General Sir Richard Barrons, the former commander of the UK’s Joint Forces Command — whose remit included military intelligence, special forces, and cyber, joins Azeem Azhar to discuss how technology is changing the definition of warfare and why our society’s resilience in the face of threats to peace must be founded on education. As war returns to Europe, General Barrons’ warning about how technology is transforming conflict is more prescient than ever.
They also address:
- The nature of Russia’s offensive capabilities and how they have previously deployed cyber and disinformation strategies.
- What societal resilience is and how it can ensure democracy’s survival.
- What better leadership looks like in the exponential age.
This episode was originally broadcast on October 23, 2019.
When the Pieces Land (Exponential View 2022)
How The Russia-Ukraine Conflict Will Change Cyber War (Exponential View Podcast 2022)
How to Stay Informed on the Future of War (Tim Fernholz, 2019)
The Future of War is Already Here (P. W. Singer, 2019)
AZEEM AZHAR: Welcome to Exponential View with me, Azeem Azhar. The world is changing at an amazing pace and we’re entering the exponential age. It’s propelled by remarkable technologies. This podcast, as well as my book Exponential, and my newsletter are here to help you understand that complex transition. For a short time, we’re offering listeners to the podcast a 20% discount to an annual subscription to my newsletter. There are loads of benefits of membership. So, listen through to the end of this episode, and you’ll find details of that discount. Now, three years ago, I had an extraordinary conversation on this podcast. It was a discussion about the Future of Warfare with General Sir Richard Barrons, a highly experienced military leader who was the commander of the UK Joint Forces Command until his retirement in 2016. This gave him broad responsibilities across British Armed Forces, including but not limited to their special forces, military intelligence and what would become cyber command. When Richard and I spoke in 2019, he provided a realistic outlook on the many points of tension that could lead to a high impact conflict between the globalized powers, what that conflict would look like in the context of recent technological advances, and what democracies should do to increase their resilience against such threats. I want to rebroadcast this conversation because it’s one of the most prescient discussions I’ve had on the podcast. We explored Russia’s power structure, its willingness to use various offensive capabilities, and its relationship with Ukraine. This is a conversation I’ve returned to myself as I try to make sense of the current war between Russia and Ukraine and understand where it might go. If you learn something new in the episode, please share the podcast with others. It is one of the most powerful ways where you can support our work. Richard, it’s wonderful to have you on the Exponential View podcast.
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: Thank you for having me.
AZEEM AZHAR: When I studied international relations back in the late 80s, early 90s, war in conflict seemed quite simple. There were two sides and they used deterrence and it just seemed that we understood what the rules were. We understood what war looked like and who the parties were. And yet here we are, less than 30 years later, seems much more complicated.
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: It is much more complicated, and we really shouldn’t be surprised by this. There are two truisms about war. The first is, the nature of war never actually changes. It is always this brutal and feral and dangerous and uncontrollable aspect of human behavior, which we’ve singularly failed to eradicate so far. But the thing that always changes over time is how war and conflict are prosecuted and that’s affected by culture, but mostly by technology and by thinking. You’re absolutely right, at the end of the Second World War, we fell into a Cold War. It was a two-sided thing with a superpower on each side of a fence, and it provided a framework within which people thought they understood war and conflict, and that finished in 1989. Then we thought briefly and wrongly for a while that we’d solved the problem of war, the end of history. We at least, in the West, thought we were looking at the inevitable triumph of Western liberal democracy and by about 2010, that was clearly crumbling. And we now live in a world where the US-led certainties of the post-Cold War era are evaporating as we step firmly into the uncertainties of an Asian century and a multipolar world where, for the first time ever in the history of mankind, we are bumping into the limits of our planet’s ability to cope with our demands and expectations. And we know this is serious, but what we can’t actually divine yet is how is this going to cause societies to fall apart and nations to fight. But it surely will over this century.
AZEEM AZHAR: You described how the geostrategic context changed. What was the realization that arrived around 2010 and that the nature had fundamentally changed?
