A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Player or Pawn?


European states must invest in a more joined-up common foreign policy. The response to the Ukraine crisis shows its potential, the ongoing civil war in Syria the consequences of inaction.


© REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/Pool

The need for a joint European foreign policy is obvious. Individually, not even the most powerful states in Europe can get much done – they are consigned to endure events rather than shape them. Germany is not in a position to influence Russian behavior in Eastern Europe alone; France cannot single-handedly stop the advance of Islamic militants in North Africa; Italy cannot stabilize Libya by itself. None of them can negotiate with China as equals – and alone, none of them can achieve much of anything in Washington. And if this applies to Europe’s major powers, it applies all the more so to its medium- and small-sized states.

A truly joint European foreign policy – in contrast to the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) presently pursued by Brussels – offers the chance to strengthen not only the framework in which individual states operate, but also to multiply their weight, allowing each member state to punch far above its weight in the international arena. The tasks such a foreign policy would be charged with are no less clear: first, stabilizing Europe’s neighborhood; second, strengthening the partnership with the United States; and third, helping to shape the future of globalization.

Stabilization of the Neighborhood

The post-Soviet space has not developed a stable, prosperous order. Russiaʼs view of other post-Soviet countries as its sphere of control is as challenging as the weakness of state structures in the region. Where there is no widely legitimized government delivering public goods, where Mafia-like clans dominate the heights of economic and political power, states will remain fragile and borders unsafe. And as long as Russia systematically inhibits the construction of more solid state structures, the economies will remain weak, the societies will remain fragmented, and policy will generally be structured autocratically.

Here Europe has a double task. First, it must limit Russian aggression, meaning discouraging Moscow from implementing its designs through violence. That will make room for the second task: stabilizing state institutions and strengthening their orientation toward liberal democracy.

If Europe ignores these tasks, instability will grow – and that means more conflicts, more war, more refugees and displacements, and more crime. Europe cannot permanently screen itself off from the East; it must invest in the construction and expansion of order. A prosperous eastern neighborhood offers more than just new markets – the region can also serve as a connection between Europe, Russia, and China.

The ongoing crisis in Syria proves that Europe cannot shield itself from instability in its neighborhood, and that any attempt to do so will carry enormous costs. Just as in the eastern neighborhood, in Europe’s south the construction and expansion of more solid, legitimate, and competent state structures is the core task.

In the Middle East, at least two crises are currently overlapping. The old social contract entailed the acceptance of autocratic elites as long as these elites safeguarded order and a certain prosperity. However, as the population has grown and the income from oil and gas dropped, more and more young, well-qualified people feel cheated. The potential for revolution is ever-present, as the so-called Arab Spring demonstrated.

In addition, there is the battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia over dominance of the region. Saudi Arabia feels threatened by Tehran’s expansive regional politics and is working to expand its activity to limit Iranian influence in the neighborhood, while the US is barely present to maintain order – as it has shown in its hesitant, half-hearted engagement in Syria.

Terror and massive refugee flows coming from Europe’s southern neighborhood have the potential to destabilize the continent itself. In the next few years, Europe will have to finally develop a serious policy for the South. That will necessitate the development of economic options through cooperation, the promotion of zones of stability, the struggle against instability, and cooperation with both regional and global powers to push back against civil war and violence.

The US as Key Partner

The US will, for the foreseeable future, remain the most important global power. With Washington, Europe has a partner that is not only the most powerful country in the world, but one with which it shares significant values and principles – which a comparison with Russia and China makes ever more apparent. Together with their partners, in particular in Asia, Europe and the US keep having sufficient critical mass to decisively shape world politics.

America remains essential for the defense of Europe in the framework of NATO. However, this engagement requires constant care. It is already difficult for American politicians to explain to their constituents why the US must help carry the burden of Europe’s security; Europeans can by no means assume that America will be prepared to do so indefinitely. In order to continue the military partnership, Europe must do more. The stronger the European pillar within NATO, the more ready the US will be to invest further in NATO. At the same time, growing European defensive capabilities mean that Europe can, if necessary, take up its own defense should Washington take an isolationist course.

For a European foreign policy, the connection with the US will remain essential, too. The combined weight of the two powers in normative, economic, military, and political respects remains unmatched, especially when the two are strengthened by sustained cooperation with heavyweights like Japan, Indonesia, India, or Brazil.

Even in its own neighborhood, Europe will not be able to establish order without – or against the wishes of – the US for the foreseeable future. European relationships with Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt must to be tightly coordinated with Washington for the next few years, because in these relationships the US carries such significant weight.

At the same time, it is no longer sufficient to wait for Washington to make the first move. America is no longer prepared to be the strategic leader in and on behalf of Europe. Even if it is not yet clear to what degree the US is permanently reducing its international engagement, it can be assumed that its national interests will be significantly more narrowly defined in the future.

Europe will need to take on leadership itself, developing its own strategies and then working to gain Washington’s support.

Shaping Globalization

The streams of information, people, and goods crossing borders keep increasing, a process that on balance furthers security, freedom, and prosperity of its participants. Globalization is, however, not a natural process – it requires several prerequisites that must be established and secured.

First off, globalization relies on physical infrastructure: transportation routes for planes, ships, cars, and trains, along with internet cable. This physical infrastructure must be built, expanded, and protected. Second, globalization relies on the rule of law: complex contracts and norms that cross borders and allow the mobility of people, goods, services, and information.

Third, globalization relies on a broader political order favorable to openess which supports connectivity and network-building and prevents interruptions. This framework was developed and guaranteed predominantly by the US over decades, and includes both the influence of sovereign states and the structures of global institutions like the UN and WTO.

