Europe’s Power to Lead

CAMBRIDGE -- At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, the buzz was about Asia’s growing power. One Asian analyst argued that by 2050, there will be three world powers: the United States, China, and India. He did not mention Europe, but underestimating Europe’s power is a mistake.

Yes, Europe currently punches below its weight. It is fragmented, peaceful, and normative in a world of hard power, but part of the world is not about military power. The use of force among advanced industrial democracies is virtually unthinkable. In their relations with each other , such countries are all from Venus, to paraphrase Robert Kagan, and here Europe’s focus on law and institutions is an asset.

As for other parts of the world, a recent Pew poll found that many Europeans would like Europe to play a larger role, but to balance American military power would require a doubling or tripling of defense spending, and few Europeans are interested in such an increase. Nevertheless, a smart strategy for Europe will require greater investments in hard power.

The picture for Europe, however, is not as bleak as pessimists assume. Power is the ability to get the outcomes one wants, and the resources that produce such behavior depend upon the context. In functional terms, power is distributed like a three-dimensional chess game. On the top board are military relations among states, with the US the world’s only superpower with global reach. Here the world is uni-polar.