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: I think there were three things that mattered. The first thing is the U.S. stopped taking charge under President Obama. The U.S. was pulling back from policing the world in its own image, and that of course has been accelerated by President Trump. The second thing that happened was the dawning realization this century about China. You just can’t compete with the numbers. I don’t think even China knows how this turns out, but it is reasserting itself in its own image as the dominant power in the world. And the third thing that’s changed is technology. So many of the things we set great store by, certainly in the arena of conflict, are being literally blown away by the way, technology is changing how war is thought.
AZEEM AZHAR: When I was a teenager, I was a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and I used to get their annual military balance. And it was all about the numbers back then; it was the number of tanks you could feel and the number of attack helicopters you could feel and how many personnel carriers have come on stream, and it seemed that those things don’t have the same significance today as they did only a couple of decades ago.
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: There’s still something about conventional combat part, but what’s changed is the way that technology has led us back into the missile age. And just as the aircraft killed the battleship, the missile is now killing aircraft carrier, and it is now possible to conceive of a world where a country can threaten another country on the other side of the world, without any soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines leaving their homeland through the use of missiles and cyber and social media manipulation.
AZEEM AZHAR: Now there’s a lot in that and it’s quite complicated for us to get our head around because at the same time that you’ve described hypersonic missiles and remote drones, you’ve also talked about cyber attacks and social media disinformation. How can we try to organize or conceptualize those different things?
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: So, I think we need to settle on two big thoughts. The first is we used to think about peace and war – and indeed there’s an important legal definition in the transition from peace to war, but actually most states in the world today have a set of complex relationships. And I think this spectrum is best described as the four Cs; we cooperate with some nations, we compete with others, we’re in conflict with others, and occasionally we are in confrontation with whole set of folk. So, if you’re managing your relationships from corporation through competition, confrontation and conflict, then the role of conventional military hard power is reduced. And the second big thought is we’ve now rediscovered how to assert influence around the world using levers of power that aren’t military.
AZEEM AZHAR: And you’re not talking about the British Council or the man from the foreign office. You’re talking about more digital mechanisms.
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: No, I am talking in part about that. If – let’s take the United Kingdom example – the way the United Kingdom, which is inextricably part of a globalized world… it relies on an international order and certainty to feed its people and make its way. And it has some military power, but it also has politicians and diplomats and an aid budget and a government that sends messages. But much more than that, it has a really powerful private sector; the city entertainment, sport, tourism. And so how the UK makes its point in the world is a combination of yes, military power in very small place. But what the government does, let’s call that public sector soft power, but much more decisively, private sector soft power which isn’t harnessed in the organized way that a monolithic state can, but it’s still really powerful.
AZEEM AZHAR: And in the case of Russia, as an example, we’re sitting in London today which has taken a tremendous amount influx of Russian money over the past 25 years.
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: In a situation where the United Kingdom government and its people are in profound disagreement with Russia over the poisoning of a couple of former Russian citizens in the United Kingdom – a terrible act of state violence – well, sanctions are applied, spies are expelled, and yet a great deal of Russian money is deposited in the city and buys nice houses in central London. So, if you’re Russian, you may think they’re not that serious because in Russia they would align all of those things because a monolithic state can. And maybe in the future, we’re going to have to see many states as the world gets harder and more challenging, think harder about how they have a more consistent message to people that they’re falling out with.
AZEEM AZHAR: What strikes me about this is the couple of interesting dimensions here, your four Cs which is Cooperation, Competition, Confrontation, and Conflict. They tackle the old binary – perhaps it’s now false binary – of peace and war. And the second thing that you’ve identified is, I would characterize as the weakening of the old command and control infrastructure that perhaps we lived with, there’ve been a couple of recent feature films about the start of World War II which focused a little bit on Churchill. And there was a command and control moment and that’s as I suppose what we have thought of as conflict in what war being. But if you are looking at this dispersed set of assets, many of which you don’t directly control but you can influence are the shape of the private sector. The notion of how you can control those is much weaker and it requires a different set of disciplines. So, I’m seeing these sort of two very clear distinctions, the end of that false binary and a new conceptualization of what control like.
