Russia and the EU: The quest for a new European security landscape


Major trends in international relations have of late become pronounced. The world is less secure, and last year's war in Lebanon only strengthened radical forces throughout the Middle East. The conflict in Afghanistan is escalating, and from year to year the poppy harvest there reaches new heights. The situation in Iraq has, of course, gone from bad to worse, and the Middle East peace process' road map is in a dismal state. North Korea, the only real rogue state of US President George W. Bush's now notorious "axis of evil", is on the point of joining the nuclear club, and Iran, the main beneficiary of the Iraq war, is pushing determinedly ahead with its uranium enrichment programme.

What makes this gloomy picture more disappointing still is the recollection that in the recent past some very different trends had been picking up. Not long ago, Iran had a moderate president; Syria came close in 2000 to making a deal with Israel on the Golan Heights. Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon, and then there was the Cedar revolution there. But then the Iraq factor intervened, with Iran, and later Syria, being informed that they were part of the axis of evil.

The major trends in international relations are neutral – they do not change a situation for better or worse. What they do change is the structure of international relations, and world affairs then adjust to these trends, either through a solution to various problems or by aggravating them. Thus, the European security landscape does not feed only upon itself, but is heavily dependant on the state of affairs worldwide. Just as Russia has its near and far abroad, so there are two similar realms encircling "wider Europe" (the EU plus Russia) that influence what is going on within.

There have been no major changes to the European far abroad. The unipolar supremacy of the United States is still with us. At the same time, the countervailing trend – the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world – is slowly picking up speed. The power of the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) grows in strength, even though it's of a different quality. China is no longer a sleeping giant but an awakening one, and one which is increasingly going global. At a snail's pace perhaps, but the centre of gravity in international affairs is shifting to Asia, and I myself think that the second half of the 21st century will not only be the age of Europe but even more so it will be the age of Asia.

As to the European near abroad, the situation in the wider Middle East must be of a grave concern. The first wars of the 21st century have been fought there – in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon.

The events of last year confirmed what 2005 had already begun to indicate – that the US has passed the pinnacle of its power, even if the important qualification must be that it has only become weaker in relative rather than absolute terms. It is no longer a hegemon, but it is indisputably still a dominant power. America's hard power surpasses any imaginable combination of the military strength of other states, but for all that it is being proved again and again that the nature of power in the contemporary world has also changed irreversibly. The US spends nearly $500bn a year on defense, which is more than the rest of the world combined, yet the main goals that Washington has been striving to achieve since 2001 are still far beyond its reach. Occupying Afghanistan and Iraq was one thing, but pacifying and reconstructing them are quite another. America's over-militarisation of the fight against terrorism has proved to be counterproductive.

Iraq has become the cause c้l่bre of terrorists, and Washington's Iraq policy these days, so far as it is understandable, is much more about damage limitation, finding exit strategy and not losing face than it is about reconstruction and saving the country from full-scale civil war. Few can now claim that the consequences of invading Iraq have been worthwhile. More than a million Iraqis are internally displaced, and two million have left the country since 2003. Iraq has drifted from dictatorship to failed state, and the idea that it would be better to split Iraq into three parts has grown from being no more than marginal a year ago to become a mainstream policy option. According to the UN, we now have a "grave sectarian crisis" in Iraq, with an average 100 Iraqis being killed every day. Thanks to war crimes and their inability to restore order, the reputations of the occupying powers are beyond repair.

Hard power alone has proved woefully insufficient as a means of transforming the world in line with the thinking of some leaders of established democracies. What is instead needed is complex multilateral diplomacy, and the past year saw signs that the present occupant of the White House has reluctantly started to adjust to this. The US has turned to multilateral diplomacy in the cases of both Iran and North Korea, albeit without fanfare. And its record in this respect is still very patchy, especially in the way it acquiesced so headily with Israel's latest adventure in Lebanon.

So unipolar supremacy is grudgingly giving way to multipolarity, but what kind of multipolarity? Do we have the emerging contours of a new multipolar order, or of disorder? I am inclined to the latter, with the main culprit being the instability of the wider Middle East, which is not mainly of "civilisational", as some claim, but of a geopolitical nature. The prophesied clash of civilisations has not come about, but the Islamic world today feels itself more humiliated than a year ago, leading to the further alienation of Muslim immigrants in western countries. It would be an over-simplification to say that the only reason is US, British or Israeli foreign policy; the causes of 9/11 are rooted as much in what for the Muslim world are external factors as in Islam's own internal clash between moderates and hardliners. But only a diehard would now still deny that the Iraq campaign has not increased the threat of terrorism and strengthened resistance in the region to the presence of western powers. The result is that the bond between Syria and Iran has never been stronger and both physical resistance and accusations of double standards and hypocrisy reverberate countries like Sudan that are far from the Middle East.

