The Future of European Geostrategy
BSSB.BE IES Brussels 17.10.2018
Balkans Danube Poland
* Europe is the continent that gave birth to geopolitics. It is the idea that geography affects the conduct of international politics.
The idea is not without controversy. But does a current of thought brought to prominence in the 20th century still have any relevance today given globalisation and technological advancement? What do the burning crises in the Southern Mediterranean, the Sahel, the Levant and Eastern Europe tell us about Europe, geopolitics and strategy? How does Europe understand geopolitics and strategy today? What are the flaws in Europe’s strategic thinking?
Prof. Sir Hew Strachan (FRSE FRhistS) is Chichele Professor of the History of War and a Fellow of All Souls College at the University of Oxford. He serves as an advisor to the Chief of the Defence Staff, UK, as well as a Trustee of the Imperial War Museum, a Commonwealth War Graves Commissioner and a member of the National Committee for the Centenary of the First World War and the Council of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He is also a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge and a Visiting Professor at the University of Glasgow. He is a world leading authority on the history of the First World War. He is the author of many books and articles including The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (2013) and The First World War: A New Illustrated History.
This was the closing lecture of the Autumn Lecture Series 2014: “The Future of European Geostrategy” jointly organised by the Institute for European Studies-VUB and the Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations. The lecture was delivered at Castle Val Duchesse (Kasteel Hertoginnendal/Château Val Duchesse).
Hew Strachan Well, I’m a military historian and sadly for Germany, particularly given where Germany stands today and its position in relation to war, war is pretty important in understanding Germany.
- It’s also important to the understanding of war. It’s very hard, I think, to be an adequate military historian at least in the European context without engaging with Germany. It’s so important for 19th and 20th century military thought, so important in terms of being seen as the leading military power and therefore other countries emulate it.
- I don’t really think you can get inside modern military history without engaging with Germany. Max Easterman Clausewitz effectively wrote the Urtext on military strategy…is what he wrote back in the 19th-century as relevant now as it was then? Hew Strachan Yes, it’s one of his, I think, immense strengths.
- The more I read Clausewitz, the more I admire the man. I don’t think he is a very likeable man, but, you know, his wife loved him dearly, but he is utterly focused on the debate. When I’m being flippant, which is quite frequently, I will tend to say that if he was still alive, he would still be writing that book, because the book is a constant debate with the evidence that he finds.
- And every time he came against a problem, he would use military history, he would go back, dig around and say: “how does reading military history help us understand what this particular problem, strategy is?” And it’s precisely that debate, that reluctance to come to conclusions – although he did want to come to conclusions – but it’s that reluctance to come to a premature, flip conclusion, which makes him so profound.
Max Easterman Is there a reluctance amongst historians today to draw lessons from history – such as from the events of the 1st World War? Hew Strachan Yes, I think there is. Lessons are not something historians do, because we would all argue that what happens in a particular period is particular to that period, it’s not reproduceable. That doesn’t mean history doesn’t have a didactic value.
What history does, I think, is generate understanding, which is a different thing. It also, I think, has, particularly in less literate societies than Britain and Germany, has an that in a funny old way we’ve lost contact with. I think the printed word has created a distance I think we almost create too much distance from the past to our present. So it’s that sense of context, which I think is also important. “Who are we?” – well, history is quite important also in answering that question. It’s a different question from “Are there lessons to be learned?”
Max Easterman Isn’t the 1st World War a classic example of how historians cannot reach a consensus? I’m thinking of the revisionists and anti-revisionists in the 1920s, for example. Hew Strachan That is absolutely true and that is, of course, one of its fascinations. It’s also why the war is a great didactic tool in its own right, because controversy is very good for educational purposes. It’s one of the reasons we should be pleased about the attention to the centenary as historians, because the controversies will provide an educational tool
By the 1930s the argument about German war guilt had, broadly speaking, been put to bed in most quarters. Most people did accept the version that Europe had slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war, as Lloyd George said. That view held until Fritz Fischer publishes books in 1961, even in 1962 for most English speaking historians and certainly somebody like John F. Kennedy in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, Europe had still slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war. Fischer gradually gained ground, German war guilt was therefore re-established as a form of consensus and now we are back again to the 1930s position. And even if you are a diehard defender of the argument that Germany is responsible for causing this war, that in itself is insufficient to explain the war’s outbreak.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: IES Brussels