European security is in crisis. Like every crisis, this one not only has a prior history, it has also been in the offing for quite some time. 2008 marked a first peak, after the Bush administration offered the NATO Membership Action Plan to Georgia and Ukraine: Russia demonstrated in the war with Georgia who sets the tone in the former Soviet Union. A similar pattern emerged in 2014 in the Ukrainian crisis, this time with the EU in charge and Russia reacting even more forcefully. Since then, the crisis has escalated with almost unrestrained momentum. Its most recent expression is the termination of the INF Treaty, which carries with it the acute danger of a new (medium-range) missile crisis on the continent.
Europe after 1991: Finding a new role
There are countless practical suggestions from the world of Track II activities and relevant think tanks on how to counter the conflict dynamics. But they have had almost no effect. Both sides also take it too easy assigning responsibility exclusively to the opposite side – with a view to Russia, above all, to the autocratic regime as the source of all evil. This not only neglects own failures, it also ignores the profound structural changes in the world system.
These changes affect both the global balance of power and the role and importance of Europe and European security. Unlike in the Cold War, the continent is no longer at the center of a conflict between two superpowers. Here, the bipolar world order once originated, and here its spheres of influence, highly armed, were in direct confrontation. Their mutual recognition – de facto in 1956 and 1968, then codified in the German Eastern Treaties and the 1975 CSCE Final Act – was key for the global management of bipolarism.
This bipolarism no longer exists. It was replaced by multipolar elements of an international order, and by the emergence of two globally important poles: the USA and China. This has implications for the role of Europe: For China, Europe has a fundamentally different significance than for the Soviet Union and for Russia today. The same applies to Europe which sees opportunities rather than risks in its relationship to distant China – unlike the US.
Global order after 1991: Rising powers and the end of liberal hegemony
Security in Europe is therefore no longer a phenomenon that determines the global order, but rather a phenomenon derived from it. This is also reflected in the fact that today there is not only talk of a crisis of European security, but also of a crisis of the liberal world order which is, again, attributed to the „revisionism“ of the emerging autocratic powers – this time including China. The fact that China and Russia are jointly challenging Western power is beyond doubt; but it is a misinterpretation of sorts that they are thus unhinging the world order. This popular Western narrative assumes that the liberal or „rule-based“ order fundamentally differs from „power-based“ orders. Allegedly, it was created by the West after the Second World War and was based on their liberal values and singular ability to cooperate with one another. This may apply to NATO and the EU, but it does certainly not apply to the United Nations as the core of world order. The UN normatively links the sovereign equality of states with their factual inequality, which is reflected in the UN Security Council with the privileged status of its five permanent members, including Russia and China. Moreover, the liberal element of the Cold War world order was limited to the western hemisphere, and only after the Cold War it expanded, but was only temporarily dominant. We are therefore dealing with ideological projections that have lost their plausibility in the wake of global power shifts.
Yet it is controversial how far the power shift has gone and whether the – undisputed – shift will continue. Economically, China is already on a par with the USA. This is not only illustrated by the existential importance of its market for European exporters, but also by economic data: According to the IMF, China’s GDP already exceeds the US’ (in terms of purchasing power parities), with 19% of global GDP compared to 15% for the USA. In military and technological terms, on the other hand, the USA still has a large edge. The US and its allies account for 75% of global military spending, and its alliance system comprises more than 60 countries, while China has only one with North Korea.
The situation is similar in ideational terms. While liberalism has a clear program in which only universal validity is in question, the revisionist formulas of Russia and China remain nebulous and incompatible. Since 2013 the Russian discourse has been relying on „traditional values“ and has thus once again stylized itself as the „Third Rome“ and against Christian and secular decay in the West. China, on the other hand, tries to create its own reference system in official documents with amorphous formulas, such as the „community of humanity’s destiny“ or the „new type of international relations“. After all, while the Russian formulas justify a nationalist retrenchment and demarcation, China is seeking affiliation and striving to establish cooperation platforms.
There are thus two ideational principles facing each other: The West adheres to the idea of liberal homogenization, while the „revisionist“ for the time being insists on recognition of difference. The result has been a crisis of the international order in so far as international institutions no longer provide the framework but only stage for pursuing their conflict – a replica of the Cold War.
A divided West in search of strategy
A wise policy is characterized by sufficient flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. This applies all the more in the current situation because in the past, power shifts not only provoked conflicts, but all too often escalated into war – mostly to defend established power, but sometimes also to challenge power. Thus, a wise policy must take into account these changes in the global balance of power in the interest of global security and peace. This requires a pragmatic approach to diversity in the international system and the renunciation of government missions of democratic homogenization. The struggle for democracy would then be confined to the societies, while security would be the responsibility of states. While such a division of labor would still produce periodic tensions at both levels, it nevertheless creates the systematic prerequisites for rule-based conflict management.
Not much of that can be seen in Western policies today. Rather, reactions evolve around two variants. On the one hand, there is the unilateral crowbar of the Trump administration, in which the democratic-normative references degenerate into a rhetorical façade for little more than the naked American power. In the second approach, the „Alliance for Multilateralism“ propagated by Germany and grouped around the EU, the opposite is true: despite all its ostentatious commitments to what has hitherto constituted the institutional and normative core of the liberal world order, it lacks determination and power.
Thus, the „Alliance for Multilateralism“ is a plausible start, but it defensively perseveres in limited counterbalancing against Trump and the unilateral demands of his administration. This, however, is insufficient. It must also take into account the changed international balance of power and establish contacts with multilateral institutions outside the West, such as the Eurasian Economic Union and reactivate moribund pan-European formats like the OSCE or the NATO-Russia Council, and open up new avenues in concert format.
Towards a modus vivendi
Two currently controversial issues may illustrate the task. The first concerns the approach towards the Eurasian Economic Union. Entering into a structured dialogue with the EAEU is a plausible and long overdue step for the European Union. Its refusal to do so is a typical hypocrisy of Brussels, which favors multilateral formats in other regions of the world and has even created some for negotiating purposes. Under cooperative premises, this is the most plausible approach to relieve the countries „in-between“, i.e., situated in the grey area between the EU and Russia, from their uncomfortable situation.
The second issue is the acute military conflict in and around Ukraine. A transition to the universally acclaimed return of the Donbass to Ukraine is only conceivable in one way: through an internationalization of conflict resolution in the form of a UN protectorate. Official negotiations of an UN-mandated stationing of blue helmets along the demarcation line points into the right direction, but these negotiations are currently blocked, just as the Minsk process. The Ukraine crisis is as much the cause as the symptom of the fact that on the European continent and beyond, not all (great) powers see the „vision of itself“ – as Henry Kissinger once put it – in the international order, indispensable for its stability and legitimacy. Elaborating a common denominator in this regard is a central prerequisite for conflict resolution by ways of establishing a modus vivendi – a key concept of the détente period – that would require the West to refrain from expanding NATO and, in return, Russia to refrain from torpedoing EU associations.