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EFSAS Commentary

Europe’s envisioned role in the Middle East and South Asia: Only to succeed on the basis of equal partnerships


Within the past week, slight diplomatic quakes could be felt globally as multiple European leaders have finally begun to raise their voices in declarations of a push towards a new world order. These noteworthy declarations were made by some of Europe’s most influential leaders, President Macron of France, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. It appears that a new route of foreign policy is on the horizon for Europe as some in Europe feel that the continent has found itself at a pivotal moment that should forge the landscape of the 21st century.

The push for Europe to become more dominant, bold, and independent is in reaction to several major occurrences within the last couple of years which have shifted the political equilibrium. Donald Trump has become President of the United States (US); the rhetoric of US’ and his administration since 2016 is aggressively isolationist, and he is trying to govern with an “America First” policy. Subsequently, the United States has withdrawn from the Iran Deal, the Paris Climate Accord, and President Trump has made veiled threats about cuts of funding to major establishments like NATO and the UN while Brexit also looms ahead, set to take place by March 2019. This has left Europe scrambling to reimagine a world without its main companionships as well as sources of funding, and has forced its leaders to contemplate about a possible new vision for the future.

On 27 August, President Macron spoke at a French Ambassador’s Conference where he said that it is time for Europe to rely on itself for security and protection and that it could no longer lean on the US in this regard. Independence as a sovereignty is a must in his eyes affirming that they can no longer be the victim of a big bully. Macron acknowledged that China and the US do not see Europe as an equal and that Europe had let itself become “bland, weakened, and suggestion-less”, and that this was the opportune time to change that. This would mean a greater European defense cooperation as well as a greater collection of funding for NATO and the UN. Macron asserted that the continent will have to look outwards and towards innovative places for new relationships, asking “What are we going to reinvent?”.

Mirroring the sentiments of France’s President Macron is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who gave her first speech this week after the summer recess. She too stated that Europe needs to take on more responsibility globally and largely increase the defense budget in order for Europe to prosper and to ensure peace, prosperity, and freedom. Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Mass also released an article in the Handelsblatt Global on 22 August titled “Making Plans for a New World Order”. In this piece he emphasized that the US and Europe have been drifting apart long before the election of Donald Trump and that it is time for the continent to realize this and begin something new. He beseeched Europeans to reassess their role in the world to become the cornerstone in the international order. His suggestions included the setup of an alternative payment system to SWIFT that would not involve the US and allow Europe to make its own financial decisions without the sway of American money. Maas, like Macron, talks of involvement in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa and ways to forge partnerships in these regions.

All three leaders seem to realize the importance of those in Europe working together to fill in the gaps that will open due to Brexit and the policies of the Trump Administration.

Europe has been living under the nuclear umbrella of the US since the end of the Second World War. The retreat of America now punches holes in the familiarity of the world order for the last 70-75 years and a repetitive theme amongst journalists, analysts, and politicians is that of the talk of the decline of the US as a super power, especially in the era of Trump. But up until now, it doesn’t appear to be that anyone or any country has done anything to demonstrate otherwise or has asserted its own dominance over the US – it has all just been talk. This new rhetoric amongst European leaders is fresh and interesting, but will Macron or Merkel really do something with this opportune moment? Can Europe stand on its own without the United States and its military and money?

Perhaps the key to this is not becoming like the US, but different than the US, and maybe the lock lies within Asia and the Middle East. The best thing the European continent can do for itself during this rapidly changing time is learn from the mistakes of American foreign policy, as well as its own, and develop a new point of view as it now tries to establish new partnerships and alliances.  

As Europe’s comrades, the UK and the US fade into the background, it is time to bridge unions with more non-Western countries. Places like the Middle East and South Asia provide many opportunities and benefits. These territories offer significant resources, future business prospects, and new perspectives. However, the relationships between Europe and these regions is still raw and the ghost of NATO and Western intervention still resonates negativity. One cannot forget the wounds of colonialism as well. There is a history of Western countries, not just the US, going to a country to simply protect themselves, extract resources, and then leave an empty shell. Or intervene on the basis of the enforcement of “human rights” as a cover up for economic gains. European countries need to be very careful and approach forging alliances in this area in a new manner than in the past, as these did not work and only created turmoil. Groups such as Islamic State are the offspring of improper Western interference.

Sensitivity to the cultures and a mutual understanding and balanced partnership is of utmost importance.

Haas, Merkel, and Macron currently press hard for a stronger cooperative defense operation and setup, but this is not necessarily the answer. Yes, Europe needs to be able to defend itself (as Permanent Structured Cooperation – PESCO - recently has been signed to strengthen its defense), but Europe also needs to be diligent in not letting the operation go too far and become only Europe-centric. If it will, Europe will repeat the same mistakes of the US – an overreliance on military force, a diminished role for diplomacy, and a neglect of measures to address political and social factors which drive some to join violent groups and others to flee their homes while destabilizing countries and whole regions. This would only perpetuate a cycle that will never end; one of which Europe finds itself in at the moment with the migration crisis and threats of terrorism. If Europe is to fill the gaps of the US and the UK in the Middle East and South Asia, it has to realize that those gaps have now been left open for a reason. Current strategies proved inadequate and inefficient, and the US failed. Europe can try methods of diplomacy where other methods have lacked. Military force is meaningless and a comprehensive political strategy is needed.

Currently, Angela Merkel is on a trip to Africa in efforts to boost economic ties and limit irregular migration to Germany. She believes African countries could be a “good market down the line” and also considers ways in which Africa could set up refugee camps itself to curb those leaving the African continent. This trip has been highly criticized in questions of morality and misguidedness, and rightly so. This is just another example of traveling outside of the Western world when only necessary to obtain a goal and not curating an equal and balanced relationship. What needs to be done is to solve the root of the problem for mass migration out of Africa to Germany, and create economic opportunities for those living there, while building and sustaining fruitful equal relationships. 

Macron is doing slightly better as he pursues an ambitious foreign policy and restores influence in the Middle East. He has recently become a diplomatic force in the region, as shown through his mediation in Lebanon and taking over support that the US pulled from President Abbas, the Palestinian leader. As Macron makes it a point to talk to all leaders in the region, more European leaders will have to follow suite, if not combine efforts as one.

Europe can shape strong co-operations and alliances with countries and territories within the Middle East and South Asia. They have mutual interests, like combatting terrorism and if Europe was to assist in security issues in both regions, it would not only solve a problem there, but reduce the threat of terrorism throughout the European continent and the world. Although every country should guard its national interests itself, doing strictly this when navigating foreign relations is a dangerous game. Both parties have something to give as well as to gain.

The Middle East and South Asia might be hesitant at first to accept any institutionalized involvement with a Western power, but they should not outrightly reject the new possible cooperation. This could be achieved if Europe uses the opportunity for restorative justice and demonstrates a proper balance of power, money, and political say. Like Macron, if more countries play facilitating roles instead of interfering ones, in South Asia and the Middle East for issues that have been ongoing, and do not jump to military force, there are benefits for all. There is not one country in the region which would appreciate a Western power coming in and perpetuating a role that has been seen before. Many attacks on the West are often caused by a stale narrative and if Europe, instead, invests in funding, strengthening, and integration among countries and regional powers within the Middle East and South Asia, it will pay off for the relationship in the long run. Europe and these territories can find many common platforms in terms of peace and natural resources, while maintaining sovereignty, independence, separate ways of life and respect for cultural differences.

The US has progressively isolated itself and the UK is not doing well in negotiating relationships for when it removes itself from the EU, leaving Europe more independent and possibly in charge of more of its own decisions. Europe is in need of new allies and contacts, having to turn outside from the West. As Europe finds itself in an opportunity to navigate into a new leading, superpower role, the question remains if the continent will take advantage of the opportunity and how.

Europe’s top leaders advocate for a stronger military and defence establishment, which they have determined as the best way to assert dominance. However, it is important for the continent to realize that this is not the only solution, if not something to be avoided - especially when in dealings with its new possible partners and the national ethos of these countries and regions. The most positive way for Europe to assert itself globally is through diplomacy and creating egalitarian relationships in places it has avoided before or wronged in the past.

The Middle East and South Asia are prime regions in which Europe can turn to solve a lot of its problems, as well as theirs. Co-operations on issues like terrorism would benefit all parties and it is important for Europe to strengthen its possible upcoming role by learning from past mistakes and creating balanced partnerships globally. To incubate a more forceful and independent Europe is to be done through foreign policy that focuses on diplomacy and de-escalation. If Europe were to abide by this approach, it would help itself, the US and UK, and its new envisioned partners.