Ignore the isolationists. In a dangerous world, America and Europe neglect their duty to defend liberty and prosperity at their peril
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.
Urban is hardly the first to tackle the question of Western decline. Starting with Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and picking up momentum in the 19th and 20th centuries, there have been several waves of declinist prophesy. The spectrum of declinism has encapsulated ideological aversion to the perceived ills of the Occident and those, such as Oswald Spengler, who sounded a more tragic lament for Western culture. The most recent strain has been concerned with the decline of American power. Most influentially, Paul Kennedy’s 1987 book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, predicted the economic overstretch of the US only two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
It would be glib to mock declinist arguments for poor timing but the genre certainly has its problems. Political scientists have a poor record of predicting future events — the end of the Cold War, or indeed last month’s election, being prime examples. Spengler and Kennedy could both be read more sympathetically as diagnosing a form of slow decay in great powers. Nonetheless, the issue with most declinist tracts is that they tend to have a teleological arrogance and it is rarely clear what point declinism serves. It is often more useful to think about foreign policy in terms of present-day outcomes and obligations, without the excuses of seemingly inevitable historical forces.
Urban’s argument is all the more powerful for managing to avoid many, if not all, these traps in his concise wake-up call for Western politicians. Rather than trying to diagnose a vague, existential sense of decline, he illustrates the decline of Western military strength since the end of the Cold War, as Western powers sought to reap the “peace dividend”. The scale of cuts is extraordinary and the trend has only accelerated since the financial crisis, despite increased global instability. Since then, cuts to military spending across Europe have been in the order of 20 to 25 per cent.
Almost as worrying is the faulty logic behind the allocation of these limited resources across the Continent. So confident were Europe’s leaders that war between states belonged to a troubled past, and that European countries would never face war alone, that most countries now lack full-spectrum military capabilities. So some Nato members might have anti-aircraft capability, others submarines. This may have made sense at the height of Nato cohesion during the Cold War but thinly-spread capabilities are a terrifying prospect in the light of Europe’s current fragility. This is worth remembering for countries such as the UK which still cling to the notion of Great Power status, without a serious commitment to support it.
Trident is one of the more shocking examples of this. A largely synthetic parliamentary debate focused on whether to renew the deterrent with three or four submarines for a continuous at-sea presence. This obscures the operational reality that for a nuclear-armed submarine to pose a credible threat, it must avoid being tracked by adversarial hunter-killer submarines. To maintain that ability requires maritime surveillance aircraft and an undersea listening capabiltiy. Britain lost the Nimrod surveillance aircraft to defence cuts. This wouldn’t have been a problem in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, but Russia poses a new threat and is operating submarines close to Britain’s shore. The Royal Navy won’t comment on the frequency of Russian incursions but had to call in US surveillance aircraft earlier in the year. The nuclear submarine HMS Talent recently had its turret “damaged by floating ice”, a Cold War euphemism for a collision with a Russian warship.
America and her allies have long pursued an “Offset” strategy through technological superiority of equipment, the logic being that a numerical disadvantage in conventional forces could be made up for with increased firepower. It worked to reduce defence costs under Eisenhower’s “New Look” and was repeated under Reagan, economically pummelling the Soviet Union.
Urban does an excellent job of ripping the logic of the current “Third Offset” strategy to pieces. The experience of war suggests that there is little match for numerical superiority of a potential enemy. America and Britain’s disastrous F-35 jet is an excellent example of why the Offset strategy has led to a decline in defence capability, despite huge increases in defence spending. In simple terms, vast amounts of money were invested in a small number of extremely expensive aircraft. To date none are in service.
Urban has written a comprehensive account of the cost of replacing modern weapon systems, the terrifyingly low actual numbers of technologically advanced equipment in service at any time, and the deficiencies this creates. The strategic consequences of the concentration of defence spending in a small number of expensive pieces of equipment are profound. If Russia were to step up its belligerence and invade a Nato member, then the alliance’s conventional forces would not only be slow to respond but would also be too weak. Nato leaders would then face the unenviable decision between opting for a nuclear counterattack or allowing Russia to destroy the alliance through inaction.
