Geography has dealt Europe a mixed hand. Europeans can congratulate
themselves on being a relatively safe distance away from whatever tensions may accompany
the rise of powers like India, Brazil, and, especially, China. But Europe is bordered to its south and east by two great
regions that give cause for significant concern.
Neither Russia nor the
Islamic world is, thus far, adapting well to globalisation. The economies of
both remain over-dependent on oil and gas exports. In the Middle
East, this exacerbates the problem of creating jobs for ballooning
populations of young adults. Russia,
too, faces real demographic difficulties, though in the other direction as Russia’s population
is projected to shrink by as much as 10% over the next 15 or 20 years.
understandable concerns of Finns, Poles, and others in Central and Eastern
Europe, the relationship with Russia
should be the easier of the two to manage. The West’s relations with Russia since
the end of the Cold War have resembled the meeting of two tectonic plates, with
one progressively forced beneath the other. The Georgia conflict of 2008 was the
tremor that signaled substantial resistance to the western plate’s eastward
But the shifts that
have taken place left Russia
much diminished in terms of its sphere of influence and military might. To be
sure, Vladimir Putin’s Russia
is nationalistic, awkward, and disposed to dangerous trouble-making. But it also
faces acute social and public-health problems and has 1.3 billion Chinese on
its eastern border, and it has important common interests with Europe, including trade in gas and oil and a shared
preoccupation with Islamic extremism.
Handled with forbearance
and firmness, relations with Russia
should remain difficult but manageable. With NATO backing off, the European
Union stepping in with its Eastern Partnership initiative to shift continuing
competition in the post-Soviet space onto a less antagonistic footing, and President
Barack Obama demonstrating his willingness to assuage Russia’s
damaged pride, major confrontation should be avoidable.
Europe’s relations with the Islamic world are a lot
trickier. First, although Russia’s
resentments may be fresher, those of the Muslim world run deeper, and are born
of more profound interactions, past and present.
Second, whether one
thinks of al Qaeda’s terrorism or the presence of Western armies in Iraq and Afghanistan,
Europe and the Islamic world have demonstrated
a continuing willingness to deal violently with each other.
Third, even if
Europeans are a disparate group, the Islamic world is infinitely more so. Islam
is its identifying glue – but how much else do Indonesia
for example, have in common? The Islamic world is riven by disputes between
Arab and non-Arab, Sunni and Shia, and Salafi extremists and theological moderates.
Al Qaeda’s agenda is as much about the creation of a new Islamic caliphate as
it is about waging jihad against the
Fourth, Europeans find
it hard to stomach traditional Islamic attitudes towards, say, women or
homosexuals. Muslims find it hard to understand how we can believe our society
is civilized when pornography and drunkenness are openly displayed. To the
extent that Europeans are Christian at all, we see religion as a matter of an
individual’s relationship with his or her God; Muslims see it as an organising
social principle. Ours is a guilt culture; theirs a shame culture.
Israel is, of course, the single issue on which the
Islamic sense of resentment focuses. It exemplifies Western hypocrisy – whether
over nuclear non-proliferation, the refusal to deal with the elected Hamas, or
readiness to criticise Russia
for “disproportionate” use of force in Georgia
while remaining quiet over 1,300 deaths in Gaza.
Unlike his two
predecessors, Obama has had the courage to target the Israel-Palestine problem,
the intractable seat of the infection, from the beginning of his presidency.
And he went to Cairo
to address the Arab world with humility and respect, without shirking issues of
human rights and individual freedom.
The risk in this American
activism is that it will provide the excuse for Europeans to sit back and cheer
while someone else does the heavy lifting. But passivity would be a historic mistake.
America’s Middle East
interests are not identical with those of Europe.
Protected behind its
oceans, and applying its vast technological capacity to the goal of energy
self-sufficiency, the United States
is ultimately able to distance itself from the travails of the Middle East. Once out of Iraq
and Afghanistan, the US may find
itself increasingly tempted to do just that. For Europe,
such distancing is impossible. European security is inextricably bound up with
the need to find and maintain a modus
vivendi with the Muslim world.
Europe is not without leverage. It has currently put
on hold a deepened economic relationship with Israel:
if Israel’s government
continues to refuse to stop its colonisation of the West Bank, Europeans should
make clear that, as Israel’s
most important export market, they have tougher options at hand. And, given the
determination of both the Israeli and Iranian governments to use each other’s
intransigence as an excuse for their own, Europe must also be prepared to use
its economic muscle on Iran
if and when the mullahs reject Obama’s extended hand.
forces will also be required to play a crucial role in policing and guaranteeing
a two-state settlement. This makes it all the more important for Europe to wake up to where its real security interests
lie, and to take responsibility for asserting them.
This piece was first published by Project
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.