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: So, it is much more complex. It’s also potentially much more sinister. Why is it more complex? Well, in the days of Churchill, the relationship between the government and its people was partly cast by a sense of deference, which is long disappeared now. And secondly the way the population at large understood what was going on was through newspapers, the radio, and a very limited television service. So when the prime minister spoke on the radio, for many people that was their single source of truth and direction, and now most people form their understanding of the world in ways that are not controlled or set by a government. The opportunity for states that don’t wish the UK well to manipulate particularly what its cast in social media and what happens in cyberspace in order to deplete that sense of cohesion and to undermine the normal operation of society, much of that hasn’t been terribly effective, but it’s quite poisonous.
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: But the way this has become more sinister is in this clear transfer of technology and understanding that was formed in the advertising industry, which is how you can understand through data, what millions of people want in our thinking. And then through data and AI send those millions of people, a message that’s tailored to them that suits your purpose. And we now live in a world where a government or a non-state actor or a company can communicate instantaneously with millions of people with a message which suits them and therefore any relationship to the truth or values is accidental.
AZEEM AZHAR: Could you just say what you mean by a non-state actor?
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: So that can be a multinational company or it could be a terrorist organization or it could be a religious movement or it could be a trade association. It’s just something that’s exists in a formed way that isn’t part of government.
AZEEM AZHAR: What does that, this modern hybrid war or hybrid conflict look like, and how do those different assets and players get brought to bear?
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: States like Russia and China and the U.S. and the UK and many others realize that the price of going to war and the way we might have done 200 years ago by sending gunboats, that sort of thing is that outrageously high now. You can’t really control the consequences and the damage, particularly in a world of globalized supply chain and relationships is potentially profound, but you’ve still got values to protect and interest to prosecute. So governments are finding ways of advancing their interests by this manipulation of all these other levers of power. And one of the challenges for democracy is, these levers of how much more diffused, they’re not controlled by the government, whereas in a monolithic state like China or Russia, then all these levers of power will follow the direction that the state or the ruling party sets, and sometimes this is really clunky. So, in the case of Ukraine soldiers who were clearly Russian being in Ukraine and exerting violence on the Ukrainian population were denied by Russia, but it wasn’t terribly plausible, not least because in many cases those soldiers had taken their mobile phones from the garrisons in Western Russia, all the way to Ukraine, posting pictures as they went.
AZEEM AZHAR: Instagram was a great source of intelligence during that time.
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: It absolutely was. What we’re now looking at in our age is unfettered war affected by digital technology, where you have to think again about your homeland resilience and taking your mobile phone with you is an act of profound self-harm.
AZEEM AZHAR: So, we go back to Ukraine. I also understood there was quite a lot of work done through both social media and cyber threats as part of a sort of portfolio assault. How would those operate and how do they work in concert or coordination with the other assets?
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: So Russia had learned a lot of lessons from its earlier interventions in Georgia for example, and it calibrates very thoughtfully, what it can get away with without provoking a conventional ministry response from the United States with which it simply couldn’t cope. So we’ve seen a combination of politics. Ukraine really matters to Russia. It matters a great deal to President Putin’s narrow narrative with his own population. It plays this narrative through state media and through social media and through cyber. It’s then reinforced by actions on the ground. You do things that change the facts on the ground before a response can be mastered. And there is a very well-known example where two Ukrainian infantry battalion… so let’s say about a thousand soldiers in armored vehicles were identified by Russian uninhabited aerial vehicles, so drones and were destroyed somewhere between three and 15 minutes, by long-range precision rocket fire from Russian artillery. So no Russian soldier anywhere near to those targets, but a cataclysmic loss for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. And that was a very clear indication that in addition to the use of quite sophisticated social media and cyber techniques, you are seeing adoption of military technology driven by the digital age, which doesn’t involve people actually eyeballing each other.
