IRIS Papers (ISSN 2815-5394) 

Great Power Europe



Alexander Politov


The expectation of a triumph of liberal democracy around the world and Kantian perpetual peace after the end of the Cold War turned out to be illusory. Instead of the end of history, we are witnessing the return of history - a world in which rivalry, threats and power politics are once again on the agenda in the changing configuration of the international system. The structural changes in the balance of power on the European continent and in the world call for redefinition of the international political identity and security system of the European Union, as well as of the way in which it conducts its foreign and security policy. In today′s world, neorealism, viewed as an “outmoded” theory, acquires again explanatory power about international politics.


The European Union is undoubtedly an important actor and norm-setter in international politics. It is a champion of multilateralism, liberal institutionalism and interdependence as a basis of international relations. However, its strategy lacks a realist component and understanding of the structural realist paradigm - a consequence of the predominantly liberal and constructivist foundations on which it is built. The unity of the European Union in the field of foreign policy is deeply undermined by the absence of common identity and common understanding of security, which makes it vulnerable to the structural pressures of the international system. The inability to assess objectively the structural factors that determine the policies of the major powers, and the inability to respond effectively to the structural imperatives of the changing distribution of power, poses security problems to the EU.


The world is in a state of transition from a unipolar to multipolar global order in which the structure of the international system needs to be adapted to the interests and ambitions of the major actors. The European Union, Russia and Turkey are competing for influence in the European security space. Revisionist Russia seeks to return on the world stage with the methods of geopolitics and the demonstration of military power. Autocratic Turkey, albeit largely economically reliant on the EU, also has ambitions for greater regional influence, especially in the volatile part of the Balkans. The United States is focused on the Middle East and East Asia; according to some analysts, Europe ranks only third in importance for US interests. China, although not a direct player in the European security system, seeks to become an indispensable factor in international relations through global economic influence, which will have serious consequences for the global balance of power. According to some researchers, China will even overtake the United States as the hegemonic power. In many places around the world, democracy is in retreat, and countries with autocratic regimes enjoy increasing international clout and power.


With such configuration of power in Europe and in the world, in order to become a more effective participant in international politics, the European Union must start acting as a unitary actor which has the capabilities to cope on its own with the threats it faces and to exert power in the international system. To achieve this, the EU must pursue a policy of defensive realism which is to be embedded in a redefined, long-term grand strategy that guarantees the security of its member states and their citizens.


The main assumptions of structural realism, or neorealism, is that the international system is anarchic (in the sense that there is no superior power over states) and that states are unitary, rational actors in world politics. Since they are not sure of the intentions of other states and face a permanent security dilemma, the primary goal of states in the anarchic system is to ensure their survival and security through self-help and balance-of-power politics to maintain order in the system. Security is achieved either by balance of power and increasing states’ defence capabilities (defensive realism), or by aggressively increasing their potential of exercising power and establishing domination and hegemony (offensive realism). In order to preserve the structural balance in the international system, states enter into different alliances (valid at the regional level as well).


Some of the more important indicators of states‘ relative power that play role in the pursuit of realist policies are military power, the economy, the natural resources, and the size and demographic structure of the population. Intervening factors that arise from internal political considerations, bureaucratic constraints, public opinion, domestic interests, ideologies, historical experience, and unforeseen events and consequences can alter the structural causal relationship and the links between structural components, limit realistic judgment, and lead to suboptimal results in states’ foreign policy formation.


Building on this theoretical basis, the European Union should not be too dependent on one power only as an ally or partner, since wavering in the determination or commitment of this single power can jeopardize European security. The risks and dangers of overreliance can be mitigated if the European Union develops its own defence capabilities that will enable it, if necessary, to rely on its own capacity to guarantee the structural security balance in the international system.


Two main assumptions can be made here. First, in order to be competitive on the international stage, the EU must acquire great power identity and the characteristics of a unitary actor in international relations which develops its own military capabilities and can exert power. Second, the structural pressures and external influences of the international system, the external threats and developments in the regional and global context can have a consolidating and catalysing effect upon the deepening of European integration in the domain of foreign policy, security and defence.


Two dangers for the European Union may stem from the changing balance of power in the international system. First, this is the rift within the West as a result of the reduced commitment of the United States as a player in the security infrastructure in Europe, as well as the domestic political tendencies in the geopolitically relevant democratic states. This may lead to increased competition between the EU and the US, although this competition will be constrained by their democratic systems. Second, undermining the unity and cohesion within the European Union itself, as well as undermining the development of a pan-European identity in the field of foreign and security policy, can lead to policy renationalization.


The unity of the European Union, its international identity, and the development of capabilities to exercise power must be seen by both politicians and citizens as a tool for its security. This is a strategic asset for the relatively small member states which, if divided, will easily become targets of threat by actors bent on power and influence in the international system. The potential danger of renationalization in the domain of international relations and security is that this will lead to greater fragmentation of the foreign policies and interests of the individual countries, which will increase anarchy in the international system and intensify rivalry and the security dilemma. This policy fragmentation could be further exacerbated by external factors such as Russia′s interference with EU affairs, or by circumventing the European institutions and entering into bilateral agreements with individual member states on issues of international security, energy, the economy, etc. The relatively small and weaker member states can become leaders in world politics only through the institutions of the European Union. In the field of external security, the interests of member states should coincide if the structural logic is followed and if they are not influenced by different intervening factors.


The pressure of the international political system in theory should give centripetal incentives for greater cohesion, even federalization, of the EU in the field of foreign and security policy so as to fit more fully into the notion of a unitary actor. To calm tensions with European elites and citizens who support a Europe of nations, the EU must at the same time leave national culture, tradition, history and education policies within the competence of the national governments, thus establishing a balance between federalism and intergovernmentalism, i.e. between a deeper political integration in foreign policy and security and a greater responsibility of national governments in other areas of competence that should remain primarily national.


In order to have clout in global politics and increase its security, the European Union must develop its own second-strike nuclear capabilities to counterbalance effectively the nuclear potential of other great powers. This surely will give rise to both internal and external opposition. There is also a moral argument against a possible EU programme to develop its own nuclear deterrence potential. However, the strategic structural logic of nuclear deterrence among the great powers is as valid today as it was during the Cold War. Nuclear great powers possess second-strike capacity, which makes the costs of a nuclear attack very high, so war between the great powers seems improbable. (Pressing the nuclear button can happen if rival nuclear powers are ruled by leaders with psychological characteristics that go beyond rationality or if the nuclear balance changes as a result of some technological breakthrough that would give advantage to one of the rivals and, respectively, a first-strike incentive before the window of opportunity closes and the balance restores. The probability of such occurrence is hypothetical.)


Different studies using different methodologies have come to a similar conclusion: nuclear weapons increase the costs and thus reduce the likelihood of war between major powers, especially in cases of nuclear symmetry (when both sides in the conflict are nuclear states). For sure, the decision to build its own nuclear arsenal could be seen as entering into a nuclear arms race, but the main goal of a policy based on defensive realism must be to achieve a relative nuclear balance among global powers. Nuclear weapons, however, do not exclude militarized interstate disputes and crises at lower levels of conflict, e.g. in cases of nuclear asymmetry (when only one of the sides to the conflict possesses nuclear weapons), which requires the parallel development of conventional military capabilities to balance the conventional forces of other major players in the regional and international security system.


Developing second-strike nuclear capabilities is a necessary deterrent, but it poses a moral dilemma, as it does not correspond to the values on which the European Union is built, as well as to the efforts of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. To avoid this dilemma, the EU can build upon or upgrade the French nuclear programme at the European level, as its continuation for effective deterrence and attainment of a relative defensive balance (the nuclear potential of Great Britain after it leaves the Union will be sorely missed here).


For the EU to become an effective actor in asserting and promoting the common European interests in international relations, with a realist approach to forming its common foreign and security policy, it should largely abstain from being overly moral and should take account of the structural constraints of international anarchy in a pluralistic world and of the presence of competing interests. This does not mean that the Union must abandon diplomacy, multilateralism and actions within the framework of international organizations and international law, but complement its capabilities with one of the most important instruments of international relations and security – the capacity for effective deterrence and power projection - so that it can act across the entire spectrum of regional and global politics.


