NATO’s guns point the wrong way

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder

Fire-eating sabre rattlers dominated discussion at a recent security conference in Poland’s ancient city of Kraków. The need for NATO to beef-up its northern defences was the leitmotif of most speakers as they warned against the bellicose ambitions and intentions of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

When defence experts meet, they inevitably speak of military capabilities and responses rather than the civil society issues that shape public opinion and people’s attitudes. Unsurprisingly therefore, one speaker asserted that Russian troops could seize Vilnius within six hours, although he didn’t explain why Moscow might want to do so.

“Europe’s security, and indeed that of the West as a whole, is much more vulnerable to the south than to the north”

Such preoccupations with Russian assertiveness are understandable in the light of Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the dangerous tensions between Moscow and Kiev in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. But they don’t alter the fact that NATO’s guns, like those of the British colony of Singapore back in 1941, are essentially pointing in the wrong direction.

Europe’s security, and indeed that of the West as a whole, is much more vulnerable to the south than to the north. Political instability and mass movements of people are the threats to be countered in the countries of the Middle East, the Maghreb and, in the years ahead, as far south as sub-Saharan Africa.

Few would dispute that it was the failure of the EU, along with all the other main international actors, to avert the Syrian conflicts that led to Europe’s refugee crisis. Much less widely understood is the potentially high price still to be paid for the EU’s long-term neglect of the economic development needs of its Mediterranean neighbours.

The Arab Spring of 2011 was cheered by public opinion in Europe and elsewhere. But Brussels – or perhaps more to the point, the EU’s member states – ignored the alarm bells that were already ringing loudly. Welcome as their overthrowing of autocratic regimes was, these popular revolutions destabilised the whole Arab world. Decades of neglect by the EU of its southern neighbourhood when its focus was on its planned ‘Big Bang’ eastern enlargement, are now bearing bitter fruit.

“The greatest destabiliser of all, meanwhile, is not the medium-term problems facing the Arab world but rather Africa’s alarming long-term prospects”

One of the most acute observers of the Euro-Mediterranean scene is Stephen Calleya, who heads Malta’s MEDAC think tank. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, he called for a major EU effort combining trade liberalisations and tough reform of banking, education and the judiciaries, together with a far-reaching investment and privatisation drive. All of these, he warned, were areas the EU had largely overlooked for many years. “A more effective EU towards the Mediterranean,” he has written, “requires a serious overhaul. Both sides have to think and act with a long-term horizon.” Economic development should not be Europe’s only goal. A new EU-inspired framework capable of binding Arab countries into collective security policies would be a vital element of stabilisation.

The greatest destabiliser of all, meanwhile, is not the medium-term problems facing the Arab world but rather Africa’s alarming long-term prospects. The continent is heading into a potentially earth-shaking population explosion, with a probable not too distant exodus of distressed people of a size to dwarf today’s migration crisis.

Within 30 years, the African population of about a billion is to double. A third of all Africans, some 350 million people, now live in cities where job prospects are few. Although some countries in Africa are enjoying 6-8% GDP growth rates, the drift to the cities is such that by 2040 two-thirds of an overall population of 2 billion-plus risk living in grim urban conditions. Escaping slums and joblessness may well be as powerful an emigration pressure as the risks in war-torn Syria. Europe’s policymakers, including those of NATO, need to wake up today if they are to ward off the nightmares of tomorrow.

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