As the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War draws closer, it must be remarked that the most significant change to the geopolitical map since 1914 was not the defeat of fascism, nor the death of Soviet-style communism, but the complete collapse of all the European imperialist systems of government. Of course, various forms of hegemony, colonialism, and suzerainty still exist in the modern world and European nations have not been above overseas conflict since the end of the Cold War. However, a century after the start of Europe’s bloodbath the continent, now at peace, has turned inwards in its thinking.
With their weak militaries, declining percentage of economic output, small territories and aging populations, individual European nations – with the dubious possible exception of Russia – have reached the point of geopolitical obsolescence. The majority of European states since 1991 have sought shelter under the umbrella of American hegemony, but have also submerged their old rivalries into a limited political and economic union. Theoretically this was about ending the security dilemmas that contributed to two devastating world wars and forty years of division. But its raison d’être since 1991 has been to keep small European countries “punching above their weight” in a world of emerging giants.
Much like later Qing China however, today’s postmodern European leaders are still keen to project an attitude of cultural omnipotence. Europe’s time as a global trendsetter may be passed, they believe, but it’s present and future will still be that of a leading node in a global system without a center. The new Europe will be a progressive place, transmitting enlightened, pacific thoughts to the rest of the watching planet. This is not entirely untrue. When the legacy of today’s Europe is written down into the history books it will include the steady promotion of the rights of women and workers, tolerance for sexual minorities, the tackling of racial, religious and ethnic prejudice, the promotion of gentler forms of government and stronger civil rights.
These are all laudable goals, despite not being uniquely European. But as a vision of the future it remains a Eurocentric picture of world order that is totally out of date. Most Europeans have forgotten that the first rule of international relations is about whom can do what to whom: capabilities, not virtue, drive politics. It is instructive to witness the indignant elite reaction to Vladimir Putin’s reintroduction of power politics to the placid pool of European life; unlike more “backwards” places, “we” are supposed to be above that sort of thing. Russia has been a bad partner, muddying our tidy little post-sovereign space with its filthy geopolitics.
Unlike Europe, the rest of the world has not stopped believing it needs to evolve new models of political and economic thought. If there is still an unconscious legacy of European imperialism a century on, it is the continent’s tendency to believe that the rest of the world still needs to listen to Europe more than Europe needs to learn from the rest of the world. Yet Europe was not the only region where the end of the Cold War upended long-held beliefs and systems. However these developing countries no longer look to our continent to find a model to emulate. This is a measure of how far we have fallen behind since the late 19th century, when the emerging elites of the colonies scrambled to study European systems of political, economic and social organisation, as well as its technologies, to facilitate their dream of independence.
Today’s Europe needs to change if it is to continue as a global player. As with every successful solution, the drawbacks of solving the problems caused by German unification have become today’s new problems for European politics. A broadly successful pan-European integration project has also created a largely unloved supranational bureaucracy, a resurgence of micronationalism within the framework of the EU and a mismatched array of powers and responsibilities between its Parliament, national governments and the Commission.
Historically, other communities have managed the challenge of stabilizing as a coherent single political unit despite being politically divided – Pre-Meiji Japan and the Thirteen Colonies under the Articles of Confederation immediately spring to mind as examples of successful political consolidation. Accordingly, Europeans should look further afield for examples to model themselves upon. Helpful lessons for them on how to handle their chaotic confederacy might be found by searching in the state-building projects of the older postcolonial societies in Asia and the two Americas.
The future of Europe as a relevant 21st century actor still lies in its ability to successfully deepen the integration of communities which it began towards the end of the last century. As the 21st century progresses the US will assume a “first among equals” role in the international system rather than remain the sole superpower. Hiding beneath the American umbrella will cease to be a strategy and become a liability. In the coming multi-polar world, Europe must learn to wean itself off the US if it is ever to become its own community and strong enough to set an independent agenda. This will not be easy. Modern Europe’s borders were only drawn after WWI and do not reflect the ethnic and linguistic divides of the continent any more than their predecessors did. The continental integration movement, what we call the European Union today, came about as the only solution Europe stumbled across after nearly a century of fighting over the question of a united German nation’s place on the continent. Europe must be faster to learn this time around, or lose the agency it has cherished for so long.
Neil Thompson is a freelance writer and member of Atlantic Community’s editorial team. He has lived and travelled extensively through East Asia and the Middle East. He holds an MA in the International Relations of East Asia from Durham University, and is now based in Berlin.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.