A Guest Post from Christopher Nutall
In a game of chess, there are two priorities; protect your king, to prevent yourself from being defeated, and checkmate the enemy’s king to win the game. In geopolitics, each nation must assess its priorities and ensure it upholds them to avoid defeat.
For example, Russia must maintain control of the countries immediately to the west of Russia proper. Historically, three invasions that have driven the Russians to the brink of defeat have come through those countries; holding them under firm control (or at least denying them to the enemy) is a core Russian priority. Therefore, the Russian moves to eventually cripple and take control of Ukraine, which seem nothing more than disgraceful bullying on an international scale, are in fact part of Russia reasserting control over its own geopolitics.
Geopolitics do not care about the moral rightness or wrongness of any particular act. It does not matter if the German bid for supremacy in Europe (the Franco-Prussian War, World War One, World War Two) was moral or otherwise. Germany could not survive sandwiched between two powerful enemies, Russia and France. The Germans had strong motives to fight in all three wars that had nothing to do with conventional morality, merely geopolitical necessity.
And it is geopolitics that may eventually weaken Britain to international irreverence.
When did Britain start to exist as an independent nation? I believe the reign of King John marked the foundation of England, while both Scotland and Ireland were separate entities previously. Under John, England moved from being a vestigial state on the edge of the Angevin Empire to the centre of power for John and his successors. There is something galling in considering John, perhaps the vilest and most treacherous of monarchs to sit on England’s throne, as the effective founder of Britain as an independent nation. (What if Benedict Arnold returned to the US after Yorktown and actually became President?) However, one cannot deny that John’s reign saw Britain largely separate itself from Europe.
This led the English monarchs to make attempts to concentrate their power and secure their fragile borders. King Edward took advantage of Scottish weakness to attempt to overwhelm Scotland and add it to his lands, principally to prevent Scotland from being used as a gateway for France to attack England. Ireland too was targeted for conquest. However, these wars and the Hundred Years War (an attempt to put an English King on the French Throne) proved that there were strong limits to English power. It wasn’t until James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth that the first true steps towards uniting Scotland and England were taken … and it would be centuries before they (and Wales) became one nation. Ireland was never truly part of Britain.
The British geopolitical priorities, which were formulated over the years between King John and Winston Churchill, can be summed up as follows:
One – Maintain political control over the British/Irish mainland. This prevents Scotland or Ireland being used as a base to invade England. The Jacobite Rising of 1745 showed just what could be accomplished with even limited overseas support.
Two – Maintain sufficient naval forces to prevent a sudden descent on the British mainland by outside powers. (One has to admire French persistence. They probably hold the record for coming up with invasion plans for Britain.) As long as we control the seas around Britain, we cannot be invaded and forced to surrender. Furthermore, we must also keep the sea lanes from the outside world open to prevent starvation.
Three – Maintain a balance of power in Europe to prevent a single nation from taking control of the entire continent.
Number three probably requires some elaboration. Historically, the greatest threats to Britain have come when Europe was largely united against us. Philip of Spain controlled enough of Europe to launch the Spanish Amanda, Napoleon brought vast resources to bear against us, Hitler used Europe as a base to bomb Britain ruthlessly. Our counter-action in all three cases was to back the weaker side in any European dispute, inserting British troops as a final resort, in order to maintain the balance of power. In fact, prior to 1945, we only failed at this once; the diplomatic disaster in Europe that accompanied the American Revolution left us isolated in Europe, costing us our chance to win the war.
This may seem unlikely. However, consider this. In the Seven Years War, we backed Prussia to force the French to dedicate most of their resources to fighting Frederick the Great. In the American Revolution, Prussia refused to join us openly, as did many of our other former allies. France could fight a war against us that was more ‘our’ style of warfare – and she succeeded, magnificently. The American Revolution was not only a major defeat, it was the closest we came to complete disaster until World War Two.
So … how well are we handling our geopolitical priorities?
Not well, I’m afraid.
Ireland won its independence from us after the First World War. It became a minor headache during the Second World War (there were fears that the Nazis might use Ireland as a base, which never materialised) and Northern Ireland became a persistent running sore. In the meantime, there were growing demands for greater powers (if not independence) for Scotland; we held a referendum in 2014 in hopes of putting the matter to rest. The referendum was a sound defeat for the independence faction, but it has not settled the issue. Scotland may yet become independent.
Is this a threat? At the moment, it may seem absurd to consider the EU a threatening nation, but that could change. A Scotland that won its independence than joined the EU might find itself being forced to make major concessions – like Ireland did during the financial crisis – which would eventually compromise its newly-won freedom. Even if we choose not to regard the EU as a threat, modern technology has changed the face of military combat. An independent Scotland, no longer part of NATO, would be a hindrance if we did wind up in a war with Russia.
But that isn’t likely, right? History books are crammed with events that were not likely.
We haven’t done much better with our naval forces. Historically, we maintained a sizable force right up until the end of the Cold War, but since then we have made major cuts in our deployable forces. It is unlikely that we could refight the Falklands War if necessary (right now, the Falklands are likely to be very economically important to Britain in the near future) as well as maintain our commitments to NATO. The absence of aircraft carriers alone placed a major crimp in our ability to take part in the campaign against Libya.
Indeed, if the Argentineans were to successfully push us off the Falklands for the second time, we would probably be unable to retake the islands.
Given the advances in technology, we should also count our air force and army as part of our second geopolitical priority. The figures are not good. Successive governments have made major cuts in our deployable forces, weakening both our ability to wage war and defend our homeland. It takes time, years, to rebuild lost military capabilities. In modern times, as Rumsfeld pointed out, you have to go to war with the military you have. We are not well-placed to win even a small war.
At worst, we have our nukes. Britain may lose a war, but we cannot be defeated, because we will take the enemy down with us. Or so we believe; thankfully, this concept has never been tested in the real world. However, nukes have purely limited value outside of all-out war. Our status as a nuclear power didn’t prevent Argentina from trying to take the Falklands. There are strong limits to what nukes can do for us.
But it is the third geopolitical priority that may yet prove fatal.
The European Union is not, by any definition of the term, a democratic state. Indeed, at the moment, it is not a state at all. The EU was created, at least in part, to bind the nations of Europe together to make it impossible for them to fight a major war for the third and (it was presumed) final time. (Readers of The Great Illusion may have a good snicker at this conceit.) However, as time went on, the EU took on more and more undemocratic aspects. Unelected bureaucrats dictated more and more regulations to national governments, which were in turn forced to accept them.
Consider, if you will, a spider’s web. A single strand may be weak, so weak that a human can snap it without noticing the effort. However, a hundred such strands may be much harder to break – and it would be impossible to break a single strand without damaging others. Each successive regulation in the EU might be a minor matter, on its own, but untangling the entire web safely might prove impossible. A government that tried might wind up breaking the entire EU … or simply being unable to claim the benefits as well as the disadvantages of membership.
This is a major problem for European governments. It was already hard to be responsive to problems in their own countries. The bureaucrats had far more distance between themselves and the civilian populations than any elected politician. Unsurprisingly, the bureaucrats, convinced they were doing the right thing, started issuing regulations that were actively harmful. Matters were made worse by politicians who ignored even basic due diligence when the time came to expand the EU, allowing nations like Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal to join. Between them, the pro-EU politicians and the bureaucrats created a disaster.
The current European situation is unsustainable. Indeed, the recent elections in Greece will probably put the EU to its final test. Therefore, we must consider our geopolitical priorities in light of this simple fact. Our interests are simply not served by a strong EU. At best, we will become a member state in a glorified super-state; at worst, we will be just another occupied country.
However, we have simply sacrificed too much power to the EU. Right now, we must claw it back.
The problem with global politics today is that long-term thinking and careful contemplation – and the power to ensure there is time for both – have been sacrificed in favour of sound-bites, places in history and nonsense slogans like ethical foreign policies. It is time, I feel, for us to remember the true foundations of British power and tend to them, before they fall in on themselves and collapse.