Europe in New Great Games: A Player or a Chessboard?

_ Rein Müllerson, Research Professor, Tallinn University. Tallinn, 22 February 2018.

A quest for visionary leaders.

1. Globalisation – a two-way street: exporting ‘democracy’ to the rest leads to importing problems to the West

It has been noted that since the 1990s there have been series of setbacks to the spread of democracy, especially liberal democracy in the world. Most often mentioned are Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. However, in that respect there is a more serious problem, and this is the erosion of liberal-democracy in its homeland – in Western Europe and Northern America. There are some specific explanations for this, but the most general reason is globalisation, or rather the ways it is carried out and its negative aspects and consequences. Globalisation is, so to say, a two-way street. It is not only the West is exporting its practices and values, but the rest comes to the West with its values, practices and problems. And in both directions come not only positive, but also negative ideas and practices. Moreover, the current wave of globalisation coincides with the transformation of the balance of power in the world. If globalisation is taking place and driven mainly my economic factors, the change in the balance of power is mainly the domain of geopolitics, though it is obvious that these two realms closely interact. So, China’s increasing geopolitical assertiveness is based on its remarkable economic growth, while Washington tries to strangle Russia’s return to the world stage using both economic sanctions as well as geopolitical encirclement. If Washington tries to perpetuate the imbalance of power that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, China and Russia, as well as several regional players, are fighting for a new balance that would correspond to their increasing strength and ambitions. These are all very dangerous games. Many current hotspots like North Korea, Ukraine or Syria, though possessing their specific causes and drivers, are at the same time aspects of the struggle over the balance of power in the world.

The current period in Europe, and in the world, is a follow-up to the developments of the end of the 1980s – beginning of the 1990s. They are stages of the revolutionary period in world politics starting with the collapse of the bi-polar world, going through the unipolar 1990s, and entering a stage of formation and consolidation of a multi-polar world. This is the background (toile de fond) of many events and processes going on in different regions, including Europe. Of course, this is not the only background and it does not explain everything. Nevertheless, even if we take only one of the current European problems – uncontrolled migration and its effects in European societies – we are forced to admit that one of its main causes is the turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, whose principal contributing factor was the belief in the West that it is possible to democratise the wider Middle East. Acting upon such a naïve belief Washington and its allies in 2003 invaded Iraq and seven years later encouraged the ‘Arab Spring’. Such an approach reflects the Fukuyamian ‘end of history’ mindset that there is only one correct road for the humankind leading towards liberal democracy. Those who stray from it are on the wrong side of history. This is a mirror image of the Marxian unilinear progress towards the bright communist future. Both these utopias, and today there is also a third – the jihadist’s attempt to Islamise the whole world, are not only doomed to fail. Attempts to put them into practice create immense suffering. The world is too big, too complex and too diverse. Its rich tapestry cannot be flattened into a carpet where only one pattern, be it a Judeo-Christian, Anglo-Saxon, Confucian, Muslim or even secular liberal-democratic, dominates. Equally, such a world cannot be governed from one centre by prescribing the same remedy for the ills of different societies. Curing one patient, it may kill another. 

2. The rise of managerial politicians and the quest for visionaries

Due to such a dangerous international situation in the world, Europe too cannot go on as usual. Need for change seems obvious. Moreover, usually a crisis that doesn’t kill a patient opens the way to the recovery. However, the need for change, even if combined with the conditions favouring it, is not sufficient to attain it. The third element is the advent of inspiring strong personalities. The launch of the European project in the 1950s was genuinely a visionary endeavour. But once launched and well underway, there followed within European societies a relatively smooth and prosperous period of evolution that brought to the surface a class of managerial politicians. There was rarely a need or quest for visionaries. The rule of the thumb was: if it works, don’t touch it. Today, however, it no longer works.

In January, at Sandhurst, the British Royal Military Academy, President Macron of France gave an interview to the BBC’s Andrew Marr who asked the President: what had he meant by saying that he liked to be a Jupiter-like President? Macron’s somewhat evasive response was: ‘when you preside, you preside and that is different from governing’. It seems that Emmanuel Macron understands that not only France, but also Europe and even the entire world need different kinds of politicians. Whether he is a person who can act upon such an understanding is a different, a more difficult, question. At least, he seems to be trying.

Throughout human history, be it in the history of a single country or in the world history, there have been revolutionary periods that call for visionary leaders. Like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, introducing the New Deal, when the Great Depression hit America and the world; Winston Churchill when WWII broke out; General de Gaulle during several periods of French history. Even Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder had in 2003 the wisdom and courage to stand up against George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq. Such man was Yitzhak Rabin, whose murder put an end to the possibility of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am sorry if I hurt the sensibilities of quite a few liberals, but I would add to this list President Vladimir Putin of Russia, President Xi Jinping of China and President Narendra Modi of India. They seem to belong to the category of politicians who have a vision for their respective countries, for the place of these countries in the world and consequently also for the world, though one may cautiously say that the jury is still out. Visionary politicians may also be wrong and make mistakes, but political managers are not able to find solutions in revolutionary situations, they do not dare to think, all the more act, beyond the box.

