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Europe vis-a-vis an unbalanced multipolar world

The Federalist Year LI, 2009 - 07 mars, 2009
Analyse and essay
Hajnalka Vincze

That which, following the disappearance of the Soviet Union, was described as “the unipolar period” is now moving inexorably towards its end, to the dismay of those who pinned, and those who would still like to pin, all their hopes on it. The USA, concerned as ever with holding onto its leadership in global affairs, has for some time shown irritation at talk of a “multipolar world,” interpreting the expression as a sign of some kind of anti-American plot. In response to this, European leaders, French ones in particular, have repeatedly pointed out that the multipolar world, far from a design, is merely an observation.

The state of play — then the same as now 

Furthermore, this observation is not necessarily something to be celebrated (even though it might at first seem to be). Because while a world order structured around a single predominant concentration of power unarguably implies a strong temptation to abuse that power, it would be wrong to see multipolarism as the panacea: multipolarism, in itself, is neither a guarantee, nor a value. Indeed, there is nothing to say that a multipolar system has to be based on balanced relations of cooperation. What is more —andthis is the part that affects us, citizens of Europe, directly —there is nothing to say that Europe will figure among the future poles of power. On the contrary, if current trends continue and become established, Europe runs the risk of becoming, as Hubert Védrine aptly put it, “the idiot of the global village”.[1] According to the former foreign affairs minister, Europe’s stubborn attachment to the view (extremely naïve and specific to Europe) that it is already part of a great family, the family of the “international community”, will ultimately be its downfall. To this we can immediately add another fault, namely, the extraordinary ease with which the overwhelming majority of European governments have grown accustomed to living under an external power. In this regard, the identity of the power has no importance whatsoever. At the moment it is America, but the fact is that once the bases, both material (loss/relinquishment of autonomy in strategic areas) and psychological (a tendency towards alignment with the current superpower and self-censorship on the part of the European élites), of a situation of subordination have been laid, the fall into the trap of abdicating sovereignty is inevitable and the subordination is perpetuated regardless of the identity of the tutelary power.

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To their great consternation, the Europeans cannot even draw comfort from the idea that the danger they face is new, the changes recent, and their own weaknesses attributable to difficulties adapting to a world that is changing with bewildering speed, given that the fundamental problems they must urgently solve have been on the table for decades. This is shown by the report drawn up over thirty years ago by Belgian prime minister Leo Tindemans, who produced an astonishingly accurate diagnosis of the problem.[2] The issues and the questions he raised may now have taken on a different form and intensity, but their nature has certainly not changed.

The Prophetic Content of the Tindemans Report.

Even though prime minister Tindemans addressed his 1975 report to his European counterparts of that time, most of the observations it contains still strike a chord today. His analysis of the global challenges is still relevant: “Inequality in the distribution of wealth threatens the stability of the world economic system; exhaustion of resources weighs heavily on the future of industrial society; the internationalisation of economic life makes our system of production even more dependent.” In the same way, the report does not sound in the least dated when it highlights the risks associated with the decline of the (European) states: “For thirty years the relative weight and influence of our states in the world has been continually reduced. In step with this, the national governments’ hold over the means that make it possible to influence the future of our societies has constantly diminished. Both internally and externally, the room for manoeuvre of the individual states has decreased. They attempt to maintain their balance in the face of pressures and factors internal as well as external, which are outside their control. The danger of the effects of this two-fold spiral of impotence is great; it leads from weakness to dependence, which itself is a source of further losses.”

Equally pertinent today are Tindemans’ remarks on the expectations of the citizens and the strategic priorities that Europe must keep within its sights if it wants to be able to give them answers: “Our peoples expect the European Union to be, where and when appropriate, the voice of Europe. Our joint action must be the means of effectively defending our legitimate interests, it must provide the basis for real security in a fairer world.” To achieve this, “Europe must guard against isolation, against turning inwards on itself which would reduce it to a footnote in history, and also against the subjection and narrow dependence which would prevent it from making its voice heard. It must recover some control over its destiny.” On this issue, the Belgian prime minister’s views are absolutely in tune with the profound feelings expressed, with remarkable constancy, by the European citizens. Indeed, as shown by successive Eurobarometer surveys, public support for a CFSP (Common Foreign and Security Policy) and a European defence has continued to be strong (over 70 per cent), with a vast majority (over 80 per cent) agreeing that European policy in these areas “must be independent of the United States”.

