Reflections from London on European Security Developments

For the next two weeks my posts will be a series of reactions to recent developments in the U.K. and Europe on their foreign policy and security. These reactions will not always focus on a single issue or even a country, but rather give the reader a sense of the political context and views that are forming in Europe. Not least of which is Europe’s changing relationship with the US. What we are watching is a significant debate about Europe’s role in the world and what kind of continent will emerge in the coming decades.

Included in their discussions are decisions on collective security within an alliance, defense policy, and engagement in on-going conflicts. These decisions will impact their geopolitical role and, by extension, the global security picture far into the future.
But first a little personal look at certain key points and atmospherics of this trip.

I arrived during a celebration of what is called “Remembrance Sunday” whereby the Brits honor those who fought and died in wars ranging from World War I (“the great war”) to the current bloody conflict in Afghanistan. This is not the first time I have been in Britain for this remarkable day, and I vividly remember being present a few years ago and decades ago during my student days. The Queen, the royal family, the chiefs of staff, and the highest politicians and leaders of all sorts participate in a ceremony in which they place wreaths of before the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

The British, perhaps more than any other country, make this day one of profound and dignified remembrance and ceremony. An important element of this ceremony is the parade by veterans who served in a variety of capacities to defend their nation from what can only be described as dire circumstances. There is a certain pride and dignity that they convey in their march. They march, even those in their 80s, often in full military style with heads held high with chests filled with medals indicating their service and implicitly their sacrifices.

New visitors to Britain will be taken aback at the profusion of red poppies worn by citizens of all types but especially by those old enough to remember WW II. Ever since my first “Remembrance Sunday” I have bought my poppies which contribute to the welfare of the veterans.

This year, as in the recent past, there was extensive TV coverage often focused on those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and especially those who died or were wounded. The media noted that since 2001 British deaths in Afghanistan numbered 343. (The British, behind only the U.S., have the largest and most actively engaged troops in Afghanistan.) There is both a keen awareness of the tragic cost of this war and growing opposition to continued participation. Despite this, the current government has pledged to continue their participation under the NATO umbrella.

At that same time, one London newspaper printed an article quoting a high ranking UK Army officer who said that the Afghanistan war could not be won by military means. Yet another article by a reporter, who visited a Taliban chieftain, and came to the conclusion that advances by NATO and the Afghan government were not a reality on the ground and that the Taliban felt a sense of victory not defeat.

Other elements, as I noted in earlier posts is the ongoing debate in Britain on their defense budgets and their basic security strategy. More on this in the coming days and weeks.

Further, the debate on Europe’s own defense, pending budget cuts, and efforts to unite Europe behind a common security and foreign policy are being debated. In Britain, the right-wing of the Tory Party that is highly “euroskeptic” does not want to be “entangled” with Europe and indeed wants to “disentangle” themselves from Europe. Their LIbDem colleagues feel the opposite. Despite opposition, we saw the sharing of defense assets between Britain and France as a silver lining amidst harsh budget realities. The EU is being urged to promote coordination and interoperability for “supranational defense” between member states. Many who promote this cooperation claim that America is looking “elsewhere” and might eventually withdraw from the European stage.

The economic crisis, especially the inability of the G-20 to decide on trade and currency issues, played a leading role in intensifying opposition to security cooperation. This, amongst other irritants, indicates that Europe might be putting its head in the sand and ignoring key global issues.

But the largest event in Europe this week will be the NATO Lisbon summit, (19-21st November) which will weigh a new long-term strategy and purpose for the alliance.  This includes their definition of nuclear weapons and missile defense within the alliance, as well as relations with Russia, who will join the debate at a later joint meeting of NATO heads and Russia’s president.

A very full two weeks on this side of the pond. More to come!

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