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Category: NATO


In his recent confirmation hearing in the European Parliament, the new EU foreign policy chief and Spanish socialist politician, Josep Borrell spoke of the security threats to the EU.

He said that the rules based international order was being threatened by a logic of power politics. He added that recent unilateral moves by the US that “go against decades of cooperation” with Europe.

He said that, collectively, EU states spend more on defence than China does, but do not get value for money from it because of fragmentation and duplication. 

There is no sign that the international tensions to which he was referring will ease in the near future. China has become more assertive, the Iran nuclear deal has been undermined and the United States is putting in doubt the security umbrella under which Europe has prospered for the past seventy years.

So inevitably, out of financial and political necessity, the next five years will be marked by increased activity and debate in the European Union about defence and security. This is unavoidable. 

Defence is already provided for in the EU Treaties, which say that common security and defence policy shall be an integral part of the common foreign policy of the EU. 

The Treaty says that EU members shall have an obligation of “aid and assistance by all means in their power” to any other member state which is attacked.

 But there is an exception to this obligation for Ireland, because the Treaty adds that this commitment is not to prejudice “the specific character of the defence policy of certain member states” ie. military neutrality in the case of Ireland.

But what is the “specific character” of Irish defence policy?

Irish defence policy was defined, in a recent publication by Patrick Keatinge for the IIEA, as 

“non membership of a military alliance and non participation in mutual defence.”

In a sense, it is defined by what it is NOT, rather than by what it is.

 That seems to be something with which Irish public opinion is content.

 But it may not be enough, if the world becomes more unstable because of great power rivalry, or following the breakdown of the rules based international order. This needs to be thought through.

 Ireland’s  present policy is to await a resolution of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to validate any overseas mission involving Irish forces. This gives disproportionate influence to the “veto powers” on the UNSC. Beijing or Moscow could veto any Irish overseas military mission if they decline to support the relevant UNSC resolution. This impinges on Irish sovereignty.

Ireland’s unwillingness to take part in any alliance, or mutual defence commitment, means that the Irish state takes on full responsibility for, and must bear alone the full cost of, all aspects of the defence of our territory and of the seas around it. 

In the past, the fact that Ireland is an island meant that we were difficult to attack. This was important in the Second World War.

 But our island status would no defence against cyber attacks, and actually makes Ireland MORE vulnerable to the disruption of electricity, gas and telecommunications services from overseas, services without which modern Irish life would become unliveable.

Good relations with the UK are of vital importance. It is the only country with whom we have a land boundary.

 Were relations to deteriorate either between Ireland and the UK, or between the EU and the UK in the military sphere, Ireland would be vulnerable. This is unlikely, but not impossible. The Brexit process could become highly fractious and leave lasting wounds.

Military neutrality has been invested, in the minds of many Irish people, with an emotional content. 

Rather than being seen as a tactical and practical matter, and thus subject to adjustment in certain contingencies, it has been made part of our national identity, and put outside the realm of pragmatic discussion.

 As long North Western Europe remains politically stable, this approach is not an issue of much practical consequence. We can afford it. And it is convenient.

 But, if as a result of the forces unleashed by Brexit, the security situation in this part of the world were to change, and that could happen quickly, Irish defence policy would have to be re examined. 

Future warfare will focus on the disruption of supply chains, rather than directly on human casualties.

 Over the past 70 years, Ireland has built its economy on the basis in intimate involvement in global supply chains, supply chains of goods, of power, and of data. This is what “Global Ireland” means.

 If we decline any mutual commitment with other nations, we take on the full responsibility to protect these supply chains, in and out of Ireland, ourselves. 

But we can use our membership of the EU to exercise that responsibility in an effective way.

We can and must learn from the work of others and, on a case by case basis, take part in  joint initiatives in areas like 

  •  cybersecurity,
  •  secure software design,
  •  threat intelligence,
  •  maritime surveillance, 

the protection of telecoms, electricity and gas pipelines and

drone surveillance.

Ireland must take a positive and proactive approach. We have considerable expertise in this country in the technologies that would be relevant to these defensive tasks. But we cannot do all the necessary R and D on our own. So we must work with our EU partners to protect ourselves against all contingencies (even the apparently unlikely ones!). 


In 2009, I read “The next 100 years – a forecast for the 21st century” by George Friedman
George Friedman is the founder of Stratfor, a Texas-based strategic intelligence consultancy advising many major US corporations. Although described as a conservative Republican, his views would mirror those of many foreign policy realists in both parties. 

