As we passed the centenary of World War I, the beginning of which marked the high water-mark of European political power, it must be remarked that the most significant change in the geo-political map was not the defeat of fascism or the death of Soviet-style communism but the utter collapse of all the European imperialist systems of government. Of course various forms of hegemony, colonialism, and suzerainty still exist in the modern world and European nations have not been above getting their hands dirty overseas since the end of the Cold War. However, a century after the start of Europe’s bloodbath, the continent has turned inwards.
In the face of their weak militaries, declining percentage of economic output and small territories and populations, individual European nations, with the dubious possible exception of Russia, have reached the point of geopolitical obsolescence. European states since 1991 have therefore hedged their bets; they have sheltered under the umbrella of the American hegemon economically and militarily, but they have also submerged their old rivalries into a limited political and economic union. Theoretically this was about ending the security dilemmas that contributed to two devastating world wars and forty years of division. But its raison d’être since 1991 has been to keep small European countries “punching above their weight” in a world of emerging giants.
Much like later Qing China however, today’s postmodern European leaders are still keen to project an attitude of cultural omnipotence. Europe’s time as a trendsetter may be passed they believe, but it’s present and future will still be that of a leading global center transmitting enlightened, pacific thoughts to the rest of the planet. This is not entirely untrue. When the legacy of today’s Europe is written down into the history books it will include the steady global promotion of the rights of women and workers, tolerance for sexual minorities, the tackling of racial, religious and ethnic prejudice and the avocation (not always matched by action) of gentler forms of government and stronger civil rights.
These are all laudable goals, if long-term and not uniquely European. But as a vision of the future it remains Euro-centric vision of world order and frankly wrong. Most Europeans have forgotten that the first rule of international relations is about who can do what to whom: capabilities, not virtue, drives politics. It is instructive to witness the indignant elite reaction to Vladimir Putin’s reintroduction of power politics to the placid pool of European life; unlike more “backwards” places, “we” are supposed to be above that sort of thing. Russia has been a bad partner, muddying our tidy little post-sovereign area with its filthy geopolitics.
The key to the future of European relations with the outside world is firstly to realize that the rest of the world has not stopped evolving new models of political and economic thought; Europe was not the only region where the end of the Cold War upended long-held beliefs and systems, and these places no longer look to it to see a model to emulate. If there is still an unconscious legacy of European imperialism a century on among its home nations, it is their tendency to believe that, despite their growing irrelevance, the rest of the world still needs to learn from Europe more than Europe needs to learn from the rest of the world.
The future of Europe as a relevant 21st century actor still lies in its ability to deepen the integration of communities which it began towards the end of the last century. The US will remain a great power for the foreseeable future, but its position as global hegemon after 1991 was always going to be finite; Europe must learn to wean itself off the US if it is ever to become its own community and strong enough to be an independent agenda in the coming multi-polar world. This will not be easy; modern Europe’s borders were only drawn after WWI and do not reflect the ethnic and linguistic divides of the continent any more than their predecessors did. The continental integration movement, what we call the European Union today, came about as the solution Europe stumbled across after nearly a century of fighting over the question of a united Germany’s place in Europe. In fact the modern nation-state itself first emerged in what is today Germany as the solution to a previous century of European religious wars.
As with every successful solution, the drawbacks of a broadly successful pan-European integration project have become today’s new problems for European politics. Solving the problems caused by German unification has created a largely unloved supranational bureaucracy, a resurgence of mirconationalism within the framework of the EU and a mismatched array of powers and responsibilities. Helpful lessons for Europeans on how to handle their confederacy could be found by searching in the state-building projects of the older postcolonial societies in Asia and the two Americas; they also had to adapt their often fragmented societies to new or alien modes of organization. Pre-Meiji Japan, the Thirteen Colonies under the Articles of Confederation or even post-Qing China all managed the challenge of stabilizing as a coherent single political unit. As other nations have done in the past, the Europeans should look to global history and to the struggles of newly independent states today to model themselves upon.