Speaking recently, UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond explicitly called upon Germany to help ‘deliver more useable firepower to the NATO alliance’ and Europe, adding that the Second World War had happened a long time ago. Stan Boardman would no doubt be incredulous at such a statement, probably screaming ‘The Germans? They bombed our chippy!’ It is also safe to say that anyone else who was affected by Hitler’s destructive war machine and racial policies would be distinctly unimpressed too. However, with the imminent collapse of the Euro and a US military pivot to Asia only months away is it time for Germany to substantially increase their military capabilities in a bid to offset a rapidly weakening European NATO?
On the face of it there doesn’t seem to be much need. As the world’s foremost military power the United States has taken an active interest in the military protection of Europe since the Second World War through the operation of a large network of bases and training facilities. Additionally, both Britain and France feature fourth and fifth respectively on lists accounting for global arms spending. As usual though, statistics and broad foreign policy statements do not tell the whole story.
Whilst big spenders, the literal ‘bang’ that Britain and France gets for their ‘buck’ has diminished distinctly since 2010. Grappling with huge structural deficits, the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review announced eye-watering cuts which resulted in the early retirement of a British aircraft carrier capability, serious reductions in mechanised infantry and compulsory redundancies for thousands of highly trained soldiers, airmen and sailors. Furthermore, further announcements by the Ministry of Defence have highlighted the need to shed another 4000 posts by 2017; such cuts no doubt shattering the illusion that Britain can unilaterally project anything more than a few missiles around the globe.
Likewise, whilst grappling with their own financial difficulties the United States has also been forced to make some tough choices. Recognising the dramatic rise of a resurgent, territorial and potentially economically unstable China, President Obama recently announced a new American foreign policy doctrine – one in which American military power is directed away from Europe and towards Asia. Indeed, the Americans are canny enough to realise that the 21st Century will belong to Asia, not Europe. Ultimately this means that Europe is no longer completely protected by the United States.
Whilst politically damaging for European outsiders such as Britain, the shedding of NATO military resources and an American pivot to Asia is more worrying for Europe and the future of a young, incoherent and militarily weak European Union. It is an unmistakable historical fact that Europe has only known continued peace and prosperity for as long as the NATO alliance has enabled stability within Western Europe; as a former Cold War battleground and largely responsible for two World Wars the European borders are among the most politically unpredictable and volatile regions on the planet.
To find evidence of this you do not have to look far. For instance, the breakup of the former Yugoslavia created a multitude of problems for the European Union which were made more so complex by limited European firepower and an almost complete lack of support from Washington for a prolonged military operation.
Likewise, continued Russian support for the morally bankrupt, repressive and repulsive Syrian government of President Bashar Al-Assad despite massive international pressure highlights the issues that the European Union is likely to face in the future. Bordered in the East by Russia and former Soviet Bloc states, the European Union will no doubt be expected to respond to further Russian provocations now Moscow is awash with cash due to a current commodity boom. Additionally, with further ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions predicted in the Middle East it is almost a certainty that European military forces will be required to undertake combat roles with increasing frequency. A NATO strengthened by Germany would undoubtedly help to ease pressures on both American and European allies.
After reading the above you would be forgiven for thinking that I am an arms dealer in favour of creating a ‘fortress Europe.’ However, whilst amusing, such assumptions would be incorrect. As the most populous country with the largest economy in Europe, Germany increasingly finds herself as the leading European power to which all others seek guidance and support. Indeed, all recent European economic solutions have focused upon using the strong German economy as a base for either bailouts or recovery options. Ensuring that Germany has the military firepower to match economic and political capabilities is only fair.
And as the strongest and richest Eurozone nation, the colossal might of the German economic machine could be used to ensure that even when other NATO allies are sacrificing military units the security of Europe is not affected. Undoubtedly, a strong European economic recovery would no doubt greatly benefit from a continued secure, stable and confident Europe, supported by a strong and confident Germany.
Everyone deserves a second chance, right?