Certainly, like any approach, this one also has its limitations. The main international consequence of such an approach would be to intensify the security dilemma of other actors in the international system. According to the security dilemma, both power and weakness can be provocative for other states which may result in changing the balance of international security. If an actor is too weak, threats can come from an aggressor who believes that the status quo powers are weak in their potential capabilities or determination. On the other hand, if a country is too strong, this can be seen as a provocative signal because its defence capabilities can be regarded as a threat to other states. By sending the right signals, however, and by establishing a balance of power, the system can reach a state of relative equilibrium and peace among the great powers.


As Europe is slowly awakening from its postmodern slumber and the delusion that it can shape the world in its image, the European Union should redefine its global strategy by considering the effects of the structural factors of the international system. This should take the form of a grand strategy and cover all the available elements and instruments of foreign policy and international relations to guarantee the Union’s security and international impact, which is to be adopted by all member states. It needs to proceed from the current state of (re)distribution of power on a regional and global scale by expanding its deterrence and power projection capabilities, following several interrelated steps to achieve the status of great power that can effectively project security for its member states. Some policy recommendations that will lead to the development of a comprehensive grand strategy include:


a) Building and developing its own nuclear programme for defensive purposes - strategic and tactical nuclear weapons and nuclear defence systems; This will ensure the relative balance of nuclear weapons and nuclear defence systems with other world powers, following the logic of nuclear deterrence.

b) Building and developing conventional forces under unified command and creating a common European army that can project power effectively;

Two things are particularly salient to note in relation to the last point: 1) disintegration of the Western space of democratic states should not to be allowed to take place; and 2) an alliance between Russia and China that might possibly be created to achieve balance of power with the West should be precluded if possible. If such a balance is established, however, it would rather provide a lasting peace, and the rivalry between the two blocks would be manifested at lower levels of conflict or in the sphere of the economy.


As noted, the EU has an instrumental value for the security of its member states. None of them today, especially the smaller ones, have the capability to be regional or global players on the international stage alone, which would make them targets of the interests and focused influence of major powers. Member states can achieve and maintain strategic international presence only collectively, but not in the form of a security alliance, but as a unitary actor, a democratic empire with a common international identity, which can only be attained through deeper political integration of the EU in the foreign policy and security field. A Great Power Europe will have more leverage for negotiation and diplomatic impact in regional and global politics. One thing, however, should be clear: the European Union must avoid imperial overstretch outside its sphere of ​​interests and rely primarily on establishing a balance of power in its own region.


It is noteworthy that this analysis is based exclusively on systemic factors as independent variables in accordance with the assumptions of neorealist theory and does not focus on the liberal understanding of cooperation and institutionalization of relations among the actors in regional and global politics. This does not mean that cooperation is impossible; cooperation and international institutions can undoubtedly mitigate the consequences and dangers of international anarchy, but not eliminate them altogether.


Making such transformation in the strategic positioning of the European Union will not be easy and will face opposition of moral, normative and political nature. The deployment of nuclear weapons and defence systems in the member states will not be politically unproblematic as well. This will mark to a great extent the political process in the EU and its member states, possibly leading to internal institutional reform and politicization - higher competition within the European party system (comprised of cartel pan-European parties), political and electoral process resembling that of nation-states, formation of the European Commission on the basis of majorities of pre-election or post-election coalitions, and last but not least – it will create space for political competition to structure voter preferences in foreign and security policy.


In sum, one of the most important features of organized life, whether a socio-political institution or a biological organism, is its adaptability - the ability to adapt to external influences in order to ensure its survival in response to changes in the external environment. To be more competitive in world politics, the European Union needs to adapt to the external pressures and influences of the international political system in response to the structural changes, the new balance of power and polarization which form the order in this system. In this way it will ensure its long-term security and survival as a democratic political union, whether it be an empire, a federation, a confederation, or an intergovernmental organization. This adaptation passes through the necessary adoption of great power identity and the development of military capabilities commensurate with this status. In this way, the security and survival not only of the polity, but also of democracy and citizens’ lives will be guaranteed from external threats. If it fails to manage this task, the EU may contribute to instability in the security structure of the European continent, and thus catalyse processes of political decline, intensification of anti-democratic tendencies and disintegration.


After all, freedom, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, traditions and lifestyles should not only be promoted but also safeguarded; otherwise powerful autocratic states with revisionist and expansionist agenda may take them away. In order to protect these core values within the EU, it must ensure and strengthen its external security by maintaining the balance of power on the European continent and in the world.

Европа като велика сила

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