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What Kind of Great Power Can Europe Become?

While EU policymakers cavil over constitutional questions about desired levels of European integration, global forces are imposing a political transformation on Europe. The only real question facing Europeans is whether they will establish themselves as a global power, or become a mere pawn of others.

BERLIN – World War II, and the period of decolonization that followed it, brought to an end the centuries-long global domination of Europe’s great powers. After 1945, neither of the global powers – the United States and the Soviet Union – was European, and a plethora of newly independent nation-states bounded onto the world stage.

Having achieved victories both in the Pacific and in Europe, only the US was strong enough to provide the still-dominant West with a political and economic order. America provided military protection and support for political cooperation and free trade, while the rest of the Western world sought to overcome the forces of nationalism and protectionism.

America also created rules-based international institutions. In Europe, this multilateral framework eventually evolved into a new (Western) European system of states: today’s European Union. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day in 1991, the US became the world’s only superpower – and quickly overextended itself. The unipolar moment ended with the senseless US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – a country from which the US has been trying to extricate itself for more than a decade.

But the global order cannot exist in a vacuum, because other powers will always step in to fill the void. Hence, the new emerging power, China, has been rushing to assert itself on the world stage, as has a militarily reinvigorated Russia, the world’s other major nuclear power after the US. The current order is no longer defined by one or two superpowers, but nor is it based on multilateralism – or on any other framework designed to balance competing interests and contain, prevent, or resolve conflicts.

The election of US President Donald Trump marked the beginning of America’s active renunciation of the global order that it helped build. Under Trump, the US has deliberately tried to destroy post-war institutions such as the World Trade Organization, while openly questioning time-tested international alliances such as NATO. The multilateral Pax Americana of the Cold War era has given way to the return of a world in which individual countries assert their national interests at the expense of other, weaker powers. Sometimes this involves economic or diplomatic pressure; and sometimes, as in the case of Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine, it involves the use of force.

Europe cannot simply dodge or ignore the effects of this broader sea change. While the European Union is powerful in economic, technological, and trade terms, it is not a great power in its own right. It lacks the homogenous political will and the military capabilities that underpin genuine geopolitical power, and it has come to take many of its own traditions for granted. As a supranational entity of 27 member states, it is the progeny of precisely the multilateral order that is now in decline.

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The historic reversal from rules-based multilateralism to an unstable system of great-power rivalries is woefully inconsistent with the current mix of growing global challenges, not least climate change. Preventing catastrophic global warming requires collective action by an international community comprising the vast majority of countries, not a revival of a global order based on competition among states.

Fortunately, the EU already holds a leading position with respect to climate-change mitigation, both in technological and regulatory terms. Europe’s task now is to maintain and expand that lead, not just for the sake of the planet, but for its own economic interests as well. After all, America’s retreat is forcing Europe to become a power in its own right. Otherwise, it will become a dependent and mere instrument of other powers.

In geopolitical terms, Trumpism, the rise of China, and Russian revisionism – which takes the form of military aggression, owing to Russia’s weakening economic base – have left Europeans with no choice but to pursue great-power status. The current wave of technological innovation has further strengthened this imperative. Digitalization, artificial intelligence, big data, and (possibly) quantum computing will determine what the world of tomorrow looks like, including who leads it.

At its heart, the digital revolution is about politics, not technology. The liberty of individuals and entire societies is at stake. In the digital future, the political freedoms that underpin Western civilization will increasingly depend on questions of data ownership. Will European data belong to firms in Silicon Valley or China, or will it be subject to the sovereign control of Europeans themselves? To my mind, this question will be critical to establishing Europe’s great-power credentials in the years and decades ahead.

Europeans have long been debating constitutional questions such as the desired level of integration or confederation (Staatenverbund) for the EU. But the time for these discussions is over, at least for now. The political transformation that is underway is being forced upon integrationists and inter-governmentalists alike. The challenge now is to transform Europe into a great power before it is ground down by larger technological and geopolitical forces.

Europe cannot afford to fall behind technologically or in terms of geopolitical power. It has a responsibility to lead the rest of the world on the issue of climate change, which will require technological as well as regulatory innovation. In a world quickly succumbing to zero-sum rivalries, becoming a climate-policy great power should be Europe’s top priority.;
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