AZEEM AZHAR: In this modern conception of war, are we on a staircase that takes us from cooperation through these various steps up to full blown conflict? If I see social media, disinformation campaigns, I should start to mobilize my coast guard, or is it that we’re going to spend more of our time in a more or less permanent state of friction and argy bargying and these different domains and theaters?
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: There’s no script to this. But we shouldn’t see it as a necessarily linear process. Most wars start for really bad reasons. They usually start when there’s a head of steam that’s been allowed to build up, where you have a mobilized public and angry politicians dealing with complexity and uncertainty and faced with the need to decide on something. And then you’re in the arena of miscalculation and overreach. So one of the risks of the modern day is states now possess the capability to bring to a halt, the daily life of people they’re falling out with. They’re focused on the things that make our lives work, like power and water and telecoms and supermarket distribution systems. The potential power of cyber, which is actually quite difficult to do, I have to say… a really good communicator given access to the British people through social media will make them all very nervous, very quickly through spreading what we’ll call fake news. But the point is that people believe it. They believe it, and then probably also the actual people who go and conduct it a bit of sabotage. It probably would take two weeks to bring most European countries to their knees if you apply that sort of strategy well and comprehensively, and at no point, have you conducted a 20th century style in invasion. So what does that mean? Well, it means the risk of escalation are profound, and we need therefore to try through dialogue and agreement and patience and strategic wisdom, we contain the frictions of confrontation.
AZEEM AZHAR: In this constant threat environment, how should we revise or update our notion of declarations of war or being at war and how we signal that publicly to our civilians and to our allies and to the supernational organization.
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: We understood an act of war to be something physical, usually an active destruction you shoot something down or fire a missile or an act of territorial aggression. And that’s clearly ground in the experience of the 19th and 20th centuries. And the era we live in now, one state can do great harm to another state without any form of chemical energy, changing hands, or territorial invasion. Now, we don’t have a definition of war that wraps that up well yet. But we’ll know when our daily life is being disrupted to an unacceptable degree that it’s having the equivalent effect of a kinetic attack on us, and public opinion will tell governments when enough is enough, and governments will sense when they need to respond. We thought for a while that if you were attacked in cyberspace, you could only respond in cyberspace. And everyone is well through this now that if you are hurt enough through cyber attack, you reserve the right to respond in all sorts of ways. Now that might be military action. It’s much more likely to be commercial sanction, I think at least in the first case, but it’ll really hurt, as you are currently seeing with the application of sanctions to both Russia and Iran. So I think we’re going to learn by doing an experience and I think we will struggle to have a neatly worded legal definition of what being at war is, but we are going to feel it, and on the basis of that sentiment, governments will act.
AZEEM AZHAR: The other area that I think seems to make this more complex is that the cost of many of these tools have really declined. The mass persuasion tools now are available for $3 or $4 on Facebook or some of the other social networks, frankly you can buy a denial of service bot net on the dark web for a few lattes. Is there any way of managing the proliferation of these new digital threat systems?
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: Well, I think you’re very accurate describing a feature of multipolarity in the 21st century in the digitalization, just as you describe it, the bar to gain any access to these very powerful digital capabilities is really low, and so states will develop them and they’ll develop them mostly through their relationship with the civil sector and non-state actors. So, terrorist organizations are already finding this pretty easy to acquire. So, in other words, a resilient society has got to take account of the potential for harm to come from many directions and many directions concurrently, and that means that we are going to have to think again about resilience, but it’s not just going to occur in the digital space. The risk of nuclear proliferation are clearly with us. What we’re beginning to see is a transformation of military capability through the application of digital technology developed in the civil sector and this essentially centers around data, a cloud, AI, robotics, and autonomy. So, what we’re going to see is the evolution of navies, armies and air forces away from their current focus on very expensive, complicated man platforms. And we’re going to see the development of capability, which is a mixture of man unmanned on autonomous capability, which will require fewer people in harm’s way and a much-reduced cost. So, the cost of society of being resilient in a military way will fall over this century. Notwithstanding it’s a very painful transition for traditional military organizations, but that also means that capability becomes available to a whole range of other states. So what might we conclude from that? Well, first of all, we all going to need friends. Collective security in the 21st century is going to be harder, but it’s much more important than it has been for the last generation. And secondly, we’ve had a lovely time in the West. We’ve had a generation and a half off worrying about homeland resilience, and now we need to reset it for the digital age.
