Life's journey: pilgrims arrive at Mena in Saudi Arabia, carrying stones to throw at pillars symbolising Satan. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Birth of a religion

An interview with Tom Holland, author of In the Shadow of the Sword.

How much do we know about the birth of Islam? Much less than we think, argues the popular historian Tom Holland in his new book, In the Shadow of the Sword.

In Holland’s opinion, the Quran was written long after the death of Muhammad, Mecca is not necessarily the birthplace of the Prophet and modern Muslims’ reverence for their holy writings stops them from confronting the texts’ dubious historical origins.

Bryan Appleyard has described the conclusion of In the Shadow of the Sword as “seismic”; he wrote in the Sunday Times that “Holland’s book leaves almost no aspect of the traditional story of Islam intact”. Another reviewer likened its treatment of the Quran to Dan Brown’s Christianity-as-conspiracy in The Da Vinci Code, “though with a little more class”.

The religion that emerged as Islam by the 8th century was, Holland would argue, just one manifestation of the furthest-reaching moral and ethical metamorphosis in history. Other expressions of the phenomenon were what we now call Judaism and Christianity – faiths that he suggests had taken on something like the form they wear today by the time of Muhammad, but similarly were once swirls of beliefs and doctrines.

Holland’s tale of how Islam came to define itself and its past is only one part of a much broader panorama: one that is ultimately about how Jews, Christians and Muslims all came by their understanding of religion. Does he present a bold new account that undermines Islam’s grip on its own past, or, as I argue, spin out a rich but speculative tale of the possible birth of three religions as novel tools to grapple with an era of geopolitical conflict and rivalry?

Nabeelah Jaffer

Nabeelah Jaffer Your chapters on the ambi­guity of early Christianity and Judaism have slipped under the radar amid the general buzz that you “rubbish” Islam and the expectant wait for some sort of backlash. How doyou feel about the assumption that Muslims are more likely to respond to challenging ideas with violent anger than followers of other religions? And do you think there will be a few far-right attempts to appropriate your ideas?

Tom Holland I think it is one measure of theeffect of the [Salman] Rushdie affair in this country that it is now widely taken for granted that writing anything about Islam will make angry men with beards – and probably hooks as well! – come to kill you. Whenever I have told people what the book was about, the word “fatwa” has invariably surfaced.

That being so, it was probably inevitable that the most eye-catching chapters in the book would be the ones about Islam. But why should any Muslim be offended by what I have to say? Mine is a non-believer’s attempt to explain a puzzle that Muslims, if they have faith, would deny was a puzzle at all. As an adult, I struggle to square my absolute conviction that Abraham and Moses never existed with the occasional flaring of a residual Christian faith. I hope that the resulting tension has been good for the book. Yes, it is sceptical; but no, it is never contemptuous of the longing of people to know God.

NJ I agree. I think both upset Muslims and pleased “Islamophobes” perceive in revisionism a threat to the religious narrative where none exists. The questions that you set out to answer only appear when you take a divine presence out of the equation.

You wrestle, for example, with the “bewilderingly eclectic array of sources” in the Quran, Abrahamic and otherwise. A Muslim would take this as proof of divine input and a revelation which encompasses Judaism and Christianity as part of a prophetic tradition. As a non-Muslim, you rule out this answer and search for an alternative scenario. Presenting a potential secular alternative to the “God” story doesn’t negate the narrative upheld by believers. So, turning to your secular alternative, how does it differ from traditional accounts?

TH All three religions, it seems to me, emerged out of the same melting pot – and yet all three have constructed backstories that aim to occlude the fact. In the first three centuries after Christ, Jews and Christians may have had a consciousness of themselves as peoples with distinct identities, but they remained unclear where precisely the border between them lay.

There were Jews who believed that Jesus had been the Messiah and there were Christians who followed the Jewish law – and it took an unacknowledged alliance between bishops and rabbis, in the centuries after the emperor Constantine, to ensure that what had previously been an open frontier became a no-man’s land. Similarly, a lot of Muslim historiography seems to me to have been composed with the aim of spiking the possibility that either the Quran or the sunna [laws] might conceivably have owed anything to infidel precedent.

