Easter Island’s last tree was cut down sometime before European sailors landed in 1722. That act completed the destruction of culture on an island that had supported a population ten times the size of that which met the sailors. Decisions taken by islanders over generations had curtailed their ability to survive. Environmental disaster for Greenland’s Vikings followed a similar pattern. Farmers wedded to cattle starved themselves rather than learn from the example of indigenous people surviving well on seal meat and fish.
We can have little idea what the Easter Islanders or Greenland Vikings were thinking as they chose to limit their options and ensure their own demise. But as Jared Diamond, who recounts these and other examples in his book Collapse, makes clear, they were not only acting on a whim. Their culture — and therefore destiny — was set generations before the fateful final acts played out.
Today we are buffeted by some of those same currents. Political leaders are making decisions that will fundamentally weaken their own nations and their allies, but they seem unable or unwilling to change course.
Before dancing with Karin Kneissl, Austria’s foreign minister, at her wedding this weekend, Russian president Vladimir Putin met Angela Merkel in Berlin.
The reason Mr Putin was welcomed at an Austrian minister’s wedding and for a lunch with the German chancellor (despite occupying neighbouring Ukraine, undermining democracy and working to destroy the Nato alliance that has kept Austria and Germany safe for 70 years) is the same — energy. Moscow’s stranglehold on European energy has made it an essential power broker, and it could become stronger.
A key topic for Ms Merkel to discuss was the proposed new gas pipeline connecting Russian producers with German consumers by creating a route under the Baltic Sea. The pipeline may sound like a great way of avoiding eastern European entanglement, but Nord Stream 2, as it is called, is much more than that: viewed from Moscow it is part of a deliberate and careful dismantling of the west.
Today, Russian gas flows through Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Ukraine to consumers in Germany. That ties Russia into German security because both sides need stability. But the changes being discussed would cut out the eastern states, making them more vulnerable to being picked off one by one without threatening the gas oligarchs’ profits.
Ms Merkel is not naive. She has seen the cyber attacks against Estonia, assassinations in Montenegro, and poisonings in the UK. She knows too that if Germany stands alone it can be silenced more easily by threats of price hikes or even cutting supplies through Nord Stream 2 if Berlin reacts. That would leave a future chancellor with a tough decision: risk an immediate energy war with Moscow or act to prevent Russia rebuilding the network of vassal states it lost when the Warsaw Pact collapsed.
But these countries matter to Germany. They are an integrated part of its defence and economic orbit. Without them Germany is a frontier state, not the heart of a continent.
So why is Berlin allowing itself to be sliced from its hinterland? There is a longstanding and romantic attachment in Germany, especially in leftwing circles, to Russia. Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik is still remembered fondly and former chancellor Gerhard Schröder is a close confidant of Mr Putin. German industry also benefits from trade with Russia.
But perhaps the most obvious reason is that without the nuclear power which Ms Merkel’s government abandoned after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, Germany now has little choice. Climate change targets rule out anything but gas, and the nearest big fields are under the Kremlin’s control. Infrastructure to use alternative routes remains undeveloped.
Germany is not alone in facing this situation. Austria too is dependent on Russian gas and politically increasingly aligned to the brand of nationalism Mr Putin favours. Using energy as a weapon against leaders of European states, he is now beginning to close the net. With the end of the conflict in Syria and the spat between US president Donald Trump and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he may now be close to influencing the pipelines that feed through Turkey from Baku in Azerbaijan. But that is not all. He has a further play available.
Over the coming months, Russian officials will start to put pressure on EU member states to pay for Syrian reconstruction. This would be a diplomatic coup for Moscow and show Russia to be victors in a Middle East with few winners.
Why would we agree? Why allow Russian troops to secure their position with our money? We may not get any other choice. Russia can, if it chooses, make sure refugees in Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan don’t return home and that those in Turkey are encouraged to move west. That would be toxic to any European leadership today.
Greater co-operation within Nato, including proper investment in defence, and European co-operation based on the economic prosperity of the people, not the political ambitions of some officials, could change this. It could reawaken a European ideal that included national identity and partnership. But that seems unlikely to happen soon.
Perhaps that is why, even after 70 years of peace and prosperity, when the choice came for a dancing partner at her wedding, Austria’s chief diplomat turned not to her neighbours and closes allies, but chose the Russian bear.
The writer is Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling and chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee
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