Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 13 April 2024


The storm is gathering, and Europe is still dithering on defending itself

The Sunday Times

In the late 19th century an eccentric agricultural engineer called Max Ringelmann conducted what, to my mind, remains the most important experiment in social psychology. The setup was rather simple. He attached a rope to a dynamometer and asked his students to pull as hard as they could. Tugging alone, the average student pulled a weight of 85kg.

But then the experiment was tweaked: the students were asked to pull together, one behind the other, as a team of seven. The collective weight pulled, on the basis of the earlier experiment, should have been 595kg. In fact it was a mere 450kg. The students were heaving, gasping and looking as if they were trying, but many were going through the motions, letting others take the strain. It has become known as “social loafing”.

Further experiments showed something else, too. When the students who were pulling their weight (the workers) found out that others were freeriding (the shirkers), they didn’t merely start to slack themselves; they also became resentful and in some cases angry. They felt like dupes. The strength of the group withered and, in the end, vanished.

I mention this because the world stands at a precipice. There is a ground war in Europe; China threatens Taiwan; and by the time you read these words, Iran may have launched an attack on Israel. It is for this reason that the historian Niall Ferguson has warned that we are a few geopolitical inches from a Third World War. His point is that the Second World War can be seen as an accumulation of conflicts in different regions that happened to occur simultaneously — and that we are now on the verge of the same pattern.

It is, I think, only by understanding how we reached this point that we can hope to deal with the new global crisis — and it goes back to the insights of that eccentric engineer. To see my point, allow me to offer a quotation: “We cannot continue to pay for the military protection of Europe while the Nato states are not paying their fair share and living off the fat of the land. We have been very generous to Europe and it is now time for us to look out for ourselves.”


Who do you think this was? Donald Trump? Mike Pompeo? No, they are the words of John F Kennedy, speaking to his National Security Council in 1963. I offer them as evidence of the decades-long freeriding of European states on American largesse. We on this continent have talked a good game of contributing to shared defence, of pulling our weight when it comes to the protection of our common interests while freeloading on American taxpayers. It is, perhaps, the most blatant geopolitical example of the Ringelmann effect since the fall of the western Roman empire — and the reason American resentment has been growing for decades.

It is only in this context that one can grasp Trump’s recent tirade in which he said Russia could do “whatever the hell they want” to nations that shirked on defence spending. There was a collective intake of breath in Berlin, Paris and Rome — and disdain for the uncouth former president — but Trump was unequivocally right. America, which at present spends 3.5 per cent of GDP on defence, has tried gentle diplomacy for years — to no avail. As Russia attacked Georgia, European nations cut military budgets. When Russia annexed Crimea, they cut them further. Even after the invasion of Ukraine, as Putin’s pitiless troops tortured prisoners, raped women and abducted children, most European Nato nations were still failing to meet their obligation to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence.

Want to understand why the US Congress isn’t keen to cough up for Ukraine? Don’t look at Washington; look at Europe. Why would America send billions of taxpayers’ dollars when the nations closest to this conflict won’t themselves pay up? According to a paper by Carnegie Europe, the 14 European members of Nato in 1990 spent about $314 billion on defence a year. By 2015 the alliance had almost doubled — but defence spending had plummeted by 30 per cent. Last year Germany’s spending was still €14 billion below its commitment. Belgium, home to Nato HQ, spent only 1.21 per cent of GDP. It would be funny were it not so tragic.

When it comes to political debate, we spar over health, education and justice, but this is performative self-indulgence if the state delivering these services is unable to defend itself from aggression. Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons under the Budapest memorandum, signed by UK and the US (which, to our eternal shame, we failed to honour) and is now paying a horrific price for its vulnerability. So what of Europe, which has spent decades allowing its military-industrial complex to atrophy while ripping off the partner supposed to guarantee its security? It is a form of collective insanity — and we in the UK would be deluded to count on Trident to protect our vital interests.

If anything, Trump’s attempt to shame Europe into action didn’t go far enough. For years Europeans have sneered at America; mocked it as uncivilised next to Europe with its generous welfare provisions and high culture. We praised “rational” leaders like Merkel, a supposedly mature stateswoman, while she slashed an already feeble defence budget, accelerated dependency on Russian natural gas and jettisoned nuclear power during a once-in-a-millennium energy transition. If World War Three is ignited before Europe has had a chance to remilitarise, history will judge her less favourably than Chamberlain.


And what of our foreign secretary? Oh, to have been a fly on the wall during the meeting at Mar-a-Lago last week as Lord Cameron sought to sagely explain to Trump why America should “step up” in Ukraine. This is the man who as prime minister perfected London’s status as a money-laundering hub for Putin and his cronies (thereby making a unified response to the invasion of Crimea almost impossible), hugged China tighter than any other European nation and cut defence spending not once or twice but in every single year of his premiership. No US politician should have to listen to this fantasist — and the fact that Rishi Sunak thought a man freighted with such dubious baggage was the right person to lead British diplomacy during the most perilous period since the 1930s reveals a gaping ignorance of history and strategy.

Europe’s best chance of saving Nato, whether or not Trump wins the presidency this year, is to think of the core insights of the Ringelmann experiment. We need a legally binding commitment to higher and (this is crucial, too) more efficient defence spending. This offers the only realistic prospect of placating legitimate American outrage over European freeriding, strengthening the connective tissue of our alliance and keeping a lid on the resentments that are encouraging populists at home (I’m no fan of Trump, by the way) and adversaries abroad. On that last point, look at the energy, military and intelligence relationship that has formed between Tehran, Moscow, Pyongyang and Beijing — which stretches to Africa, where they are cornering the processing of the minerals crucial for sustainable energy.

One looks around in vain for this era’s Churchill, for the man or woman who can explain to the western world that it is only by pulling hard, and pulling together, that we can win against tyrants who wish to destroy human rights, democracy and other freedoms that we supposedly hold dear but forgot how to defend. “It is where the balance quivers, and the proportions are veiled in mist, that the opportunity for world-saving decisions presents itself,” the great man wrote in The Gathering Storm. It’s time for Europe to wake up.

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