Much fun has been had at Lady Ashton's expense over the last week, charting her rise from chairing Hertfordshire Health Authority to chairing Europe's foreign ministers (without standing in a single election). They ask if she will manage - in David Miliband's phrase - to stop the traffic in Washington or Beijing. But the more pressing question starts at home: will European leaders rise to the scale of the intellectual challenge that confronts them if they want to be more than spectators in the creation of a 21st century world order.
Europe has often hidden behind its institutional problems to avoid facing up to the challenges of wielding power. The brutal reality is that 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the EU has done less to rethink its grand strategy than any of the other great powers. President Obama is reconceptualising American foreign policy for what his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has called a "multi-partner world". China is coming to terms with its new status as a financial hyperpower and a political superpower. Russia is defining and redefining a Putin consensus. Even Turkey is in pursuit of strategic depth through a "neo-Ottoman" foreign policy.
But the EU is still a prisoner of the triumph of the European model in 1989. Ashton must use her much-vaunted "consensus-building skills" to align EU governments behind new approaches in three arenas: their own region, on the world stage and in the setting of global standards. Each will involve thinking beyond past successes.
Enlargement has been the EU's most successful foreign policy ever, but its very success is preventing it from developing fresh thinking for the challenges of being a regional power today. Enlargement in the 1990s was based on three assumptions: that we are the only pole of attraction, that countries want to join us and that we have lots of time to bring about the slow and long-term changes necessary for accession.
But beyond the western Balkans and possibly Turkey, none of these assumptions holds true. Today's neighbourhood is a site for competition between an activist Russia that is developing tools of soft and hard power to bring countries into its sphere of influence and an EU that wants to spread democracy, stability and the rule of law. Ashton will need to work with national governments to create a more political approach for a multipolar Europe rocked by financial, political and ethnic tensions.
On a whole range of global issues, from climate change to nuclear proliferation, the EU will only be able to meet its goals with the help of Beijing and Washington. Yet EU policy towards China was crafted around economic relationships, while our approach to the US was developed at a time when the transatlantic relationship was the fulcrum on which the world turned, rather than today's "post-American world". The new high representative should conduct a major policy review of EU relations with China and the US, identifying those areas in which member states undermine one another.
The most challenging area might be in the setting of global norms. For many Europeans, 1989 genuinely seemed to mark the end of history - as western ideas of liberal democracy appeared destined to spread around the world. But in recent years much of the world has turned against the west and alternative political, economic and cultural models are on offer from the likes of Beijing, Moscow and Tehran. Here too there needs to be fresh thinking if the EU is going to regain its former ability to set the rules on issues such as democracy, crimes against humanity and global governance.
There is a powerful symbolic logic to Ashton's appointment. People have asked whether her "quiet diplomacy" will give Europe a voice on the world stage. But the truth is that it already does. As trade commissioner she has spoken with the authority of the 27 member states (this is the one area where sovereignty has been pooled). In this role she has spoken for an economic hyperpower to set the pace for global trade talks. But just as Ashton will need to learn to switch from growing Europe's market to wielding political influence, the EU needs to make the accumulation of geopolitical power into its next big project.
People have long known that the EU's problem has been the fragmentation of its power. It is not just divisions between member states but the fact that EU institutions have worked in silos. Javier Solana moved heaven and earth to create an EU foreign policy with the political legitimacy of being a representative of the 27 member states. However, he had less money to spend than the European commission pays to its cleaners. Meanwhile, the commission doles out aid and offers market access but does not put these at the service of its foreign policy objectives. This has encouraged leaders from Cairo to Kiev to game the system as they knew that they would talk to different people about market access, aid and human rights. Under the provisions of the Lisbon treaty, this is set to change.
One of Ashton's first big jobs will be to try to integrate the different strands of European power - building a new kind of diplomatic service that can deploy the full spectrum of this power behind common objectives. In the future, the government in Egypt or Ukraine will speak to a single person who reports to Ashton about trade, aid and human rights so there may be consequences if they do not stick to their word.
In the cold war era, under the protection of the American security umbrella, Europeans were able to survive without a global strategy of their own. But today the US has other concerns, and no one is going to stick up for Europe other than Europeans themselves. That is why Europe's leaders and citizens need to stop talking down their new high rep, and start focusing on Europe's next "grand project": the development of its global power.
This piece was first published by The Guardian's Comment is Free.
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