The actual position of Europeans in world politics is increasingly consistent with how we might see it in terms of abstract assessments of the relationship with the United States and their ability to act independently, Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev writes.
Whether many of us in Russia are ready to admit it or not, the position of Europe in international politics will inevitably become an important issue of theoretical and practical significance. For the great powers, the urgency of this issue is determined by what they associate with Europe in their own plans and, accordingly, where they may be disappointed. In the case of the United States, the strategic importance of Europe is determined by its ability to contain Russia while relying, at least a little, on its own forces. For Russia itself, the continental part of Europe is a potential “weak link” in the united coalition of the West led by the United States, which threatens the interests and survival of the Russian state. China holds a roughly similar position; its authorities also expect that over time, American influence in Europe will decline, allowing Beijing to maintain access to some Western technology and markets in the context of its inevitable “divorce” from the Americans. From India’s point of view, Europe is a less demanding partner than the United States in matters of modernising the Indian economy and solving some of the national development problems.
At the same time, it is quite difficult to talk about genuine sympathy towards Europeans on the part of any of their global partners. In such foreign policy circumstances, the leading countries of the European Union face the prospect of gradually turning into a border territory, which all opposing global players will consider exclusively as a resource base, whether in politics or in economics. The question is whether the Europeans can change the momentum in this direction and, more importantly, do they need more identity in world affairs?
In words, as we know, the intentions of the leading countries of the European Union (first of all Germany and France) have not changed much compared to the “golden” years of development of their independent strategic project — European integration. As in the 1990s and 2000s, Berlin and Paris, with varying intensity and pressure, talk about their desire to play an independent role in world affairs. However, even they admit that now the possibilities for implementing such plans have been seriously curtailed. It may soon become obvious that continental Europe will indeed find itself in a situation most consistent with the predictions of its biggest sceptics. In other words, the actual position of Europeans in world politics is increasingly consistent with how we might see it in terms of abstract assessments of the relationship with the United States and their ability to act independently.
This, however, is hampered by several important factors. First, France, as the leading political power of continental Europe, still retains its place as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. This even formally makes it equal among the members of the highest Areopagus of the international community. Second, Europe’s economic opportunities and potential are exceptionally great. Germany remains one of the leading economic powers in the world, far ahead of even China in some indicators, not to mention Russia and India. Third, European representatives participate in the work of most major international institutions and occupy leading positions in shaping their agenda. All this, like many other things, makes it impossible to treat Europe with disdain. It keeps us from completely writing off continental Europeans, viewing them solely as dependent junior partners of the United States.
Moreover, the latter point of view actually has serious grounds. The dramatic outcome of the Second World War, which resulted in the emergence of the existing international order, turned out to be not just the end of global power for Europe, but also the loss of the ability to independently determine its foreign policy. We can say that, as a result of the events of 1939–1945, all Western European states suffered a heavy military defeat, even if at the end of the war they were among the formal winners, as it happened with France. With the exception of Britain, all major European states were losers.
The destruction of the colonial system in the following decades was already a consequence of a sharp decline in the status of Europe in the global hierarchy. Having lost basic rights in relation to their own situation, the European colonial empires could no longer maintain dominance over other peoples. This process turned out to be gradual and in some cases was mitigated by certain forms of neo-colonial dependence. However, as we see in the example of the African influence of France, which arose in the 1960-1970s, the surrogates for the colonial regime could only be temporary, inevitably followed by a complete loss of control on the part of the former masters.
This fully affected even Britain, which was significantly weakened as a result of the Second World War. The leading economic power in the region, Germany, has lost sovereignty over its foreign policy, even formally. France struggled for a while, but since the mid-1970s the country has gradually moved towards abandoning its independent role in world politics. The finale was the country’s return to NATO military structures 15 years ago, after which French defence planning was also integrated into a system led by the United States.
As a result, by the end of the 2000s all the prerequisites have been formed in order to completely forget any dreams of an independent Europe in world affairs. The last attempt to restore sovereignty in matters of foreign policy was the German-French protest against US plans for Iraq in 2002-2003. But it did not lead the Europeans to any comparatively satisfactory results. The rest was completed by almost constant economic difficulties after the 2008–2009 financial crisis and the crisis of political systems that began at the same time in most states of the European Union.
To summarise, we can say that the actions of continental Europe in the face of an acute crisis in relations with Russia in 2021–2022 already fully corresponded to its true position as a rather dependent partner of the United States, as a territorial base for the implementation of strategic plans against one of the true winners in the Second World War — Russia. It would be somewhat naive to lament the fact that the leaders of the top EU countries, as well as the institutions of the European Union, have completely surrendered themselves to events that they could not control. The seriousness of the crisis that arose — a military clash between Russia and the United States over Ukraine—no longer left any room for foreign policy manoeuvring on the scale that was available to Europeans during the Cold War of 1949–1991.
Moreover, the Ukrainian crisis itself was, to a certain extent, the result of the fact that the continental Europe has lost all ability to be strategically independent. This, as we saw above, occurred as part of a gradual process that combined the consequences of the events of the middle of the last century and the failure of attempts to build a genuine political union on the basis of European integration, combining this with the expansion of the membership and the creation of a common economic policy through financial instruments within the Eurozone.
Additional evidence here is the specific behaviour of the European Union institutions, which after February 2022 simply play the role of an economic branch of NATO. European leaders looked so helpless at the beginning of last year not because they were bad themselves. The real reason for their disability to stop the region’s slide into the most serious crisis since the mid-20th century, and then integration into US policy towards Russia, is that continental Europe had exhausted its chances for independence.
Now we have to see how serious the consequences of this process will be; it reached its final stage by 2022. Unlike Britain, continental Europe is too large and diverse to be completely absorbed by American influence. European companies, due to their scale, are able to maintain independent ties with the Russian and Chinese markets. Large EU countries follow their interests and find themselves in a dual position: strategically they are completely subordinate to the United States, but at the same time they have a certain autonomy in foreign policy contacts.
As a result, continental Europe may get left in limbo, when the United States’ opponents on the world stage retain influence over it, but it is no longer be able to make decisions on its own: this will turn Europe into an arena of competition between other powers. It is not yet clear how this situation will affect the ability of Europeans to meet the interests of numerous competitors for their attention.