NJ Of course, one of the first things you learn as a historian is to interrogate early chronicles for motive using context, whether geopolitical, religious or otherwise. But it is equally dangerous to lean towards the hypersceptic idea that texts cannot be relied upon except to tell us about their writers, meaning the document-free gaps in the past must always consist of near-impregnable darkness.

You don’t go quite that far in your book, but you do apply something of this very sceptical view to early Islamic sources which first appeared in the 200 years after the Prophet’s death as written accounts of oral testimony. You suggest, for example, that hadiths [sayings of Muhammad] targeting the rich were concocted to unsettle the rotten imperial elite. Your argument that “the dry rot of fabrication . . . was endemic throughout the sunna” is much more radical than the traditionalist, more common academic approach, which recognises the importance of testing for fabrication, but values the hadith as a body of secondary sources. I’d disagree that uncovering fabricated elements in these early sources undermines everything that they portray as authentic.

TH I think there’s a particular problem with the sources for early Islam. Some of the sayings attributed to Muhammad must surely be authentic – but even if we could identify them, their value as a source for his life would still not be greatly enhanced as a result.

Context, for the historian, is all – and no Muslim scholar or lawyer who cited the Prophet ever had the slightest interest in establishing what the original context of his sayings might actually have been. To quote him was to take for granted that the advice he had to give was timeless and universal. That Muslims in the heyday of the Caliphate were living under circumstances unimaginable to Muhammad never crossed their minds.

The real problem for the historian is that we lack what, for instance, [the 1st-century Roman-Jewish historian] Josephus gives us for the background to the life of Christ – a control. The consequence is that we can only hope to arrive at a sense of what might have happened in the early years of the Arab conquests by looking at the much later Muslim source material in the light of the late-antique world.

NJ In which case, no explanation of the origins of Islam is ever going to strike the mould for an authentic secular narrative. You rightly point out in your introduction the provisional nature of your own retelling of early Islam: “on a whole range of issues . . . there can only ever be speculation”. While you use Christian and Jewish traces in the Quran to suggest their influence on Muhammad, direct evidence remains elusive.

There’s a wonderful analogy in the book about it being similar to noticing that the eastern and western coasts of the Atlantic Ocean match like a jigsaw puzzle. There seems to be a link, but without clues as to how the two came together, it’s impossible to know for certain how to explain the gap. Historians are just replacing one take on an uncertain past with another.

TH The hypothesis I give in the book as to how and why Islam might have emerged is only that – a hypothesis. Patricia Crone, one of the most brilliant and innovative historians of early Islam, once memorably described the Muslim historical tradition as “a monument to the destruction rather than the preservation of the past”. That being so, it is hardly surprising that there should be such a breathtaking range of opinion, ranging from devout Muslims, who accept the tradition in its entirety, to radical sceptics who doubt that Muhammad so much as existed.

My own take is that the evolution of Islam can only really be made sense of in the light of the civilisations and religions of late antiquity. Partly, that is because it genuinely seems to me the best way to try to understand what might have happened in the 7th century; but I am sure it also reflects a subliminal desire on my part, in love with antiquity as I am, to feel that Islam, like Christianity, was bred of the ancient world.

NJ This debate has, until now, been limited to specialists, for the good reason that it requires a vast amount of study and a good knowledge of Arabic, at least, in order to draw authoritative conclusions from the available sources. Revisionists are few, and those such as Patricia Crone and Michael Cook who argue that Islam was born after the burgeoning of the Caliphate and the Arab conquests do so with the authority of their close understanding of the period, albeit little concrete evidence.

While you obviously draw on the work of such historians and are enthusiastic about the period, is it fair to present a narrative not grounded in direct engagement with the available sources?

TH In writing this book, I am standing on the shoulders of giants – or, to mix metaphors, rushing in where angels fear to tread. My justification is that if a generalist is not prepared to attempt it, then no one will. Perhaps, somewhere, there is a scholar with Latin, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic and Coptic, doctorates in Talmudic studies, patristics, Christian theology and Quranic studies and an ability to write accessibly for the general public – but if so, he or she is yet to write the book on the subject that I strongly felt merited being written.