Every cloud has a silver lining; the quagmire of Iraq may have saved the world from more wars. Alas, it did not save Lebanon, which until recently was being hailed as a new beacon of democracy in the Middle East. But because to what has happened in Iraq, the Bush administration's doctrine of pre-emptive military action has been as good as shelved. Over the next year or two, Iran will be a testing-ground that will demonstrate whether the dominant power is ready, with the help of complex multilateral diplomacy, to prevent a regional state from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. Such diplomacy is often frustrating in the medium-term, but it's usually rewarding in the end. Or will the United States rely once again on its hard power, which may give quick returns but in the long-term fails to attain the initial goals? The downside is that there would also be an even greater danger of WMD, terrorism and failed states coming together in the region.

Positive change, or at least the foretaste of it, in the European far abroad is to the credit of wider Europe, which in most situations adheres to the idea of soft rather than hard power, and acknowledges the centrality of the United Nations in world affairs. For the EU and Russia, the notion of a "war on terror" has always been an uncomfortable one, and even more so is the expression "Islamo-fascism". If the EU and Russia, along with public opinion in other centres of world power, succeed in the vital task of persuading the US to abandon its over-reliance on hard power, the chances for an emerging multipolarity of an orderly kind will improve sharply.

Another hurdle will be to sway opinion among a majority in the American political establishment who see an inescapable link between growing tension in the Middle East and the Palestinian state. In private, the US accepts that it has now lost its former status of honest broker, and recognizes that wider Europe is indispensable to finding an equitable solution. Europe has a much better record in the eyes of the Muslim world, having long been as adamant in its condemnation of terrorist acts against Israel as it has been to Israel's often disproportionate reactions to them.

The conclusion that I would draw from the current state of affairs in the European far and near abroad is that the European security landscape depends heavily on EU and Russian relations with the US, as seen through the prism of the wider Middle East. America's strategic mistakes are bound to be felt by Europeans, and at times more harshly than by Americans themselves. Europe has already paid a high price in terms of terrorist attacks in Spain and the UK, with more probably still to come. And Russia has lost more lives as a consequence of the radicalisation of Islam then all the western countries combined. The wider Middle East is a far abroad to the US, but it is a near abroad to Europe. Washington should be very careful not to expose other countries, especially its allies, to unnecessary dangers.

Right now, there seems little disagreement in wider Europe that the way out of the present stalemate is for the US to be encouraged along the track of multilateral diplomacy, and of soft power over hard. To win the fight against militant Islam and against yet more states going nuclear, wider Europe and the US must pursue the closest possible cooperation. The US may have the final say, but without accommodating European concerns it will only achieve a fraction of what could be won. Europe, for its part, should see the US not as an arrogant partner but as a pivotal country which needs to be convinced to use its colossal power in cleverer ways. It would be a fatal blunder if in the emerging multipolar world the European Union and Russia were to become rivals not partners of the US. This would be a prescription for multipolar disorder, zero sum games and dangerous Win-Lose scenarios.

The fact that the European Union and Russia are nowadays both expressing more and more interest in world affairs, and are increasingly able to back up their interest with the appropriate resources, is to Washington's advantage; even at the height of its power it could not single-handedly carry the burden of global gendarme and policy manager. But Europe will be a poorer partner if it fails to speak with one or at least with two concerted voices – those of the EU and Russia – and to effectively project both its soft and hard power. This task so far has proved elusive for the European Union, alone, so the possibility of building a pan-European security space seems even more distant.

The EU will remain something of a lame duck in the security sphere until the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) matures, and the Union's constitutional crisis is resolved or somehow subsides. NATO, with all its acknowledged recent achievements in transformation, is not a model for the much needed pan-European security space; it is a good platform for maintaining and even intensifying dialogue between Russia and the West, but it is doubtful that it has the potential to transform them from fair-weather friends into strategic allies. If the West is seriously interested in making Russia its strategic ally, either NATO will have to jettison its philosophy of expansion or the EU should build its own security system incorporating Russia. An ESDP leading to NATO No 2, this time within west European borders, would be a wasted opportunity for the EU to think and act globally.

Unlike the situation in the European far and near abroad, disagreements between Russia and the EU over internal European security problems, including those in the post-Soviet space, have so far eclipsed the areas of agreement. It is a very worrying trend, as it seems that in Ukraine, Belorussia, Moldova, Transcaucasus and Central Asia, Russia and the EU are to pursue their own separate agendas. The impression being created is that both are primarily eager to use their growing strength to expand their foreign policy boundaries. Yet to accuse Russia of neo-imperial ambitions is no more serious than to accuse the EU of being an empire of a new kind that may soon pose a greater danger to Russia than did NATO to the USSR. For the sake of European security, it is vital to outflank anyone in Russia, the EU or the US who thinks in terms of a new version edition of the cold war. The past year has in this respect been a disturbing one.

The European security landscape is therefore in a state of flux. The next few years offer a real opportunity to adjust this landscape in the interests of all who live in Europe, before attitudes solidify. It is still possible to find ways to accommodate each other's interests, but if new dividing lines were to set in, and some have already started to appear, the task of building a common security space will turn from being merely complicated to being almost unachievable.