"I am starting to wonder whether India will have replaced Europe as the U.S.'s closest partner by 2050." I received this tweet halfway into the second day of this year's Riga Conference, an annual exercise in mental stock-taking for the transatlantic community in Latvia's beautiful capital city. The tweep sending this message was Hans Kundnani (@hanskundnani), the ECFR's razor-sharp observer of European and Security affairs. He sits on the other side of the large conference room in Blackhead's House, a splendidly re-built Hanseatic brick gem in Riga's old city. My heart sinks. The evening before, we had agonized over dinner about the lack of creative thinking in Europe on foreign affairs, and now we semi-publicly agonize over the pitiful spectacle that is unfolding before our eyes. For what we see and hear is part of Europe's farewell to foreign policy relevance.
Admittedly, conference panels, especially when occupied mainly by government officials and web-streamed in real-time, are of limited value for the debate about deeper political matters. But the community is used to reading between the lines, and this year it certainly wasn't a very pleasant read. The problem with Europeans, clearly, is not a lack of awareness. Contrary to what many observers claim, they are not living in fairy-tale land. Europeans have few illusions about the state of the world, they can read, after all. It's the unwillingness to draw conclusions from this, and act on them, that is the problem.
Speaker after speaker in Riga added to an emerging picture of the world that should shake Europeans out of their foreign policy complacency. It is a picture of the Western post-cold war status quo coming apart. The list of worrisome items is endless: euro crisis turning into sclerosis 2.0, burning embassies across the Middle East, China both assertive and in trouble, demographics going south, Russia in aggressive decline, Turkey growing internationally while deteriorating domestically, NATO slowly turning into an empty shell, an increasingly hopeless situation in Afghanistan, the Sahel turning into the new Afghanistan, Germany in denial about both its strength and its coming weakness, Britain in recession and with severe bouts of great power blues, France struggling with even mild domestic reform, the United States stymied by a suicidal—and, one is tempted to say un-American—loss of domestic political common sense. And this is just the shortlist.
But the depressing take-away from the conference is not the catalogue of worrisome developments, it is the European reaction to it. "Switzerland is not such a bad country", answers a senior former diplomat from a major European country when asked whether the European Union aspired to being a larger version of the Helvetic confederation instead of an international mover and shaker. And he is only half joking, at best. "Maybe we should have a NATO-China Council, modeled after the NATO-Russia Council" someone else suggested, when addressing how Europe can react to the fact that the nexus of global security is moving slowly to the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Needless to say, the Americans are exasperated. Kurt Volker (@kvolker), former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, and one of the few remaining Europeanists in Washington, receives empty stares when he asks: What is it that we want to achieve together? How can we promote the Western agenda?
To be sure, there are some very outspoken European voices. Take Norwegian Defense Minister, Espen Barth Eide (@EspenBarthEide), who makes the chilling double-statement that symmetric threats are back in Europe, and that Article 5 of the NATO treaty has lost its credibility because European military assets have lost their deterrent power. Take Julian Lindley-French, historian and long-time critic of Europe's historic hard-power forgetfulness: "All elements for substantial rivalry between nations states in Europe are back in place", he says. In that light, one is not sure whether his lament that Europeans have, across the board, cut 30 percent of their defense spending over the last three years is unsettling or reassuring.
The key problem in all this is the appalling lack of ambition Europeans reveal in all areas of foreign and security policy. Europeans don’t seem to want much from the world, or from their own role in it. In the debate, interests are permanently confused with values, and if, at last, a real European interest is defined, nothing follows from it. No one really wants to shape the world anymore to make it a safer, better place that serves Europe's goals. Nobody is willing to act on the insight that a wealthy, democratic, values-oriented, trade-dependent continent is by default a global stakeholder in need of powerful foreign policy tools.
Very little is expected from Germans these days in this respect, for sure. But where are the strategically-minded British and French foreign policymakers? Where is their plea, based on the above assessment, for a more united European foreign policy, including a list of defined interests and a suggestion as to how these interests can be pursued? Where are those politicians who tie their political destiny to the question of a truly strategic Europe, a Europe that draws hard conclusions from a changing world and the challenges it poses?
None of this is new, none of it surprising. But that does not make it any less worrisome. Europe is a historically fragile continent. Endless economic and political efforts are necessary every day to sustain its unprecedented levels of stability, affluence, and freedom. Increasingly, these blessings rely on how we deal with our immediate and wider neighborhood, and with the strategic hotspots around the world. The lack of ambition to act on this is, ultimately, a lack of ambition to survive. But downfall is not an option, especially when one knows how to prevent it from happening. It is this complacency that I found so profoundly unsettling at the Riga conference last weekend.
In this context, my tweeted answer (@jan_techau) to Hans Kundnani was probably too mild: "Yes, and it's not because of a lack of European assets, but because of a lack of awareness, intellectual investment, interest."