In his latest masterpiece, Civilization, historian Niall Ferguson attributes the success of the West (by which he means Western Europe and its overseas offspring) to six “killer apps.” Ferguson defines these applications as complexes of institutions and associated ideas and behaviors. The six are: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic. Starting around 1500 A.D., these six functions or activities resulted in the West’s unparalleled rise in wealth, military power, technological progress and global influence.
To Ferguson’s six I would add one more: collaborative defense. Beginning around the same time as the other applications were emerging, Western Europe began to practice the art of defense collaboration. Initially, this application was employed when the relatively small and weak nations of the West confronted a larger and more powerful external threat. So, in 1572 a combined fleet defeated the Ottoman Navy at the Battle of Lepanto. In 1682, a Polish-German army came to Austria’s rescue, lifting the siege of Vienna.
Unfortunately, the creation of this application did not bring with it an end to internecine conflicts. What is distinct, however, is the growing capacity of traditional rivals and even erstwhile blood enemies to collaborate in order to defend themselves against greater threats.
In more recent times, defense collaboration was critical to the ability of the Western nations to prevent one of their own from dominating all others,. It was a combined, Anglo-Dutch-Prussian army that defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. The Triple Entente morphed into the Western Alliance that defeated Germany and its allies in World War One. Britain and the United States led the global coalition that defeated the Axis in World War Two.
Defense collaboration 2.0 arose in the aftermath of World War Two, specifically with the creation of NATO. More than any other institution, the Trans-Atlantic Alliance preserved a free and democratic West during the Cold War. That NATO expanded to include recent adversaries goes to my point about the unique value of this seventh app.
A critical question for the future is whether or not this seventh application is still relevant. The recent Libyan campaign not only displayed NATO’s military weaknesses but its growing political fissures as well. Germany, one of NATO’s most important members, refused to participate in the Alliance’s operation. The new U.S. defense strategy proposes a shift of emphasis in U.S. policy and force deployments to the Asia-Pacific region. This may be a leading indicator of the waning relevance of this once “Killer App.”
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