Europe: the new superpower

Europe: the new superpower

Opinion piece (The Irish Times)
Mark Leonard
18 February 2005

The world that emerges in this century will not be centred on the US or the UN, but will comprise a community of regional clubs led by the Europeans, writes Mark Leonard in London.

In the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC, a middle-aged woman with a weather-beaten face and a brown wig sits on a milk crate. Concepcion Picciotto has been demonstrating against US foreign policy, outside the White House, for 21 years. She sleeps in a sitting position, for just three hours a night, so as to avoid breaking the stringent local vagrancy laws.

It doesn't take long for most Americans to realise that she is European. It is not just that she is naive, weak and anti- American. They recognise her because she lives on American handouts of money and food, enjoys the protection of the Washington Police Department without contributing a cent to pay for its upkeep, and still has the gall to sit at the gates of the White House complaining about the way in which her providers and protectors run their foreign policy.

But maybe the time has come for Concepcion to rise from her crate. It is not as if President George Bush is listening to her anyway. And her obsession with the US is blinding her to Europe's growing power.

For all the talk of the American Empire, the past two years have been more about the limits of American power. Its economic lead over Europe is disappearing (in 1950 its GDP per capita was twice that of Western Europe, while today it is almost the same size), while the political price for saying no to the superpower has never been lower (as Germany, France, Mexico, Turkey and Chile found over Iraq). In fact, the US leads the world in only two ways: it has the biggest army in the world, and the most popular "popular culture". But the combined might of the US military could do nothing to stop 9/11 or halt terrorism in Iraq, and the more America's presence around the world becomes militarised, the less attractive the American way of life becomes.

Meanwhile, across the pond, Europeans - often by accident - have been developing a new kind of power that cannot be measured in terms of military budgets or smart-missile technology. It works in the long term, and is about reshaping the world rather than winning short-term tussles. And when we stop looking at the world through American eyes, we can see that each element of European "weakness" is in fact a facet of its extraordinary transformative power.

In just 50 years, Europeans have made war between European powers unthinkable; European economies have closed the gap with the US; and Europe has brought successive waves of countries out of dictatorship and into democracy. If you look at a map of the world, you can see a zone of peace spreading like a blue oil slick - from the west coast of Ireland to the eastern Mediterranean; from the Arctic Circle to the Straits of Gibraltar - sucking in new members in its wake. Around the 450 million citizens of the EU, there are another 1.5 billion people who depend completely on an EU that is their biggest trade partner and their biggest source of credit, foreign investment, and aid. These two billion people (onethird of the world's population) live in the "Eurosphere": Europe's zone of influence, which is gradually being transformed by the European project and adopting European ways of doing things.

Europe's power is easy to miss. Europe doesn't flaunt its strength or talk about a "single sustainable model of progress" as America does. Instead, like an "invisible hand", it operates through the shell of traditional political structures. The Dail, Irish law courts, and Irish civil servants are still here, but they have all become agents of the European Union, implementing European law. This is no accident. By creating standards that are implemented through national institutions, Europe can take over the world without becoming a target for hostility. The same is true of European troops abroad who often serve under UN or NATO flags rather than the European one.

While every US company, embassy and military base is a terrorist target, Europe's invisibility allows it to spread its influence without provocation. The fact that Europe does not have one leader, but rather a network of centres of power united by common policies and goals, means it can expand to accommodate ever-greater numbers of countries without compromising their independence, while continuing to provide its members with the benefits of being part of the largest market in the world.

Europeans are not interested in classic geo-politics when they talk to other countries: instead, they use the law to change them from within. Instead of talking about the war on terror or the balance of power, they look at what kind of government they have. What values underpin the state? What are its constitutional and regulatory frameworks?

Europe's obsession with legal frameworks means it can transform the countries it comes into contact with, instead of just skimming the surface. The US might have changed the regime in Afghanistan, but Europe is changing all of Polish society, from its economic policies and property laws to its treatment of minorities and what gets served on the nation's tables. The lonely superpower can bribe, bully, or impose its will almost anywhere in the world, but when its back is turned, its potency wanes. The strength of the EU, conversely, is broad and deep: once sucked into its sphere of influence, countries are changed forever.