One of the real virtues of the Tindemans Report is, indeed, the fact that Tindeman has no hesitation in pointing out certain uncomfortable truths about our relationship with the United States. Because it is undoubtedly rare, even nowadays, to find European leaders prepared to admit, for example, the obvious fact that the European project stemmed partly, if not mainly, from Europe’s need to carry some weight in its relations with the United States, or to suggest (what sacrilege!) that our respective interests, within this great transatlantic family, cannot always coincide completely. “Relations with the United States, who are at one and the same time our allies, our partners and occasionally our competitors, raise problems of vast proportions for the European Union. The need for Europe to speak with one voice in its relations with the United States is one of the main underlying reasons for the construction of Europe.” Accordingly, Tindemans says, we should be striving “to establish relations with the United States based on the principle of equality, free of any sense of dependence, which reflects at the same time both what is common in our basic values, interests and responsibilities, and the differences in the destinies of our two regions.”

The American Factor at the Heart of the Problem.

On this crucial point, which is the crux of the fundamental questions relating to European integration, the member states continue to have conflicting points of view. Or, as the Tindemans Report euphemistically put it, Europe’s capitals are a long way, a very long way, “from arriving at a strictly identical appreciation of relations between the United States and Europe”. This is hardly surprising. The United States has always been the great taboo subject in discussions on CFSP, even though the stances adopted by the different countries are determined, essentially, precisely in relation to “the unmentionable”, i.e., the position of Washington, already well known and/or discreetly conveyed in advance; and even though the first question the leaders of other countries ask about EU foreign and security policy is whether it is designed to complement or counterbalance American policy. This is a question that goes unanswered —even among Europeans.

As early as 1973, at the time of the drawing up of the “Declaration on European Identity”, the emergence of a subtle, but significant, difference between the English and French versions revealed the existence of diametrically opposing viewpoints. For the French, relations with America must not be allowed to influence in any way the affirmation of a European policy which, in their view, must remain independent (“Les liens étroits qui existent entre les Etats-Unis et l’Europe des Neuf n’affectent pas la détermination des Neuf de s’affirmer comme une entité distincte et originale”: the close ties between the United States and Europe of the Nine do not affect the determination of the Nine to establish themselves as a distinct and original entity); the British, on the other hand, preferred to make it clear that they rejected even the idea that there might exist a contradiction between the two (“The close ties between the United States and Europe of the Nine do not conflict with the determination of the Nine to establish themselves as a distinct and original entity”.[3])

This fundamental difference is at the root of the future tribulations of the CFSP and ESDP (European Security and Defence Policy) and it also provides an explanation for the emergence of numerous surreal organograms, bizarre formulae and grotesque episodes. As remarked by Nicole Gnesotto, former director of the EU Institute for Security Studies: “While the Europeans find it fairly easy to agree on a more or less common view of the world, they are divided on the Union’s role in managing the world’s crises. Since that role is broadly a function of the type of relationship that each member country wants to build with America, bilateral or within NATO, the Europeans have never managed to agree on the actual purpose of their diplomatic and military cooperation. The recurring debates on the virtues or vices of multipolarity or unipolarity, like the discussions on the possible degree of European autonomy on defence matters, are the most caricatural illustration of this latent division among Europeans on the Union’s role and its relationship with the remaining superpower.”[4]

At the risk of sounding repetitive, it must be reiterated that the relationship we today establish with America, be it one of dependence or autonomy, will determine our positions vis-à-vis any other power in the future. A position of subordination has lasting consequences, on a material as well as a psychological level. To resign ourselves to a position of technological and industrial dependence is to accept a definitive decline, which will result in our strategic sectors being reduced to the role of subcontractors, or destroyed altogether. Psychologically, relying on others for our defence encourages the spread of a culture of unaccountability and entirely strips us of our dignity. This is why Jean-François Deniau, French negotiator of the Treaty of Rome and first European commissioner for external relations, in his book, stresses the need for an independent Europe (“there is no other Europe”) and draws attention to defence issues: “because sooner or later these issues condition all the others, and because there can be no sense of identity without the exercising of responsibility, and our most important responsibility is to retain the capacity to choose our own destiny, in other words, to defend ourselves”.[5]

