“Look, that’s why there’s rules, understand? So you think before you break ‘em.”
Sir Terry Pratchett, The Thief of Time
From London to Munich…
Alphen, Netherlands. 15 February. It is an interesting week. I have just returned from an excellent conference at RUSI in London on missile defence, and I am about to depart to speak at a Munich Security Conference meeting. Perhaps it is a mark of Europe’s self-obsessive introspection but Russia’s 1 February decision to follow the US and abrogate the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) received surprisingly little coverage in the European media. There seemed more interest in the US where a February survey of American voters by the University of Maryland found some 77% of those asked opposed the decision of the Trump administration. Europeans should take note.
The world of which Europeans are meant to be a part, but too often pretend they are not, is increasingly a world in which Europe’s beloved rules are being binned. It is a world in which those who believe in rules don’t like power, most notably Europeans, and those with power don’t like rules. So, does the death of INF also mark the beginning of the end of the rules-based system? If so, what should Europeans do about it?
A brief history of rules
The rules-based system was in part America inspiration and European perspiration, and of expiration at the end of World War One. It was created to constrain the anarchy of unfettered state power. Its roots date back to the many treaties that over centuries shaped Europe by moderating first extreme royal and then state behaviour. The system as we know it today began in the form of voluntary regimes rather than legal instruments and began to take shape in the late nineteenth century. It was The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 which established the principle of international law, which in turn was a product of an era when some Europeans, France and Britain to the fore, had the power to make the rules but sensed that power could soon be eclipsed by the rise of more autocratic powers in which rule was not constrained by either law or mandate.
Post World War One the League of Nations was born in 1923 mainly at the behest of the American President Woodrow Wilson and his creed of Idealism. Wilson’s impetus also revealed the nature of early American internationalism which in part continues to this day. With its sense of Manifest Destiny many Americans convinced themselves they were above the base instincts of European nationalists and that constraint upon state action was really for others. Post World War Two another American-led attempt was made to promote an ideal vision of international relations through the 1945 creation of the United Nations, albeit more embedded in the reality of the time – overwhelming American power. American power, or rather American money, was also the ethos of the 1944 Bretton Woods conference which pretty much established the enshrining principle of democracy and free markets for money which defined the post-war US world order. Critically, Moscow and the Soviet Union never accepted the primacy of rules made elsewhere and never have. Beijing certainly did not.
Equally, the European allies always saw American rules-based Idealism through the lens of European Realism. The 1950 European Coal and Steel Community, whilst promoted by European integrationists like Jean Monnet, was first and foremost a means to prevent the re-emergence of an aggressive Germany and thus another war between France and Germany. The subsequent European Economic Community, European Community, and the latter day European Union, were and are all part of continental European attempts to smother power with law. Today, power in Europe has become so smothered in law that there is little room for it to breathe at all.
INF? INF always sat somewhere between American ideas of power and European ideals of law. The Americans never accepted the European concept of law as power in and of itself, and Machtpolitik Moscow rejected such ideas completely. Arms control for the Americans and the Soviets was thus not law, but rather regime and as such part of power – its generation and its application. Indeed, whilst the Europeans have often talked disarmament the Americans, save for a brief moment, have always talked arms control. From the mid-1960s on a series of treaties such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT 1), Anti-Ballistic Missiles Treaty (ABM), SALT 2, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), INF, Conventional Forces Treaty Europe (CFE) and then START 2 were all designed to balance military power rather than consign the balance of power to history.
The December 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty must be seen very much in the light of power and its balancing and thus the tradition of American and Russian ideas of arms control. It rid Europe of a whole raft of dangerous nuclear missile systems that threatened to decouple the defence of Europe from the US nuclear deterrent. INF also came to be seen as a bulwark of European security and thus a vital tool of power that helped to create the political space in which the post-Cold War rules-based system could again flourish in Europe and in its embrace the EU could emerge and evolve.
