Rome, Italy. 11 April. Winston Churchill once said, “There is nothing wrong with change, as long as it is in the right direction”. Before coming here to Rome I was in Paris with senior NATO political and military leaders to consider the transformation of the Alliance’s military forces. I say the transformation of NATO forces but as with all such discussions the real questions were political rather than military. In spite of being French my dear friend and colleague Professor Dr Yves Boyer made a good point; there can be no military transformation without political adaptation. Indeed, given events elsewhere the large elephant in the elegant room was whether and how fast NATO’s European allies could re-learn the fundamental strategic principles they once gave the world of classical political realism - the new normal of power.
Classical political realism is hard stuff. It is neither good nor bad – it simply is. It concerns the understanding, generation and application of power itself established on the hard tools of analysis and the sober application of strategic judgement. The West’s response to the Ukrainian crisis is the antithesis of political realism with NATO Allies swinging between emotive over-reaction and narrow self-interested under-reaction.
Russia’s unilateral use of force to change borders and its continued use of force to intimidate Kiev and the wider region is not a constructive contribution to European peace and stability. However, like it or not it is an effective application of classical political realism, a brilliant use of power and influence in the short-term, even if it makes little strategic sense in the medium to long-term. Europeans may not like that but it is fact.
Before true military transformation can take place the Alliance and its members must first re-establish hard analysis of capability and intent that would enable the Allies together to look beyond the politics of the moment and out to the structure of strategy. Only then will NATO Europeans begin to face up to what is fast becoming the new normal of twenty-first century power politics.
As the debate in Paris unfolded US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and his Chinese counterpart Chiang Wiangqian were exchanging their own bit of classical political realism in a very testy exchange in Beijing. What Hagel was witnessing was China’s new normal; a growing power beginning to flex its power muscles and in so doing openly objecting to America’s presence in what Beijing clearly thinks is Mare Nostrum. The point is that the Chinese are not alone in such balance of power thinking. Ukraine put forward a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly condemning Russia’s action in Ukraine-Crimea as illegal. Almost half of the world’s states represented abstained.
Europeans need to understand quickly two hard lessons of classical political realism. First, the West is in rapid decline and it is a decline that is driven primarily by Europe’s retreat from such realism. The soft power fixation of Europeans is a distinctly minority viewpoint not shared by the majority of emerging and re-emerging powers the world over. To expect such powers to behave by such standards is fast becoming dangerous political hubris. Second, the only way to effectively deter and counter the realist calculations of powers such as China and Russia is to have sufficient military power to enable all other tools of influence to be credible in the eyes of allies and adversaries alike.
Critically, NATO’s attempts to inject momentum into its transformation agenda will fail unless political leaders adapt rapidly to the ‘new’ realities of classical political realism. Europeans in particular must end the fantasy that they can achieve security and stability without military capability and capacity. That will require political leadership and the abandonment of the false lament that public opinion would not understand it. Public opinion is never consulted on anything else in Europe these days, particularly when it concerns the EU.
In September the British will host in Wales arguably the most important strategic summit NATO has held since the end of the Cold War. Ideally the all-important political guidance would give Alliance leaders the task of reconsidering NATO’s military role in the twenty-first century. That will mean a sober and purposeful analysis of the political and military implications of the rapid change in the global balance of power that is taking place. As hosts the British have a key role to play in establishing such a level of ambition.
Much talk is heard at such gatherings of China and Russia being ‘revisionist’ powers. In fact, London and other European capitals must realise fast that Beijing, Moscow, New Delhi and indeed Washington share many views about the utility of power. And, they are the new normal not Europe.
If nothing else the 2014 NATO Wales Summit must begin the search for a new and shared strategic understanding within the Alliance. For that Europeans must return to the principles of classical political realism they have for too long abandoned.
NATO; there can be no military transformation without political adaptation.