Europe at sea
On Monday, the Hudson Institute hosted a conversation with Rear Admiral Chris Parry, Royal Navy (Ret.), entitled Europe at Sea: Mediterranean and Baltic Security Challenges. Seth Cropsey, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute, moderated. Admiral Parry spoke about the challenges that Europe faces, given that it is surrounded by water on three sides, and outlined several alternative political futures for Europe.
The threats to Europe from the sea are not new. In 1983, the USSR had a plan to attack Europe through the Central Front plus the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas. Understanding the way the Russians view the Black and Baltic Seas is crucial to understanding Putin’s motives. They have a very short coastline on the Baltic Sea. Until they took Crimea, they had a short Black Sea coast as well. This has always made the Russians nervous. Russia and the Scandinavian countries also have competing claims in the Arctic. Russia’s claims extend far beyond the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and Russian icebreakers now escort vessels through the Arctic.
Europe, however, is more worried about the Mediterranean because of unstable states in North Africa and the Levant, as well as migration both by sea and overland through Turkey. There is a risk for the return of Barbary piracy, as well as for seaborne terrorist attacks on coastal tourist areas. Northern Europe believes that it is the responsibility of Southern European countries to deal with this. The EU is not set up to make political decisions because it is an economic union with political pretensions. The effort needed to run the EU saps energy from efforts to address seaborne security threats.
Parry spoke about how influence has shifted, such that the important global players are now the US and the East Asian countries. The US is well-placed to benefit from globalization. If Europe isn’t careful, it will decline and become strategically irrelevant. In the future, Parry sees:
- An increase in the use of state power by non-Western countries.
- Small amounts of high-quality force will be decisive.
- Increased proxy activity, because states don’t want to directly confront each other.
- WMD proliferation.
- Increased terrorism.
- Diffusion of technology and weaponry.
There will be both irregular threats from terrorism, criminality, disasters and disease, as well as renewed threats from China, Russia, ISIS, Marxist revivalists (in Greece, for example), regional aspirants and weapons proliferation. Europe will need to contain a Middle Eastern equivalent of Europe’s Thirty Years War, ensure access to natural resources, and adapt to climate change.
Though Putin constitutes an existential threat, Parry noted that defense expenditure in Europe is declining. NATO countries still however spend more than non-NATO countries. It spends far more to shoot down a cheap missile than the missile costs; this unsustainable cost ratio must decrease. NATO has failed to resist coercion in Ukraine. Hitler knew he would win at Munich because he knew the British and French wouldn’t go to war. Putin is using traditional hard power and is confused by our lack of response. Russia’s Baltic Sea exercises are designed to resist NATO forces.
Scandinavia is nervous. Europe has become strategically dependent on the US; some European countries have armies that aren’t prepared to go to war. The UK is investing in new aircraft carriers but is hollowing out the rest of the Royal Navy. To resist coercion at sea from Russia, a change in attitude is needed.
Parry also spoke about the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The Iran deal represents what is possible, rather than what is desirable. China and Russia have been keen to maintain Iran as a client state and suppress its nuclear ambitions. In the rush to welcome Iran into the global economy, we need to be careful about the security dimensions. As a result of the Sunni-Shiite conflict in MENA, the “Great Satan” tag will shift from the US to Saudi Arabia. China has invested heavily in new trade routes. It may get the bulk of its future oil and gas from Shiite Iran and Shiite-dominated Iraq. But China could also move into the Southern Gulf States if the US and Europe reduce their commitments there.
Like Russia, China is increasing its naval presence, sometimes disregarding the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. There are increasing numbers of Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean as well as Chinese ships in the Mediterranean and Chinese icebreakers in the Arctic. China views its oil rigs as sovereign territory, which means that it believes it can base missiles and surveillance off of them. This is illegal under international law.
Parry outlined three different potential futures for Europe:
- A Eurasian future: the US drifts to the Pacific and Europe pursues economic cooperation with Russia and China.
- A maritime future: Parts of Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Korea together control trade on the seas. The sea is the physical equivalent of the World Wide Web and controlling it is vital for international trade.
- A fragmented future: There are no eternal friends or enemies, just interests, and each country pursues its own interests. Europe’s separatist movements could also lead to a fragmented future.
According to Parry, the US now faces choices as well. Unconventional oil and gas have been a game-changer for the US economy. The US has to decide whether it will use this money to remain strategically dominant or turn inward. The 2016 election will be crucial. In the future, if it becomes clear that help isn’t coming from the US, European countries will seek accommodation with Russia and East Asian countries will seek accommodation with China. This will have major geostrategic consequences.