AZEEM AZHAR: If you’ve reduced the cost of the technologies and if you’ve reduced the risk to your own life, the prosecutors of your attacks, you’ve really made it a much more appealing strategic option for a state to fling some kind of rock. So we should see that rate of conflict at increase.
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: Yes. So the temptation to fight if your own sons and daughters are not at risk is greater. And in its most extreme form, this will be the struggle we are going to have with how does autonomy take its place in warfare? How much are we prepared to see machines fight on the basis of the algorithms without being controlled by a human mind? And they’ll just devastate until they’re told to stop. So, there are really profound risks in here. And one of the perils is this technology led by the civil sector is advancing at a speed no state can control and where regulation, both national and international is well behind. I don’t think that’s a process we’re going to arrest.
AZEEM AZHAR: A lot of our amazing technologies were devised by the military for the military and we’re benefiting from their spillovers. And now that we’ve got this scale and this distributed nature of innovation, what happens in the private sector is quite often streets ahead anything that can be command and controlled. And so you’ve got literally our benign activities are turning into the weapons of the future. And I suppose very effectively enlisted by terrorists and insurgency groups over the past 20 years.
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: Very effectively taken up. One of the challenges is most of those state’s militaries have spent hundreds of years refining their current model and will very reluctantly break themselves to become effective in the digital age. But their owners, civil society is going to have to make them break themselves. Most armed forces only change when they’ve had a massive defeat and that’s not a particularly attractive approach to change management.
AZEEM AZHAR: One of the things that concerns me is that as societies over the past 30 years, we’ve not really invested much in formally building our citizens’ resilience. And in a sense, we’ve made it easier and easier for all of us. It’s one click to secure the new desk fan you need. And here are three recommended restaurants – just choose the one with the most stars. In subtle ways, we’ve given people many more simpler choices, but not very many hard choices, which seems to be one of the things that you need to do to build up resilience. So I’m curious about how you would evaluate the current state of resilience in state nations, particularly in the West, and how we might think about building that resilience in the coming decades.
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: So I think this is an absolutely crucial point for our time. So we’ve had a really lovely period where since 1989, no one has had any thought in the UK or Germany or France, and many other countries have excess tension peril. There was no sense of invasion or civil war or harm from a profoundly challenging natural disaster even. And that’s allowed us to spend our money on other things, a much better social offer to ourselves. And it’s accentuated this millennial sense of it’s all about the individual and perfect freedom to lead your life really without commitment or expectation or any sense of harm. That period is now over. We have to come to terms with the fact that we in the West exist as strategic snowflakes, where our daily life is enormously fragile. And although we should worry a lot less about the traditional historical risk of territorial invasion, we should worry a lot more about how our daily way of life can be affected decisively from range through this combination of cyber missile, social media manipulation, proxies that kind of thing. And we should recognize that – although we think it’s a human right – that when we turn the tap on water comes out. And when we flick a switch, the power is on. And when we go to the cash machine, there’s cash in it. And when we go to the supermarket, there’s food in it. All of those are really, really complex and very fragile systems. And so we have to start with the process of education at the level of the individual citizen, which is they must understand the fragility of the world in which we live in and recognize that there is no written guarantee that it’s going to continue unless they help it to continue. Secondly – and this will be a shock to many – they have to recognize this is not a problem government can solve. Governments can do many things in protecting their societies and their citizens, but the scale and complexity means that this is the duty of every citizen, every enterprise, every institution to build in their own resilience. So that starts with simple cyber hygiene, but also knowing how to respond in a crisis and not just be pathetic and hopeless. The fact is when bad things happen and they probably will, every citizen is going to have to play their part. Now our ancestors a hundred years ago absolutely understood this, and now we need to reset it.
