Prepared for the IISS/CEPS European Security Forum, Brussels, November 5, 2001

Europe and the transformation of the world order

by François Heisbourg, Director of the Foundation for Strategic Research

The end of the post-cold war era

If the Gulf War of 1990-91 was a "defining moment" – one in which countries had to take sides – September 11, 2001 was much more, a "transforming moment": not only was there an obligation to stand up and be counted, but with the advent of hyperterrorism, the post-Cold War era itself came to an abrupt end. Before discussing the implications of this "transforming moment", two preliminary remarks are in order.

The first is that there is more that we do not know about the post-September 11 world than there are areas of firm knowledge; we may know that the world is being transformed, but we do not know what the world is being transformed into. The complex interaction between traditional nation-states / failed states and non-state actors (from humanitarian NGOs at one end of the spectrum to the hyperterrorist multinational Al Qaeda at the other) will eventually produce a redistribution of rules and roles, the nature of which is as difficult to devine than it would have been for a European of 1618 to predict the content of the Treaties of Westphalia closing the Thirty Years War in 1648-49. In the current era of globalization, we know that the Westphalian order is being fundamentally redefined; and September 11 opens a new and spectacular phase of that redefinition: but we cannot know what the ultimate result will be. Simply, it would be more than surprising if state sovereignty, as defined in 1648-49 survived more or less unscathed, and if the states continued to be characterised by their "triple monopoly" on the coining of money, the rendering of justice and the use of armed force. Any European or, in very different circumstances, any African, will recognize the strength of the trend away from that definition of the state's core business.

Unfortunately, one of the few things that the attacks of September 11 and the follow-on events have irrefutably taught us about the future world order is that groups of human beings are both willing and able to visit acts of mass destruction on humankind for purposes which are not political in the Clausewitzian sense.

The second remark is that on the eve of September 11, there were numerous signs that the post-Cold War era (1990-2001) was drawing to an end. What September 11 has done is to close that epoch with a horrid bang rather than in soft and easy stages. And the very brutality of the close will make the new era rather different from what it would otherwise have been. To summarize, on the eve of September 11, the end of the post-Cold War era was approaching notably through the following trends:

September 11 has accelerated some of these changes while recasting others in a new light.

The acceleration of history

In the "accelerating" category, I will single out from a European perspective, the following:

These are not exclusive of other acceleration processes notably in the economic sphere (e.g. the aggravation of the global economic slowdown).

1) Announcing the death of NATO obviously contains an element of exaggeration, if only because the Atlantic Alliance will continue to exist and, indeed, quite possibly prosper. But in several respects, the "old" NATO has truly been killed off:

In summary, NATO is no longer a defence organisation, but a security and defence services institution. In itself, this is not negative: indeed, enlargement to the Baltics and possibly to Russia, should be made potitically more palatable by such an evolution. The accession of the Baltics to the new NATO can no longer be construed by Moscow as a threat; and Russia's accession may be more acceptable to China under the new circumstances.

But let us not forget: this is truly a different NATO; the old one is dead.

2) "crunch-point Europe" needs comparatively less explaining, since well before September 11 it was clear, after the debacle of the intergovernmental conference in Nice last year, that the institutional status quo would be unsustainable – that the 2004 convention would be crucial. However, September 11 has dramatised the situation further, although it has not clarified it:

3) The Russian rendez-vous with the West has been particularly spectacular and has desevedly drawn much comment which I need not elaborate upon. I will only make one observation here. President Putin has clearly taken a real political risk in helping open the door of Central Asia to the US (Americans, as the crafters of the Monroe Doctrine, should have little trouble understanding that Moscow's green light was of material importance in securing the cooperation of the states of Central Asia). It is to be hoped that the US will reciprocate, particularly on the issue of the ABM treaty: for Moscow, it is essential that a treaty framework continue to exist in the field of strategic nuclear arms control on both offensive and defensive systems. The Russians can accept missile defence; but they can hardly take on board a non-legally binding "new framework" as defined by President Bush in his NDU speech of May 1, 2001. Given the Europeans' agreement with Russia on the importance of legally binding commitments, an American refusal to compromise on this issue could have serious transatlantic consequences.

4) The Middle Eastern implosion:

The Greater Middle East is one of few parts of the world where there has been essentially no political, economic and social change during the last thirty or forty years with the limited, and hardly encouraging exception of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1979). The progress of globalisation is making this time-warp ever less sustainable. There are many reasons for this situation, most of which spring from the regions itself. However, the West also has a major responsibility. The US, through its cynical support of Saudi Arabia, one of the most regressive and benighted states on this planet; Europe, through its own brand of so-called Realpolitik, has not been shy in its support of some of the world's most repressive regimes. Human Rights, democracy, were somehow left off the scope in the area extending from the Sahara to the Indus.

