The return of history, and Europe’s place in it

, by Viktor Roussel

The return of history, and Europe's place in it

This article has been approved by the JEF Belgium winter federal committee as an official position paper of the section.

After the fall of the Berlin wall, in Europe and the West as a whole, a certain triumphalism was the norm. A widespread idea emerged that liberal democracy and neoliberalism had won, that the entire world would march on in perpetual peace, growing ever more wealthy. The great ideological questions were resolved and it appeared as for mankind the happy ever after had at long last arrived. A new world had emerged with a new set of rules. The European political class believed future disputes could be resolved in diplomatic fashion through institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund or the European Union. The use of soft power became the main instrument of resolving conflicts. In this new world, countries could merely focus on maximizing prosperity and geopolitical considerations became an afterthought. In the last thirty years international trade flourished as never before, long closed-off regions were integrated in the world economy and a global middle class emerged.

As time went on, however, several cracks punctured holes in this promise. Firstly, after 9/11 the notion of security received a major blow. 7 years later the crash of the international financial system showed the structural liabilities of free flow of capital and with it the promise of ever greater prosperity faltered. Then in 2020, a global pandemic threw the globe, and just-in-time supply lines, in disarray. It became clear the globalized world system lacked resilience. Despite all these setbacks, the European political elite has tried everything to retain peace & prosperity. It took a nuclear power to invade a European country to open the eyes of many, and after a thirty year break, history marches on. What really caused the unprecedented stability of the world system the last thirty years was not just the ideas and institutions of democracy but really the overwhelming power of the winner of the Cold War, the USA, who happened to be a liberal democracy. In every metric since the fall of the USSR, the USA was indeed relatively far more powerful than any competitor. This unipolar moment where one nation is the undisputed hegemon implied a peace dividend for all countries to enjoy. The US was able to control the word system by itself. Countries who did try to break the status quo with hard power (Iraq vs Kuwait for example) were quickly brought back in line. For this reason security concerns were viewed as more and more obsolete.

This unipolar moment was never going to last, as time went on new challengers to the status quo with divergent national interest would inevitably emerge. China is an obvious example, and just on our doorstep, Russia is another. In order to distance themselves from the hegemon the go-to ideology these challengers tap into is usually a mix of revanchism, nationalist pride and the local religion. As these challengers grow more confident and aggressive, they come head to head with the status quo. In order to contain these new threats, a rapid decoupling of the world economy is already taking place. The mutual trust is evaporating and nations are scrambling for regional self-sufficient supply lines. The fourth wave of globalization has met its highwater mark and regionalization appears to be the norm for the foreseeable future.

These trends leave Europe exposed. As we bought into the meme of the end of history, we dismissed the notion that in times of peace you should prepare for war. And now that war has come to our doorstep, we see ourselves, for example, forced to fund the Russian war effort with billions of euros due to our energy dependency. This is just one area of exposure, as when the balance of power in the global system shifts, it undergoes significant amounts of turbulence. The Ukraine war alone already has several unforeseen consequences that will lead to further chaos. The lack of a harvest in Ukraine, the breadbasket for the Middle East, and the Russian ban on fertilizing export will see the price of food more than double in the poorest regions of the world at best, and at worst, could lead to starvation on a scale we do not know. The last time prices for food in the Middle East went up, the Arab spring happened. It is not unreasonable to assume our entire neighborhood will be in a state of turmoil. As we have learned in 2015, our institutions are not yet able to cope with these kinds of pressures.

This is just a specific possibility, and is therefore not destined to happen. However, what is quite likely is that we are heading for a more turbulent world, where the ability to project hard power is paramount. In short it comes down to this: when a storm comes, you need a house built on solid foundations. And in geopolitical terms, a solid foundation is based on 2 pillars, a minimum of economic self-reliance and a solid military, capable of securing core strategic interests. Both are necessary and both are lacking.

Whether or not Europe can adapt to these changed circumstances will determine its standing in the world and with it, the good fortunes of its citizens.

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