One of the serious problems of democratic politics is its short-termism – from election to election. Additionally, the qualities needed to be elected rarely correspond to those necessary to get the things done once elected. As the French international relations scholar Dominique Moïsi has observed: ’To be able to debate well on TV or to tweet on social network, to be able to use short key words and phrases – all this doesn’t imply that such a person has the courage to take difficult but necessary decisions and have what the Latins called the gravitas, i.e. the mixture of seriousness and experience’. [1] I would put it a bit differently: today there is the need for leaders in the West too who have both brain and spine and are at the right time in the right place.

3. Liberal elites should despise less ‘ordinary’ people.

Globalisation has revealed and exacerbated a contradiction that has always existed between the peoples and the elites. Today in Western societies it has taken the form of a clash between populism and elitism, where populism is a reaction to elitism. Let’s recall how Hillary Clinton characterised Donald Trump’s supporters. They – almost half of the Americans – were, in her eyes, ‘losers and ill-informed’. Though she later retracted her statement, it is hard to believe that it was done sincerely. Besides, she is not alone – there are a lot of those who think of people having ways of life or views differing from their own as ill-informed, brainwashed or losers. For example, many comments in the Western media about the recent presidential elections in the Czech Republic followed the same pattern. The winner – the incumbent Miloš Zeman, was labelled as pro-Chinese, pro-Russian, Eurosceptic and overweight alcoholic, who was moving around with the aid of the walking stick and whose electorate consisted of backward looking and uneducated people from rural areas. And this was said about more than 51% of the Czech electorate. By the way, quite a few of these adjectives could have been used to characterise Sir Winston Churchill and FDR moved around in a wheelchair.

What happened more than a year ago across the Atlantic should have been enlightening also for Europe, not only for America. However, it seems that the American liberal left, like their ilk in Europe, haven’t learned much after the victory of Donald Trump. Indicative in that respect is a recent article in the French left-leaning Libération, published after President Trump’s The State of the Union Address. The correspondent of the newspaper was listening to Trump’s speech in Berkeley’s bingo – the stronghold of American liberalism. He sympathized with the liberal crowd in this watering hole, who found Trump’s speech ‘shameful, sad and disheartening’. They were all were laughing and toasting with bottoms up every phrase they found particularly objectionable. The French paper highlights the words of Berkeley’s scientist – certain Alex – who, in his words, had come to this bingo to ‘laugh with likeminded rather than cry alone at home’. [2] These words reminded me the famous maxim of Baruch Spinoza: ‘non ridere, non lugere, neque detestere, sed intelligere’ (don’t ridicule, don’t deplore, don’t detest, but try to understand). Although I too found quite a few things in Trump’s January Address objectionable, especially on matters of international relations and geopolitics, laughing or deploring won’t help. And particularly important for those in America, who are critical of, even hysterical about Donald Trump, would be to understand that it was mainly due to them that Trump won, not so much thanks to those ‘losers and ill-informed’. Moreover, trying to divert attention from deep structural divides in American society and accusing Russia of meddling into American elections, Trump’s distractors are also jeopardizing peace and security in the world.    

It was exactly twenty years ago when Richard Rorty published his ‘Achieving our Country’, where he wrote that the American liberal left, concentrating on the rights of ethnic, racial, religious, cultural and sexual minorities, had neglected the widening gap between the rich and the poor. At some point, warned Rorty, ‘something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for – someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodern professors will no longer be calling the shots’. [3]Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it? Rorty considered himself to belong to the category of liberal left, though as one of the brightest representatives of American pragmatism, he couldn’t be branded a post-modern professor. And differently from many, if not from most, he did not ridicule, deplore or detest those who were different, but tried to understand them. Although it is not easy in practice to follow Baruch Spinoza’s maxim, it is at least necessary to try.

Globalisation has indeed increased gaps between winners and losers both within and between countries. Today, in contradistinction to yesterday, it is no longer the United States that is benefiting more than most from globalisation and free trade, but China. Those who benefit from free trade are also its strongest advocates. This was so when the British ruled the waves and enforced open-door policies, including the opium trade, against China, it was so also a century earlier when the Dutchman Hugo Grotius published his famous Mare Liberum, where he promoted ideas of free trade on the seas. You promote, often sincerely – not always hypocritically, what benefits you. Free trade is not necessarily fair trade. These adjectives – free and fair – are indeed not always compatible, especially in the realm of economic relations, where freedoms benefit more those who are in the position of power, be it economic, military of even so-called soft power. In defence of globalisation, it must be said, however, that it is not globalisation as such in abstracto that necessarily increases inequality, but what we, or rather those who are in a position of power, make of it. Today such a neo-liberal globalisation is coming back to haunt even those who until recently were its fervent advocates.

