“We've been sitting here since Christmas 1914, during which time millions of men have died, and we've advanced no further than an asthmatic ant with some heavy shopping”.
Edmund Blackadder in Blackadder Goes Forth
Alphen, Netherlands. 12 February. The West is in headlong strategic retreat because it’s ‘leaders’ have abandoned the first rule of successful statecraft; leverage. Three events this week reveal the extent of this retreat into strategic pretence; the Munich Syria agreement, NATO's counter-trafficking mission to the Aegean; and David Cameron's Brexit speech in Hamburg. All three events share a common problem; the West's lack of strategic leverage.
Strategic Pretence 1 – Syria: There was a chilling symmetry that yesterday’s ‘peace in our time’ meeting of the seventeen-state Syrian Contact Group took place in Munich. Indeed, the agreement to 'cease hostilities' (not a ceasefire agreement) even sounds like Neville Chamberlain’s ill-fated 1938 ‘accord’ with Adolf Hitler. The ceasefire will begin to begin in a week (or so), before that humanitarian aid will begin to flow (how???), but Russia will still get to decide if groups are ‘terrorists’ under its own interpretation of the agreement. Munich not for the first time witnessed Realpolitik meeting the League of Nations meeting Neville Chamberlain all over again. Indeed, whilst the divided West seeks peace without power, Vladimir Putin will exert his ‘peace’ through power. Worse, as the tragedy of Aleppo demonstrates Russia is ‘winning’ the Syria War on its own Chechen-style terms and does not give a hoot if 250,000 people have been killed if that means Russian influence enhanced and the West eclipsed.
Strategic Pretence 2 – Migration: NATO this week agreed to send ships to the Aegean Sea to monitor the activities of human traffickers in an attempt to curb the flow of asylum seekers and migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece. However, far from stopping the traffickers the ships will simply pass information to the Turkish and Greek coastguards. Within twenty-four hours of the decision, and shortly after the Munich agreement, Turkey’s President Erdogan suddenly threatened to “open the gates” to Europe for some 600,000 more migrants. Clearly, if Turkey wanted to stop the traffickers it could but it does not. Indeed, even Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte described the NATO mission as ‘symbolic’.
Strategic Pretence 3 – Brexit: In Hamburg this evening British Prime Minister, sorry second-hand Rolls Royce salesman David Cameron will give a speech in which he will lay out his ‘vision’ for a reformed EU in the presence of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. No doubt Merkel will pretend to agree with Cameron and laud him for his leadership, and no doubt Cameron will pretend he has achieved a negotiating breakthrough and thank Merkel for her support. In fact, Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ of Britain’s membership of the EU is pure piffle and has been from the beginning of this sorry exercise in political chicanery. There is no question that had Cameron really been prepared to walk Europe’s second biggest economy and leading military power away from the EU (and meant it) he would have achieved far more than what one British Conservative MP rightly called “very thin gruel”. Gruel which at next week’s EU Summit will be further watered down, or to use British diplo-speak, will ‘benefit’ from some minor technical adjustments. Never has a British prime minister promised so much reform, and delivered so little at a moment when much reform is so patently needed.
Why has the West become so supine even in dealing with issues that threaten its own security? Two words; Afghanistan and Iraq. The disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq and the failure in Afghanistan (and Libya) have left Western leaders scarred to such an extent they no longer believe they can prevail. This failure of will is generating three dangerous strategic paradoxes; the triumph of the short-term over the long-term, the abandonment of hard power for soft power; and a determined focus on low politics at the expense of high politics.
The result is a West that is locked into ever-decreasing circles of self-reinforcing failure. One reason for strategic pretence is that leaders such as Obama, Cameron, and Merkel simply do not want to confront their respective publics with uncomfortable truths. However, because of that refusal they are unable to manage crises effectively. Such failure has led a broad cross-section of said to conclude that mainstream leaders are incompetent, even if publics would be equally uncomfortable with the actions that needed to resolve said crises. Not surprisingly, political insurgents and populists have exploited well-placed cynicism to advantage thus making said crises far more difficult to resolve.
The prospects are not good. Even though the world is about to enter a very dangerous period indeed demanding of the West unity, sophistication and determination in equal measure the free world could conceivably end up being led by either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. Indeed, imagine a world in which the three most powerful figures are Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jingping.
Behind the nightly misery, mayhem and manipulation profound strategic tensions lurk that could very rapidly become very dangerous indeed. In such a world strategic effect can only be realised by sound statecraft backed up with the power to exert real leverage, and the backbone to apply it. Any candidates?