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The World is Changing — and Not in Europe’s Favor

Strategic autonomy is a fundamentally inadequate framework for thinking about how Europe fits into today’s global order.

Mark Leonard is director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Age of Unpeace.”

EU leaders will be gathering in Granada tomorrow for an informal discussion on the future of “strategic autonomy.”

This term first emerged in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as United States president, and it has since become most closely associated with French President Emmanuel Macron, who has called for Europe to become less dependent on American hard power.

With the specter of Trump now looming over next year’s U.S. presidential election, such a discussion is more than warranted. But strategic autonomy is a fundamentally inadequate framework for thinking about how Europe fits into today’s global order.

The world is changing — and not in Europe’s favor.

The Continent’s governments are currently struggling to work out how to position themselves. On the one hand, the growing geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China has inspired many to imagine that a new cold war will soon structure the emerging world order into two ideologically-defined blocs. And in such a world, they argue, it makes sense for Europe to fully align with the U.S. in an anti-China bloc.

But looking at the confident way that middle powers like Turkey, India, Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Israel have begun conducting themselves on the world stage, one can see that the governments representing a majority of the world’s population reject this binary split. And — with the possibility of another Trump presidency haunting us all — we cannot expect America’s interests to always align perfectly with Europe’s.

On the other hand, the idea of strategic autonomy is even worse.

Despite Macron’s best efforts, strategic autonomy has thus far mostly succeeded in causing division. After Russia’s war on Ukraine and the supply chain problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Europeans are more aware of the dangers of being overly dependent on one country. But the term is seen by many as a fundamentally anti-American approach rather than one that applies to these other countries — something that jars during the Ukraine war. 

Moreover, the idea of seeking autonomy cuts against Europe’s instincts and interests. The EU has been one of the biggest drivers for an open world, and it will never be totally self-sufficient. For that reason, the EU’s strategy needs to be about seeking partners rather than standing alone. It needs to be anchored in an understanding of where it needs partnerships — and the potential power it wields within them.

Any approach to European strategy must thus begin by analyzing this world as it is, and not how we wish it to be.

What do the BRICS Summit, the war in Nagorno-Karabakh and the recent string of coups in Africa have in common? They all demonstrate that the world isn’t run by the great powers. In spite of the rising competition between China and America or the EU and Russia, they are no longer in a position to discipline assertive middle powers that refuse to be defined by emerging blocs.

What Europe needs now is a strategy that allows it to both cooperate and compete with these other players as appropriate, based on a clear understanding of its own interests.

In a new policy brief, we at the European Council on Foreign Relations frame this approach as “strategic interdependence” — a strategy that sees the world as it is, is clear-sighted about the dangers associated with dependence, and pushes back against the idea of decoupling. We believe it could be an approach that allows Europe to preserve its agency by building relationships with key players, while also standing up to them when they challenge its interests.

Strategic interdependence should rest on three pillars: Firstly, European policies should be informed by an understanding that, in an interdependent world, decoupling isn’t just unrealistic, it’s likely detrimental to Europe’s interests if the rest of the world rejects the concept. There are, of course, areas — critical raw materials, for example — where it will make sense to avoid excessive dependencies on potentially hostile countries. But the urge to decouple should be restricted as much as possible in favor of de-risking and investing in building relationships with pivotal middle powers. 

The EU should say it is against a world of cold war-style blocs — and it should also act that way.

Next, European foreign policy should focus on getting itself ready for a world of political coexistence and competition. The EU shouldn’t assume it can change the regimes in other countries, and will need to live alongside them.

Rather than making the world safe for democracy, the goal should be to make European democracies safe for the world — and this effort must begin at home. The EU should invest in programs to compensate the domestic losers of globalization in order to avoid exacerbating political fragmentation, giving them a sense that European governments are on their side.

Lastly, Europeans should look like they want partners to build a new world order — rather than just trying to preserve the old one. While it may be confidence boosting to sit among like-minded states and agree on bilateral and plurilateral solutions to global problems, the bigger challenge of the day is to reach out to new partners on different issues.

The recently announced India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor is a perfect example of the sort of initiative Europe should invest in more. Expanding formats like the EU Digital Alliance with Latin America and the Global Gateway hold equal promise. The bloc should also look at some of the new non-Western institutions and processes that are emerging, and potentially seek to participate.

Hard times are coming for Europe. As Ukraine prepares for a drawn-out war of attrition, the Continent’s economic relationship with China becomes more fraught and Trump looms on the horizon, it is important to come together.

Adopting this or that buzzword isn’t what will make the critical difference between success and failure in weathering these potential crises. And if Europe wants to step up its game on the world stage, it will need to be much more clear-eyed about the world and how to protect its interests and values.

Source : Politico

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