The world’s center of gravity is heading eastward so fast that we Europeans can almost feel the ground moving beneath our feet. Because almost all major actors on the international stage are redefining their roles in response to this tectonic shift, Europe must do the same. So it is right that the EU Council of Ministers is meeting to grapple with this challenge.
For decades, however, Europeans have been more concerned with unification and constitutional arrangements than with traditional diplomacy. Europe’s historic rivalries have, of course, been civilized into a political model that European diplomats often see as applicable across the international arena.
To be sure, consensus, compromise and a pooling of sovereignty are the only ways to resolve many of the great issues — climate change, nuclear proliferation — that bedevil our world. However, on the great issues of war, peace and the balance of power, Europe seems trapped between an insufficiently cohesive foreign policy and uncertainty among individual countries about how to define and secure their national interests.
By contrast, the world’s rising powers — Brazil, China, India and Russia — insist not only on the primacy of their national interests, but, as the failed climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December demonstrated, on sovereign freedom of action as well. To them, geopolitics is not anathema; it is the basis of all their external actions. Defending the national interest still rallies their publics; the exercise of power remains at the heart of their diplomatic calculations.
In the face of this new/old reality, Europe must not merely make itself heard on the great global issues of trade and fiscal imbalances, important as they are. Instead, Europe must recognize which of its strategic assets matter to the world’s rising powers and leverage those assets to gain influence.
Unfortunately, one of Europe’s key strategic assets — the European countries, in particular Ukraine, that straddle the great energy corridors that will deliver more and more of the fossil-fuel resources of the Middle East and Central Asia to the world — is probably its most neglected. Indeed, ever since the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, Europe has mostly averted its eyes from developments in the region.
This neglect is both unwarranted and dangerous. The countries that lie between the EU and Russia are not only a source of geopolitical competition between Europe and Russia, but now intersect with the national interests of the world’s rising powers, particularly China.
The Russia-Georgia war showed just how much this region matters to the wider world. In its wake, China began a systematic effort to buttress the former Soviet countries’ independence by offering them huge aid packages. Countries from Belarus to Kazakhstan have benefited from Chinese financial support.
China cares about this region not only because it is concerned with maintaining the post-Cold War settlement across Eurasia, but also because it recognizes that it will provide the transit routes for much of the energy wealth of Iraq, Iran and Central Asia. Indeed, China has been pouring billions of dollars into developing the oil and gas fields of Iraq and Iran. Given that security issues will likely prevent most of this energy from being transported eastward to meet China’s domestic needs, Chinese energy concerns will need to become players in international energy markets — which means shipping Chinese-developed oil and gas in Iraq and Iran westward for sale.