“Nature abhors a vacuum”
Europe’s Waterloo and the Fearsome Threesome?
Alphen, Netherlands 18 June. It seems somewhat appropriate to be writing this on the 203rd anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo as I feel close to having met mine. Waterloo, that is. What a week – Amsterdam, Stockholm, Rome and Portsmouth. I am knackered. ‘Knackered’ is a colloquial English term that has two meanings. Very tired, as in my case, or completely failed, as is the case of most of Europe’s leaders for that is the conclusion I have drawn from my rapid Grand European Tour. Nowhere on my travels did I meet anyone happy with the situation in Europe, or happy with the way Europeans are NOT being led. There is a leadership vacuum in Europe that is undermining the defence of Europeans. Contrast Europe’s ‘leaders’ with the fearsome threesome who currently hold the whip-hand of power in the world: Putin, Trump and Xi.
Julian’s Grand Tour
My week started in Stockholm watching President Trump shaking hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The Singapore meeting may have been light on substance but it was heavy on symbolism and in international relations such things matter, so long as they are backed up by power. Indeed, one may not like the leadership on offer from these three paragons of power modesty but it is they who now get to decide what Europeans must endure. Europe? Long on symbolism, short on influence, endlessly talking values, but no power to defend interests.
From Stockholm, I moved onto Rome where I addressed NATO senior officers. In Rome, some form of experiment in government is underway led by a new coalition between academics and populists that will no doubt lead to a lot of erudite papers about complete nonsense. One only has to suffer the state of Rome’s roads and see the impact of mass unregulated immigration on the ‘eternal city’ to see the dangerous reality of modern Italy, a country that I genuinely love. It is clear to me that Italy will in effect cease to be a strategic actor of any weight for the foreseeable future. Italy’s armed forces are already under intense pressure from a lack of investment. It is a situation likely only to get worse.
Having left Rome I made my increasingly knackered way to Portsmouth via Amsterdam and Southampton. My purpose was to give a talk at a conference to mark fifty years since the first patrol by a British ballistic missile submarine, HMS Resolution. Sadly, the only thing I could see afloat in the dockyard of any real capability was good old HMS Metaphor. As this week’s new report by the House of Commons Defence Committee entitled Beyond 2 Percent states, “the Government must break out of the pattern, observable in past reviews, of strategic direction being lost because the conclusions of the review are inadequately funded and ultimately unsustainable…” Amen to that!
The May Government lacks ambition, imagination or creativity and has become dangerously risk averse. For example, I had suggested to both the White House and London that President Trump be invited to give a speech on burden-sharing on board the brand new 70,000 ton aircraft-carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. My idea was initially very well-received on both sides of the Atlantic and as far as I know is still welcome in the White House. My reasoning was simple: if President Trump is to berate Europeans about a lack of burden-sharing at or around the July Brussels NATO Summit then at least put him on the deck of high-end European ‘asset’ so that he could put some positive spin on it. By giving such a speech on ‘Big Lizzie’ the Trump message could then be hard and fair at the same time: “with the right political will America’s allies can invest in the kind of high-end military capability that will help share America’s great burden etc. etc.” Europeans need to realise and fast that America’s legitimate grievance over burden-sharing goes far beyond, and far deeper than President Trump.
The symbolism of such a speech on that ship at this time would have sent a powerful message about Britain, the Special Relationship and future European capabilities. Sadly, over the weekend I learnt that the idea has been scrapped because it might be humiliating for Britain if there are no F-35Bs on board HMS Queen Elizabeth as yet. First, the reason for any such ‘humiliation’ could only be the strategic illiteracy of Britain’s leaders and the lack of imagination it engenders. Second, four new British F-35Bs flew across the Atlantic and arrived in the UK this month. If they cannot yet land on the deck of ‘Big Lizzie’ at least get them to do a fly past as President Trump concludes his remarks. Such spinelessness simply reveals a Government and an elite that lack ambition, lack imagination and lack creativity. It also explains why Little Britain is declining fast - the little people who govern it.
In Europe, only President Macron has the vision needed to prepare Europeans for a challenging twenty-first century world, but without Germany’s support (which he lacks) Macron’s ambitions are far bigger than his country. And ‘bigness’ is the nub of Europe’s problem. None of Europe’s leaders have the vision or the courage to confront the big problems Europeans must collectively face. Europe faces immense challenges that for too long have been ducked and which range from the modernisation and digitisation of the European economy to cope with twenty-first century globalism, the consequences of mass flows of unregulated migrants into Europe, Europe’s new and rapidly worsening threat agenda to the urgent need to modernise Europe’s security and defence architectures.
