WW2 80: A Plea for the New European Realism

DefenceSynergia (DS) is most grateful to Prof Dr Julian Lindley-French for permission to publish his latest commentary making A Plea for the New European Realism on this the 80th anniversary of Great Britain’s declaration of war.

DS holds the view that Strategy should be articulated so that departmental plans can be coordinated and cohesive – something that Her Majesty’s Government seems reluctant to do. Which is why DS quotes here from the penultimate paragraph of Dr Lindley-French’s commentary. “In March 1946, in a seminal speech in Fulton, Missouri, entitled The Sinews of Peace, Winston Churchill said, “When American military men approach some serious situation they are wont to write at the head of their directive the words “over-all strategic concept.” There is wisdom in this, as it leads to clarity of thought…” The full text can be read here:

WW2 80: A Plea for the New European Realism

“We can describe as Utopian in the right sense (i.e. performing the proper function of a utopia in proclaiming an ideal to be aimed at, though not wholly attainable) the desire to eliminate the element of power and to base the bargaining process of peaceful change on a common feeling of what is just and reasonable. But shall we also keep in mind the realist view of peaceful change as an adjustment to the changed relations of power; since the party which is able to bring power to bear normally emerges successful from operations of peaceful change, we shall do our best to make ourselves as powerful as we can. In practice, we know that peaceful change can only be achieved through a compromise between the Utopian concept of a common feeling of right and the realist conception of a mechanical adjustment to a changed equilibrium of force. That is why a successful foreign policy must oscillate between the apparently opposite poles of force and appeasement”. Edward Hallett Carr, “The Twenty Year’s Crisis. 1919-1939”.

It is time for the new European Realism.

At 0445 hours on September 1, 1939 the ancient, pre-Dreadnought German battleship KM Schleswig Holsteinf ired the opening shots of the Battle of Westerplatte, standing off what is today the Polish port of Gdansk. It was the official start of Nazi Germany’s brutal invasion of Poland and the first shot of World War Two, although the Luftwaffe had earlier attacked Wielun. At 1100 hours, London time, on September 3, 1939, upon the expiry of an ultimatum from London to Berlin for Nazi forces to withdraw from Poland, and under the terms of the August 1939 Anglo-Polish Mutual Defence Pact, Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. It is the latter date I have chosen to post this blog in honour of my family members who served and died fighting the scourge of Hitlerism. This blog is also a plea for a new European Realism in the face of today’s threats and for Europeans to strike a new balance between the “…apparently opposite poles of force and appeasement”.

On September 3, 1939 Britain, France and Poland enjoyed superior industrial resources, a greater population and and had more military manpower than Germany. France had ninety divisions in the field, the British ten divisions (Britain was first and foremost a naval power), whilst Poland could field thirty infantry divisions, twelve cavalry brigades and one armoured brigade. Nazi Germany could only field one hundred divisions, of which forty-one faced the Westwall. Critically, the Wehrmacht also had six armoured divisions, with some two thousand four hundred tanks welded to a new concept of air-land battle – Blitzkrieg. German forces were also more effectively organised, enjoyed superior training, had better equipment and were thus able to generate a critical superiority in fighting power where and when it mattered, reinforced by strong national self-belief. The Wehrmacht may have been a smaller force on paper, but it was also a far more efficient fighting machine.

Where is Europe today? Europeans today are threatened by a form of will complex strategic coercion across the 5Ds of contemporary hybrid warfare – disinformation, disruption, destabilisation, deception and threatened (or actual) destruction. The death of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, allied to the demise of the Conventional Forces Europe Treaty, marks the end of another era of relative European peace. Perhaps, no less significant than Nazi Germany storming out of the League of Nations in October 1933. And yet, many Europeans meet such events with at best a shrug of the shoulders, even leaders.

Carr stated that “peaceful change”, reflects “…an adjustment to the changed relations of power”. And yet, Europe’s leaders refuse even to recognise the changed relations of power on the ground in Europe that are rendering Europeans ever more vulnerable to dangerous future shock. They also by and large refuse, with Germany now to the fore that the “…the party which is able to bring power to bear normally emerges successful from operations of peaceful change, and that we should do our best to make ourselves as powerful as we can”. It is a retreat from Realism that is being multiplied and magnified by Europe’s creeping atomisation.

What must Europeans do? This is not a call for the militarisation of Europe, far from it. However, as Robert Schuman said in 1950, it is vital Europeans generate defences that are proportionate to the dangers which threaten them. Important though institutions such as the EU and NATO are to the defence of Europe the critical locus of power and legitimacy rests with the European state. The first duty of the state is to defend its citizens. However, too many European states, particularly in Western Europe, have weak, half-hearted elite Establishments trapped between the extremes of the political Left and Right. To the Left, there is the anti-patriotic, vacuous internationalism and Europeanism of the liberal Left, and its state-eroding dream of a country they call ‘Europe’. To the Right, there is a devil’s choice between a vision-less mercantilist Right, who see the state as nothing more than a balance sheet that exists only to enable business, or the ultra-nostalgic nationalists of the populist Right, who want to return each respective European state to some ‘golden age’ that never existed. Even if such an age briefly did exist, it invariably came at the deadly expense of other Europeans. That must change.

A new European Realism would mean a return to grounded pragmatism, hard-headed strategic common sense, with Europeans seeing their world as it is; neither fantasy nor folly. Great forces of change are underway, with a lot of those forces on the dark side of history. What Europeans must mine together is a new peace-bearing equilibrium – a mother lode of peace – in which coercion is credibly resisted by assertion. Such an equilibrium will only come from European states together striking a new balance between force and appeasement.

Europeans have a choice to make that they can no longer avoid. They were once the predators of centuries, are they now to be the prey of this one? In March 1946, in a seminal speech in Fulton, Missouri, entitled The Sinews of Peace, Winston Churchill said, “When American military men approach some serious situation they are wont to write at the head of their directive the words “over-all strategic concept.” There is wisdom in this, as it leads to clarity of thought. What then is the over-all strategic concept which we should inscribe today? It is nothing less than the safety and welfare, the freedom and progress, of all the homes and families of all the men and women in all the lands”. If there is one Grand Strategic mission to which all free Europeans must commit Churchill’s call to ‘safety’ is it.

Europeans must abandon the dangerous ‘utopia’ that covenants without a sufficiency of legitimate swords are of any use to any European. It is time that Europe stops appeasing the present for fear of its past. It is time for the new European Realism.

Julian Lindley-French

Professor Dr Julian Lindley-French

Senior Fellow, Institute for Statecraft, London; Director, Europa Analytica, Netherlands; Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow, National Defense University, Washington DC; Fellow, Canadian Global Affairs Institute; Chair & Founder of The Alphen Group