Beltway Ducks Grand Strategy Debate Over Europe

This month marks the 100th anniversary of President Woodrow Wilson’s “14 Points”—the document that arguably formed the basis of a rule-based international order. There were debates about Wilson’s idealism, right after it was published, and there continues to be a disagreement over whether there ever was a rule-based order, or whether the aspiration of a rule-based order is feasible or achievable, given the current geopolitical climate. The arguments also come at a time when we see the revanchism of Russia and rise of China as global powers, with relative American retrenchment under Donald Trump after a quarter century of activist and utopian foreign policy.

The new American National Security Strategy highlights the new direction American grand strategy is headed, one of “Principled Realism.” It also reminds the world that this rule-based international order that liberals like to yammer on about was essentially a Pax Americana, only possible because the United States had the military muscle to back it up. That technically makes it a hegemonic peace, rather than liberal peace. It was also unsustainable in the long run.

“We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists, but great power competition—not terrorism—is now the primary focus of U.S. national security,” Defense Secretary James Mattis said last week at Johns Hopkins University. His quote was later tweeted out by the Pentagon.

Logically, however, that leads to the most fundamental questions we are  avoiding, which should be urgently debated in D.C. foreign policy circles. First, how to characterize the European Union’s drive to undermine NATO and actively oppose American interests regarding Nord Stream, Iran, and Jerusalem? And second, what about the renewed nation-building pledge by Secretary Rex Tillerson in Syria? Why this disconnect between a rational, narrow, realist rhetoric, and an idealist utopian aspiration, when there is empirical evidence that liberal institutionalism isn’t necessary for a successful counterinsurgency or regional stabilization?

Going by history, nation-building in the Middle East is a failure. Style of government depends on culture, society, geography, tradition, and history—something often forgotten by modern day internationalists with sense of history only running as far back as 1989. There are no qualitative differences between anyone espousing any internationalist ideology, whether Trotskyist internationalism or liberal internationalism, as both are based on an idealistic aspiration of what the world ought to be like, rather than based on the evidence of what the world is.

Geopolitically it doesn’t make sense either. If Russia and Iran are rival powers, surely the smarter strategy is to pass the security burden of a toxic cancerous region to peer rivals and let them have their own bloody imperial overstretch and quagmire? And yet, here we are. Americans soldiers are now currently in theatre level conflicts in both Syria and Iraq. Is it mandated by Congress or by international laws, and are American taxpayers at all interested in spending money to promote democracy in Middle East?

The European Theater

In the context of great power rivalry, it is baffling that the question of Europe is not being discussed in Beltway circles. If renewed great power rivalry is indeed back, and if Russia is genuinely the greatest geopolitical adversary, then surely none is more important that the European theater, which needs to be debated urgently.

Consider the case of PESCO—or in common parlance, a European Army—that is on its way. Like everything related to the European Union, it is starting as a volunteer force, but if history is any indication, it won’t remain voluntary in the future. The council states:

…establishing PESCO sets out: the list of participating member states the list of ambitious and more binding common commitments undertaken by the participating member states, including ‘regularly increasing defence budgets in real terms in order to reach agreed objectives’, the PESCO governance, with an overarching level maintaining the coherence and the ambition of the PESCO, complemented by specific governance procedures at projects level administrative arrangements, including the secretariat functions for PESCO at project level and financing.

Denmark, Malta, and Britain refused to join this block, with Britain maintaining the only European security infrastructure that London plans to remain involved with is NATO. But PESCO is a continuation of a long-term German plan of having a joint European army.

Liberals are whitewashing this new idea, saying that first, PESCO is an impotent organization lacking any teeth, and second, Americans should welcome it with open arms as Europe is arguably spending for its own security. But questions remain. If it is genuinely lacking teeth, then what is the point of spending double the amount of money on a meaningless bureaucratic expansion? Surely that money is better spent in NATO, which would reduce the European freeriding on American taxpayers.

And if it has teeth, then the question is as to whether this will be a continuation of a century-and-a-half old German grand strategy, and whether it will hamper NATO defense. The aim seems to be independence from the United States, which also means that in the long arc of history, the United States and the European Union will have a difference of opinion with regard to Euro-Atlantic security. After all, it was America that continued British strategy of offshore balancing in Europe, throughout the Cold War. The idea of a single overarching hegemon in Europe is not a happy thought for any great power, whether it be a land power like Russia or maritime powers like the United States or the United Kingdom.

As EU takes an imperial character, it is imperative that the United States debate the implications. As per theories of international relations, great powers (whether empires, nation-states, or political unions) can never be sure of the intention of an empire, block, or neighbouring great power and it is always prudent to count on peace through strength. As American policymakers continue to ignore that wisdom, at their peril during this crucial time, let this be a warning. The arc of history is long, and a quarter century back, immediately post-Cold War, few barring genuine old-fashioned conservatives like Margaret Thatcher, and foreign policy realists like George Kennan, John Mearsheimer, and James Baker thought great power rivalry would be back. With the increasing differences between the EU and the United States, it is time to have a another look.

The geostrategic logic behind it is simple: any single country, empire, or institution—if it controls the vast European landmass—will have the resources to be a hegemon. And there cannot be two hegemons in the Western Hemisphere, without their interests clashing in the long run. To quote Peter Hitchens, “Pessimism is a very good way of staying cheerful. You mustn’t assume that having a sensible, realistic estimate of what’s going on makes you miserable, what makes you miserable is being ludicrously optimistic and ill-informed and then being slapped in the face by reality.”

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About Sumantra Maitra

Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, and a member of Centre for Conflict, Security, and Terrorism. He is also a regular analyst for Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi, and a regular essayist for various publications, including The National Interest, The Federalist, and Quillette Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.