A few years ago, Asle Toje, the Director of Research at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo, argued – with great foresight – that the European Union, far from emerging as the global power that many hoped it would become, was in fact descending into a small power. He claimed that Brussels had acquired a reactive, helpless persona, far removed from the vision of the late 1990s of a European superpower, animated by a British-French style of strategic and security culture, and exercising its influence – European influence – across the globe.
A few days go, Jonathan Holslag – a China watcher – attempted to fire a shot across the bows of small power thinking with an insightful working paper on European interests ‘East of Suez’. In many ways, his paper bears some resemblance to a report I crafted while working at the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies three years ago. In this paper, I argued that the changes taking place there would have a profound impact not only on the Indo-Pacific itself, but also the European Union. The rise of China, in particular, and the subsequent withdrawal of the United States from Europe, and its entrenchment in East Asia, meant – I claimed – that the European Union would have to assume a wider, sea-based and geopolitically-sophisticated foreign policy.
Holslag certainly agrees with me in part. He accurately argues that, for the most part, European maritime interests will be concentrated in what he describes as a ‘middle corridor’ (or what I described, three years ago, as the ‘Geostrategic Funnel’), which will require – for obvious reasons – closer relations with India. He also argues that Europeans must pay greater attention to their naval assets and the importance of maritime security and sea power. In short, he claims that the European Union needs to assume a larger dispensation for maritime geostrategy. However – like many Europeans – he fails to adequately link the dots, not least by simply writing off entire geopolitical theatres as being too remote and difficult to deal with.
The indifference shown by many Europeans to particularly important, though often distant, geopolitical zones is a mistake – and a classic error of small powers (albeit an error for which they must be forgiven, given their lack of power). China’s geostrategic interests in the Middle East, Sudan and East Africa are pulling Beijing, albeit gradually, towards and into traditional areas of European concern, including the very ‘Middle Corridor’ (or ‘Geostrategic Funnel’) Holslag seems so concerned about. Not only does this mean that the two oceans – the Pacific and the Indian – and their littorals are being linked together in dynamic strategic synthesis, but it also implies that one cannot be considered without the other. In short, Europeans must not ignore the Pacific theatre, which is compounded by the fact that some European countries – such as France and the United Kingdom – have strategic interests there, like overseas territories, military facilities (such as those in Nepal, Brunei and Singapore) and security commitments to other nations (through the Five Powers Defence Arrangements).
Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, many European analysts often fail to escape another hallmark of the approach taken by small powers, namely a ‘terrestrial’ geostrategy. The point is that the global maritime environment is not like the environment surrounding the Low Countries or mainland Europe; command of the sea cannot be understood – as Nicholas Spykman pointed out – as an extrapolation of control of the land. Rather, sea power must be conceptualised differently: because of the mobility of warships, the control of littoral areas, even those nearby, means that a maritime nation must utilise nodal points and connecting lines – otherwise known as naval stations and maritime routes – to command a far wider area.
Thus, while the Mediterranean Sea may remain – due to its proximity – the most important littoral area for Europeans, any strategy for its protection mandates an expansive approach. With its limited resources, a small power might seek only control over critical access points, in the form of the Dardanelles, the Suez Canal and the Strait of Gibraltar (over which the British already have control, with their naval/air station at Gibraltar, air station on Cyprus, and alliance with Turkey), but a great power (like the United Kingdom) places this control into a wider maritime schema. This is because control of a proximate maritime zone – like the Mediterranean – requires depth defence, namely command over both the Indian and Atlantic oceans. In turn, this makes necessary a secure maritime environment in the Pacific. Potential enemies must be kept as far away as possible, not invited in; European warships and naval stations – forwardly deployed, and in co-ordination with democratic allies – are the means to that end.
Unfortunately, though, none of this really matters any more. For we must go back to where we started: after stinging and uncoordinated military cuts, most of the European Union’s Member States, including even France, have chosen – perhaps now almost irrevocably – to become small powers. Berlin’s veto of London’s proposed merger of BAE Systems and EADS, which would have paved the way for European military-industrial consolidation and greater economies of scale, as well as the creation of the world’s largest integrated armaments company, has only served to cement the European Union’s position as a small power. Further, the deal’s collapse will likely drive the British away in search of more trustworthy and serious strategic allies elsewhere, further reducing Brussels’ ability to bite.
Thankfully, unique amongst the European powers, the United Kingdom has chosen to remain a great power. With its next generation of nuclear weapons; its 65,000 tonne supercarriers (HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales) and fifth-generation stealth strike-fighters; its advanced amphibious capabilities; its hunter-killer nuclear submarines, signified by the menacing appearance of HMS Ambush, armed with a battery of cruise missiles; its world-beating anti-air warfare destroyers, personified by HMS Daring’s sleek stealthy lines and revolutionary ‘Sea Viper’ missile system; its new global combat ships, which will soon be ordered; and its next generation of 40,000 tonne replenishment vessels, which will supply the Royal Navy’s future expeditionary groups, British naval reach looks relatively secure.
So maybe all is not lost: the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy will still emerge as promised, but not in the way initially intended. Rather than the British working with their mainland allies to serve the European interest, the mainland Europeans will come to serve the British interest. These small powers’ little gunboats will putter about to provide security in the Mediterranean and the Red seas, leaving the British free to work in partnership with other great powers – such as the United States, India, Japan and South Korea – to command the open ocean, which remains the true source of wealth and power.