A notebook of useful things

Day: 29 May 2012

The utility of Nato

The utility of Nato

By Ivan Debono

Heads of government will be gathering in Chicago tomorrow and Monday for a Nato summit hosted by Barack Obama.

The meeting comes at a crucial moment for Nato. Originally founded in 1949 as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism in Europe, it found itself battling Islamist terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan 60 years later.

The summit’s concern is the question of a future strategy for Nato. It has become something of a cliché to say that the geopolitical landscape has changed beyond recognition. For military planners, the difficulty lies in developing new paradigms for the use of military force in the 21st century.

On one hand, the military arsenal in the hands of actual or potential enemies and hostile nations has never been so powerful. So the catching-up game continues.

On the other hand, the deontology of war has evolved. It is no longer politically possible for Western nations to wage all-out war. Non-state actors, such as Al Qaeda, know this and have used it to their advantage.

The question, in the words of General Sir Rupert Smith, is “the utility of force”. The summit’s focus is the no less important question of the utility of Nato.

There are three major issues.

Firstly, Nato’s role in the defence of Europe.

Times have changed since 1949. As the US Department of Defence’s 2012 Strategic Guidance document succinctly states, “most European countries are now producers of security rather than consumers of it”. During the Libyan conflict, the United States, for the first time since Suez, took the back seat in an operation involving European powers. It sent a clear message to us Europeans that we will henceforth have to deal with problems in our own backyard ourselves.

This is linked to the second question of a strategy for the “arc of instability”, which has been the US’s military focus since 1990. Initially, it was a continuation of the Eisenhower doctrine of protecting the US’s primary energy supply in the Middle East. After 9/11, the mission brief was widened when Islamist militancy threatened the primacy of the western politico-cultural model.

The Arab revolutions have introduced an unknown quantity into the equation. Should Nato intervene? If so, which way? With its hands full in Afghanistan, Nato is hardly in a position to shape the strategic outcome of North Africa and the Middle East.

Which brings us to the third question and the foremost issue of the summit: a road map for the final phases of the Afghan mission. Nato planners will have their work cut out for them.

With François Hollande in power, France has accelerated the timetable for the withdrawal of its troops and has disrupted everyone else’s plans, as Angela Merkel made clear in a recent speech. In any case, everyone else is under pressure to leave.

An old military dictum says that amateurs discuss strategy while experts worry about logistics. The problem of disengagement in Afghanistan is a logistical one. Nato and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have accumulated an enormous amount of matériel in Afghanistan in these 11 years.

The Pakistani route is extremely risky. Afghanistan is landlocked and Nato has no strategic airlift capability to speak of, which leaves only one option: the northern route, through the Uzbek-Tajik corridor. In any case, Nato will once again need Russian transport aircraft. In the end, some of the equipment may well be left behind and handed over to the Afghan National Army.

Beyond these issues is the larger question of the new US strategic posture. The Defence Strategic Guideline clearly indicates that America’s focus will now be China and the Pacific rim. This strategic realignment was underscored by the recent deployment of 2,000 US marines to Darwin, Australia. This is not just an issue for the US, for Nato must now deal with the new geopolitical landscape as the US gradually closes its bases in Europe.

Strategic interests now transcend national boundaries. The wars of the future will not be about territory but about resources, from oil to water to rare earth metals, and about informational and cultural dominance, prosperity and employment. Nato was founded to defend the strategic interests of the US and Europe. If it is to maintain its relevance into the 21st century, it too must evolve. But this issue will require more than a two-day summit.

This article was published in The Times of Malta on May 19, 2012

Soft leaders, hard times


Soft leaders, hard times

By Ivan Debono


If I’d had a French vote on 6th May I’d have given it to Nicolas Sarkozy without hesitation. In fact I gave my vote to his political party, the UMP, in 2008’s municipal elections in Paris, and in 2009’s European elections and never regretted it. In 2012, Sarkozy was still the best option.

There has been a flood of post-mortems in the wake of Sarkozy’s defeat. Press opinion, as we know, is not electoral opinion. Most press opinion outside France consistently failed to get a correct reading of the French situation. What’s more, the US and UK media could hardly be expected to look favourably upon a Europhile French president, so they were biased right from the start.

Inside France, most of the press, true to its traditions, is fervently left-wing. The French intellectual left sees itself as the holder of the moral high ground. It could never stomach Sarkozy’s emotional sincerity, or his popularity with blue-collar workers, whom it had snobbed.

Which leaves us with the electorate. Why didn’t the French elect Sarkozy? Most pundits have blamed his opportunism, his nastiness or his showy opulence.

Opportunism? Hardly. Sarkozy’s first measure in 2007 was to reach out to the opposition and include socialists and centrists in his government: Bernard Kouchner, Martin Hirsch, Fadela Amara, among others. Most of them unashamedly supported Hollande in 2012. Nastiness? Sarkozy endured five years of jibes by the press over anything: his short stature, his marital life, his accent. Anything but his policies.

As for opulence, socialist politicians are hardly representative of the average French income. Just this week, François Hollande published his declaration of assets: a very comfortable 1.17 million euros. Just enough to avoid the wealth tax, which starts at 1.3 million. His much-vaunted fiscal reform will still spare him.

Between 2007 and 2012, Sarkozy lost around 4% of the total vote, in both election rounds. These 4% are mostly the Orléanist, liberal right. They elected Sarkozy because he was the first French politician to offer a strategy for France in a globalised world. They were disappointed when he backtracked so soon.  His budget reforms still left public expenditure at a record 56% of GDP. Universities were granted autonomy, but not the freedom to select students. The retirement age was raised to 62. In most European countries it is 65.

Beyond that, there is the general feeling of unrealised expectations among the ordinary, silent French, the petits gens so cherished by the centrist François Bayrou, the ones who never feature in the foreign press. The one astonishing fact of this election is that the figures do not add up: there were more right-wing than left-wing votes. Yet the socialist Hollande won.

These voters wanted an uncompromising, reformist president, a Gaullist even – a 2007 vintage Sarkozy who would not pander to left-wing critics. There was a glimmer of hope last February, when Sarkozy was rumoured to have decided on a vast reform of the welfare state. But it came to nothing, and in the end the candidate Sarkozy went to the polls with a timid, unambitious list of electoral proposals, a mere shadow of his 2007 programme.

Sarkozy did not lose because he was too much to the right, but because he was too soft. He sought compromise when he should have taken the hard line. Hollande built his whole programme, and his political career, on compromise. And the French know it. They have nicknamed him Monsieur Flanby, after a well-known brand of caramel custard. All over France, supermarket assistants, with exquisite Gallic wit, have been stacking “Président” cheese next to “Flanby” cartons on the cold counter. The message is clear: even his supporters acknowledge his major weakness.

Having been brought to power by a disparate coalition of socialists, communists, Trotskyites and radical greens whose only uniting feature was an antipathy for Sarkozy and nostalgia for the Golden Years of Mitterrand, he will find that compromise won’t get him very far.

Sarkozy promised not to be another Louis XVI. He emulated him in planning a multitude of reforms which were never completed. As Tocqueville, writing on pre-Revolutionary France, said: “The most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it starts to reform.” Indeed. Hollande is now president, France is crying out for reform, and the critical moment is upon us.

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 16 May, 2012.


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