Tuesday, September 16, 2014
6

Europe’s Blast from the Past

BERLIN – If there is one historical episode that still makes most Europeans shiver, even after a century, it is the outbreak of World War I, the seminal European catastrophe, which began in the last days of July 1914. In fact, exactly one hundred years later, after two World Wars and a Cold War, those shivers are more pronounced than ever.

In view of Europe’s bloody history, the states that established today’s European Union opted for non-violence, the inviolability of borders, democracy, and the rule of law. They chose cooperation, even integration, instead of military confrontation, and economic development rather than power politics. But this “EU Europe” is now being thrown back in time and challenged, yet again, by the return of power politics on its borders and in its immediate vicinity.

In the East, President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin wants to change national borders by force and thus secure Russia’s reemergence as an imperial world power. Meanwhile, chaos and violence – most pronounced in Syria, Iraq, and Gaza – threaten to engulf the entire Middle East, challenging the territorial integrity of states that are largely a result of the World War I peace settlement.

Peaceful, postmodern Europe will find it difficult to cope with the challenges that the revival of power politics implies. The EU has more than doubled in size since 1989, when communism in Central and Eastern Europe collapsed; but EU Europe has not reached its final, politically integrated form. More important, it was not designed to meet the challenges of power politics; Europe’s old nation-states are too small and weak, while the EU’s common foreign and security policy remains insufficiently developed.

Yet many Europeans believe that the EU and the West must not simply give free rein to Putin’s rogue behavior. There is too much at stake in eastern Ukraine – the peace and order of the entire continent. The mostly European passengers of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, downed over rebel-controlled territory, paid for this insight with their lives.

The timing of historically significant events usually is not a matter of choice. So the fundamental question in the aftermath of such events always concerns how quickly their consequences are correctly identified. It took an exceedingly long time for Europe’s leaders to realize that all of the trust they had placed in Putin, and the tolerance they showed for his politics of violence and intimidation, has led only to further escalation and expansion of the crisis in Ukraine. Indeed, only after almost 300 civilians died aboard MH-17 was the EU prepared to impose the sort of economic sanctions that will have a meaningful impact on the Russian economy.

In terms of the further development of a common European foreign and security policy, the significance of these common EU sanctions, adopted last week, should not be underestimated. After the EU finally masters the first step (effective sanctions), the second step – an “energy union” that enables Europe to end its dependence on Russian energy supplies – must follow as soon as possible.

With regard to the Middle East, the challenges to Europe’s capacity for collective action will be even more difficult to overcome. This reflects the presence within the EU of strong pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian camps, which usually block each other; moreover, the conflicts currently playing out in the Middle East are much more complex than that in eastern Ukraine.

The countries currently most affected by the region’s turmoil – Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Egypt, and Libya – are likely to be joined soon by Jordan, Yemen, and the Gulf states. And the crisis is compounded by Iran’s nuclear program and the competition – fueled by sectarian conflict – between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia for regional supremacy. A solution (or solutions) to the Middle East’s travails is nowhere in sight.

Today, only one outcome can be predicted with a high degree of confidence: further escalation of conflict, which will threaten to throw the entire region into chaos, leading to further violence and greater risk of contagion. There is, for example, a real danger that parts of the Middle East conflict will be exported to neighboring Europe. Whether the EU likes it or not, it will have to face these conflicts, because decisions about its internal and external security are likely to be made in the Middle East as much as they are in Brussels and national capitals.

Europeans are living in a neighborhood that has become increasingly uncertain – a development that calls for the sort of strategic responses that no single European state can provide by itself. Further deepening of EU integration and reinvigoration of the common foreign and security policy dialogue are thus the order of the day.

Unfortunately, a century after modern power politics unleashed a war that killed more than ten million of their forebears, many EU Europeans remain reluctant to prepare for the gathering storm. One must hope that this changes sooner rather than later: preparing is always better than shivering.

Read more from "The Great War Revisited"

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  1. CommentedJohn Sweeney

    The basics are simple: either Europe becomes a political and economic union or it must succumb to the weaknesses of all federations. The U.S. sorted this out in 1787 and, as luck would have it, was the first to enjoy the benefits of consolidation of nation states. As it is, Europe cannot secure its borders, heat its homes or feed its people without U.S. support. Since the American left wants to withdraw such support, further U.S. support will always be questionable and unreliable. How did those Polish politicians put it?

  2. CommentedJean-Louis Piel

    fisher needs to use the real words: we need to be prepared to fight a war against this Russia , we will help by all means Ukraine to be an independent , sovereign country with a total respect of her territorial integrity and for that, because the peace and security depends of it, we are ready to destroy Putin and his political system. The West needs to create ann alliance with China and Islamic states to make a victory against Putin inevitable.

      CommentedCelt Darnell

      Fight a war against Russia?

      Yes, that worked well for you French in 1812 and for Fischer's Germany in 1941, didn't it?

      Russia is no threat to European democracy -- the EU is.

  3. CommentedVincent Tijms

    If Mr. Fischer wants us to learn from history, I am very interested in his account of German politics at the beginning of the 21st century.

