Europe’s existential struggles in recent years over everything from the euro to refugees and Brexit has left little room in the public debate for discussion of the EU’s place in the world.
The Union’s ambitions for deeper collaboration on foreign policy and security remain controversial in many member states. More broadly, basic questions about the EU’s relationship with China, the U.S. and Russia receive little attention. As the recent ISIL terror attacks, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the refugee influx have illustrated, global crosswinds tend to thrust the EU into disarray.
POLITICO Chief Europe Correspondent Matthew Karnitschnig recently sat down in Berlin with two of Europe’s pre-eminent thinkers on international affairs and Europe — Wolfgang Ischinger, a veteran German diplomat who now runs the Munich Security Conference, and Robert Cooper, a retired British diplomat and author who spent many years as a key adviser to Javier Solana, the EU’s former high representative for foreign and security affairs.
On the sidelines of the Dahrendorf Symposium, the Dahrendorf Senior Fellows discussed a range of issues surrounding Europe’s role in the world, in particular its evolving relations with the U.S., Russia and China. What follows is an edited transcript.
POLITICO: When President Obama took office in 2009, there was a lot of worry in Europe that he would shift the U.S.’s focus away from its traditional Western allies to the Pacific. As he reaches the end of his presidency, what has that shift meant for Europe?
ISCHINGER: It was supposed to mean quite a lot, but I think most Americans would rather that they hadn’t said it because it took only a little while after they first pronounced a pivot to Asia that they realized they needed to re-position to Europe.
That speaks to the unpredictable nature of international affairs, but Obama did have a clear vision. Where do you see the U.S. headed now in terms of its foreign policy?
ISCHINGER: The West, if the West is the United States, plus Europe plus a few others, seems to have a problem with knowing exactly what our vision is today. In the U.S., there is a lack of clarity about just what the future role of the United States should be. Should it be withdrawal like [Donald] Trump is proposing? In the European Union there is a total lack of clarity. We don’t even know if Britain will be part of the EU next year. We do not seem to be able to develop a vision about where we will go.
Is the dearth of big ideas, which some believe is what is driving the populist resurgence, unique to the West? It seems other countries, if you look at Russia in the Crimea or China in the South China Sea, where it has created artificial islands for its military, have clear priorities.
ISCHINGER: The non-West appears at least from my vantage point to know exactly where they want to go. Russia wants to go away from the West. China at least proclaims to know exactly where it wants to go, so at least we seem to have declared clarity among non-Western important countries. I think that makes our lack of clarity even more pronounced, more worrisome.
COOPER: I don’t know whether I agree with Wolfgang that the Chinese and the Russians know what they’re going. You hear some things from Mr. Putin, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. The retreat from the West doesn’t make much sense for Russia. Maybe it’s okay as a slogan, but whether it’s really policy? As for China, I don’t know if there’s anything like a sort of doctrine of the Chinese government. They are very cagey about what they’re doing with the islands.
ISCHINGER: Putin’s strategy is to preserve the status quo. His message is we’ve now decided that we can’t modernize, but at least we want to preserve our security status and we need a buffer zone around us. The Chinese are building up diligently, slowly a global role from what was practically zero 20 years ago. In terms of global activity they are now proactively engaged all over the world, even in Latin America.
And yet in Europe, China is almost solely seen in commercial terms, both as a market and as the world’s factory floor.
ISCHINGER: It’s a specific German problem, I think. The Germans tend to look at a country of more than a billion people as a place that buys many BMWs etc. And that’s about it. Of course that’s not good enough. We need to become slightly more sophisticated. We are still unfortunately quite far removed from something that smells like and looks like and sounds like an EU strategy vis-à-vis China.
COOPER: The EU states primarily see China in commercial terms and they compete with each other. I agree with Wolfgang that we should have two ways of thinking about China: one is in commercial terms, and one is in political and security terms. On the second, we should do the thinking together. We ought to try and keep the two distinct.
Just how relevant is China’s growing power for Europe? Is it a threat?
COOPER: I don’t think people on the whole feel threatened in Europe by China, but I think it’s quite different in the region…I think that the power shift hasn’t happened. It’s happening. I may not get the quote right, but the famous phrase from Thucydides is that it was Sparta’s perception of the growing power of Athens that was the cause of the Peloponnesian wars. The perception of growing power is always something that has the potential for instability. When you see another power growing, the incentive is to say, ‘we better deal with it now before it gets too big for us.’
To what degree could China be a strategic partner for Europe?
ISCHINGER: It’s important for us to try to make sure that China comes down on the right side and not on the wrong side of important issues. For example, we’re trying to inscribe into the annals of the United Nations that the annexation of the Crimea was illegal. Can we get China to sign up to that or to abstain? This is important. That is why our dialogue on political security issues with China is not only about China’s behavior in the South China Sea, which is very far from us, but is also about how China deals with Ukraine, Libya etc.
The EU, to the degree it discusses the issues, doesn’t seem to agree on a strategy.
ISCHINGER: It’s not working as well as it should. We do not agree at this point whether we should or should not recognize China as a market economy. It starts there and that’s not even the hardest question.
During his recent visit to Hanover, President Obama made it clear the U.S. wants Europe to take more ownership of its security. That’s certainly a shift from past administrations going back to WWII. Is Europe up to the task?
ISCHINGER: I think that it’s actually healthy for Europe as a whole to learn that there will not forever be the protector from Washington who will handle all of our difficult issues. This experience of United States not jumping immediately in and running the show in Europe as they have done for decades now is actually forcing us to grow up little more … If European leaders were capable of speaking about our future the way Obama did, we would be in much less of a state of malaise. This is a historic change that many Europeans haven’t really digested yet, that the United States is now supporting a stronger more united European Union.
Should taking more responsibility for European security mean we’ll see a European army, as some have called for for years? The U.K., which favors a strong NATO and bilateral cooperation with other countries, is against that idea.
COOPER: I wish people wouldn’t rush to last stage of a European army because there are lots of things you can do before you get to European army which always causes trouble in my country.
How do you see the U.S.’s role in the constellation. Will it be less of an ally?
ISCHINGER: I think if we manage to have more European cooperation in the future, not a European army but more pooling and sharing, that does not automatically lead to a wider Atlantic. We will be even more meaningful, more relevant to the U.S. if we can show that we have something to offer.
What needs to change in Europe’s overall mindset for it to play a more assertive role on the international stage?
ISCHINGER: Russia today has in nominal terms a GNP that is less than Italy’s. In other words, the European Union alone is vastly bigger in economic terms than Russia, which is one reason why I believe that the one thing we need to learn in the European Union is that we don’t need to be too timid.
We should have a little more self-confidence. That doesn’t mean we should be adventurous, but we are really important. We are half a billion people but we haven’t yet learned to behave like it.
This interview was first published on POLITICO Europe Edition.