “we versus them” thinking has created very clear seams between NATO or EU members and any seam is always a weak spot. The support for various populist movements by Russia, the use of (social) media to create antigovernment sentiments and ultimately the attacks on the free press are all tools that are used to weaken NATO and its member states. The really bad news is that this is not just state controlled influencing. All kinds of power brokers are operating in this grey zone. The alt-right movement, the oligarchs, the dictators and wannabee dictators all are targeting the perhaps most important part of European identity, it’s social fabric. The need for cohesion is even more important in this environment. Seams require attention or they might unravel, that is something the military has always understood.

Tudoran: I am afraid we cannot skip this question: what do you think the impact of the elections in the US are going to be for Europe?

Van Loon: Well once again we woke up on the 4th realizing that polls cannot be trusted in this day and age. We need to acknowledge that the US is a deeply divided country. There is not one America, rather there are two, or as NRC phrased it America does not house one soul, it houses two. When the election results have been confirmed the Biden/Harris team does provide hope for a (at least partial) return to the rule-based world we have known for so long. The hope of a lot of politicians in Europe is that the US will return as the policeman of the world. But in my opinion it is very clear that it will remain an illusion. The second illusion we need to address is that the extreme “America First” policies introduced by Trump’s Republican party, might not go away as easily as some in Europe hope. 

What we also have to take into account is not an illusion, but a challenge, and a major one at that. This challenge lies within the US itself. Perhaps Biden can change the animosity in US politics but it is also quite possible that the extreme polarization and anger will remain dominant. The bitter fight over power in the US and the guerrilla tactics used, makes it more urgent than ever that Europe gets its act together and starts reducing its dependency.  The president elect has already announced his willingness to return to the Paris climate deal and his commitment to organizations that are at the core of the rule-based world order. But will the US senate let him? And more importantly are we now going to have to live in fear every four years? Yes, the Biden/Harris administration does provide new hope, but that makes it even more important to underpin that hope with European action. For Europe it is time “to decide what we want to be, and also what world we want to live in” and “if we don’t decide, Europe will become the pawn of others” (Heiko Maas , 2020).

One thing is certain in my opinion: we will never go back to business as usual. That was true in 2016 and it is equally certain now. Europe will need to reinvent itself in a world that has become even less clear and organized. The urgency is given by the development in the US but equally by the new wave of terror attacks in Paris, Nice, Vienna and the disastrous developments in Africa. I know this sounds pessimistic but that is because there is ample reason for pessimism. We are running out of time quickly. We might have gotten lucky (from our perspective) this time but the stakes are too high to keep on betting on luck. 

Tudoran: Thank you for the interview and sharing your thoughts on these matters.

End of Part 2

(End of the interview)

Special thanks to Dr. Dennis Broeders, the professor of the Vital Interests course at Security Studies, Helena Reinders, my editor, and Emma van den Nouweland, my illustrator.

Edited by Helena Reinders

Artwork by Emma van den Nouweland



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