Europe’s place in the multipolar world

Introduction: The Lesson of the G7 train wreck

 It’s official. After the calamitous G7 summit meeting in Canada, it is clear that an unbound Donald Trump is Europe’s worst nightmare. Although with typical unnecessary narcissism he came late and left early, what Donald Trump did in his few short hours on Canadian soil will be commented on for years, as he emerged as a virtual caricature of everything Europeans hate about Americans.

Preternaturally over-confident and under-prepared, arrogant, and self-regarding, the president urged Russia be readmitted to the G7 club (despite its iron-clad control of Crimea and ruination of eastern Ukraine), doubled down on enraging European and Canadian allies alike over the brewing trade war (‘America is not a piggy bank’), and generally confirmed everyone’s worst fears that the White House actually prefers dealing with America’s authoritarian foes, such as China’s Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, rather than the vexing, well-meaning, but weak democratic pygmies who populate the standard multilateral meeting. Surely, after such an odious display the rest of the democratic world must rise up in righteous indignation and……

Well, the best I can come up with is snub Trump administration appointments at formal cocktail parties. For the bleak truth lying behind Donald Trump’s appalling, wrong-headed policies and behaviour in Canada is that the rest of the democratic world is pathetically weak and bereft of agency. As such, while they seethe with disgust at having to put up with the odious president, there is nothing practically they are prepared to do to stop him. This most transactional of presidents has inadvertently but graphically illustrated how practically irrelevant America’s western allies, particularly in Europe, truly are.

Be careful what you wish for

This is all so different from the dreams of a new multipolar world that so animated European thinkers during the long days of the bipolar Cold War. Then, European policy intellectuals—particularly in France—dreamed of living in a multipolar age that would follow victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, a time when Europe would finally achieve the strategic flexibility to have its own independent foreign and security policy, no longer shackled to (but still vaguely allied with) the US. But this long-term strategic goal amounted to little more than emotional wish-fulfilment, predicated as it was on two unremarked upon suppositions.

The first was that the relative diminution in American global power would be meekly accepted by a US long used to running things. In other words, a series of President Obamas would shepherd the US to accept its new central, but relatively more limited, structural position in the multipolar world. To put it mildly, a President Trump—whose very campaign slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ is an overly emotional refutation of America’s relative decline—was not reckoned on.

Second, it was blithely assumed by European thinkers that their continent would undoubtedly and effortlessly emerge as the principal new force in this new world of many powers. As China rose during the latter days of the Cold War, following Deng Xiaoping’s historic opening in December 1978, European thinkers did foresee a world where a rising Asia would join America, Europe, Japan, and a diminished Russia as the main players on the global strategic scene (India was little thought of). But the notion that Europe would be by a long way the weakest of these great powers—politically divided, economically sclerotic, and militarily puny—never entered their thoughts.

As a result, while European thinkers seemed to pine for a multipolar world, in reality it was a new era where their continent was rising–as America was falling and the Soviets were non-existent–that was their real dream. Donald Trump’s petulant performance (and Europe’s anaemic non-response) at the just concluded G7 meeting glaringly illustrates that today’s world is simply not the sort of multipolarity European thinkers ever had in mind.

What Europe Should Do

 Most foreign policy articles (and I have written over 500 of them) are cries in the wilderness, futile exercises where the analyst proposes outcomes that they know will never come to pass. Nevertheless, it remains the duty of every political risk analyst to try, to posit what can be practically done to retrieve strategic situations, for irretrievable decline is a choice and not a preordained destiny.

In this spirit, what can Europe do to make itself relevant as a Great Power in the real multipolar era we actually now live in? First, psychologically accept that while Trump is an extreme case, American leaders in general are transactional in nature; they will only take European concerns on board if it is viewed as a serious power capable of going its own way in terms of genuine practical policy consequences. Global politics is not a debating society; what matters are the views of the great strategic players, and the power they bring to bear—political, economic, strategic, diplomatic, and social—to further their interests. Europe must stop passively watching the world, and either master history, or history will surely master it.

Second, the Europeans have to act in a far more unitary manner in terms of foreign and security policy. Russia, an economic basket case in comparison (its economy is smaller than that of Italy), is the relevant comparison. For all that it is a corrupt, demographically decaying one-trick economic pony, a decrepit gas station utterly dependent on the spot price of oil and natural gas, Moscow punches far above its actual weight on the global scene.

The reason? President Putin can make decisive, unitary, foreign policy decisions for his country that are quickly acted on. Russia—as the Crimea episode illustrated—is still prepared to spend blood and treasure, to make real sacrifices to further the country’s foreign policy goals and interests. At present, I am not sure many in Brussels would be prepared to sacrifice a week’s holiday to do much of anything. For once and for all, Europe and its leaders have to decide if their foreign policy amounts to merely virtue signalling, or whether they are prepared to make the sacrifices to actually matter in the world.

To do so, an inner core of the key western European states—Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and The Netherlands—must move ahead, and actually begin to craft such a common foreign policy. Failure to do so will inevitably lead the other great powers to cherry pick Europe, to keep dividing the place precisely because it is inherently divided. It is not the fault of the outside powers, as states since time immemorial have taken advantage of their rival’s weaknesses. Rather it is the fault of a Europe that simply can’t get its act together.

Finally, as the mediocre age of Merkel subsides, endemic problems must be solved, rather than merely managed. Across the continent, Europe must free up its animal spirits and find a way to increase average growth rates to around two percent, if horrendous rates of youth unemployment and endemic economic torpor are to be righted. President Macron’s courageous and largely successful labour market reforms are a start, by more needs to be done.

With France as a nucleus, and after decades of torturous (and maddening) inaction, the major European countries must commit themselves to some level of serious defence spending, as without an army their moralistic lectures are just that, and nothing more. Finally, and again Macron is onto something here, ‘A Certain Idea of Europe,’ the idea of a strong, distinct, unique and blessed Europe, a sacred place whose interests and values are worth fighting for on the global stage, must be advanced as a unifying clarion call to action.

It is not too late for Europe to emerge as its thinkers once dreamed it would, and Trump’s odious behaviour in Canada surely serves as a call to arms. But it is one minute to the midnight of Europe’s strategic irrelevance.

Published by Princeton University Press, June 15, 2018.

–Dr. John C. Hulsman is President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political-risk consulting firm. His new book, To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk, was published by Princeton University Press in April and is available on Amazon. He lives in Milan, Italy.