Ukraine crisis puts it up to Europe
World View: Declining European military spending is a longer-standing US complaint
‘Observers noted a sharper edge to US diplomacy over Ukraine. It reflects an impatience with European caution about sanctions on Russia and a realisation that the US has less to lose.’ Photograph: Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA
Ukraine is a geopolitical shock to Europeans still absorbed in escaping from the euro crisis and recessionary politics. It reminds their leaders that military power and force still have a role in high politics, however much they condemn Putin’s reversion to 19th-century methods. It also reasserts the EU-US relationship and the Nato alliance, both marginalised in recent years by diverging interests. How far that reassertion goes remains to be seen. For all that Obama this week applauded US ties with Europe, his pivot to Asia is driven by a growing American engagement there. Observers noted a sharper edge to US diplomacy over Ukraine. It reflects an impatience with European caution about sanctions on Russia and a realisation that the US has less to lose. The impatience extends to disunited EU foreign policy making and declining European defence spending. As Obama said in Brussels, “freedom is not free”. It was his first visit to the city, a telling commentary on the transatlantic relationship under his presidency.
Declining European military spending is a longer-standing US complaint, clearly expressed when Robert Gates left office as secretary of Defence in 2011. Whether the problem can be solved by simply increasing it questions the balance between soft and hard power in the US and EU.
US as Mars
Robert Kagan famously contrasted the US as Mars with the EU as Venus 10 years ago at start of the Iraq invasion; the US representing modernity and the EU post-modernity. Visions of a normative EU foreign policy coincided then with the drafting of Javier Solana’s strategic doctrine for Europe, an impressive document that failed to materialise.
Paradoxically opinion polling shows most EU citizens support more common foreign policy and defence co-operation, whereas the political elites are much more cautious in their commitments – and diverse in their exposure to Russian sanctions or threats.
Russia’s takeover of Crimea has exposed varying opinion in Germany, France, Poland and the UK among the larger powers, with Germany much the most willing to allow a role for Russia’s strategic and geopolitical interests in its own near abroad.
Anti-Russian opinion has hardened in the Baltic states and in neutral Finland and Sweden, while the Mediterranean states, France excepted, are less militant.
The uncertainty and unpredictability of response naturally invokes historical parallels 100 years on from 1914.
Christopher Clarke, whose book The Sleepwalkers on the outbreak of the first World War is an international best-seller, writing in Der Spiegel on those parallels, concludes that “the alignments implicated in the Ukrainian emergency bear little relation to the geopolitical constellations of 1914.
At that time, two central powers faced a trio of world empires on Europe’s eastern and western peripheries. Today, a broad coalition of western and central European states is united in protesting Russia’s interventions in Ukraine.” He is impressed with German, EU, US and (in practice if not rhetoric) Russian self-critical and flexible responses – so far – “that would have been completely alien to [their] early 20th-century counterparts”.
At this stage it seems more likely that the Ukraine crisis will reinforce transatlantic ties and boost Nato than spur the development of an independent European foreign and defence regime. So argues Zaki Laïdi, from the Sciences Po in Paris, a specialist on European foreign policy and a sceptic about its potential.
He believes the desire to reduce energy dependency on Russia will reinforce the appeal of US shale gas exports; that demands for security guarantees in northern and central Europe will revive Nato; and that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership “initially launched to contain China, may also turn into a symbol of Atlantic solidarity vis-a-vis an aggressive Russia”.
This is a very much a French view. It may be offset by the development of greater multi-polarity in the international system, a factor hinted at by Obama when he described Russia as a “regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbours, not out of strength but out of weakness”.
If it is more a return of the Great Game of 19th century diplomacy than the Cold War, the EU will have to up its foreign policy and security game if it wants to influence this century.