The 19th century French writer Victor Hugo wrote that “We see past time in a telescope and present time in a microscope. Hence the apparent enormities of the present.” We have so much more information at our fingertips today that it’s increasingly difficult to see the wood for the trees.
It’s better to study the present with a telescope and the past with a microscope. The past usually acquires an aura of inevitability, whereas the microscope shows how often it was a close run thing.
Nazi defeat in 1945 is now taken for granted but key events were measured in sometimes extraordinarily small shifts of fortune. If the gifted daughter of the Spitfire and Hurricane designer hadn’t realised that the planes could accommodate 8 rather than the normal 6 machine guns on their wings, we could have lost the Battle of Britain and faced invasion.
If the young Irish meteorologist hadn’t spotted a narrow window of calm over the Channel on 6 June 1944, D Day would have been delayed. That could have exposed the closely guarded strategic deceit that the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy was the target. That could have allowed Hitler to move his forces to the real strike point and made it harder for the Allies to begin the bloody road to Berlin.
War is not merely a mathematical equation of logistics and statistics. And that, I hope, applies to the current war on the European continent where plucky Ukraine is objectively outmatched by its bigger neighbour.
The Economist recently carried a fascinating interview with a representative of the American Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) whose “tradecraft note” measures a country’s will to fight. It highlights the morale-boosting insistence of Volodymyr Zelensky to stay at his post in Kyiv and the importance of leadership on the front lines, an army’s esprit de corps, the strength of its command and control, and whether it enjoys sustained logistical and medical support. The analysis is cautiously optimistic.
That should be accompanied by the recognition that Ukrainian defeat would embolden Russia to pursue its military adventurism, and even encourage China to attack Taiwan. Several writers demolish commonly espoused ideas for quick fixes or objections to bolstering assistance to Ukraine. They conclude that the only outcome that can safeguard the future security of Europe is a convincing Ukrainian victory.
So does much of the labour movement, except for the pathetic rantings of the Stop the War Coalition, whose leader Andrew Murray recently opined that supporting Ukraine is importing “bourgeois ideology” into the movement. His archaic views were most effectively rebutted by Mick Antoniw, a Welsh Assembly member who’s often visited Ukraine.
Victory may take many years. Labour can more visibly help Ukraine. Ukraine needs vehicles to turn into ambulances and gun platforms. Vehicles yet to be scrapped under the Mayor of London’s Ulez scheme could be despatched, as could old vehicles in the Metropolitan Police and TFL fleets. Other councils could do the same.
In any case, a Labour Government will have to reassess the country’s defence and foreign policy posture, which has long relied on the transatlantic alliance with America that looms large in progressive views, for good or ill.
Joe Biden is spearheading surprisingly radical and huge measures to decarbonise and boost American jobs. Yet Biden could be defeated in just over a year by a vengeful Donald Trump, who’s narrowly ahead in several polls despite or even because of the avalanche of charges and court cases against him.
Trump didn’t know what he was doing last time. Now he has a better idea. No more Mister Nice Guy? Trump could undermine democratic norms, betray Ukraine, and destroy Nato.
The former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is more optimistic. She says only a small vocal minority of Republicans would not support Ukraine and that “The American people carry two contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time. One is, ‘Can’t somebody else do this?’ The other is, “Oh wait, a small country being destroyed by a larger one, that can’t happen.’” Fingers crossed.
Either way, Trump 2 could make the global weather for the duration of the first Labour Government. In the worst case scenario, Europe may need a new defence entity, to which the UK is well-placed to contribute. More deeply associating with the EU or even rejoining could become and be seen as necessary in drastic circumstances.
As we so often say, we must deal with the world as it is rather than how we would like it to be. We’re going to need microscopes and telescopes.
This is the ninth in a series of columns covering Labour’s foreign policy challenges. The author, Gary Kent, studied International Relations, has been a Labour member since 1976 and has worked in Parliament since 1987 where he has focused on Anglo/Irish and Anglo/Kurdish relations. He writes in a personal capacity.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out Gary’s previous piece, The internationalisation of domestic policy.