Robert Malley is president & CEO of the International Crisis Group.
No wonder Europe is struggling to find its voice. Never mind the Brexit drama, rise of right-wing populism and internal divisions. Europe finds itself caught in the midst of a power struggle between the world’s three greatest players, as the United States, Russia and China each try to either ignore, divide or strong-arm the Continent for their own ends.
Coming from Moscow or Beijing, this kind of pressure is neither surprising nor new. The game-changer is the United States. Time and again over the past year, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has taken decisions and adopted policies that affect Europe without taking into account its views.
Yet, in a sense, the Trump administration is performing ironic services for the EU — sharpening the case for a more sovereign European foreign policy that some of Europe’s leaders have made since at least the 2003 Iraq war.
Whether or not French President Emmanuel Macron is Europe’s most effective alarm-ringer, his appeal for an EU that is more militarily self-sufficient (to protect its interests when others will not), diplomatically autonomous (to stake out its own positions when America’s won’t do), and economically independent (to circumvent U.S. sanctions when those are aimed at prohibiting legitimate behavior) merits a hearing.
The European Union needs to stand up for itself in the face of American deficiency or malpractice.
On the military front, a succession of decisions by the U.S. president have highlighted Europe’s vulnerability to the fluctuations of America’s mood. The semi-withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeast Syria, the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, and U.S. plans to reduce or even zero-out its force presence in West Africa — a region seen as a gateway for terrorism and migration flows to Europe — all could have outsized repercussions on European security.
Establishing a more autonomous European force would require overcoming prodigious political, economic and logistical hurdles. Europe would also need to better balance military operations with politics, including support for efforts to calm intercommunal divisions that underpin violence and, possibly, to engage in dialogue with certain militant leaders. Still, greater European capacity to deploy forces could give the continent greater ability to protect its interests
There’s also plenty for Europe to do on the diplomatic front. The European Union needs to stand up for itself in the face of American deficiency or malpractice. On the Israel-Palestine issue, for example, the U.S. has made several dramatic U-turns, from recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its annexation of the Golan Heights to decreeing that settlements do not violate international law — with far more in store as the U.S. administration unveils its long-awaited and ill-named peace plan.
Again, forging a united European position would be no small challenge, given divisions among European capitals. But a countervailing European voice — one that insists that regardless of the specific outcome, Palestinians in the occupied territories must be granted equal civil rights — would be welcome given the Continent’s interest in Middle East stability.
Finally, nowhere are implications of European financial helplessness starker than when it comes to Iran. The U.S.’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and imposition of maximum pressure on Tehran has had cascading negative consequences for Europe — from Iran’s gradual erosion of its nuclear commitments and uptick in attacks in the Gulf to weakening the fight against ISIS.
In response, European states have sought to provide Iran with modest economic relief to convince it to remain in the deal and moderate its behavior. But the threat posed by U.S. sanctions has hobbled those efforts.
If U.S. dominance over global markets means control over swaths of European foreign policy, the challenge for Europe is to find effective ways to circumvent the current financial system and establish one that is immune from America’s long arm.
Europe is caught in several unenviable dilemmas. It can choose to stick with the U.S. despite significant disagreements and feel impotent. It can challenge the U.S. and bear the blowback. Or it can hedge its bets by bolstering ties with competing great powers and make itself vulnerable to exploitation in the process.
Whatever it does, it should not short-change a central aspect of modern European policy — a sense of responsibility when it comes to resolving the world’s most dangerous situations, and the statecraft and resources to make a difference. Crisis Group’s EU Watch List 2020, to be published on Wednesday, highlights 10 conflicts in which the EU and its member countries can act for peace.
By throwing itself into resolving conflicts — from areas of considerable geopolitical interest (such as Iran or Ukraine) to those that suffer from international neglect, like the Great Lakes, Burkina Faso or Bolivia — and by seeking more self-sufficient military, diplomatic and financial roles, Europe might not fully solve its identify crisis. But it could help make the world a safer place for when it finally does.