Visions and illusions of a new European security order

Europe is now shifting away from the ‘democratic enlargement’ paradigm that marked the first decades of the post-Cold War world. The EU needs to search for an alternative vision, engaging Turkey as a regional power and understanding the changes in Russia’s perspective as it seeks to modernise.

Following the publication of ECFR’s report into European security – ‘The spectre of a multi-polar Europe’ – we will be publishing a series of articles and op-eds that discuss some of its main themes. This article, by Gülnur Aybet, was first published in Hurriyet Daily News.

I remember ‘being there’ at one of the moments of transition from Cold War to post Cold War era, when the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, where I worked, decided to invite the former Warsaw Pact states to its annual session.

It was a last minute decision, an overture to the opening and subsequent EU and NATO enlargements to the east of Europe. When the parliamentary delegates arrived from beyond what was still quite recently the iron curtain, the “West,” was caught quite unprepared for their absorption into its institutions. An East European delegate politely and timidly came over to where I stood: “Excuse me,” he said, “but I have no nameplate for my country.” We all had to be creative and quick in those days and my contribution to the end of the Cold War was to swiftly move into the stationary storage room, find an old cardboard box, a marker and pair of scissors, and write the name of the certain Eastern European country on a piece of cardboard and hand it to the gentleman in question. He was so happy with his makeshift country nameplate, feeling a real part of what was becoming “Europe whole and free.” Since then, the said country has joined both NATO and the EU as a full member.

Much of the early post-Cold War era was dominated by this “democratic enlargement” paradigm. The absorption of a post-communist space into Euro-Atlantic institutions to create a new European security order, one with strong transatlantic bonds based on shared values was a phenomenal project of member-state building and institutional restructuring. What emerged at first as blueprints in various NATO, EU, and OSCE documents did not remain on paper for long, as both NATO and the EU concluded their biggest enlargement spree since their inception. Unlike buildings and monuments, the architecture of regional political orders are not static and require constant readjustment, dismantling and restructuring. It has been a while since Europe has shifted away from the “democratic enlargement” paradigm, as a recent report entitled: “The Spectre of a Multi-polar Europe” produced by the European Council on Foreign Relations rightly suggests.

The report written by Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev with contributions from Dimitar Bechev, Jana Kobzova and Andrew Wilson presents an ambitious panoramic view of the transition that is taking place from one European security architecture to another. The report provides a spot on diagnosis of the problem: An emerging vacuum caused by Europe wavering between the now out dated “democratic enlargement” paradigm and “interest-based realism” where the EU and Russia maintain distinct spheres of influence – the EU in Central, Eastern Europe and Western Balkans and Russia in its “near abroad.” While the report is right that the latter does not constitute the basis of any viable order, and that one of the reasons for this emerging vacuum is the U.S.’s relative disengagement from Europe, the cures it proposes for this diagnosis are somewhat far reaching.

Leonard and his co-authors propose a European security tri-alogue between the EU, Russia and Turkey, building on the Merkel-Medvedev idea of an EU-Russia security dialogue, but including Turkey. The tri-alogue would then create an action plan for stabilizing and reducing tensions on Europe’s periphery. This would involve solving existing frozen conflicts in the region, including the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It seems that the magic key to resolving these frozen conflicts would be to offer the prospect of a security treaty, such as the one proposed by President Medvedev. The resolution of these frozen conflicts would be a pre-condition to such a treaty. Finally the signing of such a security treaty between the EU and Russia would ensure the institutionalization of the EU as a key security actor in Europe.

The report presents an important insight into the changing positions of Russia and Turkey within this evolving European security architecture. While Turkey’s rise as a regional power is not breaking news of an hitherto obscurity – in fact I argued four years ago that the EU should engage Turkey on wider security issues outside the box of this “acceptance/rejection” impasse of accession talks – the changing Russian perspective is one of the most useful insights the report has to offer to policymakers.

What the report calls Russia’s new ‘Westpolitik’ involves building alliances to modernize Russia’s economy, including strategic cooperation with the EU and the U.S., to see Russia fully integrated into the global economy while protecting itself from the influence of external actors. This tactical shift in Russian foreign policy, argue the council, should be a new window of opportunity for the EU to engage Russia realistically. This urges to take a fresh look at Russia beyond the cautionary approach to its resurgence as a signal to return to the Imperial/Soviet era. Russia’s engagement with Turkey as a major energy hub is seen as part of this new Russian strategy.

While it is necessary to take a fresh look both at Russia and Turkey where European security is concerned, the proposals for a European security treaty should be approached with caution. It is not clear if making the resolution of the region’s frozen conflicts a pre-condition to a treaty will have much success in resolving them. This would assume that the sole key in solving these conflicts lies with Russia, and that is simply not true. There is also a discrepancy between the NATO Group of Experts report, which laid the basis of the new NATO Strategic Concept to be announced in November, and the council’s proposals when it comes to engaging with the Medvedev proposals. The Group of Experts saw the Medvedev proposals for an alternative European security order contrary to NATO’s interests. It is likely that the continuing dismissal of the Medvedev proposals will endure in the Strategic Concept.

Furthermore, there is a plethora of discussion on proposed new structures for a workable European security order that not only gives the EU a more profound role in European security but also manages this transition from the democratic enlargement paradigm to taking into account the changing shifts of power in the region. The OSCE’s Corfu process, that is set to identify strategic areas for a new pan-European security architecture, alongside NATO’s new Strategic Concept, both to be announced by the end of this year, are all parallel processes in search of a viable European security architecture beyond the post-Cold War era. However, as the council’s report rightly points out, there are cracks in the coherence of what was once a unified EU-NATO-led Euro-Atlantic order. What comes to mind is the NATO Group of Experts hinting that Iran could be designated as an Article 5 threat. One could see Turkish resistance to naming names in this context. Similarly, Turkey’s reluctance to agree to NATO’s proposed missile defense because it would seem to point the finger or the warhead at Syria or Iran, identify tensions in threat perceptions within the alliance. It would seem that both NATO and the EU should get their own house in order while realistically engaging with Russia, before launching into a grandiose plan for an all-encompassing European security treaty.

While the report criticizes the EU’s cautious approach as “defending an illusion of order” for holding onto the status quo centered on the EU and NATO, a search for an alternative vision could be a healthy process, as long as there are not too many parallel quests. For this can lead to multiple illusions of what a multi-polar Europe ought to look like. Sometimes it is better to go with the flow than jump ahead with a blueprint of deliberate design. That worked in the 1990s because there was a vacuum to build upon with little hindrance. What we have now is uncertain shifts in three spheres of influence, which is not the same. At best it can be managed, but not ordered.

This article first appeared in Hürriyet Daily News.

Gülnur Aybet is a senior lecturer at the University of Kent, England and a professor at the Izmir University of Economics


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


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