It’s the economy, stupid! Europe’s strategic dilemma after Ukraine

[Version in French here]

The invasion of Ukraine is a rude awakening for a Europe that had been asleep for many years in a naive idealism. If the response to the invasion was quick, Europe remains very weak. Beyond the next few weeks, its strategy must involve a profound change of mental model for its economic development.

What are the sources of power? The question is not new and has preoccupied strategists for thousands of years; it has become more acute since the invasion of Ukraine, which highlights Europe’s weaknesses in the face of a determined attacker. If the time has come for military and diplomatic action, it is clear that the economic dimension remains fundamental. And it is in the relationship between the two that Europe must find its way.

To understand it, it is necessary to consider the work of Ibn Khaldun, an Arab thinker of the XIVth century, exposed by Gabriel Martinez-Gros, a historian specialist of medieval Islam. Khaldun tried to understand how wealth is created in agrarian societies. Martinez-Gros writes: “Khaldun’s answer is that it is necessary to mobilize society artificially by coercion. The tribute that the conquerors inflict to the conquered, or the tax that the power requires from its subjects in the ordinary times, are the first conditions of prosperity. They allow for an accumulation of wealth and men that is called the city (the capital), that is, a concentration of demands and skills that paves the way for the division of labor, for the diversification of trades, and thus for the only rapid gains in productivity that can be conceived in an agrarian society.” The idea that the creation of wealth can only be the product of coercion is highly debatable, but Khaldun’s reasoning nevertheless allows him to observe that the fundamental and founding task of the State is therefore the collection of taxes, which allows for the city, the division of labor and enrichment, more than war. The Khaldunian State (which he calls empire) is thus peaceful by definition. The empire civilizes its populations by forbidding them violence and by breaking their solidarity, but by offering them in exchange all the desirable protections – military, police, judicial, social.

Ibn Khaldun, thinker for Europe? (Source: Wikipedia)

Producer and soldier

Deprived of violence, the subjects of the empire are exclusively assigned to the functions of economic or intellectual production, which they assure all the better that they specialize there. Martinez-Gros adds: “By separating them from violence, the empire operates the first of these divisions of labor on which is based the spiral of prosperity of the ‘civilized’ societies: the separation and the distinction of those who are in charge of the production, which Khaldun names sedentaries, and of those who are in charge of the violence, or Bedouins, term which does not mean ‘nomad’ but warrior.” The state thus specializes. It reserves the functions of violence to small groups of soldiers or warriors sourced from tribal societies, and it assigns the vast majority of its population to productive, wealth-creating activities. It levies taxes so that this system can exist.

The creation by the “empire” of a pacified heart, disarmed and devoted to the creation of wealth, had a considerable impact, which is what the West succeeded in doing from the end of the Middle Ages. Martinez-Gros specifies indeed that the wealth was not for the main part accumulated by the tax in itself; Tax was the tool allowing the creation of wealth, which comes for the main part from the innovation and the growth of the number and the activity of men. It is the great success of the modern West to have succeeded in creating this delicate Khaldunian balance between a peaceful wealth-creating heart and a frontier guarded by soldiers.

According to Martinez-Gros, one can find there an explanation of the attacks of which the Occident is the object, be they terrorist or Putinian: our modern world entices plundering tribes, first and foremost because it creates a world to plunder, an educated, open world, attached to produce and to exchange much more than to defend itself. The intrinsic pacifism of the producer is an invitation to plunder that only the soldier can prevent.

Creative or destructive tension

The prosperity of the empire thus rests on an ever-unstable and ever-renewed creative tension between the producer who creates wealth, and the soldier who protects it. If one of the two gains the upper hand, the tension becomes destructive: the producer world which ignores the danger and gives in to pacifism invites plunder. The militarized world slides towards poverty and, ultimately, towards insignificance by collapsing under its own weight, like the USSR at the end of the 1980s.

The European Union, however, has never really subscribed to this model. At the end of World War II, the European model was a peace project based on the idea that economic power alone would ensure peace among European nations without the need for soldiers. This unbalanced model, however, only worked thanks to the protection provided for free by the US. The success was unquestionable, but the model had a weakness: it did not work for nations outside Europe. Moreover, over the past twenty years, the producer has been weakened by a growing hostility to the idea of economic growth, and even progress, among European elites. In an extraordinary way, and in total ignorance of reality, Europe has become convinced that all the world’s problems come down to the planet’s carbon footprint alone, and that it must sacrifice its agriculture, its industry, and its independence to this objective, whatever the consequences.

Europe faces a double strategic challenge

Europe has not only given in to pacifism by limiting its defense effort, especially since the fall of the USSR, but it has also neglected its wealth creating core. It is now faced with the double challenge of declining economic and military power. Europe suddenly discovers that while it was organizing citizen conventions on climate change and signaling its virtue, Putin was making moves. Europe discovers, or rediscovers, that humans also need to eat and be safe. Europe is rediscovering that there are Bedouins ready to loot at the slightest opportunity, and that they do so simply because they can, when their neighbors are weak or naive, as Europe was. Europe is rediscovering that security has a cost, and that this cost can only be borne if one has the means, that is, if one has a powerful productive core. In short, Europe is rediscovering what Machiavelli explained five centuries ago, that one must see the world as it is, and not as one would like it to be. At a time when, faced with the Russian danger, Europe is suddenly rediscovering the need to have soldiers, its strategic priority of the next few years must be the restoration of this core of wealth creation. A strong economy is the condition for Europe to still exist as a model in the world.

➕Read my previous articles: Ukraine: the cosmological episode of Europe and Putin, Ukraine and the paradox of strategy.

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