It is 20 years since the Cold War ended in Europe with the total collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, high-level relations between the United States of America and Russia have eased considerably. In a situation that was unthinkable only 30 years ago, the United States is currently completely reliant upon the Russian Space Program to resupply the International Space Station with American personnel and equipment. However, with the imminent re-election of the political dinosaur Vladimir Putin and deep divisions within the United Nations Security Council over Syria and Iran, is the world sleepwalking into a Middle East centred superpower showdown?
British Foreign Secretary William Hague certainly thinks so. In a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph, Hague spoke of his fears that Iranian nuclear proliferation will lead to ‘the threat of a new Cold War in the Middle East.’ Political scaremongering aside, it is highly unlikely that long-standing enemies of Iran such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel would allow Iran to be the sole confirmed nuclear power in the region. Indeed, there has been frenzied speculation within the Western press that Israel is set to launch a pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities this summer. Worryingly, American intelligence chiefs have only been able to announce that ‘to the best of their knowledge’ Israel is not poised to launch an attack. For a country that values Israel as a close ally in the Middle East and has such an extensive intelligence network the world over, such statements are hardly reassuring.
It is also true that there is no love lost between the East and West. From the early 20th Century Russia has been a constant threat to Western prosperity and European ambitions, famously signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany during Europe’s darkest hour which among other things divided Poland and much of Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. However, recently it is the assumed international political unification of China and Russia which is giving commentators cause for concern.
For the people of Syria Russian and Chinese unity in opposing Western backed international action has had devastating repercussions. Despite evidence from the United Nations showing that an estimated 7500 civilians have been killed as a result of shelling and violence in key Syrian cities such as Homs, both Russia and China were the only two members of the United Nations Security Council to veto a watered-down resolution condemning President Assad and calling for him stand to stand down.
This lack of action has had dire consequences, and not just for the Syrian people who are now at the mercy of a reinvigorated and fearless President Assad. Already, political commentators are talking of a ‘proxy’ war; one in which Russia and China are supportive of President Assad’s regime on one side and the United States, European Union and Arab Nations (bar Iran) supportive of the breakaway Syrian National Council on the other.
Indeed, at the Friends of Syria Conference in Tunisia, William Hague confirmed that the United Kingdom was to officially recognise the Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of the country. Furthermore, he promised that Britain would ‘intensify’ links with the Council – which at the moment is Syria’s largest and most developed opposition group. For weeks now, there have been rumours that foreign nations are interfering in Syria by supplying the opposition forces with weapons, training and in some cases men. Finally, Hague also fired a warning shot towards Russia and China by declaring that “”those who back the Syrian regime from now on will find themselves in an even more isolated and indefensible minority.” As any amateur historian will confirm, such ‘wars by proxy’ are typical of a ‘Cold War’ and indirect superpower showdown.
Additionally, aside from confrontation over Syria it is the recent actions of the Kremlin which has added to the speculation on whether we are sleepwalking into another superpower showdown. Despite repeated denials by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a meeting with security analysts and Putin near a nuclear weapons research centre was most revealing. When speaking, Putin stated that he did not see a ‘chill’ in relations with the United States. Somewhat paradoxically, he then went on to explain how Russia aims to increase defence spending and refrain from further nuclear missile reductions until conventional weapons can do comparable damage in a bid to compete with the United States.
So, is the world sleepwalking into a superpower showdown, centred on the Middle East? As has been stated before in this blog, the sphere of international politics is almost impossible to predict and to go any further than analysing the current trends and trajectories of possible outcomes would be foolish. However, what is certain is that the United States and Europe have been battered by an economic debt crisis, two exhausting wars and a ten year obsession with confronting Islamic radicalism. The political desire for any prolonged confrontation with a potentially formidable enemy is simply not present.
On the other hand, unlike the United States and European Union both Russia and China are awash with money. Possessing mammoth foreign currency reserves, Chinese investment is increasingly being sought to bail out a cash-strapped European Union. The political bargaining this brings should not be underestimated. Within Russia, high oil prices are being used to fund the renewal and expansion of the previously neglected Russian military, designed solely to offer an alternative to American influence around the globe.
The Middle East is simply acting as a proving ground for a rejuvenated East and a tired, moralistic West. Much like post-war Europe, two opposing ideologies wish to control a region which is currently experiencing a generational upheaval. With Syria currently in a state of unofficial civil war, political instability in newly formed Arab nations and an increasingly isolationist Iran in continued pursuit of nuclear technology the pickings are potentially very rich for the victor. A similar situation in postwar Europe created a 40 year conflict, fought through proxy wars and an ever increasing nuclear arsenal.