At the same time globalization is not politically neutral. It is driven by certain liberal principles such as individual freedom in the economy, in society, and in politics; a willingness to limit the role of the state mainly to the task of a guardian of freedom; and the optimistic assumption that crossborder interaction strengthens these liberal principles.

Since the end of the Cold War, globalization has become more widespread and intense. At the same time, however, there is a growing tendency on the part of autocratically governed states to push back against the political ramifications of globalization while profiting from the economic aspects. For those in power in Russia and China, political globalization, with its principles of freedom, is a threat; at the same time they rely on the economic benefits of globalization to keep their regimes in power.

Both use their weight in global organizations to weaken political globalization, while setting up regional orders in their neighborhoods following autocratic principles. In Moscow and Beijing’s view, weaker neighbors have no rights and are at the mercy of their stronger neighbors. For both, imperialistic foreign policy is an important pillar of their respective regimes; both see the US as a rival because it stands in the way of their imperial designs.
Europe, on the other hand, has an interest in strengthening the liberal international order. Political and economic globalization are both expressions of this order; both are two sides of the same coin.

In the past, globalization has been predominantly designed and secured by the US. America’s relative weight, however, has declined, and so has its readiness to invest resources in the global order. Without the preparedness of states to invest in globalization, it cannot be maintained. When even the major liberal democracies only consume global governance without producing it themselves, the fragile structure supporting globalization is in danger of collapse.

It is within both Europe’s interests and abilities to play a stronger role than in the past as a second plank of the liberal world order, in partnership with the US and other liberal democracies, in particular in Asia. The future of globalization depends on Europe and America’s preparedness to play this role.

Launchpad Brussels

In order to be an effective partner to the US in this endeavor, European states need to work together closely. In theory this means that Brussels must play a leading role. With the Lisbon Treaty, EU member states indeed have built the infrastructure necessary for such a foreign policy: a diplomatic service and a high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy.

As a matter of fact, cooperation and coordination between the member states have intensified over the past years. However, foreign policy remains overwhelmingly nationally defined, especially in the areas that are important for the most powerful member states. In these areas the EU only enters the picture when member states want to strengthen their national policies by building coalitions and using joint resources. Brussels plays the role of a broker between states. It provides expertise and helps with the execution of joint policies.

The key to a truly common European foreign policy thus lies in the member states. It is their job to develop strategies, build coalitions, and guide common policies. Whether there will be a European foreign policy depends above all on the big capitals.

How such an unorthodox European foreign policy could work is shown by the example of the European response to the Ukraine conflict. Berlin developed the strategy that formed the coalition and managed its implementation, and Paris was there as a key partner; but without the unity of the 28 member states, the actions taken would have been ineffective. Only the inclusion of their EU partners gave the larger powers the necessary efficiency and legitimacy.

The Ukraine conflict showed at the same time how important US support continues to be for European foreign policy. Washington played not only a key role in ensuring the stability of NATO; close cooperation between the White House and Chancellor Angela Merkelʼs office also presented a united transatlantic front when it came to sanctions.

This Western unity surprised and irritated the Kremlin, which had relied on division and weakness. Along with the resistance in Ukraine itself, this Berlin-led policy stopped Russiaʼs advance in eastern Ukraine, and it helped transferring the conflict from the military to the diplomatic level.

The Ukraine example shows that Europe can act efficiently in times of crisis. By contrast, the example of Syria shows the consequences of the absence of such a joint European policy.
Paris, which has the potential to play a leading role in Europeʼs southern neighborhood, did not push hard to a joint approach to Syria. Instead, the French government tried to achieve its goals as a junior partner of the US. But instead of ending the civil war, or even tamp it down, Paris has only been able to watch from the sidelines as the conflict has exploded into wildfire.

Both Paris and Berlin have failed to build a common European Syrian policy. To what extent such a joint approach would have made a difference is hard to say. But it is clear that no massive engagement in the region can be expected from Washington and that the consequences of war and chaos in the Middle East will not be felt primarily in the US but in Europe. The price for inaction in Syria will be much higher than the European capitals have anticipated.

Stabilize or Become Destabilized

In order to advance their foreign policy interests, European states can either go it alone or work together. The Ukraine conflict shows how great the potential for a joint approach is, while the example of the Syria conflict shows how problematic its absence can be.

Europeʼs southern and eastern neighborhoods are both zones of instability from which Europe cannot simply quarantine itself. European states have the choice either to be active as stabilizing powers or accept that Europe itself will increasingly be destabilized.

Without a unified foreign policy, Europe will increasingly become part of the zones of influence of countries with more ambitious foreign policies, especially Russia and China. Both want to make sure that Europe is not becoming a powerful player, and both are trying to separate Europe and the US in order to “divide and conquer.”

As a plaything of larger powers, the European states will no longer be in a position to safeguard and strengthen the global order in which they are embedded. The US no longer wants to – or can – play the role of global stabilizing power alone; it depends on the EU to become a powerful second pillar.

Together with other liberal democracies, the US and Europe must confront attempts on the part of autocratic regimes to weaken and undermine globalization. The global order is grounded on liberal principles; without the validity of these principles, even economic globalization will not last.

Foreign policy has often seemed like a luxury to Europeans over the past few decades, one that can be done without – but with growing instability it should have become clear that regional and global engagement are absolute necessities. Security, prosperity, and freedom in Europe depend on stability in the neighborhood and on a liberal world order. An investment in foreign policy is an investment in Europe’s own future.

Read more in the Berlin Policy Journal App – March/April 2016 issue.