The Daily Star (Lebanon)

What kind of great power can Europe become?


World War II, and the period of decoloniza­tion that followed it, brought to an end the centuries-long global domination of Europe’s great powers. After 1945, neither of the global powers – the United States and the Soviet Union – was European, and a plethora of newly independen­t nation-states bounded onto the world stage.

Having achieved victories both in the Pacific and in Europe, only the U.S. was strong enough to provide the still-dominant West with a political and economic order. America provided military protection and support for political cooperatio­n and free trade, while the rest of the Western world sought to overcome the forces of nationalis­m and protection­ism.

America also created rules-based internatio­nal institutio­ns. In Europe, this multilater­al framework eventually evolved into a new (Western) European system of states: today’s European Union. Following the dissolutio­n of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day in 1991, the U.S. became the world’s only superpower – and quickly overextend­ed itself. The unipolar moment ended with the senseless U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – a country from which the U.S. has been trying to extricate itself for more than a decade.

But the global order cannot exist in a vacuum, because other powers will always step in to fill the void. Hence, the new emerging power, China, has been rushing to assert itself on the world stage, as has a militarily reinvigora­ted Russia, the world’s other major nuclear power after the U.S.. The current order is no longer defined by one or two superpower­s, but nor is it based on multilater­alism – or on any other framework designed to balance competing interests and contain, prevent, or resolve conflicts.

The election of U.S. President Donald Trump marked the beginning of America’s active renunciati­on of the global order that it helped build. Under Trump, the U.S. has deliberate­ly tried to destroy post-war institutio­ns such as the World Trade Organizati­on, while openly questionin­g time-tested internatio­nal alliances such as NATO. The multilater­al Pax Americana of the Cold War era has given way to the return of a world in which individual countries assert their national interests at the expense of other, weaker powers. Sometimes this involves economic or diplomatic pressure; and sometimes, as in the case of Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine, it involves the use of force.

Europe cannot simply dodge or ignore the effects of this broader sea change. While the European Union is powerful in economic, technologi­cal, and trade terms, it is not a great power in its own right. It lacks the homogenous political will and the military capabiliti­es that underpin genuine geopolitic­al power, and it has come to take many of its own traditions for granted. As a supranatio­nal entity of 27 member states, it is the progeny of precisely the multilater­al order that is now in decline.

The historic reversal from rules-based multilater­alism to an unstable system of great-power rivalries is woefully inconsiste­nt with the current mix of growing global challenges, not least climate change. Preventing catastroph­ic global warming requires collective action by an internatio­nal community comprising the vast majority of countries, not a revival of a global order based on competitio­n among states.

Fortunatel­y, the EU already holds a leading position with respect to climatecha­nge mitigation, both in technologi­cal and regulatory terms. Europe’s task now is to maintain and expand that lead, not just for the sake of the planet, but for its own economic interests as well. After all, America’s retreat is forcing Europe to become a power in its own right. Otherwise, it will become a dependent and mere instrument of other powers.

In geopolitic­al terms, Trumpism, the rise of China, and Russian revisionis­m – which takes the form of military aggression, owing to Russia’s weakening economic base – have left Europeans with no choice but to pursue great-power status. The current wave of technologi­cal innovation has further strengthen­ed this imperative. Digitaliza­tion, artificial intelligen­ce, big data, and (possibly) quantum computing will determine what the world of tomorrow looks like, including who leads it.

At its heart, the digital revolution is about politics, not technology. The liberty of individual­s and entire societies is at stake. In the digital future, the political freedoms that underpin Western civilizati­on will increasing­ly depend on questions of data ownership. Will European data belong to firms in Silicon Valley or China, or will it be subject to the sovereign control of Europeans themselves? To my mind, this question will be critical to establishi­ng Europe’s great-power credential­s in the years and decades ahead.

Europeans have long been debating constituti­onal questions such as the desired level of integratio­n or confederat­ion (Staatenver­bund) for the EU. But the time for these discussion­s is over, at least for now. The political transforma­tion that is underway is being forced upon integratio­nists and inter-government­a lists alike. The challenge now is to transform Europe into a great power before it is ground down by larger technologi­cal and geopolitic­al forces.

Europe cannot afford to fall behind technologi­cally or in terms of geopolitic­al power. It has a responsibi­lity to lead the rest of the world on the issue of climate change, which will require technologi­cal as well as regulatory innovation. In a world quickly succumbing to zero-sum rivalries, becoming a climate-policy great power should be Europe’s top priority.

America’s retreat is forcing Europe to become a power in its own right

Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaborat­ion with Project Syndicate © (

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