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Waterloo: The Fall of a Superpower

Thursday is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, and in the course of the day you are almost bound to hear or read somebody claiming that it “changed history.” It was a very big battle, after all, and it would be a century before Europe saw war on that scale again. But did the events of 18 June 1815 “change history”? Probably not.

The really decisive battle was fought a year and a half before that near Leipzig in Germany: the ‘Battle of the Nations’. Three times more men were involved in that battle than fought at Waterloo. There were many more battles before the Russian, Austrian and Prussian armies entered Paris and Napoleon finally abdicated as Emperor of the French in the spring of 1814, but he never won another battle.

Napoleon was given a mini-kingdom on the island of Elba, off the Italian coast, to keep himself busy. The victors began to put Europe back together after twenty years of almost unbroken war, around 3 million combat deaths, and a comparable number of civilian casualties. And after only ten months, Napoleon escaped from Elba and went back to France for another try.

But it was really already over. The British (the paymasters of the coalition), the Austrians, the Prussians and the Russians were all still mobilised, and their armies started closing in on France. In the ‘Hundred Days’, Napoleon managed to lure many men who had fought for him in past wars back into his new army, but it was pure nostalgia.

He moved fast, hoping to defeat the British army in what is now Belgium before the other allies arrived to reinforce it, and he almost succeeded. The British commander, the Duke of Wellington, said that the battle of Waterloo was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” In the end, late in the afternoon, the Prussian (German) army showed up and turned the tide. But if Napoleon hadn’t lost at Waterloo, he would have been defeated a little later.

“God is on the side of the heaviest battalions,” said Voltaire, and Napoleon agreed, just substituting “the best artillery” to demonstrate that his military knowledge was fully up to date. But his political knowledge was woefully deficient: God is actually on the side of the biggest economies, especially if they know how to turn their wealth into military power.

Britain had already overtaken France as Europe’s biggest economy (and in those days, that meant the world’s biggest economy). The industrial revolution in Britain was already into its second generation, while France had barely entered the first. Even in sheer numbers of people, a low birth rate meant that France would fall behind Russia, then behind Germany, and eventually even behind Britain in population.

So even if Napoleon could go on winning battles, he couldn’t win the war. In the end he couldn’t even win the battles. He was running out of soldiers, and his enemies had spent a generation at war learning (very expensively) to fight battles just as well as he did. Waterloo only confirmed what everybody with eyes could see already: France was finished as Europe’s superpower.

Then Britain got a century at the top (and after 500 years of Anglo-French wars, it never had to fight France again). The United States is now about 75 years into its term as the reigning superpower – and you are probably assuming that I am now going to speculate who gets the crown next. Wrong on two counts.

First of all, it’s a thorny crown, and nobody in their right mind would want it. The relevant statistic (which hides in plain sight) is that the more powerful a country is, the more wars it fights and the more people it loses. More power doesn’t give you greater security; it just gets you into more trouble.

Secondly, about half the time there is no undisputed top dog. That was the situation for the century 1600-1700, when Spain was in visible decline but France was not yet ready to assume the mantle of sole superpower. It was equally true in 1945-1990, when nuclear weapons (the great equaliser) meant that the United States and the Soviet Union were co-equal superpowers even though the US economy was far bigger than the Soviet one.

And now, with the American superpower allegedly in decline, there is obsessive speculation about when China will step in and take over the role – or might it turn out to be India instead? As though it were still the early 19th century, when France was going down and Britain was taking over. It isn’t.

Military power doesn’t deliver the goods any more. The United States has lost almost every war and mini-war it has fought in the past fifty years (except Grenada and Panama), even though it accounts for around half of the planet’s spending on defence. In the present global strategic environment, decisive victories are about as rare as unicorns.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is probably a good thing. Victory is a much over-rated concept.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“But…nostalgia”; and “God…power”)

Half a Titanic

The first thing to do, if you want to cut the number of refugees from Africa and the Middle East dying while trying to cross the Mediterranean, is to drop leaflets all along the Libyan coast teaching them about ship stability. Don’t all rush to one side when you spot a ship that might save you, the pamphlets will say, because your boat will capsize and you will drown.

