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Provincial Europe

BERLIN – Multitasking is not exactly the strong point of Europe’s current generation of leaders. They have rightly given the eurozone crisis – the central question bearing on the European Union’s future – top priority. But all other important issues – above all, a common foreign and security policy – have been almost completely ignored. And it is here – Europe’s external relations, an issue absolutely vital to the future of all EU citizens – that renationalization is rearing its ugly head again.

Today, we can recognize the outlines of a post-American international (dis)order – not only its emerging structures, but also its risks, threats, and conflicts, all of which are intensifying. For Europe – and for the rest of the world – the financial crisis has proven to be an accelerant of far-reaching changes.

In East Asia, the world’s most dynamic and dominant region in terms of future global economic development, confrontation is escalating between the key powers – China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan – over border issues, territorial claims, prestige, and unfinished historical business. Add to this the perennial crisis on the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan conflict, which could flare up again anytime.

East Asia’s regional powers operate almost without any multilateral framework, a state of affairs comparable to that of Europe toward the end of the nineteenth century. Only the United States’s military and political presence ensures regional stability. Yet, at least in the medium term, that presence implies a significant risk of inciting a global confrontation between China and the US. Moreover, Russia – which extends to East Asia, but, owing to its economic and political weakness, has been a background player there – would certainly seek to benefit from this development.

Europe, however, will play no part in the region, simply because any attempt to do so would place too much strain on its reach and resources. Yet, given Europe’s growing economic dependence on East Asia, its interests are massively engaged – a mismatch that could cause the EU considerable discomfort in the medium term.

The same is true, to varying degrees, of Europe’s relationship with South Asia; but here the India-Pakistan conflict, a looming “post-American” Afghanistan in 2014, and uncertainty concerning Iran and the Persian Gulf have a direct security impact on the EU. This is where discomfort meets danger.

Russia, under Vladimir Putin’s third presidency, has made its choice. Under the banner of a “Eurasian Union,” and relying on the renationalized oil and gas sectors as both a carrot and a stick, the Kremlin wants to tie as many of the former Soviet territories as possible to the Motherland. At the center of this policy is Ukraine, the linchpin of Europe’s post-Soviet order.

Yet Putin is caught in a fundamental contradiction. His Great Russia policy requires economic strength, and therefore successful modernization of the country. But, to achieve this, he must encourage reforms that would lead to a strong middle class, which, as can already be seen in Russia’s big cities, opposes Putin’s clientilist “guided democracy” and the massive corruption that comes with it.

Putin’s dilemma poses a real challenge for the EU and the US – but also an opportunity, if they choose significant long-term engagement. On both sides of the Atlantic, however, ignoring the issue seems to have been mistaken for a policy.

That is a grave oversight, for it is clear that Russian foreign policy has again taken a provocative and confrontational turn. Russia remains a steadfast supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and is not shying away from conflict with Turkey, or from forging a de facto alliance with Iran, in order to defend the Assad regime.

Together with the war clouds hovering over the Iranian nuclear program, the failed Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and radical political change throughout the wider Middle East, the conflict in Syria shows that Europe’s southeast will continue to be a major security challenge.  Yet, despite Russia’s ambitions for reshaping its neighborhood – and despite decreasing US involvement in the Middle East – Europe is hardly prepared to act.

Clearly, the relationship between Turkey and the EU needs its own “reset.” Otherwise, both sides will find themselves among the losers. Turkey is currently confronting the limits of its possibilities, while the EU finds that it can do very little in this region without Turkey.

And, to Europe’s immediate south, across the Mediterranean, new risks are emerging in the vastness of North Africa and the Sahara, including the threat of an Al Qaeda state in northern Mali.

If one adds to this European sketch of global development the fact that, whatever the outcome of the US election, America will shift its strategic focus to East Asia (and otherwise mainly look after itself), nearly everything cries out for a robust EU foreign and security policy. Unfortunately, exactly the opposite is happening: here, too, renationalization is uppermost in the minds of Europe’s peoples and decision-makers.

In Berlin, the question asked more and more often is, “What does this mean for Germany?” rather than, “What does this mean for Europe?” The same is true in other European capitals. But the wrong question leads to wrong answers, because Europe’s security interests can be defended only within a European and Western context, not at the national level.

That is why it is high time for Europeans to abandon their provincialism, launch a common foreign policy worthy of the name, and finally start to invest properly in their future security. Europe must grow up and develop the capacity to defend its own interests, because the day is fast approaching when others will be less able and willing to do this for us than they once were.