Helsinki and Paris – a New Security Architecture for the Euro-Asia Space

Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for wpfdc.org

1. Europe’s new schism?

The continual crisis in Ukraine is perpetuating an East-West schism that was never overcome after the end of the Cold War. Even if there is no all-out war between the major powers involved in the Ukrainian conflict, Europe faces the distinct prospect of a permanent divide at its very heart. The EU increasingly looks like an annex to the United States, which has historically oscillated between isolationism and interventionism. Indeed, since 1893 Washington has practiced regime change (especially in its own ‘backyard’), [1] but it has also periodically retreated from international affairs – whether in the years prior to 1917 or indeed by refusing to participate in the League of Nations during the interwar period. Today the US is once again meddling in European affairs while at the same time pivoting away from the Euro-Atlantic space to the Asia-Pacific rim in order to shore up its interests against the rising power of China (a theme to which I will return shortly).

Meanwhile, Russia has been repeatedly rebuffed by the West in the 1990s and early 2000s, especially in relation to common security arrangements, and it has had to confront an increasingly aggressive brand of Western liberalism – as John Mearsheimer has recently argued in an article in Foreign Affairs [2]. In response, Moscow has turned its attention to Central Asia and the Far East, tightening relations with Eurasian neighbours and other partners as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). However, there are risks that Russia might become excessively dependent on supplying cheap resources to China. Meanwhile there are signs that Beijing is much more interested in consolidating its own sphere of influence than forging a strategic alliance with Moscow, which it tends to view as a junior partner rather than an equal ally.

For all these and other reasons, the EU and Russia risk finding themselves on the margins of global geo-politics rather than at the forefront. After more than 500 years at the centre of international affairs, the whole of Europe seems increasingly bereft of ideas and incapable of acting as a force for good.

For too long, European and Western foreign policy has focused either on national interests or on ‘universal’ values, but neither has offered a coherent, long-term strategy. On the contrary, one of the striking features of the current crisis is the absence of strategic thinking on virtually all sides. Short-term tactics for self-interested purposes has prevailed over long-term strategy that can serve the mutual interests of all – stability, prosperity and ultimate the flourishing of all in a shared neighbourhood. This is as true for the 1999 bombing of Serbia and Kosovo’s controversial independence as it is for the events in Georgia in 2008 and now in Ukraine.

Reckless short-sightedness on the part of big powers has brought Europe to the brink of a dangerous escalation that could stretch from a draconian sanctions regime crippling both the Russian and the Western economy all the way to an armed conflict involving some NATO countries such as Poland or the Baltic States. Whatever the differences between 1914 and 2014, history suggests that great powers can quite easily be dragged into conflicts that mutate into world wars.

Over the past 200 years, each major conflict was followed by a new international order – the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the League of Nations in 1919 and indeed the United Nations in 1945. The same never happened after 1989 and 1991 – except the 1990 Paris Charter that was ignored by Western powers in favour of NATO expansion. Thus there are no common rules of substantive engagement except much-disputed norms in international law.

More fundamentally, the Westphalian system never resolved the basic contradiction between the principles of territorial integrity on the one hand, and national self-determination on the other hand. Now the Ukraine crisis has finally laid to rest the intellectual remnants of the modern system. Just as a new settlement is not yet beyond reach, so too the prospect of mass warfare has not disappeared.

2. The strategic vacuum at the heart of the Euro-Asian space

The US economy may be booming again, but it remains addicted to debt and thus dependent on the savings glut of emerging markets such as China. Once the latter’s economic expansion slows down significantly, as it most probably will over the next decade, the US will struggle – with knock-on effect for its military might. Of course a renewal of US power is perfectly envisageable, not least because of America’s ability to innovate economically and militarily (e.g. robotic technology). It is hoped that this renewal will help the country to recover its own best traditions of a republic of virtue – not a commercial society allied to an interventionist ideology. However, the relative decline of US power and the rise in China’s military capabilities create the conditions for geopolitical instability [3].

Beyond even the more imminent danger of a war of the western powers with Russia, there is a small yet distinct possibility that the US and China are heading for a major conflict that may be fought in cyberspace and outer space as much (or more) as on land or sea. Both countries view themselves as exceptionalist civilisations and hegemons, with China fast becoming a revisionist power that seeks to challenge the Western-dominated order and ultimately replace it with a Sino-centric one. As Christopher Coker has argued, the ‘Thucydidean Trap’ – when a conservative status quo power confronts a rising new one – could precipitate hostilities in a context where both lack a proper cultural understanding of one another, and neither has a coherent strategy to avert war [4].

At the same time, the US can choose isolationism and China might extend a protective umbrella to the rest of what it considers to be its own Middle Kingdom – the ‘renegade’ region of Taiwan, the East and South China Sea as well as neighbouring countries. Whatever Washington and Beijing choose, they will leave EU and Russia with some of the most volatile areas of the globe. Indeed, both are situated in one of the most dangerous parts of the world – at the interstice of Europe, Africa, the Near East and the wider Caucasian corridor to Eurasia.

