More than a year into Russia’s Special Operation, the initial burst of European excitement at western push-back on Russia has dissipated. The mood instead has turned to “existential dread, a nagging suspicion that [western] civilisation may destroy itself,” Professor Helen Thompson writes.
For an instant, a euphoria had coalesced around the putative projection of the EU as a world power; as a key actor, about to compete on a world scale. Initially, events seemed to play to Europe’s conviction of its market powers: Europe was going to bring down a major power – Russia – by financial coup d’état alone. The EU felt ‘six feet tall.’
It seemed at the time a galvanising moment: “The war re-forged a long-dormant Manichaean framing of existential conflict between Russia and the West, assuming ontological, apocalyptic dimensions. In the spiritual fires of the war, the myth of the ‘West’ was rebaptised,” Arta Moeini suggests.
After the initial disappointment at the lack of a ‘quick kill’, the hope persisted – that if only the sanctions were given more time, and made more all-embracing, then Russia surely would ultimately collapse. That hope has turned to dust. And the reality of what Europe has done to itself has begun to dawn – hence Professor Thomson’s dire warning:
Those who assume that the political world can be reconstructed by the efforts of human Will, have never before had to bet so heavily on technology over [fossil] energy – as the driver of our material advancement.
For the Euro-Atlanticists however, what Ukraine seemed to offer – finally – was validation for their yearning to centralise power in the EU, sufficiently, to merit a place at the ‘top table’ with the US, as partners in playing the Great Game.
Ukraine, for better or worse, underlined Europe’s profound military dependence on Washington – and on NATO.
More particularly, the Ukraine conflict seemed to open the prospect for consolidating the strange metamorphosis of NATO from military alliance to an enlightened, Progressive, peace alliance! As Timothy Garton Ash effused in the Guardian in 2002, “NATO has become a European peace movement” where one could watch “John Lennon meet George Bush.”
The Ukraine war is portrayed, in this vein, as the “war that even former pacifists can get behind. All its proponents seemed to be singing is “Give War a Chance.”
Lily Lynch, a Belgrade-based writer, argues that…
…especially in the past 12 months, telegenic female leaders such as the Finnish Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, and Estonian Prime Minister, Kaja Kallas, have increasingly served as the spokespersons of enlightened militarism in Europe … ”
No political party in Europe better exemplifies the shift from militant pacifism to ardent pro-war Atlanticism than the German Greens. Most of the original Greens had been radicals during the student protests of 1968 … But as the founding members entered middle age, fissures began to appear in the party – that would one day tear it apart.
Kosovo then changed everything: The 78-day NATO bombing of what remained of Yugoslavia in 1999, ostensibly to halt war crimes committed by Serbian security forces in Kosovo, would forever transform the German Greens. NATO for the Greens became an active military compact concerned with spreading and defending values such as human rights, democracy, peace, and freedom – well beyond the borders of its member states.
A few years later, in 2002, an EU functionary (Robert Cooper) could envisage Europe as a new ‘liberal imperialism.’ The ‘new’ was that Europe eschewed hard military power, in favour of weaponising both a controlled ‘narrative’ and controlled participation in its market. He advocated for ‘a new age of empire’, in which Western powers no longer would have to follow international law in their dealings with ‘old fashioned’ states; they could use military force independently of the United Nations; and could impose protectorates to replace regimes which ‘misgovern.’
The German Greens’ Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, has continued with this metamorphosis, scolding countries with traditions of military neutrality, and imploring them to join NATO. She has invoked Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s line: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” And the European Left has been utterly captivated. Major parties have abandoned military neutrality and opposition to war – and now champion NATO. It is a stunning reversal.
All this may have been music to the ears of the Euro-élites anxious for the EU to rise to Great Power status, but this soft-power European Leviathan was wholly underpinned by the unstated (but essential) assumption that NATO ‘had Europe’s back.’ This naturally implied that the EU had to tie itself ever closer to NATO – and therefore to the US which controls NATO.
But the flip-side to this Atlanticist aspiration – as President Emmanuel Macron noted – is its inexorable logic that Europeans simply end by becoming American vassals. Macron was trying rather, to rally Europe towards the coming ‘age of empires’,hoping to position Europe as a ‘third pole’ in a concert of empires.
