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In Europe, Foreign Legions Are Back

As great power conflict re-emerges, muscle memory kicks in.

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At its peak, the three presidency armies of the East India Company, based at Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras, had a combined field ready force of over 260,000 troops, roughly three quarters of whom were Indians. Compared to that, the current British army in total is roughly around 75,000, small enough to fit into a football stadium, a fact that has invited comments from the current British army chief about the necessities of a conscription in case of a major European war. 

“Within the next three years, it must be credible to talk of a British Army of 120,000, folding in our reserve and strategic reserve. But this is not enough,” General Patrick Sanders told POLITICO. “We will not be immune and as the pre-war generation we must similarly prepare—and that is a whole-of-nation undertaking…. Ukraine brutally illustrates that regular armies start wars; citizen armies win them.”

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Does it? The question isn’t completely out of the realm of debate. Yet a better question to ask is, What will the army be for? A citizen army and total war effort is, of course, required for an existential struggle, faced with a great-power threat that might end a nation’s very way of life. But does a great power require a citizen’s army, for, say, colonialism, or global policing? Britain historically was never an army-heavy land power, as was some of her contemporaries. The Empire, however, had a massive foreign manpower reserve. The British-Indian army itself had around 1.5 million men volunteer during the Great War. 

There are two ways of enhancing and ameliorating mass force power. One—and this will be ever more necessary in the coming days—is introducing high technology, and keeping it away from both allies and adversaries. The Romans did it. The British did it. Soviets and Americans did it all the way through the Cold war, till the Soviets bankrupted themselves and collapsed. The other classical way is to have foreign foot soldiers. The Romans had foederati and later, auxilia. The former were tribes aligned with the republican core used as force-enhancers. The second were auxiliary forces during the empire, members and people from the provinces who were technically not Roman citizens. Both were used to boost the aggregate power. A current version of this is the Légion étrangère of France, the French Foreign Legion, where one can apply for French rights and republican citizenship once wounded in battle or after three years’ service by the doctrine of “Français par le sang versé,” or French by spilled blood. Recently, Ukraine started the Legion for the Defense of Ukraine, and found out to their dismay that more people will tweet with the hashtag of NAFO than actually go and join a conflict. 

The beleaguered Conservatives in the UK, facing an election that they’re all but sure to lose, have chosen a different path. According to this plan, all 18-year-olds in Britain will need to spend a year of mandatory military or civilian national service as the government plans to bring back a form of the historic national service for the first time in more than 60 years. Britain had military conscription for men and women during World War II, and mandatory military service for men between 1947 and 1960. Since then, however, the armed forces have been all volunteer, and have also steadily shrunk. 

And Europe has also taken note. There’s a debate currently happening in Germany. “Foreigners could be allowed to join the German army as Boris Pistorius, the country’s defense minister, tries to recruit an extra 20,000 troops in the face of threats from Russia. “We would not be the first armed forces in Europe to do that”, Pistorius said

All in all, it’s not a bad thing. Forced martial service can install a sense of national solidarity among immigrant groups, while testing who genuinely wants to assimilate to the host country. With the world gearing towards an emerging multipolarity and structural shifts in aggregate power leading to the very prudent retrenchment of the hegemon, powers with global interest will increasingly look towards older, time-tested strategies. That will include rapid industrialization and automation for richer powers. That will also include privatization of force—BlackWater or Wagner—as well as foreign legions similar to those of the colonial era. 

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It all boils down to three questions. First, what is the purpose of the force being created? Second, who is creating the force, and what benefits are offered in return? And third, how is the force is being used? The answer naturally differs between say France and Ukraine, for example. Ukraine is creating a foreign legion purely for survival. It therefore only interests people who are will fight on conviction, knowing that the rate of survival is low. For France—with more imperial experience and more policing and counter-insurgency operations in line, and with an offer of French rights, if not French citizenship—acquiring a foreign legion is easier. 

Everything starts with strategy in this business, as Barry Posen once commented. The traditional British grand strategy was predicated on a small expeditionary army and a gigantic navy. In Canning’s words: “Non-intervention; no European police system; every nation for itself, and God for us all; balance of power; respect for facts, not for abstract theories; respect for treaty rights, but caution in extending them…England not Europe...Europe’s domain extends to the shores of the Atlantic, England’s begins there”. 

Britain’s geography dictates that it focuses on a navy and an active foreign legion. National service for Britain is therefore good in theory, especially in a multicultural and multiracial society—an inward neo-feudal empire where governance is essentially only nominally democratic with a minimalist maintenance of social order and harmony. A national service is the only thing that might forge some semblance of national unity, given Britain’s lack of an actual empire or an East India Company. In fact, in all across Europe, one thing to use to deter mass migration as well as assimilate the current crop of migrants is to have rigorous national service. 

Ultimately, however, British power, as opposed to French or German power, was predicated on having proxies to fight its wars, proxies that were often smaller foreign countries needing British assistance in technology and strategy and British military leadership, either directly or through private entities. Europe, if it ever wants to get serious, needs to tap into its past. The muscle memory is there; it will kick in when time comes.