He assumes that military and economic power will determine the future. As he puts it, “anger does not make history, power does”. 

Looking back at the book six years later, it appears to have been prescient in many respects. 

He argued in 2009  that the United States would remain the dominant global power for the rest of the 21st century, because of its huge natural resources of coal and oil, its geographic immunity from attack in its fortress of North America, and its control of the world’s seas and of space.

Just as England’s strategic goal, as an island nation and a naval power, was to prevent Europe’s unification under one power coalition, America will pursue a similar policy on the Eurasian land mass. It will not want any one coalition – be it of Russia, China, Turkey or Japan – to dominate that land mass.

He was critical of the way American politicians sometimes approached foreign policy. Because America is so powerful, it has a much bigger margin for error than others, and it sometimes overuses that luxury. He said America is “adolescent in its simplification of issues, and in its use of power”. In general, I do not think President Obama can be accused of this, but some of his Republican critics can.

Other less powerful countries have less  margin to make mistakes. 

Most significantly in light of current events, he argued back in 2009 that Russia, following the eastward expansion of NATO to within 100 miles of St. Petersburg, was “in an untenable political position” and “unless it exerts itself to create a sphere of influence, it could itself fragment”. This is a credible explanation, offered beforehand, of Putin’s present actions in Georgia and Ukraine.

Both China and Japan he saw as vulnerable, because they are export economies, and they rely on the all powerful US Navy to keep sea lanes open for their exports of goods and their imports of raw material. Since 2009, China has spent heavily on its navy so this prediction may be overturned.

Friedman said that the European Union was a schizophrenic entity, in that its “primary purpose is the creation of an integrated economy, while leaving sovereignty in the hands of individual nations”. The current economic crisis is putting this proposition to the test, and one hopes Friedman will be proven wrong. But he has a point. EU’s states often set ambitious common objectives for themselves, but fail to match them with the necessary central authority.

He argued that there is a divergence of interest between Germany and others who will want easy relations with Russia, and more easterly EU members, who will fear again being sucked into Russia’s sphere of influence. Chancellor Merkel does seem to confronting this dilemma, if reluctantly.

Surprisingly, Friedman did not see China becoming as a great power. This was  because of what he saw as its inefficient allocation of capital, its corruption, its profitless exports and its unhealthy reliance on US consumers to buy its goods. Its one child policy will also mean that it soon will be an ageing society. It appears that the current Chinese leadership in confronting these challenges, but reorienting its entire economy will be a very difficult process. 

Surprisingly, Friedman saw Japan emerging as the major Asian power, notwithstanding its lack of resources and its very elderly population.  I believe this is incredible.  An elderly country cannot be a powerful country.

He ignored India altogether. I believe this analysis of the long-term balance of power in Asia was quite unconvincing.

He saw Turkey emerging as the major power across all the former Ottoman lands from North Africa to Central Asia. Here his predictions are more robust in light of subsequent events.  He argued in 2009 that Islamic fundamentalism will run out of steam because its real target, the liberation of women, is irreversible. Since he wrote his book, Islamic fundamentalism has actually increased in strength, but he is probably right in the long term.

Friedman speculated about the likely conflicts of the twenty-first century – including its wars. He believed the wars will be conducted by unmanned aircraft using high precision weaponry and guided from space. They will be backed up by small numbers of highly equipped infantry. The aim will be to destroy the electricity generation capacity and close sea lanes of the enemy. There will be modest casualties. Wars, he believed, would be limited, and would end with negotiated treaties. Pursuit of unconditional surrender would be off the agenda, because nuclear weapons would make it too dangerous. All this is true of wars between the big nuclear powers, but are hardly true of what we have been seeing in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and parts of Africa.

Although some of Friedman’s speculations had a touch of science fiction about them, its basic assumptions about the realities of military power, and it’s reach, are credible and sobering, especially for those who might think that neutrality would protect a country from military conflicts.


On the 1 August 1975, the then Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave was one of the signatories of the Helsinki Final act governing relations between European states. He signed along the United States, all other European countries (except Albania), and the USSR, which at the time encompassed both Russia and Ukraine. 

Article one of the Helsinki Final Act said that the signatory states would

 “respect each other’s sovereign equality, juridical equality and territorial integrity”,

 and that they would refrain from the
“use of force or the threat of the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”.

