Europe's power is easy to miss because news is told by journalists rather than historians, but Europe's success has led to the evolution of a new kind of power—about spreading norms rather than always getting your wayby Mark Leonard / March 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
For all the talk of American empire, the last two years have demonstrated the limits of US power. America’s economic lead over the rest of the world has disappeared. In 1950 its GDP was twice the size of western Europe’s and five times Japan’s; today its GDP is the same size as the EU’s and just over twice that of Japan. Its political power is waning too: its failure to secure support on Iraq from Europeans, and even from countries as economically dependent upon it as Mexico and Chile, shows that the price for saying “no” to the US has been falling. US dominance is clear-cut on only two levels: the ability to fight and win intensive conventional wars, and the ubiquity of its popular culture. These two kinds of power are often described as “hard” and “soft”: the ability to get your way by coercion and attraction. Both are declining currencies for the US.
Terrorism and weapons of mass destruction allow the desperate and weak to neutralise the superpower’s military machine. And by constantly talking of countries as “rogue states” and threatening them with military attack, the Bush administration encourages them to adopt these tactics. What is more, hard power erodes soft power by replacing memories of America as saviour with fear of the instability its war on terror is causing. As David Calleo, director of the European studies programme at Johns Hopkins University, says: “Where promiscuous Europe sees a world where everybody is a potential friend, martial America lives in a world where everyone… is a potential enemy.” The paradox is that the more this Janus-faced empire flaunts its strength, the less it is able to achieve its global goals. To understand the shape of the 21st century, we need to change the way we think about power.
Put the words “Europe” and “crisis” into Google and over 4m entries come up. On any day over the past 50 years there have been stories of divisions, failure to meet targets, diplomatic wrangles, a perpetual sense of failure. Over the next 18 months there could be more, with at least ten referendums on the European constitution planned, and some countries—in particular Britain—likely to reject it. But historians tell a different story from journalists. They tell us that Europe has emerged stronger from every setback: launching the single market after years of Eurosclerosis, the single currency after the Maastricht debacle and European defence after the Balkans. They describe a continent with one of the most successful foreign policies in history. They tell us that, in just 50 years, war between European powers has become unthinkable, that European economies have caught up with America, and that Europe has helped to bring successive waves of countries out of dictatorship and into democracy, including ones that used to threaten us with nuclear weapons.
When historians look at a map of the world, they will describe a zone of peace spreading like a blue oil slick—from the west coast of Ireland to the east of the Mediterranean; from the Arctic circle to the Straits of Gibraltar—sucking in new members in its wake. And around this blue map of the EU, covering 450m citizens, they will describe another zone of 1.5bn people in 84 countries—in the former Soviet republics, the western Balkans, the middle east, north Africa and sub-Saharan Africa—umbilically linked to an EU that is their biggest trade partner and their biggest source of credit, foreign investment and aid. Together, these 2bn people—one third of the world’s population—live in the 109 countries of the “Eurosphere,” Europe’s zone of influence, which is gradually being transformed by the European project and adopting European ways of doing things.
Because news is told by journalists rather than historians, European power is often confused with weakness. But when Russia signs the Kyoto protocol in order to smooth relations with the EU, when Poland introduces constitutional protection for ethnic minorities to be allowed to join the EU, when an Islamist government in Turkey abandons its own party’s plans to make adultery a crime punishable by law so as not to attract the ire of Brussels, we need to question our definitions of power and weakness.
A new kind of power has evolved, which cannot be measured in terms of military budgets or smart missiles. It works according to a longer timescale, and it is about reshaping the world rather than getting your way on individual decisions. Europe’s power is “transformative”—based on the idea that everyone wants to be rich and at peace.
Europe’s power is easy to miss because we tend to look at the world through American eyes. Unlike US power, which is broadcast through bold declarations and blueprints, the European project has been incremental and understated from the beginning. Like an invisible hand, the EU operates through existing political structures. Although the EU is responsible for up to half of its member states’ laws, most of their trade and many policy decisions—from agriculture to monetary policy—it is almost invisible. There are no European courts, legislatures or business regulations on display in London. The British House of Commons, British law courts and British civil servants are still there, but they all implement and uphold European law. By creating European common standards that are implemented through national institutions, Europe can envelop countries without becoming a target for hostility. The same is true for the European troops who often serve away from home under a UN or Nato flag, rather than the European banner. While every American company, embassy and military base is a terrorist target, Europe’s invisibility allows it to spread its influence with less provocation.
After the Iraq episode, many people concluded that Europe would remain irrelevant as long as it could not speak with a single voice, echoing Henry Kissinger’s famous remark that Europe needs a single telephone number. Yet the fact that Europe does not have a single leader, but rather a network of centres of power, means that it can benefit from global clout without depriving individual countries of their identity. Unlike America, whose power provokes resistance, Europe’s network invites collaboration. The unique thing about the EU is that no one wants to counterbalance it—they want to join it. One could even argue that the good cop/bad cop routine, accidentally played by Britain and France on Iraq, was effective if you judge it by results: Bush was persuaded to go down the UN route, to launch a middle east roadmap as a payback for British support, and ultimately to secure a UN mandate for reconstruction.
Although Europe needs to become better at managing its disagreements internally, it has achieved the common EU objective of stopping Iraq becoming a template for the future. Neither Britain, France nor Germany supports a world in which might is right—and the price the Bush administration paid for the Iraqi invasion was so high that a repeat performance is unthinkable. Not even the most hawkish neocons are advocating regime change by force in Iran, Syria or North Korea.
Until the EU was created, the idea of statehood, of being sovereign, meant independence from external intervention, keeping other countries at bay. But, as Robert Cooper has argued, instead of jealously guarding their sovereignty from external interference, Europeans have turned mutual interference and surveillance into the basis of their security. Over the last 50 years Europe’s leaders have agreed to thousands of common standards and regulations. Together they fill 31 volumes and some 80,000 pages of text, regulating every facet of daily life—from human rights to consumer protection. They are known as the acquis communautaire. These laws work not because there is a European police state to enforce them on recalcitrant countries, but because all European states want the system to succeed. Many people complain about European red tape, but it is precisely the size of Europe’s body of laws that allows its institutions to be small.
When the US engages other countries, it does so through the prism of geopolitics. Talks with Russia focus on nuclear weapons and Nato expansion. Talks with Colombia look at the flow of drugs across its borders. Europeans, by contrast, ask what values underpin the state. What are its constitutional and regulatory frameworks? Turkey renounced the death penalty to further its chance of admission into the EU, Britain rescinded its ban on gays in the military and Italy reformed its profligate economic ways to meet EU standards. Europe’s obsession with legal frameworks means that it can completely transform the countries it comes into contact with, instead of just skimming the surface. The US might have changed the regime in Afghanistan, but Europe is changing all of Polish society, from its economic policies and property laws to its treatment of minorities and what gets served on the nation’s tables.
Rather than relying on the threat of intervention to secure its interests, Europe relies on the threat of not intervening—of withdrawing the hand of friendship, and the prospect of membership. For countries such as Turkey, Serbia and Bosnia, the only thing worse than having the bureaucracy of Brussels descend on their political system—implementing regulations, instigating state privatisations and generally seeping into every crack of everyday political life—would be for its doors to close to them.
The contrast between the ways Europe and America have dealt with their neighbours tells a powerful story. The threats are similar—drug trafficking, large flows of migrants across leaky borders, networks of international crime—but the responses could not be more different. The US has sent troops into neighbouring countries more than 15 times over the last 50 years but many of the countries around it have barely changed—limping from crisis to crisis and often sucking US troops back into their problems. Although the circumstances are different, the US failure in Colombia stands in contrast to Europe’s relative success in Turkey or even the Balkans.
The US involvement in Plan Colombia illustrates some of the reasons why its foreign policy fails to change the status quo: it generally pursues short-term goals that are explicitly in its own interest—the reduction of drug trafficking, the stabilisation of a friendly government—and it utilises its armed might to do so, either by lending it to local proxies or by exercising it itself. The European response, on the other hand, has been to hold out the possibility of integration to neighbouring countries and so attempt to bring them closer to its political norms and institutional practices. By holding out these rewards, the Europeans are effectively making their neighbours an offer which they cannot refuse. But once their neighbours accept, they become an asset to the Europeans.
Of course without US military might many good things would not have happened—from the liberation of eastern Europe to the bringing to justice of Slobodan Milosevic. Europe cannot ignore the need for military power and should continue to develop an effective rapid reaction force for intervening in its border regions in emergencies. But, equally, it should not worry so much that this will take a long time to realise. The common theme that drives US discussion of Europe’s security strategy is despair about Europe’s lack of capacity and the unwillingness of European governments to spend as much on defence as the Americans. But why should Europe spend as much as America? Europe will not need to fight against the US military machine; as we have seen, it projects power using different tools. Even in warfare itself, Europeans can build peace through military interventions without mimicking the American way of war. Many commentators have pointed out that the US military doctrine is becoming dysfunctional—preparing its forces for fights against big threats at a time when most wars are small and unconventional. In the Balkans, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya, war is not conducted against national armies with battleships, planes and tanks. Instead, it involves fighting street by street against local insurgents.
The European way of war is about keeping the peace and rebuilding war-torn states. Europe’s forces include not just soldiers, but an army of diplomats, police, election monitors and aid workers. The goal is not to get in and out as quickly as possible, but to bring about the long-term transformation of the country: engagement strategies rather than exit strategies. As the defence expert Lawrence Freedman comments, “Iraq shows that a new conflict sequence is developing in which the length of the actual war is contracting… but the postwar activity, which can be tough and deadly, can stretch out almost indefinitely. The question is not whether the Europeans can adapt to American doctrine, but whether Americans can adapt to the European way of war.”
Europe’s transformative power is underpinned by a vast internal market which, according to some calculations, is now the biggest economy in the world—and the euro is on the way to becoming a reserve currency with equal status to the dollar. But it is the quality of Europe’s economy that makes it a model. Europeans have shorter working hours and longer holidays than anyone else on the planet; European societies generally have lower levels of inequality and consequently a lower crime rate; Europe’s energy-efficient economies will protect them from rising oil prices; an emerging European model of integration for migrants will allow European countries to avoid the permanent segregation that has afflicted the US; and finally, the European single market and the euro will allow European countries to benefit from economies of scale in a global market without giving up on the adaptability and dynamism that comes from being small.
If America represents the freedom of the individual to consume, and Asia the importance of social stability, Europe allows its people the best of both. It combines the energy and freedom of liberalism with the stability and welfare of social democracy. As the world becomes richer and moves beyond satisfying basic needs, this way of life will become increasingly attractive.
Europe’s success has also set off a regional domino effect that could change the nature of power beyond its borders. In every corner of the world, countries are drawing inspiration from the European model and nurturing their own neighbourhood clubs—from Asean and Mercosur to the African Union and the Arab League. While the global institutions like the UN, the IMF and the World Bank continue to be playthings of the great powers, these regional organisations are starting to deliver real benefits. In Sudan last year, the African Union sent some 4,000 troops to the Darfur region while the UN security council was bogged down in a debate about whether the violations constituted genocide. In the Pacific, Apec is becoming a vehicle for promoting open trade and investment between the countries of the region. The Arab world is talking of turning the Arab League into an Arab Union—complete with parliament and single currency. Together, such developments spell the emergence of a world of regions. As they learn to work together, and experience real benefits, they may gradually start to pool sovereignty in the way that the EU has pioneered.
Many people have focused on the rise of great powers like China and India, and the implications of their rise on the global order. There is no doubt that they will challenge the unipolar world shaped by the preferences of Americans and Europeans, who between them make up less than 15 per cent of the world’s population. But an even bigger threat to the unipolar moment comes from another tier of countries—from Brazil and Mexico to South Africa and Nigeria, Japan and South Korea—that is no longer satisfied with dealing bilaterally with Europe and the US and accepting the decisions that come from their position of relative weakness.
These countries have seen how the EU has given tiny countries an ability to punch above their weight. They have seen that regional clubs can help to overcome historical rivalries and tensions, foster democracy, speed up the integration of countries into the world economy and help to develop common solutions to problems that cut across borders. As each region develops its own arrangements, it will have a cumulative impact on world order.
Nearly 500 years ago, Europe invented the most effective form of political organisation in history: the nation state. Through a series of wars and conquests, it spread like a virus, so that by the 20th century it was the only way of organising politics—eliminating empires, city-states and feudal systems. Because nation states were most comfortable dealing with fellow nation states, other political systems faced a stark choice: become a nation state, or get taken over by one. By the end of the 20th century, the only way to have a seat at the table was to be a nation state.
In the second half of the 20th century, Europeans started to reinvent this model. As Europe develops ever greater global clout and spreads to take over a continent, other countries have been faced with a choice: join the EU, or develop their own union based on the same principles of international law, interfering in each other’s affairs and promoting peace as an ideology. This regional domino effect is changing our ideas of politics and economics and redefining what power means for the 21st century.
The world that emerges will not be centred around the US or the UN, but will be a community of interdependent regional clubs. In Africa, the focus on peacekeeping reflects the fact that conflict is the biggest enemy of development in the region—as well as the desire not to rely on western troops to solve African problems. In east Asia, the Chiang Mai initiative is an attempt to put in place an Asian solution to currency speculation, so that in a future currency crisis member countries will not be forced to turn to the IMF. Although under present rules the initiative will only lend members 10 per cent of their short-term financial needs (with the remaining 90 per cent depending on IMF criteria), in the medium term it is likely that this region, which is famously awash with capital, will change the criteria to free itself from the IMF and the World Bank. In Latin America, too, some economists have calculated that there are enough reserves in the continent to deal with any crisis, short of a meltdown of the Brazilian economy, without recourse to the IMF.
The uniting factor behind all these initiatives is an attempt to transcend the unipolar world. No country wants to be dictated to by superpowers or global institutions that it cannot control. In this world, it will be possible to maintain your identity and at least some of your sovereignty without being a superpower. But it will also be impossible to commit mass human rights abuses or genocide and to use the UN’s doctrine of non-interference in internal affairs as a geopolitical “do not disturb” sign.
As the momentum for regional organisation picks up, great powers like the US will inevitably be sucked into the process of integration. They might be able to slow the process, but they will not be able to stop it. If they oppose it, they will provoke regional clubs to organise against them. If they embrace it, they will enhance their power, and by doing so act as midwives for this emerging new world order. As this process continues, we will see the emergence of a new European century. Not because Europe will run the world as an empire, but because the European way of doing things will have become the world’s.