Paris, France. 6 April. Speaking last week at the launch of the EU’s operation to the Central African Republic Baroness Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy said, “The launch of this operation demonstrates the EU’s determination to take full part in international efforts to restore stability and security in Bangui and right across the Central African Republic. It forms a key part of our comprehensive approach to solving the huge challenges faced by the Central African Republic”.
The French-led EU mission takes place against the sad backdrop of the Rwandan genocide. Twenty years ago today a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down. In the one hundred days between 7 April and 15 July, 1994 it is estimated that up to one million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered. It is something that must never be allowed to happen again.
There are many who might conclude that such atrocities are not Europe’s business. After all, contributing factors to such conflicts are the arbitrary lines drawn by nineteenth century colonial overlords? Europeans had best stay out of Africa? Furthermore, with Russia’s annexation of Ukraine-Crimea the world has entered a new era of Realpolitik? The West the argument goes will therefore have to abandon humanitarian missions in favour of a new great power stand-off?
No. Europeans and the wider West will need to consider all such missions. However, to successfully undertake conflict prevention and mitigation in such places will require a radical re-organisation of the security and defence effort and a leap of ambition amongst national leaders hitherto conspicuous by its absence.
It is precisely because of the values the West claims to uphold that such engagements matter. Yes, the West is indeed engaged in a form of implicit and not-so-implicit strategic competition with China and Russia. However, it is precisely because this struggle must not be defined by those in either Beijing or Moscow who would like to see a new global zero-sum that such engagements are vital.
Furthermore, today’s conflict over the “rules of the road” means it is vital the West together seek a new balance between values and interests - what I call in my latest book Little Britain? the value-interest. That does not mean doing more Afghanistans (although the turnout in this weekend’s elections show some real progress has been made by engagement therein). Rather, it requires recognition at the very highest levels that the upholding of values and rules and their legitimisation through international institutions is a critical Western interest.
Third, if the West does not engage then there will be direct consequences for Europe in the form of further mass migrations and terrorism. It is precisely such spaces that Al Qaeda and their affiliates exploit, as is all too evident in northern Nigeria.
However, to engage in such large spaces with huge numbers of people facing immense problems as Rwanda or the Central African Republic demands of the West both modesty and ambition. Modesty in the sense that all that can be reasonably achieved by Western forces and resources is stabilisation. Reconstruction and the rebuilding of functioning political, social and economic institutions must come over time from the international community writ large. In this case the UN and the African Union. The West, particularly Western militaries cannot substitute for them and it is vital both institutions are strengthened. Thankfully, this is something China seems to agree with at least in part.
However, the West must also re-establish lost credibility if it is to become effective as an enabler of both strategic and regional stabilisation. First, the NATO-EU relationship must be made firmer and the implicit and silly competition between the two institutions ended. There will be times when because of the political complexity of a mission it will make more sense for a force to be under an EU and/or European flag. The political identity of a force is as important as the force itself because of the political identity it communicates. Europeans must not be afraid of a legitimate interest in Africa's well-being.
Those in the EU who see such missions as the implicit and steady replacing of NATO by the EU must be put firmly in their place. Neither the EU nor NATO alone will be sufficient to meet the challenges of both strategic and regional stabilisation.
In my presentation to NATO commanders in Naples late last week my final slide was entitled NATO as a Strategic Hub. My vision was for a NATO that acted as a force and influence generator. It is a NATO that would be able to generate civilian and military power for crises both at the high and low ends of the conflict spectrum. It would be an Alliance that works closely with the EU to better organise the civilian and military efforts of Allied and Union governments before, during and after crises. It would be an Alliance far better able to reach out to partners such as states the world over, international organisations and non-governmental organisations without compromising their independence.
This is the perfect moment to realise such a vision. The Alliance has a wealth of lessons from operations in Afghanistan. However, it is knowledge that will erode rapidly if real steps are not taken to turn it into practice – via education, exercising, training and outreach.
This week I will attend a big NATO conference on the future of the Alliance in Paris. My idea will be clearly stated when I speak; the centre-piece of the NATO Wales Summit in September must be the transformation of NATO into a twenty-first century strategic hub.
For the sake of humanity, for the sake of peace and for the sake of Rwanda.