Monday 10 August 2020

On land, on sea and on the internet

The old plan for a European army should be revived but on a modern footing, writes Farid Tabarki.

The Dutch national anthem, the Wilhelmus, reflects an attitude that is still prevalent in the Netherlands: awfully sorry to be taking up arms but we were left with no other choice. ‘As David who had to flee/the tyrant Saul/so I and many a nobleman had to endure,’ said Filips van Marnix van Sint-Aldegonde in a less familiar stanza of the national anthem.

The text shows an aversion to violence and a tendency towards moral superiority. The Dutch like to be morally superior. And they like to be very long-winded about it.  

The French do things differently. ‘To arms, citizens/ form your battalions/ let us march, let us march/that impure blood/may water our fields.’ It’s not surprising a country with an anthem like that should have nuclear weapons and the Netherlands – in spite of former prime minister Ruud Lubbers’ comments – probably doesn’t.   

Everything depends on the value we place on our safety and what we are prepared to do to defend it. At a Liberal International congress last month, the chairman of the VVD parliamentary party, Halbe Zijlstra, spoke out in favour of a higher defence budget. The welfare state is all well and good, he said, but it mustn’t endanger what he called ‘basic security’: the security of the country and job security.

It’s an interesting point and one the Netherlands should take to heart more than it does. Defence and jobs aren’t the whole story, however. Zijlstra should have read the National Security Strategy report. It not only mentions security and political and social stability but warns we should defend ourselves against ecological disasters and ‘cyber wars’ as well.

The Netherlands is cutting back on its defence budget. Climate has all but disappeared from the agenda. We are not aware enough of how vulnerable our communication, energy and basic needs are to cyber attacks and new kinds of weapons, such as the high altitude electromagnetic pulse, which could paralyse the country completely. This is where the European partners need to direct their attention.


All this hasn’t gone unnoticed by the world’s powerful policeman. Barack Obama, against the resplendent background of the Night Watch in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, may have been very complimentary about the Netherlands but once back in the States he let rip.

The Netherlands and other European countries are much too dependent on Russian gas and the huge sums that are being poured into defence by the Americans. The American budget is almost €500bn, more than double that of all 28 European member states put together. Those 28 little armies in Europe are hardly efficient. We would also do well to adopt a broader definition of defence and security and not concentrate solely on the acquisition of fighter planes.


The same goes for the Americans. Shawn Brimley and Paul Scharre wrote in international relations magazine Foreign Policy that it is time to re-set the American army by hitting control-alt-delete. Design a new army. The danger today doesn’t always come from one state invading another but from loosely-organised networks which try to destabilise societies by terrorism and cybercrime: on land, on sea and on the internet.

This week Rotterdam commemorates the German bombing of the city 74 years ago. Then, as now, people had no idea what was hitting them. Let’s listen to the French who shortly after the second world war proposed a European defence community. It didn’t happen in the end. The plan was supported by a number of European countries but was never ratified by the French parliament.

Dust off

It’s time to dust off the old French plan for European military cooperation and modernise it. We have to be able to defend ourselves against climate destabilisation and cyber attacks. We have to protect our innovative potential and defend the integrity of our soil. Otherwise ‘vile despots could/become masters of our fate’, to quote the Marseillaise again. And we wouldn’t want that.

Farid Tabarki is a trendwatcher public speaker, panel moderator and founder of Studio Zeitgeist in Amsterdam.

This column was published earlier in the Financieele Dagblad






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