In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway famously said that people go broke “gradually, then suddenly.” History works like this, too. For long periods of time, things continue along a well-travelled analytical path, where little happens, and little changes. Then in a bolt from the blue – gradually, then suddenly – more is altered in days and weeks than has been the case for months and years.
So it is with the Ukraine crisis, as the tectonic plates underlying how the world works are shifting quickly. The EU and Germany are a case in point. For decades, by far the easiest political risk call I made involved Brussels and the major European states over-promising and under-delivering.
That was due to the basic structural fact that, despite having one of the world’s largest economic markets, the EU perpetually punched below its potential strategic weight. Economically sclerotic, militarily impotent, and strategically confused, Brussels almost always amounted to less than the sum of its parts. As I often said during political risk speeches to my clients, my predictive call record has never been hurt by betting against the European Union.
Germany, as ever, lay at the root of Europe’s problems. As Henry Kissinger has sagely pointed out, the structural tragedy for Germany is that it is too important a country merely to be one of a series of great European powers, and too small a power to dominate the whole of the continent. After World War II, this old German problem manifested itself in a new, intractable form. Germany, following the abject horrors of Nazism, simply took a holiday from history, one that the other exhausted European powers initially encouraged.
But, as generations passed, and the continent’s economic motor showed no signs of waking from its strategic slumber, what had provided a respite for the world increasingly became a very large problem, as without real German strategic engagement in the wider world any sort of common EU foreign and security policy was bound to be stillborn.
Over the past 20 years, during my time running my own global political risk firm, I have headed to Germany literally scores of times. Arrestingly, during these two decades, the issues discussed with its governments have never changed. In the case of Germany, rather than solving problems, bringing them up became a sort of fruitless mantra, a repetitive catechism that was merely invoked, but absolutely never acted upon.
Could you spend an appropriate level of GDP on defence?”
“Impossible, given our peculiar history and the pacifist leanings of our people.”
‘Can you lessen your addiction to Russian natural gas, which accounts for a debilitating 35 percent of your total–skyrocketing to over 70 percent if the mammoth Nord Stream 2 pipeline comes online?
“Impossible, our gas imports are an economic, not a strategic, concern, and we have a shared and tragic history with the Russians.”
‘(Sigh) Let’s meet next year.’
And so the intellectual merry-go-round went round and round, a string of reasonable strategic questions being unfailingly met with the word ‘impossible.’ Betting against Germany and Europe was the easiest strategic call out there. Until, all of a sudden, everything changed.
For German strategic culture has altered more in the past ten days than in the past 20 years. Suddenly every strategic ‘ask’ I ever made has all come to pass, with the newly-minted Prime Minister, Olaf Scholz, obliterating 16 years of do-nothing Merkellism in a blink of an eye. At last alerted to the longstanding fact that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a revolutionary power, intent on undoing the post-Cold War strategic outcome, Germany acted, and with wholly uncharacteristic speed.
Nord Stream 2 has been suspended, and is de facto dead. Germany (it wasn’t impossible after all) has agreed to spend the NATO-required two percent of GDP on defense, and has allocated a 100 billion euro defence budget to upgrade its antiquated weapons systems. Every European now finally sees that the purpose of NATO remains vital and unchanging, life insurance in an historically dangerous world. With strong German backing, the EU has agreed to collectively buy defensive weapons, and then given them to the hard-pressed Ukrainians. Germany (and thus, Europe) has awoken from its long strategic nap.
Conclusion: the UK Must Follow
Brexit freed the UK from the clutches of a strategically clueless EU. But what has it done with its newfound independence? John Bew’s analysis for Boris Johnson got the country off to the correct geo-strategic start; the new era is indeed going to be characterized by great power competition.
But speed and strategic clarity also matter. In the time it took Bew and Johnson to recognize the glaringly obvious, drilling down to the operational level (the tactics informed by an overall strategy) has proceeded at a glacial pace.
It is not nearly enough to say that great power competition characterizes our age. The next vital step is to name who the great powers on the chessboard are, and what the arena is that the contest will be played in.
Again, Bew and Johnson are correct in that the Sino-American Cold War – a superpower competition for primacy – is the overriding strategic fact of our age. They are also correct in that the Indo-Pacific is rapidly transforming itself into the world’s pivotal region, where most of the world’s future economic growth as well as much of the world’s political risk come from.
So far, so good, but not enough. For the great powers just beneath the superpowers – who maintain a great deal of room for independent strategic manoeuvre – must also be taken into analytical account. Here is the hidden good news for both the West and the UK, particularly after the momentous events in Ukraine, which have seen a hardening of this evolving strategic picture.
While a wounded, vengeful Russia is now firmly a stooge to superpower China, Robin to Beijing’s Batman, all the other great powers line up firmly in the western-dominated order. Russia and China must contend with the US, India, Japan, and a repurposed EU, as well as Britain and the other Anglosphere countries. The very good news is that the emerging basic power structure of the world favors the UK and an order we can all happily live in.
Practically, this more accurate look at geo-strategy lends itself organically to some practical policy outputs. If even the EU can throw off its shibboleths in a matter of days, now is the time for the Johnson government to do so in the matter of hosting and cosseting Russian oligarchs, as London has shamefully built a pin-striped ecosystem of lawyers, accountants, and PR consultants who allowed the de facto laundering of pilfered Russian money as well as the laundering of reputations for Putin’s cronies.
It is not for nothing that the capital is nicknamed ‘Londongrad.’ This must come to a stop, not in six months, but immediately. If the Germans can throw off their sacred cows, so can the British. It is not impossible.
But at a deeper level, what is required is a rapid change in British strategic thinking. Britain’s calling is to lead the Anglosphere, a great power almost no one has given nearly enough thought about. It must shift its gaze to the dominant Indo-Pacific region. Britain can become a vital player on the world stage, the closest ally of the world’s ordering superpower. If Britain does all this quickly and decisively it will emerge as a major force in the dominant new great power coalition. It is all in Britain’s grasp, but it must do that hardest of things; it must act fast and keep up with history.
This post was originally published in Conservative Home.