Alphen, Netherlands. 5 September. That great Dutch leader Johan de Witt had a simple saying, “if you are going to do something do it well”. This morning at the NATO Wales Summit Alliance leaders will agree two smoke and mirror commitments. The first ‘commitment’ will be to a ‘new’ Rapid Reaction Force. This will add yet another such multinational 'force' to the now great collection of NATO Response Forces and EU Battle Groups that are never actually used because political leaders can never agree on when and how to use them. The second ‘commitment’ will be to TRY and spend 2% of GDP on defence within TEN YEARS. This is a commitment’ that was actually made back in 2010 and which all NATO members should already have fulfilled. Indeed, the host David Cameron has spent much of the Summit banging on about this to his partners. However, the man who could well be about to lose Scotland will soon have to admit that on current planning even British defence spending will soon fall below the very target he is espousing. It is pure Cameronism – say one thing, do another...or rather do nothing.
Sadly, the Summit is another pathetic attempt by European politicians to bridge the now unbridgeable gap between strategy and politics. There is no better example of that than here in the Netherlands. Yesterday, I had the very distinct honour of giving the ‘keynote’ Johan de Witt lecture to veterans of the Royal Netherlands Navy and the Royal Netherlands Marines Corps in Rotterdam. Now, I fully admit that my Dutch is not as good as it should be given that I have lived in this country for seven years and my wife is Dutch. The simple truth is that the massive bulk of my business is elsewhere precisely because Dutch leaders are not really interested in either strategy or defence.
My lecture was a hard-edged, carefully-researched analysis of the nature and pace of dangerous change in the world. The message was clear: geopolitics is back and Europeans need to get their defence act together collectively and individually if they are to prevent conflict and to underpin all other forms of influence and soft power vital to world peace in a dangerous twenty-first century.
When I had finished a very senior Dutch politician replied. Thankfully I could only understand about 50% of what he said and I can only hope the 50% I did not understand was more positive than the nonsense I understood. The Netherlands Armed Forces are always there during crises, he said. Thousands of Dutch troops are deployed around the world and they do a great job.
The first assertion is not true – Dutch politicians stay out of a lot. The second assertion is only partially true but at least the third assertion is true. As I have seen from first-hand experience the truly outstanding qualities of the men and women of the Royal Netherlands Armed Forces as they endeavour often at great risk to offset the strategic myopia of a political class that is simply not serious.
The elite are true Dutch masters of the “we only recognise as much threat as we can afford” school of European decline. The Netherlands says it spends about 1% of GDP on defence. However, if one removes the figure-fiddling The Hague routinely deploys actual expenditure is nearer 0.8%. To justify such free-riding I was given yesterday the usual nonsense about the cost of welfare, health and education being the priority and that defence can only be considered after all of these have been paid for. It is the mantra of all free-riders who want others to defend their countries for them as though those who spend more on defence do not face similar challenges.
As I listened on stage I sat there in mute disbelief at the cultural gap. Not the gap between me and my Dutch political colleagues but rather the cultural gap between the Dutch political class and strategic reality. Masking reality is the stuff of Dutch politics these days, not confronting it. One would have thought with Russian artillery pounding Ukrainian cities as I spoke that the key strategic event for them would be taking place in Eastern Ukraine. No, the key ‘strategic’ event for them was this week’s meeting of the European Central Bank at which ECB President Mario Draghi announced additional hundreds of billions of my Dutch taxpayer’s money to spend on the purchase of bonds to stimulate the failing Eurozone economy.
The Eurozone is now in permanent crisis with many of its economies unreformable due to weak national institutions and a lack of political will to make critical structural reforms. Historians will look back on the entire Eurozone adventure as the ultimate act of elite political irresponsibility. And yet all Dutch politicians and their Eurozone counterparts do is try and hide the scale of the disaster from their publics by pouring good money after bad in an effort to ‘stabilise’ the benighted currency.
That is why it will take TEN YEARS (I might add ‘at least’) before the Netherlands can spend 2% GDP on defence at a time when world events are crying out for an increased European defence effort. In effect, The Hague is raiding the Dutch defence budget to fund the transfers of billions of my taxpayers Euros to keep failing economies afloat who will not do the necessary to make the Eurozone competitive. “Please, we want to get off the world so we can NOT fix the Eurozone crisis”, was in effect the message from my Dutch political colleague. Let me repeat, politicians are NOT actually fixing a Eurozone crisis just keeping the Eurozone afloat in a kind of permanent bad marriage. The Eurozone is now lost in a no-man's land between integration and irresolution with politicians hoping that world growth will reinject economic growth into a Eurozone steadily being strangled by the inertia of its own contradictions. Fat chance.
Ten years from now given the dangerous shift in world power that is taking place it will be far too late to increase defence expenditure. By then real power in the world will be very much less democratic and very much more dangerous. The irony is that the Netherlands will find itself as a consequence of its strategic myopia and defence denial in a kind of Euro defence zone, a strategic, political and military no-man’s land which will suffer all the same ‘structural’ contractions and weaknesses as the Eurozone and dare I say NATO.
After the lecture had finished one and all boarded a boat to cross the Rhine to visit His Netherlands Majesty’s Ship Karel Doorman. At 28,000 tons and costing €350m she is not only brand new but a hugely impressive warship. However, as I was standing on the helicopter deck I could not help conclude that she is in many ways all that is wrong with Europe’s Potemkin defence – a political statement rather than a product of considered defence strategy. A ‘look what we’ve got’ ship that in fact masks the reality of the sorry state not just of the Royal Netherlands Navy but the Dutch Armed Forces and indeed many such armed forces across Europe.
Be it in Wales or in Rotterdam all I heard or saw yesterday is defence double Dutch. Johan de Witt must be spinning in his grave.