How Well Do We Understand Modern Europe?

One of the most important intellectual problems we face in thinking about the contributions of individual powers and regions to international politics is our failure to fully appreciate the extent of Europe's strategic decline.

One of the most important intellectual problems we face in thinking about the contributions of individual powers and regions to international politics is our failure to fully appreciate the extent of Europe’s strategic decline. It is extremely difficult, even if objective data speaks of the inability of the European powers, and their entire association, to influence the solution of the most important issues on a global scale, or even on their own periphery, to recognise that the Old World is already outside the boundaries of real politics. 

There are several objective reasons for this. First, the liberal and Marxist discourse on international affairs requires one to consider the economic scale of the player. Here Europe still occupies a significant place, and it is difficult to challenge the traditional perception that this does not really mean anything. This is especially the case in Russia, where the idea that the collapse of the USSR had mainly economic rather than cultural or political reasons, remains extremely fresh. If a power, or association, stands relatively firmly with respect to its economy, then of course it is considered important in terms of politics. 

Second, Europe is Russia’s immediate neighbour in the West, and most of the military dramas of Russian history are connected with it. For the rest of humanity, Europe at one time became a source of colonial oppression, which was based on military-political power. It is difficult for Russia, China or India to recognize the insignificance of a partner with whom, so far, the most emotional episodes of our history are associated. 

Third, in their opposition to the US desire to maintain a privileged position in the world, Russia and China see Europe as a weak link in the Western world, which can play into their hands. For Russia, we are talking about a gradual change of elites in European countries, which will make them saner in terms of moving towards a more just world order. From a Chinese perspective, Europe’s economic interests inevitably force its policymakers to be more open to dialogue with those they have historically despised, feared or exploited. 

In any case, Europe is quite objectively seen as completely incapable of an autonomous existence where it relies on its own strengths, unlike the United States, which should force its statesmen to become, sooner or later, more accommodating. Finally, the fantastic achievements of European integration in the period after the Second World War, as well as the economic and technological achievements of Europeans until almost recently, have led to the fact that from the outside, Europe is still even “virtually” one of the world’s leading players. 

Moreover, given Great Britain’s activity in the Ukrainian conflict, as well as the fact that most European countries are actively supplying weapons to the side with which Russia is in a state of daily confrontation, it is even more difficult to understand where the Europe’s role as the territorial base of American military-political power in Eurasia intersects with proper European capabilities and ambitions. 

All these factors together leave very little room to perceive Europe’s place in the world as it really is. In other words, our ideas about Europe and desires related to its place in the plans of Russia, China or the rest of the world (except the United States), dictate our policy towards it. They also act as limits to the objective assessment of this partner at the academic and expert level. However, this does not mean that we should completely follow political logic and abandon any desire for a diversity of approaches to assess Europe’s role in the world. 

Therefore, it would be reasonable for Russia, as well as for the rest of the countries of the World Majority, to adjust their politically motivated ideas to take into account the realities of European development that often elude our attention. This will, at the very least, help us assess more diversely the potential risks and opportunities associated with the presence of an European element in international politics, and to understand what the countries of Europe are actually capable of and under what conditions, as well as what is beyond their physical capabilities. 

First of all, it would be useful to clearly articulate the degree of European autonomy in relation to those issues that matter to international security. Here we find ourselves in a complex theoretical problem concerning the assessment of the sovereignty reality of a particular player amid specific conditions. It is clear that in our time, we cannot approach this fundamental issue with the same criteria as 50 or 100 years ago. Sovereignty in the classical sense is now, generally, a very relative concept, since it is difficult for us to say what features of the state’s participation in the global economy limit it. Even countries such as the DPRK cannot be considered completely independent from their external environment, let alone all the others. However, in the case of Europe, limits to sovereignty in matters of military policy are defined by a very rigid system of transatlantic relations. These relationships, of course, contain certain elements of constant bargaining on private issues. However, in matters of fundamental importance, it is difficult to talk about the European ability to act independently.

Paradoxically, tight US control over Europe is a problem for Russia and China, but it also ensures that the Europeans themselves don’t do anything stupid. 

Second, it would be important to understand the socio-economic development of Europe and its prospects in this regard. Currently, some political figures in Europe, military and civilian, are making statements about the need for an imperialist war against Russia. 

Thus, we subconsciously reproduce the logic that preceded the unleashing of the world conflict by European empires, which just over 100 years ago were at the zenith of their power. The conflict was the product of the development of an international system in which there were exceptionally few significant players who were, among other things, entering a stage of serious changes in the social structure of their societies. This is especially obvious when it comes to the outbreak of World War II. In other words, 100 years ago, Europeans were truly ready for massive participation in war, which fully met the aspirations of their political leaders. Now it is difficult to imagine what scale the degradation of the socio-economic systems of European states must acquire in order for their citizens to become capable of similar “feats”. At the same time, it would be strange to think that complete control over society and its behaviour, which was possible during the coronavirus pandemic, can be reproduced in situations that require citizens to voluntarily sacrifice their physical existence.

Of no less interest is the question of the state of European politics and its elites. It cannot be ruled out that their evolution over the past 100 years has led to the formation of a unique environment incapable of producing strong leaders who are confident in their ideological correctness. These are exactly the kind that are needed in order to start wars, but they are deadly dangerous when it comes to existence as a US territorial base in Eurasia. In this sense, it would be important for Russia or China to pay more attention to who exactly we are dealing with in Europe. It is likely that a special environment has indeed formed there, in which government officials do not think of themselves in terms of traditional nationalism and national interests. This, in turn, means that in Europe we have, and will continue to have to deal with a previously unfamiliar type of public managers, whose behaviour in critical situations would also be good to predict.

From our partner RIAC

Timofey Bordachev
Timofey Bordachev
PhD in Political Science, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club; Academic supervisor of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies, HSE University, RIAC Member