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Europe Caught Between Two Wars

Mar 04, 2024
  • Jade Wong

    Senior Fellow, Gordon & Leon Institute

Three years ago, readers might think the title of this article referred to Europe between two world wars. What come to mind now are the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East. Both are happening on Europe’s doorstep. Both are dealing a heavy blow to the European economy and society. And both are seriously shaking European security and order.

At the end of October, Josep Borrell, the head of EU diplomacy, described his feelings upon hearing news of the Hamas-Israeli conflict. He described having a feeling similar to the one he had on the morning of Feb. 24, 2022, when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. “We were going to face another decisive moment in history, creating great human suffering and defining the EU’s global role for years to come,” he said.

Perhaps we can help Europe make an assessment. 

I. The worst has been avoided. 

Europe has failed to turn the crisis into an opportunity, but it has adapted itself to the circumstances and managed to safeguard its values and interests. It may even be argued that the current situation has to some extent helped to avoid greater difficulties.

On the fourth day of the Ukrainian crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin placed Russian deterrent forces on high alert, laying bare a nuclear war scenario for Europe. Ukraine’s victory will be in Europe’s long-term interests, but avoiding escalation or spillover is Europe’s most urgent need. On the other hand, Europe doesn’t want to see the entire Eurasian region engulfed in chaos, a stance that was manifest in its cautious statements about the Wagner mutiny.

Europe is not pursuing a quick or complete victory for Ukraine. Two massive counterattacks were launched by the country in autumn 2022 and again in summer last year. The result was protracted deadlocks on the battlefield. Still, at the recent Munich Security Conference, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz refused to provide Ukraine with Taurus cruise missiles — likely for fear that they could be used to attack the Russian homeland.

In addition to tactical considerations, two factors have prevented Europe from going in for the kill: First is the diplomatic decision-making mechanism at the EU level and democracy at the state level. Second is Europe’s military production capacity.

On the Middle East issue, Europe is more marginalized. An anti-Jewish history and an Islamphobic reality have divided the continent. Despite being the largest aid provider for the Middle East, Europe has failed to play a geopolitical role after the outbreak of the conflict. In the final analysis, it is still the military strength of the United States — two aircraft carrier strike groups and the Operation Prosperity Guardian — that is stabilizing the situation in the region.

Europe has multiple concerns with regard to the Middle East. It wants to avoid an influx of refugees, first of all. The Arab Spring in 2011 led to the European refugee crisis in 2015, and that remains fresh in Europe’s memory. With insufficient military resources for a third world war, it does not want to face three wars at the same time, in the Middle East, Ukraine and possibly the Indo-Pacific region. Meanwhile, it wants to secure maritime communication lanes and free trade.

Given that American actions have addressed Europe’s main concerns, Europe has largely acquiesced and cooperated. The EU has also launched its separate Red Sea escort, Operation Aspides, which nevertheless turns out to supplement America’s operations. 

II. Pros and cons of past dependence 

It is common in history that success in the past becomes a burden. The current European predicament is the result of its complex legacy of past successes.

Integration, which started at the beginning of the Cold War and accelerated after its end, has been the winning formula for Europe for a half-century. It is not only synonymous with the European regional order, but also a source of strength for Europe in international affairs. But the two ongoing wars pose an integration challenge.

Europe actually has a wave-like hierarchical order — core states but with inner and outer circles. Those at the center established the European Community, which then gradually changed the nature (democracy), identity (European) and behavior (transfer of sovereign power) of its neighbors. These were then pulled into the “lasting peace” system through EU membership. Those not eligible were put into echelons of varying distance to membership — such as candidate countries, eastern neighbors and members of the Union for the Mediterranean. Russia, Ukraine and the Middle East all lie at the porous outer circle of the European security order. The two current wars highlight the boundaries of European influence.

However, European integration has not been fundamentally denied. Without the centripetal force of the EU, the Ukrainians simply do not have the psychological power to resist Russia. Without the prospect of EU membership, the postwar reconstruction of Ukraine will become a huge problem, as the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan have indicated.

Reassessing and sorting out the legacy of integration is the biggest strategic problem facing European politicians at present. The European political community proposal by French President Emmanuel Macron only marks the beginning.

Another major strategic issue is the transatlantic relationship.

Europe’s focus on peace and prosperity after World War II has been preconditioned on a security umbrella provided by the United States. The price paid by Europe is to accept American hegemony. The possibility of another Trump-style leader in the U.S. has shaken the premise.

Europe does not have the strength to replace American hegemony, nor does it see any other country as a potential new hegemon. Therefore, about the only thing Europe can do is accelerate its “strategic autonomy,” mainly as a supplement — and sometimes a buffer — to American hegemony, with a consolidated position as the flank of the West.

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