Europe has for centuries played a significant – and often decisive – role when it comes to shaping world order and security. The European state system that was established at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 has become the first truly global system, which basically every region around the world has adopted.
One of the biggest geopolitical trendlines in the world we are seeing now is how increasingly it is in Asia where the most economic activity is being centred. It is also in Asia that we are seeing some of the most consequential issues of our times, most importantly the re-emergence of China as an economic and military heavyweight â€“ which has far-reaching consequences.
The truth of our time is that we cannot ensure European security without playing a role in global security. Having been at the core of world politics, from empire building to the Cold War confrontation between the two superpowers, that role is increasingly being taken by Asia â€“ and as the saying goes, if you are not at the table, you are on the menu.
For seven decades, Europe has also to a great extent relied on transatlantic cooperation and the American security presence. Without the United Statesâ€™ nuclear umbrella during the years after the Second World War, the conditions for the European project and French-German reconciliation would probably not have existed.
Today, while Europe yet again is vulnerable to external pressures from the east and south, the American commitment to security and stability on the continent has never been more in question. President Donald Trump was elected on a retrenchment platform, basically arguing that the United States should play a less active role in the world. Trump also has expressed, both before and during his political career, a profound scepticism towards the United Statesâ€™ global alliance and trading system, something which puts him at odds with all post-war American administrations.
It is unlikely that the new administration would abandon the American security presence in Europe. The United States has vital security interests in the stability of the region, its presence in Eastern Europe gives it a platform for its global presence and the resistance among the traditional establishment in Washington would be overwhelming. However, it is clear that this is an administration less inclined than previous ones to help building peace and security in Europe.
So Europe needs to do more for its own security. That is not only addressing problems in the immediate neighbourhood to the east and south, but also looking further to the Indo-Pacific and beyond. To reiterate an earlier point, if Europe does not have a role to play in the world’s most important geopolitical hotspots, there is a risk that we ourselves could become to object of great power bargains. This might be a prospect that is hard to visualise, but very real indeed.
We have to think in terms of three sets of issues: capabilities, cooperation, and partnerships. First, capabilities are essential in the conduct of any foreign and security policy. That includes military capabilities, but also other tools, such as cyber, foreign aid and economic sanctions. But at the moment, it is the military side of the capabilities equation that needs to be focused on.
After the end of the Cold War, we saw a large downscaling of armed forces all-around Europe. At the time, there was a rationale for doing this, but in hindsight there was too little consideration put on eventual changes in the security environment and what might be needed to respond to such a change. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, between 1995 and 2015, the number of main battle tanks in Europe fell from around 25,000 to 8,000. At the same time, the number of fighter and ground attack aircraft decreased from 5,400 to 2,400. While Europe was dismantling its military capabilities, Russia was rebuilding and reforming its own.
Thankfully, we are witnessing a turnaround; today, European defence capabilities are improving. At the 2014 summit in Wales, all NATO member states pledged to increase defence spending to 2% of GDP (a few states already reached that aim). There is a required debate on what to invest in, but if done in a smart and coordinated manner that limits duplication, this increase in defence spending will greatly improve Europe’s ability to improve security and to deter adversaries from aggression. Although Europe is still stumbling when it comes to economic growth, the 2% should be seen as an investment to advance our security interests.
Secondly, we need to improve cooperation internally in Europe. This does not necessitate creating new structures outside from the already existing security architecture that is composed of NATO and the EU. What we do need is to improve cooperation between NATO and the EU, a work in progress since the 2016 NATO summit. We also need to explore the possibilities of improving defence and security cooperation within the EU, but without harming NATO’s relevance or position. This is not an easy balancing act, but with political will it can be done in an effective manner. A strong NATO is in the interest of the EU, and a strong EU is in the interest of NATO. This is especially true since the Brexit decision.
Thirdly, Europe needs to look around for partners. The most important European partner will remain the United States, because of our shared values and interests, but we need to look further as well. Especially important will be building partnerships with so-called ”rising powers” such as China, India, and Indonesia. Where our interests might converge, we should cooperate. There are also developed economies that we could deepen our current cooperation with, such as Japan and Australia. This cooperation can take place in many forms and ways: anti-piracy initiatives, joint military exercises, or improved trade. If Europe acts in a somewhat organised manner, a lot of progress can be made.
In a recent interview with The Atlantic, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reflected on the current geostrategic predicament facing Europe. He said:
”For 400 years, world history was made by Europeans. Many of the great ideas by which we liveâ€”constitutional government, freedom of the individual, the ideas of the Enlightenmentâ€”originated in Europe and were spread by Europe around the world. Now this region, which was dynamic and built the world, has become too preoccupied with itself. It confines itself basically to the exercise of soft power. At present, no European government has the capacity to ask its people for sacrifices on behalf of foreign policy.
Unless Europe can recover some of its historic dynamism, there will be a big hole in the world system as it has until now manifested itself. What has been lacking in Syria is Europe, but their present domestic structures tempt them to avoid difficult strategic issues. You can only ask sacrifices of your people when you can present some vision of getting them from where they are to where they have not been. Otherwise, why should they do it?”
Mr Kissinger raises some important points. In a world where Europe is less active on the world stage, Europe is more vulnerable and the world is more unstable. Let’s make sure then, that Europe acts on the world stage.