Central and Eastern Europe, East Asia, Latin America, even Africa, have been treated in a less cynical and counterproductive manner. We are now reaping the return on our investment. Osama Bin Laden refers himself to the ideological-religious roots of the Wahhabi regime to denounce the "hypocrites" in power in Saudi Arabia. He has based his platform – and appeal – on the West's consistent – and until now – successful attempts to maintain the status quo in the region: French intervention saved the House of Saud in 1979, the US and Western forces did so more visibly in 1990-91. We were spared from dealing with the consequences of the fall of an Arab version of the Soviet Union (Saudi Arabia is an artefact created in the twenties on the ideological basis of militant Wahhabism: we now have to cope with Wahhabi hyperterrorism and may yet have to pick up the pieces of imploding Saudi / Soviet Arabia.

Change in the Middle East is as inevitable as it has been in Latin America, East Asia and the ex-Soviet Empire, areas in which comparatively principled, value-based, policies by the West from the mid-seventies onwards, have favoured transformation which have been generally peaceful (with Yugoslavia and Chechnya standing out as the exceptions, not the rule). Unfortunately, we have no such basis to work on in the Middle East. However, it is not too late to start: the EU and the US can, and should, make it clear, hopefully together, that we expect that the rules enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights – which these countries have signed – will eventually prevail, that these states should expect to come under substantial pressure not to remain the spawning grounds of repression, hate and, ultimately, hyperterrorism. A value-based declaration of principles from the West would be an act of enlightened self-interest. Admittedly, this is easier said than done; but done it must be if we want to have at least the embryo of a chance that change in the Middle East will not be exceedingly radical in the long term (extremism being probably inescapable in the short term). We simply cannot base our policy on the assumption that the status quo, and particularly the Saudi status quo, will continue to prevail.

This assumption that wrenching change will occur in the Middle East has defence implications. The Europeans, like the Americans, may well have to cope militarily with upheaval in the region in the short to medium term. This is a change from the pre-September 11 situation in which concerns about the Middle East were focused on the conduct, or misconduct, of Iran and Iraq, rather than on systemic change. If this new reading is correct, the Europeans need to break with the post-Cold War "peace dividend" era: defence spending needs to increase. In particular, Europe's rapid reaction capability, which has been tailored for Balkans-type contingencies, should be upgraded both in terms of both its missions (Petersberg rules as currently defined are too narrow) and its capacities (notably in terms of lift and C4ISR). This will cost money, as will the improvement of European force readiness levels. Without additional defence spending, Europe will simply not be able to provide significant forces alongside US forces in the Middle East, with a satisfactory level of interoperability.

Coping with the evolution of the Middle East is an issue in which the perils of US-European – or of intra-EU – divergence would be particularly damaging. This consideration leads to the last point.

From US superpower to Fortress America?

Many observers have jumped to the conclusion that post-September 11 coalition building is a sure sign that the US will now commit itself to an engaged, multilateral, posture on the world stage, breaking with the first months of the Bush administration. Such a multilateral outcome would be desirable for the world, which can hardly be managed without the active engagement of its militarily and economically strongest member. However, it would be premature to assume that such an evolution is inevitable. First of all, much can go wrong in the conduct of the war against hyperterrorism. It is also all too easy to conjure up scenarios in which the US draws into itself, for instance after a US-Europe split resulting from a unilateral US initiative to broaden the war to Iraq or Yemen on the basis of not entirely convincing evidence. Second, and without having to generate scenarios, the fact is that the current anti-terrorist array is not a coalition comparable to that which functioned during the Gulf war: many US partners including Saudi Arabia, are already on the verge of neutrality (see inter alia Saudi official statements on the war in Afghanistan and government sponsored funding drives for the victims of the "American" war); and traditional European allies, for a variety of reasons, are peripheral to the war effort (their contribution, and this remark includes the UK, to the war is much less than during the Gulf war).

This is entirely understandable given the nature of the aggression and of the corresponding anti-terrorist operation: but such a state of affairs does not clearly promise a more multilateral post-war world.

Third, and most importantly in the long run, we don't know what conclusions the US people will draw after the war. The level of aggression the US has been subjected to is in part at least a consequence of the role it is seen to play in world and regional affairs as a superpower: thus, Bin Laden's 1998 fatwa centres on the US-Saudi nexus. The temptation may well arise that a 1920's-style policy, not of isolationism (that came with the Depression) but of non-alliance, would be less onerous than the high profile permanent security and defence commitment of the US in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. In effect, the US would renounce the burden of its superpower status. As a European, I would dread such a prospect. But we've been there before, and one cannot pretend it can't happen again. And let it not be forgotten, the US share of world GDP in the 1920's was just about what it is today (some 23-24 %); it is simply not true to say that the US doesn't have a Fortress America option: with robust spending for its homeland defence, the US could cope quite as well as it did during the twenties.

The existence of such an option makes it all the more important for the Europeans to act in a manner which increases the likelihood of the US remaining engaged: a multilateralist outcome is not a given. Its probability is in no small measure a function of the Europeans' policies.