The Riga Test 2019

We are all inclined to judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their acts”.

Sir Harold Nicholson

Alphen, Netherlands. October 16. For many years I have had the honour of attending the annual Riga Conference. It is quite simply superb. And, every year I pose the Riga Test: can the good citizens of Riga sleep more safely in their beds than last year.  Naturally, given the location of Latvia the big issue is Russia, the now constant coercion against the Baltic States, and the threat posed by Moscow’s powerful armed forces just over the border.  This year the test also concerns Russia, but not directly. Rather, it concerns the implications of the latest Kurdish-Turkish war for the people of Riga.

Two conversations struck home to me at this conference. The first was my interview with an old friend and colleague, Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, the former US Ambassador to Moscow and Deputy Secretary-General of NATO. You can see the interview on YouTube at  Sandy’s message was clear; Russia must be managed. However, managing Russia must be seen against the backdrop of a rapidly changing geopolitical environment driven by the rise of China, not least in Europe. 

My second conversation took place over breakfast with the former British Foreign and Defence Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Malcolm reminded me of a 1939 book entitled “Diplomacy”, which had been written on the eve of war by British diplomat Sir Harold Nicholson. Nicholson warned there are three types of people that are anathema to good diplomacy – fanatics, lawyers and missionaries. 

Russia’s success in the Middle East has been driven precisely by the combination of Trumpian fanaticism, European legalism and irrelevant evangelism.  It might sound strange to accuse President Trump of fanaticism, but a fanatic is someone so committed to his/her own cause that they will act at whatever cost to themselves and their cause. This latest Middle Eastern war was triggered by President Trump’s arbitrary decision to pull US forces out of North-West Syria thus ending their role as a buffer between Turks and Kurds. The consequent strategic vacuum is now being filled by the forces of Erdogan and Putin. 

Now, I am not one of the European Chicken Little Brigade when it comes to President Trump. My first instinct is to respect the US Commander-in-Chief. However, it is increasingly hard to respect an increasingly capricious US president the actions of whom seem overwhelmingly driven by his need to assuage his domestic political base, and at any geopolitical cost to America’s standing.  

However, my main concern for Rigans rests not with Americans, but fellow Europeans. America’s withdrawal from Syria has revealed once and for all the complete absence of European strategic responsibility and any meaningful capability even in a region the fate of which has dire implications for all Europeans. Why? One need look no look no further than an expensive roll of toilet paper called the EU Global Strategy. Listen to the warbling of EU-funded European think-tanks one would think that the EU is about to become some proto-superpower.  In reality, the ‘Strategy’ was written by lawyers and missionaries and has just about enough reach to influence the Brussels Beltway, but little beyond.  It also says everything about the essential malaise of European external action – the gulf between values, interests, and power. 

Contrast that with President Putin. For Putin the only ‘law’ is power, and whilst Europeans talk and Americans politic, Russia acts. As for President Erdogan, why are Europeans so surprised he is attacking the Kurds? Indeed, I even predicted this moment in my 2017 book The New Geopolitics of Terror. Even a cursory glance of Turkish history confirms Erdogan could never tolerate a Kurdish ‘state’ along Turkey’s southern border out of fear for Ankara’s eastern provinces. The absurdity of the Trump position is to sacrifice the Kurds (not for the first time in history) for domestic politics, but also sacrifice the US relationship with a critical Turkey. This is not US Realpolitik, this is just plain geopolitical incompetence. Nicholson, who was born in Tehran at the height of British imperial power, must be spinning in his grave, not least because Russia is now the referee of ‘rules’ in the region that it creates, and by which others will now abide. 

Europe? It is hard to describe complete inaction and irrelevance as incompetence. Beyond the usual wittering the EU has said and done virtually nothing to influence a major crisis on its doorstep.  A few European powers have now moved to stop arms sales to Turkey – a NATO ally – which could well be met by Ankara re-opening the route for refugees to enter Europe en masse.  However, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, sanctions are simply the last resort of the strategically-incompetent and politically-inept.

Nicholson’s warning was a call for power and pragmatism in equal measure. Skilled diplomacy is the art of balancing the two to ensure the best outcome is not the enemy of the good outcome.  Turkey is a pivotal power for the defence of Europe, the Kurds, and the Kurdish-led Syrian Defence Force, have been loyal allies in the struggle against Daesh. Now, more than ever, Europeans as ‘Europe’ should stand up to demonstrate precisely the strategic culture and responsibility they keep banging on about by trying to broker a peace. Such a peace would ease America’s burdens, keep the Russians in check, help keep Turkey on board, and afford some level of protection to Kurds now forced into the clutches of Assad. If ever there is to be a point to ‘Europe’ and its place in the world, it is right now and in that place. As ever, Europeans will neither agree nor act, beyond the now traditionally desultory. 

Can Rigans trust America, or will they too wake up one day to suffer they have also been sacrificed on the hard anvil of geopolitics? My sense is they can trust the Americans, but I am less and less sure.  Can Rigans trust their fellow Europeans? What is there to trust beyond words and a few under-equipped soldiers? Indeed, what worries me most is not a capricious President Trump, but a Europe that seems incapable of ever growing up to meet the challenges and threats its peoples face. For, as Thomas Hobbes once said, “Covenants without the sword are but words, and of use to no man”. Europe?

Julian Lindley-French