Myths, illusions and naïvety


Like Jean Monnet, Deniau spoke of his confidence in the “strength of simple ideas”. However, in this regard, the transatlantic relationship has turned out to be the exception that proves the rule. If the blend of platitudes, rhetorical outpourings, petty calculations and emotional-ideological blindness that, for Europeans, constitutes the basis of our relations with America has stood the test of time, it is because our élites have persisted in spreading profoundly naïve (or culpably misleading) ideas regarding questions of power and independence.

Questions of power.

The reluctance of Europeans to think in power terms is reflected, among other things, in their attempts to play down the significance of the geopolitical situation, and in a complacent belief in the utopia of a “civilian power Europe”.

— The post-modern myth.

Europeans traditionally have a keen sense of their history, with all that this implies: different cultures, identities, and a mistrust of one-dimensional or simplistic interpretations. The importance we attach to these factors sets us apart from our cousins on the other side of the Atlantic. As remarked by Javier Solana, EU High Representative for the CFSP: “When Americans say ‘that is history’, they often mean it is no longer relevant. When Europeans say ‘that is history,’ they usually mean the opposite”.[6] This, however, does not alter the fact that since the early ‘90s, Europe’s élites have been increasingly drawn to the American idea of the “end of history”, allowing themselves to be seduced and their vision clouded by talk of the wonderful idea of exporting the western model (often disguised as talk of human rights).

Post-modernist ideology, not content with placing us “beyond” history in some way, also wants to place us “outside” geography. Again, there emerge two opposing visions, this time reflected in the English and French translations of the text of the European Security Strategy, a document that European officials produce as a “visiting card” in their dealings with foreign leaders. Once again, subtle differences bear witness to profound divergences. Whereas, for the French, “Même à l’ère de la mondialisation, la géographie garde toute son importance” (Even in an era of globalisation, geography retains all its importance), the English feel it is enough to note that “Even in an era of globalisation, geography is still important”.[7] Here, we find the usual contrapositionbetween geopolitical realism and an ideology that, in the name of post-modernism, would prefer to ignore reality. Yet the facts speak for themselves. Europe is but the small western tip of the vast Euro-Asian continent (geographers even call it a pseudo-continent) and, to the eternal regret of Atlantists on both shores, it remains separated from America by 6,000 kilometres of Atlantic Ocean. “America is not part of Europe… I think to have discovered this on the map”, General de Gaulle once remarked, not without a touch of irony.

— The myth of “civilian power Europe”.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy, with his propensity to overstate the obvious, sometimes runs into taboos, breaking them at a stroke and with casual aplomb. Take, for example, his remark, in the New York Times, that “Europe cannot be an economic power without ensuring its own security”.[8]With this observation, as simple as it is logical, the French head of state, in a sentence, put an end to half a century of transatlantic masquerading and at the same time, as collateral damage, sabotaged the whole arsenal of pacifist propaganda. Indeed, abdication of responsibility in the military sphere, be it through a complacent belief in universal peace or a spirit of servility towards a foreign power, has direct repercussions in all areas and threatens the survival of a whole model of society. As Robert Cooper (Javier Solana’s éminence grise and director-general for external and politico-military affairs at the General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union) has remarked, with a frankness uncommon in Brussels circles, “It is highly unsatisfactory that 450 million Europeans rely so much on 250 million Americans to defend them. There is no such thing as free defence. At some point Europeans will find themselves paying for these arrangements. There is no guarantee that American and European interests will always coincide.”[9] Sooner or later, then, we may well find ourselves presented with the bill…

