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Home Editorials Sleepwalking Again: The End of the Pax Americana 1914-2014, Part III

Sleepwalking Again: The End of the Pax Americana 1914-2014, Part III

Published on November 10, 2014        Author: 

This is Part III of the Keynote speech delivered at ESIL’s 10th Anniversary Conference, held in Vienna, 4-6 September 2014. Parts I and II were published last week. The full version will be published in EJIL in a subsequent issue.

It is time to cry “Wolf” – since Europe finds itself with its basic, most fundamental, if often unstated, assumptions of security evaporating. Of course it would be fanciful, undesirable and unnecessary to imagine that the Pax Americana could be replaced by some form of Pax Europea. Unnecessary because the USA is not disappearing. But the evident  weakening of its constraining and restraining power — the Authoritativeness Deficit — has to be made somehow whole.

So what role for Europe? Surely it does not mean and should not mean that Europe would simply fill in the American gaps and play a slightly or significantly more sonorous second fiddle to the USA by, for example, making a heftier contribution to NATO. It means, in the first place, that Europe has seriously to reassess its own self understanding of its global responsibilities. Though this might seem a platitudinous and hence easy to achieve step, it is arguably the most difficult and crucial if, indeed, it is not to remain platitudinous and would represent a veritable shift in political consciousness.  In the second place it has seriously to upgrade its autonomous Global Authoritativeness, its own constraining and restraining power and from that, and in that, position interact with the USA and the rest of the world.  Not a superpower, but an indispensable power. It is a tall order but  setting for a moment politics aside, not an impossible one, since the actual toolkit does not need to be created ex nihili.

Sure, militarily, Europe’s credibility is risible, and has been so for long. Think Bosnia and Kosovo, think even Libya. But it is in the paradoxical position that militarily, the European whole is smaller than the sum of the parts. This well known paradox, the result of national interests, jealousies, pride, inertia not to say pettiness, is startling, but it is also a silver lining since there is a huge amount of already existing capacity simply terribly badly utlized. Europe’s economic clout, as a trading bloc, is second to none, greater than most and potentially a formidable tool of foreign policy and security, glimmers of which could be witnessed as Europe finally began to get its act together in the Ukraine crisis, but therein lies the rub – its ability to get its act together. Politically, too, one does not start from zero. United (when it is) in its rich diversity offers a veritable European foreign policy an interesting, even unique potential of foreign action utilizing historical ties and connections of its various Member States as points of entry, bridge and alliance building towards friend and foe alike and the ability to converse with nuance and in multiple political idioms. Morally, both nationally and in the form of the European Union Europe has effectively shed its colonial baggage and it does not carry nearly the weight of suspicion with which US foreign policy is encumbered. Effectively melded together and used with the kind of adroitness which some of the individual Member States are renowned for, simply underscores the potential of existing capacities even before any serious upgrading is to take place. One is not starting from Zero.

The call for a veritable strengthening of so called European foreign policy and security capacity and action has been heard ad nauseam. It has also been, especially as regards security, disregarded, ad tedium starting in the 50s with the rejection of the European Defense Community plan. It was, however,  always presented as part of a global Federalist Europe vision, typically following a conceptual rather than functional or realist logic of European integration and treated as such.  The creation of the Foreign Service Action and the Office of the High Representative appeared to some as a stretching of the limits of European integration, to others  more as a token gesture rather than a real shift in consciousness.

And yet, if there is any merit in the analysis presented here, the basis for such action today is independent of one’s ideological position as regards European integration. In the current circumstance, stasis might be a luxury that one can no longer afford.

Even if there is some merit in this claim, it does not in and of itself produce a positive prognosis. If anything the prognosis is dim. For the political malaise in Europe is no less profound than its American counterpart. The most debilitating is the continuous drama of growing popular indifference towards, and disaffection with, the European construct. Two signal indicators stand out: A continuous slide in voter turnout in  successive elections to the European Parliament, reaching according to the final data historical lows in the most recent 2014 elections, coupled with a dramatic increase among those who do trouble to vote favoring overtly anti-European parties and candidates, whether left or right. The most troubling aspect of this shift in opinion is its center-shifting impact on mainstream parties throughout the continent. This, in and of itself, poses a formidable challenge to any attempt to ‘upgrade’ Europe, not least in the sensitive areas of foreign policy and defense.

This generic and widespread phenomenon to be found across the Union is aggravated by the emergence of a ‘North/South’ cleavage never before seen in its ugly tonality. No one dares even to whisper today what was once singled out as a defining European value – Solidarity transcending national boundaries. From this perspective the circumstances could not be worse, the leadership challenge could not be more formidable.

Popular legitimacy shakiness is coupled with, and in some ways a reason for, tremendous strains on the functionality of European Institutions and decisional processes. What is so striking in the hugely difficult process of assigning portfolios and putting together a new Commission following the recent elections is how open and brazen has been the discourse of national partisanship at clear odds with the spirit and grazing the letter of the Treaties.  Member States have been negotiating portfolios for the Commission in the way parties in a coalition negotiate ministerial jobs for the apparatchiks – thinking of party rather than national interest.

Received knowledge continues to speak of an historic decline of the Commission vis-à-vis the Council. There is still some truth in that in some areas. But the new reality of Europe is a Council which in so many areas has been unable to rise to critical challenges in the management of the economy and an interesting rise in the importance of the Commission in its management and supervisory functions. A further ‘intergovermentalization’ of the Commission would be particularly unfortunate.   Be that as it may,  Europe finds itself institutionally with a Parliament strengthened in its formal powers but weakened in its popular political authority and now with a greater than ever anti-European democratically elected constituency, a Council which seems to be able to find consensus and majorities only over the mundane, and a Commission with new found lease of life in the management and supervisory areas risking a serious case of intra-institutional national fragmentation.

These are not the best conditions in which to cry  Wolf, even if the decline of the Pax Americana is irreversible and the salami slicing, some of it in the European neighborhood itself, is in full swing. Is it fanciful to cry Sleepwalking?

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