Urban’s argument is weaker when trying to twin its convincing analysis of Western decline with the rise of other geopolitical rivals in a multi-polar world. Some of his examples, such as Brazil, are not compelling as strategic challengers. However, his analysis of the potential for conflict with China or Russia is interesting. Despite its increases in military spending, Russia may not outrun the combination of Western sanctions and extremely cheap oil and gas. Similarly, China, despite double-digit defence spending, faces serious challenges — not least slowing economic growth, a demographic timebomb and the challenges of maintaining political stability without democracy.
Urban is correct to suggest that so far there has been no meaningful reassessment of national priorities in the West, even at the last Nato summit. He remains sceptical, although not entirely dismissive, of the possibility of reversing the West’s military decline and the will to act internationally.
It is, of course, often hard to distinguish between decline and retreat, particularly in periods of extreme turbulence in the international system. But this difference in interpretation is crucial for leaders, who must create grand strategy based on a realistic allocation of their national resources to the pursuit of vital interests. Obama seems to have been convinced of the inevitability of US decline since entering office. The real question is whether his retreat to isolationism has turned his declinist outlook into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Obama is disengaged from America’s traditional role as a force for international stability, while simultaneously pursuing projects with unsound strategic logic, such as the disastrous nuclear negotiations with Iran. For most of his presidency Obama’s primary focus hasn’t been foreign policy at all, but “nation-building at home”. The result, euphemistically called “leading from behind”, is not a strategy but rather a chaotic mixture of aerial interventions, intended to avoid deploying US troops. For those who remember the eerily similar foreign misadventures of the Clinton presidency, the recent disasters in Libya, Iraq and Syria are unsurprising. The disjointed consequences of this approach are abundantly clear. In May, even as US special forces killed an ISIS commander in Syria, there were no conventional US forces to help prevent the fall of Ramadi in Iraq.
It is no longer possible to apply logical prediction to where and how the US will engage in international crises because the President has no sense of what America’s vital interests are and no commitment to sustained deployment of US forces. The European members of Nato should have realised that Europe is now simply seen as another theatre of operation for an overstretched US military and certainly not the most important one.
Urban doesn’t devote enough space to the problem of political will both in today’s leaders and the public. David Cameron stoked the ire of his backbenches and senior military commanders by refusing to commit to the UK’s Nato spending target during the election. Despite this, defence remains in the background on both sides of the Atlantic for the time being.
A second new book, Superpower (Penguin, £14.99), by the fêted foreign American foreign policy commentator Ian Bremmer, serves as a different kind of wake-up call. Bremmer has long suggested that US power is in long-term decline towards a “G0” world. The implication is that the G7 (or G8) is discarded and that the G20 is too big for decision making. This so-called “rise of the rest” thesis is a staple of TED talk primers on globalisation, and Bremmer himself has promoted this idea elsewhere.
Washington-led globalisation has, according to this argument, sown the seeds of multiple challenges to American hegemony. None of this would have been particularly surprising to America’s early Cold War warriors. The implicit bargain was that America would protect free trade and stability to allow economic growth in return for America’s hegemony and definition of global rules.
This book is clearly intended as an early intervention in the 2016 presidential race and expands Bremmer’s argument into the territory of neo-isolationism. Worryingly, Bremmer’s voice carries weight with “Davos man” and his book is a concerted attempt to rehabilitate the idea of isolationism for a global elite of policymakers. He fuses the strains of isolationist thought from both sides of the party divide. The suggestion is both that America causes more problems than it solves abroad and that it can only remain in a position of economic strength by turning its focus inwards.
This is a surprising argument because Bremmer clearly believes in America’s continued superpower status for the foreseeable future. Equally, while sketching foreign policy decline, he makes a strong case for America’s domestic economic strength. As he notes, demographics are on the side of America in the global economic race. America is still a global leader in terms of entrepreneurship and innovation and is starting to surge in domestic energy production.
