In the Atlantic, Stanford University history professor Ian Morris portrayed a bleak picture of the future of warfare:
“Current trends suggest that robots will begin taking over our fighting in the 2040s—just around the time, the trends also suggest, that the United States, the world’s globocop, will be losing control of the international order. In the 1910s, the combination of a weakening globocop (Britain) and revolutionary new fighting machines (dreadnoughts, machine guns, aircraft, quick-firing artillery, internal combustion engines) ended a century of smaller, less bloody wars and set off a storm of steel. The 2040s promise a similar combination. The next 40 years could be the most dangerous in history.”
Ian Morris described a well-known phenomenon: periods of relative small wars make way for full scale total wars. It has been like that since the religious wars of the 16th and 17th century. In the 18th century Europe experienced a period of limited warfare until the massive scale of the French revolutionary wars. In general the 19th century again was a period of relative calm until the World Wars and the Korean War. We know for sure that a more violent period will develop after the relative calm of the Cold War. Ian Morris argues that this will happen in the near future. Since the end of the Cold War, and at an accelerating rate since the Great Recession, the European armies all have cut their defence budgets. Most countries now spend far less than 2% of their GDP on defence, where NATO recommends at least 2%. European continental nations are not willing, or a few maybe incapable, to spend more. It makes European nations very vulnerable when a situation develops as Ian Morris is expecting.
Let’s take the Netherlands as an example. The nation is the 18th economy in the world, a prosperous kingdom in the middle of Europe. After the austerity measures of 2012-2013, the budget of the Netherlands Ministry of Defence has dropped to a little more than 1% of the GDP. NATO Secretary General Rasmussen called on the Netherlands to stop this trend and act as a responsible international partner. Within the Netherlands signs of opposition are weak, but developing: The Commander of the Armed Forces, General Middendorp, called for an end to the austerity measures on defence. On the 11th of April, the retired General Harm de Jonge wrote a highly critical opinion piece in the Trouw newspaper. He argued that the Netherlands defence spendings are irresponsibly low. According to the General, the Netherlands are free-riding. The message to the Netherlands allies is: please prepare to die for our wealth and safety while we balance our budgets. Even before the austerity measures, the Netherlands Armed Forces were stretched to the limit when they deployed a little over 2000 troops to Afghanistan. For a rich country of more than 16 million inhabitants, it is remarkable that fielding such a modest amount of soldiers is that hard to maintain.
Recently two small Christian parties both pleaded to raise the defence budget. The timing and reason for their plea was interesting. They reacted to a Netherlands government decision to reserve 500 million for upper and middle incomes. The two parties forming the current government are natural political adversaries: the VVD is right wing liberal and the PvdA is left wing social-democratic. The deal was a result of political bargaining: illegal stay of immigrants in the Netherlands will not become a criminal offense and the middle and higher incomes can enjoy a 500M tax break. While the government parties were very proud of their accomplishment, opposition parties tried to negotiate a deal for their own voters. Only two small Christian parties took the opportunity to plea for a better balanced defence budget in the light of growing international tensions and national and international pleas to raise the defence budget to an acceptable minimum.
Apart from the unsettling prediction Ian Morris made for the near future of armed conflict, the recent behaviour of the Netherlands in international affairs is not in balance with the resources the Dutch are willing to provide for their own and collective security. A recent string of events shows how strangely out of touch the Dutch political leadership really is:
First the Dutch argued with Russian President Putin over gay rights during his visit to Amsterdam for the celebration of 400 years bilateral relations. Gay rights are important, but a minor topic in 400 years of bilateral relations. It is questionable how this protest helped the Russian gay community. Putin is known to use the topic to strengthen his position at home were a big majority does not support gay rights. The Dutch have enough problems with discrimination themselves and outside a few liberal hot spots, same sex relations are at most quietly tolerated.
What was supposed to be a year of celebration turned into a continuous uneasy affair of two nations that did not understand each other. In September 2013 a Dutch Greenpeace ship and its crew was apprehended by Russian authorities, while entering a Russian oil platform. Both the gay and green activists were applauded by government officials. In October 2013 a Russian diplomat was arrested: he was drunk and acted aggressive towards his young children. While understandable, the arrest turned out to be a violation of international law. During all these incidents, the Dutch radiated one central message: we are your moral superiors. The Dutch behaved self-centered, insensitive for the Russian point of view.
Around the time the Greenpeace activists were apprehended, the Royal Netherlands Navy send three of its most modern frigates, their capacity more resembling destroyers, to the Baltic Sea for the Northern Archer exercise. On board these ships were three state-of-the-art radar installations that are capable of guiding an American interceptor missile towards a Russian tactical ballistic missile. They were to strengthen economic ties. The message was at least confusing: The Russian irritation on the SDI program is not forgotten and the Dutch are not going to sell the Russians their latest military technology. So what were these ships doing there? In December 2013 the Netherlands government sold their German made Leopard 2 Main Battle Tanks to Finland. Officially Finland is neutral and not a NATO member, but a full member of the European Union. At least Finland can be regarded as a political ally and, after the last weapons deal, also a military partner. The Russians are faced with this extra batch of high end MBT’s and the Dutch actions can’t be regarded as friendly.
There is more: Recently the Netherlands Minister of Defence Janine Hennis-Plasschaert visited Georgia, that fought a war against Russia in 2008. She visited the Caucasus nation for talks on a training agreement for the Georgian Army. Georgia wants to change their Army organisation into a 100% non-conscript professional army and the Netherlands offered help. The Netherlands Minister of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans, visited the Maidan square in Kiev in December 2013 and March 2014 in the aftermath of the violent protests, giving support to the Ukrainian protesters. Janukovich was Putin’s man and he was violently removed by parties that regard the EU and NATO as allies. It was a coup d’etat, with support from the EU and NATO. The Dutch, by the actions of its Foreign Affairs minister, showed that they supported the violent ousting. By visiting Georgia and providing military assistance the Dutch again did not show a friendly face.
So what kind of message did the Dutch send and how does that relate to cutting their defence budget and the longer strategic outlook? First of all, and that is pretty obvious, it is not responsible to provoke a political and military stronger nation: In a short period the Dutch showed ignorance, diplomatic insensitivity and military provocation by supporting Georgia, the Ukrainian coup d’etat, providing Finland with MBT’s and by showing of radars that decreases the Russian nuclear deterrence. Second, after weakening the national defensive capability, the Dutch lean heavier on their allies in NATO and the EU. The Dutch behave as free-riders and that weakens the alliance with their traditional friends. In the light of the before mentioned provocations that is remarkable. Thirdly it is clear that the Netherlands economy is not the hardest hit in the EU, but the Dutch decided anyway to cut their defensive budgets to almost 1% of the GDP. When the first signs of recovery were there, the first priority was to cut taxes for the richest in the nation. This all is proof of a staggering and shameless lack of vision and a flawed self-image. Finally, in the light of the historical continuum of the occurrence of total wars and the recent study of Ian Morris, it is time the Netherlands start to repair the damage that has been done by the irresponsible, naive actions of successive governments.