As a small militarily neutral European state, Ireland has a greater interest, even than has a state which enjoys the comfort of a military alliance, in ensuring that these clear interstate principles are respected.

The Russian annexation of Crimea by force, and its present increasingly overt invasion of Eastern Ukraine is obviously a flagrant breach of the Helsinki Final Act. It is the first of its kind since the end of the Second World War, unless one includes the NATO action against former Yugoslavia over the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, which was then part of sovereign former Yugoslav territory. I argued at the time that this was a dangerous precedent.

As Taoiseach, I happened to have been invited to address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the very day the Assembly was voting to admit the Russian Federation to membership of the Council. I spoke in favour of Russian accession. Russia became a member on 28 February 1996. The Council of Europe is the source of a dense and comprehensive network of treaties on many topics, including human rights. The Council of Europe, and its Treaties, only have meaning to the extent that its members are willing to abide by international law.

The European Union itself also rests on the foundation of respect for international law. The EU only EXISTS because there is an assumption that international Treaties will be respected in ALL circumstances. The EU has no force to govern its own members beyond the force of international law in the form of EU Treaties.  The European Court of Justice interprets these Treaties and its rulings are accepted by all EU states.

Dividing the EU has been a long standing Russian goal, and President Putin’s aggressive tactics appear to be succeeding in the goal of dividing the EU, in a way that previous Russian efforts have failed. At a meeting I attended last June, the new EU Foreign Representative, Federica Mogherini,  admitted that, as  then Italian Foreign Minister, she had been “advocating for Putin” within the EU. Her promotion will now encourage Putin, and is more eloquent than any verbal warning he may have been given about the EU ending its “partnership “with Russia, whatever that means. 

Within the EU, countries like Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Spain, Italy  are relatively accommodative towards what Russia is doing, while others, like Lithuania, Poland, Estonia and Latvia are alarmed and looking for resolute action. The bigger EU states are, painfully and unsuccessfully, trying to balance commercial interests against professed principles. The Russian tactics are very similar to those adopted by Hitler in his dealings with the Czechs in 1938, and the present tactics of the EU are not dissimilar to those adopted by the French and British Governments of the day.

As 28 nations, the EU will never be able to move with the dexterity of an autocracy like Russia, but if it is not to have its policies dictated in the Kremlin, as a result Russian pressure on energy supplies, it needs to make a radical change in its own energy policies. It needs to build a proper energy union in Europe, independent of Russia, with complete inter connection of its energy distribution grids. That will require a lot of (job creating) investment, and the diversion of funds from current consumption. But a long term decision like this would create a new momentum with which Russia could not ignore.

The EU also needs to reflect on the contradictory messages it is sending out about nuclear disarmament.

Libya, which had got rid of its nuclear weapons programme, was attacked by EU countries, who were supporting the ouster of the Gaddafi regime. In an agreement to encourage it to give up the nuclear weapons on its territory, Ukraine’s sovereign integrity was guaranteed, in the Budapest memorandum, by a number of countries, including Russia, the UK, and France. Against the background of what happened in Libya, more recent developments in Eastern Ukraine reduce the incentives for nuclear disarmament in a very dangerous way.

Given the vast economic superiority that EU countries enjoy over Russia, it is surprising that they have so little influence on it.

If EU countries refused to buy Russian gas, Putin would have to stop and think. But the effect of such a decision would hurt some EU countries much more than others, and that would require the EU to set up a budget big enough to compensate the countries that would suffer the most . The biggest resistance to this would come from countries, like the UK, that do not want a large EU budget. Likewise German business interests who are heavily invested in Russia.

It is really difficult to see who can now stop Putin, except perhaps an awakened Russian public opinion,  that will become sickened by the casualties Russian soldiers will suffer in a needless war against another Slav country.


Adolf Hitler’s 1938 threats to, and eventual occupation of, Czechoslovakia bore some similarities to what is now happening between President Putin and Ukraine. 

In 1938,Hitler exaggerated, and stirred up, grievances over language rights in the German speaking part of Czechoslovakia. He directed the local German speaking leaders inside Czechoslovakia  to ensure that they did not reach any settlement with the Czech Government. He used the lack of an internal settlement as a basis for seeking to incorporate these areas in Germany, under the pretext of protecting the rights of the German speakers.