In fact Bremmer’s analysis is not really of American decline but rather the suggestion that the US should take an inward turn. Bremmer posits three scenarios for the future of American power: “Moneyball America”, a shorthand for “realist” policy where America takes selected risks overseas to safeguard national security and prosperity; “Indispensable America”, which suggests that American prosperity is dependent on her continued ability to shape the world order; and lastly Bremmer’s favoured option, “Independent America”. Such a vision is a departure from America’s role as global force and an inward turn to focus on building a “more perfect union” at home. The only real vestige of international engagement that would remain in such a scenario is trade.
The problem is that the arguments presented are made of straw. American foreign policy has always been a combination of the different strains that Bremmer outlines. This is not a vision of decline but rather of retreat as a conscious political choice. In some senses the book is less of a policy prescription than a description of Obama’s foreign policy. Parts of the book sound like memos from Obama’s State Department:
We can’t renounce important international commitments overnight. Our allies need time to transition to a world in which they must assume greater responsibility for their own security . . . Germany and Japan are wealthy countries that can take responsibility for their own security . . . It will be easier for them to shake their citizens out of their complacency if America makes clear it will do less in years to come.
There is a real danger that retreat rather than decline will take hold on both sides of the Atlantic. Bremmer’s interjection into policy debate has not appeared from nowhere. The presidential playing field is far from clear at the moment. Nonetheless, many global conservatives fear that Rand Paul’s candidacy might push the Republican party towards isolationism. This obscures the more worrying rise of isolationist thought on the Left. Hillary Clinton’s presidential announcement video is striking for the relative silence on what should have been her greatest achievements as Secretary of State. The comparison with her last election campaign is stark and shows the direction of movement in centre-left American politics. In the last campaign Clinton used her now infamous “3am phone call” television advertisement to question Obama’s competence as a leader in a dangerous world.
Two things have changed since then. Under Obama, progressive opposition to intervention, short of invasion, has disappeared. Intervention in the form of aerial bombardment or extrajudicial drone warfare is the new norm, regardless of its efficacy. In tandem, the quest for ever elusive domestic social justice has eclipsed all overt global concerns. As some commentators have observed, the Clinton brand is being subtly refashioned as a byword for America insulating itself from overt intervention. In that world intervention is reduced to covert technocratic warfare which is neither protracted in length nor debated. It is still too early to judge how the presidential candidates will form their foreign policy positions. But Clinton will undoubtedly have the most experience and it is worrying that she appears to be backpedalling on the US’s historic global role.
The most important point that both Bremmer and Urban make, albeit indirectly, is that the US remains indispensible to maintain the relatively liberal world order we currently enjoy. Last month’s VE day celebrations should have been a salutary reminder that 70 years of peace was kept by Pax Americana. The best reminder of the consequences of hasty American withdrawal is in the Middle East: the disintegration of Iraq, Syria and Libya and the rise of the ISIS insurgency were not inevitable, despite the protestations of the Left, who treat the 2003 Iraq war as a skeleton key to all future misadventures.
Similar arguments can be made about Western Europe which currently faces a sustained assault on its values and borders both from within and from Russia. Part of the problem is that the West is no longer sure what values are being defended or indeed if these values have universal applicability. Perhaps there is a simpler explanation of what is at stake in the West that we should bear in mind when considering the future direction of foreign policy and defence spending. Values certainly do matter but can be encapsulated more simply. For the migrants risking their lives in the Mediterranean to reach Europe, the West is a place where ordinary people have the freedom and means to lead lives of prosperous self-direction. Obama, and to some extent Cameron, seem to have lost sight of this. Nato and the EU are important not just as a collection of states or geographic entity but as a constellation of shared values — the values for which so many laid down their lives 70 years ago and for which so many are prepared to risk their lives in order to secure today.