Moreover, this is something our friends on the other side of the Atlantic make no secret of; an official document published by the US Defense Department under Clinton, for example, commendably made this point quite clear: “Our allies must be sensitive to the linkages between a sustained U.S. commitment to their security on the one hand, and their actions in such areas as trade policy, technology transfer, and participation in multinational security operations on the other”.[10] And these are not just words. As early as 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the US vice-president, during a visit to Berlin, the most sensitive place in Europe, brandished a threat to withdraw American troops from Europe should the Common Market slow down American exports of chickens to Europe…

As well as laying us open to pressure, not to mention blackmail, from a third party, our aversion to power leaves us with no credibility, and thus with no real influence on the international stage. Episodes like that of Sarajevo Airport, rebuilt with European money but inaugurated by the US secretary of state, are just the tip of the iceberg. As Robert Cooper pointed out, “the lack of credible force means that when it comes to questions like Kosovo, Iraq or Afghanistan the key decisions are taken in Washington”. And this is in spite of Europe’s considerable financial contribution and the presence of a sizeable contingent of European troops in the theatres of operation. In a real crisis situation, Cooper goes on, “Europeans would find themselves highly dependent on American goodwill”. But from the perspective of Europe’s power or impotence, the presence or absence of a “credible military force” is a question not of numbers, but of autonomy. Kori Schake, professor at the US military academy at West Point, National Security Council advisor during Bush’s first term, and adviser on national security to Republican presidential candidate John McCain during the 2008 election campaign, brilliantly puts her finger on this truth: “Without having genuinely autonomous military forces, Europe’s needs are subordinated to US priorities. The EU is left hostage to the concerns and potential veto of the United States…”[11] This, certainly, is something to be made patently clear.

Questions of independence.

In reality, not everyone takes a dim view of the subordination of European interests to the desiderata of the United States of America. Those (on both sides of the Atlantic) who find that it coincides with their own interests, or who are resigned to it, tend to fall back on the following three specious arguments.

— The myth of American support for the strengthening of Europe.

It is still considered good form to acknowledge the unfailing support Washington has always given to the process of European integration. Leaving aside the reasons for this American support (far less altruistic than we would like to admit), we will concentrate here on its objective. In other words, it is worth specifying the kind of Europe whose construction the United States encourages. Certainly, there is no doubt that America’s support for the Common Market — the US was actually one of its instigators — was always wholehearted, conditional only upon the Common Market’s wise rejection of the idea of becoming a true economic community, which would implement policies (tariff, commercial, agricultural or industrial policies) designed to safeguard the interests of European citizens, just like the ones implemented, entirely legitimately, by the American authorities. In the same way, if the United States, after years of vehement protests and warnings, has ended up accepting the launch of the CFSP/ESDP, this is because it feels it can confine these policies within roles useful to its own purposes, allowing them to give it: a semblance of political legitimacy (for its diplomatic-military actions), a source of reinforcements (European troops that could be deployed under American command or control), and a captive market (benefiting the American arms industry). Washington still believes that its allies could potentially be empowered by the existence of the CFSP/ESDP and thus keeps a watchful eye on developments, ready to scupper any initiative that might somehow jeopardise its own hegemonic position.

Because behind the complaints and obligatory smirks over Europe’s alleged “incapacity” (illustrated by depicting Europeans as pygmies or paper tigers), America’s concerns are actually of an entirely different nature. In one of his books Zbigniew Brzezinski, a leading figure and diplomacy and security expert in Democratic circles, kindly explains them to us: “With the EU’s economic potential already matching America’s and with the two entities often clashing on financial and trade matters, a militarily emergent Europe could become a formidable rival to America. It would inevitably pose a challenge to America’s hegemony. (…) A politically powerful Europe, able to compete economically while militarily no longer dependent on the United States would inevitably contest American preeminence (…) and could confine the scope of U.S. preeminence largely to the Pacific Ocean.”[12] It is thus hardly surprising that Brzezinski envisages — and he is not the only one — “complementarity with, but not autonomy from” the United States.

— The myth of complementarity.

