“Great empires are not maintained by timidity”
Rome, Italy. 27 April. History does not repeat itself, but patterns of power certainly do. The classical Roman Republic prior to the first century BC was absolutely no democracy in the contemporary European sense. However, compared with the subsequent Roman Imperium the Republic enshrined at its core a system for limiting power; both of those who were ‘elected’ to lead it, and more particularly the power and rights of the Roman legions that served it. On Tuesday I had the honour of giving a speech at NATO HQ in Brussels about my latest and of course utterly brilliant book – NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2015. In fact, it was less a speech than an appalling two-footed tackle with studs showing on self-deluded Alliance leaders for which I should, and probably have, received an immediate red card.
As I spoke I was struck by a profound sense of Yogi Berra-ness – déjà vu all over again. Many years ago at Oxford I wrote a thesis about British policy and the coming of World War Two. As part of my research I was given access to all the Downing Street Cabinet minutes covering every day for a decade or so prior to and during the war. What struck me yesterday was this; the response of the British Government to the rise of Nazi Germany bears a striking similarity to the response of contemporary European democracies to what Winston Churchill would no doubt have called the latest World Crisis.
When Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor in January 1933 the attitude of London was one of indifference. The British were far too busy trying to fix their broken economy mired as it was in the Great Depression. Indeed, the government of Ramsay MacDonald was simply too focused on the economic crisis to properly consider a possible new threat to the European and world order. After all, the League of Nations existed to prevent such a challenge, didn’t it?
However, within ten months, and the failure of the Disarmament Conference, the British began to realise they had no choice but to consider the possibility of another major European war. In October 1933 the Committee of the Imperial General Staff finally laid to rest the so-called Ten Year Rule, whereby British policy stated that there was no need to plan to fight another major war for at least a decade.
Furthermore, in February 1934 Britain launched the Rearmament Programme. This initiative would lead in relatively quick order to the warfighting force that prevented Hitler from winning World War Two. Spitfire and Hurricane fighters eventually emerged from the ‘Programme’, as did a re-equipped Royal Navy, and a war-proofed industrial base. However, it was RAF Bomber Command which would become the focus for much of the Rearmament Programme. One obsession of the 1930s was the widely held elite belief that the bomber would “always get through”. On the night of November 14th, 1940 515 ‘light’ Luftwaffe bombers attacked the British city of Coventry. On the night of May 31st, 1942 1000 RAF ‘heavies’ blitzed Cologne. The creation of that massive British force dated back to a decision taken in 1934.
Which brings me back to NATO today. Much of my presentation concerned NATO’s forthcoming Warsaw Summit in July. Ahead of the Summit there is apparently some ‘good’ news – NATO Europeans have stopped cutting their defence budgets. First, if that is all there is to celebrate the Alliance is in real trouble. Second, be it Britain playing fast and loose with defence accounting rules to maintain the appearance of 2% GDP expenditure on defence, or the disarming Dutch and others presenting small investments below the level of defence cost inflation as ‘increases’, NATO Europeans are clearly not as yet prepared to scrap the current implicit Ten Year Rule that drives most defence planning in Europe.
Therefore, if Warsaw does nothing else it must move to scrap NATO’s implicit Ten Year Rule. If Europeans do not they will soon be in for a shock. At the 2014 NATO Wales Summit NATO nations agreed in principle to move towards 2% GDP defence expenditure “within a decade” of which 20% should be spent on new equipment. Indeed, that IS the implicit Ten Year Rule under which the Alliance now labours. However, my bet is that within a year Washington will demand that the 2%/20% ‘guideline’ becomes the absolute minimum European commitment to burden-sharing if the US security guarantee to Europe is to be maintained. And, that the guideline becomes a commitment that will need to be met well before 2024.
Europeans might dream of a world of latter day Roman republics. In fact, the world is brim full of the putative wannabe ‘sons’ of Caesar, Caesar Augustus, Trajan, and not a few Caligulas and Neros. Therefore, no more NATO summits for nothing in which success is measured purely by the fact that ‘language’ was agreed for a Declaration, even if said declaration bears little or no relation to, or has little positive impact upon, strategic reality.
Europe is again at the centre of big, bad horrible history-making. And, whilst the history that is today being made will by definition be no repeat of the past, the power pattern that is driving dangerous change is all too familiar. End Europe’s Ten Year Rule now!