Battling strategic irrelevance

In the early 1970s, desperate to pull out of Vietnam, the Nixon administration made a dramatic diplomatic opening to China—and preserved US influence in Asia. Nixon also pursued détente with Russia, hoping to create a new system of great power politics.

These manoeuvres alienated not only India but many of America’s European allies, who feared that Washington was losing interest in NATO. Trying to reassure them, the US declared 1973 the “Year of Europe”. But the initiative was overshadowed by Watergate.

As the Obama administration looks for ways out of Afghanistan—plus a framework to contain Iran—a similar diplomatic pattern is emerging. The US president has emphasised the need for better relations with both Moscow and Beijing.

This strategy has yielded mixed results. Russia has been helpful on Afghanistan and, more fitfully, on Iran. China is far more cautious on the need for new sanctions on Tehran.

This new great power diplomacy has gone down badly in New Delhi and European capitals alike. Indian policy-makers, having developed a new strategic relationship with the Bush administration, are inevitably unhappy with Mr Obama’s apparent focus on China.

The Europeans were delighted to see Mr Bush go. Now they worry Mr Obama dislikes them. A recent report from the European Council on Foreign Relations warned that “Washington sees EU member states as infantile: responsibility-shirking and attention-seeking.”

Mr Obama’s team is said to find the European Union’s penchant for constant meetings exasperating. At September’s G20 Summit in Pittsburgh, the US president reportedly treated China’s Hu Jintao with greater courtesy than European leaders, repeatedly asking him to speak first.

But the main source of tension is all too obvious: European caution on Afghanistan.

From very early in the new administration’s term, US planners concluded that they could expect little new support from their NATO allies on the Afghan front. If anything, those allies have proved even wobblier than expected. A rising tide of troop losses to the Taliban has turned public opinion firmly against the war in most European countries.

Mr Obama faces increasing opposition to the war at home too. But the US is likely to keep significant forces in Afghanistan for far longer than most NATO members. The Netherlands is, for example, committed to withdraw its contingent next year. British generals and politicians talk about staying on far longer, but dissent is rising in London.

The quality of strategic debate on Afghan affairs in EU capitals is far lower than that in Washington. “We ask what pulling out of Afghanistan would mean for the transatlantic alliance,” one respected French strategist admits, “but not what it’d do to Afghanistan.”

He could go further. Although European commentators are typically well-informed about Pakistan’s instability, they rarely put “AfPak” in a wider strategic regional context.

How would a NATO failure in Afghanistan affect relations between China and India? What impact would it have on Russia’s Central Asian ambitions, or Iran’s defiance of the West? These are not questions you are likely to hear seriously discussed in Europe.

There are naturally exceptions to this rule. Interested readers should turn to British China expert Andrew Small’s work on Beijing’s Afpak policy, or French intellectual Dominique Moïsi’s writings on India’s attitude. But such analyses are sadly all too rare.

Why so? Three reasons stand out. It would be inhumane to ignore the first: defence intellectuals and politicians share an underlying duty of care for soldiers in the field. If—as many European observers have concluded—those soldiers are being killed for a lost cause in Afghanistan, it would be immoral not to prioritise their welfare and sacrifices.

But power politics has to be factored in too. And the Afghan case confronts Europeans with the harsh fact that their global power is diminished. Yes, they could fly more troops to Central Asia. But they would still be secondary players (by a very long distance) to the Americans—and China and India would still have far greater influence in the region.

European analysts who see Afghanistan in transatlantic terms (“What does this do to NATO?”) are in denial on this point. The future of Afghanistan is clearly of far greater significance to the triangular strategic relationship between China, India and the United States than it is to European affairs. But no-one likes to admit they are a second-order issue.

Yet this leads to the third reason for Europe’s limited vision. If European NATO members made a greater commitment to Afghanistan, they would maintain a role in the great strategic drama of the next decade: shaping Asia’s balance of power. It might be limited, but it would not be negligible. A tougher, more permanent European presence in Afghanistan would win Indian and Chinese attention—both positive and negative.

Many Europeans want to avoid exactly that. They are happy to trade with Asia’s emerging economies, invest in them and (increasingly) receive investment from them.

The last thing they desire is to commit to a deeper engagement in Asian affairs that will inevitably make friends and enemies—and mess up economic arrangements. On this basis, Europeans are well-advised to aim for a strategically low profile in Afghanistan.

European governments adopted a similar caution during the Vietnam War.  Charles de Gaulle, a man who knew about fighting against the odds, criticised US strategy in France’s former colony. Britain, having co-operated closely with Washington on Indo-China after the Second World War, refused to send troops to aid Saigon in the 1960s.

It was wise to stay out of Vietnam. The supposed impact of a Communist victory there was overrated. But European leaders should beware exiting Afghanistan. They have already staked their credibility there, and the balance of power in Asia is very uncertain.

If NATO’s European members walk away from Afghanistan now, it will be seen as a proof of strategic irrelevance, especially in Washington.  Mr. Obama has ushered in an era of great power diplomacy that European leaders should take grimly seriously.

Nobody will organise a “Year of Europe” if they try to ignore Asian security this time.