Once upon a time, there were three little pigs.
They lived not in a magical kingdom but a dangerous world where anyone building their house out of straw was liable to end up in a bacon butty.
But straw was cheap and two of the pigs wanted to spend their fortune on creature comforts. Pig No. 3 was plunging his fortune into a stone fortress that no enemy could breach. Our friend’s house is secure, the pigs reasoned; he will always be there to protect us.
Then along came a wolf called Vlad, demanding to be let in. When he wasn’t, he huffed and he puffed and he blew down the flimsy houses.
The two pigs fled to the house of stone. From inside the sturdy redoubt, a whiny cry went up: ‘FAKE NEWS! Vlad is our friend. The friendliest wolf ever. Sad!’
Vlad grinned but when he huffed and puffed, the house didn’t sway so much as an inch. The wolf skulked away in the direction of his lair, stopping along the way to annex the enchanted forest.
The third little pig lived happily ever after, or until Congress moved articles of impeachment.
For half a century, Europe has lulled itself to sleep at night with a fairy tale much like this.
Donald Trump has given everyone a rude awakening. America’s first nationalist president bemoans the costs of global leadership, telling the crowd at his inauguration: ‘For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidised the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own.’
This, and not his occasional outbursts against Nato, is what keeps heads tossing on pillows across Europe’s capitals. There is nothing so lofty as principle at work.
Life has been good until now for leaders in Paris and Berlin and Rome. Ever since World War II, and even more so since the fall of the Soviet Union, they’ve been able to erect straw defences while shielding themselves behind the buttresses of the United States. This allowed them to divert resources to public services, social protection, and Europe’s biggest investment programme: anti-Americanism. For while cowering behind US tanks, Europeans damn the United States as a war-mongering imperialist. They get guns, butter and self-righteousness, all on Uncle Sam’s dime.
The staggering ingratitude of the civilised continent is why so many Americans are susceptible to Trump’s isolationist mendacities. His grim worldview got another boost over the weekend. The President’s new defence secretary, James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, and his secretary of state, a man with the somewhat more pedestrian name Rex Tillerson flew to Munich for talks with European leaders.
They sought to reassure America’s allies that she remained committed to their defence as part of Nato. All they asked was that other countries paid their way by honouring a pledge to spend 2% of GDP on defence. That target was set over a decade ago and aimed to reduce free-riding on America’s generosity. Eleven years later, just five of Nato’s 28 member states are meeting it — the US, Greece, Estonia, Britain and Poland.
You might think now would be a good time to reach for the wallet and pay the bill but that is to underestimate Europe’s capacity for ingrate mooching. Reached during one of his more lucid moments, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker huffed: ‘I do not like our American friends narrowing down this concept of security to the military.’
Try that one with your bank manager. ‘I don’t like you narrowing down this concept of a mortgage to something I pay every month.’
Meanwhile, Germany’s foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel sniffed: ‘We in Europe will have to take on more responsibility but security policy should not be reduced to the size of defence budgets. If we do that we will not be able to fight climate change, or water shortages, or poverty, or the crises that lead to violent conflicts.’
Not be able to fight climate change. It’s like having a knife held to your throat and worrying if you’re coming down with a cold.
Germany’s defence budget is €36.6 billion, which sounds a lot until you remember that Berlin splashes more than four times as much on its social welfare system. Albania shells out a higher percentage of its GDP on defence than do the Germans, though Frau Merkel has been nudging it up.
And bear in mind that Nato defines military spending so loosely as to include service pensions. According to a new report, a third of Belgium’s defence budget goes on pensions, while the share is one quarter in France and almost one fifth in Germany.
Trump is a low-rent rabble-rouser but when he paints Nato as a shakedown operation, there is a small — largely incidental — kernel of truth.
While the Oompa Loompa Charles Lindbergh is busy making America great again, Nato members should renew that vital institution by enforcing the 2% rule and making it a minimum expectation rather than a target. The US manages 3.6% and larger Nato economies could get to 3% if they wanted to.
Common defence is not built on good intentions and lofty rhetoric doesn’t buy a single sub. Vladimir Putin may be working to undermine Nato, and Donald Trump may sympathise with that endeavour, but Nato has been undermining — and underfunding — itself for some time now.
If anything good comes out of the Trump moment — other than Saturday Night Live telling jokes again — it will be Europe realising that leaving someone else to pick up the tab for your security is not cost-free. A strong Nato could be a check on Trump but for now it’s just another useful bogeyman.
The wolf is at the door and Europe’s damsel-in-distress routine is getting tired. Prince Charming might not come to the rescue next time, and he’s not even particularly charming anymore. In the real world, unlike fairy tales, you can’t rely on a happy ending.
Don’t wait for the woodsman to come with an axe; get one for yourself.
Devastating news that the ‘Scottish Six’ has gone to the great TV schedule in the sky.
The proposed BBC bulletin, pet project of the SNP, would have replaced the UK evening news with a Glasgow-based programme. Why were the Nats so keen on it? Well, they’re known for their support of journalism but mostly because it’s the sort of broadcast you’d expect to see in an independent country.
The Nationalist cognoscenti is distraught that their cause failed to capture the public’s imagination. A candlelit vigil is planned outside Waitrose on Byres Road. No flowers please.
The separatists wail about London calling the shots — who knew the ‘sovereign will of the Scottish people’ extended to teatime telly? — but it’s really the viewers who made this decision. They don’t want a Scottish Six. They don’t mind hearing English accents on the news. What they mind is the BBC wasting precious resources on a sop to the SNP.
Nicola Sturgeon spent £136,000 elbowing her way into the Supreme Court Brexit case. You know, the one where the justices reminded her that Westminster makes the big people decisions and Holyrood is there to decide the Gaelic for ‘Glasgow Queen Street Low Level’. If I was facing a £15 billion deficit after independence, I’d be pinching the pennies — and the pounds, while I could still use them.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.