When the Cold War ended peacefully in 1990, Europe was its main beneficiary. Today, only 30 years later, we seem on the verge of yet another Cold War. This should ring alarm bells among Europeans. A new Cold War is not in Europe’s interest; it would be the loser. Hence Europe’s foreign policies must aim to avert the world sliding back into the dark days of another, potentially even more dangerous and devastating, great-power confrontation.
Since the end of the Cold War, the world around Europe has profoundly changed
A bipolar world of two hostile ideologies and irreconcilable economic systems – a precondition for a Cold War – no longer exists. Europe is no longer divided by an iron curtain, and the constant fear of becoming the nuclear battleground between NATO and the now-defunct Warsaw Pact has disappeared. Economic power and technological progress have shifted towards Asia and, as a result, new powers have emerged, such as China, India and Indonesia. In today’s world, Europe is no longer center stage.
Europe must adapt to these geopolitical changes by taking a more independent role in the world; a role that, after a century of Europe-centered wars, genocides, and massacres, reflects its historical responsibility to preserve world peace in the 21st century. The recently lost war in Afghanistan and the heightened military tensions in the Pacific should now force Europe to take the step towards a new foreign policy that reflects its own interests, and this must include not just a review of its transatlantic relations, but also of its relations with Russia and China.
The troubling pictures of the chaotic evacuation efforts at Kabul airport mark not only the end of the Afghanistan war, but also the collapse of a Western policy that aimed at creating, if necessary, with military force or through subversive operations, a liberal democratic world order to be led by the then only global superpower, the United States. Even if Western politicians and media now try to ignore its geopolitical impact and revert to their usual attitudes of moral superiority, the Afghanistan defeat is a game changer. It signals the end of a Western dominated post-Cold War era. Afghanistan is not the only fiasco of Western militarized policies over the last 30 years. Also in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen or Somalia – to name only the main interventions – the West has been unsuccessful. Additionally, Mali, the Sahel, Mozambique and many smaller interventions in other parts of the world are likely to become similar failures. In no instance did these interventions bring peace or establish liberal democracies. On the contrary, they only left violence, destruction, chaos, and immense human suffering behind.
While the Afghanistan war and many other US-led military interventions are ending in disasters, the world finds itself drawn into increasingly hostile confrontations between the US, and Russia and China – all nuclear powers. Echoing Trump’s boisterous policies, President Biden has now openly threatened Russia with war over the Crimean Peninsula and threatened China with US military support for Taiwan’s claim for independence. These threats are backed up with US-led naval maneuvers in the Black Sea and South China Sea, offensive weapon sales to Taiwan and the sale of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. As in Afghanistan, here US policies also rely mainly on projecting military power – only this time, the stakes are immeasurably higher.
Russia’s access to the Black Sea and China’s One-China policy are of such existential importance to these countries that they are unlikely to give up their claims. As the US could not possibly win a conventional war over the Crimean Peninsula nor over Taiwan (that are in the immediate proximity of Russia and China) – and unless it wants to risk a nuclear war – it is more likely the US will ultimately have to back down. The times of relying on military superiority to impose policies might be over – hopefully forever.
The US must adjust to a world in which it is no longer the world’s only superpower. It now suffers from internal problems such as a divided society, political stalemate, social inequalities, racial tensions, and a crumbling infrastructure. And it is no longer the beacon of liberal democracy. In its 2020 Democracy Index, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) classified the US as a “flawed democracy.” Additionally, the US, now focusing on the Pacific, seems to have lost interest in NATO. Once an instrument to rally European countries behind US-leadership against a Communist world, NATO has crumbled in Afghanistan; beaten into a hasty and fragmented retreat by a relatively small local group of armed non-state actors.
Where does all of this leave Europe?
Europe will never become a global superpower at par with the US and China. The EU is internally weakened by Brexit and paralyzed by internal disagreements, and, according to the EIU, 18 of its 27 members are at best “flawed democracies.” The dream of an EU expansion to the east while isolating Russia has backfired.
It is true that Europe remains an economic power, even if a declining one. Plus, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the EU’s joint military spending (that is, without the UK and Turkey) is three and a half times larger than that of Russia and at about the same level as that of China. Europe may be able to defend itself. Yet, without the US, it is hardly able to project military power abroad. But the US ignored Europe when it ended the Afghanistan war and when it created a new military alliance with Australia (AUKUS) against China. That the UK, now outside the EU, plays the role of a court’s fool in this, is a warning of what Europe must not do: act as an auxiliary force in a great-power game in the Pacific.
What some see as a weakness, may, in fact, be Europe’s main strength: it cannot – and should not – be a player in any great-power confrontation. Europe’s international standing is served more by being the world’s foremost humanitarian and development donor. It gains strength from its cultural diversity, its tolerant society, and its high social standard, and from the creativity of its scientists and engineers, its educated workforce, its small and medium scale industries, and its export-oriented industries. Europe is attractive because of its political stability, functioning governments, reliable legal systems, and relatively low rates of corruption – all qualities that are rare in today’s world. Europe does not need any military posturing.
Europe’s security challenges increasingly differ from those of the US. While the US has begun to withdraw from its many disastrous military interventions, Europe will inherit the chaos left behind. Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Lebanon and Sudan are geographically neighbours of Europe. The conflicts between Israel and Palestine, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Ethiopia and its Tigre region, as well as the civil wars in Nigeria, Mali and the Sahelian zone are all in Europe’s proximity. The Taliban, Boko Haram, the IS, remnants of Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab and Al-Nusra Front – to name only a few – operate all close to Europe. Europe also faces unsolved conflicts with the UK following Brexit, political disharmonies between Western and Eastern European countries, as well as simmering conflicts in the Balkans, the Ukraine and Georgia.
More than the US, Europe will be challenged by the effects of demographic changes. Whereas, at the end of the Cold War, Europe’s and Africa’s populations were about the same, Africa’s population will, by 2100, be about ten times that of Europe. While Europe’s population may shrink by a further 20%, that of Africa is likely to triple during the same period. Mounting pressures on scarce resources such as water, land, and food might further destabilize much of Africa. Already today, Africa has the highest percentage of people living in absolute poverty, including most of the world’s fragile states and intrastate armed conflicts. In comparison, the US faces a much smaller problem. Its population is still growing, and Latin America’s population is only about 1/8th of that of Africa’s. On average, Latin America is also richer.
In contrast to the US, Europe has one of the world’s most sophisticated and expensive social welfare systems. There is no guarantee that Europe can maintain such high social standards in a globalized economy. An ageing population, exploding public debts, and a general reluctance to accept reforms add further pressures on its unique welfare system. This makes Europe highly vulnerable to disruptions in the world economy.
Europe cannot afford another Cold War
The chaos left by successive US-led military interventions and further violent conflicts in Africa and the Middle East create a huge neighborhood of instability that will spread into Europe. Mass migration of people who try to escape misery in their own countries by settling in Europe may only be one of those effects. Given this background, also wanting to destabilize Russia and China should not be in Europe’s interest; Europe needs to promote stability in its neighborhood and among its trading partners, and not create further chaos.
Europe’s economy, and, with it, its expensive social welfare system, depends largely on its export-oriented industries. A politically motivated trade war with high tariffs, mushrooming sanctions and export and import restrictions will ultimately hurt Europe’s economy and threaten its welfare system. China and Russia are Europe’s second and fifth largest and potentially growing trading partners for Europe so it could ill-afford a break-down of these trade relations.
However, the greatest challenge for Europe is the enormous increase in the development of ever-more sophisticated and deadly weapon systems, such as ‘modernized’ nuclear weapons, hypersonic and killer missiles, robot war and artificial intelligence, stealth and cyber warfare technologies and the military expansion into space. Europe is in no position to draw-even in the development of these weapon systems – and why should it? A nuclear war over the Crimean Peninsula or Taiwan would also wipe out Europe, irrespective of whether it has similar weapon systems or not. Europe must take a more sensible non-military approach in solving political tensions.
Europe’s security would be best served by building bridges between North America and Asia. Without giving up on its transatlantic ties, Europe should begin seeing potential partners in Russia and China. Russia remains largely a European country and there will be no peaceful Europe if we continue demonizing and isolating it. European politicians must also stop interpreting all that China does as being a strategic threat.
Russia has no history of using its exports as a political weapon and Europe needs Russia as they are an important supplier of energy and an importer of European investment goods. China’s silk-road project is not a threat to Europe’s democracy but may offer an opportunity for European economies to gain better access to the growing Asian markets. China is nowadays the largest foreign investor in Africa, a continent whose underdevelopment is of great security concern to Europe. Wouldn’t it make sense to cooperate with China in developing Africa’s economies? Also, when it comes to protecting Europe’s social welfare system in a globalized economy, China – a country that has lifted between 700 and 800 million people out of poverty – might be an interesting partner.
Europe must learn to stand on two legs
A continued reliance on a transatlantic alliance alone would draw Europe into military conflicts that are not in its interests. It would lose political space for maneuvering and isolate it from its main markets. Even the US has moved its attention towards Asia. Europe must hence use its geographical position in building (land) bridges through Russia, the Ukraine and Central Asia, China, India and other Asian countries. By relying on diplomacy and economic cooperation rather than on military threats, Europe could make decisive contributions to a more peaceful world and a world in which the real global problems could be addressed, such as global warming, population increase, social inequalities and poverty, underdevelopment, failing states, intrastate armed conflicts, mass migration and pandemics.
A return to a policy of international cooperation will not be all sunshine and roses. Europe will continue to have political and economic differences with Russia and China – as with the US. But these do not merit a new Cold War and, with it, the threat of nuclear mayhem that could wipe out all life on earth. Maybe this is the hour for Europe, a continent that suffered the bitter experiences of two World Wars and a Cold War, to have courage and stand up against a madness of great-power confrontations and a new and dangerous arms race. Europe should take the initiative to create a more peaceful global order built on cooperation among countries with similar economic but different political systems.
Sadly, the greatest hindrance for such a new approach might not be in Moscow, Beijing nor even in Washington, but in Brussels with a European leadership that is still largely caught in Cold War thinking.