I’m in the process of reading The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman’s masterful account of the first month of World War I in (naturally) August of 1914. The book explains in excruciating detail the wrong-headed thinking, preconceived ideas and dithering that led to the deaths of 17 million. While the focus is on the politics and strategies of the French and Germans, Tuchman spends some time on the British and their tepid and inept approach to the war in its opening weeks.
Britain was drawn into the conflict through its loose alliance with France. Not directly threatened, it initially sent about 80,000 men with a vague plan to help shore up the French left side against the massive German army of half a million men sweeping down through Belgium. Though they fought well at Mons, the British were overwhelmed by the superior numbers and their commander, John French, doing everything he could to mimimize losses, retreated rapidly and infuriated France’s generals. Probably correctly, he understood there would be no tolerance among U.K. politicians or the public for large-scale casualties in a conflict they were not yet invested in.
I thought about Britain’s half-hearted commitment to fighting in the early days of World War I when I heard Prime Minister David Cameron announce the U.K.’s response to the refugee crisis boiling over in central Europe. The country will take in 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years (until the next general election. At 4,000 a year, it’s a tiny number compared to the need. (There are more than 4 million registered Syrian refugees in camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon). About 18,000 arrived in Germany last weekend alone.
— Za’tari refugee camp, Jordan (U.S. State Dept. photo)
Further, Cameron said the U.K. wouldn’t participate in a Europe-wide quota system or help settle refugees already on the continent. Money to resettle the refugees will come from the U.K. international aid budget. Not surprisingly, the pledge is being described as totally inadequate. The Archbishop of Canterbury, that noted radical, called it “a very slim response.”
(The U.S., too, should do more, in recognition of its wealth and its role in destablizing the Middle East. But as the refugee crisis is primarily a European problem, it first needs a European solution.)
The U.K.’s historical ambivalence about its place in Europe is well documented. In the 12th century, it embraced the continent so tightly that it possessed half of France. Today, it seems Britain regards itself somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, as close to Newfoundland as Normandy, rather than 21 miles off the shores of France. If Cameron could drop oars and row the island closer to the U.S., I suspect he would.
As Prime Minister Asquith did in 1914, Cameron is making a political calculation, balancing his European obligations and domestic cries for action against the anti-immigration, anti-Europe forces that have dominated domestic politics over the last few years (and forced a referendum on the U.K.’s place in the E.U.). The U.K.’s national interest aren’t yet threatened by the crisis. That could change, however, if the European Union begins to fracture over disputes on how to settle the refugees.
In 1914, it took the news of German atrocities in Belgium to rally public support for the war, and in the end, the British response was sustained and massive and its sacrifice enormous. The U.K. is not facing war, and the threat is not the same, but the refugee challenge is far greater than it acknowledges. Already, images of drowned children are prompting cries for a greater U.K. commitment and as the crisis grows, Cameron will likely bow to the pressure to do more. If he wants to show leadership at home and abroad, he should do it sooner than later.