A little history is a dangerous thing

by David Hannay | 11.05.2016

Boris Johnson’s already rather tenuous grip on history seems finally to have snapped this week when he spoke about European security as part of the Vote Leave campaign.

Firstly, he stood on its head the judgment he made in his recent biography of Churchill that European cooperation had made a positive contribution to peace and security. Now, apparently, he reckons it does precisely the opposite. Homer nodded? Perhaps. Or maybe it was just that the former mayor of London changed his own position on whether or not the UK should stay in the EU between offering the two contradictory judgments?

Secondly, Bosnia. Johnson said: “It is the EU’s pretensions to run a foreign policy and a defence policy that risk undermining NATO. We saw what happened in Bosnia…” Well, I was the British representative on the UN Security Council during the whole sorry saga of the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia; and it did not look like that.

At the outset, in 1991, the EU was left virtually single- handed to try to avoid the break-up of Yugoslavia. But it did not have the tools for the job, since in those days it had no military dimension at all and, in any case, its members were divided. There was no question of the EU’s activities undermining NATO, since the US administration of President George H.W. Bush was determined to prevent any NATO involvement.

Later on in the crisis, it was America’s unwillingness to allow NATO ground troops to be deployed that, once again, left the Europeans holding the baby. When NATO troops were finally deployed after the Dayton peace accords in 1995, the NATO contingent actually handed over its responsibilities in Bosnia to the EU, which is performing them to this day.

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    That brings us to Ukraine. In a rather disgraceful apologia for Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and intervention in Eastern Ukraine, Johnson accused the EU of creating “real trouble” in Ukraine. His comments miss two salient points.

    First, he ignores President Vladimir Putin’s own admission that he acted opportunistically to seize the Crimea after the flight from Kiev of former President Viktor Yanukovych.

    Second, Johnson overlooks how Russian policy may have been motivated by President George W. Bush’s attempt to fast-track the accession to NATO of Ukraine and Georgia, a policy which was frustrated only thanks to European hesitations as to whether this was a wise course of action.

    Of course, it is understandable why Johnson disregarded this fact since, in Vote Leave’s playbook, everything NATO does has to be right and everything the EU does has to be wrong. But that is not history.

    If the EU’s effect on NATO really is so harmful, is it not a trifle odd that a galaxy of former NATO secretaries-general, CIA chiefs and US secretaries of state and defence have stated the contrary? Perhaps Boris Johnson would do well to put in some time studying the historical record before he next seeks to mislead the electorate with his reading of it.

    Edited by Alan Wheatley