'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Friday, 24 June 2011

Europe Impecuniosis

Writing of Richard I and his campaign that would come to be known as the Third Crusade, ending as it did in a stalemate with limited concessions, one historian observed that, 'to be rex bellicosus one also had to be rex pecuniosus' - to be king of war, one also had to be king of money. 

Three centuries later, a cash-strapped Henry VIII would perform a diplomatic coup in 1520 during the three-week long lavish spectacle that woudl earn the sobriquet the Field of the Cloth of Gold (to the French under Francis I, this was Le Camp du Drap d'or). The French were trying to gain alliances against the Holy Roman Empire and hosted the English King at a site in Norther France outside of Calais. The two castles originally earmarked for the living quarters were in such disrepair that the Kings camped in the field, erecting grandiose tents of such colours that the countryside erupted in golden hues as the tents sprung up. 

Politically, the outcome of the meeting was neglible but such was the show of wealth and pomp by Henry that it reasserted England's place in the power politics of Europe and led to renewed interest in his favor from both France and the Empire. It had been a loss leader and triumph of diplomacy, a type of soft-power if you will, where England exercised her might on the field, rather than the battlefield. One can almost here the voice of Sun Tzu echo through the ages - if you are weak, appear strong.

The contrast between the two positions of the English kings and the outcomes is marked. In actually prosecuting an expensive foreign war, Richard I bankrupted the treasury and ended up imprisoned in Austria paying a ransom equivalent to twice the annual revenues of England, almost bankrupting the country as he had done in raising the revenues for conquest in the first place (In raising money for the campaign, Richard I persecuted rich Jews, sold royal lands and levied novel taxes. He declared that he 'would sell the city of London, if I could find a purchaser'). Kinetic operations don't lie - they require money and when the coffers are empty, the military operations must end. 

Henry VIII and the astute Cardinal Wolsey realised the coffers were empty but they expended a limited amount of money in a soft power offensive appearing strong and in the ensuing power struggle between France and the Empire, they positioned themselves in the middle and coveted as a strategic actor/ally by both parties. It was to gain England a valuable period of ascendency in European politics.

So the news that current UK operations in Operation Unified Protector have cost the British 'taxpayer' (I always really feel sorry for that person) £260 million in an ongoing campaign (over half of this earmarked for munitions replacements) at a time when the MOD is running at its most profligate, the SDSR has slashed military spending and the strategic objectives of the operation have apparently creeped silently into regime change (and what regimes will fill the voids is of course, unknown) has been greeted with obvious disgruntlement. Pro-government voices have cited this operation as an essential mission to head off catastrophe in the Maghreb before it gets out of control - spend half a billion now and you save billions in massive humanitarian disaster management, special forces and immigrant rehousing across Europe. Plus, implicitly, you get the good ratings of military leadership in a crisis. 

But in fact, whilst British and French leadership in the crisis was meant to demonstrate European ability to conduct a foreign campaign and show their relevance, the opposite has occurred. Von Moltke will be nodding in his grave, for the Prussian military theorist who wrote that 'no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy' would feel validated at the mixed messages and slow escalation of involvement in the Libyan affair. The presence of special forces on the ground would constitute an especially serious breech of initial pledges. Outgoing US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, sceptical from the start about a no-fly zone, has now turned his ire to the sick man of NATO - Europe, in particular, implicitly, Britain and France. NATO had become, he said in a valedictory speech at Brussels, a 'two-tiered alliance' with members in Europe interested only in talking and peacekeeping.
This from the Guardian:

"The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country. Yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference."
In March, all 28 Nato members had voted for the Libya mission, he said. "Less than half have participated, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission … Many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can't. The military capabilities simply aren't there."
The air campaign had been designed to mount 300 sorties daily but was struggling to deliver 150, Gates added.
Europe plays the effeminate partner to a strong North American presence in NATO but the relationship, once amorous is now fraught with perils
The leader article in the current Foreign Affairs is thus instructive - Anders Fogh Rasmussen, sec-gen of NATO, writes about the problems facing the organization: 

'Since the end of the Cold War, defense spending by the European NATO countries has fallen by almost 20 percent. Over the same period, their combained GDP grew by around 55 percent. The picture is somewhat different in Asia. According to SIPRI, between 2000 and 2009, India's defense spending grew by 59 percent, and China's tripled. This lead to a double leap forward: a transformation of these countries' armed forces and their acquisition of new weapons systems.'
'If one compares Europe's defense spending with that of the United States, the contrast is also large. By the end of the Cold War, in 1991, defense expenditures in European countries represented almost 34 percent of NATO's total, with the United States and Canada covering the remaining 66 percent. Since then, the share of NATO's security burden shouldered by European countries has fallen to 21 percent.'
'Many observers, including some in government circles on both sides of the atlantic, argue that the biggest security challenge facing the West is rising debt levels in Europe and the United States. They have a fair point; after all, there can be no military might without money.'

But Rasmussen uses statistics here as a drunk uses a lampost - for support rather than illumination. Europe was busy reaping the post-cold war peace dividend and reorienting itself to an enlightened, humanitarian interventionist view of foreign policy. In the good years, America was happy to provide the umbrella. The collapse of bipolarity meant that Asian actors were forced to reasses their strategic interests and diplomatic ties, this led to increased defence budgets in the region. Nevertheless, the view of Europe from America as a dog with all bark and no bite seems credible as the Libya fiasco draws on.

So to sum up, to be nation-state bellicosus you also have to be nation-state pecuniosus. Well it's no wonder that Gates is bristling, after all, American finances are precarious and its main challenger to hegemonic status in the coming decades, China, holds approximately 120 trillion dollars worth of stake in the American economy including around $750 billion of its treasury bonds. When China sold up $34.2 billion of these in February, it prompted global concerns about the state of the American economy. With all that, United States and Canada shoulder some 75% of NATO defense expenditures in the current fiscal year. 

It seems ludicrous that Britain and France should be such poor cousins yet draw in their rich relatives to an offensive campaign that they cloaked in a humanitarian discourse. At the same time as drawing up the controversial SDSR they then start kinetic operations against a terrorist freedom fighter who has remained as leader of a large country on the doorstep of Southern Europe for 42 years. He hasn't given up without a fight? Incroyable! I smile, ironically, when Rasmussen asserts in a media interview that economic and military pressures will soon cause the downfall of the Qaddafi (in arabic, "he who throws") regime. He's probably right - I can't see how Qaddafi can withstand this siege indefinitely. But then I can't see how NATO can prosecute this campaign indefinitely. Clinton and his, "it's the economy, stupid" arrived at an overarching rule. Meanwhile, every aerial sortie plunges Europe further into the red.

We can't have our cake and eat it. If we want to prosecute wars in Afghanistan and Libya (Alfred von Schlieffen would turn in his grave at enmeshed prosecution of campaigns on two fronts) we need to cough up and stay the distance, beefing up our military, not downsizing it. If we want to shore up finances by reducing the military (we could streamline and augment our special forces capability but a vast reduction in armament and personnel would similarly affect the economy adversely by reducing defence industry procurement and putting men and women of the armed forces into redunduncy with skills ill-equipped for the civilian sector) then we need to work on our diplomacy, not "bombing to win".

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