Even the greatest historian of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, Edward Gibbon, had to profess his “ignorance of the Oriental tongues, and . . . gratitude to the learned interpreters”. Where I had the advantage, perhaps, was in having a brilliant research assistant, a native Arabic speaker with a specialisation in Syriac, and the incredible generosity of a wide range of scholars.

NJ Locating religious construction in the centuries that followed the death of Muhammad involves saying some particularly challenging things about the Quran and the Prophet himself. For example, you accept that the Quran seems to date from around Muhammad’s time, and certainly recent carbon-dating research suggests an early-7th-century date for indicative Quranic fragments.

When the German Quranic scholar Gerd Puin was allowed to examine the ancient manuscripts recently discovered in Sana’a, Yemen, he found possible evidence of minor changes to verse order and spelling, but uncovered no hint of deliberate fabrication. In the light of all this, proposing that figures such as the 7th-century caliph Abd al-Malik, whom you suggest put the Quran through an “editing process”, and the historian Ibn Hisham constructed a retrospective religion centred on a man named Muhammad, whom they situated in Mecca, seems a little extreme. There are direct mentions of Muhammad in the Quran itself, among dozens of other allusions to his life.

TH The problem for any non-Muslim trying to explain the origins of Islam is what to make of the Quran. It seems to me clearly to derive, in the form we have it, from the lifetime of Muhammad – which makes it, a few other brief and enigmatic documents aside, our only primary source for his career.

The problem is, I cannot possibly accept what Muslims take for granted: that it originates from God. And yet Mecca, so the biographies of the Prophet teach us, was an inveterately pagan city devoid of any large-scale Jewish or Christian presence, situated in the midst of a vast, untenanted desert. How else, then, are we to account for the sudden appearance there of a fully fledged monotheism, complete with references to Abraham, Moses and Jesus, if not as a miracle? You can only answer that question by asking yourself whether Muslims, at some point in the evolution of Islam, might not have situated the origins of the Quran deep in a desert for the same reason that Christians cast the mother of Christ as a virgin. In both cases, what is presumed to be an intrusion of the divine into the dimension of the mortal is being certified as an authentic, bona fide act of God.

NJ I don’t argue that religious practices shouldn’t be understood as firmly within their political and cultural contexts as possible. But religions are necessarily a human phenomenon in their practice, however divine we believe their inspiration and aspiration to be. “Monotheistic revolution” is a misnomer: the evolution of faith didn’t end with the melting pot of Byzantine.

TH I think in the early history of what emerges as rabbinical Judaism, of Christianity and of Islam, you see a near-identical process: the gradual fashioning, out of a great swirl of often inchoate rituals, convictions and scriptures, of a distinct religion that is coherent, in terms of both doctrine and institutions. Watchtowers and barriers go up, the aim being to keep the faithful inside set limits and to keep non-believers out. Histories are then written which make it seem as though the religion has always existed in the form that it now possesses, right from the very beginning – that Moses was a rabbi, that Jesus would have signed up to the Nicaean Creed, that Muhammad was truly the fountainhead of the sunna.

The concrete, initially so soft and malleable, by now has set. This does not mean, of course, that the various religions do not continue to evolve – but they do so within parameters that by now are irrevocably rigid, and exclude contributions from peoples of other faiths. It is in that sense, I would argue, that Jews, Christians and Muslims all today worship different gods.

“In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” by Tom Holland is out now (Little Brown, £25)
Nabeelah Jaffer is a journalist who specialises in Islamic culture and feminism

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

JAVIER MAYORAL. IMAGE MANIPULATION BY DAN MURRELL
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A world unbalanced

Under Trump, the United States could turn away from Europe, leaving the continent exposed and vulnerable. So is it the destiny of the UK alone to stand for collective defence, free trade and fair play in a turbulent age?

Listening to the reading – from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians – on Remembrance Sunday, the first Sunday after the earthquake of the US election, it seemed that someone, somewhere had a sense of ironic timing. “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump [sic!],” the passage ran: “for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” Whatever the text really means, it brought home the fact that the election of Donald Trump has transformed, and transformed utterly, the world in which we live. We Europeans no longer know where we stand with the most powerful country on Earth, and whether it will deliver on its alliance obligations. Our world is out of balance. A terrible uncertainty has been born.

