The German-Belgian border. 3 August, 2011. Ninety-seven years ago to the day Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, looked out of his palatial, imperial London office and said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time”. A few hours later two German armies smashed into Belgium. The First World War had begun. 8 August, 1918, four years and millions of dead later on what German generalissimo Ludendorff called “the black day of the German Army” the British Army crushed the Germans at the Battle of Amiens. At the spearhead of the Allied thrust the British Army battered Germany into such a comprehensive defeat that in November 1918 the British held a victory parade in Cologne. Britain and France had prevailed but at a cost evident even to this day in every town and village across both countries.

Even as the British and French seemed to be at the very peak of their power those four years of struggle had in fact begun Europe’s long decline. Indeed, Grey was looking down on the apogee of British and European power in the world. And yet, even Grey could not have understood that his fears would not only come true but mark the beginning of a century of European retreat, much of it self-inflicted.

For many years following that ‘war to end all wars’ Europeans of various persuasions rallied to ideologies and nationalisms to mask the fact of decline. America rapidly retreated into isolationism from its brief and belated foray into the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism that was the essence of the First World War. Britain and France were left to soldier on as the great hollowed out world leaders. For Europeans the Second World War and the Cold War only hastened the decline and the further retreat into a myth deemed ever more central by elites unable to bridge the gap between power and paucity – paucity of strategy, paucity of capability, and paucity of ambition.

With Europeans effectively denuded of financial power the myth that has sustained European democracies these hundred years past is now revealed for what it is – a theatre de l’absurde. Europe and Europeans are thus faced with the most profound of choices. Does Europe accept its precipitate retreat from influence and enslave itself to the policies and strategies of the newly enriched but less ‘enlightened’? Or, does Europe finally, collectively and realistically take stock of its perilous strategic position and begin the slow and purposeful return to a credible ability to shape the twenty-first century?

Diplomatic and military power are today no less important than in Grey’s day. And yet, the great European defence depression is apparent across the length and breadth of the Old Continent, whatever the strategically-challenged or insanely optimistic like to pretend.

Today, the UK House of Commons Defence Committee has just published a damning report to which I gave evidence on the relationship (or rather lack of it) between stated British national strategy and Britain’s ability to realise such a strategy given the swingeing cuts taking place in London’s diplomatic and military instruments of power. Britain is not alone. Such folly is evident across a Europe that continues to treat strategy like a No 8 London double-decker bus of old – something slow moving that one can hop on and off at will.

There are a range of solutions being offered by the think-wonk community to close the gap between strategic myth and defence reality, all of which are well-meaning, but all of which essentially miss the essential point: one can never create strategy through management. Some call for more effective and streamlined institutions. I am all for streamlining both NATO and the Onion, both of which too often resemble armed pensions, but the solution will not be found there. Some call for more pooling of equipment and specialisation of effort. This is all well and good but in the absence of a shared strategy and strategic culture such initiatives will fail. Indeed, it is precisely the absence of shared strategy that neuters the trust upon which such ideas flourish. Can European solidarity survive danger? The evidence of the past decade would suggest not.

Equally, the status quo ante is no option either. The nature and pace of change in the world as we enter the instable Asian century reveals to the strategically insightful three verities that politicians on both sides of the Atlantic seem unable to grasp. Strategic, i.e. global, influence will be dependent on a) more of the transatlantic West; b) much more and closer European collaboration; and c) new partnerships with the likes of Australia, India and Japan. All three of which demand strategy and leadership.

Back to Britain and France. A European defence strategy worthy of the name and credible in this dangerous century will only be realised if America gets over its sulk about European ineptitude and Britain and France begin to take real steps towards creating a European defence strategic cluster. Leadership informed by strategy won the First World War. In 1914 the Entente between Britain and France was the key to victory. In 2011 the Franco-British Security and Defence Treaty is equally important as a down-payment on a strategic future for Europe, but only if it is imbued on both sides of the Channel with strategy and leadership, as opposed to spin and pretence.

Churchill writing of France at the end of World War One could have been writing of Europe today. “Worn down, doubly decimated, but undisputed masters of the hour, the French nation peered into the future in thankful wonder and haunting dread. Where then was that security without which all that had been gained seemed valueless, and life itself, amidst the rejoicing of victory, was almost unendurable”?

Sir Edward is still looking for a lamp that will lead Europe out of the trench into which it has fallen.

Requiescat in Pace.

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.