hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 16 June 2014

The Hollow Men (and Women)

Eurosatory: Paris, France. 16 June.  T.S. Eliot wrote “We are the hollow men, we are the stuffed men…shape without form, shade without colour, paralysed force, gesture without motion”.  Eurosatory is the largest international military security and defence exhibition of its kind.  Hugely impressive it conveys a sense of power; it is in many ways an illusion.  My reason for coming here to Paris is as a guest of IFRI, a leading French think-tank, to speak on a pivotal question; is Europe militarily dead?  Perhaps there is an even bigger question that I should answer; is the West strategically dead?

This is a big strategic moment.  This past week Russian T-72 tanks entered Ukraine and Moscow conducted a snap exercise of forty thousand troops in Kaliningrad on the borders of Poland and Lithuania.  In Iraq the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant now threatens not just Baghdad but the entire Sykes-Picot system of states set up (for better or worse) in 1916 as they seek to create an anti-state, a Caliphate from which to launch global jihad.

Washington talks vaguely about some sort of action and has sent the aircraft-carrier USS George W. Bush into the Gulf but rules out serious military action.  Tony Blair has rightly warned Europeans to wake up but is excoriated for it.  Instead, Europeans find ever more complicated ways to ‘understand’ Russian aggression and by and large ignore what is happening across the Mediterranean as the Levant from Lebanon to the Gulf totters in the face of extremism. 

The West has become a self-indulgent strategic void led by the hollow men (and women) for whom short-termism and parochialism is the stuff of politics.  A decade or so ago the Americans believed anything was possible.  Today, strategically-inept Americans and their strategically-illiterate European allies believe nothing is possible.

Instead government has reduced foreign and security policy to pop culture. British Foreign Secretary William Hague cavorts with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt because his advisors tell him it makes for good politics.  Sure, ending violence against women in conflict is important.  Would it not be more important to deal with the bloody conflicts in the first place?  
This is not just a British phenomenon.  Across the EU politicians tell me that public opinion would never accept another foreign quagmire.  The same politicians who then ignore public opinion as they appoint the elitist, federalist, faux democrat Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission President (and they will).  Sadly, with Europe about to embark on the great struggle between democrats and federalists over the fate of the nation-state there will be little if any political energy left to engage the terrifying array of challenges amassing on Europe’s doorstep. 

Europe has been a strategic void for a long, shameful time, but worryingly Washington is also a strategic void with the Obama administration looking and sounding ever more like the EU.  President Obama came into office promising to get America out of foreign wars.  He has certainly done that but only at the cost of creating the very strategic void that the likes of Russia, Islamists and others are now exploiting.  Like Europe’s hollow leaders Obama talks the talk of power, values, interests and engagement but it is empty, meaningless and without purpose or direction…and America’s allies and adversaries know it.  The Obama administration is a study in strategic weakness.

And, as the world rearms the US will cut its defence budget over the next six years more than the entire European defence budget – a plague on both our houses.  So what, the hollow men (and women) tell me the 2020 US defence budget will still be as big as 1999.  So what, the hollow men (and women) tell me crises cannot be resolved with military power alone.  ‘Soft power’ must be applied.  The world of 2020 will be very different to the world of 1999.  As for oxymoronic ‘soft power’ it has become the hollow metaphor of hollow men (and women) for hollowed out power.

Western leaders must get a strategic grip and now.  All the ingredients exist for a very nasty world and yet Europe in particular has gone on an extended strategic vacation.  Politicians must stop putting electoral politics before sound strategy.  They must face down the growing pacifism that sees the death of even one professional soldier as a signal for withdrawal.  They must stop talking of defence merely in terms of cost rather than investment and ignore its immense value in a dangerous world.  It is the fate of those without strategy to see only cost and never value.

Action is needed now.  Something that looks like a coherent strategy is needed to re-engage jihadists and expansionists the world over. That means Western leaders re-discovering their strategic mojo.  Much has been made of the NATO Wales Summit due to take place 4-5 September and yet the draft agenda lacks both the ambition and the scope to generate the big picture politicians will need if strategy is to replace hollow rhetoric.

Sadly, the hollow men (and women) are all too predictable.  For them strategy is to be avoided at all cost because it means commitment and in Europe at least accountancy has replaced strategy.  Therefore, we the citizens will go on listening to the strategically-hollow talking big, empty platitudes about values and the ‘critical’ and ‘vital’ interests upon which freedom and stability are built as they quietly abandon the very principles upon which liberty is based. 

And we will want to believe them as the hollow men (and women) ‘lead’ us all down into the great strategic void in which they live.  The non-place in which everything is talked about but nothing is possible.  The non-place where all options are considered but none are taken.  The non-place where the long-term is ‘championed’ but only the short-term is ever discussed.  The non-place where we the people sleep the sleep of fools at peace with ourselves whilst the hollow men (and women) feed us political delusions and illusions we are only too happy to swallow ‘safe’ in our own hollowness.   

And the world will fail as the vacuum created by the West’s strategic withdrawal will unleash all hell sooner or later.  Indeed, until the West’s responsible leaders face up to this dangerous world as it is not as they would like it to be strategy will be reduced to a series of ill-connected expressions of often glossy impotence. 

There is a new geopolitics afoot that sees autocrats and extremists the world over threaten not just the West’s values but its fundamental freedoms.  And yet the hollow men (and women) dither strategically-exhausted, strategically-unsure and strategically-depressed.  So, sleep on my friends.  Slumber whilst you can because soon you will be awakened by the chirp and Twitter of the hollow men (and women) as they blame each other for having appeased reality.  Or seek the scapegoat for their inaction.  Tony Blair are you listening?

“Why did you not act” we shall cry.  “We knew what to do”, they will eventually tell us, “…but if we had done it your sleep would have been disturbed and you would not have re-elected us.  And you looked so peaceful”.  The hollow reply of the hollow men (and women) who are paid to lead but never do.

“Between the desire and the spasm, between the potency and the existence, between the essence and the descent, falls the shadow”.

Julian Lindley-French

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