Distorted Reality

This article is a translation of "Vertekende Werkelijkheid"

The financial consequences of the three ‘article 100’ letters of the cabinet, sent on one and the same ‘Super-Friday’, will only be discussed by Parliament on Budget Day, 15 September 2015. So the Second Chamber has to decide on the continuation of the Dutch contributions to the military missions to Afghanistan, Mali and Iraq, with the latter possibly expanded to include Syria without any information where the finances come from.


The fourth letter sent to the Second Chamber by the ministers of defence and foreign affairs, Hennis-Plasschaert and Koenders, in fact should have dealt with this already, because it contains the prior cabinet agreement to inform the Chamber in the spring of 2015 about the consequences it attaches to the ‘motion by MPs Van der Staaij and others about the level of ambition of the armed forces in the years to come’. It is this motion in which a majority in the Chamber expressed its opinion that the defence budget should be gradually increased, starting with 100 million euros for 2015.

The Friday in question, 19 June 2015, was really the very last day to confirm the promise to provide the relevant information in the spring—which might be a first indication about possibly serious disagreement among the ministers concerned about what to do with the motion. A second indication might be that the letter in fact does not contain any new information at all and only once again rehearses the various developments and government papers of the last ten months. The precise financial implications of the extra deployments of the armed forces and the earmarking of the extra funding are again postponed to the documents that will be made public on Budget Day. It appears that the cabinet would be pleased to see that two relevant policy recommendations (the Interdepartmental Policy Investigation on ‘Weapon Systems’ and a white paper by the Scientific Council for Government Policy on the future of the Dutch security and defence policy) will only be available after the summer so that it can postpone dealing with them accordingly.

A third relevant policy advice titled ‘Instability Around Europe: Confronting a New Reality’ by the Advisory Council on International Problems (AIV) on the other hand has already been made available in April 2014. In their letter of 19 June the ministers write ‘to have learned [about this advice] with great interest’, but nowhere in the letter do they provide anything like a substantive comment which normally follows AIV advice, and neither do they announce anything.

Since the AIV advice is the only one that is available, however, it is not bad to take a closer look.

The advice begins with what is calls ‘an analysis of the current security developments on the European eastern and southern flanks’. The first paragraph of the relevant chapter, titled ‘An arc of instability on the European borders’, contains the following:

The security risks on the eastern flank of Europe are different from those on the southern flank. On the eastern flank Europe faces a region which in security policy terms has hardly been integrated, with sometimes weak states struggling with internal instability but especially facing an assertive, if not aggressive Russia pursuing a policy of expansion. Russia strives for expansion of its sphere of influence in the so-called near abroad, which broadly coincides with the former soviet Union, On the southern flank the European countries are confronted with a broad array of security risks (terrorism, human trafficking, arms trade, returning jidhadists) as a consequence of weak or even failed states such as Iraq, Syria and Libya, large parts of which are currently under control of ISIS.

What is striking in this summary is that not a word is spent on the actions by the Western alliance in the last 10 to 25 years in the direction of the eastern and southern flanks. Not a word about the enlargement of NATO and the EU with former member states of the Warsaw Pact or former Soviet republics, or on the European Neighbourhood policy aimed at connecting the EU economically with European and south Caucasus former Soviet republics, whilst keeping Russia out. Not a word about the Western interventions in Iraq, Syria and Libya which turned these states into failed states in the first place. Not in this introductory paragraph, and not in the remained either. The more assertive Russian policy in the east and the advance of ISIS in the south are presented as autonomous processes against which the West must defend itself. Certainly the authors of the advice are honest enough to concede that ‘this advice does not cover the entire range of Dutch foreign policy, but (…) concentrates on the security and defence policy of the Netherlands’. In addition only the Dutch role in the context of the EU and NATO is considered, whilst ‘the role of the Netherlands in the United Nations (…) falls outside the scope of this advice’. Such a reduction beforehand cannot but lead to a distorted image.

It would take too far to critically assess the analysis of the ‘Arc of Instability’ in its totality, but I do want to highlight one very crude distortion, because this in particular touches on the presumed necessity of European NATO members to increase their defence budgets. It is argued that ‘Russian military expenditure since 2007 has substantially increased’ whereas that of the European NATO member states has decreased. To illustrate these developments the advice prints a graph taken from The Economist (edition of 14 February 2015) and titled ‘From cold war to hot war – Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is part of a broader, and more dangerous, confrontation with the West’.

This concerns the graph on the left in which the relative rise of Russian defence expenditure and the relative decline of European NATO members’ expenditure are contrasted. An alarming image indeed. However, it becomes much less frightening if, as I have done in the graph on the right, one replaces the relative rise and decline with the actual expenditure or Russia and the European NATO member states. For then it turns out that the European member states together are still spending almost four times the amount spent by Russia. And that still leave out the American contribution to the joint NATO defence expenditure (approximately three times the combined expenditure of the NATO member states), or the additional defence effort of Sweden and Finland. Figures cannot deceive, but the way of presenting them can be very manipulative and in this respect the AIV in this advice gives a most transparent example of that.

