In the early 1990s, following the end of the Cold War, the US president George HW Bush hailed the “peace dividend” that the West would reap. The demise of the Soviet Union, he said, would allow “permanently reduced defence budgets”. Spending duly fell as the West foolishly convinced itself that the era of great-power competition was over. China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001 and Vladimir Putin was welcomed as a “reformist” leader.
But what remained of the peace dividend is evaporating as the West confronts multiple threats. A revanchist Russia is waging relentless war in Ukraine. An expansionist China, intent on countering US dominance, is menacing Taiwan. And across the Middle East, an “axis of resistance”, led by Iran, is challenging the established regional order, motivated, in part, by the war in Gaza.
The attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea by Houthi fighters are only the latest instance of conflict in this new age of insecurity. As well as posing a threat to civilian life, the drone and missile strikes by the Iran-backed rebels in Yemen have weakened an already fragile global economy. Major shipping firms are re-routing their vessels around the Cape of Good Hope, which can add 12 days to cargo travelling from Asia to Europe. Western consumers, reeling from the price spikes triggered by the war in Ukraine, now face a renewed inflationary threat and delays to deliveries of food, goods and medicines.
The retaliatory strikes launched by the US and UK on Houthi targets were legal, justified and proportionate. Britain and others had warned of military action if the Houthi attacks did not end, and on 10 January the UN Security Council passed a resolution affirming the right to freedom of navigation. While the UK has been charged with “escalating” the conflict, it was Houthi militants who launched the biggest attack on the Royal Navy in decades on 9 January. Pleas for restraint were no longer sufficient.
But the armed response exposed Europe’s continuing reliance on US military power. Of the ten countries that formally supported the strikes, only the UK participated directly. France, Italy and Spain did not even deign to sign a joint statement endorsing the action.
Ever since the Second World War, Europe has relied on the US to act as naval hegemon and guardian of international trade. But we should not assume that it will perform this role indefinitely. As the prominent US commentator Noah Smith recently noted, “America itself is less dependent on seaborne trade than almost any other country on the planet, and yet we’ve been paying most of the cost of protecting seaborne trade since the end of World War II.”
Donald Trump, who, as Sarah Baxter writes on page 18, won the Iowa Republican primary by a landslide on 15 January, has long complained of Europe “free-riding” on the back of American military power. Only seven Nato countries – the US, the UK, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland – met the target of spending at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence in 2022, according to the latest available figures. Should Mr Trump regain the presidency in November, Europe will no longer be able to shelter so comfortably under the US security umbrella.
The EU has had years to prepare for this eventuality – Mr Trump publicly threatened to withdraw the US from Nato in 2018. But political fragility and economic stagnation in Europe mean little action has been taken. The French president Emmanuel Macron’s vision of “strategic autonomy” remains a fantasy. The German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s “Zeitenwende” (the so-called turning point declared after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022), which included an extra €100bn of defence spending, is imperilled by his country’s fiscal austerity.
But Europe must confront the prospect of a more fractious world; one in which threats are not only multiplying but interconnected. As Jeremy Bowen writes on page 30, “A geopolitical circuit board, with intersecting political and strategic wires, transmits and spreads conflicts in the Middle East. The war in Gaza connects to the Red Sea crisis via the rift between friends of Iran and friends of America.”
The era of easy peace is over. It is likely that the gunboat diplomacy employed by the US and UK against the Houthis will be followed by further military interventions. In this new age of conflict, all Western countries will need to devote ever-greater resources – political and financial – to ensure meaningful security.
This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge