Tuesday

19th Nov 2019

Column

The last convulsions of the old world order

At a meeting of Nato defence ministers in Brussels in October, only two countries openly criticised Turkey for endangering Europe's security by invading Syria: France and the Netherlands.

Other ministers, according to a detailed report in Le Monde, mostly remained silent. This is interesting: many European governments have sharply condemned Turkey's military operation into Syria, with several countries freezing arms exports to Turkey.

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  • Their fear of an American departure is apparently so great that European countries have agreed to work on some Nato planning against China

Why do we give Turkey a softer treatment in Nato? The answer has little to do with Turkey, and everything with the survival of the Western alliance.

European countries see the Trump administration leaving UN agencies such as UNRWA (United Nations Relief Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East) and Unicef (United Nations Children Fund), and tearing up international arms control agreements.

They fear Nato could be next, and want to prevent that. This explains why they try to please the US by avoiding conflicts or deadlock within the alliance. In the Nato meeting in October the US barely criticised Turkey. So many Europeans refrained from it, too.

Their silence is telling.

From a European point of view Turkey has gone pretty far this time, by killing our Kurdish allies in Syria, letting jihadists escape to Europe and closing a military pact with Russia. After the October meeting Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg stressed Turkey's "legitimate security concerns".

Their fear of an American departure is apparently so great that European countries have agreed to work on some Nato planning against China.

It is Washington, preoccupied with China and Iran rather than Syria or Turkey, that has put this on the agenda. In private some European Nato members question it. But they don't want to ruffle American feathers, and play along.

Bending over backwards to please Washington sometimes puts a strain on European relations.

Recently, it emerged that Germany had conducted bilateral talks with the US about decreasing American contributions to Nato, while increasing European ones. A fairer payments scheme may have been long overdue. But France, which was not consulted, was reportedly not amused when it saw a draft.

Contested Hegemony

In his new book L'Hégémonie Contestée: Les Nouvelles Formes de Domination Internationale [Contested Hegemony: New Forms of International Domination], Bertrand Badie, professor of international relations at Sciences Po in Paris, describes exactly what we are witnessing at Nato and other post-war multilateral institutions: the last convulsions of an old world order.

After decolonisation, Badie argues, former European superpowers became normal countries.

They are no longer able to control the world, not even their own neighbourhood. Yet they cling to a world order drawn up when they were still powerful, holding national seats in the UN Security Council instead of making place for emerging powers, too, and continuing to conduct military interventions abroad.

While warfare used to be a display of power however, it has by now become a display of impotence. Modern wars have no winners. Conflicts linger on forever - Mali, Libya, Syria and Iraq are good examples.

Unlike the Europeans, the Americans seem to accept that the old days of Western dominance are over.

After the expensive wars under president George Bush, which were long, indecisive and ineffective, American citizens are clearly done with military adventures.

President Barack Obama understood this. He refused to intervene in Libya, for example. But he kept investing in multilateral institutions such as the UN.

Donald Trump is much more isolationist. To him, multilateral institutions are worth supporting only if they bring the US clear benefit. If not, goodbye. Nato could, indeed, be next.

We Europeans are in a bind. Decades of spending cuts in military capacity combined with over-reliance on the US have made us vulnerable.

We must seriously work on a common European defence, as a complement to Nato. But if we overdo it, we risk irritating the US and provoking its departure from Nato.

If this happens, it will split Europe in two, whereafter some European countries will probably pursue bilateral defence agreements with the US (as Poland is already doing).

But if we don't invest in European defence, and the US leaves anyway, we will be left completely empty-handed -compromising Europe's security in a spectacular way.

Europe is increasingly surrounded by conflicts, because there are no superpowers left to provide order on a more global scale.

European countries try to stabilise the situation in Mali or Libya, but it doesn't have much impact: we do it from a position of weakness, not strength. Some even argue that European troops are fuelling terrorism in north Africa, instead of combating it. Europe's military impotence is on clear display here.

European countries continue to insist on their status and sovereignty, but they are no longer able to translate this into real power. The entire Westphalian system of nation states is in crisis, Badie concludes. Warlords and multinationals are more powerful nowadays than national states.

To make sure that this does not culminate in Hobbesian chaos we should stop clinging to the old world order under American protection, and build a new one.

But if European countries want a strong role in this new order, they must redefine sovereignty and update it. This means that only if Europeans are prepared to pool power, they can help lay the foundations for new international institutions.

If not, the rest of the world will do it without us.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This article has been adapted from one of her columns in NRC.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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