Global Governance
Can the EU Be a Strategic Actor? Personal Reflections From Singapore

There is no a priori reason why any country should embrace European or Western values and act by them. Therein lies Europe’s core geopolitical weakness: who can respect your values if you have neither the muscle nor the willpower to apply them? So-called soft power alone cannot influence outcomes. You need both hard and soft power, writes Bilahari Kausikan, former Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore.

While Singapore was negotiating an FTA with the EU, our trade minister received a demarche from the Troika of EU Ambassadors. They wanted parity of treatment with the US-Singapore FTA. “When you have a Seventh Fleet, you can have parity,” our minister replied.

This anecdote encapsulates the gap between the EU’s ambitions and the realities it confronts. The EU is undoubtedly an important economic actor — that is why Singapore wanted an FTA with it. But the EU has never even come close to fulfilling the geopolitical ambitions and its own idea of its place in the world that is the underlying premise of the idea of a common foreign and security policy. Most of the EU’s geopolitical initiatives have failed, most spectacularly in Ukraine.

I was in Kiev in December 2013, and observed the Euro-Maidan demonstrations up close. I witnessed a European politician addressing the crowd, speaking stirringly about democracy, freedom and human rights. He did not exactly promise milk and honey if Ukraine entered an association agreement with the EU, but that was the tenor of his remarks. However, the thought that sprang to my mind was Hungary in 1956.

It does not take a geopolitical genius to understand that Russia would not allow Ukraine to permanently attach itself to the West. Moscow was bound to react in some way. It was feckless of the EU to have encouraged Kiev without the ability to deter a Russian reaction or respond effectively to a Russian reaction.

Then, just as now, the EU is incapable of dealing with Russia by itself. In the end, the US had to salvage some of the EU’s chestnuts out of a fire that is still smouldering today. This was the pattern too in the former Yugoslavia: Europe starting something beyond its capabilities to control; the US sheriff riding to its rescue.

If the EU cannot calculate clinically about geopolitical issues in its own neighbourhood; if the EU cannot deal coherently and effectively with a nearby great power like Russia, or even a nearby not-so-great power like Serbia, how can it be a strategic actor? By “strategic actor”, I mean a power that can integrate all dimensions of power to influence outcomes.

It was an American and not a European who grumbled that in Ukraine, Russia was acting in a 19th century manner in the 21st century. But it was a very European thought, and a foolishly fallacious idea.

There is no a priori reason why any country should embrace European or Western values and act by them.

Therein lies Europe’s core geopolitical weakness: who can respect your values if you have neither the muscle nor the willpower to apply them? So-called soft power alone cannot influence outcomes. You need both hard and soft power.

Soft power ultimately depends on hard power. It was a British general that reportedly, and perhaps apocryphally, said during the Malayan “Emergency” (the counter-insurgency campaign against the Malayan Communist Party), “Never mind about winning their hearts and minds, if I have them by their b***s, their hearts and minds will follow.”

All the most dangerous issues in the Indo-Pacific — maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas, Taiwan, North Korea, and the Himalayas — are quintessential hard power issues. The EU can only express a view that makes for a more colourful display of flags. This is welcome, but hardly decisive one way or another. Europe remains strategically marginal if not irrelevant in this region.

What that British general said about hard power is obviously an over-simplification. But in a world of sovereign states, in which the threat of force is never entirely absent, there is more than just a grain of truth in it. It is worth reflecting on why Europe that once ruled the world, has become soft-headed or at least seems to prefer not to think about such harsh realities.

After the Berlin Wall came down, some European countries, giddy with hubris, foolishly pressed for an eastward expansion of NATO. The US, just as giddily, went along. This has seriously eroded NATO’s ability to deter. Can Article 5 be credibly evoked in defence of Montenegro or North Macedonia? Is the US really going to risk war for their sake? The very thought is absurd.

Since the end of the Cold War, successive American administrations from both parties have pressed Europe to take up more of the burden of the common defence. All have failed. The Biden administration and its successors are not likely to do any better. For Europe to spend more on defence, it will have to cut back its social model, which is unsustainable as a matter of demographic and actuarial certainty. Europe has not yet found the political will or courage to do so.

