As if things weren't bad enough for Europe after the French and Dutch "No" to the EU Constitution, a new divisive issue now threatens to strain Europe's cohesion. The US wants to establish an anti-missile defense system that is supposed to protect the US and parts of Europe against missiles from the Middle East. The US missiles are to be stationed in Poland, with a radar system to be set up in the Czech Republic.
Russia is up in arms about the US plan. A month ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a fiery speech against the project during the Munich Conference on Security Policy. The US representatives were perplexed; the Europeans were shocked.
Now the US says it has reached agreement with Poland and the Czech Republic to study the concrete details of the stationing of the necessary defense systems. Once again, Europe is shocked -- the two great powers of the Cold War seem not to be taking Brussels seriously.
Are we threatened with a new arms race between Russia and the US, with Europe once again the theater of their rivalry? Indeed, is a new Cold War looming?
There is no reason to panic about the US' proposed anti-missile defense system. Nor can the political climate, old differences and the by-no-means new power rivalry between Russia and the US justify pessimism.
No doubt, Russia has regained strength from high oil and gas prices, and it is reclaiming its position as an independent global actor. Putin's policies are popular in Russia, which of course does not make them right. But, in criticizing Putin, the West should be mindful of his domestic support.
Russia's return to the world stage means that new and old rivalries will develop and may even intensify in the future. But we are light years away from a new Cold War. There is now no longer any ideological hostility between Russia and the West. Estrangement? Yes. But hostility? No. Eleven defensive US missiles in Poland will not threaten Russia's security. And they will not mark the beginning of a new arms race.
But it is also hard to understand why the US needs this decision now. Timing? Priorities? The US policy seems unreasonable. The threat from Iran, against which the missiles are meant to defend, is still far away and can be avoided by diplomatic means.
In fact, the West needs Russia's cooperation on almost every important international issue of the day, be it North Korea, Iran, Iraq, the Middle East, South Caucasus, Central Asia, Kosovo, Darfur, climate change, energy security or nuclear non-proliferation.
For some time now, US policy towards Russia has been anything but consistent. Apparently, the US can't decide whether to treat Russia as a rival power or a difficult partner. It would be in the US' interest, with Iraq, Iran and the broader Middle East as its foreign-policy priorities, to pursue the partnership option.
Europe's policy towards Russia is in even worse shape. Indeed, it increasingly resembles a chicken farm after a fox has broken in. And now, with the US announcement that it will build the anti-missile defense system on a bilateral basis with Poland and the Czech Republic, there is also a hawk circling overhead. Confusion and panic are spreading in Europe.
What is most frightening about all this is not the US anti-missile project or Putin's rhetorical muscle-flexing, but rather the increasingly dramatic European weakness that the episode has exposed. The EU has been working for a decade on a common foreign and security policy. So how can discussion of an issue as crucial as the establishment of a US anti-missile defense system in Europe be ignored at the EU level, with no attempt being made to find a joint European position?
An anti-missile defense system in Europe is a European, not a bilateral, issue. However important NATO may be, it would be a dramatic admission of its own helplessness and insignificance if the EU were to remain silent on this crucial issue for Europe's future.
Europe's weakness becomes even more obvious given that it is not at all clear whether the US missile defense system will ever work. This doubtful project is not worth a serious division of Europe. But bilateral treatment of the issue threatens to do just that -- to divide Europe along the same fault lines as did the war in Iraq.
All the while, Moscow is playing a game of "divide and rule" by exploiting Europe's dependence on Russian oil and gas supplies. As the EU's Russia policy is blocked by the Polish government's intransigence, Russia blithely continues to sign more bilateral treaties with individual EU member states, most recently with Greece and Bulgaria.
The only effective answer that Europeans can give to the Kremlin is to adopt a common energy policy that will hinder any further division of Europe. This will not be easy to achieve, but the EU has accomplished more difficult tasks in the past.
The EU must develop a common position with respect to all significant, strategic issues in its foreign relations. Otherwise, Europe will be at the mercy of the interests of others.
No European country -- not even the "Big Three" (France, Germany and the UK) -- can any longer assert its central foreign policy interests alone, outside of the common European framework. So any weakening of the EU in its foreign relations entails a corresponding weakening of the member states' individual interests.
Everyone agrees to a "Europe of Common Values." What we need now is a "Europe of Common Interests." Objectively, it is already a reality. Subjectively, the only remaining question is this: How long will it take before Europe's governments finally start taking it into account?
Joschka Fischer was Germany's foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005. A leader in the Green Party for nearly 20 years, he is now a visiting professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute of Human Sciences
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