A “Zero Problems” Policy for Europe in Eurasia

The EU could be a facilitator between any number of powers in a multipolar world.

Europe should pursue a policy of “zero problems” with its neighbors in Eurasia. It cannot be a global hegemon like China or the United States but it could be a global meeting place and facilitator between any number of powers in a globalized, increasingly multipolar world. That is the bold premise of a team of international relations students from Oxford University participating in a grand strategy competition with the geopolitical analysis community Wikistrat.

Their strategy would require forming long-term partnerships that “go with the flow” of capital, energy and security across the European Union’s closest neighborhood of northern Eurasia.

An adversarial foreign policy with regard to China or Russia is anything but conducive to the furthering of European influence, the Oxford students argue. Instead, by positioning themselves as a third pole in the Sino-American dynamic and engaging countries from Iran to Pakistan, the Europeans can demonstrate their ability to navigate complex relationships and emerge as the purveyors of key support services to traditionally peripheral states.

A “zero problems” approach moreover would present a careful hedge against an unhealthy dependence on the United States in the long term. “By carving its own important position on the Eurasian continent, the EU can take leadership on initiatives without constantly looking behind them for American backing,” the Oxford team writes.

One possible venue for pursuing such a policy is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Originally devised as a Cold War forum for East-West cooperation, the organization has played an important role in helping its former communist member states develop strong police forces, combat drug trafficking and foment the development of civil society.

“As a gesture of goodwill and in order to increase the relevance of the organization, member states could invite the newly democratic countries of the Arab Middle East,” the Oxford students suggest. Adding Egypt and Tunisia and moderate regimes including Jordan and Kuwait would contribute resources and manpower to the organization and help the young democracies of West Asia build the state structures they need.

Expanding the OSCE into the Middle East would give both Kazakhstan and Turkey — two Turkic powers with ambitions for more regional leadership — a chance to flex their muscles in a way that makes them more independent from Russia without actually threatening to Russia itself.

Allowing both nations to expand their influence in the Muslim world would be a perfect example of the role Europe could play in a multipolar world. “No longer the center of action, granted, but the ideal facilitator of other powers’ peaceful rise as they seek legitimate institutions and pathways that avoid unnecessary alarm to more entrenched powers.”

It would also represent an opportunity for the sort of “strategic triangulation” wherein Europe asserts itself independently of the United States. The Americans need to improve their relations with the Turks and rehabilitate their image in the Muslim world. Europe could bring both sides together.

The strategy hinges on Europe’s ability to implement a grand, unified strategy that is accepted by all of its important member states. In this regard, it isn’t very helpful of France and Germany to be discussing economic and security cooperation with Russia independently of its European friends. Germany is also reaching out to emerging powers on its own to secure trade and energy stability.

Energy is part of the Oxford students’ “zero problems” policy although they recognize that it could play against the bloc. The Nord and South Stream pipelines, which are built in conjunction with Russia, as well as the Nabucco pipeline, which runs through Turkey, are all to be completed later this decade. These different gas routes enhance Europe’s energy independence from Russia. “Even if Germany dissented from aspects of an EU policy toward Russia, the rest of a united Europe could still come together, heated by Iraqi and Turkmen gas.” An uncoordinated policy, on the other hand, would leave Russia in a position to divide and conquer among European nations, “selectively playing with gas supplies through Ukraine, the North Sea and the Black Sea.”

Russia’s willingness, and, to a lesser degree, the ability of Central Asian republics, to liberalize their economies to attract foreign investment and improve multinational cooperation would be pivotal to a successful European “zero problems” policy. There may be enough politicos in the Kremlin who realize that reform is necessary if Russia is to avoid becoming an “irrelevant petro dinosaur” but the Putin-Medvedev years have not seen enough of it yet. Central Asia has ample natural riches but also plenty of ethnic and political problems that could complicate a stable relationship with Europe. China, Russia and the United States are also vying for influence there which could further frustrate European endeavors.