Alphen, Netherlands. 4 December. Winston Churchill once said, “Danger: if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce danger by half. Never run away from anything. Never!” This past week five separate but nevertheless linked events have demonstrated just what a fragile world we live in, just how prone we all are to future shock, and the lack of any coherent, sustained Western strategy to deal with any of them.
Russia: Today, President Putin will give his annual State of Russia address. Expect it to be full of bombast about the greatness of Russia and how Moscow is again teaching the world, or at least the NATO world, that Russia must be respected. In fact, Russia is an economic basket-case. The rouble has plunged 40% in the last year. The price of oil upon which the Russia economy depends has fallen from $114/barrel to just $70/barrel tipping Russia into recession. Western sanctions imposed due to Russia’s illegal occupation of Ukraine although modest are weakening an already vulnerable economy. Much has been made of Russia’s resurgent military strength and indeed Moscow is spending 40% of all public investment on its armed forces. However, the real danger is not Russian strength but political and economic weakness and the danger that it will tempt the Kremlin into further adventurism.
OPEC: Last week’s meeting of the Organisation of Previously Expensive Countries revealed the crisis which faces once mighty Middle East petro-states. US shale oil and gas production is shifting the very foundations upon which big, strategic energy has been established for a century. Add that to this week’s announcement that German energy giant Eon aims to become a producer of renewable energy only then the days when OPEC could in effect hold the West to ransom are long gone. It is not all bad news for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Exxon Mobil in their 2012 report “2020 The Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040” estimate that global energy demand could be 30% higher in 2040 than 2010 with a world population will 9 billion larger. Demand in OECD states will be flat but demand in non-OECD countries could grow by about 60%. Fossil fuels will still meet 80% of the total energy needs whilst the demand for natural gas will increase by 60% by 2040. However, given the inherent instability of such states to political decapitation any loss of revenues makes them vulnerable to anti-state forces such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State. Talking of which…
Islamic State: Yesterday, one of those big jamboree meeting was held at NATO HQ in Brussels with some sixty states in attendance. If ever there was a statement that the struggle against the likes of Al Qaeda and Islamic State is a struggle between the state and the anti-state this was it. Sadly, the meeting was also heat rather than light, the kind of event clueless Western politicians love these these days to give the appearance of action rather than the fact of it. Of course, air strikes have helped to degrade Islamic State but the wider problem of how to deal with Islamism remains unresolved. There are three fundamental realities Western leaders refuse to grip; the need for boots on the ground if the struggle really is as important and the danger as big as they say, the need for a coherent sustained comprehensive strategy that involves all instruments of influence – diplomatic, aid and development and military over many years and in many places; and the balance to be struck between the protection of society and the projection of power.
Afghanistan: Today another big jamboree conference will begin in London on the future of Afghanistan chaired by Prime Minister Cameron. Alongside him will be Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and ‘Chief Executive’ Abdullah Abdullah. However, several months on from the presidential elections there is still no government in Kabul, the Taliban insurgency is growing in strength again in the south and east of the country and attacks are becoming more common in Kabul. Last week five British embassy workers were killed by a suicide bomb. However, Britain left Afghanistan a month ago, Cameron has no intention of going back and neither Britain nor Europe has any influence. Instead, President Obama has had to reverse course and sign a new “Combat Order” committing 10,000 US forces to Afghanistan until at least 2024. Today’s meeting is pure Cameronian political grandstanding
Europe: Yesterday, British Finance Minister George Osborne provided one of those acts of political theatre for which British politics is renowned. The problem was that his Autumn Statement on the British economy was precisely that – feel-good theatre. Even though the British economy will grow at 3% this year Britain's national debt still represents some 11% GDP, with only 40% of the cuts to public expenditure made over the past five years needed if Britain is to balance its books. Indeed, borrowing at £91bn this year is only sustainable because interest rates are at an historic low. This is driving two phenomena. First, like the rest of Europe (which is in a far worse state) Britain is raiding defence to maintain health and social welfare to serve electoral rather than strategic cycles. Second, politicians simply refuse to tell people the truth. Taken together this approach leaves European states politically paralysed unable to deal with a now almost permanent economic crisis and forces politicians to wilfully ignore the many dangers beyond their borders.
An old and wise friend of mine said to me this week that there is a dangerous dichotomy between “gosh, this is really serious” events and the predilection of politicians across Europe to see defence and external security as an additional extra. What is needed is leadership which is in precious short supply, political honesty which is completely absent and political balance and courage which is but a distant dream. Yes, getting debt down is a strategic must but it must not come at the expense of security and defence and the sound, credible, sustained and consistent strategic engagement that is desperately needed. The sad reality is that contemporary politics has destroyed the strategic patience needed to face such dangers. Instead, it has been replaced by political grandstanding to mask strategic weakness. The biggest danger of all is thus a weak West for when the West is weak as it is today all other dangers are magnified.
“Events, dear boy, events”.