Western leaders tried to mediate and negotiate without success, culminating in the showdown at Munich, where Chamberlain abandoned Czechoslovakia in return for piece of paper signed by Hitler and himself in which both agreed on “the desire of our two peoples never to go to war again.”. 

Eventually, when Hitler broke his word and occupied the whole of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, trust broke down completely.
Hitler tried the same game with Poland in August 1939, possibly thinking he would get away with it again and the British and French would again huff and puff but do nothing. If that was his calculation, he was mistaken.

The crisis over the Sudetenland in 1938 played out more slowly than the one over Crimea. Putin has acted with much greater speed. In the former case, there was even time for a British Commission of Enquiry, the Runciman Commission, to spend a few weeks studying the situation on the ground in the Sudetenland and reporting back to London.

There is another important difference between the situation of Ukraine and that of Czechoslovakia. France had a Treaty of Mutual (military) Assistance with Czechoslovakia, which had been signed in 1925, guaranteeing Czech borders. Britain had no such Treaty but was drawn in because of its strategic commitment to France. That is why the Czechs feel, to this day, a particular grievance about France’s lack of action in 1938.

In contrast, Ukraine does not have a military alliance with any western country. It is not a member of NATO, and has no Treaty based military guarantees of its borders.
But, since 1994, Ukraine does have a general guarantee of its borders from Russia, the US, and Britain, given in return for giving up its nuclear weapons arsenal. According to this so called Budapest  memorandum, Russia, the U.S., and the UK confirmed, in recognition of Ukraine becoming a member of the nuclear non proliferation Treaty and in effect abandoning its nuclear arsenal to Russia, that they would,

+ respect Ukrainian independence and sovereignty within its existing borders,
+ refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine, and
+ refrain from using economic pressure on Ukraine in order to influence its politics.

This is hugely important, and creates a major moral obligation because one of the goals of global policy is to get countries with military nuclear capacity to give it up in return for guarantees. If such guarantees can be unilaterally abandoned without consequence, this strategy for  opposing nuclear proliferation breaks down.

President Putin may feel that Russia should not have agreed to that memorandum in 1994. But it did. Hitler certainly felt the then German Government should not have signed the Versailles Treaty. But it did. Indeed, German negotiators had much less choice, in signing the Versailles Treaty in 1919, than Russian negotiators had in 1994, in signing the Budapest Memorandum.

There was no duress in 1994.

What is happening to Ukraine, and in a different way what happened to Libya, will make it more difficult to get nuclear armed regimes to give up weapons in return for guarantees, however solemn. This is not just a matter of international law. It is one of practical politics and global security, for everybody including militarily neutral countries, like Ireland.
Unlike Ukraine, the Baltic States, Latvia and Estonia, which also have Russian speaking minorities, are members of NATO and do have military alliance guarantees.

It will be the existential test for NATO, if Russia makes or carries out threats on Latvia or Estonia, similar to the ones it has carried out on Ukraine.


Next December, the European Union will have a special Summit meeting devoted to defence matters.

This is an important meeting because European countries have substantial mutual values and interests to defend, militarily and otherwise.

Europeans want to prevent genocide anywhere in the world. We remember what happened in Rwanda when the international community could not, or would not, act.

But we have more selfish interests too. Europeans import 50% of our energy, often from unstable parts of the world. We live by trade, so we need to keep vital trade routes open. We want to avoid huge uncontrolled flows of refugees into Europe from conflicts in our vicinity.

As a continent with 20% of the world income, but only 7% of its population, we want to uphold international law. 
Most EU member states are members of NATO, which is a military alliance and has capacity to deal with such questions. Some, like Ireland, maintain a policy of military neutrality. 
NATO is heavily, and perhaps unhealthily, dependent on the military strength and will of the United States. The United States share of NATO spending has risen from 63% in 2001 to 77% today. 
United States and European interests will not always be identical. The US will soon be self sufficient in energy, the EU is unlikely to be so in the foreseeable future. EU and US attitudes to international law are not always identical….for example on Guantanamo and drones.

Although the US pays the bulk of NATO’s bills, EU nations spend a great deal on defence. In fact they spend 200 billion euros a year, which is more than the defence spending of Russia, China and Japan combined!

But is EU defence spending as cost effective as that of, say, China?

