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Geoffrey Van Orden

The democracies need to be better prepared for the struggle ahead

The West is in a mess. It is unsure how best to deal with China or stand up to Russia. In early June the round of Summit meetings of the world’s leading democracies came and went with consequences barely noticed – the G7 in England; the NATO Summit in Brussels; a US-EU trade summit; and the meeting of the American and Russian Presidents in Geneva.

The one common factor at all the meetings was the presence of the new President of the United States. This underlined the centrality of the US to the economies, to the security and to the defence of the democracies. Applying a soothing balm to European sensitivities is not evidence of fresh leadership.

Foremost in all the leaders’ minds was the Covid pandemic, restoring damaged Western economies and extending a helping hand to the world’s less developed countries as well as longer-term concern about the effects of climate change.  All very well, but it comes to nothing if we cannot defend our freedom.

The complex and unpredictable international security situation was certainly a preoccupation and the central focus of the NATO Summit. The opening of new domains for potential conflict, such as the polar regions and space, was at least recognised while there was persistent anxiety about the more immediate consequences of a belligerent and assertive Russia, more brutal forms of terrorism,  increasing cyber and hybrid threats, and the accelerating pace of technological development. 

Crucially, China’s rise has fundamentally shifted the global balance of power. The recognition of China’s systemic challenge to the international order and to Alliance security was the basis for expression of strengthened engagement by the Alliance with key states beyond the Euro-Atlantic area. Britain has a key role to play in this alongside the United States and major regional allies such as India, Australia, Japan and South Korea – all in attendance, by the way, at parts of the G7 Summit. We know China wishes to rewrite the international rules and expand its sphere of influence, eventually to create its alternative web of alliances. Most recently it has been pushing even further south in the Pacific with little-noticed strategic investment in port facilities in Samoa of all places. Meanwhile, it uses its vast resources to drive a wedge between African and Asian, even European, countries and their traditional western allies. 

Both China and Russia have been dismissive of the long-established rules-based international order while Western public opinion is distracted by new, faddish and divisive issues, and failure to understand freedom or the strategic threat.

Russia’s growing threat to the security of the Euro-Atlantic area through its novel and assertive military build-up and its widespread disinformation campaigns, malicious cyber activities and murderous attacks on individuals living in the West underline the need for a coherent response. The NATO leaders agreed to extend the scope of Article 5 to include hybrid and cyber attack and also attack from space. 

But there was no mention of the need to rekindle the flame of democracy and freedom and take that fight both to Russia and, to use Lenin’s term, the “useful idiots” in our own societies that do the Marxists’ subversive work for them. And maybe this wasn’t the moment to discuss the highly sensitive but very disturbing migration issue that will inevitably add massively to our security concerns in the near future.

In the shrinking world in which we live the defence of the democracies is indivisible, requiring consistency and coherence in our dealings with the autocracies with heightened awareness of those seeking to create divisions among us.

After all, the 30 allies that gathered at Monday’s NATO Summit yet again emphasised that NATO remains the foundation of our collective defence and the essential forum for security consultations and decisions among allies. Collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security remain the three core tasks of NATO.

We know Russia seeks to promote internal discontent in our countries and that its long-standing strategic objectives are to rebuild the Soviet Union in some form, to neutralise Germany and separate Europe and America while gradually eroding the alliance at its vulnerable periphery. It also wants respect and a seat at the top table.

The EU is more concerned about eroding the sovereign competences of its member states in order to create a Federal European State and ensure that Europe is equated to the EU. This is its paramount aim. The so-called Conference on the Future of Europe, running from now until April 2022, will inevitably lead to a cry for “More Europe”,  legitimising accelerated political integration. The conclusions could be written now. And you can bet that the EU will claim the backing of citizens but block referendums in its member states.

Accordingly, there is little enthusiasm in the EU for additional military capabilities in their own right, certainly not for the purpose of strengthening NATO and the transatlantic alliance.  They are an instrument for hastening political integration and pursuing EU “strategic autonomy”. By definition this means removing US influence and creating a separate centre of defence decision making – the very opposite to the confirmation just a few days ago that NATO was the essential forum for security decisions among allies. It also plays to the Russian agenda of separating continental Europe from its transatlantic allies.

We might ask why other European governments meekly go along with this essentially Franco-German agenda which is a dangerous distraction when we should all be focused on strengthening NATO.

