Ich Bin Ein Westerner

“Ich bin ein Berliner.” Fifty years ago this week President Kennedy made his famous defiant assertion of Western solidarity at the strategic fault line of the Berlin Wall.  What today is the state of the West?

Kennedy’s moment has passed into strategic folklore.  However, perhaps more enduring was a speech he made the next day in Frankfurt.  Responding to threats to the Atlantic Alliance by then French President de Gaulle in the name of ‘Europe,’ Kennedy warned against those who would split NATO and “give aid and comfort to the enemies of the West.”  This quote came back to me as I stood last week in the Washington office of George F. Kennan, America’s great post-war strategic architect.

Kennedy continued, “The United States will risk its cities to defend yours because we need your freedom to protect our own.”  That was 1963; this is now.

Fast forward to a meeting I attended this week here in Rome.  A very senior NATO officer observed that the Alliance no longer does strategy.  Rather, NATO is today bereft of the ability to look up and out together by the deep, interminable and oft parochial political fractures at its peak.  Consequently, strategy has been trumped by bureaucracy. 

Today, the West needs three acts of strategic maturity.  First, Washington must overcome its bombastic partisanship and recognize that the rhetoric of leadership is empty if a state cannot govern itself to effect and by example.  Second, Europeans must look out of their self-dug narrow political trench and have the courage to face the world as it is, not as they would like it to be. December’s ‘big chat’ about the almost moribund EU Common Security and Defense Policy should be about far more than declining defense budgets.  Europe’s place in the world and its collective influence over it is now very much at stake.  Third, NATO needs a new vision.  The Alliance is a, if not the, cornerstone of the Western world security order. 

A couple of nights ago I had dinner with General John E. Allen, one of America’s most distinguished and brilliant soldiers.  It was one of those evenings when conversation flowed freely across time and place in a restaurant on the Via Antica Appia down which Roman legions once marched.  What struck me about our discussion was a strategic truism that I will hold to my heart to the day I die: the world is a safer place when the West is strong.

Yes, the West has made mistakes.  Sadly (and eternally) that has always been the fate of power in complexity.  However, error is no excuse for retreat which is precisely what happens when strategy is superseded by bureaucracy.

Kennedy’s commitment to Europe cannot and must not be taken for granted.  What is needed is a reassertion of Western solidarity and nothing short of that will now do.  As in 1963 NATO will have a central but not exclusive role to play in a renovated Western strategic architecture.  The proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will be at least as important.

However the new NATO (for that is what we need) must in turn be built on a new strategic contract between both members and partners.  This will include recognition that the US commitment to Europe is only as strong as European willingness to play a full security and defense role.  NATO itself must again become the focal point for the development of efficient and effective military capabilities.  Capable partners the world over must be given real access to Alliance strategy and thinking.  Above all, strategic unity and effort and purpose between four key European actors must be purposively established however hard; Britain, France, Germany and Turkey.

It is for that reason I bang on about British military capabilities.  It is not so we Brits can sing a hearty rendition of Rule Britannia once a year at the Last Night of the Proms and not feel ever-so-slightly absurd.  It is rather to underpin the Western strategic contract with sufficient hard power so as to keep America in, get Europe up so the West can again look out with confidence and purpose.

Lord Byron once wrote, “While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand; when falls the Coliseum Rome shall fall; And when Rome falls – the World.”  The Alliance is the latter day Coliseum.  If it falls or fades away then the West falls.  And the world will be a much more dangerous place for it.

Ich bin ein Westerner…and proud of it!

Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisory Group. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.

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