Despite the promise of a Europe “whole and free” following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Old World today features a division between a bloc of states that heavily favor a pro-NATO Atlanticist outlook—Britain, Poland and the Baltics—and a grouping that remains more amenable to friendly relations with Russia—including Slovakia, Greece, Bulgaria and Hungary. Missing from the equation is a more independent, Gaullist approach that would not only strengthen the European Union but also help to reconcile differences between the United States and Russia.
Tensions between Russia and the West have reached a post-Cold War high. Some analysts have even gone as far as to suggest that the Cold War never really ended . Just as a temporary period of détente manifested itself in Soviet-American relations from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s, so, too, can the early 1990s be interpreted as a short-lived reprieve from the normal state of affairs—namely competition and rivalry between Washington and Moscow.
Some Russian thinkers have turned to geopolitics to explain the unchanged character of Russo-American relations. Alexander Dugin, perhaps the most famous among them, has advanced the notion—drawing on the English geographer Halford Mackinder’s work—that land power and sea power are fated to clash, and thus that Russia and the United States are geopolitical rivals by nature.
Twenty-five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they appear to have a point. Geography is immutable. Therefore, to indulge in geopolitics is to concede that international affairs are governed by a degree of fatalism. According to this line of thinking, so long as the United States remains involved in the world, its domination of the high seas will leave it predisposed to competition with Russia in several regions across the globe, including Europe.
By the time the Cold War had ended, the EU had not yet become an actor powerful enough to assume responsibility for the parts of Central and Eastern Europe that were prone to nationalism and irredentism. The organization only began to pursue political integration earnestly in 1992 with the Maastricht Treaty, and this in turn was but the first step in a long (and still incomplete) journey toward becoming a strong and independent international actor. The failure of the Europeans to manage their own affairs became painfully evident during the Yugoslav wars. The United States was thus forced to fill the gap.
There is a reason why Donald Trump’s presidency has so far failed to produce an American foreign-policy revolution. Despite what was said or claimed on the campaign trail, today NATO is no longer deemed to be “obsolete,” Sino-American relations have not descended into a costly trade war, and the expected reset with Russia has not occurred. This is due in part to the fact that the realities of geography and geopolitics have not changed. The EU’s lack of strength and cohesion prevents Washington from turning its gaze fully toward the Pacific.
However, geopolitics have not been the only factor at work over the past quarter-century. Although the states of the European Peninsula had not yet consolidated into a united power-political actor, they did emerge from the Cold War ideologically homogeneous. The speed and scope of NATO’s eastward expansion after the USSR’s collapse was just as much the result of Western liberal triumphalism as it was the product of geopolitical necessity.
The parallels between ideological developments and Euro-Atlantic geopolitics are striking. Russia was last a full participant in an exclusively European order during the Concert of Europe, bounded historically by the Napoleonic and First World Wars and framed by a divide between a liberalizing France and a more conservative-oriented Russia, Prussia, and Austria. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917, coinciding with America’s arrival on the world stage in the form of Wilsonian idealism, brought Russia out of this European society of states.
After the Cold War, Moscow found itself faced with a Europe united along liberal principles. It was deliberately left outside the continent’s principal economic, political and security institutions. We can clearly identify a historical trend: The rise of American power has brought with it the expansion of the liberal sphere of states, and the outcome has been the exclusion of Russia—a place where liberalism’s hold has always been tenuous—from Europe.
The result is a seemingly perpetual contest between Washington and Moscow to control the European Peninsula. The former benefits strategically from continental unity—so long as it is rooted merely in soft power and shared values—as this acts as a hedge against a potentially hegemonic and resurgent Russia. The latter, in response, tactically seeks to undermine this unity.
Ideology is very much present in international affairs today—in some respects, even more so than in past decades. Although no one questioned the neutrality of countries such as Austria or Sweden during the Cold War, today the West professes as a matter of faith Ukraine’s “right to choose” its geopolitical orientation, even if this risks conflict with Russia. As the liberal sphere of states has expanded, its behaviour has become increasingly inflexible .
Indeed, seeing as liberalism is by definition a universalizing ideology, it is only natural that Washington’s permeation of the European order produces continuous upheaval. What is needed is a robust and pragmatic European Union that can return responsibility for organizing the continent’s affairs to indigenous hands. This, however, will be fraught with difficulty.
The EU’s predecessor was created after World War II as an instrument of French imperialism, bringing into Paris’s orbit lands that Richelieu and Louis XIV sought to incorporate in centuries past. French President Charles de Gaulle envisaged Europe as a “third way” of sorts between the United States and the Soviet Union, providing a framework that could compensate France for the loss of its empire, while also rehabilitating a defeated Germany into international society within the rubric of a non-threatening supranational organization.
However, in recent years, France has increasingly been forced to play second fiddle to Germany in European politics. The euro crisis has resulted in Berlin’s unambiguous (and controversial) dominance over the continent’s economic affairs, the situation in Ukraine has forced it to assume diplomatic leadership, and the election of Donald Trump has led many to conclude that Germany has become the new “leader of the free world.” European institutions are failing to serve the purpose for which they were designed—the result of France’s relative decline—and thus their ability to function has been diminished.
France’s economy has grown stagnant, even as the European sovereignty pool it initiated has become too large and too diverse for it to dominate. And although demographic projections point to a depleted Germany and a youthful France by the midway point of the century, it is unlikely that the current Russo-American standoff can continue for three more decades without having serious consequences.
A window may be opening, however. Britain’s likely exit from the EU and Poland’s self-imposed isolation from European politics have resulted in the side-lining of the continent’s most ardently Atlanticist countries. Hence, with obstructionist forces out of the way, France and Germany may have greater flexibility in pursuing European integration in the years ahead, including dealing with the euro and migrant crises. To what degree Paris and Berlin will prove able to capitalize on this opportunity, however, is still up in the air.
The expansion of the liberal international sphere finds itself at a major crossroads. Growing from the shores of the Atlantic, it first incorporated Western Europe after World War II and then Eastern Europe after the Cold War. Today, however, liberalism is facing a frontal assault in the latter region and undergoing an existential crisis in the former. The belief, popular not so long ago, that Russia would one day join this Western-led order, needs to be tempered in light of these developments. In any event, it was always doubtful that a country as large, powerful and culturally distinct as Russia could ever be entirely subsumed into the West’s orbit.
It can at times be easy to forget—as the EU often has—that norms are political. Indeed, as the Ukraine crisis has revealed, the promotion of norms has geopolitical consequences. The adoption of liberal values and the pursuit of a pro-Western geopolitical orientation have gone hand in hand in the years since the end of the Cold War. Ideas, when they run up against the established realities of culture and geography, can encounter a roadblock. The West has sleepwalked into a confrontation with Russia, with Moscow claiming that its sphere of influence and vital interests have been infringed upon.
Western capitals would benefit from a realist approach in the years ahead—one that emphasizes the limits of their power and reach. The future character of Russia is ultimately for Russians to decide. Attempts by the West to impose its vision–either on Russia itself or on its “near abroad”—will only strengthen nativist forces in the country, as it will make it easier for them to maintain that a besieged Russia must defend itself against external enemies.
Thinkers such as Dugin or the even more influential Vadim Tsymbursky—who conceptualized Russia as an “island” separate from Western liberal civilization—have been popular since the 1990s. But now that Russia is becoming ever more excluded from Euro-Atlantic institutions, many Russians have begun to accept several of their core concepts, stressing their country’s distinct and “Eurasian” character.
But Russia will never be satisfied by an exclusively Eurasian path. Ever since Peter the Great, it has looked westward for economic modernization, cultural inspiration and international recognition. This is still the case today. Indeed, Russia will for the near-to-medium term remain inextricably linked to Europe, which is by far its largest trading partner, the area where most of its population lives, and the region with which ordinary Russians continue to have the most interpersonal and cultural exchanges.
Today’s conflict in Ukraine has both resulted from and compounded the original dilemma posed by Russia’s post-Cold War exclusion from Europe. To counter its destabilizing effects, there needs to be an understanding that any stable European security framework needs to include Russia as a legitimate, integral and substantial player. Now is an opportune time for the West to re-examine some of its post-Cold War assumptions, although this will require a great deal of political courage and leadership. The influence of ideological factors in driving post-Cold War events has demonstrated that the realities of geopolitics can be either tempered or exacerbated, depending on our political choices.
Above all, what is needed going forward is an EU strong and cohesive enough to assume the United States’ present responsibility for managing order in Europe. Whether this is possible—or indeed whether the EU can perform the functions of a classical Westphalian state at all—remains to be seen. A new European security framework should ideally be developed in the next ten to fifteen years, before China becomes powerful enough to challenge the United States at sea and divert Washington’s gaze definitively toward the Pacific.
Although our era is likely to be remembered as the Asian century, over the medium term it will once again fall to Europe to determine the stability of world order.
Camille-Renaud Merlen (@crmerlen) and Zachary Paikin (@zpaikin) are PhD candidates and assistant lecturers in International Relations at the University of Kent in Canterbury, United Kingdom. Their doctoral research focuses on Russian conceptions of state sovereignty and how these relate to international order.