Mr. Tusk’s geopolitics and the ‘balance of threat’

By David Scott

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O n 31st January 2017, Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, which brings together the governments of the European Union, sent an open letter to the heads of government, about to meet for their summit in Malta.

Mr. Tusk’s warning was sombre:

The challenges currently facing the European Union are more dangerous than ever before in the time since the signature of the Treaty of Rome. Today we are dealing with three threats, which have previously not occurred, at least not on such a scale.

The three threats consisted of external, internal, and psychological (‘state of mind’) challenges. If we work our way back we arrive at some surprising conclusions drawn by Mr. Tusk. With regard to the third threat, it was a question of self-belief of ‘the state of mind of the pro-European elites’ involving ‘a decline of faith in political integration, submission to populist arguments as well as doubt in the fundamental values of liberal democracy’. The elitist assumptions are though perhaps what have created problems for the European project? The second threat was ‘internal’:

The rise in anti-EU, nationalist, increasingly xenophobic sentiment in the EU itself. National egoism is also becoming an attractive alternative to integration. In addition, centrifugal tendencies feed on mistakes made by those, for whom ideology and institutions have become more important than the interests and emotions of the people.

Self criticism was involved in terms of European advocates having become too detached and remote from the public.

However it was the first threat, ‘external’, that took up the large majority of Tusk’s analysis, and this is where explicit geopolitics emerged. As Mr. Tusk defined it ‘the first threat, an external one, is related to the new geopolitical situation in the world and around Europe’. The listing was troubled power politics:

An increasingly, let us call it, assertive China, especially on the seas, Russia’s aggressive policy towards Ukraine and its neighbours, wars, terror and anarchy in the Middle East and in Africa, with radical Islam playing a major role, as well as worrying declarations by the new American administration all make our future highly unpredictable…Particularly the change in Washington puts the European Union in a difficult situation; with the new administration seeming to put into question the last 70 years of American foreign policy.

What can be pulled out from this? China’s new naval assertiveness, Russian aggression in the Ukraine, and radical Islam were new features for the twenty-first century. What was perhaps most striking was the appearance in Mr. Tusk’s listings of Mr. Trump’s administration in the United States, given some emphasis by Mr. Tusk using the prefix ‘particularly’.

Mr. Tusk’s highlighting of the United States, China and Russia was because of their prominence for his ‘increasingly multipolar external world’. This phrasing is unusual for European Union leaders who traditionally have shied away from using the term ‘multipolar’ and have generally used ‘multilateralism’ as a preferred focus term. The significance of Mr. Tusk using the term ‘multipolar’ was that it suggests a response of ‘multipolarism’ on the part of the European Union, and with it questions of alignments within several poles of power to avoid any ‘unipolarity’ or ‘hegemonism’.

Certainly, Mr. Tusk emphasised the EU position as another significant pole of power, ‘the EU has demographic and economic potential, which makes it a partner equal to the largest powers’. As such this was a ‘Great Power’ profiling of the European Union, which was seen as having to stand up for itself as an equal against other Great Powers. Hence his somewhat combative assertions:

There is no reason why Europe and its leaders should pander to external powers.
Today we must stand up very clearly for our dignity, the dignity of a united Europe – regardless of whether we are talking to Russia, China, the United States.
It must be made crystal clear that the disintegration of the European Union will not lead to the restoration of some mythical, full sovereignty of its member states, but to their real and factual dependence on the great superpowers: the United States, Russia and China. Only together [through European integration] can we be fully independent.

Within such poles of power, which ignored Japan and a rising India, the European Union was left somewhat isolated against an ‘assertive China’, an ‘aggressive Russia’ and the ‘worrying declarations’ by the new American administration.

In terms of the European Union deciding what its greatest external threat is, Stephen Walt’s ‘Balance of Threat’ theory comes to mind with its fourfold criterion of aggregate power, military power, ‘perceived’ offensive intentions, and geographic proximity. The last criterion takes us back to geopolitics, with the traditional state threat of Russia ‘around Europe’ from the East, and the non-traditional threat of radical Islam ‘around Europe’ from the South and internally within Europe.

Donald Tusk’s open letter to European heads of government contained two surprising elements, in the shape of explicit advocacy of the ‘Great Power’ status of the European Union in a multipolar setting, and the labelling of the American administration as an ‘external threat’ to Europeans.

– Prof. David Scott is Managing Editor of European Geostrategy.