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Crisis of the Order and European Question

The dialectic between economic weapons and weapons of war in the crisis in the world order requires specific reflection where concerns European imperialism. Dealing with monetary weapons in their book War by Other Means, Jennifer Harris and Robert Blackwill place great emphasis on the strategic success of the European monetary federation: Through forging the eurozone, Germany has also realized its century-long quest for a pliant European market for German manufacturing. Both of these were things it had previously tried (and failed) to accomplish by force.

The long quotation below is from the speech Helmut Schmidt made to the Bundesbank Council in 1978 in favour of the EMS, the European Monetary System that would lead to the euro. Classified as confidential for 30 years, the text was declassified in 2008. There emerges from it a highly political vision of the German use of the monetary weapon and of the strategic weight of a single continental market:

What now concerns German policy, I will say in all simplicity, yet all urgency, without an efficiently functioning Common Market, without an economically and politically influential European Community, German foreign policy is not to be conducted successfully. German foreign policy rests on two great pillars: the European Community and the North Atlantic alliance. […] The whole game that we have played in the last ten years towards the Soviet Union, towards the eastern European countries, that we have played over Berlin, in order to steady this fateful city in its position, all this would not have been possible without these two pillars behind it.
[…] By holding firmly to our duties we have grown ever stronger relative to our own Western allies. And we have also attained very great political weight in their eyes. It is all the more necessary for us to clothe ourselves in this European mantle. We need this mantle not only to cover our foreign policy nakednesses, like Berlin or Auschwitz, but we need it also to cover these ever-increasing relative strengths, economic, political, military, of the German Federal Republic within the West. The more they come into view, the harder it becomes to secure our room for manoeuvre and the more desirable it is that we are able to lean on these two pillars, which are simultaneously here a mantle for us, in which we can conceal our strength a bit. […] On the other hand, the European Monetary System involves risks. I repeat: it involves essential chances too, especially if it is successful, the chance for us that the European Community will not decay. It is really a vital precondition for German foreign policy and its autonomy. […]. [F]or me the whole thing has been embedded from the start and remains embedded [in] foreign policy considerations.

Much has been said in both Europe and Germany about a postwar German strategic attitude, and political tradition which downplayed the active use of political force and preferred the political use of economic force; we see from Schmidt’s speech that the low profile was partly a deliberate dissimulation. On the other hand, today’s public debate about the need for Germany to take on its political-military responsibilities reveals how much progress has been made since then, when the Chancellor’s theses had to be kept secret.

There are two sides to the question. On the one hand, there is the reactive game that allowed Helmut Kohl to achieve the double strategic masterpiece of German reunification and the euro federation, due to the political vacuum created in 1989 and the draining of power from the Soviet Union as a result of its collapse and the consequent end of the Yalta division. But on the other, that strategic leap in European unity made the practice of relative political passivity insufficient: the European gravity field requires active politics in the EU’s near abroad, and the dramatic power surge caused by China’s irruption has changed the world balance in its very foundations.

If we consider only the 1989 strategic divide and the new strategic phase characterised by China, for at least 30 years Europe has been faced with the dilemmas of its strategic-military capacity for action and its political centralisation, which is its precondition; and for more than a decade, with the Obama administration and the disruptive Trump presidency, this conundrum has combined with the loosening of Europe’s relationship with the United States. The transformation of the Atlantic tie and European political centralisation are on the agenda, and are inseparable elements of the same process.

The unprecedented fact of the present epoch-making transition is not the emergence of a new power. That is a regular feature of the global balance. Among other things, it is the historic fact that has divided the West between powers in mortal combat, in spite of the ideological pretension to its ideal unity. Neither is the emergence of a non-Western power a novelty — if we think of its precedent in Japan. The disruptive novelty is that in China and, looking ahead, also in India, this is happening on the continental scale of immense human masses, each of them comparable to all of the Western powers put together. China is now about to become a world power because the mass of its population has become part of the new class correlations of imperialist maturity. The rate at which this process is taking place marks out the strategic time. The shift of an annual one per cent of the share of population employed in agriculture to industry and the services sector marks out the time of a generation.

This is what we wrote fifteen years ago, in a reflection on Europe and the question of times. subsequently collected in the book L’Europa e lo Stato [Europe and the State — Edizioni Lotta Comunista, 2006]. That Asian irruption, we argued later, was also the fundamental cause underlying the European political process: It is the huge change in the relations of force that is taking shape in Asia which is pushing forward political centralisation in Europe.

A trend does not mean a mechanical process: it is made up of accelerations, decelerations, setbacks and imbalances. The times of China’s imperialist rise were those of a generation: we find them confirmed in both China’s development and the contradictions brought about by its irruption into the world contention. The times of the European response are those of political non-correspondence: the EU is moving under the impact of crises, but not as fast as China’s acceleration requires.