4. Frères-ennemis relationship between liberalism and democracy

European liberal democracy was performing, until recently, rather well. However, globalisation has also revealed and exacerbated the inherent conflictual potential between democracy and liberalism, between democracy and liberties. These phenomena have always had a kind of frères-ennemis relationship. Cambridge Professor John Dunn once observed that in the liberal democratic movement ‘the partisans of the order of egoism’, i.e. capitalists, have defeated ‘the partisans of equality’, i.e. democrats, especially in the US. It is indeed difficult to tell today whether the United States can be at all considered as democracy, especially after the decision in 2010 of the US Supreme Court in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commissionthat, referring to the First Amendment’s guarantee of the freedom of speech, abolished limits that unions and corporations could use for political advertising. This decision may have made the US a bit freer but much less democratic, or converting it to one-dollar-one-vote democracy. As French political scientist Thomas Guénolé writes: ‘the decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission explicitly completed the transformation of the United States into a plutocracy’.[4] While often supporting each other, liberalism and democracy may, depending on circumstances, become incompatible. Already at the end of the 1980s, when globalisation had just taken off, Jacques Barsun wrote: ‘The strong current toward greater equality and the strong desire for greater freedom are more than ever in conflict. Freedom calls for a government that governs least; equality for a government that governs most. No wonder the institutions of the free world are under strain and its citizens under stress. The theorem of democracy still holds, but all of its terms have changed in nature, especially the phrase “the people,” which has been changed beyond recognition by the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and the social revolution of the twentieth’. [5]

5. Can Europe be an economic powerhouse while remaining American geopolitical appendix?

Europe is facing also a serious institutional dilemma. To become one of the poles in world politics that would correspond to its economic weight and potential, Europe must transform itself into a even more integrated entity, especially on such important matters such as fiscal policies or defence. It ought to be a kind of federal Europe. However, many, if not most European peoples are not ready for that. This is, in my opinion, one of the main obstacles on the path of Europe becoming a powerful pole in a multi-polar world that is emerging (or has already emerged). The political weight of Europe in the world is well below its economic potential. To protect and develop that potential in competition with other poles, Europe must have also a political weight equalling to that of the US, China, Russia or India. However, relations of Europe with two centres of power, the United States and Russia, are skewed and disfavour Europe. Since the beginning of the 2000s, when Chirac was the President of France and Schroeder Chancellor of Germany, Europe has completely outsourced its decision-making on strategic issues to Washington. Such subordination of European interests to the American vision of the world has greatly contributed to the worsening of European – Russian relations. The crisis in and around Ukraine, which has multiple contributing factors, is detrimental to European as well as Russian interests, while it may be beneficial for Washington’s strategic vision of the world, as it was described in uncertain terms (with President Trump’s finger- or footprints all over) in the National Security Strategy of the United States, revealed in December 2017. Thierry de Montbrial, the President and founder of IFRI (The French Institute of International Relations) wrote in the book published late last autumn: ‘If Europe and Russia will not find during a reasonable period a ground for strong mutual understanding, both will run the risk of finding themselves as objects of a great competition, which is already unfolding, between the United States and China for the future domination of the Eurasian continent’.[6] I would be less certain about the Chinese desire or ability to dominate the Eurasian continent, but the American hegemony over the Western part of the continent (under a usual pretext of protecting it), is becoming more and more dangerous for the Old Continent. Going on, i.e. muddling through, as usual is not any more a choice. New approaches are needed. However, even the greatest of ideas remain only ideas if they don’t result from collective frank discussions of all European peoples, discussions that are not anesthetised by rules of political correctness, ideological clichés and demonization of those who think differently. And of course, no good idea can be put into practice without political leaders with brain, and even more importantly, with spine, who happen to be at the right time in the right place.    


[1] D. Moïsi, La Geopolitique des Series ou le triomphe de la peur (Stock, 2016), 596.

[2] R. Duchesness, ‘Discours sur l’état de l’Union de Trump : « Honteux, triste, décourageant »’, Libération, 31 janvier, 2018.

[3] R. Rorty, Achieving Our Country, Harvard University Press, 1997, p. 90.

[4] T. Guénolé, La Mondialisation Malheureuse, Paris, Editions First, 2016, p. 194

[5] J. Barsun, ‘Is democratic theory for export?’, Sixth Morgenthau Memorial Lecture on Ethics and Foreign Policy, 1986, pp. 25-26 (

[6] T. de Montbrial, Vivre le Temps des Troubles, Albin Michel, 2017, p. 140.


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