For fifteen years now, it has been compulsory in transatlantic circles to laud this complementarity. But praise does not save it from falling into two basic errors. On the one hand, complementarity, as both America and most European governments understand it, is a one-way thing: it means, of course, the complementarity of Europe to America. It is thus easy to appreciate the structural nature of the tension between the will to retain absolute control over European security matters (embodied by NATO, the institutional framework of American protection) and the desire to have some room for independent manoeuvre (as expressed, despite all the internal dithering, by the launch of the European Defence Agency). As a result, not only are the two not complementary, they actually risk being antinomic. As remarked by Michael Cox, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, addressing the House of Commons, this contradiction is manageable “as long as the ESDP is not terribly serious”. However, “if the ESDP did get very serious, there may be an incompatibility” and “it would be possible to imagine a situation in which the left hand could start fighting with the right”.[13]

Added to this, the UK provides evidence of the consequences, disastrous for sovereignty, of a policy conducted under the banner of complementarity. Former head of UK defense exports, Tony Edwards, argues that his country “maintains its capability to project power by an extraordinary reliance on the US for technology, equipment, support and intelligence”.[14] The analysis provided by former chairman of the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee, Rodric Braithwaite, is no more reassuring. In his view, “American policymakers find them [the British] useful as spear carriers in the UN and NATO, and as reasonably competent military allies when it comes to a shooting war. From time to time they try to use the British as a potential Trojan horse, if European integration looks like being too successful.” Braithwaite also points out that now, by dint of pursuing “complementarity” with America, “in anything like a real war they [British forces] will only operate as an integral part of a US force, under US command and serving US interests”. The verdict is without appeal: “In contrast to the French, who preferred to plough a more lonely but independent furrow, co-operation with the Americans has robbed the British of much of their independence”.[15] It remains to be seen whether, in exchange, they have succeeded, or at least have some chance of succeeding, in gaining even a modicum of influence. Unsurprisingly the answer to this question is a resounding “no”.

— The myth of the power to influence on Washington.

To find a recent example of this, one need look no further than the role of prime minister Blair in the Iraq affair — and the “recompense”, in terms of influence, which he received for playing it. From the political perspective, the British ambassador himself has since confessed that London was not kept informed of the plans for the post-war period (and still less involved in the development of them). From the military perspective, it has become known, through revelations in the press, that British forces, once they come under American command, no longer have their own means at their disposal (an incident emblematic of this came right at the start of Iraqi Freedom: the British troops engaged on the ground needed the support of their own aircraft, but their appeals went unheeded. The US command had preferred to deploy the British planes in support of the American troops — in addition to USA planes). What is more, London was no more successful in the diplomatic sphere, as is shown by Tony Blair’s increasingly desperate efforts to display at least the semblance of a reward for his unconditional support. In this regard, Washington failed to oblige, either over the Israeli-Palestinian question or over the issue of climate change. As former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt remarked, the Anglo-American relationship “is so special that only the British know it exists”.

Even the loyal British are now beginning to harbour doubts… According to a report published in 2006 by the prestigious Chatham House, and signed by its outgoing director, the foreign policy disarray under Tony Blair is symptomatic, more than anything, of a more general error of judgement, namely an overestimation of Britain’s power to influence. Indeed, “the root failure (of Blair’s foreign policy) has been the inability to influence the Bush administration in any significant way despite the sacrifice — military, political and financial — that the United Kingdom has made”. Actually, the report continues, “given the Byzantine complexity of Washington politics, it was always unrealistic to think that outside powers — however loyal — could expect to have much influence on the US decision-making process”.[16] But why, indeed, should they have any influence on the American authorities, whose task it is defend the interests of their own citizens? In truth, this is not a question of influence, but rather of possible cooperation. And cooperation means reciprocity. The problem for Europe, starting out from a position of dependence, is that it cannot enter into an equal partnership. One of the two parties is always in the position of being able to leave, or threaten to leave, the cooperation without any loss of its strategic potential, while the other (having destroyed the foundations of its independence) remains hostage to it. In short, it takes two to cooperate on an equal footing and the path that might one day lead Europe in this direction is the same one that leads towards its independence.

European questions: the myth of “Europeanisation” as the miracle cure.