As we assessed the Second Gulf War in the third volume of the history of our party [Lotta Comunista — The Bolshevik Model, Éditions Science Marxiste, 2019], we considered this factor of political imbalance in relation to centralisation and political-military capacity for action. In the period between the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s, and especially in the proceedings of the Convention for the European Constitution, the pressure for a continental defence reached its peak; our judgement on the outcome of the conflict was that the 2003 war postponed the plans for European defence by at least fifteen years. The opposition of Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder had at least maintained the core of a strategic distinction from the United States, but the EU had been dramatically divided by the American war by choice. Helmut Schmidt added to this [Nachbar China, 2006] a kind of passive autonomy on the part of the European continent: if Washington had started a cold war against China, Europe would not have participated in it. Today the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) between Brussels and Beijing as well as the three G7, NATO and USA-EU summits have confirmed that European distinction highlighted by Schmidt; moreover, if anything, they have added a more active characteristic to the EU’s policy.

The EU’s military-strategic delay does not therefore annul its capacity for action wherever the EU can bring the weight of its quasi-federation to bear in the economic, monetary and commercial field, i.e., wherever it can bring its weight to bear as a continent-sized market. If anything, the question addresses an EU capacity for action that is asymmetrical: it is effective in the field of the political-economic relations of multilateralism, where, thanks to its size, it can claim to be a normative power; but it is not very, or not at all efficacious in the military field, where it is not even able to look after its own near abroad in a systematic way.

Angela Merkel presented some German ideas for the Conference on the Future of Europe to a meeting of the European People’s Party in April. One proposal is the institution of a European Security Council, with part of its membership in rotation. The formula, already put forward three years ago in the Meseberg Franco-German resolution, would strengthen the EU’s capacity for action and would be a way of overcoming the obligation to unanimous decision-making in foreign policy. We observe that the question of a single foreign policy on the part of the EU cannot be resolved in the institutional or procedural field alone; the process of synthesising the EU’s plural drives is on a continental scale and therefore remains a difficult question to resolve; only a series of concrete political battles as the Chinese question demonstrates - can offer a solution.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports that Merkel adds a crucial clarification to understanding the future developments of European centralisation. There exists a permanent dialectic between efficiency and tolerance in the face of the EU’s internal pluralism, and it is just as well not to concentrate on efficiency alone: Europe must live with its diversity. Furthermore, although things are decided more quickly in America, majority decisions are not always accepted.

We can read in this an allusion to the institutional crisis that concluded the Trump presidency, but this judgement can also be extended precisely to the Second Gulf War, which had divided not only Europe but also the United States. Taking stock of that 2003 conflict, we should in fact remember that the United States went to war with only partial consensus — the East Coast opposed it — and at the end of the day did not succeed in maintaining internal support for its engagement in Iraq. Extended to its intervention in Afghanistan, according to Henry Kissinger this is actually a trait of historical regularity in relation to American engagement in military missions abroad, paralleling the pattern of three other inconclusive wars since the Allied victory in World War II.

Two conclusions emerge from this. If we accept Angela Merkel’s diagnosis, the German chancellor is implying that relatively less efficiency in Europe’s capacity for action, especially in times of reaction, is a structural fact, and an intrinsic characteristic of the European process. On the other hand, however, the dilemmas of America’s political centralisation in external projection undoubtedly present themselves with different times and forms to Europe’s, but do not have less strategic importance. As the presidencies of George W. Bush and Donald Trump demonstrated, the United States may have shorter decision-making times, but also for this reason reveals less efficiency in maintaining consensus on the line undertaken. That America, weighed down by war fatigue, has withdrawn from its military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan without having reached a conclusive result is the counterweight to 2003’s unilateral and divisive decision. This internal American difficulty is a fact that weighs in its foreign relations, and is seen in the doubts about the credibility of the re-establishment of transatlantic relations sought by Joe Biden; the American president has at his back a country torn asunder and a very small majority in the Senate.

The outcome of the G7 and NATO summits, together with the bilateral US-EU summit, reveal both the attempt to re-establish transatlantic relations and the launching of a joint position over China; however, any final assessment has to take into account both political processes, in Europe and the United States.

It is said that Europe has shifted to a more assertive position with regard to China: this is true, but it is an evolution that has been going on for some years now, ever since the EU began to feel pressure from the big Chinese groups and also the intrusion of the Silk Road into its periphery. Furthermore, the opposite would be a surprise: Europe is bound to react to the huge shift in power relations brought about by China. This was our premise fifteen years ago which updated Lenin’s thesis on the United States of Europe, The EU and its institutional order have no choice but to accelerate their political centralisation; the key issue in their relationship with the United States is how their reaction to China will be articulated.

