Small Wars Journal Discussion: Europe’s Balance of Power Crisis
SWJ discussion with Luis Simón, research professor of international security at the Institute for European Studies (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), and director of the Brussels office of the Elcano Royal Institute. He recently published a Whitehall Paper for London’s Royal United Services Institute:
Describe the broader geopolitical trends that question and shatter the traditional pillars of European stability, jeopardizing the continental balance - making for a likely return to a Westphalian Europe. It could be a mix between the pre-1914 nightmare and a post American Europe – weak, more of a geopolitical appendix of Russia as well as a gray-zone lab for Moscow (as in the Norwegian Series "Occupied"). The end of the Cold War generated the return of suppressed ethnic and nationalist energies. Compounded by a potential US retrenchment, what would a Westphalian ecosystem mean for Europe? What are the inherent dangers of a Westphalian Europe?
The image of the pre-1914 world is always a recurring one. And it is partly useful, because that was a multipolar Europe, and the kind of Europe we seem to be walking into also has a multipolar ring to it. At least that is how I describe it in a recently published Whitehall Paper for London’s Royal United Services Institute, where I identify the United States, Germany and Russia as the three primary pillars of Europe’s evolving geopolitical architecture, and the United Kingdom and France as secondary but nonetheless important pillars.
But in a broader sense, I am not sure the pre-1914 image quite works. For two reasons. The first is that, back then, Europe was the international system. European powers still dominated most of the world, through formal and informal forms of empire. What happened in Europe determined what happened elsewhere in the world, and what happened elsewhere in the world was by and large dictated by the needs of the European competition. This is no longer the case. I would perhaps not go as far as saying that Europe has moved to the periphery of the international system – at least, not yet. To be fair, Europe is still one of the main pillars of the global economic and trading system; it is a global diplomatic referent; and it remains technologically and militarily relevant. But it is not at the center of world politics anymore. In terms of technological innovation, economic pull and geostrategic competition, the center of gravity of world politics is moving towards the Indo-Pacific maritime axis. In fact, the key geostrategic challenge for Europeans will be to manage to stay relevant in that broader Indo-Pacific axis. And that does not look very good, even though some countries like Britain or France have realized this and are intent on doing something about it. In any case, and going back to your question, I would say that is the main reason why a multipolar Europe is not all that relevant systemically. It is relevant for Europeans, of course. But I am not so sure it will be a regional nightmare either. This links to the second reason I was mentioning as to why I don’t think the pre-1914 image works. Back then, those European states that were vying for geopolitical influence were militarily dynamic, politically nationalist, and demographically and economically vibrant. Again, generally speaking, this is no longer the case. Nationalism has subsided in many parts of Europe, especially in the West. This is partly explained by the success of the European integration process, and by the broader appeal of post-modern ideas and concepts in contemporary Europe. Demographically, things look bad for Europe. And in terms of economic dynamism and technological innovation, Europeans are also underperforming in relation to other countries and regions. Last but most certainly not least, there is a certain aversion to military force – and to the notion that the military is a key lever for geopolitical influence – in most of Europe, although there are always (partial) exceptions. That means that the implications of a multipolar and unbalanced European system are not necessarily what they would have been for pre-1914 era, i.e. fierce and open geopolitical competition with a high risk of an all-out inter-state war.
As per your point about Europe becoming Russia’s geopolitical appendix: I am not so sure either. Granted: Russia can create lots of trouble in Eastern and Central Europe and could very well even (partly) reverse the post-Cold War gains in those areas. This may already be happening, at least to some extent. But I am skeptical about Moscow’s ability to overthrow the entire regional system and turn the European peninsula into its geopolitical appendix.
Russia has some serious structural weaknesses, which are well known: economic, demographic, lack of a vibrant civil society or a globally appealing ideology, etc. It also has powerful neighbors in its own eastern, Eurasian flank, which is likely to become a source of more and more headaches in the years and decades to come. I expect the relationship with China to become increasingly difficult to manage, especially as China continues to expand its economic and political influence across Russia’s traditional sphere of influence or even within Russia, i.e. places like Eastern Siberia, Mongolia, Central Asia and the Arctic – and (if to a lesser extent) Eastern Europe itself.
