After Libya, Europe’s New Order in the Making

Miguel Silva observes that a new balance of power is forming in Europe, one that is eerily familiar.

British prime minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy in London, June 18, 2010
British prime minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy in London, June 18, 2010 (Elysée)

For all his blunders, George W. Bush may forever be remembered for vindicating the notion of the “coalition of the willing.” Until the world wars, all military alliances were in fact ad hoc and it was only the messianic Western prejudices that followed the defeat of absolutism in World War I, fascism in World War II and communism in the Cold War, that temporarily deluded the Western masses into thinking that an “alliance” should have a noble, morally righteous connotation.

The campaign to oust Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya started as a simple ad hoc coalition led by Paris and London. Only later did it become embroiled in international politics with the likes of Rome and Berlin seeking to exercise some moderation by forcing the British and the French to accept NATO leadership and a subsequent bureaucratization of the intervention into inefficacy.

While France’s diplomatic might was once again visible — after it restored a semblance of democracy in Côte d’Ivoire — with the United Nations Security Council, the European Union and even the Arab League endorsing a no-fly zone which was clearly hostile to the Tripoli regime, the momentum for the intervention of the Atlantic powers was lost when the conflict receded into an old-fashioned civil war.

NATO ails from many of the same afflictions of the EU. The indiscriminate expansion of these organizations has multiplied the number of its members and made decisionmaking more difficult. What one can clearly observe in NATO now — and could tentatively deduce from the Afghan campaign before — is that after the European Union, NATO too has had to resort to opting out mechanisms. All the signs were there during NATO’s last summit in Lisbon, Portugal, when Turkey was negotiated with almost at a NATO+Turkey council level.

Libya exposes not just the vulnerabilities of international organizations but also the fragilities of the current geopolitical alignment between individual states. Although the political correctness of the intervention was quickly defined by the Quai d’Orsay’s lightning propaganda initiatives — framing the case in which enlightened nations had a “responsibility to protect” the besieged civilians of Benghazi who were merely yearning to be free — the main stakeholders in Libya were all but pleased with the prospects of military action or a prolonged conflict against a regime for whom they had acted as patrons for the past decade.

Germany, Libya’s second biggest trading partner; Turkey, eager to provide an exit for a fellow Muslim regime trying to carve an independent path from the West; Russia, Libya’s historical source of diplomatic support and military hardware, as well as China and others made it a point to tread carefully. One Milanese newspaper reported earlier this month that the Italian government was actually opposed to the intervention and only joined the bandwagon reluctantly under pressure from the Atlantic powers.

The Mediterranean is a geostrategic context in its own right and it has been changing in the past decade. During the Cold War, NATO naval supremacy was only challenged by intermittent deployments of the Soviet Black Sea fleet to token client states as Libya and Syria. With the Soviet threat gone and America shifting its focus to Asia, regional players became more important and a new balance of power is yet to be defined.

In the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey’s new foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors” and aspirations of regional hegemony has alienated traditional allies and brought forth a new configuration with Israel which is now strengthening its military ties with Greece and Cyprus. Whether Russia and Egypt will choose to side with Ankara is anyone’s guess.

To the west, traditional security arrangements between Spain and Italy that provided a counterbalance against French influence in Morocco and Portugal are also subject to change in case of a split between Paris and Berlin.

If the German backed independence of Croatia and Slovenia marked the central power’s return to its continental career as a regional powerhouse back in the 1990s, the EU’s “silent enlargement” (Bonn’s annexation of East Germany in 1990) marked the end of its pubescent period as an Allied protectorate. It also heralded the end of the Paris-Bonn power parity. The twentieth century’s own Rhine Confederation, West Germany was strategically an equal to France in economic and demographic terms.

The crises of the 2000s have only widened the rift between Europe’s two continental hegemons, prompting both the French and the Germans to review the validity of the Paris-Berlin axis.

Whereas during the Pax Americana of the last twenty years, France and Germany together cooperated to assert themselves vis-à-vis the United States, the recent economic downturn across the Atlantic and the imbalance between the development of Germany and that of the rest of Europe has considerably changed the equation. Berlin no longer has a clear interest in further bankrolling Atlantic adventures which bring it no benefit and among the European Union’s three largest powers, it stands as primus inter pares. German diplomacy has followed suit.

There is also the question of Russia. No longer a threat, it has worked hard to gain friends in both Berlin and Paris. One of the advantages is the possibility of outflanking the Russophobe consensus that has taken hold after the color revolutions swept part of its sphere of influence. George W. Bush was a patron of the “New Europe” when Paris and Berlin would not but Barack Obama’s reset, the rollback of some color revolutions by Moscow and a cold peace détente with Warsaw have provided Russia with great geopolitical comfort.

Confronted with the fact that, unlike the days of the entente cordiale, France is no longer Russia’s special friend in Western Europe — at least not exclusively — Paris has moved into a rapprochement with Britain in order to hedge its bets. A warming of relations between France and Eastern Europe is probably imminent as well. What can be observed right now is Washington DC losing interest in Europe and the rift in the “special relationship” between the United Kingdom and the United States widening.

The future holds nothing but the old system of indirect alliances consolidating the “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” rule. But we have previously seen a Russo-German arrangement nervously opposed by Franco-British guarantees to Eastern Europe backed by an ambiguous America… It seems we fought a world war and a Cold War only to find ourselves back in the strategic paradigm of the 1930s.