Alliances and dalliances

"The lethal combination of the Trump administration’s “America First” approach and many European members’ complacent, cowardly and stingy approach risks making Nato irrelevant"

Edward Lucas

Standpoint has never questioned Nato’s purpose. Defence is government’s first duty and a multilateral alliance backed by the world’s strongest democracy has for decades been the best way of discharging it. But the lethal combination of the Trump administration’s “America First” approach and many European members’ complacent, cowardly and stingy approach risks making Nato irrelevant. It is easy for our adversaries to play divide and rule when we, their victims, are already weak-willed and squabbling. “Westlessness”—the term coined by the organisers of this month’s Munich Security Conference—is not just about the security weaknesses in the old transatlantic alliance. It is about mental disorientation: of perception, willpower and values. That afflicts not only rich countries. As Nabanita Sircar reports (page 28), the founding vision of India, the largest democracy in the world, is fading under the assaults of Narendra Modi’s government.

The West will not find strategic direction and internal cohesion until it recovers its moral compass. From that point of view perhaps our most important piece this month is Irwin Stelzer’s appreciation (page 51) of the life of Gertrude Himmelfarb, our advisory board member who died late last year. We walk in her shadow and champion her ideas.

For our “Failing Nato” cover story, Richard Barrons, a retired British general, takes off the gloves (page 14) in analysing the roots of the alliance’s decline—and the paucity of alternatives. If Europeans think working alongside America is uncomfortable, they should contemplate the cost of shouldering the burden themselves. Germany is the big culprit here, Julian Röpcke writes (page 20) from Berlin. His country seems never to meet a security challenge that it does not duck. Even the brazen assassination by Russian agents of a refugee on the streets of Berlin has failed to stoke public outrage or stiffen official spines. That is a reminder that though the military threat remains (particularly from Russia), the new battlefront is hazier and more complex. Old boundaries between war and peace, near and far, domestic and foreign are blurring. Victor Madeira (page 12) notes the importance of the human factor: brains matter more than bullets. Jennifer Arcuri, our technology columnist, highlights (page 11) her work in persuading alienated young hackers to put their talents to productive and lawful use.

The changing nature of the threats we face, coupled with the mess on the continent and America’s increasing orientation to the Pacific, leaves Britain in a difficult position, as Hew Strachan, one of our leading military historians, outlines. The defence review this summer should mean painful choices. If it does not, we have just (again) fudged the problem, stoking increasing irrelevance and greater danger.

But we are not doomed. Kurds live in a bad neighbourhood. But, as Robert Halfon writes, they champion our values, against daunting odds. We should do more to help them. Our most innovative and effective allies in Europe are in the new(ish) member states of Nato. An army officer who writes for us as Tacitus gives an insider’s view of how countries such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania meet the threat from the east. The cohesion and resilience fostered by their approach to defence is in itself a deterrent. Countries that lost their freedom under communism understand better than we do how to protect it against the new threat of authoritarian crony capitalism. We should listen when they speak. Dumping orientalist stereotypes about Europe’s weak and backward “east” is not only overdue when it comes to security. Our extract from Kapka Kassabova’s elegiac exploration of history, identity and geography in the magical lakes that border Greece, Albania and (North) Macedonia should remind us that our continent’s cultural heritage is wider and deeper than many in its western half appreciate.

Similarly, the carelessness with which many English people treat the Union is not just rude, but damaging. Colin Kidd writes from Scotland about the risk that an arrogant, London-centred approach will fuel the sectarian nationalist cause to the point that independence becomes inevitable. Doctrinaire rigidity is not a natural feature of British Conservatism. Nick Cohen laments the lack of satire on the Right: the reason, he speculates, is that conservatives are now aping the tribalism of the Left.

The security world is easy to misunderstand. John Sipher takes a scalpel to Hollywood’s portrayal of espionage. Blackmail, gadgets and (lots of) sex may make plots hum, but they form no part of the real spy world. He should know: he used to run the CIA’s Russia operations. A spy movie that portrays a conscientious, likeable intelligence officer using people skills to protect democracy might not be a crowd-puller. But Standpoint would watch it.

                Edward Lucas, Editor

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