Harold James: A New Détente

By threatening Ukraine with a mass mobilization of military forces, Russian President Vladimir Putin has both exposed vulnerabilities in the post-Cold War European project and unwittingly strengthened NATO's position. The conditions are ripe for envisaging new security arrangements.


PRINCETON – The prospect of the first large-scale war in Europe since 1945 invites an obvious question: What went wrong? Particularly, in what ways did the rapid collapse of the Soviet Union sow the seeds of a new conflict today?
So far, the debate in Europe and North America has focused on NATO’s eastward expansion after the Cold War. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his many apologists and self-declared “understanders” claim that NATO expansion violated a previous understanding in the early 1990s. There has been a drip feed of new revelations about various Western policymakers who sympathized with the idea that NATO should have stayed put.
True, for a time, the German government even toyed with the idea that the former East Germany should be excluded from NATO (a position that strategists in Washington, DC, considered absurd). But this debate is misleading, because it evades the key issue: Putin’s abiding fear of democracy taking root in Ukraine, which has fueled his efforts to destroy Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
The historical and contemporary debate thus should focus on a different theme: Europe’s failure to develop a new security apparatus suited for a world undergoing a tectonic political realignment. The decisive flaw that now needs to be fixed was created by Europe’s own inability to move toward greater political union starting in the early 1990s.
At the time, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President François Mitterrand were acutely aware that Europe needed to be bold in strengthening its institutional architecture for the post-Cold War era. A confident European response that involved a deeper political union also necessarily would have meant a tighter military union. But Europeans, lacking a well-thought-out blueprint, settled only for a monetary union.
As the members of the European Community, as it was then known, moved toward monetary union, they rejected a logical move that might have accompanied the creation of a single currency and would have offered a powerful and convincing response to the collapse of communism and the geopolitical upheavals of 1989-91. Although the 1991 Maastricht Treaty introduced the concept of European citizenship (Article 9) and opened the door for a common foreign and security policy, the union was incomplete. Because national citizenship remained, the classic test of civic commitment – “Are you prepared to die for your country?” – was never put to Europe’s citizens.
The problem was that national defense ministries and, more importantly, French, German, and British defense lobbyists rejected any possibility of a military union. Europe thus continued to rely on NATO, and when there was a need for a grand European gesture of unity after 1989, Europeans seized on an existing roadmap for monetary union. Those plans already existed not because of any geopolitical tension, but because the problem they set out to deal with – current-account imbalances in Europe and globally – had been on the agenda for decades.
To be sure, the security dimensions of European politics had been widely discussed in the run-up to Maastricht, and were a key source of the disconnect between agreements on European monetary union and on European political union. France, in particular, pressed to strengthen the Western European Union defense organization, which comprised the European members of NATO at the time. But the United Kingdom saw this proposal as unrealistic, and many others saw it as a move that would “detach” Germany from NATO.
Greece, too, strongly opposed the French proposal, because it lacked any provision to establish a security guarantee for all European borders. Greek Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis made clear that he would veto any such arrangement. Then on December 8, 1991, just a few days before the Maastricht conference, the security issue suddenly came to seem less urgent. Three of the four Soviet republics that had signed the 1922 treaty creating the USSR concluded the Belovezh Accords, ending the Soviet Union and establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States. With the Soviet implosion seemingly complete, European leaders’ focus quickly shifted to monetary issues.
Because the Maastricht process ended up so lopsided, traces of those earlier security discussions have lingered on, as when French President Emmanuel Macronwarned that Donald Trump’s presidency was precipitating the “brain death of NATO.” But now, Putin’s mobilization of forces on Ukraine’s border has made NATO seem more necessary than ever.
From the alliance’s new position of strength, it is possible to envisage an alternative solution, continuing the European tradition of thinking in terms of concentric circles. This could involve a European security core that does not include North America, but that would be surrounded by a broader periphery of powers that have pledged to respect and mutually guarantee frontiers.
This process would echo the agreements on territorial integrity negotiated in the 1970s at the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. The broader circle should include not only the United States and Canada but also the rest of the Eurasian landmass, including China and Japan. Call it the Northern Hemisphere Treaty Organization. Now that the world is far more interconnected than it was in the 1990s, one of the key features of the current crisis – and possibly a mitigating factor – is China’s interest in maintaining stability across the Eurasian landmass.
In the early 1990s, Europeans should have thought about that. But instead of focusing on security, they turned their attention to money. That left a lasting vulnerability. Europe needed an updated security architecture that could protect it against the vagaries of political changes not just in Moscow but also in Washington. It still does.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

Harold James

Harold James is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University. A specialist on German economic history and on globalization, he is a co-author of The Euro and The Battle of Ideas, and the author of The Creation and Destruction of Value: The Globalization Cycle, Krupp: A History of the Legendary German FirmMaking the European Monetary Union, and The War of Words.

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