Europe’s Arc of Fire

Europe is weak and flailing about, facing challenges to its stability from abroad and from within. It may pull through, but it is not a foregone conclusion that it will.

Europe is engulfed by an arc of fire. And this arc, existing just outside Europe, is linked to multiple crises inside Europe. While instability in the Middle East needs no introduction, Europe’s stability, too, cannot be taken for granted.

To the east, Europe faces the specter of both Russian aggression and Russian weakness. Russia is a revisionist power that seeks to recreate a sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe: integral to that is the destabilization of Ukraine. A new Warsaw Pact, however, is not in the offing. The Warsaw Pact was too expensive and time-consuming to maintain, and the burden of that helped bring down the Soviet Union. But various forms and levels of Finlandization of the belt of states from Estonia south to Bulgaria is possible, as the foreign ministries in these countries increasingly have to pay attention to Moscow’s wishes. Yet Russia is also weak, due to crumbling energy prices that have undermined its economy and the absence of institutions due to Vladimir Putin’s centralizing authoritarianism. Big, weak states export instability simply by the fact of their decline.

To the southeast of Europe there is Greece, which is not only an economic basket case undermining the European Union (EU), but a basket case that may be moving increasingly closer to Putin’s Russia. Greece, keep in mind, has an extreme left-wing government, an Orthodox Christian religion like Russia’s, and a modern history of sympathy between Athens and Moscow despite being in opposing alliances during the Cold War. Russia has long coveted naval basing and visitation rights at Greek ports. Were Greece ever to leave the Eurozone, expect a warming political and strategic relationship with the Kremlin.

A bit further to the southeast is the Levant, whose instability involving the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and a nuclearizing Iran requires no introduction or explanation. Whatever the intensity of the debate in Washington surrounding Mideast policy, the anarchy in Syria and Mesopotamia threatens Europe more. The reason: geographical proximity, which results in more human interactions between radical Islamists in the Levant and Muslim communities inside Europe. As the indigenous European population rapidly ages and Muslims in Europe increase their ratio in the overall population, the future of Europe could be, at least in part, written in the sands of the Middle East, as Islamic jihadists inspire home-grown terrorists in European cities.

To the south there is the chaos in Libya, which, in turn, threatens Tunisia, even as Algeria’s leader, Abdelazziz Bouteflika, is dying and the future stability of Algeria is seriously in doubt. Europe’s southern border has never been the Mediterranean (which is more a connector than a divider) but the Sahara Desert: meaning the situation along the North African coast, where most Arab North Africans actually live, is also key to Europe’s future.

But while Europe is increasingly vulnerable to these threats from its near-abroad, never in recent times has Europe been quite so vulnerable from the inside—on account of its own disunity. The failure of the European Union to take decisive action to cure its now half-decade-long economic crisis is a sign that while Asia has dynamic and resolute leaders (Xi Jinping in China, Shinzo Abe in Japan, Narendra Modi in India), Europe has none. European leaders are, in the main, gray, insipid ciphers who stand for little except finessing rather than dealing with the next crisis, and the next. Such leaders cannot be expect to deal with the challenges of Russia and the Middle East.

Perhaps the only strong decisive personality in Europe is not really within Europe itself: Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who, following the EU’s rebuff of his country, has been attempting to make his economically dynamic state a major power in the Middle East—and one not necessarily aligned with Western interests.

There is, of course, France, which has been taking deft military action to stabilize the Sahara and Sahel to Europe’s south. But those moves have less to do with the interests of Europe per se than with France’s own legacy and de facto interest as a former imperial power in Africa. Nineteenth century imperialism, not the 20th century EU, is allowing Europe to deal with Boko Haram.

There is a regrettable trend here: as the Middle East disintegrates and as Russia becomes more brazen, the unifying mechanisms of the EU and NATO are slowly giving way to parochial nationalisms within Europe (and with the anti-Semitism that comes indirectly in their wake).

Postwar Europe originally stood for states rather than nations: states being rule-of-law regimes protecting the rights of the individual; nations being ethnic and religious solidarity groups that can trample on the rights of the individual, if he or she is not a member of the favored group. But as economic stagnation goes on for year after year this lofty Kantian vision is diluted.

Europe’s crisis is a deeply moral, spiritual, and structural oneEurope’s crisis is a deeply moral, spiritual, and structural one, as George Friedman, the founder of the private intelligence firm Stratfor (my former employer), writes in his latest book, Flashpoints. For years already, Friedman has been writing that Europe is only in the early stages of its demise. Will the almost seventy-odd years since World War II be remembered as only a peaceful and prosperous interregnum in Europe’s long and often tragic history? I still believe there are grounds for thinking that Europe will muddle through this crisis and recover. The EU and NATO may be troubled, but their very efficiency and longevity have created robust bureaucratic and governing realities all their own. Many, especially in the former Communist lands of Mitteleuropa still believe fervently in Europe.

The question is, do Europe’s own leaders believe thus.

Robert D. Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. His book on Romania and Moldova will be published in 2016.
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