Noticeably, three out of the four Battlegroups in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Eastern Europe are led by non-EU allies. And given that the defence of Europe depends on the credible and rapid reinforcement of the continent from the two major NATO military powers, the US and the UK, why is the EU making such a meal of allied military mobility across Europe.

This obsession with a separate EU defence policy also creates difficulty with the UK, Europe’s foremost military, intelligence and security power. France, in particular, has been poisonous and destructive in the post-Brexit negotiations. This provides little basis for trust and confidence. Meanwhile, the UK perilously entwines some of its vital military capabilities and infrastructure with such an ‘ally’, including a bi-lateral defence treaty. 

In spite of promises to do more, Germany is weighed down by the burden of guilt from its immediate past; the quasi-pacifism of a large segment of the German people and vulnerability to the growth of anti-American/anti-NATO political parties as potential partners in a coalition government. The German federal election is due in September.

Turkey is a long-standing ally of key geo-strategic importance, putting a brave face on its Western relationships.  In recent years her attachment to the West has frayed and she has been looking for friends elsewhere. Some of its own actions - such as support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas in particular, dabbling in high-end arms procurements from Russia, and the nature of its intervention in Northern Syria and elsewhere -  have not helped. But Turkey has been systematically rejected by the EU, seen its concerns over Northern Cyprus ignored, and received little thanks for its massive humanitarian action in giving sanctuary to some 3 million refugees from Syria. It has been insulted by accusations of genocide relating to events over a century ago and by the seeming failure of western leaders to offer immediate support to President Erdogan following the coup attempt against him on 15 July 2016. 

Turkey is too important to lose. We need continuous understanding and engagement with Turkey, applying the same respect, tolerance and sensitivity as we do with other friendly regimes of different culture. 

Russia’s increasing assertiveness in the  Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea underline the importance of Turkey’s role and the need for greater alliance cohesion. Efforts to ‘neutralise’ the Black Sea through confidence-building initiatives such as the short-lived Black Sea Naval Force involving all the littoral nations merely served to confirm Russia’s aim -  to have a free hand in the Black Sea and divide and exclude NATO. The recent (23 June) Russian harassment of a British destroyer involved in a well-advertised detachment, along with a Dutch frigate, to the Black Sea from the nearby UK Carrier Strike Group follows similar incidents in recent months with US warships. Since its seizure of the Crimea in 2014 and intervention in Syria, Russia has built up its Sebastopol-based naval forces as well as formidable air, missile and electronic warfare systems in the region. Supporting the independence of the Ukraine and Georgia and the right of free passage in international waters will test the resolve of the whole Alliance. It cannot be left to just two or three of the allies.

We cannot, with any accuracy, foresee developments in 10 years, let alone 30 years (the approx. life expectancy of modern major weapons systems). We face a serious threat from technologically advanced, and in the case of China, economically powerful, autocracies which have never had any real concern for the lives of their own people. 

The democracies have become very soft, absorbed with social and welfare problems and divided by self-invented identity politics and wokeism which have been exploited by those that mean us harm. We need to restore pride in our historic achievements and enormous contribution to the betterment of mankind. Our eyes need to be fixed on our real adversaries – Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, international terrorism and the enemy within.

Many young people in all our countries show little deep understanding or attachment to our democracies, and certainly have little interest in our armed forces or the other instruments of the state that help defend our freedoms. Many are internationalist, concerned about climate change, the environment and the future of the planet. They prioritise humanitarian causes. These are attitudes which we applaud, but unfortunately they are not shared by the autocracies and they need supplementing.  We have to balance these concerns with commitment to strong defence of our freedoms. We need a mailed fist under our velvet gloves.  

Not just Britain and America, but all the democracies should be prepared to act as one when threatened. We need to raise our heads, improve our antennae, promote pride and confidence in ourselves, strengthen national resilience, and set aside our differences.

Freedom is hard won and easily lost.


Geoffrey Van Orden is a distinguished Fellow of the Gold Institute for International Strategy, former British Conservative leader in the European Parliament and founder of New Direction. In Brussels he specialised in foreign affairs and defence for over 25 years. As a former senior military officer he previously served on counter-terrorist operations, in the front-line of the Cold War including 5 years in Berlin, and at NATO headquarters.