There is a lot of duplication in defence spending by EU states, which is difficult to afford or justify, when other forms of spending are being cut back. EU states have 23 different types of armoured vehicle,4 different types of tank, and 7 different types of helicopter, which would make it more difficult for EU states to synchronise operations or  pool spare parts, if they did have to fight together in mutual defence, whether in a NATO context or otherwise.  
The European Union has an agreed security strategy. It was prepared for it by Javier Solana in 2003. It said that, for the EU, the 

”first line of defence will often be abroad”. 

But EU states lack the capacity to transport troops and equipment long distances, and have to rely on the Americans for this. This means that the EU is not the master of its own defence policy. At critical moments, the US is.
Among EU states, only The United Kingdom and France have significant military capacity. And these are the only EU states with seats on the UN Security Council. This gives them inordinate influence. 
For example, the EU recently lifted its  embargo on supplying arms to the parties in the Syrian civil war, a course demanded by France and the UK, who favour the rebels, although the other 25 EU states wanted to keep the embargo in place. On matters like this, where decisions are supposed to be unanimous, 2 states were still able to get their way over 25! 

We now have a strange situation in Syria where Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Al Qaeda are on the same side. 
Already in Iraq, western intervention has released sectarian forces  that led to a decimation of the Christian minority in that country. The same is likely to happen in Syria, if the side favoured by France and Britain wins. 
One has to ask if this is compatible with either the values, or the security interests, of the European Union.

One also has to ask if the concept of European Union defence can have much reality, if decisions on it, are made by the same system by which the Syria arms decision was made. 
That said, EU military cooperation has had some notable successes.

For the EU, safe sea lanes are a vital interest. 90% of all EU trade travels by sea. A few years ago piracy off the coast of Somalia was a huge problem for EU ships coming out of the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean, a vital trade route for EU exports to Asia. Now, thanks to a combination of  EU naval action, and EU development aid to Somalia, piracy on this sea route has been cut by 95%.
The European Union has also had considerable success in brokering a peace deal between Serbia and Kosovo. It has been able to do this, partly because both countries would like eventually to be members of the European Union.
A neutral island nation like Ireland has strategic interests to look after too. It needs trade routes to remain open. It needs to be able to import energy. It needs peace in Europe if it is to prosper.

Defence costs money.

The decision Ireland has to make is whether its security can be achieved more cost effectively by greater pooling of resources on defence matters with other EU states, or by  acting independently. This is a discussion that should take place before the December EU Summit.


The news that the leaders of the two parties in the US Congress have  finally reached a deal on raising the borrowing limit for the Federal Government will be a relief to many.
It was beginning to look as if the political divisions in the country had become so deep that the US political system itself had become paralysed.   If that were to happen, the entire world would suffer.
Party discipline is very weak in the US for a number of reasons. 
Each member of Congress must raise huge sums for his/her personal campaigns. So members pay as much attention to potential donors as they do to their national party. Political action committees, tied to particular causes,  that  raise funds for candidates  can have as much influence on  how House members  vote as their  national party has.
District boundaries are manipulated to create safe seats for one party or the other.  This means that the contest in the primary for the  party nomination is often more important that the General Election. So members tend to spend a lot of effort courting the extremes of their own party rather than middle ground voters
Because party “headquarters” thus has little or no influence over who is selected as a party candidate for the House ,the penalty to a House member for voting against the national interest is low, while that of voting against the interests of his/her constituents or big donors is very high indeed. 
Party discipline was not always as weak as it now is, but” reforms” introduced in the 1970s have made the system more “democratic”, but less manageable.
Part of the compromise agreed between Democrats and Republicans will mean automatic cuts in Defence and healthcare for the elderly if Congress is unable to agree on alternative cuts.
In the medium term, this means that US military capacity will reduce, and will be more focussed on America’s own immediate interests.
Europe will have take more responsibility  for its own defence, and work out what  threats it wants  to equip itself to deal with on its own, and what threats it will  simply have to ignore. Adventures, like the bombing of Libya, will require a bit more thought. The defence provisions of the EU Treaties may acquire a higher profile, and NATO may become less important.
The cuts in healthcare entitlements hopefully force reductions in the costs of health services, which are much greater in the US than they are in Europe.  Vested interests in medicine and law have driven American health costs up to a completely unsustainable level.
But by coming so close to the brink of default, Congress has created uncertainty about the reliability of US securities. This may lead to higher interest rates in the United States.  That could have a knock on effect on borrowers in Europe because the interest rates on US  Federal bonds set the floor for interest rates.

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