Europe and Berlin-Brandenburg Syndrome

The Annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club held in early October has become an important event on the intellectual agenda, based on which it is possible to discuss international politics both on the global and regional levels. For Russia, these discussions have highlighted, first, that its foreign policy has shed the long-standing tradition of opposing the West as the foundation of its strategy. Second, the discussions have shown that this policy has entered a complicated, albeit essential, phase whereby Russia will have to align this foreign policy with the processes taking place in Asia and Eurasia.

The reverse side of Russia’s increasing shift to the East is no less interesting. I am referring to a noticeable reduction in its interest in Europe that was in the focus of Russian foreign policy interests for almost a quarter century and which is increasingly relegated to the background today. This is certainly an alarming sign, considering that Europe – a major part of the West and its historical homeland – remains for Russia and China a critical partner in economic ties and can be viewed as a potentially important component of pan-Eurasian development. For this reason Europe’s evolution is vital to Russia, especially now that Europe is increasingly seen not as a player but as a field for the struggle and competition of more successful global players in the collective opinion of the international political and expert community. It should be admitted that this view is based on fundamental reasons.

The sad story of opening the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport (the last deadline for this was missed recently) is a good illustration of the role of the European Union and Europe as a global player with a new quality. This major new German airport was supposed to symbolize the completion of the unification of not only Germany (in early November it will be 30 years since the downfall of the Berlin Wall) but also of all of Europe. New Europe was supposed to be united by the idea and practice of European integration and able to share its experience with other countries and regions, especially its neighbors.

However, regrettably, just as Germany does not have Europe’s largest airport, Europe is compelled to deal with its own difficulties in its efforts to acquire a face in the world. The main problem is that the concept of European integration as such, like the idea of German unification, was naturally and primarily aimed at deriving profit for itself. John Kennedy said: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Paraphrasing this, one could say that Europe thought about what the world could do for it rather than what it could do for the world. This is not surprising. Modern Europe is a community of democratic and sovereign nations in which governments must serve their citizens rather than promote abstract strategic interests.

From 1989 to 1991 Europe was incredibly lucky. The unification of Germany took place in a most convenient form as a result of the short-sighted policy of the Soviet leadership. The largest expansion of Europe’s sphere of influence in its entire history proved to be unexpected and not quite justified. Ten countries that were either in Russia’s sphere of influence or part of the USSR just several years ago instantly became objects contributing to the integration and resource development of Western Europe. The EU’s eastward expansion, plus the accession of Cyprus and Malta, was a fast process that lasted no more than 15 years. It’s no surprise that the EU’s governance mechanisms and strategic culture, created during the Cold War, could not be quickly adapted to the sudden buildup of Europe’s power.

Moreover, the disintegration of international orders that were based on East-West confrontation boosted the potential of Europe as an international player. This was also facilitated by the new phenomena that adjusted for different countries the importance of possessing an armed force comparable to that of the great powers. It would be inaccurate to suggest that military power has ceased to be vital for the survival of a state. Had this been the case, Russia would no longer exist. However, compared to the previous historical period, the scale and conditions for using force have changed so much that they have become a mere element of international status, thus reducing its exceptional importance. Therefore, during the entire period from 1991 to the mid-2010s Europe had every reason to hope that the absence of this component was not an obstacle for enhancing its international influence. This allowed the Europeans to preserve their foreign policy philosophy. This applied to global and regional security, one of the most important issues for all states.

Over the past quarter century, the entire system of Europe’s external links was built on an institutional basis and the strategic culture of a “smaller Europe” that was born within the borders of the former empire of Charles the Great on the ruins left by World War II. In the same manner, having moved to Berlin, German foreign policy mentality remained “Rhenish,” that is, largely local and oriented toward the resolution of national development goals. This was not facilitated by the gradually decreasing influence of France on European affairs. The only EU country with its own nuclear weapons, France was accustomed to thinking about world affairs.

Europe began building its Berlin-Brandenburg Airport for grand international politics, but remained an association with the philosophy of a small or medium size country. During the Euro zone crisis in 2010−2013 Germany sacrificed pan-European development for the sake of its own progress. Likewise, Europe as a whole had to sacrifice its potential as a global player for the sake of resolving its own current issues of prosperity. My practical participation in the studies that preceded the appearance of the European “neighborhood policy” in 2003 confirms that the need to guarantee security on the periphery of the expanding EU always prevailed in theory and practice over the efforts to develop neighbors to the south or the east.

Otherwise, its strategy and tactics would have been based on the real needs of the recipients of this policy instead of being expressed through the prism of European interests. Now China could fall into the same trap. Its One Belt One Road Initiative is based on an extrapolation of the power it accumulated in the years of reform and openness to the world around it. This is why Beijing has failed to change its overall negative image in small and medium countries with which it is developing economic cooperation like a “senior brother.” Things have become so complicated in this context that it may justifiably evoke the concern of Russia, which is sincerely interested in China’s becoming a sponsor of security and development in the region, for example, in Central Asia.

One issue remains current. As part of the Atlantic community, can Europe act more independently and put forward initiatives and draft concepts that are alternatives to US policy? Until recently, the economic interests of the partners on both sides of the Atlantic were so closely integrated that this opportunity was considered implausible even in theory. However, if we assume that trans-Atlantic solidarity is a generational rather than a cultural phenomenon, Europe may still have a say.

But regrettably, the experience of the past quarter century confirms that if you are not interested in the world, the world stops being interested in you. Modern Europe has an enormous accumulated reserve of appeal and intellectual resources and is economically powerful. However, with time it could become increasingly difficult to convert this experience into a desire by others to take into account European interests. Chinese, US and Russian analysts already talk about Europe as an additional argument in their geostrategic concepts but not as a factor in its own right. Improving this situation and completing the construction of the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport is a job for the Europeans for the next few years, if not decades.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.