Oscar Wilde once wrote “One of the many lessons that one learns in prison is that things are what they are and will be what they will be.” As I witness the French, British, and other Europeans rush to offer their very little militaries in support of an expanding Mali mission I am reminded of that famous little Dutch boy who stuck his finger in a dyke to stem a pending flood.
The gap between politicians speaking about “generational struggle” (dyke) and deep cuts to the very means needed to deal with such dangerous change (size of aforesaid finger) suggests either aforesaid politicians do not mean what they say (how can that be?) or they do mean it but do not know what they are doing (how can that be?). Two questions now need to be answered: so what and now what?
On the face of it there are good reasons to support the French. For example, British PM David Cameron needs to show he is a ‘good’ European following last week’s now famous Euro-realist speech. Moreover, today Cameron will announce not only that there will be no further cuts to the British armed forces, but he will officially confirm the €200bn ($271bn) military equipment program I highlighted before Christmas. The British government has finally come to realize that its armed forces are not only vital in and of themselves, but also underpin all other forms of British strategic influence, not least with an increasingly unfriendly Obama administration.
However, London and all other European governments should be careful not to rush in at French behest to save a la francophonie that France has jealously guarded hitherto as its sphere of influence unless one can really demonstrate a genuine strategic threat. First, because one of the many lessons from Afghanistan is that the use of force in the absence of a meaningful political strategy (which includes political reconciliation) is but a short step to failure. Watching Cameron jet off to Algiers yesterday had all the hallmarks of Britain being suckered into French problems. What has happened to the informal agreement with France whereby Britain focuses its counter-terrorism intelligence effort on the Gulf and Yemen, whilst France focuses on la francophonie? Third, in spite of calls by Paris for West African states and forces to step into the breach it is clear from discussions I have had that neither the money nor the forces pledged are likely to be anything like enough or good enough for a long time to come. At present it looks like France (and the rest of us) is going to be there for a long time to come.
There is another reason for caution. London is rightly keen to show that the 2010 Franco-British Defence and Security Treaty is worth more than the paper it is written on. However, it is equally clear France not for the first time will happily take British support to get them out of a hole but offer little back in return. Indeed, if Cameron thinks by stepping into la francophonie somehow Paris is going to change its implacably anti-British position on EU reform then he had better think again. The French action in Mali was necessary to stop genocide. However, my sense is that France and its allies are now drifting towards the great unplanned with no real sense of what they want to achieve, no real sense of how to achieve it and no idea at all how long it is going to take or what cost they will incur in lives or money. Once again the solutions they are offering their publics exist purely in political imaginations. This is action rather than strategy, heat rather than light.
If the answers to my two questions can be both provided and demonstrated then there may be the making of strategy. As Professor Colin Gray once wrote, “If we neglect strategic theory, marginalize it as irrelevant or unworldly then we are utterly at the mercy of the perspective of the moment.”
Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.