The return of geopolitics : a challenge for Europe

A few days before the election of a new President in the US, whoever may be the winner of this unbelievable campaign, the only certainty is that he or her will have to face a world shaped by the retirn of geopolitics, that is the cold and cynical logic of power rivalry. The phenomenon was pointed a few years ago, but took a real meaning with Middle Eastern wars and the emergence of “strong men” at the helm of several key countries.

This new international landscape signs the failure of the Obama era, which started with the US President’s Cairo speech, an opening to the arab and moslem world following the wars started by his predecessor George W. Bush, but finishes with his inability to weigh on the horrendous Syria conflict, in a climate of unnamed cold war with Russia. Obama placed himself in a defensive position — a “status quo power”, as geopolitics experts call it- in a changing world.

This also leaves Europe in disarray as it saw itself as a model of peaceful construction in a post-conflict world, and lives in anxiety the return of brutal balance of power at its borders (Ukraine, Middle East), and authoritarian tendencies among some of its own members.

“Declaration of war”

At the forum organized Oct. 19 and 20 in Brussels by the French magazine L’Obs, together with belgian dailies Le Soir and De Standaard, I moderated a debate named “the return of geopolitics”, including US professor Russel Walter Mead, who, the first, developed the concept in Foreign Affairs in 2014, stating that “old-fashioned power plays are back in international relations”.

This US professor tried to explain to the Brussels public that if the european project war first and foremost about economics, institutions and regulations, it was nevertheless, without the Europeans beeing conscious, “a geopolitical project”. For the past 350 years, he said, whether under the Czars, the Soviets or today with Vladimir Putin, Russia has never accepted to be kept away from the “european concert”.

“The EU approach to european politics is that the 28 will meet among themselves with institutions, with procedures, with laws, with declarations of right, and will essentially develop the european policy for all matters european, is perceived by any russian stateman of the last 350 years, as a declaration of war. It amounts to the absolute eviction of Russia from participation in processes in which, again since the time of Peter the Great, Russia has always been part of, one way or another.”

The consequence, Russel Walter Mead said, is that “Europe, without intending to, or fully understanding what it was doing, has thrown the gauntlet of a geopolitical challenge to Russia. And Russia is responding.”

Moscow, October 2015 (Pierre Haski)

Mid-october, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly I. Churkin, an old timer of soviet and later russian diplomacy, told a small group of journalists that tensions between Moscow and Washington were “probably the worst since 1973”, when an arab-israeli war almost brought the then two super-powers almost to direct confrontation.

These words didn’t come by accident : they sound as a warning shot to Hillary Clinton, the election’s favorite, who is tempted to show greater firmness in front of Putin. The russian diplomat thus rejected a Clinton proposal to impose a no-fly-zone over Syria to prevent russian planes from bombing rebel positions in Aleppo. This is excluded as long as Al Qaida fighters operate there, he said, accusing the West of “hypocrisy”.

The next US President, particularly if it is Hillary Clinton, will have to define a strategy to face this new landscape : either enter a new logic of cold war with a Russia that wants, by all means, reestablish itself as one of the major poles of this new world, despite its shortcomings; or attempt a new “reset”, which means attempt a new beginning such as Hillary Clinton herself tried, unsuccessfully, when she arrived at the State Department in 2009. By temperament and by political calculation, she should choose the first option.

Weak Europe

For the Europeans, these are risky times. The European Union is divided by internal divisions, its economies are exhausted, there’s the headache of Brexit, and, more important, there’s a lack of clear and recognized leadership.

Cat and mouse, by Wang Du (Pierre Haski)

This is one of the new era’s particularities : the return of “strong men”. Vladimir Putin is the perfect exemple, cultivating his image as a former soviet secret service agent, fighting polar bears and riding shirtless. This is the trademark of a charmismatic leader!

But he’s not the only one. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the turkish President, has turned easily into the charcater of an authoritarian leader, particularly following the failed coup of july 15. The scope of repression in all sectors, the confirmation just a few days ago that he will reinstate death penalty, his revisionist speeches on history and borders together with his imposed participation in the Battle for Mosul, in Irak, are among the signs of this evolution whose only surprise is the speed and width.

At the same time, the chinese “number one”, Xi Jinping, has been given for the first time by the plenum of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party the title of “core leader”, the man who should be obeyed and to be loyal to. No surprise after the toughening of the system since Xi Jinping has been in power, for the past three years, which targeted the emerging civil society.

In Brussels, François Heisbourg, President of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), said, during the debate on the “return of geopolitics”, that one of the main challenges of the next 30 years would be “how to accomodate China in the world banquet”. He pointed to the gloomy parallel with the rise of united Germany at the end of the 19th Century, but nuanced by saying : “we can still avoid disaster”…

Closer to us, we can also see how several central and eastern European states are also succombing to the attraction of a “strong man”, and of a supposedly benevolent authoritarianism to cross these uncertain times.

Old European Union members, particularly the founders, have a special responsibility in the current period, but they are, unfortunately, very inadequately prepared and ready to respond. Between their structural weaknesses -watch the disastrous French politivcal landscape…- and hesitations -Germany is still a reluctant leader-, they are threatened with missing out with history.

Instead of being a force for proposition, or even a model to avoid both power rivalries and a return to growing despotic tendencies, Europe is threatened with losing its rank, and becoming a tool, or even worse a victim, of the growing threats. This is the failure of a political generation, the failure of a project that never reached maturity — a sad paradox a few months only before the 60th aniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome.