By Julian Lewis
RUSI Journal, vol.161, no.3 – June 2016
The immediate cause of the First World War was the Kaiser’s violation of Belgian neutrality, as part of a planned assault against France. The direct cause of the Second World War was Hitler’s invasion of Poland, after a secret agreement with Stalin to carve up its territory. In both cases, German aggression was not deterred by the prospect of conflict with European states individually or in combination. In both cases, too, the late entry of the US as a belligerent made a decisive difference to the outcome.
Why has NATO proved to be the most successful military alliance in history? The answer is clear: it is the deterrent effect of US membership. This means that a would-be aggressor must face the prospect of war with the world’s most powerful state right from the outset – as Article V of the NATO Charter requires that any attack on a NATO member be seen as an attack on them all.
We shall never know for certain if a similar prospect would have deterred Germany’s rulers in 1914 or 1939 but, on the balance of probabilities, the case that it would seems strong. By securing a permanent US commitment to the defence of all its members from 1949 onwards, the North Atlantic Alliance changed, at a stroke, the calculus confronting any potential aggressors. No longer could they pick off one weak European state after another in the hope of making cheap and easy gains. No longer could they gamble that stronger countries with the power to act would look the other way, instead of fighting back to defend the victims.
In order reliably to deter, collective security must combine adequate power with probability of its use when triggered by aggression. On both grounds, NATO succeeds and the EU fails as a collective security organisation. Since the US does not belong to the EU, the latter can muster only a fraction of NATO’s deterrent military power. Nor can there be any certainty that the US will respond to an attack involving EU member states outside the North Atlantic Alliance.
By trying to create its own foreign policy and its own military forces – which on typical European levels of defence investment will remain modest indefinitely – the EU risks reverting to the uncertainties of the pre-NATO era. The NATO guarantee is a solemn commitment to be willing to engage in a third world war on behalf of any member country attacked or invaded. NATO membership must not be proffered lightly nor extended to countries in respect of which Article V is simply not credible.
Ukraine is a case in point. Here is a deeply divided country whose best chance of staying together and remaining independent is to follow a policy of non-alignment externally and devolution internally. By clumsily seeking to integrate the whole of Ukraine into the Western orbit, using its customary federalising techniques (in this case, an EU ‘association agreement’), Brussels gave Russian President Vladimir Putin added incentive to seize control in Crimea and the Russian-speaking East. Whether he would have done so as soon as he did – or at all – without this perceived provocation, is a matter for future historians to debate. What seems beyond doubt is the fact that the EU’s meddling in the affairs of Ukraine encouraged the country along a path which was bound to be risky, given its geopolitical situation.
Of course, as is often pointed out, in the twenty-first century it is ‘not acceptable’ for a strong power like Russia to behave in this unilateral and aggressive way. Yet, in the twentieth century, it was equally unacceptable for Germany to behave as it did in the run-up to two world wars. How democrats should conduct themselves in such perilous geopolitical circumstances needs to be a matter of efficacy, not just ethics. By egging on Ukraine and provoking Putin, while lacking the power to underwrite policy with force, the EU did no-one any favours.
It is precisely because the US fears the susceptibility of Europeans to blunder into such situations that some US officials want the UK to remain in the EU to prevent the project making reckless decisions. What they fail to realise is that, as the EU ‘project’ insists on a common foreign policy, British objections to dangerous proposals are more likely to prevail from a position outside the EU than from within – where the UK can be outvoted and overruled at every turn.
To sum up, the EU, with its pretensions to a common foreign and defence policy, seeks to duplicate NATO by recreating it without the Americans. By trying to act as a separate entity on the European stage, the EU resurrects all the old risks of blundering into military confrontations under circumstances where the US may feel free from any obligation to act. Furthermore, by importing uncertainty into the situation, the EU raises the spectre, once again, of war by miscalculation. For example, if the EU clashed with Russia over the interests of a non-NATO state not covered by Article V, perhaps the US would intervene militarily, but the Kremlin might wrongly think otherwise. That would be a lethal mistake, discovered only when it was too late for all concerned.
In terms of deterring an external threat, the EU adds nothing to the exemplary role discharged by NATO. On the contrary, its so-called common foreign and defence policy is highly dangerous – potentially undermining the North Atlantic Alliance, at risk of picking fights that it cannot win, and even increasing the prospect of war by reducing the certainty of US involvement.
EU leaders have urged Brexit supporters to visit the vast military cemeteries in the fields of France and Belgium, as if the dead supported their notion of a single European superstate. They dishonour the memory of those who fought for the rights of the British people, and of the captive peoples of Occupied Europe, to govern themselves within free, constitutional and democratic countries. There is no risk of the members of the EU going to war once again with each other, so long as they remain free, democratic and constitutional. Constitutional democracies do not attack one another. Wars break out, instead, between dictatorships and other dictatorships, or between dictatorships and democracies.
By trying to build a supranational state in Europe, in the absence of a democratic mandate, the EU runs the risk of sowing the very seeds of future conflict it claims to abhor.
Dr Julian Lewis is Conservative MP for New Forest East and Chairman of the House of Commons Defence Committee, though writing here in a personal capacity.