Looking out over the uniformed members of the congregation – army, RAF and Royal Navy – one couldn’t help thinking that next year they may be all that lies between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the Baltic states. As our continent boils, the armed forces represent, to borrow the pathos of Dorothy Sayers’s 1940 patriotic verse “The English War”, “the single island, like a tower,/Ringed with an angry host”. If things continue to deteriorate, we may soon see the moment when, as the poem continues, “. . . Europe like a prison door,/Clangs, and the swift enfranchised sea [the Channel]/Runs narrower than a village brook;/And men who love us not yet look/To us for liberty”. It is in times like these, she writes, that “only England stands”.

In recent days, the shock of Trump’s election has started to wear off and the usual reading of tea leaves about the new administration has begun in earnest. Appointments and nominations are being scrutinised for clues to what a Trump presidency might mean for the world. These attempts are understandable, but they are also futile. It is clear that Trump, like all other presidents, is filling positions taking both ideology and party management into account – balancing the appointment as his chief strategist of Stephen Bannon, a leading light of the “alt right”, for instance, with that of Reince Priebus, a stalwart of the Republican establishment. Something similar is visible in the foreign policy sphere, where the two most important choices point in fundamentally different directions on one of the critical challenges facing the administration, namely Russia. General Mike Flynn, Trump’s nominee for national security adviser, is well known for his closeness to Moscow, at least in relation to Syria, while Mike Pompeo, the proposed CIA director, is deeply suspicious of Putin’s ambitions in the Middle East.

To infer from this fudge the future policy of the United States would be unwise. One should not assume that Trump’s lack of detailed knowledge of world affairs, or his rocky relationship with the Republican Party’s national security experts, will increase the influence of professionals in the state department. Nor is it right to expect the new president to fall back on Mike Pence, his vice-president-elect, as an inexperienced George W Bush did with Dick Cheney. Trump knows his own mind, especially on the big strategic challenges, and will not listen to the experts or party grandees. His estimation of Pence became clear when he almost forgot to thank him during his victory speech. Besides, Trump, who has spoken openly of possible candidate appointments as “the finalists”, in the manner of his TV show The Apprentice, can fire as quickly as he hires. There is no guarantee that anybody who is in his cabinet in January 2017 will be there a year or two later.

The speculation is pointless in another respect. We already know what kind of animal Trump is. His world-view is fully formed; his temperament is well known. Behaviourally, Trump is the silverback ­gorilla, the narcissistic peacock, the alpha male, the bull in the china shop. Politically, he is a Bourbon who has learned and forgotten nothing over the past three decades.

Here, it is essential to distinguish between rhetoric recently adopted to wage the election campaign, and long-standing positions that Trump has been espousing for 30 years. The good news for Americans is that most of the divisive language and proposed measures probably fall in the former category. His appalling inflammatory comments – too familiar and numerous to repeat here – were largely instrumental; they do not seem to have featured much in his vocabulary before his candidacy. America is not about to turn fascist. Trump is unlikely seriously to assault the constitution, and if he does so he will be repelled. There may be substantial economic and cultural rebalancing, and some pretty brutal measures against terrorism and illegal immigration, but the United States will probably be fundamentally much the same place in four or even eight years’ time. The bad news for the rest of world is that the beliefs most threatening to us are the ones Trump most genuinely holds, and that he is in the best position to implement. Europe, in particular, will be very different four years from now and it might well be unrecognisable in eight.

 

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The key to understanding Donald Trump is his quest for restoration of national “greatness” for the US, which he sees as having been lost in the retreats and compromises of the Obama years but also the interventionism of George W Bush. Economics is central to this vision, yet it is not the deciding factor. To be sure, re-establishing economic strength is important. It will enable the US to sustain Trump’s prohibitively expensive plans, especially the proposed huge infrastructure programme, his tax cuts, and the vast increase in military spending. The new president believes in not international, but national capitalism, based on construction and manufacturing rather than trade and finance. One may not share Trump’s vision of restoring prosperity and pride to America through civilian work creation, motorways, bridges and armaments, but it is a coherent programme. Unlike free-traders and globalisers, who see all boats rising on the tide of a growing world economy, Trump takes a much darker, mercantilist view. It’s not the economy: it’s the greatness, stupid.