AZEEM AZHAR: The question is, where does that leadership come from? What organization or institution is going to provide these very liberated societies and their people with that leadership to make that shift?
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: Well, you’ve struck at the heart of our contemporary problem, which is in no Western country – and I’m going to confine myself to the UK at this point. In the UK, there are no political leaders in power who understand this problem well, because they’ve never had to about it. This is a political chicken and egg situation where until civil society says to politicians that we want you to take this seriously, politicians aren’t going to make the hard choices to reduce that degree of hedonism and make society operate differently in its own medium, to long term strategic interest. There’s no historical precedence of that happening until the harm has manifested itself. We’re in a place where we can’t have this conversation in the heat at the moment. It’s too late and states like Russia and China understand this very well.
AZEEM AZHAR: So citizens have a role to play in all of this, but it appears that corporations do as well. Corporations form both part of the attack surface through their networks and their applications, but they also form part of the rectification or defense mechanism. How are those people being brought into the discussion with nation states and national governments?
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: So I think it’s fair to say this is not going well. Yes, because particularly those companies that are grounded in the West Coast of the U.S. have decided they’re allergic in some cases to the whole business of defense and security, and have taken themselves out of contention for thinking how they contribute to this. And they can do that because they’re very largely self-regulated organizations. But I think what we are going to see is an alignment between this debate about resilience and security with the wider debate about how enterprises contribute social value. So we’re beginning to understand that enterprises have got to do better than maximize short term gain because of the considerations that they must take of the effect of their activities on the environment. And now they’re also going to have to think about the effect of their activities, their responsibility to society for resilience. You just need to add it to the debate.
AZEEM AZHAR: In this environment of jostling nation states, some of whom perhaps they’re on the way down. And some of whom like China and other countries in Asia are very much on the way up. It seems like there is a lot of power up for grabs. I studied somebody called Graham Allison, who was a sort of decision theorist and he coined this idea of the Thucydides Trap, which was this notion that a rising power creates a lot of fear and an established power. And that inevitably creates a march to some kind of conflict. Are we in a modern day Thucydides Trap?
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: Well, we’re certainly in a modern-day Thucydides moment. We absolutely have to recognize that in our time now we are witnessing the relative decline of the U.S. as the single hegemonic superpower and the relative rise of China as the dominant global influence. First, economically, and then because it’ll come with economic power politically and militarily, this is a process that runs over decades. So there are a couple of interesting things, we’re going to have to dump some assumptions about how this US-led Western liberal mindset is dominant in the world and recognize that it will change. Secondly, and I think profoundly important, is as this Thucydides process plays out, this is going to happen as we bump into the limits of our planet. And in that canvas, there are going to be so many seeds of conflict in the frictions of climate change, social disorder, economic chaos, that we should worry that the Thucydides process is going to be focused on some very unpredictable challenges at scale in our world, whether it’s in Africa or Asia or elsewhere. And no one knows how that plays out, but everyone can see it’s going to be really complicated. And from a UK and European perspective, if the U.S. isn’t going to look after us as it has, and China isn’t aligned with our interest and it isn’t, we are going to have to redefine European collective security, despite all the dramas of Brexit and the current demobilize state of NATO, and think how a union or a gathering of the 500 million people of Europe can make its voice heard in a world, which will be dominated by the 1.2 billion people in China in a way that individually as European countries, we will not compete with.
AZEEM AZHAR: Between the intersection of our globalized world and demanding consumers and climate threat. There must be some pretty strange unintended consequences.
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: Yeah. One might expect governments to think deep thoughts about policy and strategy, and to manage these changing tectonic plates that we’ve talked about, but then they’re going to have to live with the unforeseen consequences of almost unimaginably complicated things happening. And here’s a smart example. So quinoa…
AZEEM AZHAR: Which is this with this funny wheaty type of grain so beloved by Californians in Wilderness.
