Riga, Latvia. 6 November. It is time to get back to Riga realism. The flight from Texas to Riga via Atlanta and Amsterdam is not just long and laden with jet lag, it is also a journey from superpower to little power, from absolute security to insecurity. Here, close to Russia’s border, one can smell the hard political realism that close proximity to paranoid power engenders. There is little room for wishful thinking here in Riga.
Tomorrow I will speak at the outstanding Riga Conference organised by the Latvian Transatlantic Treaty Organisation. The subject I have been asked to address is fighting New Generation Warfare. My core point will be more succinct; whatever tag one puts on aggression it is meaningless if understanding of said aggression is not matched by active defence against it. Too often in Europe we confuse understanding with engagement, confuse talking with action. That is why we repeatedly put new labels on old wine and call them ‘action plans’, or hold endless summits and declare a problem solved, because it was agreed by summit. Worse, ‘understanding’ has become a kind of alibi for inaction; a leitmotif for the wishful thinking that makes Europeans punch far beneath their weight on the world stage and will likely continue to do so.
Riga realism is different to ordinary political realism. It is realism forged in the furnace of white hot history. Here threat is not mere distant distractions from a busy day. Rather it hangs in the air like an autumn mist, thin enough to permit activity but never quite lifting because it is so close. Ironically, one can see reality more clearly through this mist than anywhere else in denial Europe.
Riga realism must also be reinjected into all the crises that Europe faces. The migrant crisis, the euro crisis, and above all the Russia crisis (the crisis in Ukraine is a crisis for Ukrainians. but it is first and foremost a Russia crisis) all exhibit the same old weakness; a hope for the better that by inaction only makes matters worse.
The migrant crisis has revealed ruthlessly the inability of Europe’s liberal leaders to deal with a crisis that is both humanitarian and by sheer scale threatens to destabilise European societies. Paralysed by inaction European leaders do what they do so often in Europe. They simply try to mask the extent from Europe’s people of the influx and the damage such inflows are already doing to societal cohesion in Europe…and hope for the best.
The euro crisis was also caused by hope-for-the-best, wishful thinking politics. Always a political project the euro was grounded in idealism rather than realism. The cost to the European taxpayer of this political folly and the self-incubating crisis the euro begat now runs into many billions.
However, it is the Russia crisis that has revealed the extent of Europe’s retreat from hard, political realism. Russia first sought to be a co-hegemon in the post-Cold War world, ruling the planet together with the United States. When that failed Russia sought “zones of privileged interest” in states around its borders. When such ‘rights’ were denied by states that simply sought the right to make free sovereign choices the Putin regime turned nasty.
One can argue at length as to who is responsible for the break-up of the NATO-Russia ‘strategic partnership’, and the West must perhaps bear a part of the blame for Russia’s estrangement. However, we are where we are and whilst I believe it remains vital we continue talking to Russia, Russia must want to talk to us. The bottom strategic line is this; until Russia is ready and willing to enter into a real dialogue then we in the West must return to Riga realism – and negotiate from strength.
The Russia crisis is being exacerbated by European leaders who after all that has happened (and is happening) simply refuse to face hard facts. Indeed, the culture of worst case planning has not only been abandoned by EU and NATO leaders but actively discouraged for fear it could appear provocative. Who is the aggressor here? These people hope against hope that negotiating with Russia from a position of weakness will somehow demonstrate good faith to a Moscow regime steeped in political cynicism is doomed to fail. It is not Russia-bashing to plan to prevent this Russia from bashing others. It is called forward deterrence.
Riga realism would also see a return to the principles of sound statecraft. Riga realism would see NATO nations increase their defence spending to 2% GDP immediately, rather than the ludicrous “within a decade” agreed at the 2014 NATO Wales Summit. Above all, Riga Realism would see an enormous ‘stop sign’ erected by NATO forces at Russia’s border with the Baltic States, as one conference speaker suggested. Equally, Riga realism would also seek to keep dialogue open with the Russians, but dialogue from strength. Critically, Riga realism would see NATO nations re-establish the culture of worst-case collective planning on the anvil of which the Alliance was forged back in 1949, and which has been abandoned in favour of wishful thinking politics.
It is time for Europeans to return to Riga realism before wishful thinking turns today’s drama into tomorrow’s tragedy.