Coalitions of the weaklings

Before the euro crisis, Europe's leaders talked up the EU's global role. Now they are emphasising Europe's weaknesses and turning their backs on important foreign and security issues. In the meantime, crises continue to bubble in places like Sudan and the Middle East. Richard Gowan argues that weakness is not an excuse for inaction, but a reason to work in coalition.

Senior Policy Fellow

Battered by the economic crisis and bogged down in Afghanistan, European governments seem to be turning their back on foreign and security issues. Germany proposes to cut its defence budget by €9 billion. The new British government rejects notions of an “ethical foreign policy”, urging diplomats to embrace a “new commercialism” overseas instead.

Having previously talked up Europe’s global role, EU members now emphasise their weaknesses. Before the downturn, the Union approved non-essential military missions to places like the Congo and Chad, in part just to show that it could. It’s hard to imagine the EU Council signing off on similar operations in the next few years – or maybe ever.

But if Europeans suddenly feel weak, they’re not alone. U.S. policy journals are full of articles about national decline. A chunk of the American publication industry is devoted to churning out books with titles like “How Empires End”.  Defense Secretary Robert Gates has questioned the sustainability – and necessity – of current military spending.

Russia, having trumpeted its new strength after the 2008 Georgian war, looks diminished. Shaken by fluctuations in energy prices, President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin are making nice to the West. Moscow’s response to the Kyrgyz crisis seemed positively European, involving a lot of multilateral consultations but no forceful intervention.

What of the rising powers? China and India are trying to increase their military reach across Asia. But as China expert Andrew Small points out in the current Washington Quarterly, Beijing fears that getting too deeply involved in stabilising Afghanistan would exacerbate tensions among its own Muslim minorities “or simply make China a frontline target for Islamic militants.”  And as the Financial Times noted in an analysis last week, India is struggling to assert itself even among neighbors like Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Taking a long view, it’s clear that China and India are in a very different position to the EU’s members.  All the rising powers are increasing defence spending rapidly, while European military cost-cutting will likely continue well beyond the immediate downturn.

But for now, we are in a moment when everyone looks weak. If the U.S. and its NATO allies are wary of projecting power, the big emerging economies still have limited reach.

In some ways, this is rather nice. Great power confrontations are not impossible, but are still relatively improbable. Yet this era of weakness also bring risks. The most obvious are in the Middle East.  With the U.S. gradually pulling back from the region, a breakdown in Iraq or spillover of violence from Afghanistan could create endemic instability. Israel, uncertain of American support, has become increasingly hawkish.

State failures and civil wars will continue to bubble from Sudan to Central Asia. If the Afghan experience has convinced many Europeans that interventionism is foolish, ignoring these crises is dangerous. Remember why we went into Afghanistan in 2001.

Containing new crises will be difficult. Instead of Bush-era “coalitions of the willing”, it may be necessary to form “coalitions of the weaklings”: groups of states that can’t handle international problems alone, but have sufficient leverage between them to do something.

In June, Germany and Russia proposed a new EU-Russia Security Committee – and said it should find ways to resolve the frozen conflict in Moldova. Less than two years after the EU and Moscow fell out over Kosovo and Georgia, this shows how both sides’ awareness of their weaknesses may boost security cooperation. Similarly, Russia’s sense of vulnerability has arguably helped ease diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program.

Structuring coalitions to deal with complex issues like Afghanistan is horribly hard. Yet the EU’s leaders need to recognise that weakness isn’t an excuse for inaction – it should be a stimulus for more activist diplomacy to resolve actual and potential crises now.  As powers like China and India grow stronger, there will be fewer opportunities to parlay.

This piece was first published by Global Europe.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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Senior Policy Fellow