Nice location, shame about the neighbours

Europe?s biggest challenge in coming decades is how it will get along with the Islamic world

In ‘The
Clash of Civilisations’ Samuel Huntington described how in the aftermath of the
Cold War civilisational identity was remaking the global order. It was widely
praised, and widely criticised too – for such inconvenient truths as the
fissure he traced between the Orthodox and Western worlds (in places where the
European Union would prefer to detect cohesion), and in particular his
assertion that ‘Islam has bloody borders’.

A dozen years on, we prefer to talk about a newly-globalised world, with power
defined not by cultural or religious affinity but by connectedness. As
Anne-Marie Slaughter (now Director of Policy Planning in the State Department)
argued in an article in Foreign Affairs at the beginning of this year,
“In a networked world, the United
States has the potential to be the most
connected country”. She termed this ‘America’s edge’.

At the same time, international affairs analysts compete to broaden the
traditional understanding of ‘security’ to embrace almost every conceivable
kind of human ill – from climate change to pandemics to energy and food
shortages. Yet all humankind shares an interest in solving such problems as
climate change – and even though the distribution of costs and effort will be
fiercely disputed, such challenges demand international cooperation.

Much more intractable are the traditional security threats, those characterised
by a malign human intent and by the desire of one group of people to dominate,
coerce or damage another. Because, even in today’s global village, it is other
people who continue to pose the greatest risks, geography still matters, and
security continues to depend on who your neighbours are and how you rub along
with them. Thus it is that among Europeans, anxiety about the potential threat Russia could still represent declines with the
distance from Russia’s
borders to the Atlantic. Anne-Marie Slaughter
herself notes the benefit the Americas
enjoy from ‘the protection of two wide oceans’.

Geography has dealt Europe a mixed hand. As
globalisation redistributes power to the East and South, Europeans can
congratulate themselves on being a relatively safe distance away from whatever
ructions may accompany the rise of powers like India, Brazil and, especially,
China. Happily, the prospect of major conflict in the straits of Taiwan seems
less and less likely. But if ever this hope is belied, Europeans can – and will
– keep their heads down.

Europe is, on the other hand, bordered to its
south and east by two great regions – civilisations, indeed – which give cause
for 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 – exacerbating
the problem across the wider Middle East of
how to find employment for ballooning populations of young adults. Russia, too,
faces real demographic difficulties, though in the other direction as the
Russian population is projected to shrink by as much as 10% over the next 15 or
20 years.

So not only will Europe’s neighbours be under
stress, but also there is a lot of history between us. In the case of Russia, this
has been defined most recently and most powerfully by 40 years of Cold War.
With the Muslim world, the record of religious conflict and of reciprocal
invasion and occupation stretches back 1,300 years to the arrival of the first
Islamic army in southern Spain.

Of these two relationships, the one with Russia – despite the understandable
concerns of Finns, Poles and others who share a border with this difficult neighbour
– should be easier 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
earth tremor which signalled that the eastward movement of the western plate
had now encountered substantial resistance.

But the shifts that have already taken place have left Russia infinitely diminished in comparison with
the old Soviet Union in terms both of sphere
of influence (we would not so insistently denounce such a concept if it did not
reflect an underlying reality) and of military might. As a conventional
military power Russia
remains, in the words of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “a shadow of
its Soviet predecessor”. Putin’s Russia is nationalistic, awkward
and disposed to dangerous trouble-making. But it also faces acute social and
public health problems and has 1.3bn Chinese on its eastern border. It shares,
moreover, some important common interests with Europe,
including the buying and selling of gas and oil and a shared preoccupation with
Islamic extremism.

Handled with the right mix of forbearance and firmness, relations with Russia should
remain difficult but manageable. The developments of the last year – with NATO
backing off, and the European Union stepping in with its Eastern Partnership
initiative to shift the inevitable continuing competition in the post-Soviet
space onto a less antagonistic footing, complemented by President Barack Obama’s
demonstration of his willingness to put balm on Russia’s damaged amour
– all justify the hope that major confrontation can be avoided.

