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Macron and May: France opposes UK involvement in EU defence (©Stefan Rousseau — WPA Pool / Getty Images)


January always brings a glitzy but ultimately vacuous public contribution to geopolitics. The World Economic Forum in Davos is where the great, the good and the not so good party and pontificate, free from the burden of any policy implications. It is entirely in keeping with Donald Trump’s temperament that he gave the keynote speech, yet failed to grapple with the biggest strategic reassessment by the US since the end of the Cold War. The previous month Trump’s National Security Strategy had proclaimed the return of great power competition. This was swiftly followed by Jim Mattis’s National Defence Strategy, which elevated competition with Russia and China as the predominant strategic threat to US security. This sudden shift in focus was a long overdue acknowledgement of reality. The Economist immediately made “The Next War” its cover story. However, General Paul Selva, vice-chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged, “We should have recognised [this threat] ten years ago.” In these pages as far back as 2014, when Crimea was annexed, we have stated that great power conflict had returned. The majority of opinion was dismissive of this view, naively underestimating  Vladimir Putin’s durability and ambition. Trump’s continued failure to publicly acknowledge the threat to Western democracy from Russian interference leaves both the United States and his own presidency vulnerable.

The world as viewed from the White House and the Pentagon has changed dramatically since 2014, when the NDS’s predecessor, the Quadrennial Defence Review, was published. Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy and the last Quadrennial Defence Review both explicitly mentioned the UK, effectively placing her first amongst the European Nato members. Trump’s NSS only mentions the UK (or indeed any European country) as sources of domestic terrorism and the UK, also as a trade partner. The NDS doesn’t mention the UK at all, at least in the unclassified summary.

Unlike Davos, the Munich Security Conference in February is where defence ministers meet and policy is announced. This year’s agenda was marked by relief that Trump’s first year was not as catastrophic as many expected, as well as the ongoing issue of Brexit. Discussion of America’s reappraisal of the balance of power and its European impact was strangely muted. Instead, Theresa May outlined a post-Brexit security bargain with Europe. In it, she continued to prioritise anti-terrorism over defence and in so doing she offered a solution to yesterday’s problem. She all but ignored the fact that America’s new strategic focus will redirect Nato’s priorities towards great power conflict. The defence bargain she outlined reversed long-standing UK objections by offering to support and work with a more integrated EU military, in return for continued decision-making and participation in joint procurement. Although seemingly pragmatic and potentially a great deal for the UK, May’s offer assumes that the UK military remains such an attractive partner as to be able to dictate terms. In reality it received a low-key response due to the precedence it would set, not to mention profound uncertainty about Britain’s ability to maintain military credibility, despite meeting Nato spending targets. 
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