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The European war project

Jul 03,2022 - Last updated at Jul 03,2022

BERLIN  —  For seven decades, European integration has been driven by the quest for peace. But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Europe has found itself unifying in response to war. The peace project has given way to a war project and this fundamental shift is forcing European governments to reconsider some of their longest-held principles.

Most obviously, they now must concern themselves with hard power. There has been much discussion about German rearmament, Denmark’s decision to participate in European joint defence arrangements, and Sweden and Finland’s bid for NATO membership. Taboos have been broken, with European Union member states sending heavy weapons to Ukraine and the EU’s “peace facility” pledging 2 billion euros to arm that beleaguered country. Moreover, the EU has fashioned its economy into a weapon to use against Russia, and it is now planning for a war economy, where security will take priority over efficiency.

A second major change is that Europeans must rethink interdependence. European integration previously reflected the belief that economic links between countries would create a foundation for political reconciliation. That was the idea behind the original European Coal and Steel Community (the precursor to the EU), which turned former enemies into friends by merging the national industries that had produced the munitions for World War II. The hope was that even if economic links between countries did not make war impossible, they would at least prevent a dangerous escalation in tensions.

But Russia’s invasion made a mockery of this idea, demonstrating that interdependence can also enable one party to blackmail the other. This realisation came hot on the heels of worries about “mask diplomacy” and “vaccine nationalism” during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many countries found themselves wholly reliant on others for critical supplies. It follows that Europe’s decoupling from Russian energy will also be accompanied by efforts to make Europe less dependent on China.

A third question involves the concept of sovereignty. For the past few decades, Europeans were mainly focused on taming this impulse in the name of supranational cooperation. But faced with an aggressive revisionist power, they now recognise that sovereignty must be protected before it can be pooled.

For its part, Russia has perverted the post-sovereigntist rhetoric used by Europeans during the Balkan wars to justify its own invasion of Ukraine, which it cynically describes as a mission to protect Russian speakers from genocide. In the 1990s, Europeans advanced the “postmodern” idea that if there were massive abuses of universal human rights (those recognised by the United Nations) taking place within a sovereign country, the international community had a duty to step in to protect the victims from their own government.

The Russian variant of the “responsibility to protect” is not postmodern but pre-modern. The Kremlin believes it can decide unilaterally to intervene in other countries to protect members of a loosely defined Russian civilisation. Earlier generations of Western leaders were wrong to assume that only their countries would ever be strong enough to override others’ sovereignty.

A fourth issue is the supposed universalism of the European project. In the early 2000s, I wrote a book titled Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century. I believed that the EU’s model of international cooperation would spread osmotically to all corners of the world. But the failure of the EU enlargement process in Turkey and the rise of a revanchist Russia have shown that the EU model is unlikely even to encompass all of Europe, let alone the whole planet.

In discussions with leaders from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, I have been struck by how few of them share the intense moral outrage that characterises the West’s response to Russia’s invasion. They see the conflict as a regional European conflict, rather than as a world war with which they should be concerned. Eurocentrism has not only led Europeans to misread leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; it also is hindering Europe’s appeals to the rest of the world.

To correct course, European leaders must recognise that the EU experience is an exceptional product of a particular history and geography, and they must demonstrate enough curiosity to understand the world through others’ eyes. In a paradoxical way, decentering Europe could be the necessary first step to exercising European power in a multipolar world.

A fifth principle that needs rethinking is the idea of political order. While some European leaders cling to a security framework that reflects the principles of the post-Cold War moment, the hard truth is that Europe’s unique order, based on a set of institutions and treaties, has already been destroyed. In the future, European security will look much more like that of other regions, such as Asia. The balance of power and military might will matter as much as any treaties between Europeans and Russians.

The United States, of course, will remain engaged in the region. But much of the action will come from a lattice of bilateral and limited security arrangements. And even if the fighting in Ukraine ends, it will not give way to peace. The danger of cyberattacks, energy cutoffs, election interference and Russia’s “little green men” will be permanent features of Europe’s new age of unpeace.

The Ukraine war will remake Europe. This does not mean that Europeans must abandon the idealism and creativity that drove the most successful peace project in history. But they must accept that their model will never be universal, that they will increasingly find themselves responding to decisions made by others, and that peace at home may depend on their willingness to countenance war elsewhere. From now on, European integration will be driven by the need to win in a dangerous world, rather than by the desire to avoid conflict.


Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of “The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Causes Conflict” (Bantam Press, 2021). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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