By Lord Watson of Richmond,
Winston Churchill wrote his history of the First World War between 1923 and 1931. After the first volume appeared in 1923 Nancy Astor commented caustically that Winston had written a great volume about himself and characterised it as the history of the World’s worst crisis. She was, of course, unfair.
Churchill wrote, in part, to defend his record over the failed and bloody landings at the Dardanelles – born of strategic brilliance but doomed by inadequate leadership on the beaches and at sea. Churchill drew one lesson. Next time he had to be in charge. In 1940, he took command not only in No. 10 – but also of the whole of Britain’s strategy of war. He was not only Prime Minister but Minister of Defence, defiance and the pursuit of survival and victory.
This article poses a question. If the catastrophe of the First World War and its aftermath deserved the title of the ‘World Crisis’, do our present times, predicaments and perils justify the appellation ‘World Crisis Two’?
Churchill wrote when he published ‘The World’ ‘…we live in the most thoughtless of ages. Everyday headlines and short views. I have tried to drag history up a little’ Why? ‘In case it should be helpful in our present difficulties’.
So, let us look at where we are and dare to ask where we might be before too long? Churchill in his history of World War I titled his opening text ‘Milestones to Armageddon’. Do we now tread that path?
In September this year (2017), Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO, stated that the ‘world is at its greatest risk for a generation’. He spoke of contemporary threats ‘making the world increasingly perilous’. He cited North Korea, ISIS, instability, a bellicose Russia and much else. He could have mentioned Brexit, the Trump White House, the world’s increasingly turbulent weather, troubled Turkey – so many causes for concern. What is undeniable is the world is “increasingly perilous”. And most disturbing is the absence of any reassurance and clarity of vision.
In 1946, Churchill surveyed a world in ruins and offered two speeches in Fulton and Zurich, a call to defiance and revival. Today there is only clamour devoid of substance.
Our cardinal challenge in a dysfunctional world is to relocate sovereignty. Who has it? Where should it be? Does it lie in nations, in multinational corporations, in parliament or with presidents? Is it based in our hopes or fears, is it the plaything of unscrupulous media and populist celebrities or does it seek stability, credibility, truth? As we move deeper into the twenty-first century, does sovereignty have any valid home seeking instinct?
It is not a question adequately answered by populist mantras: America first or Brexit bravado. The answer must lie with aspirations – of the individual and the nation: Do we as individuals aspire only to greater wealth, more security, or do we yearn for a quality of life, drawing on the wells of our culture and the joy of our environment?
There is no doubt about the benefits wealth can bring to both the individual and the community. The young populations of Europe and North America can and do take much for granted. Half a century of relative peace, the avoidance of a nuclear Armageddon rising prosperity despite the crisis of 2008 all can join to under pin confidence and complacency. Can we take what we have for granted?
Those who feel that they have lost out and whose incomes are below average can be disgruntled and pray to populist protest but for them too, world crisis is not really on the agenda.
But, but terrorism with its shocking brutality disrupts our lives. For Britons, Brexit and the falling pound fuels uncertainty. Even the USA with all its military might cannot defeat ISIS. So, we confront the 21st Century with frustration. Accounts that should be settled can’t!
Is this World Crisis 2?
No. Not yet. A convergence of crises could move the needle. The event that triggered the First World crisis was the assassination of a Hapsburg in Sarajevo. We would be foolish to ignore an equal provocation. But what turned Sarajevo into the global catastrophe and the European ruin of World War 1 was not the event itself but how the matrix of international inter-connectivity instead of preventing escalation enabled it.
We may well encounter our Sarajevo. It is up to us to learn the lessons and treasure the trust built up decades of inter-dependence. NATO, EU, Commonwealth and the Trans-Atlantic Alliance are not baubles to be thrown out of the pram. They constitute the Ark that can save us if and when the waters rise.
But if this Ark is to be up to its task, the institutions and practices involved have to be fit for purpose. At present, they are not. Let us look at them in turn.
First, NATO, the bedrock of Western security during the Cold War. At its heart was Article 5 – an attack on one is an attack on all. Shortly after his inauguration, President Trump targeted this essential principle. The USA would only come to the aid of those who deserved it. This would be based on how much they had contributed to Western security. The implication was clear. A defence commitment below 2% of GDP was inadequate. NATO was an insurance cover only for those who paid their dues. Since then, President Trump has modified his words, but has he changed his mind?
The EU? Its lacklustre Commission, President Juncker, trumpets his commitment to ‘ever closer Union’. But is he a Pied Piper with any followers? The UK’s narrow decision to exit the EU may well disrupt any such aspiration. Britain’s withdrawal re-establishes the primacy of the Franco-German axis. But do France and Germany agree on Europe’s final destination, and even if they do, can they enforce it on other members? If the EU cannot transform itself into a United States of Europe – so desired by its Luxembourg Commission President and still yearned for by many Germans so nervous of their own dominance and any return to the primacy of the national state – then it will remain uncomfortably balanced between a Federal Union and a far looser confederation of states – not a two-speed Europe but a multispeed miasma.
The Commonwealth has defied gravity for a half a century thanks to the wonderfully discreet leadership of Her Majesty the Queen. Its advantages lie in its shared language and, to a surprising extent, it’s shared traditions of law. But will Prince Charles exercise the same cohesive magic as his mother?
As far as the Transatlantic relationship is concerned, President Trump has done his best to discomfort it and the clash between him and Chancellor Merkel is not limited to their disagreement over climate change. ‘America First’ is the antithesis of Merkel’s ultimate rejection of nationalism.
How then to revive and renew the fabric of interdependence? To do so we have to confront the issue of sovereignty. With whom does it lie in an age tempted by populism? What are the parameters of democracy when decisions are located across so many geographies – physical and political?
If the Ark is to survive as the waters rise, we need a new dialogue between those on the bridge and all those on board. The writers of the Old Testament had confidence. So must we.
Lord Watson of Richmond sits on the Editorial Board at I-MAGAZINE.