Berlin and the Loisach Group
This week, somewhat re-fortified, I will travel to Berlin to attend the high-level US-German Loisach Group of which I am a proud member. Organised by the Munich Security Conference and the George C. Marshall Center the work of the Group is vital, not least because of London’s refusal to invest strategic ambition or political commitment in the UK-US Special Relationship. Indeed, if London does not break out of its strategic and political torpor the US-German Essential Relationship offers the best hope for a renewed transatlantic relationship that organises democratic power to good security and defence effect. However, whilst the US-German relationship may be essential, it is by no means ‘special’, particularly at the moment.
For this vital relationship to flourish Americans and Germans will need to agree that the dangers that face both North Americans and Europeans are roughly the same and that the policy and strategy solutions they seek are compatible. That will mean modesty in leadership from the Americans and leadership in leadership from the Germans neither of which seem particularly likely. Worse, in Europe’s strongest power, ‘leadership’ is conspicuous by its absence. From being Queen Angela of Europe a couple of years ago Chancellor Merkel is now in open conflict with her interior minister Horst Seehofer over migration. She wants a ‘European solution’, which means no solution, whilst he wants Germany to close its borders to migrant flows. President Trump, on the other hand, seems more at home and more comfortable dealing with the likes of Putin, Xi, and dare I say it, Kim. That Hieronymus Bosch-style photograph of Merkel trying to face down Trump at the G7 was a picture that spoke far more than a thousand political words.
A West in Crisis or a Europe in Crisis?
What that photo revealed was a West that is now mired in deep crisis, or rather a Europe that is in deep crisis. European leaders like to blame President Trump for a lot and at times he almost revels in the role of being European Scapegoat-in-Chief. However, the crisis Europeans face is entirely of European leader’s own making. Years of refusing to face new power-realities in the world, years of uttering empty slogans about ‘Europe’ (and much else), years of talking too much and doing too little have reduced Europe to the dangerous situation in which it now finds itself.
Against that backdrop, there are eight lessons that I draw from my grand tour of Europe over the past week:
1. Europeans must stop talking about some future common defence. The defence of Europe will be conducted by European states working together. Collective defence is what Europeans should aspire to and President Macron is right to call for a European (not EU) Intervention Force.
2. There will be no common defence until there is a European Government and by the time there might be a European Government parts of Europe could be speaking Russian…again.
3. Keep all serious defence away from the European Union. Brussels is too focused on using ‘defence’ to undermine the European nation-state so that it can centralise ever more power on its illegitimate self.
4. A European defence that is a consequence of yet more defence cuts will afford no defence at all. All defence cuts are matched by a similar loss of strategic ambition.
5. The future defence of Europe needs real political leadership. At times of weak government, political bureaucrats take-over power and they are instinctively risk-averse. Just look at Britain.
6. Given the growing pressure US armed forces face to maintain their world-wide, high-end defence and deterrence posture Washington will only be able to afford Europeans a defence guarantee that is credible if Europeans do far more for their own defence and for the Americans and focus such an effort on NATO.
7. Before significant increases in European defence expenditure can take place Europeans need to collectively agree the capabilities and capacities European future forces need and begin a sustained programme of reform and re-structuring.
8. If the European Commission succeeds in its efforts to damage Britain for Brexit there is a real risk that London will retreat behind its nuclear shield and effectively abandon its role in the defence of Europe. Worse, London might abandon once and for all any pretence at being a major power, when in fact it still is.
Which brings me back to Stockholm where I started my week. Of all the countries I visited the Swedes were the most clear-headed about the challenges Europeans face because they understood one thing very clearly: Europeans will not be more secure by trying to hide from threat and danger. If Europe is to be defended its leaders must collectively climb down off the vacuous Euro-cloud upon which they have for too long been perched and start properly dealing with the real problems ordinary Europeans face and meet the real strategic challenges Europe and the wider West must confront together. Read between the lines of a good speech by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte last week to the European Parliament and at least one leader seems to understand that European leaders need to do less talking to each other and more talking to their peoples. If not, ‘Europe’ will continue its precipitous and dangerous decline into strategic irrelevance and in the process make not only Europe but the wider world a much more dangerous place than it need be.
As Aristotle (and Rabelais) once said, “Nature abhors a vacuum”, but so does power. And, if Europeans do not re-learn ‘power’ and fast someone else will impose it upon them. Then, like Napoleon, Europe will at some point face its own Waterloo…which, for the record, was won by Wellington!