That’s what happened last weekend off the Libyan coast, where a boat filled with at least 700 refugees overturned when the people aboard spotted a Portuguese freighter and tried to attract its attention. (One survivor says there were 950 people aboard, including those locked below decks. ) At least 650 people died – half a Titanic’s worth of casualties – although the boat in question was only 20 metres (70 ft.) long. Only 28 people were saved.

Exactly the same thing happened with another boat crammed with refugees the previous week, and another 400 people drowned. Counting another 300+ people who drowned in another disaster in February, the death toll right now, before the peak summer season for refugee crossings, is around 1,500. That’s a full Titanic. It’s not getting quite as many headlines, though.

So the second thing to do is to lock the European Union’s foreign ministers into a room and refuse to let them have caviar and champagne until they agree to do something about the silent massacre in the Mediterranean. Something quite effective was being done until late last year, but they deliberately stopped it.

Until late last year the Italian navy (praise be upon it) was running an operation called Mare Nostrum that went all the way to the edge of Libya’s territorial waters to pluck refugees from the sea. The operation cost 9.5 million euros a month ($10.3 million), but it rescued 100,000 people from leaking boats or the open sea. More than half of the 170,000 refugees who landed in Italy had cause to thank the Italian navy, and only one in a hundred died.

The number of refugees arriving in Italy each month is around the same this year, maybe a little higher – but ten times as many people are dying on the way. That is because the European Union’s governments, rather than sharing the cost of the Mare Nostrum project, asked Italy to shut it down and substituted their own “Triton” operation.

Except that “Triton” is in no way an adequate substitute. It only gets a third of funding Mare Nostrum had, and it is only supposed to operate in Italy’s coastal waters, not farther out where most of the refugee boats capsize or founder. Even this year, with the Italian navy theoretically excused from duty, it has saved twice as many people as the pathetic “Triton” operation. Which, by the way, was INTENDED to be pathetic.

The argument the European governments made was that if you didn’t give the refugees the hope that they would be saved by the Italian navy, fewer of them would come. Right, so if you’re fleeing the civil war in Syria or the ghastly dictatorship in Eritrea, and you learn that the danger of dying on a Mediterranean crossing has gone up from one percent to ten percent, you’re going to decide to stay in war-torn Libya instead?

Were the European governments lying to themselves, or just to everybody else? The latter, almost certainly. They were under pressure at home to stop the flow of migrants, they didn’t want to share the burden of saving them with the admirable Italians, but they couldn’t just say “Let them drown.” So they came up with that preposterous argument about deterring the migrants by making the crossing more dangerous, and shut Mare Nostrum down.

“In many countries in Europe at the moment,” said Laurens Jolles, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Italy, “the (political) dialogue and the rhetoric is quite extreme and very irresponsible….It’s a fear of foreigners…, but it is being exploited for populist or political reasons, especially in election periods.”

Too true. Take, for example, Katie Hopkins, columnist for The Sun, a down-market right-wing British red-top (tabloid newspaper) owned by the estimable Rupert Murdoch. Last Friday, in an article headlined “Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants”, she wrote: “NO, I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.”

“Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit “Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984”, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb. They are survivors….It’s time to get Australian. Bring on the gunships, force migrants back to their shores and burn the boats.”

Saying that sort of thing is how she earns her living, but it also expresses the true sentiments of a politically significant minority not only in Britain but in most countries throughout the European Union. When the UNHCR appealed to the EU to resettle 130,000 Syrian refugees, Germany said it would take 30,000, Sweden (with a tenth of Germany’s population) took 2,700 –and the other 26 EU states only took 5,438 between them.

So the drownings will continue.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 9 and 12. (“Exactly…though”; “Were…down”; and “Make…boats”)

Asylum-Seekers: The Limits of Tolerance

The language of the immigration debate in Germany has got harsh and extreme. German Chancellor Angela Merkel attacked the anti-immigration movement in her New Year speech, saying its leaders have “prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts.”