Only a handful of EU members have credible national defence forces. The idea of a common European defence force is even more laughable than the idea of a common foreign and security policy. Without a serious restructuring of the European social model, spending less on defence is always going to be the least painful and hence preferable electoral choice. To spend more on defence either nationally or collectively will require a fundamental revaluation of the concepts and processes of European democracy.

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This will be very painful, and a revaluation is nowhere even near beginning. But it cannot be forever postponed if the European idea of its place in the world is ever going to be realised. Europe cannot lean on the US crutch forever.

Unlike the former Soviet Union, Russia is not an existential threat to America. Absent such a threat, the Trans-Atlantic Alliance is inevitably loosening. Sooner or later the US will play the same role in Europe as it already does in the Indo-Pacific: an off-shore balancer with minimal forces on the continent. Trump’s decision to reduce the US military presence in Germany has been harshly criticised. But this is a long-term trend that may be slowed or even paused, but is unlikely to be reversed.

For more than forty years, Americans stoically bore the risks, sacrifices, and exertions of the Cold War. After 9/11, they were called upon to endure seemingly interminable conflicts in the Middle East, while suffering the economic, financial, social and cultural disruptions of unrestrained post-Cold War globalisation. Europeans should not be surprised if Americans are no longer willing to pay any price and bear any burden on their behalf.

America is not withdrawing from Europe or the world. That is impossible. But it is looking for a new equilibrium with it. Trump did it crudely. A Biden administration and subsequent administrations will recalibrate American engagements with Europe and the world with greater sophistication and deliberation, but the direction will not be dissimilar.

The core reason the EU has resisted rethinking its political concepts to narrow the gap between its ambitions and reality is an intellectual arrogance which blinds European leaders to reality. In 2015, I heard Mario Monti, the former Italian Prime Minister and EU Commissioner, speak at a conference in Montreux. Someone asked him about the backlash against Syrian refugees in Europe. His answer was revealing. The European ideal, he in effect said, was too abstract for the ordinary citizen to understand and politicians had to do a better job explaining it. I thought this was akin to a politician, having lost an election, blaming the voters for not being wise enough to have voted for him.

Very largely as a consequence of the general attitude that Monti exemplified, right-wing — in some cases, neo-fascist — populism has emerged as a new normal in European politics. EU leaders should not be surprised that their values have not brought them the global influence they expected. After all, large numbers of their own peoples clearly do not share those values too.

After Bismarck united Germany in 1871, a fundamental imbalance arose in the heart of Europe. It took hundreds of millions of deaths caused by two world wars and a holocaust before Europe settled upon regionalism as a solution. It worked quite well for a time. So, after Germany was reunited in 1990, and that imbalance re-emerged in a new form, deeper and more ambitious regionalism through the EU — “Union” through the pooling of sovereignties— seemed the solution. But this was a step far too far.

Ironically, the over-reach was best illustrated by the two policies of which the EU seemed most proud — the common currency of the Euro, and the Schengen agreement allowing for free movement of labour. Space constraints do not permit me to expand on the technicalities that make both these seemingly good-in-theory ideas unworkable in practice. Suffice to say that both expose a fundamental internal contradiction in the very core of the idea of the EU: the EU is a supposedly post-nationalist “Union” based, paradoxically, on nationalist fears of a superior, German, nationalism.

The idea that that there can be some kind of supra-European identity is as delusional and Quixotic as the Soviet Union’s quest to create a “new Soviet man”. Even after 70 years, over-night in 1991, Soviet man found he was Russian or Ukrainian, or Kazakh or Latvian after all. So too does the far more newly imagined Ur-European dissolve into German or Pole or Spaniard or French or Romanian at times of stress. The EU is a construct that denies a basic human instinct: the need for identity, of which national identity is a core and enduring component. Many of the problems with which the EU is now struggling stem from this basic internal contradiction.

I do not think this basic contradiction can be resolved. No political solution that defies human nature can work, any more than can an engineering solution that defies the laws of physics ever work. Until Europe recognises reality and aligns its ambitions with human nature and the realities of international relations, it will lurch from crisis to crisis, never quite realising its potential, becoming ever more strategically marginal. This would be a pity because in an increasingly multipolar world, the EU could play a useful role.

The views expressed are personal and do not reflect those of any organization in Singapore.

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