There are smirks on regime faces from Moscow to Beijing, via Teheran and Pyongyang. As the Western democracies inflict self-harm over a whole range of social, cultural and political issues, the autocracies watch with glee, adding to the mix whenever possible. The deliberately hostile French approach to Britain post-Brexit, the lack of consultation by the US with close allies over a premature exit from Afghanistan, and tantrums over AUKUS, have further revealed the West’s fragility.
We aren’t sure what values we are supposed to be defending. It seems we no longer believe in ourselves or trust one another. We face enormous threats to our security, prosperity and way of life. So many of our people are anxious and pessimistic – perhaps not surprising after the tragic and gruelling experience of a Covid pandemic. We struggle to defend ourselves against terrorism and the bullying of small groups of home-grown, foreign-inspired, extremists, filled with hatred of all that the West has contributed. Our potential enemies stoke this rage through conspiracy theories and campaigns of misinformation. Confidence in our institutions, in our history, and in our democratic political leaders has been weakened. The under 40s – the Millennials and Gen Z - seem particularly vulnerable to negative influences.
As it approaches its autumnal European Council, the EU’s “strategic compass” must be spinning at the moment faced as it is by challenges from every direction. The consequences of the recent German elections have yet to be seen but little is expected to change dramatically. Every French statement meanwhile must be seen in the context of its presidential election in just over six months’ time.
The obsession that Germany has with European integration and France’s related drive for “EU strategic autonomy” must be worrying for the EU bloc’s other national leaders. These strategic objectives inhibit the pragmatism required to deal with more immediate crises. They also have enormous consequences for the future of democracy and for the unity of the West.
There is no mandate from the citizens of the EU’s member states to hand over more national powers to an EU oligarchy dominated by Germany and France. And the idea of a “third force” on the international stage plays directly into the Kremlin’s playbook for splitting the Atlantic Alliance.
Furthermore, and as a direct consequence of its own policies, the EU now has difficult relations with significant and vitally important neighbours to the west and the east.
To the West, while still believing, wrongly, that Britain’s stance on the EU is merely a reflection of party political pressures in England and Northern Ireland, most governments of the EU member states are perfectly willing to accept that Britain has now left the EU and will not be coming back. They therefore want to establish the best possible long-term relationships in terms of security, trade and innovation. The question is whether they will have the moral courage to stand up to the one or two leading EU member countries that seek to block such an approach.
The EU must decide whether it is going down the French route of drift away from transatlanticism and towards constant strife with Britain, with its echoes of the Napoleonic continental blockade. Or whether it prefers to mend bridges with the UK in a spirit of friendship and mutual self-interest.and also strengthen NATO directly rather than create separate EU arrangements.
To the East, the EU relationship with Turkey has become unfriendly and purely transactional. Its major concern is the willingness of Turkey to control the migrant flows heading towards Europe. But it should be more supportive of Turkey as a long-standing NATO ally and as an alternative gas and oil transit country. One of several running sores in the relationship with Turkey has been Cyprus. In recent years, the EU could have played a major part in overcoming differences between the Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities in order to bring about reunification of that island in a realistic and sympathetic manner, equally respectful of the concerns and interests of both communities. Instead it pursues an anti-Turkish policy, promoted by its Greek and Greek Cypriot members and emboldened by French interference.
The idea that the EU could develop a special relationship with Russia might fit the German and French agendas but will be resisted by the bloc’s most vulnerable Eastern members. Russia’s military capabilities and its appetite for aggression depend on the ability of its extraction industries to sustain an otherwise very weak economy. German willingness to facilitate Russian gas pipelines to Europe both help the Russian economy and reinforce a dangerous energy dependence. All the evidence tells us that Russia is a highly calculating power that doesn’t shrink from overt and covert aggression against the West and its allies. It cannot be trusted.
China seeks regional hegemony and a different set of international rules. We underestimate China’s success in capturing the support of many developing countries seeking financial injections. But we also underplay the massive potential role of democracies such as India and Japan who share many of the values and concerns of the West. Given the shift of relative economic power to Asia it is inevitable that the Indo-Pacific region should become increasingly significant, demanding our robust engagement and reinforcement of a growing network of alliances.
The immediacy of the US decision to abandon Afghanistan alarmed America’s allies. Its record on strategic consultation is not good. But this is no excuse for the ritual cry from the EU, in response to every crisis, of the need for “more Europe”. The Afghanistan debacle has further incentivised those pushing for a European Defence Union that would have little positive effect on defence capabilities but would merely serve as a useful tool in the drive for EU integration and strategic autonomy, regardless of the impact on the NATO alliance. Madeleine Albright’s perceptive1998 warning of the 3 ‘Ds’ in relation to EU defence ambitions - no diminution of NATO, no discrimination towards other NATO allies, and no duplication – are even more pertinent today.
The Covid pandemic and the escalation of cyber attacks should provide the impulse for an urgent reassessment of our national resilience and who can be relied on in extremis. We all need to spend more on defence and enhance our military and security capabilities, including military resilience. NATO needs to be revitalised while globally we should create more deployable, sustainable forces for effective coalitions of the willing.
The strength and, at the same time, the weakness of the democracies is public opinion, increasingly vulnerable to malign influence. We cannot take either democracy or support for our armed forces for granted.
We need to act with generosity among partners, rebuild confidence and cohesion within our nations and between allies, greatly improve consultation and re-establish the unity and salience of the West and its like-minded allies. We should remember that the West has been a massive force for good in the world. Our purpose is the freedom, prosperity and security of our people, our legacy must be a free and healthy world for us all to share in the future.
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, drawing on his long experience as a senior military officer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org