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: Yes. So for many people, for hundreds of years, this was rather ordinary thing to eat, but it suddenly became popular and healthy. And it used to be about 15 pence a kilo, and then a lot of people around the world decided this needed to be a stable part of their diet. So the price shot up to about eight pounds a kilo. So a lot of quinoa’s made in Bolivia and they were clearly onto a good thing. So they did what everybody would do, which is they decided to grow a lot more of it. And it requires an awful lot of water, but water is in scarce supply, and in meeting the demand for quinoa, this commercial activity drained a lake in a neighboring country upon which 40,000 people depended for their livelihood. So what are those 40,000 people meant to do when their neighbors take away their livelihood? Well, they’re not going to be thrilled and they’re very unlikely to be subsidized. So I think this is a very good example where unless we can manage these things really well, the unintended consequences of trying to satisfy traditional models of consumption and demand will mean that millions of people are disadvantaged and they would object and they would object violently.
AZEEM AZHAR: And where is the forum where you as rival parties could sit down, meet, mediate, and discuss what’s going on and find some sort of solution.
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: We should recognize that the United Nations, as it is today, is a very impotent body. It’s stymied by the para vito in the security council. It’s become very expensive and very bureaucratic. And of course it exists as an organization. It’s not an alliance, but it does seem to me that in the world we’ve been talking about, unless there is some global organization, let’s call it United Nations, that can consider these things and arrive at a mechanism where on the basis of consensus by majority, the path of the world can be adjusted. And there’s every risk that these issues will be resolved by force. And I don’t think that’s going to work in a world. That’s reaching its limits.
AZEEM AZHAR: Richard. You’ve been a leader of very large organizations and units and institutions. Many of our listeners are running companies large and small, and they’ll be asking the questions themselves of how do I transform my people and my organization to handle this new world, both the threats that we’ve described today, but also the opportunities that are created by the new technologies.
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: So I think the first point is it’s the duty of the senior leader to look around them and to really understand the strategic context within which they operate today and will operate tomorrow, because if they don’t do it, then who else is going to do it for them. We live in an era, which is so challenging, that really difficult decisions and change can only function top down. The second thing that leaders must be capable of doing is forming a strategy for dealing with this difficult world, because it will be different from the one they’re operating now and it require a bit of thought. The third thing they have to do is they’ve got to communicate this. And that’s not about issuing a memo or EDEX or an event like a conference. This is a process. And the fourth thing they’re going to have to do is make it happen. And that requires skill and ruthlessness because one of the challenges we’re going to face is companies and armed forces and institutions that have worked pretty well in the old world are not going to flourish in the world that we are talking about where the pace of change is significant, and the degree of risk is much greater. And it is the senior leader’s job to impose change in organizations, even if it means telling their friends really difficult news about their role or lack of a role or changing how organizations work. And one of the challenges, particularly perhaps in the public sector, is dismantling an organization that has a pedigree that goes back hundreds of years, that’s learnt to operate in a particular way, and now to make it fit for the job it’s going to have to do in this century. And in making all of those decisions, it’s just not going to work if senior leaders think only about maximizing short term profit, for all the reasons we’ve talked about, they’re going to have to think about value, their place in society, their role in resilience. And that’s a profoundly different style of commercial leadership to the things that have succeeded.
AZEEM AZHAR: Well, Richard, thank you very much for passing on both your wisdom and leadership, but also this very frank assessment of the nature of threats that we face over the coming years.
GENERAL SIR RICHARD BARRONS: Thank you.
AZEEM AZHAR: Well, thanks for listening to this conversation with General Sir Richard Barrons. To read more about my assessment of the invasion of Ukraine and its consequences, particularly with a geotechnical lens, head over to www.exponentialview.co. As a listener to this podcast, you receive 20% off the annual newsletter membership. With the membership you get the first scoop on my conversations, essays and weekly analysis. You can get that discounted membership at www.exponentialview.co/listener. Leaders from around the world turn to my newsletter to help understand the complexities of these changes. So, I recommend you become a member. This episode was produced by Marija Garvilov and Fred Casella, our editor is Bojan Sabioncello. Exponential View is a production of [e^(pi*i)+1 Limited.