Russia’s European picture is not without challenges. NATO has significant strategic depth. That is why the Cold War comparisons are not so useful either: unlike during the Cold War, the Baltic Sea is now a NATO lake (notwithstanding recent Russian efforts to revert that situation); NATO’s continental footprint extends as far as barely 100 KM away from St. Petersburg in the North, and comprises most of the Balkan Peninsula in the South; whereas it takes up most of the Mediterranean, and part of the Black Sea. And ultimately, even if we accept the premise that the United States is retrenching from Europe – which remains a contested proposition – there will be limits to that process. Even if the rise of China compels the U.S. to pursue a hard rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific, maintaining some form of security buffer on the European peninsula is likely to remain a first-line geostrategic priority for Washington. And, even if we assume that a hard rebalancing to Asia may force the United States to tolerate a greater degree of geopolitical instability in (parts of) Europe, that process is likely to have its limits too. And allowing Russia to dominate the system is certainly off limits. Plus, I wouldn’t discount the big Western European powers. By the standards of the European theater of operations, they are still technologically and militarily up to the task, and certainly a good match for Russia.
With a potential diminished role of the Anglo-Saxon powers in the future of Europe, what types of potential orders do you see asserting themselves?
The way I see it, Europe is currently undergoing a balance of power crisis that is animated by three structural developments: U.S. retrenchment, Germany's emerging leadership position within the EU, and Russia's attempts to recreate a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. A central theme is the seeming tension between power and weakness looming over Europe’s evolving geopolitical architecture. The United States is certainly the most powerful actor in today’s Europe. But it has bigger fish to fry and may not care enough to underpin Europe's order in a pro-active fashion, as Europeans have grown accustomed to. Germany and Russia are filling part of the void left by U.S. retrenchment, but neither of them appears to have the strength, the legitimacy or (in the case of Germany) the willingness to underpin European order. The result: it’s no one's Europe.
How would a hard Brexit affect the balance of power of Europe? What strategic voids could Brexit generate?
In the big scheme of things (i.e. when talking about structural trends within the European geopolitical system), I am not so sure Brexit is that critical. The UK will not abandon Europe. It will continue to engage in European geopolitics, through NATO, bilaterally and in many other ways. And, in doing so, it will work in the same direction as the United States: that of preserving a continental balance of power. More broadly, Britain’s global outreach and efforts to expand its presence alongside the Indo-Pacific is in fact good news for Europe – even though it may continue to be ridiculised by those who haven’t come to grips yet with the results of the EU referendum, both within and without Britain. Ultimately, Europeans will need to rely on the vision, capabilities and infrastructure offered by countries like Britain (or France) to project their influence into the primary axis of global geopolitics, the Indo-Pacific. I’m less interested in the question of whether that program is carried through the EU, NATO, a European maritime cluster made up of Atlantic countries, or some other venue. At the end of the day, all key European institutions and powers will need to get on board with that program, and Britain will be a key player in that context – perhaps the most important one.
We usually have this image of a Russia that is weak compared with the collective strength of NATO. In part this is very true. But there is this tendency to forget their contextual regional comparative advantages, the regional escalation dominance (including A2/AD bubbles). What are the Russian advantages in relation with the current state of the West?
I think you have a point there. As I understand it, to work properly, deterrence requires the ability to match an opponent’s moves at every step along the escalation ladder. Take the competition between Russia and NATO – and let’s assume, for the sake of simplicity, that NATO is a coherent actor. NATO should be able to match Russia’s moves from so-called hybrid acts of intimidation at the low-end of the escalation ladder all the way to nuclear blackmail at the high-end. And that includes everything that is in between, by the way.
My sense is that NATO is doing relatively well vis-à-vis Russia towards the higher-end of the deterrence-escalation ladder, that is: the nuclear domain and the prospect of an all-out conventional war. But is that enough? Do we believe that, in response to a Russian hybrid attack, or even a small military incursion on a front-line state, NATO will unleash total warfare on Russia? Maybe. But I’m not sure the Alliance should bet its deterrence strategy on that proposition. Because politics always get in the way. I think NATO should be able to match Russia’s actions proportionately, at every step along the deterrence-escalation ladder.
