Europe’s Troublesome Neighbors

PARIS – Geography has dealt Europe a mixed hand. Europeans can congratulate themselves on being a relatively safe distance away from whatever tensions may accompany the rise of powers like India, Brazil, and, especially, China. But Europe is bordered to its south and east by two great regions that give cause for significant concern.

Neither Russia nor the Islamic world is, thus far, adapting well to globalization. The economies of both remain over-dependent on oil and gas exports. In the Middle East, this exacerbates the problem of creating jobs for ballooning populations of young adults. Russia, too, faces real demographic difficulties, though in the other direction as Russia’s population is projected to shrink by as much as 10% over the next 15 or 20 years.

Despite the understandable concerns of Finns, Poles, and others in Central and Eastern Europe, the relationship with Russia should be the easier of the two to manage. The West’s relations with Russia since the end of the Cold War have resembled the meeting of two tectonic plates, with one progressively forced beneath the other. The Georgia conflict of 2008 was the tremor that signaled substantial resistance to the western plate’s eastward movement.

But the shifts that have taken place left Russia much diminished in terms of its sphere of influence and military might. To be sure, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is nationalistic, awkward, and disposed to dangerous trouble-making. But it also faces acute social and public-health problems and has 1.3 billion Chinese on its eastern border, and it has important common interests with Europe, including trade in gas and oil and a shared preoccupation with Islamic extremism.