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Commentary | 22 July 2015

An EU Global Strategy: Developing the ‘will to power’?

In June, the European Council launched a process to reappraise the European Security Strategy, a document drafted approximately 12 years ago. Since its inception, the European Union (EU) has undergone a revolutionary transformation, both in size and in scope. With the enlargements of 2004 and 2007, it has increased significantly in size, while simultaneously expanding in function and power with the implementation of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009. More importantly, the outside world has continued to evolve rapidly: 2003 was in many ways the apex of Western power, with the United States, United Kingdom and France holding the three largest military budgets in the world, ready and able to topple almost any government of their choosing. Meanwhile, Russia was weak and facing internal division; China was looking inward as it was undergoing industrial modernisation; and India, Brazil and other rising powers were still relatively obscure. The only significant threat – hardly existential – came from Islamist extremism operating in the foothills of Afghanistan. As the European Security Strategy put it at the time: ‘Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free.’

Today, things look different: geopolitics is back, and with a vengeance. In the EU’s very own neighbourhood, Moscow has sought to actively frustrate and even roll back the European Neighbourhood Policy, as it seeks to implement a kind of ‘area denial’ geostrategy to prevent the Euro-Atlantic institutions from attracting non-EU European countries into their orbit. In the South China Sea, Beijing has sought to extend its geostrategic footprint with the construction of artificial islands, which may soon host an array of military facilities, while on the land, at sea and in the air, China has been busily bolstering its military might. The United States, Japan and other regional powers have already started to respond to China’s geopolitical rise, not least with Washington’s much-vaunted ‘rebalance’ to the Far East. In the Middle East, the regional powers have jostled for influence, while an Islamist movement – the so-called ‘Islamic State’ – has sought to bypass existing national frontiers in its attempt to reinstate a brutal new caliphate. In short, since the launch of the European Security Strategy in 2003, the geopolitical spaces surrounding the EU have become increasingly volatile and contested: the West is no longer dominant, even if it remains very influential.

At this point, it could prove fruitful to ask: was the European Security Strategy accurate in its analysis and assessments, even if the regions surrounding the EU have become more insecure? After all, it did start to bring all of the components of European strategic thinking into synchronisation and alignment: firstly, it set an endstate – a ‘more secure Europe in a better world’; secondly, it identified the ways of achieving the endstate, such as ‘preventive engagement’ and ‘effective multilateralism’; and, thirdly, it established the means to support the ways, such as enhanced diplomatic coordination and the development of a genuine European military capability. However, in all of these areas, while the European Security Strategy was relatively accurate and clear, it has not succeeded in making the EU ‘more active’, ‘more capable’ and ‘more coherent’ to be able to better secure its own peripheries.

The reason is simple: the European Security Strategy failed because it was not properly supported. It could never lead to a more secure and orderly neighbourhood; it could never generate more robust and active EU foreign and strategic policies; and it could never facilitate the development of a potent EU military capability, undergirded by a European strategic culture because Europeans failed to realise that they could achieve more together than they could alone. In other words, Europeans failed to gravitate around the EU and provide it with a ‘will to power’. Indeed, since 2003, Europeans have relinquished their ‘will to power’ almost entirely, as they have blithely continued to hack away at their – already curtailed – diplomatic and military spending, leaving their U.S. ally to undergird and police the world order alone.

If Europeans – and the EU – are to get serious in their attempt to develop a new and truly global strategy, they need to remember that politics and economics are structured through acts of power and that ‘peace’ is sustained only through the enforcement and maintenance of a particular geopolitical order. It does not matter how good any strategy is unless those designing it understand those simple facts. Contrary to popular belief, nothing much has changed since the Melians were told by the Athenians: ‘The strong do what they have the power to do and the weak must accept what they are forced to accept.’ Consequently, much like the twentieth century, the twenty-first century will not be a world for the frail, the idealistic or the ‘herbivorous’; rather, it will be a world for the strong and assertive. Those who proclaim only their virtues, while failing to assert themselves, will simply be overcome and swept aside. In short, the EU must become like any other great power if it is to survive, let alone thrive: it must protect its constituent member states through the centralisation of geopolitical power; it must project its influence in zones of importance; it must institutionalise its preferences over non-European countries; and it must even actively repress those whose interests differ from its own.

Any EU Global Strategy therefore needs to go beyond mere security strategy to shape EU strategic discourse so it entices Europeans out of their geopolitical slumber. As such, it needs to establish the EU as a ‘great power’ and reassert a unipolar Europe, with the EU at its epicenter, secured by outward bulwarks, peripheries and frontiers. It needs to be explicit in proclaiming that any attempts made by foreign powers to overturn this European hegemony – whether Russia or some other future regional challenger – will be met with overwhelmingly destructive power, which the EU and its Member States, along with their allies, will apply with vigour. The new strategy therefore needs to outline the EU’s interests in key geographic zones, such as the Eastern neighbourhood, the Southern proximity, as well as along vital maritime communication lines – such as those from Suez to Shanghai – which are the lifeblood of the European economy and way of life. And it needs to re-assert the significance of military strength, global reach and strategic deterrence, including the importance of the European military-industrial base, as well as the diplomatic resources needed to push forward European interests.

Ultimately, any future EU Global Strategy needs to be a short, succinct and assertive document, not a long-winded, reactive and virtuous paper with a technocratic character. The new strategy needs to contribute to – and also reflect – the development of a comprehensive European ‘will to power’. For without willpower, any strategy will fail in the face of adversity, and the number of adversaries facing Europeans in the twenty-first century will likely only continue to grow. Are Europeans ready for the challenge?



The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.