The Atlanticists were duly enraged by Macron’s remarks (which nonetheless drew support of other EU states). It could even seem (to furious Atlanticists) that Macron actually was channelling General de Gaulle who had called NATO a “false pretence” designed to “disguise America’s chokehold over Europe.”
There are however, two related schisms that flowed out from this ‘re-imagined’ NATO: Firstly, it exposed the reality of internal European rivalries and divergent interests, precisely because the NATO lead in the Ukraine conflict sets the interests of the Central East European hawks wanting ‘more America, and more war on Russia’ up and against that of the original EU western axis which wants wanting strategic autonomy (i.e. less ‘America’, and a quick end to the conflict).
Secondly, it would be predominantly the western economies that would have to bankroll the costs and divert their manufacturing capacity towards military logistic chains. The economic price, non-military de-industrialisation and high inflation, potentially, could be enough to break Europe – economically.
The prospect of a pan-European cohesive identity might be both ontologically appealing – and be seen to be an ‘appropriate accessory’ to an aspiring ‘world actor’ – yet such identity becomes caricature when mosaic Europe is transformed into an abstract de-territorialised identity that reduces people to their most abstract.
Paradoxically, the Ukraine war – far from consolidating the EU ‘identity’, as first imagined – has fractured it under the stresses of the concerted effort to weaken and collapse Russia.
Secondly, as Arta Moeini, the director of the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, has observed:
The American push for NATO expansion since 1991 has enlarged the alliance by adding a host of faultline states from Central and Eastern Europe. The strategy, which began with the Clinton administration but was fully championed by the George W. Bush administration, was to create a decidedly pro-American pillar on the continent, centred on Warsaw – which would force an eastward shift in the alliance’s centre of gravity away from the traditional Franco-German axis.
By using NATO enlargement to weaken the old power centres in Europe that might have occasionally stood up to [Washington] such as in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Washington ensured a more compliant Europe in the short-term. The upshot, however, was the formation of a 31-member behemoth with deep asymmetries of power and low compatibility of interests” – that is much weaker and more vulnerable – than it believes itself to be.
Here is the key: “the EU is much weaker than it believes it to be.” The outset of the conflict was defined by a cast of mind entranced by the notion of Europe as a ‘mover and shaker’ in world affairs, and mesmerised by Europe’s post-war prosperity.
EU leaders convinced themselves that this prosperity had bequeathed it the clout and the economic depth to contemplate war – and to weather its reversals – with panglossian sanguinity. It has produced rather, the converse: It has put its project in jeopardy.
In John Raply and Peter Heather’s The Imperial Life Cycle, the authors explain the cycle:
Empires grow rich and powerful and attain supremacy through the economic exploitation of their colonial periphery. But in the process, they inadvertently spur the economic development of that same periphery, until it can roll back and ultimately displace its overlord.
Europe’s prosperity in this post-war era, thus was not so much one of its own making, but drew benefit from the tail-end of accumulations hewn from an earlier cycle – now reversed.
“The fastest-growing economies in the world are now all in the old periphery; the worst-performing economies are disproportionately in the West. These are the economic trends that have created our present landscape of superpower conflict — most saliently between America and China.”
America may think of itself as exempt from the European colonial mould, yet fundamentally, its model is…
…an updated cultural-political glue that we might call “neoliberalism, NATO and denim,” which follows in the timeless imperial mould: The great wave of decolonisation that followed WW2 was meant to end that. But the Bretton Woods system, which created a trading regime that favoured industrial over primary producers and enshrined the dollar as the global reserve currency – ensured that the net flow of financial resources continued to move from developing countries to developed ones. Even when the economies of the newly-independent states grew, those of the G7 economies and their partners grew more.
A once-mighty empire is now challenged and feels embattled. Taken aback by the refusal of so many developing countries to join with isolating Russia, the West is now waking up to the reality of the emerging, polycentric and fluid global order. These trends are set to continue. The danger is that economically weakened and in crisis, western countries attempt to re-appropriate western triumphalism, yet lack the economic strength and depth, so to do:
In the Roman Empire, peripheral states developed the political and military capacity to end Roman domination by force… The Roman Empire might have survived – had it not weakened itself with wars of choice – on its ascendant Persian rival.
The final ‘transgressive’ thought goes to Tom Luongo: “Allowing the West to keep thinking they can win – is the ultimate form of grinding out a superior opponent.”
Reprinted with permission from Strategic Culture Foundation.