‘This is the hour of Europe, not the hour of the Americans,’ Jacques Poos, foreign minister of Luxembourg, declared in 1991. Yugoslavia, he said, was a problem in Europe’s neighbourhood and Europeans would solve it. In the end, a decade of genocidal ethnic conflict was only ended thanks to substantial US involvement.
The hour of Europe has arrived again with the conflict in Mali. This time, though, it is the Americans telling the Europeans that it is up to them to solve the problem.
The Obama administration has wasted no time in making clear that it thinks France’s aims in Mali are overly ambitious. It is also dragging its feet in terms of offering assistance, complaining about the cost and publicly wondering what the exit strategy is. This is all quite a turnaround from the debate over Iraq a decade ago. But, as with Iraq, it raises profound questions for British foreign policy.
In Brussels, the American position is causing almost as much anger as the European one did in Washington ten years ago. One senior figure complains that ‘it scrambles longstanding trans-Atlantic relationships.’ This is part of Obama’s Pacific pivot, which Freddy Gray chronicled in this magazine a fortnight ago. A British minister involved in the discussions over Mali says, with a mixture of concern and surprise in his voice, ‘Obama just has far less appetite for intervention than any of his predecessors.’
‘The speed of this shift will bite Obama on the ass,’ warns one European official. He points out that European countries are normally the first to sign on to Washington’s UN resolutions and that they are, after the Americans, by far the biggest contributors to the international force in Afghanistan.
David Cameron is determined that Britain will play its part in Europe’s African mission. He was the first leader to offer military support to the French operation in Mali. The hostage crisis in neighbouring Algeria, which occurred days afterwards, affected him profoundly. It left him even more convinced that the Islamist threat needs to be confronted. His decision to fly to the Maghreb this week was a Blair-style statement that Britain intends to stay involved. Indeed, Cameron’s references to a ‘generational struggle’ make him sound remarkably similar to Tony Blair after 9/11.
The British role in Mali has been growing at a rapid rate. Some 330 British troops will soon be deployed in West Africa. Some of these are combat troops even if they are not — currently — in a combat role. Cameron’s desire to participate in the Mali mission has surprised Tory MPs who have seen him become far more interventionist. He has become far more interventionist in office. Recently, when Julian Lewis, a Cold War hawk, suggested a strategy of containment towards al-Qa’eda in the House of Commons, Cameron rejected the idea. He said that Britain’s aim was ‘not containment but trying over time to completely overcome them’.
Cameron doesn’t share the worries of some in his government that western support for the Arab Spring contributed to these problems. He still regards the Libyan operation as a success, even though senior government figures disagree. One minister warns that ‘Egypt is going backwards, and Libya is to an extent too. They’re all bubbling up at once.’
Whatever the cause, there seems to be a growing view that the next ten years will be the most dangerous since the fall of the Berlin Wall. William Hague recently said that ‘the world will be a more dangerous place over the next decade or two than the last decade or two. That includes 9/11.’
There is rising concern in military circles that the defence budget is not equipped to meet this challenge. Already, those close to military chiefs are conveying doubts about the Mali deployment given the scant resources available. There is also alarm that defence spending might keep falling after 2015. Given that the coalition faces the need to make more cuts and that it is determined to protect both the NHS and schools budgets, it is hard to see where extra money for the military would come from. It is revealing that Philip Hammond, Defence Secretary and one of the most economically dry members of the government, recently raised concerns in Cabinet about the approach George Osborne is taking to the 2015-16 spending round, which is expected to be completed by 20 March. A failure to increase defence spending would show that this government can be no more trusted to align military resources and commitments than the last.
The fundamental question, though, is what can the West achieve in places such as Mali? The argument for intervention is that we cannot tolerate ‘ungoverned spaces’. The logic goes that if left alone, these places become operating bases for extremists with international ambitions. There is some merit to this case. Al-Qa’eda was undoubtedly made a more dangerous foe by the fact it could use Taleban-controlled Afghanistan as a safe haven and training base. But there is a limit to what the West can do. As one former member of Cameron’s recently formed National Security Council puts it, ‘The idea that a few hundred soldiers can manage to civilise an “ungoverned space” is for the birds.’
This is where development policy is meant to come in. Andrew Mitchell, the former aid secretary, points out that cotton from West African countries such as Mali is being priced out of world markets by US and EU subsidies. He argues that a sustainable solution to the current crisis will require ‘removing the cause of the underlying grievance’. But in Mali that is more difficult than it sounds. The country has no ethnic solidarity — one of the reasons for the conflict is the rebel Tuaregs’ desire for their own state. The current regime came to power in a military coup and the state barely functions. Compounding these problems is the fact that the population has tripled in the past 50 years and is set to do so again over the next 50.
Probably the best that can be hoped for in Mali is the prevention of a full Islamist take-over. Any effort to control the outlying areas would require an unfeasibly large force.
What’s certain is that our politicians have to make a choice. If they want Britain to be an active participant on the military stage, they have to find the means. This is especially true in a world where the Americans are growing less and less concerned about what happens on the other side of the Atlantic.