It can’t be easy being a European these days. Put aside the years-long Brexit trauma, rise of right-wing populism, soul-searching over the nature of the European project, or internal divisions, made more salient by all the above. What remains is a Europe whose foreign policy is squeezed by three great powers, the U.S., Russia and China, each of which relates to Europe in its own way, all of whom increasingly are prone to ignore, bypass, divide, or strong-arm the continent for their own ends. Europe is struggling to find its voice amid the crush.
Coming from Moscow or Beijing, the pressure is neither surprising nor new. True, Russia has been more assertive of late, a trend exemplified by its dealings in Syria and Libya. Moscow paid lip service to the Geneva process aimed at reaching a political settlement to the Syrian conflict and in which Europe has heavily invested, even as it set up the parallel and more coldly efficient Astana channel with Iran and Turkey. It seems to be seeking a repeat in Libya. It endorsed the European-led Berlin conference, stressing the need for a broad-based political agreement, respect for the arms embargo and a halt to external interference – even as it previously came to the aid of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in his fight against the internationally-recognised government and even as it seeks to settle matters directly with that government’s principal foreign backer, Turkey.
For its part, China, is more akin to a long-distance runner. It is less visible yet equally constant, doggedly pushing its agenda through at times coercive economic diplomacy and forcing Europe into difficult choices when it comes to balancing its ties to Washington and to Beijing.
But over the past year especially, the game changer has been American. Time and again, the Trump administration has taken decisions and adopted policies that affect Europe without taking into account its views.
Yet, in a sense, the Trump administration is performing ironic services for the EU – sharpening the case for a more sovereign European foreign policy that some of Europe’s leaders have made since at least the 2003 Iraq war. Then, what was arguably the most dramatic, virtually unilateral decision by the U.S. since the end of the Cold War provoked damaging ripple effects with which Europe continues to contend. But, by turning an intermittent attitude into a systematic approach, President Trump could force a moment of reckoning.
Whether or not President Macron is Europe’s most effective alarm ringer, his appeal for an EU more militarily self-sufficient (to protect its interests when others will not), diplomatically autonomous (to stake out its own positions when America’s won’t do), and economically independent (to circumvent U.S. sanctions when those are aimed at prohibiting legitimate behaviour), merits a hearing. It also merits a healthy dose of realism, of course, for a more effective European foreign policy requires unity and strategic vision that often have been lacking.
On the military front, a succession of decisions by the U.S. president have highlighted Europe’s vulnerability to the fluctuations of America’s mood. The semi-withdrawal of U.S. troops from north east Syria, the killing of Qassem Soleimani and of an Iraqi Shiite militia leader, and U.S. plans to reduce or even zero out its force presence in West Africa all could have outsized repercussions on European security. The first two because European forces in Syria and Iraq depend on U.S. support and because any drawdown could damage the counter-ISIS campaign. The third because it affects the Sahel, viewed in Europe as a gateway for terrorism and migration flows into the continent. Yet Europe had no say in any of these.
Establishing a more autonomous European force would require overcoming prodigious political, economic and logistical hurdles. Even then it would face a reality that Washington has been slow to grasp, namely that addressing challenges like terrorism through purely military means won’t work. That is not an easy lesson to learn, as political leaders feel the pull of public anxieties and thus the need to advertise strength by flexing muscles. But facts speak for themselves: in the Sahel, intensified military efforts targeting jihadists have gone hand in hand with an uptick in operations by those very groups. Autonomous force or no, Europe should better balance military operations with politics, including support for efforts to calm intercommunal divisions that underpin violence and, possibly, to engage in dialogue with certain militant leaders. Still, greater European capacity to deploy forces, whether or not in the form of the European army both Macron and Chancellor Merkel have called for, could give the continent greater ability to protect its interests.
On the diplomatic front, Europe could do plenty to stand up for itself in the face of American deficiency or malpractice. Take one example: dramatic U.S. u-turns toward Israel-Palestine, from recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its annexation of the Golan Heights to decreeing that settlements do not violate international law – with far more in store as the U.S. administration unveils its long-awaited and ill-named peace plan.
Forging a united European position that clearly stands in opposition to the U.S.’s would be no small challenge, given divisions among European capitals. Nor is it clear that Europe could move from mouthing rhetorical support for an increasingly illusory two-state solution to taking a stand that, regardless of what happens in the occupied territories, all who fall under Israeli control must enjoy equal rights. Still, a countervailing European voice would be welcome, given the continent’s stakes in Middle East stability.
Finally, nowhere are implications of European financial helplessness starker than when it comes to Iran. The U.S.’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and imposition of maximum pressure on Iran has had cascading negative consequences for Europe – from Iran’s gradual erosion of its nuclear commitments and uptick in attacks in the Gulf to weakening the fight against ISIS. In response, European states have sought to provide Iran with modest economic relief to convince it to remain in the deal and moderate its behaviour. But the threat posed by U.S. sanctions – targeting Europe’s activity taken in accordance with its international obligations, no less – has hobbled those efforts. If U.S. dominance over global markets means U.S. control over swaths of European foreign policy, the challenge for Europe is to find effective ways to circumvent the current financial system and establish one immune from America’s long arm.
It is, indeed, not easy being a European these days, caught in several unenviable dilemmas. Europe can stick with the U.S. despite significant disagreement and feel impotent; challenge the U.S. despite predictable blowback and feel the pain; hedge its bets by bolstering ties with competing great powers despite profound discrepancy in values and world views and feel vulnerable.
Whatever it does, it should not short-change a central aspect of modern European identity – a sense of responsibility when it comes to resolving the world’s most dangerous situations, and the statecraft and resources to make a difference. As Crisis Group’s EU Watchlist this year describes, conflicts in which Europe can play a constructive role are legion – from areas of considerable geopolitical interest (such as Iran or Ukraine) to those that suffer from international neglect, like the Great Lakes, Burkina Faso or Bolivia. By throwing itself into resolving these crises, and by seeking more self-sufficient military, diplomatic and financial roles, the continent may not fully solve its identity crisis. But it could help make the world a safer place for when it finally does.
This article has been republished with permission from the International Crisis Group.