In 1884 Commodore Stephen Luce founded the United States Naval War College arguing that the one and only way to avert war was to be fully prepared for it. A century later, Ronald Reagan took up a similar argument with his ‘peace through strength’ catchphrase that gave the West victory over Soviet communism in the Cold War.
Be strong and prepare and you will win.
Now, as Britain chaotically heads out of the European Union, the arguments of Reagan, Luce and others aimed at securing our freedoms and democracy are being thrown to the wind. The prospect of Britain ‘crashing out’ of the EU without a deal would create a weak Europe and makes future war more likely.
Yet many in Britain and the US are advocating precisely this.
Europe is the world’s most savage continent, a cluster of competing sovereign states, living cheek by jowl, riven with religious, ethnic and secessionist tendencies. It has a track record of mass killings and pitting neighbor against neighbor. Its record of conflict has no match anywhere else on Earth.
From the early Twentieth Century, as soon as the US ranked as a global power, American young men and women have been drawn into Europe’s wars at the cost of more than a quarter of million lives.
After the Second World War, in order to stop further bloodshed, Truman, Churchill and others conceived an institution that has now become the EU, a regional structure of shared values, designed to promote trade and end killing.
Like many institutions, it has become unwieldy and suffers from corruption and hubris. But it has delivered what its founders intended – peace in Europe, underpinned by trade.
The European Project, as it is known, brought Spain and Portugal in from their dictatorships and repeated the process with numerous states when Soviet Communism collapsed. The end of the Cold War was comparably calm because the EU’s democratic values became a beacon to which citizens in the Soviet bloc states aspired.
A generation on, much has changed. The EU is threatened by nationalist forces from within, Britain’s decision to leave and campaigning from the US. It is being weakened to a level that risks its disintegration which would be catastrophic, opening the way for internal conflict and for Russia and China to move in more than are now.
The president of the EU council, Donald Tusk, focused minds last week by condemning politicians advocating Britain’s crashing out of the EU.
He said he imagined a “special place in hell” for “those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it out safely”.
Tusk was criticized from many quarters, including in this publication. He is Polish, raised under the communist jack boot. When he spoke about ‘hell’, he was referring to Europe’s self-inflicted infernos, the Warsaw Ghettos, the Holocaust, the Soviet repression, the general cruelty that this continent has unleashed on its people over the years.
Neither Britain nor the US has experienced such a hostile environment, of occupation, inter-communal genocide, of impossible moral choices about whether to give sanctuary to Anne Frank or betray and save your own family.
The nucleus of Tusk’s argument is that the ideals of control and sovereignty that drive the pro-Brexit debate have no detail attached. They are aspirations not mechanism of governance. They do not focus on the security of citizens and standards of living. Nor are they about democracy because, in the Brexit debate, it has become clear that democracy means different things to different people.
For those viewing Brexit from across the Atlantic, it is useful to remember that British democracy is very different to American democracy. Britain has no elected second chamber. The House of Lords is filled a thousand appointed legislators. Only China has a bigger chamber. There is barely any electoral oversight to its judiciary, its police and fire services. Cabinet ministers are appointed with no legislative scrutiny. City mayors are mostly ceremonial and locally elected councils have limited tax raising and executive powers.
Almost three years from the Brexit referendum, it remains unclear as to what Britain can achieve from leaving the EU, while it is very clear what damage it will cause to Europe and throughout the world.
Europe’s last savage episodes were the Bosnian and Kosovan wars of the 1990s which were ended not through European but American leadership. Europe was still not strong enough to sort out its own problems then, nor is it now.
The EU might be flawed and in urgent need of reform. But a strong Europe is better for peace than a weak one. History shows that a weak Europe looks to the US to end its conflicts and at a great cost to American lives.