“The wise man does at once what the fool does finally”
The Munich Security Conference
Munich, Germany. 19 February. I suppose it was French Defence Minister Parly’s call for “strategic autonomy” that gave this blog its mission. There is nothing like a stuck French record to get an Englishman going. My brief foray into the fray of the great, the good, and the not so good that is the Munich Security Conference was interesting. My takeaway? Europeans have a problem with bigness. Yes, we are very good at talking about bigness, and collectively we can come up with no end of plans, papers and prescriptions to pretend we are dealing with bigness. And, for many years we Europeans got away with pretend bigness because in historical and strategic terms whilst there was a lot of relatively smallness to be getting on with, there was little real bigness. No more! Take all the issues discussed at the conference, and cast them together into a cauldron of causality and what you walk away with is the need for Europeans to deal together with real bigness.
Big Elephant #1
There were three large elephants in the room at Munich, bigger even than some of the egos on show. Big elephant 1 was Europe’s very tentative relationship with bigness. Almost every issue on the agenda was big, global and European demanding of a European grand strategy; the application of immense means in pursuit of very great but complicated and vital ends, requiring the consistent application of considered policy, via sustained strategy over both time and distance. And yet, grand strategy is precisely what Europeans are rubbish at. Yes, like third string footballers at an English Premier League soccer club they practice endlessly, get paid very well, but do not really expect to play. PESCO is proof of that – a lot of political practice for the defence third team.
And, Europe’s bigness is getting bigger by the day. Any cursory analysis of Europe’s place in a rapidly-changing world would suggest that most of said change, which hitherto has happened beyond Europe, is now about to crash upon Europe’s shore like those Atlantic rollers I used to surf as a kid.
The conference also reflected Europe’s unhappy tryst with bigness in the gap between rhetoric and reality. There was German Foreign Minister Gabriel saying the US should not try and divide Europe…Europeans are very good at doing that themselves, thank you very much. He also talked about the foreign policy of a German coalition that does not as yet exist, which was interesting. There was British Prime Minister May talking about how vital Britain’s security and defence assets were to Europe, whilst she sets about cutting further those self-same assets beyond the point of serious utility, particularly at the pointy, deterrence-guaranteeing, high-end of destructive bigness. Then there was US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster trying not to say anything that might offend the White House. If McMaster has not got a clue what US policy is, what hope have the rest of us? Now, I am against capital punishment, but I am willing to make an exception if anyone, anymore says Americans and Europeans are “bound together by shared values”. The more we talk about ‘values’ the more we reveal a lack of any shared idea about policy the application of power.
However, what really worried me was General Mattis praising the European allies for very modest increases to defence spending from a very low base. It is a sure fire sign the Yanks no longer care when they begin praising mediocrity.#
Big Elephant #2
Big Elephant #2 was just how uncomfortable European leaders are with bigness. What struck me about the European leaders on show is how small they stand on the world stage. How wedded they are to the endless comforting discussion on the parochial process of institutionalism, such as Jean-Claude Juncker and his Euro-building. And, how so many of them see such process as a deliberate distraction from bigness, let alone the complex, interactive bigness that is fast emerging as the reality signature of the twenty-first century.
Take, cyber – threat flavour of the month. Europeans dealing effectively with cyber-attacks from Moscow (and others) is not just about dealing with a spotty bunch of Russian nationalist geeks in St Petersburg. It is also about having a big idea about the new big warfare that is already exerting a range of disturbing, destabilising, disruptive and destructive pressures across the social, political and conflict spectrum. It is also about working out what defence and deterrence actually means in the twenty-first century, with what and with whom, and at what cost. Not a jot about that, although NATO Supreme Commander General Scaparrotti went just about as far as he could go in hinting at the war to come, that collectively we need to stop coming.
Helping to stabilise the Middle East and North Africa is also a generational challenge almost as vital to Europeans as to the people of the region. Again, a lot of analysis but few ideas. As I wrote in my 2017 book Demons and Dragons: The New Geopolitics of Terror (which is brilliant and very reasonably-priced at Amazon) Syria is merely the epicentre of a conflict of faith, power and über-power that, whilst focused on the Middle East, is really about the new big New World Order.
Big Elephant #3
Big Elephant #3 was the urgent need for Europeans to start dealing with bigness. The McMaster cliché revealed the extent of a very real challenge faced by that cornerstone of the global security edifice, the transatlantic relationship. Unless Europeans far more actively work to keep America strong, America will soon not be strong enough to adequately defend Europeans, given its increasingly onerous responsibilities world-wide and its increasingly uncertain politics state-side. In other words, Madame Parly, no strategic autonomy without real capability.
Resolving that conundrum must be central to that most essential of transatlantic relationships between the US and Germany. Now, I have the very distinct honour to be part of the Loisach Group, which is co-hosted by the George C. Marshall Center and the Munich Security Conference, and which seeks to foster just such a relationship. As a Briton I have no problem at all with a strong US-German relationship. Not only do I welcome it, but I just wish the strategic illiterates in London would realise they can help foster it by reinvesting in, not cutting, Britain’s own strategic brand. However, to ensure ends, ways and means even begin to align in the US-German (and wider) Berlin and Washington also need a special relationship, and as yet ‘special’ it ain’t.
If Berlin and Washington are to enjoy a ‘special relationship’ Berlin needs first to deal with its own schizophrenia over foreign, security, but above all defence policy. Indeed, there is an urgent need for Germany to pose its own German Question. Let me explain. At a formal lunch at the conference a leading German commentator tried to dismiss me with indignant bluster at for asking if the German people realised and accepted what NATO’s core mission of collective defence actually means and entails in the twenty-first century. People like me were far too pessimistic he said. The ‘glass was half full’ (another bloody cliché) for both Germany and NATO he said. The next day, Hans-Peter Bartels, Berlin’s parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, published a report which bluntly stated that when it comes to defence Germany’s glass has a dirty great crack right through the middle. The report was clear; the Bundeswehr is stated “is not equipped to meet the tasks before it”. And yet German Defence Minister von der Leyen is seeking to load even more tasks onto a hopelessly under-funded force that is already stretched to breaking point. It will not end well. As an aside I will deal with these and many other issues in my forthcoming book The Defence of Europe (which will, of course, be brilliant and very reasonably-priced).
The Elephant NOT in the Room
Which brings me back to the Munich Security Conference. Many of the bases were covered at the conference, precisely because many of those bases were loaded. However, whilst there was much talk of European leadership it was the one big elephant that was NOT in the room. The problem is there is no such elephant in Europe, and millions of European citizens know it. Worse, they no longer believe their leaders have any more idea how to ensure their security and defence than they do. It is as if the Emperor has stepped out in public in his resplendent ‘new clothes’ to face some oick in the crowd shouting, ‘Oi, mate, you’re stark-staring, bollock naked!’ If this is not quite yet the age of European defence, it is most certainly no longer the age of European deference.
Until there is evidence of such leadership Europe will continue to be the mouse that roars. Establishing such leadership will not be easy, not least because Europe’s citizens also seem to be profoundly split themselves these days between the ‘they are all a bunch of crooks lock ‘em up’ school of political thoughtlessness, or the ‘peace in our time, don’t bother me with reality’ school of political thoughtlessness. Trust in each other, and in leaders is, to say the least, at a premium.
At base there are two big European problems with bigness. First, Europeans only like their bigness in small pieces, not the big pieces bigness could well soon drop on them. Until Europeans start to put all their many small bits and pieces together into one big bit and piece effectively dealing with bigness will elude them, however long they bang on about PESCO. Second, European leaders refuse to see the world as it is, not as they would like it to be. Instead, they crave for a world of values and institutions, when it is fast becoming clear that Europe resides in a big world of big power, big states with big interests, and even bigger strategic egos. The bigness paradox for Europeans is that they will not realise the Euro-world, until they properly invest in the real world…and do it together.
Eighty years ago another small, parochial leader came here and talked about bigness…but that was another Munich...or was it?