European politics and Europe’s position in the world are confronted by severe challenges. In security terms, the fair-weather option of the last 25 years, with the US umbrella close in case of the unlikely rain shower, is no longer available.
The Trump presidency may be disturbing and unpredictable, but it exposes some uncomfortable truths. For example, that the NATO allies, if they expect protection, have to pay for it.
Add migration pressure from Africa (the continent’s population increases two-fold by 2050). Plus the consequences of the new ‘Great Game’ across the Eurasian double-continent, the growing rivalry between the US and Russia and China.
Europeans better hurry and wake up to reality. At least there are new players moving centre stage. French president Emmanuel Macron was elected last May; so far he struggles to translate his ideals of reform and revival into everyday politics. In Austria, Sebastian Kurz has been chancellor for just three months. The tangible outcome of the recent Italian elections, where rightist and populist forces captured approximately 46% of the vote, has yet to take shape.
In Berlin, the next centrist ‘great coalition’ government, a lacklustre alliance of two ex-grand old parties, was just sworn in. It is a last resort, a bulwark of mainstream politics, and a desperate bid by the country’s establishment to retain the status quo.
The status quo is indeed under attack. Continental Europeans have nowhere come to terms with neither the Brexit nor Donald Trump in the White House. With the US president now following up on his protectionist campaign agenda, and the stubborn Brits still insisting on a future outside the EU, despair increases. The worldwide pivot to identity as a key political factor, after decades of massive globalisation, cuts right across the European establishment’s, politicians and business, pet project of progressive integration.
At present, the guarantor of European stability is the confrontation with Russia. Vladimir Putin, the time-tested bogeyman, effectively unifies Europe and the transatlantic alliance. Without the fear of the Kremlin’s ‘aggressive’ agenda, European politicians would be running about like a chicken with their heads cut off.
Hybrid War, and no security system
A preferred topic of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other politicians in the West, the framework of European peace or the European security order, was a chimera even before the Ukraine crisis in 2014. Even if the signatories of the 1990 Charter of Paris believed in such a framework, it quickly eroded, as early as with the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia. Soon followed the superpowers’ rivalry for influence in the post-Soviet space, NATO enlargement, the secession of Kosovo, the Russo-Georgian War, the Ukrainian Revolution and the Russian annexation of Crimea. In business, an arbitration judge might use the term frustration of contract.
Today, hybrid war is a reality. It is being fought in cyberspace, in the media and at the frontlines of very real civil wars, with weapons virtual and physical, with mercenaries and propagandists, NGOs, rumours and lies, hacking and hacking accusations, finally sanctions and counter-sanctions. It is a war of the 21st Century, a post-modern war. The parties: the US and the NATO allies on one side, Russia on the other. It is a war about the minds, the perspectives and the narratives, not about territories. Neither are there NATO plans to invade Russia nor Russian plans to attack NATO member states. Whoever claims the opposite is only feeding the many myths surrounding that confrontation.
Fuelling it is a growing rivalry between Russia and the US for influence on the Eurasian continent. Moscow made quite some headway with its 2015 intervention in Syria. Russia is now the only great power with good or very good relations with nearly all Middle Eastern states and has managed to replace Washington as the ‘go-to’ arbiter in case of conflict. Still further east, Russia and China are establishing a long-term entente to push back US influence on the Pacific Rim.
Europe: The scattered dreams
For some years after the end of the Cold War and under US hegemony, Europe was able to develop and cultivate a self-image as a greenhouse of the future: a united conglomerate of post-modern, post-national, post-religious and post-power societies leading the world into the hyper-individualistic and super-global 21st Century.
Combining chiliastic euphoria and lofty Western philosophy, such a concept could only take root in a unipolar world order. The USSR was gone, and China was absorbed by its economic growth. The general mood was indeed so confident, that otherwise sober European politicians embarked on a series of semi-utopian projects: a common currency, the dismantling of border controls, the stripping of grand, old nation-states of their sovereign rights, and the inclusion of countries that were culturally and historically largely incoherent with the rest-EU, as members.
Twenty years later, all those projects ran aground more or less. The ‘new’ European values – liberalism, secularism, tolerance, maximised individual and minority rights – are increasingly challenged by the proponents of traditional ones: collective identity, family, nation, law and order, and religion.
At the same time, geopolitics have re-gained a decisively competitive character. Smart talk like that of win-win situations is far less heard of. China has announced its return to power politics. Russia’s comeback, stronger in terms of power than of economy, is evident. Both vie with the US for influence in Eurasia and, at least in the case of China, in Africa and Latin America. Some of China’s geostrategic designs, usually bundled with economic and political objectives, are so staggeringly ambitious that their implementation transcends the life-span of one or two generations.
Phases of Western-Russian relations
To determine the best way for Europe to adapt to those changes in the geopolitical environment, it is worthwhile to assess the different phases of Western-Russian relations over the last 100 years. With the Bolshevik revolution, both sides became proponents of antagonistic ideologies, a state that essentially continued until the USSR disappeared in 1991. That confrontation was immediately accompanied by military strife, starting with the 1918 Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the ideological conflict internationalised. The Spanish Civil War was fought as a proxy war between international leftists and rightists, with the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in the driver seat.
