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The latest Munich Security Conference hosted a great deal of talk about Europe as a greater strategic player. But for now, as it embarks on a new decade, most of this remains just talk.
At the recently concluded Munich Security Conference, French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated his demands for a renewed discussion regarding a possible ‘reset’ in relations with Russia. This is in line with a historical pattern in which Paris has often sought to employ Europe’s combined weight to counterbalance American influence. Most recently, this took the form of visions for a ‘Greater Europe’ from Lisbon to Vladivostok, conceived after the Berlin Wall’s collapse as a potential third ‘pillar’ of the international order, in addition to Washington and Beijing.
However, resistance to Macron’s overture across the continent has highlighted the structural challenges inhibiting the advent of a new pan-European modus vivendi. These, in turn, bring important implications for the future of global order.
In the years since the onset of the 2014 Ukraine crisis, Russia’s so-called ‘pivot to the East’ and its deepening strategic partnership with China – along with the launch of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative that aims to enhance connectivity between European and Asian markets partly by way of the Russian landmass – have effectively welded the wider European space into a Eurasian security system that spans much of the supercontinent. Yet although Russia’s sprawling geography provides it with a capacity to generate macro-level change in global politics, its ability or desire to project power is often limited, revealing a preference for reaping disproportionate gains compared to the resources committed.
For instance, Moscow’s primary means of managing order in the Middle East is through coordinating with regional partners such as Turkey and Iran, while in Central Asia it aims to construct a symbiotic relationship with Beijing to mask its receding influence. This incongruity, among other factors, renders it difficult for Europeans to generate a unified view on how to approach relations with Russia.
Germany, for its part, has led much of the opposition to Macron’s recent assertiveness, emphasising NATO’s central role in ensuring European security. But even though Berlin has acted as the standard bearer for Central and Eastern European concerns in this instance, the broader legitimacy of its role in continental affairs relies on its post-war compact with France. Unsurprisingly, and particularly after the eurozone crisis, many EU members are keen for a counterweight to German influence within their ranks. One is, therefore, often left with a set of shifting coalitions within the EU on an issue-by-issue basis.
Although these varying alignments may act as a lubricant in enhancing the resilience of the EU’s internal rules-based order, they have thus far hindered the advent of a coherent European strategic culture. The ‘guiding principles’ that underpin the EU’s policy toward Russia – ranging from ‘selective engagement’ to the full implementation of the Minsk agreements, which are supposed to bring about an eventual resolution to the crisis in Ukraine – reveal an approach rooted in the lowest common denominator among member states. This has prevented the EU from developing a comprehensive Eurasian strategy that includes Russia, even if it eventually finds a way to calibrate a united posture toward China through trial and error.
These structural impediments undermine the EU’s ability to become a forceful geopolitical actor beyond its immediate vicinity, despite President Ursula von der Leyen’s pledge to preside over a ‘geopolitical Commission’ and EU High Representative Josep Borrell’s call over the weekend in Munich for Europe to develop an ‘appetite for power’. While EU institutions and member states have been able to demonstrate their appeal in the post-Soviet space and exert influence in North Africa, Washington’s campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ against Tehran indicates that the US has little intention of abdicating its pre-eminent position in key areas of the Middle East, even as the Trump administration gradually redefines America’s global role. This suggests that the EU’s ability merely to shape its wider neighbourhood – from managing the situation in Syria to buttressing nuclear diplomacy with Iran – faces significant roadblocks, a fact made painfully clear by the American assassination of Qassem Soleimani and the subsequent ratcheting up of tensions in the region.
In hindsight, it is easy to see how the vision of a common European space from Lisbon to Vladivostok was doomed to become the victim of the rival visions that emerged at the end of the Cold War. Moscow’s continued desire for an ‘equal partnership’ remains seemingly incompatible with Brussels’ insistence on Eastern European countries’ ‘right to choose’ their international orientation. It has therefore become difficult to envisage any substantial reset with Russia without a discussion of de facto spheres of influence. This represents a red line for the EU. As such, although the advent of a ‘Greater Europe’ would undoubtedly enhance the EU’s global clout, it would also come with significant practical implications for the principles that govern the continent’s security order. Even the more modest rapprochement rooted in shared interests proposed by Macron faces heavy resistance from several EU member states, in addition to obstacles posed by the erosion of key agreements such as the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaties.
More crucial is that any attempt to pry Russia away from China in the short term is doomed to fail. Moscow’s strategic partnership with Beijing has allowed Russia to position itself as an equal co-architect of an emerging and increasingly integrated Eurasia, nominally allowing it to preserve the great power status central to its foreign policy identity. This allows Russia to seemingly preserve its sovereign decision-making in international affairs in the face of Brussels’ attempts to employ integration and harmonisation as the means through which to order the wider European space. Moreover, the EU’s recent designation of Beijing as a ‘systemic rival’ only stands to push it closer to Moscow, which in turn plays to Russia’s strategy of using China as a power multiplier that enhances its ability to shape the international order.
That said, Beijing has also yet to develop the capability – or perhaps even the desire – to uphold order in Washington’s place in frontiers of the Pax Americana such as the Middle East. China’s apparent willingness to forge a ‘new type of great power relationship’ with Russia – rooted in policy coordination, equal cooperation and mutual respect – suggests that Central Asia will remain a testing ground of sorts for incubating the principles and strategy guiding Beijing’s international engagement this century. This, when combined with the mixed international reaction to the Belt and Road Initiative and a slew of continuing domestic challenges, points to the limited scope of China’s ability to project power globally this decade.
Despite narratives emphasising the shift of power from West to East and the supposed advent of ‘multipolarity’, the US remains the single global hegemon, with other leading states such as Iran, Russia and China retaining the ability to check American power in their immediate neighbourhoods but often lacking the capacity to contribute to global public goods on a larger scale. This asymmetric contest has engendered a state of global rivalry and disorder that will come to characterise much of international relations in this new decade, threatening the reach of the Western-led liberal international order and the resilience of the more universally accepted rules-based world order as well. The Trump presidency has merely rendered more explicit a structure of international contestation that had already found expression in the post-Cold War era – in Kosovo, Iraq and Libya.
As such, although it faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the vision of some sort of ‘Greater Europe’ as an additional pillar buttressing the international order remains on the historical agenda. The challenge for the EU as it slowly finds its international footing over the coming decade will be to find a way to resurrect this concept in a way that accounts for the emergence of a pan-Eurasian security system and its likely impact on American foreign policy. The EU’s gradual rise to strategic autonomy must not be aimed solely at enhancing the sovereignty of a geographically bound community, but rather at helping to stabilise the foundations of a shifting global order.
Zachary Paikin (@zpaikin) is Senior Editor at Global Brief magazine, Visiting Fellow at the Global Policy Institute and Expert at the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.