Alphen, Netherlands. 10 March. Thomas Hobbes once wrote that “covenants without the sword are but words and of no strength to protect a man at all”. One hundred years ago in Britain Asquith’s Liberal Government was about to face the most terrifying decision of all – whether or not to go to war with Germany. The Cabinet was deeply split. Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey believed that Britain had no alternative but to honour treaty obligations to protect Belgian neutrality from German aggression and a secret 1912 commitment made to protect French ports in the Channel and the Atlantic. Others in the Cabinet tended towards the view that ancient and/or secret obligations were but words and should not commit Britain to war. Thankfully, whilst war is not imminent Russia’s invasion of Ukraine-Crimea has once again demonstrated Hobbes’s truism; if treaties are not reinforced by all means of influence then might prevails.
In 1994 America, Britain, Russia and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum. In return for the abandonment of Soviet-era nuclear stockpiles that for a time made Kiev the world’s third nuclear power Ukrainian sovereignty was to be protected. Ukraine, of which Crimea was clearly a sovereign part, duly fulfilled its obligations. France and China later gave similar assurances. Sadly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine-Crimea has demonstrated that such assurances are as empty as the old Soviet nuclear silos that still pockmark the Ukrainian landscape.
The Kremlin has also revealed something else; Europe’s much-lauded soft power is simply a metaphor for empty power. Indeed, if Hobbes were alive today he would write that civil power is of no strength at all. EU leaders can make all the phone calls they like to to a dissembling President Putin but the Kremlin knows such bluster is but words. Worse, by allowing a Moscow that sees the world purely in term of power to ensnare Europe in energy dependency there is nothing that can be done to stop Russia from annexing Ukraine-Crimea.
What will it take for Europeans to wake up and realise that investment in armed forces is not blind militarism but rather part of the essential strategic balance? Indeed, such investment is vital to demonstrate to the Kremlin and others a clear determination that all covenants will be honoured. And yet it is precisely the abandonment of the hard strategy that underpins such covenants that made the invasion of Ukraine-Crimea possible.
This is typified nowhere more pointedly than in London where hard strategy has been replaced by hard accountancy. Phillip Hammond, Britain’s Secretary-of-State for Defence last week made one of the most dangerous assertions I have heard in recent years to justify the abandonment of strategy. Hammond warned of the danger of setting strategy without knowing first how much money could be spent. It is precisely the abandonment of long-term strategy for the sake of short-term politics that I write about in my new book Little Britain? Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power (www.amazon.com).
The first duty of any government is the security and defence of its citizens. What Hammond is really saying that Britain’s government will only consider security and defence investment after it has paid for welfare, health and everything else that might just keep has government in power. Only then will the British Government consider how much threat they can afford. This is precisely how accountants corrupt strategy. And, given than NATO and the EU are central to British security strategy Britain’s non-strategy damages both and has undoubtedly encouraged the Kremlin’s taste for military adventurism.
This is also tragic for Russia. Last year I had the very distinct honour of addressing Russian leaders at the Moscow European Security Conference. I am no Russophobe. In typical fashion I was blunt. “Get over the Cold War”, I said. “The only stable border you have is with us in the West”. They did not listen. Shortly thereafter I made a speech in Riga, Latvia entitled NATO’s Riga Test. In that speech I said that the true test of NATO’s worth was whether the good people of Riga and across the region could sleep soundly in their beds secure in their own security.
Russia is not about to invade Latvia. However, if Europeans continue to arm covenants with words only then an unstable Kremlin might, just might, be tempted at some point to exploit “Sudeten Russians” to boost its nationalist credentials. The use of the ethnic-Russian card to justify invasion is no different from Hitler’s demand that Sudeten Germans be united with the Reich in 1938.
In the wake of Russia’s invasion real leaders would urgently undertake a scan of the strategic horizon and re-consider their respective defence postures. Such a scan would demonstrate to all but the strategically-myopic the dangers that are growing in the international system and the extent to which such dangers are exaggerated by Europe’s self-generated inability to uphold the very international law it claims to champion. And yet nothing…
Peace in our time? Make no mistake; Ukraine-Crimea could be Munich revisited if Russia is simply given a slap by the strategically limped-wristed. It will be seen as simply another “quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing” that gets in the way of short-term strategic convenience. If that is indeed the case then all the solemn treaties Europeans have signed since the end of the Cold War will be seen by the likes of Beijing, Moscow and others to be covenants without the sword.
At the very least NATO nations must commit to the agreed 2% GDP expenditure on defence. That alone will send the necessary signal that covenants such as Budapest and indeed international law in general really do matter.
What will it take indeed?