hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Destructive Ambiguity: Why European Defence Needs a Re-think


Alphen, Netherlands. 26 August.  Last week German TV programme Monitor on Das Erste ran a piece on NATO. Central to the ten minute report was my latest NATO Defence College/Wilton Park report “NATO’s Post-2014 Strategic Narrative”.  Apparently the aim of my report is to turn Russia into an enemy as part of a conscious and aggressive NATO plan to take over Eastern Europe.  That’s certainly news to me. 

Like all bad journalists those responsible for a piece that plastered my name all over German TV never bothered to consult me.  They simply chose selected, out-of-context snippets to make a preconceived case and then implied that my independent report was somehow NATO policy.  On the eve of the NATO Wales Summit that such a respected German TV channel could run such a piece demonstrates the schism at the heart of European Defence and the need to re-think it.

The essential idea of European Defence was and indeed is not so much about the defence of Europe but rather ‘A’ if not ‘THE’ key aspect of European integration and eventual political union.  For the True Believers an integrated European defence organised on and in the EU would and should in time emerge if Europe is to be unified.  European defence would then the European pillar of a re-energised NATO in which legitimacy, affordability, efficiency and efficacy would act as four inter-locked defence cornerstones.

Successive crises, endless empty promises, the growing gulf between the European elite and the people and the rise of strategically-pacifist Germany demonstrate that European Defence is a pipe-dream.  And yet somehow it hangs on the minds of many in the Brussels elite.  The result is a Europe that punches far below its strategic weight. 

As with all things EU the essential way forward for European Defence was and is indirect.  To overcome national sensibilities and the very different strategic cultures still all too apparent in Europe a step-by-step ‘functionalist approach’ was adopted by its political architects called “Constructive Ambiguity”.  Whatever speed a country went the assumption by those at the heart of the “European Project” was that sooner and later EU member-states would end up in the same place - a unified EU-focused European Defence.  The ‘finalité,’ to use the jargon would be an integrated European Defence. This would look not a little unlike the failed 1952-1954 European Defence Community, Europe’s first attempt at an integrated defence.

However, trust or rather the lack of it has destroyed European Defence.  Repeated crisis have demonstrated that Europeans share neither a sufficiency of strategic ambition nor critically strategic culture to put all their defence eggs in one big European basket.  Worse, Afghanistan had a toxic effect on European Defence because with their “red cards” and “national caveats” too many Europeans allowed too many other Europeans to do too much of the dying in what was meant to have been a collective endeavour.

The current crisis in Ukraine could well be the final nail in the coffin of European Defence precisely because it is an exercise not in constructive ambiguity but destructive ambiguity.  Only though destructive ambiguity could the French consider the sale of advanced warships to Russia that the BBC described this morning as “perfect for invading a small country”.  The French, of course, have assurances from Moscow that they would never be used for such a nasty thing.  I wonder if those are the same type of assurances that Paris got from Berlin in the late 1930s.

Therefore, it is time to end the nonsense about European Defence.  There will in future be two Europes.  One Europe will continue to seek an American-led defence via NATO.  To do that this group will seek to share at least some of America’s burdens and willing to do real defence or at least a bit of it.  The other group will comprise those states that seek German-led security.  The latter group will no doubt talk richly about European Defence, the more so as the EU becomes ever more a metaphor for German power.  They will also talk a lot about ‘solidarity’.  However, when a crisis emerges they will either pretend nothing is happening or announce they are too busy gardening or something to do anything – destructive ambiguity.

The piece on German TV that attacked my report was really about the schism that exists in European Defence and the destructive ambiguity that sustains it. At the heart of the piece was a very strange map.  It showed a Europe with the deep-reassuring blue of NATO across the western half but a strange washed-out grey-blue spilt over the rest.  It was as though no-one had told the journos in question, Nikolaus Steiner and Andreas Orth that many of the countries they implied were not really NATO members are in fact full NATO members with the same rights to collective defence as the rest of us.  In other words for Das Erste defending NATO members is in fact NATO aggression. 

Sadly, destructive ambiguity will be the hidden theme next week in Wales.  You can expect much talk of ‘solidarity’.  You will even see the launch of a “Readiness Action Plan” offering “strategic reassurance” to NATO allies in Eastern Europe designed to counter Russia’s future use of its own form of destructive ambiguity - ambiguous warfare. 

To paraphrase Bismarck Europeans are so split that much of the talk in Wales will be not worth the healthy bones of even one Pomeranian grenadier – much like the Das Erste piece.


Julian Lindley-French

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