The European formula of China as partner, competitor and systemic rival found its way into the communiqués of the three summits (G7, NATO, and US-EU) with different shades of meaning according to the contexts. Since the formula has a certain ambivalence on which themes should one or the other attitude be made to prevail, and what should be the proportions of negotiation and confrontation? - many comments present the United States as seeking a single anti-China front but as not succeeding in obtaining full European adhesion. This prospect may be overturned. It is also in Europe’s interest to face China in a coalition with the United States, but with what aims in view?

The EU intends to do this according to a line that would exclude Beijing’s containment or isolation, i.e., according to a decoupling formula. It should be observed at this point that it is debatable whether either containment or isolation is the real aim of the United States, where the two hands of confrontation and negotiation coexist towards China: perhaps the key fact is that there is not yet a final synthesis in Washington of the line to adopt in this instance. On the contrary, there are indictions that the European position may influence the American debate. There is certainly a current, not limited to Kissinger alone, which maintains both situations: there must be a joint position agreed upon between the USA and the EU, but the way to deal and coexist with China must be found in that convergence.

The confrontation over a new strategic concept for NATO demonstrates another crucial aspect of the transformation in Atlantic relations: up to what point is a line of European strategic autonomy able to impose itself in the specific field of military action? Wolfgang Schäuble is the father of the formula of transatlantic reciprocity, i.e., of a relationship between America and Europe on an equal footing. In his book Grenzerfabrungen [Borderline Experiences], he sets out a frankly federalist concept of European powers, but he is unequivocal in limiting the extent of ambitions in the military-strategic field to the sphere of the Atlantic Alliance.

Schäuble is also in favour of a European Security Council and majority-voting in foreign policy, and he would like an EU able to take care of the security of its own periphery; he proposes a rapid intervention force starting from a joint Franco-German force, and he even suggests a joint Franco-German parliamentary body that would decide upon its use and political policy. However, at the same time, he considers NATO to be indispensable: There remains the problem of whether it is desirable to become so militarily strong as to be able to renounce the Americans. Do we really want to become an autonomous European nuclear power? I’m not convinced of this. But one level could be that what we Europeans become so strong at is to be able to resolve the problems on our continent autonomously.

This is a not dissimilar concept to the Merkel Doctrine, to which our definition of a structural Atlanticism in Germany’s politics is well suited. Furthermore, even though the French debate stresses European sovereignty and strategic autonomy, there is no line in the EU which puts itself forward organically as an alternative to the formula of a European pillar of NATO. There is certainly not a German line of that kind, and that is quite enough: it is sufficient to define the realistic terms and aims of a European military-strategic capacity for action in the foreseeable times of the crisis in the world order.

However, from this Euro-Atlantic perspective, the question is anything but simple. The transatlantic reciprocity invoked by Schäuble is still entangled in the United States’ historical ambivalence toward European defence, and reflects the lack of clarification of the specific American and European strategic interests that should be represented and mediated in the Atlantic Alliance.

An essay by Joshua Shifrinson for the Journal of Strategic Studies makes use of new documents which have become available about the presidency of George Bush Sr, regarding the 1989-1992 strategic divide, which encompassed the collapse of the Soviet Union and German reunification. Two conclusions. First, according to Shifrinson, the United States considered the question of NATO’s enlargement into Eastern Europe much earlier than has so far been believed: the Bush administration began to discuss it in 1990 and had already decided on its enlargement in 1992, and had developed a logic to guide this process; the Clinton presidency re-discussed an issue that had already been addressed.

Second, the decision to back the expansion of NATO is indicative of the United States’ shifting priorities amid Europe’s changing security landscape. When the debate about a possible enlargement of the Alliance began in the first half of 1990, relations with the Soviet Union occupied top priority in US strategic calculations; worries about the Soviet Union’s potentially negative reaction led Bush and his team to postpone a possible a expansion until 1991. But when the fragmentation and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union eliminated the constraint imposed on US policy by its bi-polar relationship with the USSR, American strategic horizons quickly expanded. In mid-1992, the decision to re-open the question of NATO enlargement to the East was heavily driven by a desire to foreclose a Russian resurgence, while simultaneously ensuring NATO remained the focal point of European security:

Though not the only factor, the latter was of particular concern to US planners given efforts among many of the United States’ West European allies to foster an independent European security identity anchored in the European Community (EC); despite close American ties to Western Europe, US policymakers saw the push for European security independence as posing a long-term challenge to US influence over European security and political affairs.