Right now, Russia enjoys a position of local escalation dominance in parts of the eastern flank. Yes, because of its A2/AD capabilities. But also, more broadly, because the capabilities of Russia’s Western Military district (which includes Kaliningrad) dwarf the combined capabilities of the Baltic States and other NATO forces in theater (ie northeastern Europe). Ultimately, NATO’s strategy to defend the Baltics revolves around the assumption that a Russian invasion is supposed to be deterred by the promise of a full NATO retaliation – conventionally and, if need be, nuclear. And that is risky.
In an ideal scenario, you would have a strong conventional NATO footprint in the front-line, paying special attention to capabilities like theater air and missile power/defense, and land warfare. To be fair, important steps have been taken between NATO’s Wales and Warsaw summits, notably through the enhanced forward presence initiative. But there is still some way to go in terms of being able to match Russian military power locally. That is why recent noises coming from the Trump administration about deploying a US Army brigade to Poland go in the right direction, I think. Another key issue is the need for greater military cooperation between Germany and Poland, for these two countries constitute the geopolitical anchor between Western and Eastern Europe.
The current German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas seems to adhere to the French notion of “multilateralisme forte” - but going a step further and pleading for an alliance of democracies/of likeminded states that see “the benefits of multilateralism, who believe in international cooperation and the rule of the law.” Does Berlin really believe in defending multilateralism without going beyond the cultural aversion for developing 21st military capabilities and a realistic approach for using force in the international arena?
The short answer is no.
To my knowledge, Merkel has not yet explicitly endorsed her foreign minister’s statement. And that might well be because Germany does not have any easy options here. At least not as long there isn’t a revolution in terms of its strategic culture, i.e. its aversion towards the use of force. Short of that sort of revolution, Germany faces a limited set of options: it can continue to delegate (the strategic insurance functions of) its security to the United States; engage in a serious dialogue about a common defense with France (either through an EU proxy or bilaterally); or just bandwagon on Russia. These are not mutually exclusive options, of course. If anything, recent experience tells us that Germany will tend to flirt with all three. Perhaps partly because there is a feeling that a diversified portfolio of strategic bets mitigates its own dependence. And perhaps partly because different domestic constituencies within Germany (the Atlanticists, Europeanists, friends of Russia) advocate for different courses of action.
Each of the options in and of its own is bad. Total dependence on the United States has always been a concern, something to be mitigated. Now it has become politically toxic in light of Trump’s ruthless – almost humiliating – rhetoric against Germany. The French connection, which is often puffed up rhetorically (often through an EU proxy) is unlikely to fly. Very powerful reasons stand on the way of any such scheme. One such reason has to do with the profound differences between France and Germany in terms of strategic culture. France looks at military force not just through the lens of defence and deterrence, but also as a means of advancing its foreign policy and economic interests. And it makes a proactive use of it. Germany rejects that vision. It sees the military as a last resort defensive instrument. Another reason is that, in order for a real Franco-German union to work there would have to be some form of sharing arrangement over France’s nuclear deterrent. Relinquishing the political control over its deterrent is something the French won’t accept, for the deterrent is seen in France as the embodiment of French strategic and political autonomy. And Germany is unlikely to accept a position of strategic subordination to France.
Finally, there’s the option to bandwagon on Russia. This also has clear limits, both because many within Germany will see it as strategically reckless, and because the United States and the other major Western powers will not tolerate it.
To recap, any attempt on the part of Germany to draw on its French and/or Russian connections to emancipate strategically from the United States is likely to backfire. That is why Trump can be so frustrating for many in Berlin: because the strategic (and political) leverage the United States has over Germany is deeply entrenched. Surely, we will hear more and more German politicians ramp up their rhetoric about strategic autonomy. And we may even see the French and the Germans doing a bit more stuff together militarily. And Germany will continue to be tempted to rebalance its Russia policy. But ultimately, none of these options are likely to fly. The alternative, of course, is for Germany to rely more on itself, and break its military taboo. But is it ready for such a leap? And, perhaps more importantly, are its neighbors ready for such a leap?