Europe’s relations with the Islamic world will
be a lot trickier, however, for a number of reasons. First, although Russia’s
resentments may be fresher, those of the Muslim world run much deeper, and are
born of more profound interactions across history as well as in the present
day. Nine crusades were book-ended by the penetration of Muslim armies as far
as Tours, and twice to the gates of Vienna. And centuries of
Western colonisation, culminating with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, generated both
antagonisms and a degree of interconnectedness evidenced by today’s large
Muslim populations in so many European countries.

Second, whether one thinks of Al Qaeda’s terrorism or the continuing presence
of Western armies in Iraq
and Afghanistan, Europe and the Islamic world have demonstrated a
continuing willingness to deal violently with each other. And third, even if we
Europeans are a pretty disparate bunch, the Islamic world is infinitely more
so. Islam is its identifying glue – but how much else do Indonesia and the Yemen, for example, have in common?
The Islamic world is riven by disputes between Arab and non-Arab, Sunni and
Shi’a, between Salafi extremists and their moderate co-religionists. Al Qaeda’s
agenda is as much about the creation of a new Islamic caliphate as it is about
waging jihad against the West.

Fourth, there are fundamental differences as civilisations between Europeans
and Muslims. 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 civilised when pornography and drunkenness are so
openly on display. To the extent that Europeans are Christian at all, we see
religion as fundamentally 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.

Fifth, even if Muslims have difficulty in developing a shared identity which
goes beyond their religion, they are united in their understanding that the
‘colonialist, imperialist, Zionist conspiracy’ is still at the root of most of
their misfortunes.

is, of course, the single issue on which the Islamic sense of resentment most
readily focuses. It exemplifies Western hypocrisy – whether over nuclear
non-proliferation, or the West’s refusal to deal with the elected Hamas, or its
readiness to criticise Russia
for ‘disproportionate’ use of force in Georgia
while staying quiet over 1,300 deaths in Gaza.
Whether it is the late Saddam Hussain posing in front of images of the Dome of
the Rock, or Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s rantings, the plight of the
Palestinians provides cheap cover for other malign agendas and is a recruiting
sergeant for extremism. It is a political talisman of irresistible power.

As with so much else about today’s world, President Obama seems to have grasped
all this almost intuitively. Unlike his two predecessors he has had the courage
to target the Israel/Palestinian problem, the intractable seat of the
infection, from the beginning of his Presidency. And he has gone to Cairo to address the Arab
world with humility and respect, without shirking the issues of human rights
and individual freedoms which represent real problems between us.

The risk in this otherwise very welcome U.S. activism is that it will provide
the excuse for Europeans to do what they do best – to sit back and to cheer
whilst someone else does the heavy lifting, salving their sense of
self-importance with a ride-along role in the lethargic Quartet and Road Map
processes, meanwhile easing their consciences by pouring half a billion euros a
year into the Palestinian territories.

But passivity at this juncture would be a mistake of historic proportions. Like
any U.S.
president, Obama operates under severe domestic constraints. By June of this
year, he had received AIPAC-inspired letters from more than three-quarters of
all senators and congressmen demanding that the U.S.
should show itself a ‘devoted friend’ to Israel.

Nor are American interests identical to those of Europeans. Protected behind
its oceans and applying its vast technological capacity to the goal of energy
self-sufficiency, the U.S.
is ultimately able to distance itself from the travails of the Middle East –
and once out of both Iraq
and Afghanistan
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 has nevertheless had its moments. The
EU’s 1980 Venice
declaration first put the two-state solution on the table. And it is not
without its levers. It has currently put on hold a deepened economic
relationship with Israel: if
the Israeli government continues to refuse to stop its colonisation of the West
Bank Europeans should reflect that, as Israel’s most important export
market, they have tougher options to 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. European military forces
will also be required to play a crucial role in policing and guaranteeing a
two-state settlement – and it was a welcome sign that France’s President
Nicolas Sarkozy and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown discussed just this at their
July summit at Evian. In short, it is time for Europe
to wake up to where its real security interests lie, and to take responsibility
for asserting them.

This piece first appeared in the Autumn 2009 edition of Europe’s World.  

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


Senior Policy Fellow

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