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Towards a new Cold War? A discussion on Europe´s future geopolitical strategy - Event Review

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

Jamie Ho, a 3rd Year International Relations Student, writes a review of our recent event on the future of Europe’s geopolitical strategy with Nick Whitney, Dr. Lauren Sukin, and Dr. Stephan Engelkamp. This article was edited by Malou van Draanen Glismann (Managing Editor).

Does Russia’s invasion signal that we are returning, as some fear, to a world of great power rivalry akin to the Cold War? Europe is at a crossroads, facing enormous geopolitical challenges ranging from Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine to climate change. It is in this context that Grimshaw discussed the trajectory of Europe’s geopolitical strategy and military defence with panellists Nick Whitney, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the first chief executive of the European Defence Agency, and a former diplomat, Dr Lauren Sukin, Assistant Professor in the Department of International Relations at the LSE. Furthermore, the panel included Dr Stephan Engelkamp, Professor of International Relations at the Department of War Studies of King’s College.

The panel emphasised the fact that while the world is not entering a new Cold War era, great challenges do lie ahead for Europe. These include democratic backsliding, lack of cooperation, failure of learning from the past, US-China competition, and increasing dependency on the US to provide security. To overcome these challenges, Europe must not be afraid to engage in contentious issues at a global scale, assume a new role as mediator and negotiator, strive to lead by example in human rights, and muster enough political will to adopt cross-national defence collaboration.

Europe’s internal failure to adapt to geopolitical challenges

As a community of values, the EU derives its strength and unity through its promotion and adherence to shared principles such as political freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. As such, democratic backsliding, lack of political forbearance, and erosion to the free press and judiciary as seen in Orbán’s Hungary since 2010, as well as in several other states, poses an existential threat to the EU.

Most directly, it threatens the efficacy of consensual action and jeopardises the EU’s response to issues such as climate change, new directions for defence, human rights, and migration that cannot be solved without sustained cooperation. Hungary’s ability to unilaterally undermine the EU’s desire to include Patriarch Krill, head of Russia’s Orthodox Church, in its latest package of sanctions against Russia is a stark reminder of this fact. Other threats to cooperation also exist in the form of disagreements between NATO countries and competition over leverage in the EU. If replicated across EU decision making, finding common ground and taking cooperative action will become increasingly difficult.

The failure to learn from past mistakes and find new solutions makes these challenges all the more difficult to resolve. In part the result of democratic short-term horizons dictated by national election concerns, our panellists describe the EU as being “stuck in an endless loop (…) repeating strategies from the 20th century to address 21st century problems” (Engelkamp). This “failure of learning, failure of understanding, and failure of narrating the depth of these problems that we are facing” has contributed to the current crisis (Engelkamp). It is indeed difficult to see an obvious solution to counter democratic backsliding and re-establish cooperation given the current system. Thus, if our immediate problems are to be solved, systemic issues must too be dealt with.

Are we entering a renewed Cold War era?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the West’s response has led some to theorise the return of the Cold War. However, the panellists were quick to disagree with such analogies. Great power politics has always driven and will continue to drive foreign policy and grand strategy – a phenomenon not unique to the Cold War. The world is a very different place from when the bipolar relationship between Russia and the US dominated world politics. Instead, the current divides can be better drawn between regional powers and political systems. With the US’ ability to project power diminishing and China’s foreign influence increasing, tension between autocratic regimes and the liberal international order has gained fuel. After a short period in which Europe grew complacent under the security afforded by US hegemony, competition for influence between great and regional powers is now on the rise.

Reimaging a new European approach to geopolitics

In this context, there is no question that to maintain influence, Europe will have to engage with contentious issues on a global scale, such as the ideological battles on authoritarianism versus democracy, and development in the Global South. Simultaneously, Europe must continue to move forward and reimagine the European peace project. This requires leading by example– promoting human rights globally, heading new climate and emerging technology regulation, and contributing to arms control negotiations overseas.

However, there has been a lack of necessary action from the EU and its member states, perhaps due to internal disillusionment, that has led to a rise in cynicism and mistrust of Western liberalism globally. As one of the panellists pointed out, one of the reasons why there is no unequivocal support for Ukraine in denouncing Russia is because globally, leaders and citizens alike have lost faith in the moral coordinates of the liberal international order. By selling the narrative that Putin’s war is meant to protect Russians from “genocide and Nazis” in Ukraine, Russia is in effect mocking the liberal case of warfare and exposing the edifice which is the liberal world order (Engelkampf). The real problem, according to the panellists, is thus the West’s lack of a moral compass and hypocrisy.

Russia’s war in Ukraine can thus be understood as a stark reminder of the EU’s own hypocrisy and ambivalence. This can be seen in the contrast between European responses to refugees from Ukraine and refugees from the Global South. In normalising violence in Africa and the Middle East, the EU has grown accustomed to “zones of violence and zones of peace”, which in turn is reflected in its expectation of what an “acceptable” refugee should look like (Engelkampf). It is this type of hypocrisy and ambivalence, together with Europe’s trend away from global issues and towards isolationism, that furthers global disillusion with the liberal international order. This in turn severely limits the EU’s ability to address global issues, and makes reimagining the European peace project for today’s political climate all the more pressing.

Europe’s dependence on the US’ security guarantee and the need to bolster Europe’s own defence capabilities

Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February has sent defence budgets soaring in EU countries; and presents an opportunity for the EU to revisit its dependence on the US for security.

This reliance originally stemmed from the need to defend against Russia. However, the panellists pointed out that Russia’s war in Ukraine actually revealed the incompetency of the Russian military to mount any real threat to European security– EU military spending amounts to three to four times that of Russia’s, discounting purchasing power. Coupled with the realisation that relying on the US for military survival is not wise in the long term, as revealed by the Trump presidency, there is an argument to be made that Europe no longer needs to, and should not continue to rely on the US for security.

On the other hand, the panellists also highlighted the crucial role America plays in nuclear deterrence. Should the possibility arise that the war escalates further, NATO would first rely on conventional military operations, before subsequently turning to nuclear deterrence. Currently, both of these defence strategies are backed by the US. However, even if European countries managed to coordinate their defence spending to strengthen the European pillar of NATO and handle its own conventional defence, Europe is unlikely to be able to develop its own nuclear deterrent. Moreover, Brexit hinders nuclear cooperation, such as a Franco-British joint nuclear deterrence. As such, Europe must at minimum remain reliant on America for its superior nuclear and intelligence assets.

Regardless of the reliance on the US’ nuclear deterrent, the need to bolster Europe’s own defence capabilities and push for Europeans to defend Europe remains. The problem is that military spending in Europe is currently wasteful and duplicative, with no European country alone able to sustain a world class army by itself. Europe is thus in desperate need of cross-national collaboration. However, the logical need to have European armies, European military and defence industries, and European research establishments, is confronted by risk aversion and the vested interests of domestic defence industries who would lose out as their protectionist treatise are taken away. To move forward, the panellists suggested using the EU budget to subsidize collaborations in order to incentivize action, as well as to focus on areas where defence industries are emerging, such as cyber and outer space, and which therefore do not suffer from the same barriers to change as conventional defence.

The panel concluded that in order to overcome the enormous challenges facing it, the EU must learn from past mistakes and lead by example. It must engage in contentious issues at a global scale in a way that strengthens instead of undermines the liberal international order, as well as strive to increase cooperation and coordination in its defence.

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