Europe doesn't change countries by threatening to invade them: its biggest threat is having nothing at all to do with them. The promise of eventual membership has transformed the nature of countries as diverse as Poland, Turkey and Romania. And while the EU is deeply involved in Serbia's reconstruction and supports its desire to be "rehabilitated" as a European state that eventually joins the EU, the US offers Colombia no such hope of integration through multilateral institutions or structural funds, only the temporary "assistance" of American military training missions and aid.

By creating the largest single internal market in the world, Europe has become an economic giant that, according to some calculations, is already the biggest in the world. But it is the quality of Europe's economy that makes it a model. Europeans have shorter working hours and longer holidays than anyone else on the planet. European societies have less inequality, which allows them to save on crime and prison. The fact that our economies do not guzzle gas with SUVs gives us a cushion from hikes in oil prices.

If the US represents the freedom of the individual to consume, and Asia the importance of social stability, Europe allows us to have our cake and eat it. It combines the energy and freedom that comes from liberalism with the stability and welfare that comes from social democracy. As the world becomes richer and moves beyond satisfying basic needs such as hunger and health, the European way of life will become irresistible.

Europe's success has set off a "regional domino-effect" that could change the nature of power beyond its borders. In every corner of the world, countries are drawing inspiration from the European model and nurturing their own neighbourhood clubs from ASEAN (the Association of South-East Asian Nations) and Mercosur (the South American common market) to the African Union and the Arab League. While the global institutions such as the UN, the IMF and the World Bank continue to be playthings of the great powers, these regional organisations are starting to deliver real benefits.

In Sudan in 2004, the African Union sent 4,000 troops to the Darfur region while the UN Security Council was bogged down in a debate about whether the violations constituted genocide. In the Pacific, APEC is becoming a vehicle for promoting open trade and investment between the 21 countries of the region. The Arab world is talking of turning the Arab League into an Arab Union - complete with parliament and single currency - to build on the progress that has already been made on an Arab Free Trade Agreement, the Arab Monetary Fund and the Islamic Development Bank.

Many people have focused on the rise of great powers such as China and India and the implications they will have on world order. There is no doubt they will challenge the "unipolar world" shaped by the preferences of Americans and Europeans, who between them make up less than 15 per cent of the world's population.

But an even bigger threat to the "unipolar moment" comes from the fact that there is another tier of countries around the world - from Brazil and Mexico to South Africa and Nigeria, Japan and South Korea - that have looked at the way the EU has given tiny countries an ability to shape their destiny on the world stage out of all proportion to their wealth, military might or population size. They have seen that regional clubs can help to overcome historical rivalries and tensions, foster democracy, speed up the integration of countries into the world economy and help to develop common solutions to problems that cut across borders - from organised crime to pollution. And as each region develops its own arrangements, they will cumulatively have an impact on world order.

Nearly 500 years ago, Europe invented the most effective form of political organisation in history: the nation-state. Through a series of wars and conquests, this form of political organisation spread like a virus, so that by the 20th century it was the only way of organising politics - eliminating empires, city-states, and feudal systems. Because nationstates were most comfortable dealing with other nation-states, other political systems faced a stark choice: become a nation-state, or get taken over by one. By the end of the 20th century the only way to have a seat at the table was to be a nation-state.

In the second half of the 20th century, Europeans started to reinvent this model. As Europe develops ever greater global clout and spreads to take over a continent, other countries have been faced with an equally stark choice: join the EU, or develop your own union based on the same principles of international law, interfering in each other's affairs, and peace as an ideology. By the end of the 21st century, in the new regional world, you will need to be part of a club to have a seat at the table. The world that emerges will be centred on neither the US nor the UN, but will be a community of interdependent regional clubs.

As the momentum for regional organisation picks up, great powers such as the US will inevitably be sucked into the process of integration. They might be able to slow the process, but they won't be able to stop it. As this process continues, we will see the emergence of a "New European Century". Not because Europe will run the world as an empire, but because the European way of doing things will have become the world's.

Mark Leonard was director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform (2005-2007)