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Europe: Strategic Drifter

Europe: Strategic Drifter

Mini Teaser: Economic weakness and geopolitical shifts may see Europe choose a foreign policy of weakness.

by Author(s): Jakub Grygiel

THE EUROPEAN Union’s unfolding crisis tends to be seen as purely economic in nature and consequence. The EU is a common market, with a common currency adopted by most of its members and with fiscal problems of one kind or another facing almost all of its capitals. Most analyses of the euro crisis focus, therefore, on the economic and financial impact of whatever “euro exit” may occur or of a European fiscal centralization. In the worst case, they project a full-fledged breakup of the common currency and perhaps even the EU itself. Not much can be added to this sea of analysis except a pinch of skepticism: nobody really knows the full economic impact, positive or negative, of such potential developments. In fact, not even European leaders seem to have a clear idea of how to mitigate the economic and political morass of the Continent. While it is certain that the EU of the future will be different, it isn’t clear just how.

If we look at the current situation of the EU from a security perspective, however, it becomes much more difficult to foresee any long-term positive outcome. That’s because the euro troubles of today will have powerful negative effects on the security of the region, resulting in challenges that will preoccupy Europeans as well as Americans in the years to come.

Certainly, this does not mean that the postwar European project, backed by American power, will wither away. There is little likelihood of deadly intra-European conflicts of the kind that bedeviled the Continent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Europe, in this sense, is and will continue to be at peace. Moreover, European powers historically tended to export their conflicts abroad, often fighting each other in distant theaters (North America, Africa or Asia) before resorting to direct confrontation on the Continent. Thus, tensions in Europe often translated into instability abroad. But today’s European states have little ability to project power. Long gone is the nineteenth-century Europe of expanding, ambitious imperial powers. One result is that within Europe there are no serious territorial conflicts, no need or desire to expand, and no revolutionary or revisionist forces on the horizon. Even in a (highly unlikely) worst-case scenario—a complete breakup of the European Union accompanied by a collapse of its economies—it is difficult to foresee a return to the bloody interactions of past centuries. In a nutshell, there are reasons to maintain a healthy optimism about the future of Europe as a continent internally at peace.

But any such optimism is grounded in the reality of persistent and possibly accelerating European decline. Europe is drifting from crisis to crisis, unable to address structural problems at either the national or the EU level. Consequently, it is focused on fiscal limits, “austerity” packages, labor-market rigidities, regulations and questions regarding the legitimacy of existing institutions. Introspection and self-centeredness can breed peace but not necessarily long-term security. It is a peace of weakness, and weakness breeds challenge.

The European Union is a strategic drifter, unclear about its world role, unable to articulate a purpose and divided in its perception of external threats. This invites exploitation by other powers (Russia and China in particular) eager to reestablish their own standing in the world or to chip away at U.S. security and interests. The Continent thus faces questions about its long-term stability amid the prospect of new conventional threats. More dynamic and aggressive powers—Russia, Iran and China—are unlikely to leave a weak and divided Europe alone.

All this is reflected in four developing realities that are symptoms of the ongoing, gradual and worrisome shift in the geopolitical position of Europe and in the relationship between Europe and the United States. These are:

(1) the foreign policies of many EU member states increasingly are driven more by domestic economic concerns than by cold, geopolitical assessment of external threats;

(2) other EU members, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, are concerned with their territorial security, bringing discussions of conventional deterrence back into vogue;

(3) the EU’s fundamental weakness, rather than any strategic conviction, likely will lead Europe to oppose U.S. foreign policy, especially in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East; and

(4) the United States will have few and feeble capabilities to shore up Europe because the root of the problem is not security, an area in which the United States retains considerable leverage, but rather internal economic malaise stemming from a misconceived political plan of EU unification. Moreover, while America’s benevolent power played a crucial role in fostering post–World War II European harmony, EU integration is an indigenous process far less conducive to U.S. influence.

These four developments, which are linked and self-reinforcing, are rooted in deeper problems and unresolved differences that are gaining force as a result of the economic crisis. They are widely seen, wrongly, as tangential or even irrelevant to the future of Europe and its economic struggles. That’s because the faith in a new political reality—one created by the EU and characterized by the fortuitous absence of any serious security threat—remains powerful throughout the Continent. Still, while the transformative power of the EU on international politics and security remains limited, it must be said that these four developments are trends, not outcomes. They point to the emergence of a worrisome new geopolitical reality—but one that has not yet fully materialized. It also is not fully recognized, and that renders it all the more ominous.

THE EU’S member states do not agree on the nature of external threats. This is not new, of course. Estonia and Poland traditionally have had little in common with, for example, France or Italy. The EU has no power to change geographic realities; events in Moscow or Tunisia cannot be controlled by Europe and affect various European states very differently. Tunisian or Libyan refugees landing on Sicilian beaches do not produce prominent headlines in Great Britain, while the potential placement of Russian Iskander medium-range ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad is not deemed to be a problem in Athens. Until recently, however, such disagreements remained largely theoretical and did not translate into clearly divergent actions. For example, Paris and Rome may have had a higher tolerance for Vladimir Putin’s ambitions than Warsaw or Riga. In some cases, particularly on issues of energy and Georgia, views were not just divergent but in serious conflict. But there was a certain unspoken understanding that Europeans could disagree vehemently on such matters without undermining each other’s security.

Now, however, such divergent views are leading to divergent actions, and this can undermine the concept of European unity, as well as EU security itself. This is not based on any dispassionate analysis of the nature of external threats but rather on domestic concerns about unemployment and deficits that drive foreign-policy decisions. Consider the case of France’s 2011 sale to Russia of Mistral-class ships capable of carrying helicopters and amphibious vehicles. Paris ignored heated opposition to this sale from leaders of Central and Eastern European nations. The final agreement, envisaging the sale of two Mistrals and the further construction in Russia of two more, was a watershed event because it indicated it can be permissible for a European state to transfer high-tech military platforms to a nation deemed threatening by other Europeans. Because this transfer undermined an already-tenuous belief in European solidarity, for Russia this was a political victory more than a simple improvement of military capabilities. The message was: watch out, Georgia and Estonia (and other states along the eastern frontier), because France will not protect you. In France, meanwhile, the decision seemed to have been driven by domestic politics and economic considerations—namely, the desire to keep a shipyard working and thus avoid thousands of layoffs that would have hampered an already-dire economic situation and a tenuous political climate. By adding the latest technologies and communications systems to the Mistral hulls, France signaled its openness to further business deals geared toward modernizing the Russian military.

Putin’s plans to increase Russian defense spending by roughly 25 percent in 2013 are certainly appealing to the world’s defense contractors. Russia has the money and political will—but not the industrial and technological infrastructure—to modernize its military. So the Mistral case can be explained, to some degree, as a market story of supply meeting demand. But looking at the deal merely through an economic prism misses some of the long-term military and political ramifications of the sale. At the same time that France was providing amphibious-assault ships to Moscow, Germany was signing an agreement to build a combat-training center for the Russian army. An analysis of the agreement by a Polish think tank states:

Image: Pullquote: Europe's problems are not caused merely by a mistaken policy or two. This is a deep crisis caused by a missing sense of purpose and an abandonment of Europe's distinct history and culture.Essay Types: Essay