The German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 bore all the elements of an anti-Bolshevik crusade. There was more than a faint hope among Nazi leaders that the new Eastern Front would convince the British to consider peace while Germany battled the ‘common’ enemy in Moscow. The hope was strengthened by the rejection of Stalin’s 1939 advances towards London and Paris.
In fact, the Stalin-Hitler pact that effectively freed Germany from the prospect of a second front was hammered out only after the Western democracies had turned down an alliance with their communist arch-enemy.
After World War Two, it was the United States’ willingness to continue the anti-Bolshevik campaign that attracted quite a few former middle and lower rank Nazis to consider supporting the new transatlantic and democratic Western Germany. Even in the younger generations, the hatred and fear their grandfathers felt towards Communist Russia lives on in form of deep-set suspicions regarding Moscow’s ‘real’ political objectives.
A new phase began around 1990, when 70 years of confrontation between two mutually excluding ideologies, dividing East and West in Europe and beyond, draw to an end. A fairly relaxed phase of Western-Russian relations began, with both sides viewing each other on a converging course towards peaceful cohabitation in a European house from Lisbon to Vladivostok.
That phase lasted until the end of Vladimir Putin’s first presidential term. With the 2004 Orange Revolution in Kiev, it was clear that both sides were locked in a competition for spheres of influence in the post-Soviet space. It was to a large degree a rivalry by coincidence. Most European politicians did not see their objective in the traditional sense of power politics. Energised by the apparent victory of Western-style liberal democracy, they saw their ‘democratisation’ programs as genuine efforts to make the world a better place.
On the other hand, politicians in Moscow could not but interpret NATO and EU enlargement, and the EU’s Eastern Partnership program, as a revival of the Western containment policies which they had experienced since 1919, originally as ‘cordon sanitaire’, a chain of Central and Eastern European buffer states isolating Bolshevik Russia from the West.
Phase number three, sometimes labelled the New Cold War, is again marked by confrontation but lacks the mutual systemic exclusion of two antagonistic ideologies. In so far, it rather resembles the pre-revolutionary rivalries of European empires. With the difference that it is much less Eurocentric than the conflicts of a hundred years ago.
In fact, it is not Eurocentric at all. Two of the driving forces behind today’s Eurasian rivalries are non-European countries – the US and China. Russia’s European-ness is hardly representative for the bulk of the continent.
Europe is no longer a pivot of geopolitical activity. What is left are engagements by Great Britain in partnership with other Anglo-Saxon nations, and by France, upholding its traditional focus on Northern and Western Africa complemented by more recent activities in the Middle East and India. But neither the scope nor the political, economic or military weight behind any such unilateral engagements are comparable to those of the rivalling great powers. Materially, Europe was in a position to develop multilateral hard-power, and geo-strategic plans, but it could not back them up due to a lack of unity, ambition, and strategy.
Of the global stratagems, the masterplans and Great Games that were invented and implemented in Western European capitals for about 500 years, there is one geopolitical project left. That is, to contain military conflict – war, civil war, terrorism – in its near abroad, i.e., in the MENA region (Middle East and Northern Africa), the Balkans and Eastern Europe. The aim is to protect peace and prosperity in Western Europe.
As invasions by conventional armed forces have become less and less likely, defence strategies and tactics are re-directed against the new phenomenon of hybrid warfare, for example, cyber warfare, fighting Islamic terrorism, and against the threat of uncontrolled immigration from the Global South.
Most other experts, at this point, would insist on yet another European objective: to spread, propagate and support, in the hinterland and beyond, European values like democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. One can assume that the majority of European mainstream politicians share that view, with some going as far as demanding an unconditionally value-based foreign policy.
The Downside of value-based foreign policies
The claim for a morally-grounded foreign policy, under present geopolitical conditions, is questionable. As a rule, the pursuit of moral objectives in politics requires as many or more resources than the pursuit of objectives that are attainable through negotiation and compromise (realpolitik).
In the 19th Century and earlier, when European powers routinely intervened in the non-European world, that was less of a problem. Their stark military superiority enabled the Old World powers to effectively pacify and control any situation with small resources. As was shown by post-WWII military interventions in Asia and Africa, this is no longer the case.
Secondly, as both Europe and the US can no longer guarantee swift pacification and sustained control, interventions in foreign conflicts come with an increasing risk of exacerbation. A good example is the civil war in Syria.
If the primary interest were to bring about peace, Europe would support the side that stands the best chance to win. As that is the government of President Bashar al-Assad, European support for it would be the logical conclusion.
But having declared (in the wake of the US) the rebels to be morally superior, such a move is out of the question. The result is that the West, which continues to support the rebels, effectively prolongs the war.