It has to be said that increasing the impetus for European integration does not automatically mean following this path. A greater drive for European integration, without an urgent and widespread realisation of what is truly at stake, could actually take us in quite the opposite direction. To see things more clearly, the first thing to do is clear up confusion over the term “European”, which actually has two quite distinct meanings: one, bureaucratic and institutional, refers to the European level as opposed to, and above, the national level. The second distinguishes us from the rest of the world and refers, this time in a political-strategic sense, to our continent’s specific interests and priorities. These two meanings do not overlap at all. Supranationalisation does not automatically mean the adoption and pursuit of European interests in a geopolitical sense. Alas, as things currently stand, supranationalisation runs the risk of producing entirely the opposite effect. Since most of Europe’s member states are reticent towards, if not hostile to, the idea of an independent Europe, any “progress” in the sphere of integration, as in the case of a switch to majority voting in strategically sensitive areas, amounts to a quashing of any aspirations for power and independence.

From this perspective, it can be seen that the two intra-European “conflicts” underlying most of the impasses in the integration process are different facets of the same problem. Whether the confrontation is between national and federal logic, or between the autonomist vision (which favours an independent Europe) and the Atlantist one (which wants a Europe that “complements” the United States), the debate basically hinges on the question of sovereignty. Starting from the principle that Europe was built to defend, not destroy, the sovereignty of its peoples, the two “conflicts” emerge as indissolubly linked. Indeed, a country with a high degree of independence and a keen sense of the power stakes (France, without mentioning any names!) will not accept and, above all, in the interests of Europe as whole must not accept the supranational design, unless it is on the condition that its strategic requirement for power and autonomy is shared and defended, with similar intransigence and to the same degree, by Brussels. As long as the member states go on opposing it, any drive for integration will force us deeper and deeper into a position of dependence. After all, as Tindemans pointed out, “an unfinished structure does not weather well: it must be completed, otherwise it collapses”. To unravel this Gordian knot, we must do away with the myths once and for all; in other words, we must break with pacifist and Atlantist illusions.

As Jean Monnet succinctly put it in his memoirs, “The defeats I have encountered were less often due to men’s natural limitations than to their deliberate refusal, blinded as they were by their particular system of reference, to see the evidence.”

[1] Hubert Védrine’s address to the White Paper Commission on Defence and National Security, 4 October 2007.

[2] The Tindemans report on European Union, known simply as the “Tindemans Report”, Brussels, 29 December 1975.

[3] Declaration on European Identity, Copenhagen, 14 December 1973.

[4] Nicole Gnesotto, EU, US: visions of the word, visions of the other, in Shift or Rift — Assessing US-EU relations after Iraq, (ed. Gustav Lindstrom), EU Institute for Security Studies, Paris 2003.

[5] Jean-François Deniau, La découverte de l’Europe, Paris, Seuil, 1994.

[6] Javier Solana’s Speech at the Institute for Security Studies of the EU, Paris, 6 October 2006.

[7] A Secure Europe in a Better World — The European Security Strategy, 12 December 2003.

[8] Interview with French president Nicolas Sarkozy in The New York Times, 24 September 2007.

[9] Robert Cooper, The Breaking of Nations, London, Atlantic Books, 2004.

[10] Report on the Bottom-up Review, Les Aspin, Secretary of Defense, October 1993.

[11] Kori Schake, “The United States, ESDP and Constructive Duplication”, in J. Howorth and J.T.S. Keeler (eds.), Defending Europe: The EU, NATO and the Quest for European Autonomy, Palgrave, MacMillan, 2003, pp. 107-132.

[12] Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Choice: Domination or Leadership, New York, Perseus Books, 2004.

[13] House of Commons Defence Committee, The Future of NATO and European Defence, 20 March 2008.

[14] Contribution on the Commission’s Green paper by Tony Edwards, quoted in “The European defence equipment market: Article 296 of the Treaty establishing the European Community and the European Commission’s Green Paper”, report submitted by Franco Danieli, at the Assembly of the Western European Union, 6 December 2005.

[15] Rodric Braithwaite, “End of the Affair”, Prospect Magazine n° 86, May 2003.

[16] Victor Bulmer-Thomas, Blair’s Foreign Policy and its Possible Successor(s), Chatham House, December 2006.





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