3. A new Commonwealth of Europe: reviving the spirit of Helsinki and Paris

The existing political and military structures are inadequate on their own terms and in relation to higher purposes such as genuine reconciliation, justice and peace. What the wider Europe requires is a novel type of commonwealth – people, partly under religious inspiration, covenanted with each other in the interests of mutual benefit. In practice, this means a multi-national association of peoples and nations that shares risks, rewards and resources. This could be a voluntary agreement amongst participatory nations to meet minimum standards in both the economic and the social realms. Also to meet certain shared standards of ‘subsidiarity’, or of decentralised control and responsibility. Part of that covenant could be a pooled promise of financial assistance under inspected control, if any nation found it hard to meet such standards.

Such an extended covenant for social and economic justice could indeed be a way to revive and rethink countries as diverse as Russia and the UK as something like a multi-national association – an association where social and cultural ties shape our identity more than entitlements and contracts. A version of the same idea could make the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union work for and not against nations, regions and individual people.

In terms of security, the whole of Europe needs to summon the spirit of Helsinki and Paris. In times of acute crisis, it is worth remembering that at the height of the Cold War and the permanent risk of nuclear confrontation, all the European powers came together as part of the Helsinki process. After two years of often torturous negotiations, they signed the Helsinki Final Act in 1975 that ruled out a nuclear first strike and set the continent on a path towards peace, finally culminating in the fall of the Iron Curtain. In 1990, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) that emerged from Helsinki became the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its members adopted the Paris Charter. 25 years later, the OSCE still provides the only real basis for shared security cooperation between East and West.

To recreate a modicum of mutual trust and cooperation in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, there are two broad options. Either the European members of NATO take over the organisation and pool their defence spending in order to compensate for the US Pacific pivot. Long-term Franco-British leadership could help bring this about, especially if it is linked to the security and defence dimension of the EU. Over time such a European take-over of NATO could also create a way of integrating Russia into the political structures – like France’s status from time when General de Gaulle withdraw the country from the military structures until that historic decision was reversed by President Nicholas Sarkozy.

However, NATO still suffers from its original design fault – ‘to keep the Americans in, the Germans down and the Russians out’. If the USA use NATO to retain their pre-eminent status in the Euro-Atlantic world and if Germany does not get more involved to build bridges between France, Britain and Russia, then there is little hope that the North-Atlantic alliance can be transformed.

The alternative to this scenario is a new, pan-European security architecture that consists of all the European countries and all the various organisations, including NATO, the OSCE, the CSTO and the SCO. Here the main obstacle is a lack of shared strategic vision and the inherent difficulty of devising new common principles, institutions and policies. At the same time, the status quo is simply not viable, as competing spheres of influence will always lead to new clashes – whether direct confrontation or conflicts via proxies.

A new Euro-Asian security settlement will only emerge if all the European powers can deal with the most immediate threats. Concretely, this means a status for Ukraine similar to that of Finland and Austria – i.e. close economic and political ties with both the EU and Russia, but militarily non-aligned, i.e. not joining NATO in its current configuration. Second, the end of mutually crippling sanctions between the West and Russia, which will only weaken Europe and strengthen other powers around the world. Third, re-orienting cooperation towards the Kurds and also the Syrian government in order to confront and defeat ISIL. Fourth, putting in place cooperative structures aimed at stabilising ‘AfPak’.

4. Concluding reflection

Euro-Asia’s shared legacy revolves around social, cultural and linguistic ties over centuries and even millennia – Indo-European languages, religious bonds and trade links. It is this more organic unity that is currently at stake, facing the most serious internal and external threats since 1945. At present and for the foreseeable future, the greatest threats to civilisation are post-national – crony capitalism and the religious extremism of the Islamic State. In the coming years and decades, if we want to contain such forces and shape the future to prevent a ‘clash of civilizations’, then we must have our own coherent international response. Global liberalism is insufficient and has only reinforced the rise of extremists. On the contrary, only a new pan-European commonwealth can defend the dignity of the human person and uphold all the forms of association that enable human beings to flourish.

All this is only utopian in terms of the current logic and liberal ideology, but it can be achieved under the carapace of a different set of ideas and institutions that combine realism with idealism. Over-ambitious and fanciful? Perhaps, but worth trying, because our only other option is to try to emulate the USA and China (and how extraordinary that those who defend national sovereignty should call for just this). This risks destroying our European, Christian values for the sake of a global competition that we Europeans are likely to lose anyway. At the very least, it would be better to decline nobly and not ignominiously. Yet the best traditions of Europe suggest that in the long run nobility is more likely to succeed.
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[1] Noel Maurer, The Empire Trap: the Rise and Fall of US Intervention to Protect American Property Overseas (1893-2013) (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013); Steven Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (New York: Times Books, 2007).
[2] John J. Mearsheimer, ‘Why the Ukraine crisis is the West’s fault’, Foreign Affairs, no http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141769/john-j-mearsheimer/why-the-ukraine-crisis-is-the-wests-fault
[3] Carl Walter and Fraser Howie, Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise (Oxford: Wiley, 2012); Robert Farley, ‘America, Take Notice: China’s Five Military Game Changers’, The National Interest, 23 August 2014, available online at http://nationalinterest.org/feature/america-take-notice-chinas-five-military-game-changers-11138
[4] Christopher Coker, The Improbable War. China, the United States and the Logic of Great Power Conflict (London: Hurst, 2014).