As long as the available resources cannot guarantee victory, interventions based on moral grounds will only intensify war, leading to more deaths and refugees. Peace and morality do not correlate.
In other words, a value-based foreign policy lacking the power to enforce its objectives will lead to more conflict. Successful realpolitik, while minimising the length of conflict and the number of victims, will have to settle with a morally inferior solution.
The NATO trap
For Europe, there is another argument why it should refrain from the wholesale adoption of morally grounded policies. With the three great powers, the US, China and Russia, getting increasingly entangled in their Eurasian rivalries, Washington cannot but view Europe as an indispensable bridgehead and the transatlantic alliance as a comfortable tool to help advance its Eurasian agenda.
In 1949 NATO was designed in view of a clearly defined enemy: Soviet Russia. In those days, US and Western European interests were almost identical. 70 years later, Russia has shaken off communism, China has returned as a great power, Europe is in relative geopolitical decline and Islam has become a source of chaos and crisis.
The Eurasian frontline, which seven decades ago meandered through Europe from Norway to Eastern Anatolia, today is inspired by Keith Haring: short and unconnected strokes all over the double-continent, the true signature of multipolar (dis)order.
As the pivot of Eurasian geopolitics shifts away from Europe, the Eurasian interests of the US and those of Europe increasingly diverge. US interests are challenged by Russia and China, European interests are not. To keep this from being recognised, the 2014 crisis came as a godsend.
By labelling Russia’s Ukraine policy – in truth the implementation of a proprietary version of the US’s Monroe doctrine (‘hands off my post-soviet hinterland’) – as anti-Western, anti-European aggression, transatlantic media and politicians had (and have) no problem to sustaining mainstream belief in a Russian military threat.
The mid-century concept of NATO defending the West against a Russian attack assumed, realistically, that the communist threat could not be divided. The Bolshevik objective of world revolution was systemic and universal. The threat was equally distributed, and the NATO defence principle ‘all for one, one for all’ was honest and legitimate: equal threat and equal risk.
In the 21st Century, neither Russia nor China pose systemic threats. Their respective interests are not universal, but particular. They might collide with US interests in the Middle or the Far East, but not concern Europe. Thereby the ‘all for one, one for all’ doctrine translates into an asymmetric equation: unequal threat but equal risk.
NATO is an effective tool against a systemic threat, with only two outcomes: to be or not to be. In a multipolar world with its rivalling interests, but without systemic threats, NATO does not fit. In particular, it might prove detrimental for a Europe on geopolitical retreat. Value-based foreign policies only make things worse. They tempt to engage, to take sides where good advice would be to keep one’s distance and stay neutral. They also invite all sorts of misconceptions, emotional judgement, bias, and deceit.
Take an intra-national confrontation triggered by ethnic or religious strife, power-hungry warlords, an oppressive regime or a mix of it all. What next? Politics and media, first in the US, then in Europe, set out and gauge the conflict according to their moral standards, eventually picking one side as the good guys and another as the bad guys.
Nobody asks whether the good guys are really good, and the bad guys really bad. Nobody asks what hidden motives also determined the picking. But politicians, morally committed and alarmed by upset media, will hasten to support the good guys. They want to be reelected.
Next, the bad guys seek their own protector, likely among non-Western, non-value-based governments betting on some net gain from the intervention. Eventually, moral values and Machiavellian reckoning jointly fuel a conflict that was ignited by some irrelevant local material or power interest and is now transformed into a soaring wound that spawns death and refugees.
German nostalgia politics
Germany’s new coalition government will continue the same ‘nostalgia politics’ as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s previous governments. Nostalgia, because what Merkel seeks is a return to the good, old days of the 1990s and early 2000s, when (apparently) a set of rules was in place, when Eastern Europeans countries were longing to ‘be like us’, and when Russia was sufficiently weakened to integrate within the beneficial Western hegemony.
For a generation of German politicians (and media people, intellectuals), the heady days of the 1990s, with Germany united as a country, integrated in a united Europe and set in a rule-based, harmonious global universe, were close to the consummation of German history.
But those days were never there and won’t come back. Nor will the rule-based international order the way it was meant and understood by the more realistic Western cynics: Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi. Where Jupiter is the synonym for the Great Arbiter, the US and NATO.
At present, with Western Europe and Russia at loggerheads, nostalgia politics will lead to nothing. Still worse, they exacerbate the situation because insisting on the revival of a status quo ante means preventing creative, new approaches from being pursued. As long as nostalgia politicians determine the Western agenda, and Vladimir Putin the Russian agenda, relations will remain as they are now: continued but slowed trade and investment; some cultural and sporting exchange; political communication on lowest heat; hybrid warfare with all its facets.
The hope that all this will someday disappear together with the Putin presidency is naïve. Whoever succeeds him, be it a nationalist or a liberal, will have to play the same rivalries, feed the same ambitions, and continue to strengthen the country in a multipolar world. The major challenge is faced by the Western camp, namely by the Germans. Their task is to scrap the dreams of global or even only European orders and accept the fact that, finally, history has returned.