“European covenants without a European sword are but words, and of no use to no man (or woman) American or European”.
The words Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and author of Leviathan would have written in his latest blog on NATO were he still with us.
Trump of Athens?
Alphen, Netherlands. 3 July. Is President Trump an Athenian or a Spartan? He is certainly not a Melian. More of that later. “Illiterate” is defined by the Oxford Concise as “uneducated, esp. unable to read”. Over the past week in Europe, there have been several sorry cases of strategic illiteracy, i.e., an inability to understand power, threat and the successful application of the former against the latter. The most egregious was British Prime Minister Theresa May’s questioning of whether Britain should seek to remain a Tier One military power, implying any such ambition was now beyond Britain’s meagre means. Sadly, May does not seem to realise she is prime minister of a top five world power facing emerging dangers and not merely Chair of the Maidenhead Women’s Institute. Her strategic illiteracy? Even by posing that question she puts at risk the $3bn per annum the British taxpayer saves from access to American enablers. The British are granted such access precisely because of the military capabilities that London has traditionally been able to offer the Americans. Why would the Americans continue to grant privileged access if the British further cut their armed forces and choose not, in the words of Secretary of Defence James Mattis, to be America’s “partner of choice”?
May’s timing could also have been better. President Trump is about to descend on Europe and demand Europeans do an awful lot more for their defence and in support of America. This brings me to the other case of strategic illiteracy; Europe’s response to Trump. Much of the commentary in Europe seems to be of the, “if Trump pushes us too far we Europeans will refuse to allow the American taxpayer to defend us” variety. The film Blazing Saddles come to mind. Now, President Trump may have the political-social skills of a Sheffield Wednesday supporter, and in the eyes of this Sheffield United fan, the only greater condemnation than being dubbed a strategic illiterate is to be called a strategic Wendy, but he is right. So, rather than the inevitable self-righteous indignation, we Europeans are likely to witness from our leaders next week some humble consideration about what it is they need to do to keep America on-side might be better.
Strategic Predators and Strategic Prey
Thucydides in The Melian Dialogue recites the tale of weak Melia trying desperately to appeal to shared values of liberty and thus convince mighty Athens that in spite of its weakness the Athenians should treat them as equals and friends, rather than a soon-to-be conquered colony of Sparta. The Athenians argue that any such largesse would be seen as weakness by its own people and its enemies, most notably the warlike Sparta. As the Athenians tell the Melians: "We hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians [Spartans] although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."
President Trump is fascinated by power and regards all institutions, be it NATO, the EU or the UN merely as constraints on America the Exceptional and havens for the weak. It is why he seeks common ground on occasions with Spartans like Putin – they understand each other. The only way for Europeans to convince President Trump of the utility of NATO is for themselves to become Athenians or at least Melians with Attitude. This is because the only way a rules-based order can be maintained is if those rules carry sanction – covenants without the sword and all that.
Therefore, the specific challenge at next week’s NATO Brussels Summit for Europe’s leaders will be to convince President Trump and John Bolton-type Americans of the value of institutions in international relations, i.e. NATO. If they are to meet that challenge Europeans will need to reverse a culture that has become deep-rooted since World War Two and the founding of the European Union, namely that institutions exist to constrain power, rather than mechanisms for the aggregation of power.
St Malo Re-visited?
Carpe Diem? Some in Europe are calling for Europeans to defy Trump and strike out for strategic autonomy. Nick Witney in a new article trots out that old strategic chestnut that the combined defence budgets of Europeans and their combined defence, technological and industrial base is second only to mighty Athens, sorry America. Good try (again), Nick! The problem is precisely that Europeans are NOT ‘combined’ and in the absence of a Europe in which all Europeans share the same level of strategic ambition, are willing to share the same risks and bear the same costs, nor are they likely to be. In other words, Europeans NEED America.
The simple, hard truth that President Trump is forcing Europeans to face is that the transatlantic relationship of old is dead, America can no longer afford it. If a new transatlantic relationship is to be forged that is credible as both sword and shield then Europeans need to stop endlessly banging on about shared values and start putting real meat on the bone of Europe’s defence effort. President Trump may grate in the refined chancelleries of Europe and he might metaphorically slurp his coffee from his saucer at diplomatic dinners, but he is also the first American president to tell Europeans such blunt truths in such a blunt way. He will not be the last.
The Hard American Lessons of Strategic Literacy
A good place to start Europe’s re-learning process would be at the forthcoming NATO Summit. No, not more smoke and mirrors with statistics. That would be like trying to stitch Trump up with a lousy European real estate deal, which he would see straight through. It is becoming very irritating listening to my fellow Europeans trotting out bogus figures to suggest they are spending more on defence whilst defence outcomes continue to decline. Now, that is real strategic illiteracy.
Take Germany. Berlin takes great pride in how it is going to ‘lead’ more in NATO. With what? As the new Chief of Staff of the German Air Force said last week, “The Luftwaffe is at a low point. Aircraft are grounded due to a lack of spares, or they aren’t even on site since they’re off for maintenance by the industry”. Given that ‘enhanced readiness’ is to be the centre-piece of the Summit the Declaration could well be yet another great work of European fiction if such nonsense is not actually dealt with. Readiness will be the true litmus test of European seriousness.
Which brings me back to my own dear prime minister and why Britain must remain a Tier One military power. It is because only then will the Americans (there is no-one else) continue to invest in Britain’s security. In other words, modestly increasing the defence budget whilst preparing reformed British forces for a tough future will actually SAVE Britain money, enhance Britain’s defences and restore some of the influence this Government has so pitifully frittered away.
If Prime Minister May still does not get this (and apparently she does not) then she should read yesterday’s letter from Secretary of Defence Mattis to his British counterpart, Gavin Williamson. The letter warns of that Britain’s armed forces and its wider influence were “at risk of erosion”. Mattis said he wanted the UK to remain a “partner of choice”. He went on, “A global nation like the UK, with interests and commitments around the world, will require a level of defence spending beyond what we would expect from allies with only regional interests. Absent a vibrant military arm, world peace and stability would be further at risk”. And, “…it is in the best interest of both our nations for the UK to remain the partner of choice. In that spirit, the UK will need to invest and maintain robust military capability”.
The NATO Summit Life of Brian Question
At the NATO Summit, President Trump will ask Europeans the Monty Python Life of Brian question: what has NATO ever done for us? Or, rather, the even more important question: what WILL NATO do for us? Answer? Ease pressure on the US world-wide by Europeans taking more responsibility for Europe with America’s backing. In other words, the only way for Europeans to convince President Trump and much of the rest of America is to invest institutions with real European power, most notably and most pressingly NATO. If that means European strategic autonomy, Nick, then count me in.