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Tanks at VE Day celebrations in Moscow. Russia spends 4 per cent of its GDP on defence, more than twice as much as most Nato members (photo: Host/Rianovosti/Getty Images)

Are we living through the unravelling of the West? Seventy years ago the allied victory over Hitler secured the parameters for democracy, principally by cementing the relationship between Europe and America. The security arrangements put in place then shaped an entire generation of political leaders and also brought stability to the continent. Until last year, Europeans had been able to continue in the belief that the political and security architecture that protected them during the Cold War held universal appeal and would extend beyond the geographical confines of Europe. The extension of Nato, the “ever greater union” of the EU and the ubiquity of Western norms through organisations such as the World Trade Organisation or the global human rights regime were taken for granted.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, and the inability to conclude negotiations with Greece over debt repayment, should have ended those assumptions and forced Western leaders to reconsider their political model, not least in their own backyard. Russia’s exit from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe shows that Ukraine is not simply an isolated event. President Putin no longer feels any obligation to honour the long- standing security guarantees of Europe. In the absence of coherent Nato and EU leadership Russia is left to negotiate with the “Normandy Group” of Germany, France and Ukraine.

Their response to the crisis should have also made plain another uncomfortable truth. Under President Obama, America has become more isolationist than at any point since 1941. The crisis in Ukraine has revealed deep fault lines between the European allies and also with America. Years of reliance on the US backstop have meant that Europe long ago stopped spending sufficiently to maintain its armed forces. In 2014 only four Nato members met the agreed target of devoting 2 per cent of GDP to defence and one of them, the US, distorts the true state of Nato capability. Nato has always ultimately been reliant on overwhelming American military power. However, Obama’s quixotic approach to foreign policy makes his continued assurances about European security ring hollow. If Putin were to further test Nato resolve by threatening the Baltic states, it is not clear whether Washington, or any other Nato members, would fulfill their treaty obligations of mutual defence. 

The situation is no better in the UK. Once the euphoria of victory has receded, David Cameron will be faced by an unenviable list of tasks that will seal Britain’s international position. The preservation of the Union and the future of that United Kingdom in Europe are interlinked and will dominate the new parliament. Cameron’s herculean challenge will be to simultaneously convince the Scots, the Europeans and indeed his own Eurosceptic backbenchers that a new form of British exceptionalism in Europe is a meaningful way forward for all of them. Cameron’s negotiations with Europe have the potential to instigate useful reform of the fragile continental settlement. However, if they fail they also have the capacity to mimic the self-interested nationalism unleashed in the UK and Greece, hurting cohesion and Europe’s ability to defend itself. The election campaign was notable for the main parties’ lack of vision and their failure to commit to 2 per cent of GDP spending on defence. Britain’s continued global influence is being maintained on a tightrope.

Where does this leave the West? In The Edge (Little, Brown, £12.99) Mark Urban, Newsnight’s diplomatic and defence editor, grapples with this question. It is a slim but devastating assessment of what he suggests is the twilight of Western military power.

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