The authors of the AIV advice formulate the shift in the attitude of the European Union towards its neighbours in the last 10 to 15 years as follows: ‘In 2002 the then president of the European Commision, Romano Prodi, voiced the aspiration the realise “a ring of friends” around Europe. More than ten years later however there is evidence of an “arc of instability”.’ There is no mention yet of a ‘ring of enemies’, but only just. The expression ‘an arc of instability’ evokes a sense of threat of which the cause is then identified as follows: ‘Europe on its eastern flank is being confronted with a substantially stronger, assertive state rich in raw materials, which attempts to maintain or even expand its sphere of influence with a tough power politics. In the last decade Russia has “turned away” from Europe, in political, ideological and to a lesser degree also in economical respects. Russia is not strategic partner of the EU, but constitutes a strategic problem, as established rightly by the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk’.

In juxtaposing the two quotes the AIV ignores the fact that Prodi is an Italian and Tusk, Polish; and that the Italian attitude towars Russia, generally and historically, has been quite diffent from that of Poland. By leaving this fact unaddressed the AIV completely ignores its own argument later in the same doxument that ‘the different national agendas of the member states are a given (geography is destiny) and diversity among the member states can also be a powerful starting point in developing a range of diplomatic efforts concerning the neighbouring states’. There, on p. 35 of its advice, the AIV conveys quite a different mood than in the crude representation of the changed security environment.

Whilst the AIV in its analysis of the eastern flank emphasises the increased rivalry with the large neighbour in the east, in which the remaining eastern European and Caucasus states are in fact subjected to this power struggle, it remarkably paints a comparable picture concerning the southern flank. ‘In North Africa countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates—countries which do not necessarily adhere to the same norms and values as the EU—have become an increasingly determining political and economic force’, writes the AIV, adding: ‘here too, if Europe wants to defend its interests (energy security and national security), it will have to reckon with increasing geopolitical competition’.

Possibly because of the restricted task it has set itself in advance, the AIV opts without reservations for a military response to the threats identified. ‘The EU would do well to place more accent on security policy concerns in its relations with Russia. (…) although economic interdependence can contribute to international political stability, the specific, mutually imbalanced dependence of the EU (or EU member states) and Russia has rather a destabilising effect . (…) The EU must take its distance from the current model of partnership and cooperation agreements. Whilst possibilities for negotiations and dialogue must always be exploited, there is a serious chance that constructive collaboration is being excluded for a protracted period. (…) The AIV also wonders whether the EU must stick to the idea of a common strategy for the countries situated between the EU and Russia any longer. So far the experience with the Eastern Partnership has not been invariably positive’.

In other words, we must opt for even less dialogue and economic cooperation with Russia and go for a military policy of confrontation instead. Here again the lack of any self-criticism concerning the origins of the current frictions with the big neighbour in the east plagues the report. And then we still only speak of the EU, not even about NATO.

As to the southern flank, there too a military strategy is the preferred option. ‘There must be a readiness to intervene, if need be, in countries where vital European interests are at play or where a humanitarian emergency is involved. (…) The question arises whether the current deployment of crisis management instruments in North Africa (the EU is involved in six civilian-military missions in areas such as the Central African Republic, Mali and Libya) is sufficient. The EU should investigate whether it is possible to expand these missions if need be. At the same time the European countries must be conscious of the fact that the West cannot alone solve the problems of the Arab world and that is just why the EU, in this turbulent period in the Arab world, should prioritise its own interests in the domains of national security and energy provision security.’ Thus, by pursuing only our own interests, we should destabilise the Arab world even further and then leave the solution of all other problems to the Arab governments.

In this way the arc of instability will remain in existence or even widen. And there will certainly come many more ‘Super-Fridays’ with simultaneous government letters.

As far as the recommendations affecting NATO are concerned, the AIV appreciatively takes on board the various NATO initiatives concerning the eastern flank and it argues ‘that NATO is also of potential significance in the execution of military on Europe’s southern flank, for instance in Libya or elsewhere in the MENA region. (…) NATO and the EU can march together in rehabilitating the security architecture in Libya.’

The AIV criticises the emphasis of the Dutch government in pursuing the political track in matters concerning Ukraine, ISIS and Libya, and its effectiveness. It concedes that the Netherlands have taken the lead in preparing, with Germany and Norway, NATO’s

Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, supplying tanker capacity for AWACS planes, and the participation in Baltic Air Policing, but ‘this only concerns relatively small contributions which cannot conceal that the Dutch armed forces since quite a while no longer meet the demand of a broad deployability, whilst the continuation of the deployment of reasonably sizeable formations is problematic indeed’.

These shortcomings weigh heavily because there is a possibility that in response to the military threat posed by Russia, NATO will have to appeal to the Dutch armed forces to a much greater degree than currently was and is the case in the military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. A future deployment in the MENA region cannot be excluded either. The AIV considers that the state of the current Dutch armed forces does not meet the required standard.’

From the above it is clear that according to the AIV both the first main task of the armed forces (protection of our own and allied territory) as the second (peace missions) because of the developments on the eastern and southern flanks, respectively, have become more important and must be reinforces. But ‘also the third main task, that is, national secuirity, has gained in importance, especially because of the increased interconnection between internal and external security as a consequence of a substantial terrorist threat, also because of the returning jihad fighters and the increased threats in the area of digital espionage and digital sabotage’.

Might that be the reason why the armed forces in mid June were assisting Amsterdam neighbourhood policemen and on the basis of their experience in Afghanistan and Iraq made recommendations how to interpret certain situations in the city on the basis of the threat analysis?

Even apart from the blindness towards its own role and the copy-pasting of manipulative illustrations, the restriction to Dutch security and defence policy in this AIV advice leads to probably an even greater distortion of reality.

Jan Schaake

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