Seeking to forestall diminution of US dominance, the prospect of NATO enlargement shifted from containing the Soviet Union to suppressing future challenges from both Russia and Western Europe to the United States’ post-Cold War pre-eminence.

These were the months of the final negotiations regarding the Maastricht Treaty. According to some internal documents, for Brent Scowcroft (head of the NSC [National Security Council]) the process of European integration was real; the United States should capture its energy within NATO. Scowcroft therefore wrote to Bush about the need to avoid an independent European defense identity which could harm the credibility and effectiveness of NATO, reduce American influence in Europe and weaken domestic support in the United States for its presence in the European Continent. The Bush administration officials argued that the Europeans should be assured that while European integration in general was acceptable, security developments that threatened to sideline NATO were not.

We can draw the following conclusion from this: since negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev and a Soviet Union not yet in its terminal phase were still going on, Washington avoided proposing the enlargement of NATO. Moscow had always argued there was an explicit commitment on the part of the Bush administration in this sense. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the real aim of enlargement to the East became that of forestalling the EU and preventing its autonomous defence: a continuation, as much as possible in the new conditions, of the Yalta logic.

Shifrinson’s makes a realist observation in the theoretical field of international relations. The United States acted to forestall prospective challengers before they took shape — an exercise in preventive diplomacy. Such international institutions as the Atlantic Alliance are often represented only as spheres in which its member states can achieve cooperative results. On the contrary, they can be used to compete with real or prospective rivals.

The Center for American Progress is one of Democratic Party’s groups and is linked to John Podesta, who was Bill Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff, an adviser to President Barack Obama and the head of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. A study by Max Bergmann, James Lamond and Siena Cicarelli is titled The Case for EU Defense: it argues that the United States successfully carried out an ambivalent policy toward European defence from the 1990s on, exercising a de facto veto on it. However, this was a grand strategic error, one that has weakened NATO militarily, strained the trans-Atlantic alliance, and contributed to the relative decline in Europe’s global clout. On the contrary, in an era of renewed geopolitical competition, the United States needs a united and strong Europe. It should seek to build a new ‘special relationship’ with the European Union and use US power and influence to support European integration.

According to the report, American politics since the Clinton years has become increasingly locked up in Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s so-called three Ds doctrine. This stated America’s opposition to: useless duplication of military structures, de-linking (i.e. a loosening of the transatlantic defence bond), and discrimination that would hit the non-European members of the Alliance. The aversion to duplication was based on the faulty premise that a powerful EU could supplant NATO and become a thorn in America’s side. However, a scenario in which Europe and America became rivals would not be the result of the EU developing a defence capacity, but the result of a massive diplomatic breakdown — a highly unlikely prospect which the United States would be able to avoid by using its diplomatic tools and its influence in Europe.

Finally, the crucial issue: China. While the United States is clearly focused on the Chinese threat, it is not clear that NATO at present should shift its focus away from Europe due to the threat posed by Russia. Nevertheless, European military weakness makes shifting NATO’s focus on China or threats to other regions of the world much more difficult. If, on the contrary, the EU significantly developed its military capacity such that it had the capabilities and ability to defend itself, it would be natural then for NATO to focus more on global challenges such as China.

And this is the crux of the matter. The most explicit opening up to the formula of a European pillar in NATO may come from the Center for American Progress, but the prospect of a division of tasks between the United States and Europe still does not wipe out its underlying ambiguity: an identity of interests between the United States and Europe, precisely as regards China, is taken for granted. The division of tasks does not dispel the impression that it would be up to Europe to share the burden of US policy, guaranteeing the European front, while the United States completes its global system of alliances in the Indo-Pacific.

A debate restricted to the question of the federalisation of Europe’s military force may even perpetuate this misunderstanding. Transatlantic reciprocity demands a confrontation over the strategic aims of the USA and the EU — one that is yet to come.

PERSONS:Shifrinson, Scowcroft, Podesta, Bergmann, Lamond, Cicarelli, Albright

ENTITIES: European Security Council, Meseberg Franco-German Resolution, Rapid Intervention Force, European Community, Maastricht Treaty, National Security Council, Democratic Party, Center for American Progress, Indo-Pacific

BOOKS: War by Other Means, L’Europa e lo Stato, Lotta Comunista — The Bolshevik Model, Grenzerfabrungen, The Case for EU Defense

CONCEPTS: United States of Europe, Transatlantic Reciprocity, Merkel Doctrine, Structural Atlanticism, Crisis In the World Order, Three Ds, Division of Tasks, Economic Weapons, Weapons of War, Monetary Weapons, Political Vacuum, Draining of Power, Near Abroad, Power Surge, Political Non-correspondence, Asian Irruption, Normative Power, Efficiency and Tolerance

JOURNALS: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Journal of Strategic Studies