Europe: Ambition And Angst

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Jul 3 2003, 05:30am hrs
Before 9/11, most commentators would have said that foreign policy was not a matter of national survival. The biggest debates revolved around China and its entry into the WTO, free trade, human rights and encouraging the environment of globalisation. US foreign policy was focussed on charting and maintaining a worldwide economic system, under which an increasing number of state and non-state actors were to be governed by a host of international rules. And European foreign policy, if at all there was a common EU position, was similarly focussed on avoiding disputes and shocks to geopolitical stability, while at the same time, attempting to integrate Russia more closely with itself.

In the Western world, the only real issue of concern was China. The overhang of Taiwanese independence and the continuing rule of unelected Communists in a major country were unresolved issues begging for closure. A leadership change in China was feared by Western think-tanks and opinion leaders for its potential to upset stability in Asia and beyond.

How things have changed since then. Any mention of geopolitics in the current context takes 9/11 to be an implicit starting point, and post-Iraq, there is clearly a sense of greater uncertainty, probing and posturing among countries, and a whole new set of geopolitical questions and issues. The breakdown of a global system of rules and the threat of unilateral action by nation states has now become one of the most pressing concerns outside the US. Serious trans-Atlantic and intra-European rifts have emerged, even if they are being glossed over in recent days, and there is open disquiet over American domination.

China is, ironically enough, perhaps the only major country that has appeared as a stable and circumspect actor rather than as a source of recklessness. And foreign policy is no longer viewed as a luxury or indulgence in any country. There is a palpable sense of geopolitical uncertainty as most countries grapple with a whole new set of unknowns: Unilateralism, breakdown of international rules, a possible clash of civilisations, upheaval in the Islamic world and the future of multiculturalism.

I was recently invited to speak at the Tallberg Seminar in Sweden, a sort of mini Davos of Scandinavia. The underlying theme and the overarching focus this year was how to handle the new American imperialism, and the general consensus was that it was crucial for Europe to speak with one voice if it is to be respected and heard in the future. This is exactly what is being planned in these changed circumstances, which, of course, includes the move to push the EU towards a more unified political entity. Recognising that its institutions have to be reformed if Europe is to become a real global force rather than just a common market, the EU set up a convention of 108 people to propose a new system of government, in the form of a constitution. Under Valery Giscard dEstaing, the report of this convention on the Future of Europe was released recently.

Among other implications, the EU may soon get a permanent chairman of the group of national finance ministers. The European Central Bank will become more powerful while national central banks will lose influence. And, two new posts of a EU president and a EU foreign minister will be created. Of course, there are many who complain that the EU is going to become even less accountable to and representative of its people. But for now, those concerns are less important.

But global discontentment and nervousness pre-date 9/11 and Iraq. For at least a decade, we have been reading, hearing and witnessing the formation of a new world of globalisation,global trade, cable, internet, market opening and cross-border investment, new regional blocs, and the birth of many new countries. All coming together at an unprecedented rate, leading to a slow descent of traditional ideas, images, identities and ruling elites. The values and benefits of globalisation have not diffused at the same speed as material manifestations of this process. And, as a result, there is a greater sense in the world today of things happening to us than ever before. A greater degree of feeling like a hapless victim of a sinister conspiracy. In all this, the European project to come together in both form and content is both an ambitious and interesting development.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors