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The Case for a European Strategic Vision

Friday, Sept. 17, 2010

With the Great Euro Panic of 2010 drawing to a close and the Great Post-Lisbon Hype long since put to bed, the season for sober analysis of the EU's malaise is upon us, and Henry Farrell's insightful essay (via Art Goldhammer) doesn't disappoint.

What I like most is Farrell's observation that, if the EU is in desperate need of a new raison d'ĂȘtre, it's not due to some inherent weakness or shortcoming. Rather, it's in part because its original rationale has been a victim of the union's success at home, and in part because the union's alternative model of peaceful diplomacy has simply not taken hold in the rest of the world. So the boast that there has been no great power war in Europe for more than 60 years increasingly draws a yawn, while the claim that soft power might replace military muscle is met with a condescending chuckle.

As for the case for future integration, Farrell nails the problem moving forward here as well:

For decades, Europe's politicians did not have to justify European integration to voters. Now, when they have to justify it, they do not know how. EU integration had its origins in the political imperative of preventing future war. It then became a series of ever-more technocratic bargains. Now, with major institutional changes needed, European leaders need to make the idea of a European Union politically attractive again.

Farrell proposes some modest but convincing technocratic fixes to monetary governance, but obliquely acknowledges that in the absence of such a politically attractive union, the needed reforms will continue to be held hostage to intergovernmental divisions driven by national interests.

I'd add that the same vacuum Farrell identifies in terms of the union's economic planning and monetary governance exists in its approach to foreign policy as well. As the president of the EU Council, Herman Van Rompuy, put it, the EU has plenty of strategic partners. (Indeed, foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton even suggested adding some more at yesterday's heads of state summit.) All it needs now is a strategy. Without one, it will continue to drift into irrelevance as a geopolitical actor.

But although the urgency of articulating an EU-wide strategic vision has become an increasingly recurring theme among European analysts over the past year, formulating one is complicated by the utter disconnect between European public opinion and the thinking that dominates in security circles.

This has been presented as a "pedagogic" problem, with the lesson Europeans need to be "taught" being essentially that, although the world might be more peaceful than ever before, it is not the pacifist, prosperous enclave they've grown accustomed to. In other words, their very success at home has left them unprepared to face the world abroad. And unless they toughen up, history will pass them by.

The problem is that Europe's military resources do not match the global ambitions such a vision implies, and they will not for the foreseeable future. Add to that the fact that any reform to the global governance system will require reducing European prerogatives rather than expanding them, and that in following the shift in U.S. strategic attention from the European continent to the Middle East and Asia, Europe has essentially priced itself out of the game, and you've got a pretty tall order.

So what would a more realistic European strategic vision look like? For one thing, seeing the "forward defense" posture that has dominated Western security thinking since Sept. 11, 2001, as the chimera it is, and bringing the European security focus "back home." A more modest and local defense posture will, in turn, allow the union and its member states to concentrate on new partnerships that leverage its strengths (military mentoring agreements with emerging powers, for instance), while avoiding its weaknesses (trying to keep up with the U.S. mission of securing the global commons).

In other words, pedagogy is needed, but in the reverse direction. European strategists must accept the limitations they face in terms of ways and means. Once they do, I'm pretty optimistic about the ends they can achieve. As Farrell makes clear, for all its "irrelevance," a stable and prosperous Europe remains essential. And despite all the doomsday fatalism that accompanies any discussion of further integration, the necessary reforms are incremental, not revolutionary. What's needed is the vision to identify them, and the political will to make the case for them.