Time for Europe to take a long, hard look at its global decline


Global influence in international security is a zero-sum game, says Frans-Paul van der Putten, who warns that China is now pulling steadily ahead even though few Europeans yet understand what this means for them.

Europe is ill-prepared, if prepared at all, for the way its influence in international security is declining, or for the consequences of that decline. China's rise is the forerunner of what Newsweek's Editor Fareed Zakaria has called 'the rise of the rest', meaning the non-Western China's emerging role as a major international security actor heralds an overall decline in the power of the West, but clearly it is one that will affect Europe more than the United States. The U.S. will retain its position as most influential actor in international security, even though the gap between it and other powers may be narrowing. Europe is already being overtaken by China as the second most influential player, so the question is not whether Europe will be a less powerful actor in international security, because that process cannot be avoided, but whether Europe will still be capable of protecting its interests around the world.

Comes the day when international security will no longer be so exclusively dominated by the West, Europe's need to actively protect its economic interests will be all the greater. Developing the means to do so is bound to mean significant costs and sacrifices. Europeans may need to spend substantially more on military capacity, relying less on their military alliance with the U.S. They may also have to give up the permanent seats in the UN Security Council held by Britain and France in return for being able to shape the Council's post-reform structure. They will also probably have to accept a significantly less open economic model, and to impose fewer normative demands on non-Western countries.

Far-reaching changes of this calibre are for most Europeans impossible to accept at present, and probably even to seriously contemplate. Yet as long as this mindset prevails, no major shift in Europe's security strategy will be possible. So in the meantime it is necessary to increase the flexibility with which Europe can respond to the fundamental geopolitical changes now taking place. This can be done by investing in a robust knowledge infrastructure and by creating public debate on Europe's changing position in international security, and on the rise of new great powers.

Greater preparedness will begin with greater awareness of changing power relations outside Europe, in particular the rise of China. Europe needs to develop an independent knowledge infrastructure to supply policymakers with information on what is happening to China's international security role. European policymakers tend to depend on data and insights from American sources - universities, think-tanks, defence consultancies and government agencies. But the bulk of these are from an American perspective, whereas Europe has its own distinct geopolitical position. This is particularly true of China's impact on international security. European policymakers should also initiate public debate on major new developments like the increased role of Chinese state-owned investors in the European economy, and China's growing impact on the international agenda for human rights and global governance. These debates are also needed for Europeans to decide what sort of price they are prepared to pay to stay in the global race for influence.

After the end of the Cold War, Europe once again moved to a more prominent position in global security because America's European allies automatically became the most important secondary security actors. But Europe's relative return to prominence is now being affected by the rapid rise of China. This is already visible in regional crisis management in the Middle East and Africa, regions where both Europe and China play a role in regional stability. Two recent examples of regional security crises in these parts of the world are the nuclear issue in Iran-U.S. relations and in the Darfur crisis. In both instances, European influence is diminishing at the local level, while that of China's is growing. This is a result of the European strategy of applying economic sanctions and adopting a confrontational stance towards Tehran and Khartoum.

China, by contrast, has preferred to keep its local economic interests intact and to remain friendly with these countries' governments. Europe's actions limiting economic ties and criticising local governments have a progressively smaller impact each time they are applied, while strengthening China's position, so that Beijing emerges as indispensable to efforts to de-escalate these crises because it has influence both in the UN Security Council and at local level. This doesn't apply to all regional security crises, but it does reveal a significant advance of Chinese influence in parts of the world where Europe and the U.S. were formerly dominant.

Another sphere in which China's rise affects the European position is the setting of international norms for global governance and human rights. Many in Europe believe that the EU's "soft power" means their part of the world has a promising future as a norm-setter and as a model for multilateralism to shape international security mechanisms. But Western-originated norms for governance and human rights are increasingly on the defensive. If they are not to become obsolete, both international norms and the international organisations built on them will need to accommodate non-Western influence and interests.

In global security governance, a key issue is the relationship between human rights and state sovereignty. China, like many other non-Western countries, is reluctant to see the UN interfering in a domestic crisis against the wishes of the local government. Europe supports the idea that the international community's responsibility is to interfere in situations where human rights are seriously threatened. China doesn't disagree in principle, but disputes the Western definition of human rights. The underlying issue is that the approach favoured by the West leads to more Western influence, whereas China's approach is more beneficial for China. Both China and European countries are keener than the U.S. that the UN Security Council should keep on functioning, and so are forced to make certain compromises. The difference is that for Europe, with its preference for soft over hard power, norm-setting spearheads its global security strategy.

The balance of direct political influence of China and Europe in each other's region is also set to change. That Europe plays no role in East Asian security is becoming more significant than ever now that the region plays such a major role in the global economy. Europe's political absence from the East Asian region is notable not just because of the region's global importance, but also because the region faces two acute security crises. The European Union is involved in the Taiwan issue - and the military stand-off between China and the US - through the arms embargo it maintains against China and through Europe's military alliance with the United States. The EU has no viable strategy to deal with the arms embargo, and no clear policy on the Taiwan issue. Regarding the second crisis, the North Korean nuclear crisis, Europe is formally involved through British and French permanent membership of the Security Council, even though the other three permanent members together with Japan and the two Koreas have effectively sidelined the European actors through the Six-Party Talks. Europe is currently not contributing to regional security in East Asia even though formal mechanisms exist for exerting influence there.

Although Europe's economic clout is thus not coupled with political influence in East Asia, China is becoming increasingly influential in Europe. Major Chinese companies and funds are already investing in European businesses, and are likely to do so on a larger scale in the future. Most of China's major corporations and investment funds are state-owned, but this does not mean that Chinese state-owned investors are primarily motivated by political considerations, even if such considerations are never entirely absent from their agendas. Incidentally, the activities of Chinese state-owned companies are also enhancing China's influence in regional politics in Africa and the Middle East. Chinese investors have the capital that European companies at present lack. Although the Chinese government aims to keep a low profile in this context, in the long run it is bound to have not only greater interests in Europe but also the means to exert influence.

If Chinese state-owned investors are allowed to purchase a substantial number of financial, high-tech, and logistics firms in Europe, this would provide the Chinese government with the potential to exert political influence. European governments will face a difficult choice. Either they must allow state-owned Chinese investors to expand their presence in the EU economy, or they must introduce defensive measures to screen and sometimes prohibit foreign investments, even if that compromises the principles of a free market. Allowing state-backed companies to play a greater role in the international economy could benefit large countries such as China. The stakes are in any case getting higher because the global financial crisis is due to increase China's economic influence in Europe, while the concept of state interventionism - as practiced in China - is also on the rise internationally.

Many European countries have been working hard to further strengthen European integration while adapting to the post-colonial and post-Cold War world. But in the external security strategy sphere they are not doing enough to keep up with international developments. The focus on the EU's future potential and on what has been achieved so far, and on its internal processes, has apparently distracted attention from the geopolitical realities of Europe's shifting relative position. Just as the rise of Europe between 1500 and 1900 was a fundamentally new phenomenon, so is today's rise of the non-Western world. It is very difficult for Europeans to imagine a world in which we and the Americans are no longer the politically dominant minority. But China is already successfully challenging the old system, and Europe needs to look at what is happening and think hard about the implications.

First published in Europe's World, summer 2009, p.19-23.