Ashdown Sunday Times Piece (16.04.16)
Barack Obama is coming to Britain next week. Brexiters from Boris Johnson downwards, say he shouldn’t – or at least if he comes he shouldn’t give his views on Europe (though they are happy to quote lower rank US right-wingers giving theirs). They say to do so, is “hypocritical” and interferes in a decision that is only ours to make. They are right as far as they go. But they only tell half the story.
Ninety-nine years ago next month, the United States entered the World War I and sent its young men and women over the Atlantic to fight for our freedom. They did it again in the Second World War. And again in the Cold War which followed, when the peace of Europe depended more on Washington than on any other single capital in the world, including those on the European mainland. They made none of these sacrifices because it was in our European interests. They made them because they were in their own – or rather because their interests on that side of the Atlantic, and ours on this, coincided.
For the last century, the Atlantic relationship has been key to our peace and security. And the key to the Atlantic relationship has been its strongest strand – the partnership between the United Kingdom and the US. Together we have done more than any other two nations in the world to up-hold a peace based on the values we jointly share. Surely that entitles a US President to tell us if he believes we are about to take a step which diminishes both our influence in Washington and the strength of our partnership?
As the White House said following Boris Johnson’s intemperate criticism of our closest ally: “the US deeply values a strong ally in the UK as a part of the EU.” Ever since Kissinger and Kennedy, Washington’s policy has favoured a “twin pillar NATO” based on a strong US and a united Europe. They understand that a weakened – or worse, disintegrating – EU would give opportunities to Vladimir Putin and damage the Atlantic relationship as an instrument to pursue our joint interests in a turbulent and instable world. If that is Mr Obama’s view, then surely he is duty bound to put it?
And he is not alone. All our friends in NATO, the Commonwealth and well beyond, take the same view – and for precisely the same reasons. There is, however one person who does agree with Messrs Johnson and Farage – but he is very far from a friend. It has long been a cardinal strategic aim of Vladimir Putin’s to bring about the break-up of the EU. Some even claim that Russia secretly funds some of Europe’s anti-EU political parties. I am sure that is not happening in Britain, of course. But that does not alter the fact that, while all our friends would mourn Brexit, Vladimir Putin would cheer it. It’s what he wants us to do.
Next week will mark President Obama’s last visit to Britain while in office. Who will be our next US Presidential visitor? Though I do not predict it and pray for the opposite, we have to face the fact that by next year Donald Trump could be in the White House and American foreign policy will have taken a turn towards the incoherent, the bizarre and the dangerous all at once. This is a man who has proposed South Korea and Japan arming themselves to the teeth with nuclear weapons to deal with the threat posed by North Korea. A man who has called NATO “obsolete”. Trapped between an overbearing, senseless Trump to our West and an increasingly emboldened Putin to our East, the last thing our continent needs is to become more fractured and less secure.
These are most dangerous times for Europe – arguably more dangerous than any in my life time. To our west we have United States in the throes of a convulsive and unpredictable election; to our east, the most assertive – some would say aggressive – Russian leader of our times, prepared to use military force to deny a European democracy its chosen future; to our south-east an Arab world in flames; to our south a Maghreb in turmoil right down as far as Mali in central Africa. And all around us new economic powers emerging which are as strong or stronger than any individual European nation acting on its own.
If now, in the face of these threats, we were to abandon our European solidarity in favour of a lonely isolation which rejects the advice of our allies, then the difficult decades ahead of us, will be much, much more difficult and dangerous, not just for all of us in Britain, but also for all of Britain’s friends around the world.