Leiden. The Netherlands, 16 June. America’s greatest thinker, Groucho Marks, once famously said that military intelligence is a contradiction in terms. One might say the same about European strategic intelligence. I have now just about read every single European security and defence strategy available and they all share a profound similarity. The joke goes something like this. In chapter one they describe a world getting bigger and more dangerous by the day. In chapter two they promptly cut a critical source of influence, the armed forces. Conscious that this might seem a little unbalanced in chapter three they speak the language of soft power, i.e. power that has no fuse, to justify disarmament. Groucho would have found soft power disarmament a scream!
I have just shared a platform with the former NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in which he echoed US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates by warning of a two-tier NATO. With an audience of by and large sympathetic Dutch politicians, journalists and academics I too made the case for credible European armed forces so that Europe’s soft power was properly underpinned by credible hard power. Balance was the theme, balance was the aim. Well, that was what I thought.
Those of you who follow this blog know that I do a lot of this kind of professing. What else are professors for? Certainly nothing useful. These days my professing normally involves flying great distances to speak to the same people in different places and normally over a good Bordeaux. Someone has to do it. Indeed, if I redeemed all my KLM air miles they would have to give me the airline!
But herein lies a story all in itself. The security wonks (someone who proffers) speak to the security wonks, the aid wonks speak to the aid wonks, the economists speak to no-one at all, because they are by and large incomprehensible and diplomats speak to each other all of the time but never actually say anything worth understanding.
Sadly, for those of us who believe passionately in balanced security – aid and development, diplomacy and credible, legitimate armed forces embedded in sound strategy driven by proper analysis – these are the wilderness years. Indeed, sometimes in my more hubristic moments I do feel like Winston Churchill (according to my wife as I get older I am increasingly sounding like him). Perhaps I should go away and build a brick wall?
Hang on a bit – there is a point to all of this. Last week Robert Gates said he was a tad peeved with ‘most’ of we Europeans. In fact he is peeved with all Europeans as the ones who don’t care and the ones who used to do a bit but can no longer, are about to be joined by the few doing a little bit at the moment but who in future will be unable to afford it.
Now, ‘one’ (posh Brit speak for you) would think ‘most’ Europeans would wake up to a US Secretary of Defense being blunt to the point of rude. Hell, no! The message here in Leiden is that this is just Johnny Yank having one of his periodic paddies because Europe’s one remaining combat soldier (we have plenty of non-combat soldiers) appears to have gone on leave (again) during a crisis. Here Groucho is wrong. European military intelligence is brilliant. Every time there is a crisis we send our soldier on leave to make sure no-one asks him to do anything. How do they do that?
But there is a serious point here. Well, two actually. Make no mistake, the Yanks really are peeved this time and it is more than a few grumpy old white men lamenting the good old days when the West was the West and the Soviets could be relied upon to be both dastardly and incompetent (competent dastardlies are never a good idea). Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (or ‘hoops’ as he was affectionately known by those in the rest of NATO who did not speak Dutch – which was just about everybody) made a hugely important point. There is a generational change taking place in American politics and the new, shiny, young American politicos stepping off the Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth gravy train onto the Washington gravy train have little awareness of Europe, little care for Europe and virtually no affection for Europe or NATO. Things are indeed about to change.
So, at this critical moment, as Afghanistan begins to come to an end, as Americans consider their huge budget deficit in the morning and their global responsibilities in the afternoon, the European soft power disarmers are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Getting rid of armed forces not because we are broke, although some of us are but we get around this by fighting wars and hoping no-one will notice we’re broke. You know the old joke – if one owes a bank a thousand Euros one goes to prison; if you own them two hundred billion they give one a seat on the board. No, it is rather because we Europeans have cast ourselves into one of those Merchant and Ivory films set back in the bucolic, upper class comforts of the 1920s – part pacifist, part-isolationist, mainly and usually drunk and more than a little delusional. We have created a new Ten Year Rule by which we declare that nothing bad is going to happen because in Euro-world it is not allowed. Beware Greeks bearing debt and all that.
NATO is paralysed, Secretary-General Rasmussen spends most of the time in the gym and getting a tan, whilst his officials spend most of their time creating new headquarters to organise our one soldier, who is in any case on leave. There is of course the European Onion. You remember, opaque, multi-layered with a centre that stinks. If NATO fades into a multi-tiered nothingness, as threatened by Gates-Gate, then we Europeans might have to really get our act together and finally give the Onion some teeth (an onion with teeth, now there’s a thought!).
I have some sympathy with this because if we can no longer get Johnny Yank to pay for our defence then we might have to pay for it ourselves. There is nothing worse than when rich relatives who have all their debt in the bank go all stingy on one. But what makes you think the Onion will be any more immune from the soft power fungus than the No-Go Alliance?
Any chance that our delusional politicos will get it? Sadly, no. The voice of we security wonks is no longer heard in European chancelleries. Too dangerous, too expensive, and insufficiently post-modern (whatever that is?). “Good”, I hear you say.
Not so fast. According to the soft power disarmers realism is militarism, and militarism is what got Europe into its twentieth century mess. Well, er, no, actually. It was the pacifism of democracies and a previous generation of soft power disarmers that enabled the militarists and autocrats to seize the power high ground. By the way, their forebearers in the 1920s and 1930s used precisely the same argument – public opinion would not tolerate a defence effort and in any case any transgressor would be held to account in the ‘court of world opinion’. The old ones are the best, eh?
So, Secretary Gates has warned of a two-tier Atlantic Alliance. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has warned of a two-tier alliance. Optimists like that really should not be allowed anywhere near real power!
Soft Power Disarmament will not only end in tiers…but tears.
Pass me another brick!
Professor Julian Lindley-French, a member of the Atlantic Council Strategic Advisor’s Group, is Special Professor of Strategic Studies, University of Leiden, Netherlands and Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.