Mark Francois is the MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, a former Armed Forces Minister and a Member of the House of Commons Defence Committee.
There is an old saying that hindsight makes geniuses of all of us. However, the events of the last fortnight in Afghanistan have certainly demonstrated a lack of foresight, especially in the Biden White House.
When Parliament was recalled to discuss what went gone wrong, I was one of those who was highly critical of the Biden Administration for withdrawing so hastily, which has led to a strategic defeat for NATO, for the first time in its 72-year history.
Whole libraries have been written about the so-called “special relationship” between the United Kingdom and the United States. The term itself was first coined by Winston Churchill, whose very close relationship with US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was fundamental to the allied victory in World War Two.
Similarly, the very strong partnership between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan was undoubtedly essential to winning the Cold War. Although it is often overlooked, a young Senator Joe Biden even supported the UK’s position during the Falklands Crisis in 1982.
Nevertheless, 39 years on, Biden’s address to the American people on August 16 2021 was inherently isolationist. It put US domestic political interests way above foreign policy considerations and America’s relations with its allies, including us.
So, what should we do now? Does our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, need to create a “Love Actually moment” of his own and start making Johnsonian wisecracks about Americans invoking the 25th Amendment? Probably not. But some are now asking can we credibly create a European defence, sufficient to deter a revanchist Russia, without the active involvement of the United States?
NATO now has 30 member nations, a third of which now meet the recommended alliance minimum of spending at least two per cent of their GDP on Defence. According to NATO’s own latest figures, (which helpfully compare apples with apples), Greece is now the highest spender in proportional terms, at an estimated 3.82 per cent in 2021, compared to 3.52 per cent for the United States.
The UK is now fourth at 2.29 per cent; with all three Baltic States a bit over 2.0 per cent. France sits almost exactly on 2.0 per cent, with Italy on 1.41 per cent and Spain, at barely one per cent at all. Still, in most cases this actually represents an increase, since Russia invaded Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014.
France, which maintains Armed Forces broadly comparable to Britain’s, including its own strategic nuclear deterrent, has increased its defence spending over the last seven years, has bilateral Defence ties with the UK under the auspices of the Lancaster House Agreement and is involved in a number of Anglo-French equipment programmes.
However, the calls by President Macron of France for the creation of a “European Army” have not been met by a sizeable increase in the French Defence budget to help facilitate such a concept which, for a number of NATO nations, including the U.K. is politically unrealistic anyway. Still, the French do maintain professional and operationally credible armed forces, which exercise regularly with our own.
But the great drag anchor in terms of any increased European defence capability is Germany. Although Germany recently signed a low-key bilateral defence declaration with the UK (described by one colleague of mine as, “a poor man’s Lancaster House”) even now the German defence budget has been only creeping upwards, to 1.53 per cent of GDP this year and is not due to achieve the two per cent target for several years yet – much to the repeated annoyance of former President Trump.
Moreover, the German Armed Forces are now a shadow of their former, highly operationally focused, Cold War selves. Much of Germany’s military equipment is in poor repair, with depressingly low levels of operational availability in everything from submarines to fighter aircraft. They are also a risky industrial partner, because of increasingly hostile attitudes to defence exports within the Bundestag.
Similarly, Germany’s close relationship with Russia, for instance in advocating the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, may suit Germany’s peacetime energy needs but does not help bolster NATO security, especially among its Eastern European members.
Much now hinges on the forthcoming German Federal Elections, with the era of the Merkel ascendency coming to an end and the race for her successor seemingly wide open.
Whether the largest party emerging from the elections is the CDP/CSU or the SPD, any subsequent coalition Government which meaningfully involves either Der Linke or the Greens is unlikely to be keen on the sort of very significant increase in German defence spending – and hardening of the line on Russia – that would likely be required to give a meaningful edge to a European Defence identity. Pious declarations are all very well but, as Stalin brutally put it: “How many divisions has the Pope?”
So, where does all this leave us? First, it means that we should look to strengthen defence ties with our European allies – but with a clear-eyed realism about the limits of what this is likely to achieve. For the foreseeable future, the idea that NATO’s European partners could credibly deter Russia entirely on their own is completely fanciful; they just aren’t prepared to pay for it – and even the most junior analyst in Moscow knows it.
That means that we need to try and repair the damage caused to NATO by the disastrous events of the past fortnight. In that context, the Anglo-American link is absolutely crucial. Historically, whoever has been in the White House or Downing Street, Anglo-American links at the diplomatic, military and intelligence (Five Eyes) have remained strong, and we now need to bolster them again. As one example, the previous US Ambassador, Woody Johnson, was a high-profile and popular Anglophile and we need to see someone equally charismatic appointed without delay.
Hard left opponents in Britain have sometimes railed about the “Anglo-American deep State”; well, if such a thing exists, now is surely the time to use all of these contacts to best advantage to bolster Western security.
To those in the American security establishment who have become obsessed with China, we need to remind them that Russia possesses thousands of nuclear weapons too, has invaded neighbouring countries on the European landmass within the last decade.
Russian spokesmen have even boasted about new nuclear torpedoes, which could cause an irradiated tsunami against cities on the eastern seaboard of the United States (and NATO believes these weapons actually exist). Finally, Taiwan, while an important Western ally, is not a member of NATO – but Estonia most certainly is.
The Atlantic Charter, which led, in turn, to the creation of the United Nations, was originally an Anglo-American construct. The American Eagle and the British Lion have stood side by side in defence of the free world for many decades now and we cannot allow any one individual, no matter how senior, to get in the way of that.