    As I remember it, there was a call for energy differentiation in Europe at the time. We should not rely on Russian gas, the argument went, as the Russian pipeline politics of those days could be the shape of things to come for Europe.

    In the middle of this call for differentiation. the Schröder cabinet, which included Mr. Fischer, somehow considered it a wise investment to arrange for the Nord Stream pipeline, which conveniently bypasses many of the countries that Moscow likes to pressure. In effect, it allowed Putin to strongarm his neighbors without the risk of losing the European market. Some commentators have pointed out that we should be happy with Nord Stream, given the Ukrainian conflict, but I'd argue that Germany at the time enabled this very conflict.

    So, Mr. Fischer, I am curious: why didn't you prevent the Nord Stream from happening? Do you think Germany sabotaged an alternative European energy politics by putting its eggs in Putins basket once more? I'd be interested in this first-hand account of recent history, as it may teach us to avoid its repetition.

  4. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Indeed, Mr. Joschka Fischer, when the five great powers of Europe - Austria, Britain, France, Germany and Russia - declared war on one another in August 1914, nobody expected it would trigger such a huge "blast", that "killed more than ten million" people! The First World War ended with a Carthaginian peace, as a result of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Leaders believed such a blow would devastate Germany indefinitely and that it could hardly rise again. They were wrong and had underestimated the hubris of the Germans, who didn't accept the heavy war reparations. These resentments paved the way for another disastrous war 20 years later. The devastation caused by World War II underlaid the imperative to build cross-border relationships to guard against any such catastrophe recurring in Europe.
    We all have visionaries like the French statesmen Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to thank for that "the states that established today’s European Union opted for non-violence, the inviolability of borders, democracy, and the rule of law". Following the principle the best way to start the bonding process was by developing economic ties between countries. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of us believed there would be "perpetual peace".
    Now Europe is facing the biggest challenges since WW II - a resurgent Russia and an explosive Middle East. The return of power politics in Eastern Europe has caught many former Soviet states - especially Ukraine - flat-footed, because they are too small and weak to defend themselves. Despite their Nato membership Poland and the Baltic States feel threatened by Russia's interference in Ukraine.
    Europe, especially Chancellor Angela Merkel believe Russia is the lesser of two evils. The challenges that the Middle East poses to us Europeans are "even more difficult to overcome". It's true that Iraq and Syria are on the verge of breaking up and that Lebanon feels the spillover effect of the sectarian war fought there. The Israel/Palestine conflict is decades old and would hardly de-escalate, as both warring parties see no appetite to negotiate. Egypt will reamin economically weak for a long while. Events in Libya will not change the situation in wider region. The Yemeni Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is causing concern in the region. Jordan has so far been spared the major unrest that has seen other Arab rulers toppled, but it struggles with the rising cost of carin for more than half-a-million refugees from Syria. The rulers in the Gulf states are quite shrewd in their handling of protests, by seeking to ease public dissent.
    If Mr. Fischer criticises "many EU Europeans remain reluctant to prepare for the gathering storm", he should ask himself why he didn't advocate for Russia's membership in Nato? Putin had signaled such a design at the beginning of his presidency!

      CommentedCelt Darnell

      The sooner we in the UK get the hell out of the EU the better.
      The one thing we should have learned in 1914 is that events in Europe are none of our business.

      CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I fully agree with you.

      Moreover it is not only the "neighborhood" that is uncertain but the European Union itself is not guaranteed in its present format.

      As long as the Union is purely in order to create more efficient markets and financial institutions, only caring about those ignoring the population, the EU will continue sliding into crisis and will most probably break up.

      On the other hand if the EU fulfilled the potential for it was initially created, to create a fully integrated continent for the better life and future prospects of its people, transitioning into a fully operational supra-national mutual cooperation, it could not only solve its problems but show a positive example for others to follow.

      Not only Europe but the whole world have no other options but integration and mutually complementing cooperation in a global, integral human system we evolved into.

  5. CommentedDragan Nenadovic

    " today’s European Union opted for non-violence, the inviolability of borders "

    Have you forgotten mister what you, western Europeans, did in regard to Serbia, and illegal ripping off of Kosovo from that nation, by cold blooded killing of thousands of Serbian civilians ??? And now here, you are saying that EU countries opted for non-violence, and the inviolability of borders : )))))))))))))) Come on, what is the meter with you, who are you fooling around here ???

      CommentedCelt Darnell

      Forget about it, Dragan, these people are imperialists (look at how they overrule societies that vote against them).

      And like all imperialists, they give that label to everyone but themselves.

  6. CommentedPaul Daley

    If there is one lesson Europe should have learned from the first world war, it is how the rigidiities of alliance structures converted small national rivalries into a world war. In 1914, it was Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Now it is Poland and Russia contesting the future of he Ukraine. The question is how much does this matter to the wider world and, particularly, the United States. The answer: not much. The EU may now find itself entangled with Poland's national interest in reducing an historic enemy just as it earlier found itself entangled with Greece's hostility to Turkey but that is no reason for everyone to begin mobilizing for war. The EU needs to step back and to begin to sort out when it is dealing with a real continental interest and when it is dealing with the hopes and fears of just a few. If it doesn't, it could well be thrown again into a cataclysm.

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