INF died for several reasons – some immediate others more structural. The first reason is that with the deployment of the SSC-8 9M729 Novator missile system Moscow drove a large coach and horses through INF and then, in that time-dishonoured manner of Russian cynicism, denied it. In spite of Moscow’s denials the SSC-8 has a range of at least 2500km thus breaking the prohibition on any missile in Europe with a range between 500km and 5000km. The second reason is that after a short period during which a broke Russia (sort of) obeyed the rules to which it was nominally committed, Moscow is now again locked into a policy of defection from such rules for short-term strategic gain. Given that the Russian formal abrogation of INF, whilst legal, is really because the Americans called Moscow out over the deployment of a treaty-breaching weapons system. As such, SSC-8 must be seen in the same light as Russia’s illegal occupation of Ukraine and the poisoning of the Skripals in the UK - the actions of a great state that has chosen to go ‘rogue’ against rules it believes were made by others for others.
Technology and control
The other reasons why INF died imply structural change is underway in world power. A revolution in military technology is underway which is making all past arms control look increasingly archaic. The Trump administration also harks back to past American internationalism which was always and necessarily underpinned by American Realism. The paradox for Europeans who complain about the Americans is that their beloved rules-based system would simply not be credible without American power.
The other factor which is accelerating the demise of the rules-based system of which INF was a pillar was the rise of China. China obeys few rules even if it claims it does. In a sense, China is the mirror image of America. America breaks rules to ultimately ensure international rules are imposed, China breaks rules to ensure its ‘rules’ are equally imposed. Like it or not, America is the posse-forming sheriff of international relations, China is the spaghetti western outlaw. The illegal seizure of islands in the South China Sea is but part of a pattern of state behaviour that ignores all and any ‘law’ if Beijing deems it necessary in the national interest. Such behaviours extends from human rights to systematic industrial and other forms of espionage, to breaches of intellectual property law to unfair trading practices and cyber-war. With such power now so determined to ignore the rules-based system it is thus hard to see how it can survive unless such rules are enforced. Europe?
The Gathering Storm
Rules matter, but rules must be also defended. A storm is gathering in the deep depression where the rules-based system once stood. Europe’s strategic vacation is finally over, even if those that pass for European ‘leaders’ these days simply refuse to acknowledge it. Rather, Europeans have become all too expert at making vacuous statements about the need to uphold ‘international law’ and the rules-based order as if talking is doing. A ‘Europe’ that too often wills the ends without the means. At the same time, it is a mistake for the Administration to have abrogated INF. Washington should have taken the lead in trying to expand and update INF, i.e. by making negotiation the centre-piece of power not just rearmament. This is because a principle has now been established by which the power unprincipled in Beijing and Moscow will exploit as they see fit to replace law with power.
The death of INF matters precisely because it could mark the beginning of the end of the rules-based international order unless those who were its architects reinvest it with the political capital and power needed to ensure ‘law’ triumphs over anarchy. Both China and Russia have shown they have the capacity to be extreme states and both will need to be turned and, yes, contained if needs be. Self-containment through law is the basis of any functioning community. Clearly, neither China nor Russia see themselves as part of any community that they do not define or dominate. For them the rules-based order is a Western imposition rather than globalist stability in which their people can flourish. Russia is simply a strategic hooligan but the paradox of China is that it is precisely the order they are eroding that has enabled China to flourish. The autocrat’s penchant for unconstrained power is clearly too hard for Beijing to resist reaching for likes some forbidden apple.
As Thomas Hobbes once famously wrote, “Covenants without the sword are but words, and of no use to any man”. In other words, power and law are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, rules without power are a bit like my golf swing – it looks superb in practice but collapses under all or any pressure. The death of INF is thus a victory for might that claims right by might and for those that claim Machtpolitik and Realpolitik is the way forward. It maybe the way forward for Spartans, but history would suggest it is also the way downwards towards hell.