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The myth of ‘civilian power’

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Default profile picture Morag Young

As if from a dream, Europe is awakening to a world at war. Will Europe have to choose between civilian power and military power?

The familiar image of Europe as ‘an economic giant, a political dwarf and a military earthworm’ although eloquent can also be deceptive. It puts the accent exclusively on the ‘classic’ components of power, masking an (until today) essential aspect of European construction: the displayed desire to act for peace and security by building an international order based on common responsibility, multilateral agreements, co-operation rather than competition and limitation, and indeed the rejection of force as an instrument of power. In other words, the European entity was supposed to become a ‘global civilian power’ and an influential actor in the international system practising a distinct form of diplomacy. In this way, priority would be accorded to the creation of a collection of standards that claimed to be universal and respected by all: the European vocation, in this way, would be to ‘civilise’ international relations and to act increasingly under the aegis of values rather than interests. Faced with, notably, an American super power, that would make the use of force a principal instrument of power in the pursuit of its national interests, this ‘European doctrine’ would be closer to Kantian idealism than realpolitik.

Utopianism? Irenism? This vision is certainly poles apart from the international behaviour of a ‘classic’ power. But the distinctive feature of European construction, that is to say the successful experiment of the pacification of relationships between previously hostile counties that was based on interdependence, is evidence of the credibility of its pretentions. Moreover, it should be noted that this experiment was made possible partly thanks to the exceptional context of the Cold war, that protected through conflict a Europe that was permanently haunted by its ghosts. Now, in the new strategic context, the continuity of the idea of Europe as a civilian power seems currently to be compromised. Three closely related elements progressively challenge it: the impossibility of maintaining a Europe isolated from questions of defence in a ‘threatening’ environment that promotes the use of force; timid European responses, which remove it from the ‘ideal type’ of civilian power; and the fractures created within the European entity by the distance between its capabilities and its development, through the existence of a profound divergence of interest and positions that are destroying the weak formal consensus.

The world is a dangerous place

The development of the current international situation has turned the deal on its head: although the global magnitude of conflicts did decrease after the end of the Cold War, in a lot of European minds the world has since become a ‘dangerous’ place because of threats – real or perceived – that create struggles over identity, immigration, terrorism…These perceptions are shared across the Atlantic, where today the world is considered as essentially unstable, in the grip of diffuse and far away threats that require permanent surveillance. More recently, the very idea of ‘prevention’ through the use of force seems to be gaining ground. Paradoxically, if the ‘impossible war’ of a confrontation between East and West used to impose peace in Europe, it has ended by encouraging a mentality of ‘a citadel besieged’ in a West that is rediscovering the chaos around it. Europe has not yet entirely made the conflicting representation of the world, so dear to America where analysts are devoted to identifying new enemies and the ‘competitors’ of tomorrow, her own. Nevertheless, faced with the requirements of the ‘management of crises’ and the wave of a ‘return to war’ (under the guise of 'war against terror') Europe finds itself increasingly confronted by the necessity of adopting strong positions and acting where declarations of principles are no longer enough.

In this way, for several years the construction of the Common Foreign and Defence Policy (CFDP) has come to besmirch the ‘purity’ of civilian European power. Certainly, the instruments of management of conflicts, including the creation of a rapid reaction force (RRF), are placing themselves in the framework of the principles evoked earlier – notably multilateralism, the absolute preference for peaceful means and the concern over legitimacy. But the question is no less inescapable: by furnishing itself with military capabilities and by preparing itself for such a task, is Europe not in the process of becoming a power like ‘the others’? For certain people, the very idea of a militarised Europe capable of participating significantly in ‘up-market’ operations, indeed (in a future that is as far away as it is uncertain) of maintaining its security through its own means, is incompatible with the role of a civilian power. It will restore to interests – yesterday national, tomorrow European? – the role that they played in the defining of foreign policy by the former powers of the continent. Furthermore, this idea presupposes overcoming the taboo of the avoidance of war within Europe, which is inseparable for some people from the idea of a civilian power.

A militarised Europe, the end of consensus?

These questions remain, nevertheless, largely theoretical, in view of the non-existence of true agreement between European countries of the necessity of putting forward a common response to the problems of security, including the most acute. We know that the idea of a Europe furnished with all the capabilities of a ‘classical’ power – that is to say having a military force and political cohesion sufficient to permit it to express itself with one voice – does not in any way lead to unanimity in Europe. Moreover, consensus has only been reached in the Union over the idea of providing Europe with minimal military capability, the RRF, that is largely subordinate to the Atlantic alliance and limited to modest exercises. As these elements are obviously insufficient, it is still inconceivable for many to furnish Europe with a force autonomous from the Atlantic alliance, and, therefore, the United States, which would permit the Union to translate its engagements of principle into concrete action. The same tendency can be noted in common European positions: only the relatively minor dossiers on matters of security, such as the proliferation of light weapons or ‘peripheral’ conflicts, can become the object of a comparative consensus. Faced with stakes of a greater size, such as the Iraqi dossier (or previously the former Yugoslavia) it is obviously not possible to agree on a unified action based on the principles of a ‘civilian power’. That gives European states every scope to tackle security issues from the exclusive point of view of their own national interests. In this way, in the Iraqi case, one of the essential elements in the definition of ‘civilian power’, that is, the rejection of the use of force except under very strict conditions (the multilateral nature of the action, its international legality and its role as a last resort) is being destroyed, faced as it is with irreconcilable positions within Europe – those of the States that support unequivocably the most aggressive positions of the United States, and those of the pacifists whose opposition is deep-rooted.

In this sense, the current drift is producing regrettable consequences for the nascent common foreign policy. Far from becoming the ‘classical’ power that some people dream of, the assets of the European ‘civilian power’ are in the process of being destroyed faced with the division at the heart of the Union produced by the return to a ‘state of war’. The current situation questions the founding principles on which European nations were supposed to agree on in order to act with one voice in the world: it shows clearly that not all European states are inclined to follow these principles. In that way, it threatens to upset the already fragile structure of action outside Europe, since these principles are essential to Europe's global influence, and to the appeal that it can still exert on an international level. Maybe, some say, a Europe that has exorcised war can only ever be ill at ease in a world where a super power intends to give war back its former legitimacy. Has the time for a Utopia already passed?

Translated from Le mythe de la « puissance civile »