A World Without Europe Spells Danger and Woe
20th August 2012
The return of Europe’s sovereign debt crisis is redefining the region’s relationship with the outside world. Whether or not the euro holds together, the solidarity among European countries has been sorely tested and the sensitivity of national electorates to the distribution of costs and benefits within the EU has increased.
This tension at the heart of the European project puts on hold any notion that the EU could in the near future emerge as a coherent and forceful foreign policy actor – or at least until Italy and Spain have secure access to international capital markets and probably until more badly affected countries, such as Greece and Hungary, are regarded as equal partners. Until then, the UK, France and Germany will continue to pursue their national interests on the world stage but “Europe” will be absent.
This absence – rooted in economic factors but with both geopolitical and structural consequences – will be felt in numerous ways. The most important is the loss of Europe as an example of regional integration. Much of the continent’s influence in international affairs has taken place through the projection of its values and institutions to other parts of the world.
Asean, Mercosur and Nafta are not the direct result of European influence but they would not have developed as they did if Europe had not been around to demonstrate the possibilities. The EU has also shown itself to be an effective actor. It helped to broker the ceasefire between Russia and Georgia in 2008, it plays the central role in the post-conflict stabilisation of Bosnia and Kosovo, and contributes to numerous other peacekeeping operations across the globe.
A world without Europe will also be a more dangerous place. As centres of power continue to proliferate, Europe will be required to meet its own strategic responsibilities. While Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, may continue to build a more rational European External Action Service and the European Council may make some headway in strengthening sanctions on Syria and Iran, such actions will mark the limits and not the foundations for collective action. This is a problem because ultimately security is a collective endeavour.
When it comes to terrorism, crime, immigration, climate change, conflict or access to energy or other natural resources, crises from the Middle East to central Africa show that policy makers must work together across countries to achieve both shared and national objectives.
Such interdependence is the byproduct of the economic and security integration that constituted the west at the end of the second world war. It is not a new feature in the globalised world economy but it is more intense than before – even as populist and protectionist forces gain strength. The possibilities, then, for national policy makers to go it alone are far more tightly restricted – not only for Europe but also the US.
The implications can be seen in the changing patterns of American global leadership. At the end of the second world war, the US took much of the responsibility for co-ordination upon itself as the undisputed leader of the west. But, over time, this leadership became increasingly costly and the US became ever more overstretched.
Today there is nothing undisputed about American leadership. Other actors have become more responsible and more assertive. Within this new arrangement, and depending upon the region and the issue, Europe has a crucial role to play.
Barack Obama’s administration has recognised explicitly this changing global context: it gave Europe a privileged position in the architecture of its 2010 national security strategy; it supported French and UK initiatives in Libya; and it made a clear decision to pivot the emphasis in its deployments.
Yet we now face the prospect that Europe will not be able to live up to its responsibilities. The EU is divided. Germany feels overburdened by the eurozone crisis and continues to downsize its military. France is only beginning to confront the extent of its fiscal challenge and could well turn inward. The UK is preparing – in its prime minister’s words – for a decade of austerity.
The absence of Europe will leave the next US administration – whether Democrat or Republican – with little choice but to expand its foreign commitments. Mitt Romney has already written that into his objectives. However, such actions will only weaken the US economy and underscore the distribution of costs and benefits across the Atlantic.
In June 2011, the outgoing defence secretary Robert Gates warned against this prospect in his valedictory address in Brussels. His speech was viewed by many Europeans as alarmist; now it seems prescient. The only question is how long a hostile Congress will take to wake up to that fact. Yet finger-pointing across the Atlantic will serve no country’s national interest. A world without Europe will be an unhappier and more perilous place – even for the US.