The “anti-Islamisation” protests all across Germany on Monday fizzled out in the end. 18,000 people showed up at one rally in Dresden, where the weekly protests by the Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida) began last October, but that hardly counted because there are few Muslims – indeed few immigrants of any sort – in Dresden.

Anti-immigrant sentiment in Western countries is always highest where there are few or no immigrants. In big German cities like Hamburg, Berlin and Stuttgart that do have large immigrant populations, the counter-demonstrators outnumbered the Pegida protesters ten-to-one. But the debate is not over.

Germany is taking in more immigrants that ever before: some 600,000 this year. That’s not an intolerable number for a country of 82 million, but it does mean that if current trends persist, the number of foreign-born residents will almost double to 15 million in just ten years. That will take some getting used to – and there’s another thing. A high proportion of the new arrivals in Germany are Muslim refugees.

Two-thirds of those 600,000 newcomers in 2014 were people from other countries of the European Union where work is scarce or living standards are lower. They have the legal right to come under EU rules, and there’s really nothing Germany can do about it. Besides, few of the EU immigrants are Muslims.

The other 200,000, however, are almost all refugees who are seeking asylum in Germany. The number has almost doubled in the past year, and will certainly grow even larger this year. And the great majority of the asylum-seekers are Muslims.

This is not a Muslim plot to colonise Europe. It’s just that a large majority of the refugees in the world are Muslims. At least three-quarters of the world’s larger wars are civil wars in Muslim countries like Syria (by far the biggest source of new refugees), Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Libya.

Many of these refugees end up in other predominantly Muslim countries (like Lebanon, where between a quarter and a third of the population is now Syrian refugees.) But Europe is relatively close, and a much better place to be if you can get there: each asylum-seeker who is accepted by Germany gets free accommodation, food, medical care and clothing. Adults also get $160 a month. Moreover, if they make it to Europe, the war cannot follow them.
Every country has an obligation to accept and protect legitimate refugees seeking asylum, but in practice some dodge their responsibilities. Last year the United Kingdom, which has 65 million people, accepted less than half as many refugees as Sweden, which has 10 million people. But even the best-intentioned countries, like Germany, are starting to show the strain.

It’s easy to mock the fears of Germany’s “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West”- only 5 percent of Germany’s population is Muslim. But 9 percent of the children born in Germany in recent years have Muslim parents because of the higher birth rates of Middle Eastern immigrants.

If the current wave of asylum-seekers continues – and there is no particular reason to believe that the Syrian civil war will end soon – then Germany will add another two million Muslim immigrants to its population in the next decade. And they too will have higher birth rates than the locals.

With its current asylum policy, Germany could be 10 percent Muslim ten years from now. You might reasonably ask: what’s wrong with having a 10 percent Muslim population? But it’s hard to think of a Muslim country that would welcome the relatively sudden arrival of a 10 percent Christian minority with equanimity.

And special thanks to the Islamist thugs who committed the massacre at “Charlie Hebdo” in Paris on Wednesday for making it even harder for Europeans to see the difference between terrorist fanatics and ordinary Muslims. Most Europeans still try to see things in proportion and not judge all Muslims by the acts of a few, but they are failing more frequently. People are people, and their tolerance has limits.

Even in Sweden, the most heroically open country in Europe, where they are expecting more than 100,000 asylum applications this year, former prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said just before last September’s election: “I’m now pleading with the Swedish people to have patience, to open your hearts, to see people in high distress whose lives are being threatened. Show them that openness, show them tolerance.”

Once more, the Swedes did that. The mainstream parties, all of which share that vision of Sweden, have formed a coalition government that is pledged not to slam the gates shut on asylum-seekers. But the anti-immigration party, the Sweden Democrats, more than doubled its vote and became the third-largest party. Even in Sweden, time is running out on tolerance.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Many…strain”)

Merkel’s Counter-Strike

“What we have today is a story based on speculation about what (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel might have said about something (British Prime Minster) David Cameron might say in the future,” said David Davis, a prominent Conservative member of parliament, in London on Sunday. So no big deal, then?