Threatening US greatness, so the Trum­pian critique claims, are not only America’s enemies but America’s friends. Politically, the main threat is radical Islam, which he says the Obama administration refuses to call by its name, and which has been aggravated by a costly, failed “nation-building” project in Iraq. Economically, it is China and Latin America which have, in effect, stolen manufacturing jobs from America after the lowering of tariff barriers. Not much better, however, are America’s allies, such as the Japanese and the Europeans, who are free-riding under the US defence umbrella and taking unfair advantage in trade.

Globally, therefore, Trump’s administration will mark a change in four important respects. First, he will either abandon or ignore the institutions of international governance that the United States has done so much to establish. Trump will pay no heed to the United Nations whatsoever. He will not act against climate change. Here the ­appointment of Myron Ebell to lead the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency is a straw in the wind: Ebell does not believe in global warming. Trump will press ahead with fracking and drilling on all fronts, not necessarily for economic reasons but in order to guarantee energy security for the US. He is unlikely to pull out of the World Trade Organisation but will abrogate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, “re-negotiate” the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement and probably drop the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Second, there will be a “pivot” of US foreign policy towards the Middle East and the Mediterranean. In Syria, the new administration will seek co-operation with Russia and the Assad regime against Isis and other Islamist groups, if necessary in return for concessions elsewhere. That will be just the start, however. Trump’s hostility to Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and to the Iranian regime is a matter of record, and Mike Flynn’s writings have been only slightly less anti-Iranian than they have been anti-Isis. There can be no doubt about it: for the Trump White House, Raqqa in Syria may come first but Tehran is next. How exactly it intends to go about this is not obvious, but it is clear that the planned new, 350-ship navy is needed not just to deal with Isis.

Third, Trump will take on China, at least over trade, not least because it will be critical to his domestic jobs programme. Early steps might include whopping tariffs on Chinese goods and designating China a currency manipulator. In this regard, it may be significant that Trump has expressed enthusiasm for Stefan Halper’s 2010 book, The Beijing Consensus, which takes an understandably dim view of China’s restrictive trade practices, authoritarian proclivities and regional belligerence. That said, economics aside, there is little sign that Trump has a broader political, ideological or military agenda with respect to China. His remarks, both recent and long-standing, suggest that he has little interest in maintaining the alliances with South Korea, Japan and other states keen to contain Beijing.

These plans not only risk failure, thereby causing great human hardship, but could also precipitate a major conflict. Trump fails to understand that, in Syria, most of the Syrian government forces and the vast majority of Russian air strikes are directed against the rebels: that is, the non-Isis Islamists and what is left of the Free Syrian Army. Since his election, he has reiterated his contempt for the Syrian rebels and indicated that we should wish for an Assad victory so that he can concentrate all his fire on Isis. One problem with this strategy is that it will increase the outflow of refugees – most of whom are already fleeing the Syrian regime, its Iranian allies and proxies, as well as the Russians, rather than Isis or the Western bombing. The other, and probably terminal difficulty, is the contradiction of wanting to co-operate with Tehran in Syria yet crush it in the Gulf.

In east Asia, the danger is that a trade war may precipitate another world recession, and also a full-scale military confrontation. China took its time responding to Trump’s victory, and did so with extreme truculence. Beijing vowed to retaliate against any tariffs. If backed into a corner, the Chinese might well try “horizontal escalation”– that is to say, using military demonstrations or even armed attacks to retaliate against US trade measures – in Taiwan or the South China Sea.

Unless Trump is entirely clear about how he will react, and this would require him either to reaffirm the existing strategic architecture of the region or to signal his withdrawal from east Asia, the chances of a catastrophic misunderstanding are high.

