The so-called "European Neighborhood Policy" has, so far, been a curious thing. There is much talk about it in the EU, but little practical effect. It was meant as an alternative to the ever-increasing number of accession rounds, say, involving the countries in the southern Caucasus. But the war in Lebanon and its consequences have caused a sudden and fundamental change in the leisurely pursuit of this policy.
The Lebanon war has served as a harsh reminder to the EU that it has "strategic interests" -- security interests first and foremost -- and that, should it choose to ignore them, the price will be high.
Moreover, the division of labor between the US and Europe isn't functioning in the time-tested manner of old: the ongoing war in Iraq is gnawing at the US' military capabilities and has resulted in a deterioration of the moral and political legitimacy of the US as seen in the Islamic world.
With the decision of its member states to send several thousand soldiers to Lebanon to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1701, the EU has made its most significant decision yet in terms of the Neighborhood Policy. Can the EU in fact emerge as a stabilizing political force in the most dangerous area of conflict within Europe's immediate geopolitical neighborhood?
After the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, the Middle East is at once the most dangerous and also -- given security considerations -- the most important neighboring region for the EU today. Why? Because the main threats to European security at the beginning of the 21st century stem from that region. The threats concentrated in the Middle East are diverse: regional conflicts, totalitarian religious ideologies, terrorism, nuclear armament programs, blockades to modernization, unstable regimes and ambitions of hegemony.
If one asks what interests the EU and its member states have in this crisis-riddled region, the answer is that European energy and economic interests are certainly at stake, as well as the vital interests of Europe's partners and allies (Israel in particular).
How the Middle East develops will determine the extent of the risks for, or even probable challenges to, Europe's security. Success in containing, or indeed resolving, the conflict there will have overwhelmingly positive consequences for Europe's security.
The Middle East today is defined by three central conflicts: the Israeli-Arab conflict, Iraq and Iran. The fusion of Iran's nuclear program (and Iran's ambitions of hegemony) with the situation in Iraq and with Hezbollah in Lebanon will lead to a "New Middle East" which, in all likelihood, will provoke a major confrontation. This will involve far more than just the usual regional actors and conflicts. The war in Lebanon has made it abundantly clear how far this dangerous process has already progressed.
The mission in Lebanon is a high-risk one for the UN force, and for Europe in particular. The war did not result in a real decision. Neither Hezbollah nor Syria, let alone Iran, have any interest in the UN mission's success. The Security Council resolution presupposes -- in addition to separating the combatants -- the enforcement of the internal and external sovereignty of Lebanon's elected government, without saying how this is to be accomplished with a politically strengthened Hezbollah that is militarily superior to the Lebanese forces
Any attempt at disarming Hezbollah by the UN force would mean a war with Hezbollah (and by proxy its supporters Syria and Iran) -- a task the UN force cannot accomplish. But were it to resign itself to mere observer status in Lebanon, the UN and Europe would lose all credibility. Moreover, it is likely that, within a few months, UN soldiers would once again find themselves between the firing lines of the conflicting parties. The mission therefore will be had pressed to live up to its robust mandate to stabilize the country. Failure will be a constant danger and the military risk will be high. Yet, in light of the situation, there is no better alternative.
In view of the risk to its troops, Europe will be compelled to influence and even proactively bring about strategic changes to the political environment in the entire Middle East. With its decision in favor of the mission in Lebanon, the EU crossed a military rubicon.
Europe must now back up its growing weight in the Middle East with political initiative. This must include three key elements: a negotiated solution for Syria, a resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and a common strategic understanding with the US of the political strategy of the West for the region. This understanding needs to address Iran, the region's most dangerous conflict. Such an understanding will be the pivotal challenge for the future of the transatlantic relationship.
For Europe and its troops, the stakes in Lebanon are very high because they are about vital European interests. War and chaos in the Middle East or just a moral or political vacuum will directly affect and upset the security of the EU and all its member states. Europe therefore had no choice but to act in Lebanon, though that decision was obviously difficult.
The key question in the near future will be whether Europe actually has the military and political capabilities, the political staying power, and the common will to act in accordance with its core interests in the Middle East. We will see.
In any case, one thing can already be said: Welcome to the real world.
Joschka Fischer was Germany's foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 until last year and was a leader of the Green Party for nearly 20 years.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences