Unconfirmed reports suggest that German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently undertook an initiative to pry China loose from its partnership with Russia. Apparently, China rebuffed Merkel’s initiative. At the same time Germany is leading the EU position against Russia’s war in Ukraine. Additionally, Merkel and her government have taken the lead in dealing with thorny Balkan issues confronting the EU. Merkel clearly cracked the whip, so to speak, with regard to Hungary, which for all of its neo-Fascist leanings and pro-Russian tendencies has not yet crossed the line into open rebellion against Brussels and the EU. Similarly, Germany has led the negotiations with Greece to ensure that it continues reforms, austerity, and debt repayments, despite the new government’s visible tendencies to rebel against austerity and lean towards Moscow.
All these initiatives bespeak Germany’s leadership of Europe; however, by almost every measure it has been an unrewarding one. Although Germany’s reluctance to think about stronger deterrence of Moscow and military aid to Ukraine is part of the reason for this paucity of successes, the larger reason is that leadership of Europe, despite Merkel’s best efforts, is simply beyond Germany’s capabilities. Bismarck was right in noting that Europe is merely a geographical notion not a political reality. European unity and integration remains a project that must be built and sustained on a daily basis and it cannot be built on a German basis. Without such unity, remonstrations to Beijing, even if backed up by the attractiveness of German economic power, count for little.
Indeed, European governments as a whole have long ago entered into a posture of myth and delusion that power politics and economic statecraft are relics, and that civilian power Europe is an attractive model. Yet at the same time, European leaders have consistently shirked the hard job of reforming their domestic economies, integrating their swelling immigrant populations, and devising real growth strategies. Believing themselves above, if not beyond, the mundane and suspect realities of geopolitics, they have renounced power and growth and as a result almost all European countries find themselves in multiple binds. Until and unless Europe summons the intellectual energy to confront the world as it is, Europe will continue sliding into a state of geopolitical irrelevance. German leadership alone cannot shield Europe from the realities of a changing political balance: Moscow and Beijing continue to lie patiently in the wings, ready to pick up any slack left by a deteriorating Europe. Couple this to resurgent pressures from the Muslim world, driven by a newly-emboldened Turkey, and the precariousness of Europe’s position becomes abundantly clear.
But while Europe confronts an enormous multi-dimensional challenge and must find the cognitive as well as material and political resources to emerge from its long-term crisis, that is not the whole story. The conspicuous and utterly misconceived American disengagement from Europe is very much to blame here. Washington believed – and unfortunately too much of it still believes – that Russia can be integrated into the West and that the Ukrainian crisis is not a crisis of the international order as a whole. Neither does it show the slightest aptitude for strategic thinking about Europe or Eurasia. Recent major speeches on Central Asia reiterated in fancy language the same hierarchy of policies the US has followed for twenty years and even praised China’s efforts here against Russia rather than develop its own power to deal with Central Asia as an area in its own right.
Signs of America’s strategic disengagement with Europe are ubiquitous: the demilitarisation of NATO and cutting of defence spending at a time of rising challenges to vital American interests, plus the failure to generate sufficient steam behind the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) or help the EU devise new thinking about its interlinked economic and political challenges, are indicative of the strategic apathy that has plagued Euro-American relations throughout the latter half of the Obama administration. As a result, neither Europe nor Washington are prepared to think about their common challenges strategically, let alone actually confront those crises. This is the poisoned fruit of ‘leading from behind’ that in regard to Europe amounts to an abdication of American leadership and responsibility as well as to massive geostrategic failure.
Consequently, Berlin has had no choice but to step into the vacuum left behind by Washington. But German elites already show fatigue. Although EU enlargement to other Balkan states who meet the Acquis Communautaire would be a positive step, the political fatigue visited upon Europe by American disengagement and the subsequent crisis of leadership, coupled to lingering disappointments of previous expansion periods, have rendered such steps unfeasible in the near term. German elites, too, see the Balkans as a hopeless area, and manifest what one US ex-diplomat calls ‘buyer’s remorse’ at the inclusion of Bulgaria and Romania in the EU and the continuing visible defects in their governance and economics. Similarly, the regression of Hungary has placed it at odds with the Acquis, serving as a minor embarrassment to Brussels, which faced renewed questions about its ability to maintain political unity.
Meanwhile Beijing and Moscow stand ready to exploit the integration process at any moment, on which Europe pins its best hopes of remaining whole, free, democratic, secure, and prosperous. If Germany cannot lead successfully because it lacks the necessary resources, and Washington will not lead because it lacks the will or strategic capability to understand that its vital interests are at stake, what future is there for Europe? More of the same (i.e. drift) is hardly an answer. Some years back, Dominique Moisi observed that Europe ‘wants to be Switzerland’. That outcome never was in the cards, but do European governments want to be or do anything beyond merely perpetuating themselves? If the answer remains ‘no’, then the gains of European security since 1945 will be lost. Europe may pretend that history ended in 1989-91; but unfortunately, there are plenty of people who neither got nor accepted that message, and now eagerly await their opportunity to make history at its expense.
Vol. 7, No. 43 (2015)
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