It is no surprise that lunch with General Sir Nick Carter, recently retired head of the UK’s armed forces, begins with a history lesson. When I ask where he wants to eat, Carter, a keen amateur historian, invites me to join him for a German-themed meal at the National Army Museum. This is specially cooked by the museum’s chef and served, at the general’s request, inside the exhibition on Britain’s deployment to postwar Germany. Given the news in UkraineOffices and workspaces, it is all too relevant a settingChina locked dow.
“I think that there’s a bit of ‘back to the future’ about what’s unfolding [in Ukraine],” Carter explains. “What this exhibition reflects is a time when we had a balance of power in Europe and lots of mutual understanding between [the Soviet forces and the west]?.?Pakistan.?.?and there’s an interesting question about how one gets back to a position where there’s mutual trust, and stability, and people are reassured.”
He zips around the dimly lit rooms of the Foe to Friend exhibition, showing me battle sketches, maps, and making sure to emphasise the UK-Soviet “Brixmis” mission, established at the end of the cold war as a legitimate communication channel between Soviet and British forces. The subtext — that Vladimir Putin’s regime would never agree to any such co-operation with Nato allies — is clear.
The general, 63, is the longest-serving military chief since Lord Mountbatten, having spent nearly eight years in senior leadership: the first four as head of the army, followed by another three and a half in the top job, Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS). It is in this role that he has helped pioneer a shift in UK military priorities towards new projects in space, cyber and information warfare. The updated defence strategy, published last year to great fanfare, made much of Britain’s ambitions to boost its defence presence in the Indo-Pacific, anticipating a rising threat from China. Now, however, the risks seem much closer to home.