It’s a very big deal: Merkel is pulling the rug out from under Cameron. For all his tough talk about renegotiating the terms of Britain’s membership in the European Union, she is saying, he has no cards in his hand.

At the EU summit on 25 October, Cameron said that changing the existing rules that guarantee freedom of movement for workers within the EU would be “at the very heart of my renegotiation strategy for Europe.” No, said Angela Merkel, it won’t work: “We have the basic principle of free movement. We won’t meddle with that.”

In other words, if Cameron doesn’t like the membership rules, tough. He can hold a referendum if he wants, and leave the EU if he wins. But there’s no way he can get the other 27 members to change the basic rules of the organisation just to solve his little political problem at home.

In fact, Merkel will even try to ensure that Cameron loses next year’s British election so that there is no referendum on Britain’s EU membership. Being an experienced politician, however, Merkel delivered that part of her message in a deniable way.

It was officials from Merkel’s own office and the German foreign ministry who briefed the newsmagazine Der Spiegel on her plans in that regard. They were not to be quoted by name – and it was left to the rest of us to figure out what her words would do to Cameron’s re-election chances.

Cameron has recently been talking about imposing “quotas” on low-skilled people from other EU countries moving to Britain, in a desperate attempt to get around the EU rules. “Should Cameron persist (in this quota plan), Chancellor Angela Merkel would abandon her efforts to keep Britain in the EU,” Merkel’s officials told Der Spiegel. “With that a point of no return would be reached.” Shape up or ship out.

Merkel has launched a counter-strike that may well bring Cameron down. By making it crystal clear that his “renegotiation” strategy cannot work, she is effectively telling British voters that if they re-elect Cameron’s Conservatives in  the election that is due next May, they will be voting to leave the EU. The election itself becomes a referendum on EU membership – a referendum which she obviously thinks Cameron will lose.

She is probably right. For all the fulmination in the British right-wing press about the country being overrun by immigrants from poorer EU countries, public support for EU membership in Britain is higher than it has been since 1991. It is still only a modest 56 percent, but that is a lot higher than the 44 percent support that the same Ipsos MORI polling organisation found only two years ago.

The truth is that only 13 percent of Britain’s population is “foreign-born”, exactly the same as the immigrant share in the population of the United States or Germany. The immigrants are not taking British jobs: the UK has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe. The problem is perceptions – and particularly the perceptions of those who normally vote Conservative.

The right-wing media in Britain, as in most countries, pander to the nationalism and the fear of foreigners that is rampant among the older and the poorer sections of the population. Too many foreigners coming in, living off our taxes and stealing our jobs is a simple (though rarely an accurate) explanation for why this section of the population feels marginalised, so this narrative works well with them.

Britain is pulling in more EU workers than usual because its economy is doing relatively better than Germany, France, Spain, etc. The numbers are not overwhelming, but under EU rules Britain has no right to bar them, so anti-EU nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment have grown into a stronger force than usual – but only on the right.

This would normally be to the advantage of the Conservative Party, whose own right-wing “backwoodsmen” share these views. In normal times, when the grown-ups are in charge, the party harvests these votes each election while never intending to do anything so foolish economically as to actually quit the EU.

Cameron belongs to the grown-up majority in the Conservative Party, and is not personally anti-EU. But the emergence and explosive growth of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), specifically tailored to appeal to the anti-immigrant-and-EU vote, has panicked the right wing of the Conservative Party.

Cameron has had to move further and further right to placate them and compete with UKIP, so he can no longer afford to be sensible about the EU. Merkel has understood this, and has effectively written him off even though she is a conservative herself. Her strategy now is to force Cameron into an openly anti-EU stance, split the right-wing vote in Britain evenly between the Conservatives and UKIP, and open the way for Labour to win the election.

Because that’s the only way she can see to keep Britain in the European Union.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 13. (“The truth…everywhere”; and “This would…EU”)