In almost every part of the world, long-festering problems can be solved through closer cooperation among neighboring countries. The EU provides the best model for how neighbors that have long fought each other can come together for mutual benefit. Ironically, today’s decline in US global power may lead to more effective regional cooperation.
This may seem an odd time to praise the EU, given the economic crises in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland. Europe has not solved the problem of balancing the interests of strong economies in the north and those of weaker economies in the south. Still, the EU’s accomplishments vastly outweigh its current difficulties.
The EU has created a zone of peace where once there was relentless war. It has provided the institutional framework for reuniting western and eastern Europe. It has fostered regional-scale infrastructure. The single market has been crucial to making Europe one of the most prosperous places on the planet. And the EU has been a global leader on environmental sustainability.
For these reasons, the EU provides a unique model for other regions that remain stuck in a mire of conflict, poverty, lack of infrastructure and environmental crisis. New regional organizations, such as the African Union, look to the EU as a role model for regional problem-solving and integration. Yet, to this day, most regional groupings remain too weak to solve their members’ pressing problems.
In most other regions, ongoing political divisions have their roots in the Cold War or the colonial era. During the Cold War, neighbors often competed with each other by “choosing sides” — allying themselves with either the US or the Soviet Union. Pakistan tilted towards the Americans; India towards the Soviets. Countries had little incentive to make peace with their neighbors as long as they enjoyed the financial support of the US or the former USSR. On the contrary, continued conflict often led directly to more financial aid.
Indeed, the US and Europe often acted to undermine regional -integration, which they believed would limit their roles as power brokers. Thus, when then-Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser launched a call for Arab unity in the 1950s, the US and Europe viewed him as a threat. The US undercut his call for strong Arab cooperation and nationalism, fearing a loss of US influence in the Middle East. As a result, Nasser increasingly aligned Egypt with the Soviet Union, and ultimately failed in the quest to unite Arab interests.
Today’s reality, however, is that great powers can no longer divide and conquer other regions, even if they try. The age of colonialism is finished and we are now moving beyond the age of US global dominance.
Recent events in the Middle East and Central Asia, for example, clearly reflect the decline of US influence. The US’ failure to win any lasting geopolitical advantage through the use of military force in Iraq and Afghanistan underscore the limits of its power, while its budget crisis ensures that it will cut its military resources sooner rather than later. Similarly, the US played no role in the -political revolutions underway in the Arab world and still has not demonstrated any clear policy response to them.
US President Barack Obama’s recent speech on the Middle East is a further display of the US’ declining influence in the region. The speech drew the most attention for calling on Israel to return to its 1967 borders, but the effect was undercut when Israel flatly rejected the US position. The world could see that there would be little practical follow-up.