Maybe the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists were right to move the doomsday clock closer to midnight after all.
Largely ignored by the mainstream media, a recent Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) report has shown that in terms of the world economic league table rankings, Brazil overtook the UK in 2011 to become the world’s sixth largest economy. Whilst disappointing for Britain, other key European countries suffered a similar fate. By 2020 Germany, Italy and France are also expected to slide significantly down the league table, having been overtaken by the rapidly emerging Asian ‘tigers’ and BRIC countries. Aside from the obvious dent to national pride and international economic influence, what does the report mean for the future of the United Kingdom, Europe and the Western world?
When considering Western decline, most concerning for Europe, America and Japan is the spectacular rise of two BRIC countries; Russia and China. Largely reliant on natural resource exploitation for predicted future growth, Russia is both a past adversary of the West and a likely future one. Recent Russian defence spending has focused on enlarging the armed forces to cope with high unemployment, joint military manoeuvres with China and an increasingly bombastic international role culminating in the now largely forgotten 2008 invasion of Georgia.
Unlike Russia, China is not particularly resource rich. Despite this, the official Chinese military budget has increased by nearly 200% since 2001; this being fuelled by exceptional double-digit economic growth throughout the decade. Unofficially, the budget is rumoured to have increased by an even larger amount. This budget amplification has enabled the Chinese to design and produce advanced stealth fighters, create a naval base in the Seychelles to directly threaten India and purchase rusting Russian aircraft carriers. Again, similar to Russia, China has become increasingly vocal within international politics by peddling ludicrous territorial water claims and adopting an ever more offensive posture with regards to Taiwan.
When Russian and Chinese investment is contrasted with severe Western military budget cuts (including those recently announced by the United States) and combined with increased international posturing, commentators are rightfully concerned that the West faces a tough choice; to either submit to the new economic powerhouses or invest in the military and suffer from increased debts and economic stagnation. Furthermore, it is a certainty that at some point this century the United Nations Security Council will have to be overhauled to reflect modern day politics; this likely costing the West dear in terms of their previously almost unrivalled control of international affairs.
Faced with the CEBR report, continued Chinese and Russian intransigence combined with military expansion, a stubborn economic financial crisis and a continuous slew of disappointing economic data it would be rational for Western politicians to panic at the prospect of a century increasingly dominated by a series of unstable, unmanageable and untested countries. Especially countries ever more flush with cash and lacking a fondness for quaint European traditions, American excess or Japanese electronic domination.
However, this predictable panic is often unnecessary. Since 1945, the UK has been suffering from a slow international decline as the Empire has been gradually disbanded; a direct result of having fought and shouldering the burden of two devastating world wars. Despite such decline, this has not meant an end to peace and prosperity for the British people. Instead, decline has been ‘managed’ to ensure that aside from brief periods in history, British military power and influence around the globe has remained constant, national security has not been threatened and living standards have generally increased, decade after decade.
If managed correctly, many commentators are confident that gradual Western economic decline is not necessarily the doomsday scenario that scaremongers predict. Whilst international politics and conflict is inherently difficult to predict, unbiased observers are able to see that economic decline does not always correlate with a demise in international influence, foreign policy or military power. Provided that investment is made in the right areas, the British – and in some respects, Western – role in the world as nations of highly educated and skilled designers, service sector workers, high-end manufacturers and engineers can only complement non-Western economic growth. Indeed, the rapidly growing countries of Asia and Latin America need our skills and expertise as much as we need their natural resources and mass produced factory goods.
Whilst the CERB report is undoubtedly a blow to British and Western visions of self-importance, I can still see one reason within the report to be cheerful. Apparently, should the predictions turn out to be accurate the British rate of economic decline will not be as quick as that of our closest continental neighbour and age old national adversary, France. By 2020, the United Kingdom will have come from behind to beat the French to eighth in the global pecking order, and by quite a considerable margin too. Now that is a cause for celebration. Someone pass the Chardonnay…