 

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By far the greatest risk to the international system, however, is not the wars that Trump will start, but the one he might not fight, and will thus fail to deter. His rallies often featured banners accusing Hillary Clinton of wanting to start “World War III”. These referred to her willingness to honour US commitments under the collective defence provisions of Article 5 of Nato’s charter. Trump, by contrast, has repeatedly questioned whether America should defend those allies that are not spending enough on their own protection. He has even referred to Nato as “obsolete”.

More worryingly, there has been a general whiff of pro-Russianism in the Trump camp. The president-elect makes no secret of his admiration for Vladimir Putin, the man who has annexed Crimea, unleashed a proxy war in eastern Ukraine and threatens Nato’s eastern flank, to say nothing of his other crimes. This summer, one of Trump’s leading backers, Newt Gingrich, described Estonia as a mere “suburb” of St Petersburg. The close Russian connections of many others in Trump’s penumbra are too well known to require repetition. The frightening truth is that, with regard to Russia, there is much more going in the Trump camp than the (entirely understandable) irritation with European free-riding.

All this reflects a much broader, and deeply troubling, “de-Europeanisation” of the American strategic mind, if not in national security circles then in politics and among the population at large. Once upon a time, a strong stance against the Soviet Union united Cold War liberals with the working classes, including many from Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states. Gerald Ford’s gaffe in a televised election debate against Jimmy Carter in 1976, in which he denied Russian domination of eastern Europe, may have cost him the White House. Likewise, many of the “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s were working-class “deer hunters” of eastern European origin who wanted him to stand up to the Kremlin.

That constituency is no more, and it is a sign of the times that Gingrich, who had written support for the integration of former Warsaw Pact countries into Nato into his Contract for America two decades ago, should now hold the alliance so cheap. All the same, it has been surprising to see the flippancy and vehemence with which a sixty-year transatlantic bond has been put in question, not reluctantly, but with a whooping rebel yell.

The president-elect poses another, more insidious, but no less fatal menace to Europe. His victory has blown wind into the sails of the European far right. “Their world is falling apart,” Florian Philippot of the French Front National (FN) exulted after the result. “Ours is being built.” France’s presidential election in April and May will be won by either Marine Le Pen’s FN or – more likely – François Fillon of the conservative Républicains; both candidates are pro-Russian. It is also likely that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will be defeated in Sunday’s referendum on reforming the powers of the Italian parliament. If he resigns, the resulting election may well bring the Eurosceptic right to power. In Germany, Alternative für Deutschland is weaker, but growing.

Given all this, the capacity of the rump European Union to deal with the security, economic and migration challenges ahead will be severely tested. The weakness of mainland Europe is also manifest at a national level. Even its two most important countries, France and Germany, have ceased to exist as separate states in vital areas: neither controls its own currency or borders, and Germany does not even have a nuclear deterrent or (sufficiently credible) conventional capability.

As such, despite the hopes of many, Angela Merkel will be too weak to lead Europe even if she wins Germany’s federal elections next year. To be sure, she has pledged to work together with the new US president only if he respects people regardless of creed, sexual orientation and skin colour. Yet Chancellor Merkel lacks the instrument to protect Europe militarily, because of Germany’s largely pacifist political culture and the EU’s failure to provide itself with anything more than a shadow capability at supranational level. She is also losing ground steadily at home. A Trump-induced fresh wave of Syrian refugees may well finish her off.

 

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In democratic Europe, therefore, only the United Kingdom stands out. Here, the widespread continental European tendency to equate Brexit with Trump misses the point. Despite all the Brexit turmoil, Britain is likely to remain infertile soil for extremism, at least once the separation from the European Union has been completed. Although many of those who voted for Brexit did so for similar reasons to those of the workers who opted for Trump, the political mainstream in Britain, including those who supported leaving the EU, remains strongly in favour of free trade, and strongly committed to Nato. Moreover, the UK is still the world’s fifth-largest economy and a nuclear power, and it retains the principal characteristics of sovereign statehood – her own currency, parliament and control over her borders.

