Europe’s experts – still living in the past

After our warning last week that Europe needs the U.S. on defence and security more than vice versa, it was encouraging to see a rare article which recognises that truth.

Even so, Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of French think tank the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique, fails to get it right in his article for The Guardian today.

This is a worrying trend among many western “experts” on international relations who, oddly, do not understand the foundations of grand strategy and have long since forgotten the concept of imperial overstretch.

Like so many commentators, Tertrais does not grasp that America’s dire financial position no longer allows it to continue distributing the largesse it was able to do in the halcyon days after 1945, when America stood alone among the powers of the world.

America now has a total debt of $220 trillion and huge amounts of totally unsustainable unfunded financial liabilities going forward.

And yet, the “developed countries” are still living in the past and naively expect things to continue as before – that a cash-strapped America, fuelled on money borrowed from China, can go on playing the role of global policeman and underwrite the global institutions it set up during and after the Second World War.

Unaware that the situation and assumptions of 1945-1970/1990 have changed fundamentally, Tertrais asks rhetorically:

Many others will now ask: how can we ever again trust a country that can withdraw overnight from solemn international agreements?

Curiously, Tertrais fails to ask why Germany’s new finance minister Olaf Scholz and the long-standing defence minister Ursula von der Leyen have no intention whatsoever of meeting the promise their country made in 2014 to devote 2% of its GDP to defence?

This strange and vital lacuna in his analysis, however, is par for the course among America’s European and Asian allies – many of which have enjoyed large trade surpluses with the U.S. for decades.

But there are other problems with complaints about the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. Although they look reasonable at first glance, these complaints are fundamentally flawed according to the deal’s many opponents, including in the region itself, who have much better expertise on Islam and Iran than the West.

Everyone largely agrees with the current U.S. official position – even if Iran is compliance with the deal, it only “kicks the can down the road” and does not prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons when it expires.

And irrespective of its compliance or non-compliance with the deal,  as a revolutionary power Iran plays an immensely destructive and disruptive role across the Middle East, including its testing of ballistic missiles and support for terrorism and intervention in the region.

The Europeans have no clearer idea on how to deal with this behaviour than the White House or, for that matter, the Arab states in the region.

Following the U.S. withdrawal, German foreign minister Heiko Maas, for instance, called for restraint on the part of Iran in a region that was already very tense. But much, although by no means all of this tension is down to Iran in the first place, and only Iran can decide whether to reign in its activities or not.

American opponents of the deal have from the very beginning pointed to the experience of the 1930s and the risk of appeasement – the popular idea that Trump rescinded the deal simply because of his animus against former U.S. President Barack Obama misses the much deeper and far more fundamental flaws in the agreement as voiced by various experts.

The appeasement argument remains powerful for the simple reason that the future actions of such regimes cannot be forecast with any degree of assurance, so a large element of doubt will always remain about future developments.

Any player convinced that the outcome will indeed be negative is better advised to act sooner rather than later.

The key point, however, is that an Iran which followed not just the letter, but also the spirit of the deal, would have seen the U.S. continue to support the agreement.

In that event, Iran could have enjoyed trade with the West and technical assistance years and even decades ago.

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