Do you see any impact of Donald Trump’s discourse on the balance of power in Europe? It seems that he is genuinely rejecting the American-centric liberal international order including some of the institutional frameworks like NATO and EU that were at the core of the US strategy for stabilizing European balance of power. Moreover, his decidedly bilateral approach might fragment the West/Europe instead of unifying it against the revisionist powers as his own administration calls for (either in the speeches of top senior officials or the major planning strategic documents).
It seems to me we’re all paying too much attention to rhetoric and to international institutions. And I think we run the risk of missing the big geopolitical picture. Institutions like NATO and the EU are instruments that reflect, and help channel, great power priorities. Yes: they can facilitate cooperation and add stability into the system. But, as I see it, the foundation for European security hinges on two main, interrelated factors: America’s military presence on the continent; and, ultimately, the fact that the United States continues to have an interest in preserving a regional balance of power in Europe, which means the United States pledges to use its global capabilities to correct possible regional imbalances (regardless of whether those capabilities are permanently stationed in the European theater of operations).
As for the former – America’s direct and permanent military presence in the European theater of operations – the United States has actually doubled the funding for the European Reassurance Initiative under Trump’s watch, i.e. a program initiated by the Obama administration in 2014 to help reassure America’s Eastern European allies in light of Russia’s growing assertiveness. And the Trump administration is even flirting with the idea of deploying a US Army brigade to Poland. So, on that front, I don't see big changes. If anything, Trump appears to be reinforcing America’s military position within the European theater, even if is Secretary Mattis and the DoD who are taking the lead in terms of upholding these reassurance measures in Eastern Europe.
As far as America’s global capabilities go, Trump is increasing defense spending, and is also modernizing the U.S. nuclear deterrent. There is, of course, a broader question about geostrategic prioritization, i.e. between Europe and Asia (and the Middle East). But that is a long-term challenge for the United States, and it transcends Trump. And, as I was arguing earlier, even if China’s rise continues to pull U.S. strategic resources towards Asia – and push Washington to “cut losses” in Europe – there are limits as to how much the United States can disengage from Europe. This is why repeated U.S. calls for transatlantic burden sharing do make sense, and so do Europe’s calls for doing more in terms of security and defense. But the only way for the United States to ensure that Europe’s efforts to take defense and security more seriously are aligned with U.S. interests is to remain engaged in Europe. Bottom line: the limits to U.S. disengagement from Europe are very real.
To what extent are the main European powers endorsing the optics articulated by the NSS and NDS? Potentially, one such front is the “space between” Germany and Russia – where - in theory - the agendas of Europe and the US seem to converge. This is a space where there is an ongoing competition for hearts and minds, where the Western anchoring is questioned, where the illiberal instincts/ghosts are on the march and where not only Russia, but increasingly China are competing for influence.
If my analysis is correct, and Germany and Russia are indeed (alongside the United States) the primary pillars of Europe’s contemporary order, then U.S. policy towards that ‘space between’ you have alluded to should follow a double objective: keep the Russians out and the Germans down. In other words, when thinking about its diplomatic strategy or military footprint in the ‘space between’, the U.S. should come up with solutions that help deter Russia but also balance German influence in the area. In that context, we should take into account that the main currency of German diplomatic influence in the area is economic and that of the U.S. is military. Ultimately, by mainstreaming its strategic and diplomatic position in that “space between”, the United States will be able to have some impact over the evolving relationship between Russia and Germany. The way I see it, the US would like to avoid a German-Russian relationship that is either too cooperative (a German-Russian condominium could upset the entire European system, and US influence therein) or too conflictual (as it could escalate to a confrontation and draw too many US resources into the European theater). The key is to find the right balance. It’s about cooking porridge at the exact temperature or, to be more precise, to ensure that such cooking is to Washington’s liking. And the only way to do that is for the United States to involve itself directly in the cooking process. Hence the importance of being physically present, and diplomatically active, in that ‘space between’.