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A worrying new world order


Europe frets about its place in a different world order


Jahangir World Times magazine pdf

NEVER has the European Union enjoyed such diplomatic prominence as this week, when Nicolas Sarkozy of France led an EU delegation to Moscow to secure yet another promise of Russian troop withdrawals from Georgia. Seen from Brussels, the Georgian crisis has exposed a tectonic shift in the global balance of power. It is not just that Russia is back. The crisis has also confirmed Europe's sense of an America in relative decline.



The EU has been slow to act in the Caucasus, and too wary of upsetting Russia, concedes one deeply Atlanticist minister. But the sad reality is that, in Georgia, “the Americans have been struggling to know what to do.” It is a revealing comment. A previous generation of EU leaders, such as Jacques Chirac or Gerhard Schröder, dreamt of a multipolar world, in which several powers would wield clout. Now something like it may have arrived. Yet today's European leaders are not crowing. Talk to ministers and officials in private, and they admit that the new world order is making them anxious.

Their anxiety is justified. The EU mission to Russia relied on bluff, and the deal reached on September 8th glossed over some serious problems. It was silent on the withdrawal of extra Russian troops from South Ossetia and Abkhazia (because the loss of these enclaves seems a fait accompli). Big questions about ceasefire monitors and the return of refugees remain murky. Nor did the Russians show great respect for the Europeans. At one point, they hinted that their troops might not withdraw to pre-conflict positions after all (at which point Mr Sarkozy threatened to fly home). Russian officials fought against displaying the EU flag at the press conference, wanting only French and Russian flags on the podium. Their disdainful message was clear: Russian leaders cut deals with powerful countries, not insignificant clubs.

Yet that is to miss a key point. Mr Sarkozy's weight as a negotiator stemmed from a mandate, agreed by 27 EU heads of government, to demand that Russia pull back its troops. Admittedly, that mandate was backed by a fairly feeble threat (to delay talks on a much-delayed pact that Russia only vaguely wants). Still, a deal was done because Mr Sarkozy holds the rotating EU presidency, not because he is president of France.

Three days before Mr Sarkozy flew to Russia, EU foreign ministers met in the south of France. As thunderclouds loomed operatically over the old papal palace in Avignon, the assembled bigwigs struggled to define the new order. Some talked of an “apolar world”, a phrase coined by Niall Ferguson, a British historian, before dismissing this as too bleak, for now. America remains an undisputed superpower, was the consensus: it is just that no single country can now control the world. Alexander Stubb, the Finnish foreign minister, talked of a new “era of overlapping systems”, in which assertive nation-states challenge the idea of an open global system, governed by international rules, common values and multilateral organisations. French officials pointed to a speech by Mr Sarkozy that described an “era of relative powers”. The multipolar world is here, and it is a dangerous and difficult place, said one French diplomat. Europeans had imagined the new world would be a “post-modern” paradise of dialogue and compromise, but that was “a bit naive”.


The neo-polar world

For what it is worth, Charlemagne proposes a different label: this is a neo-polar world, in which old alliances and rivalries are bumping up against each other in new ways. The neo-polar order is easier to define by what it is not. The old multipolar world, as dreamt of by Mr Chirac and his friends, supposed that a European pole would form in opposition to American “hegemony”. But that is not happening.

For one thing, even the crisis in Georgia has not been enough to shock the EU into a common position on Russia. To some, one highlight of Avignon was a successful push by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's foreign minister, to demand an inquiry into the causes and conduct of the war. That sounds harmless, until you grasp Mr Steinmeier's motives: he leads a camp that reckons Russia is unreasonably being held responsible for a war that was started (and lost) by the hot-headed, American-backed Georgians. This camp also thinks that EU statements condemning Russia have been hijacked by “hawks” such as Britain, Sweden and newer EU members from the ex-communist block.

The lack of mutual understanding is striking. For in fact the so-called “hawks” are equally scathing about Georgia's government. They just fear that Mr Steinmeier wants to bury the fact of Russian aggression in a morass of moral equivalence. The new members also deny they are hawkish on Russia. They use a different word to describe their position: fear. “What do the Russians need to do to scare western Europe?” wonders one minister from eastern Europe. “They have already scared us.”

Assuming the neo-polar world remains a scary place, what then? Will that push Europeans towards a Euro-Atlantic pole? Some ministers think it might. French officials stress that their foreign policy has changed under Mr Sarkozy. In the brutal new world of power politics, they note, France has re-embraced “the camp of the West”, including a stronger alliance with America.

Mr Sarkozy has drawn another lesson from the Georgian crisis, it is added: that the EU needs its own defence capability if it wants to be taken seriously. A French plan for a push on European defence can be expected in October, larded with promises not to undermine NATO. But he is likely to be disappointed: no consensus exists for a really ambitious defence project in Europe.

As events in Moscow showed this week, there is a place for Europe in the new world order. But Europeans do not agree over what it should be. America will elect a new president in November, and the poles of global power will move again. The world may not wait much longer for Europe to decide where it stands.

9 June 2018

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