The result of all this will be a fundamental shift in European geopolitics in favour of Britain. The election of Donald Trump has four effects, the first two of which will probably cancel each other out. On the one hand, his protectionist instincts may make him less interested in a trade deal with the UK. On the other hand, he is less likely than a Democratic administration would have been to send Britain to “the back of the queue”. Trump’s impact will be felt elsewhere, however, in the field of geopolitics and global governance. Britain will now be one of the few large economies in favour of free trade. More important still is that, with a large question mark now hanging over Nato, the contribution made by the British armed forces to the defence of Europe as a whole, and to the defence of European values against President Putin, will take on a new significance.

Britain needs to rise to the challenge. Militarily, she may have to hold the line in Europe for at least four years – possibly for eight. Consequently, a full-scale rearmament must begin now, with increased expenditure on ships, aircraft, “heavy metal” for the army, and cyber-defence. The necessary shift is comparable to the one orchestrated by the chief of the imperial general staff Sir Henry Wilson in the early 20th century, when he began to change the military mission from imperial policing and small wars to preparation for war against a major power in Europe.

Politically, Britain urgently needs to clarify its relationship with the rest of the continent. It would have been better if Brexit had never happened, or at least not before the EU had sorted itself out, but now it should be expedited without delay so that we can all concentrate on the bigger challenges. This should be based on a grand bargain in which London retains a free-trading relationship with the EU, reserving the right to restrict immigration in return for our increased commitment to European security through Nato. Britain’s EU budget contribution could be reallocated as increased defence expenditure to help defend the EU in the east. Some continental Europeans, in German business circles as much as in Poland, have already begun to see the connection between the two spheres, and the need for a trade-off.

London thus needs to take two messages, one to the EU and the other to Washington, DC. It is a great pity that the Foreign Secretary did not attend the Trump post-mortem of foreign ministers in Brussels, not to join in the pointless therapy session, but in order to read the Europeans the riot act on Russia. They have already seen that one cannot have a common currency without a common treasury and parliament (in other words, a common state); and that one cannot have a common travel area without a common border – in effect, a common state.

Now they are planning to fill the potential American vacuum with a (much-needed) European army without a European state, something that can only end in more tears. Johnson should have told them that if they wish to survive they need to form a full political union, like that which has linked Scotland and England. If that does not appeal, they must increase their individual national military budgets and, if the Americans withdraw from Nato commitments, they must fall in behind Europe’s principal military power, the United Kingdom.

Rather than supplicating in Washington, Britain should speak to Trump in language that he understands: not of realpolitik, but of real estate. The problem is not so much his belief that diplomacy is “transactional” – all political relationships are – but that he takes a very short-term and narrow view, valuing the quick buck over long-term shareholder value. He should be reminded that the US holds the largest stake in a military consortium that owns the freehold of the property on which the EU is built; the UK is the next largest shareholder, whose interests are materially affected by any change. It is true that many of its tenants are not paying their contribution to the common defence, yet some are. The problem with Trump’s approach is that he has no satisfactory way of punishing the transgressors specifically. If he turns off the heating, everyone will freeze. Besides, some of the worst offenders, in the Mediterranean, live in south-facing apartments, away from the cold Russian wind. They will be the last to feel the drop in temperature.

 

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Donald Trump must be told that the people most affected by his policies, especially those in the Baltic states, are guilty of nothing more than being born in the best property in a terrible part of town. If he withdraws Nato insurance cover, property prices will go down and people will move out. This is because collective security works rather like Bill Bratton’s New York: it depends on zero tolerance, on fixing the windows and apprehending the stone-throwers. The danger is that after four years of Trump, much of eastern Europe will resemble a declining neighbourhood in 1980s America, with broken windows, uncollected rubbish, and demoralised residents huddled around braziers trying not to catch the eye of the criminals stalking their streets.

If that happens, we may soon see a Europe where the Atlantic, once an enfranchised sea connecting America and Europe, has become an unbridgeable ocean culturally and politically; where the United States has left us to our fate; where the channel separating the home island from a turbulent continent once again runs narrower than a village brook; where Italy and France have given way to authoritarian, Russian-leaning populists; where Germany finally buckles under the strain; where the rest of Europe has scattered like minnows; where Putin rules supreme in the east; and only England stands for collective defence, free trade and fair play.

Brendan Simms is an NS contributing writer. His latest book is “Britain’s Europe: a Thousand Years of Conflict and Co-operation” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage