Western unity is back. When Western Europe returns to “the West”, the European Union is reduced to a geo-economic support service provider for the benefit of NATO, i.e. the United States.
Wolfgang Streeck is the Emeritus Director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, Germany
Cross-posted from El Salto
Translation by BRAVE NEW EUROPE
Explaining the descent of the European state system into the barbarism of war for the first time since NATO’s 1999 bombing of Belgrade requires more than a lay psychiatrist. What caused Russia and “the West” to engage in an endless game of tug-of-war on the edge of the abyss that has finally precipitated both contenders to the bottom of the abyss? As these monstrous weeks unfold, we understand better than ever what Grasmci must have meant by interregnum: a situation “in which the old dies and the new cannot be born” during which “an innumerable variety of unhealthy symptoms appear”, such as powerful countries surrendering their future to the uncertainties of a battlefield shrouded in the fog of war.
No one knows at this point how the war over Ukraine will end, or how much blood will be shed to bring it to a conclusion. What we can try, however, is to reflect on what may have been the reasons – let us not forget that human beings have reasons, however absurd they may seem to those watching – that have led the United States and Russia into this intransigent and arrogant bellicose confrontation. This is the picture: an escalating confrontation in the course of which the chances of either side being in a position to worthily accept anything other than total victory are rapidly evaporating, ending with Russia’s criminal assault on a neighbouring country with which it has once shared common statehood.
In this scenario we find remarkable parallels, as well as obvious asymmetries, given that both Russia and the United States have long faced a progressive decline in their domestic social order, as well as in their international standing, which makes them feel this must stop now or it will continue indefinitely. In the Russian case, what we see is a regime that is both statist and oligarchic, facing growing unrest among its citizenry, rich in oil and corruption, incapable of improving the lives of ordinary people while its oligarchs amass enormous wealth, and inclined to use harsh dictatorial methods against all forms of organised protest. Not relying solely on brute force, which is not particularly attractive, requires stability, which derives from economic prosperity and social progress, which in this case is contingent on global demand for the oil and gas that Russia must sell. This requires, however, access to financial markets and the acquisition of advanced technology, all of which the United States had begun to deny Russia some time ago.
The same is true for external security, as the United States and NATO have for the past two decades penetrated politically and militarily into what Russia, familiar as it is with foreign incursions, considers its cordon sanitaire. Moscow’s attempts to negotiate in this area have led to post-Soviet Russia being treated by Washington in the same way as its predecessor, the Soviet Union, with the ultimate aim of bringing about regime change there. All attempts to end this subjugation have come to nothing; NATO has gone further and further, recently installing medium-range missiles in Poland and Romania, while the United States has treated Ukraine as if it were its own territory, as witness Victoria Nuland’s [Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs] viceregal statements on who should run the government in Kiev.
At a certain point, the Russian regime evidently concluded that the unstoppable erosion, internally and externally, would continue unabated unless decisive action was taken to halt the deterioration. What followed was the military build-up around Ukraine in the spring of 2021 accompanied by Washington’s demand for a formal commitment to respect Russian security interests henceforth, all with the pretence of triggering an open conflict rather than waging a latent one, perhaps in the hope of mobilising the Russian patriotism that once defeated the Germans.
If we turn to the US side, we find resentment dating back to the early 2000s, once Yeltsin, America’s man on the ground after the collapse of the Soviet Union, ceded the hacienda to Vladimir Putin in the wake of the social and economic disaster caused by the ‘shock therapy’ advised by the US partner. Putin’s attempt to bring Russia into NATO under the auspices of the New World Order was rejected despite all his efforts to assist Washington in its invasion of Afghanistan. Russia’s objections to NATO enlargement in 2004 – which threatened its northwestern border at the time – were met with Bush and Blair’s declaration of an open-door policy towards Georgia and Ukraine at the 2008 Bucharest summit.
The US political establishment, led at the time by the Hillary Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, began to treat Russia as a failed state, treating it similarly to any other country that had slipped out of US control, such as Iran. Even Trump’s election in 2016 was attributed to covert Russian machinations on the part of the losing party, which politically aborted the new president’s initial attempts at some kind of accommodation with Russia (remember his innocent question of why NATO still existed three decades after the end of communism?) At the end of his term and to make amends with the US deep state and voters, Trump opted to return to the well-trodden anti-Russian path.
For Trump’s successor, Biden, as for Obama-Clinton, Russia offered itself as a convenient arch-enemy, both domestically and internationally: small economically, but willing to portray itself as big on account of its nuclear weapons. After the media debacle of the Biden-managed US withdrawal from Afghanistan, showing a position of strength vis-à-vis Russia seemed a sure way to showcase US muscle, which would force Republicans to unite behind Biden as the leader of the resurrected “free world”. Washington resumed the diplomacy of intimidation and categorically rejected any negotiations on NATO expansion. For Putin, having gone as far as he had, the choice was starkly between escalation and capitulation. It was at this point that method mutated into madness and Russia’s criminally and strategically disastrous land invasion of Ukraine began.
For the United States, rejecting Russia’s demands for security guarantees was a convenient way to strengthen the unconditional loyalty of European NATO countries, an alliance that had faltered in recent years. This concerned above all France, whose president had recently diagnosed the Alliance as “brain-dead”, but also Germany with its new government, whose ruling SPD party was seen as too friendly to Russia. The pending issue of the new gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, also loomed. Merkel, in tandem with Schröder, had invited Russia to build it, hoping to fill the shortfall in Germany’s energy supply predictably caused by the country’s Sonderweg following its decision to abandon coal and nuclear power. The US opposed the project, as did many other actors in Europe, including the German Greens. Among the reasons for this opposition were fears that the pipeline would increase Europe’s dependence on Russia and that its construction would make it impossible for Ukraine and Poland to cut off Russian gas supplies, should Moscow eventually misbehave.
The confrontation over Ukraine, by restoring European loyalty to US leadership, instantly solved this problem. On the back of the declassification of certain CIA documents, the so-called European ‘quality press’, not to mention public broadcasting systems, presented the rapidly deteriorating situation as a Manichean struggle between good and evil, Biden’s America versus Putin’s Russia. During Merkel’s final weeks, the US government dissuaded the Senate from opting to impose tough sanctions against Germany and the Nord Stream 2 operators in exchange for the former’s agreement to include the pipeline in a possible future sanctions package. Following Russia’s recognition of the two de facto separate eastern provinces of Ukraine, Berlin formally postponed regulatory certification of the pipeline, which was not considered sufficient. At the press conference in Washington following the new German chancellor’s visit, Biden announced, with Scholz at his side, that if necessary the pipeline would definitely be included in the sanctions package, while Scholz remained silent. A few days later, Biden accepted the Senate plan that he had previously opposed. Then, on 24 February, the Russian invasion forced Berlin to do of its own accord what had otherwise been done by Washington on behalf of Germany and the West: bury the pipeline once and for all.
So Western unity was back, cheered by jubilant applause from local commentators grateful for the return of transatlantic Cold War certainties. The prospect of going into battle in alliance with the most formidable army in world history instantly erased memories of the recent months before, when the United States abandoned with virtually no warning not only Afghanistan but also the auxiliary troops mobilised by its NATO allies in support of America’s once-preferred activity, “nation-building”. Nor did it matter that Biden appropriated virtually all of the Afghan central bank’s reserves of around $7.5 billion to be distributed to 9/11 victims (and their lawyers), while Afghanistan suffers a famine of national proportions. Forgotten too was the disaster bequeathed by the recent US interventions in Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Libya and the utter destruction, followed by expeditious abandonment, of entire countries and regions.
Now it is once again “the West”, Middle Earth fighting against Mordor, to defend a brave little country that only wants to “be like us” and for that it only wants to cross the threshold of the doors of the European Union and NATO and be admitted to the bosom of both organisations. Western European governments duly suppressed all other memories of the firmly entrenched rudeness of US foreign policy, induced by the sheer size of the country and its location on a continental island that no one can reach regardless of the disasters it produces when its military adventures go awry. And, surprisingly, these governments gave the United States, a declining empire that is truly remote from Europe, has different interests from Europeans and faces myriad problems of its own, absolute power of representation in dealing with Russia over nothing less than the future of the European state system.
And what about the European Union? In short, when Western Europe returns to the “West”, the European Union is reduced to a geo-economic support service provider for NATO, i.e. the United States. Events around Ukraine are making it clearer than ever that for the US the EU is essentially a source of economic and political regulation aimed at states that must help the ‘West’ encircle Russia on its western flank. The maintenance in power of pro-US governments in former Soviet satellite states, which can be costly, makes attractive the burden-sharing whereby “Europe” pays the bread while the United States provides the firepower or the imagination. This makes the European Union, in effect, an economic auxiliary to NATO. Meanwhile, Eastern European governments are happier to rely on Washington for their defence than on Paris and Berlin, given the former’s proven trigger happiness and safely faraway home base. In return for US protection through NATO, and Washington’s patronage in their relation to the EU, countries like Poland and Romania host US missiles allegedly defending Europe against Iran, while unfortunately having to pass over Russia on their way.
The implication for the behaviour of von der Leyen and her ilk is to confirm their subordinate status. The extension of the European Union to Ukraine and the Western Balkans, including Georgia and Armenia, is seen by the United States as ultimately a decision for Washington. France in particular may still object to further enlargement, but no one knows how long it will be able to persist in its position, especially if Germany can be forced to foot the bill. (Although formal accession procedures regarding Ukraine have not yet begun von der Leyen has declared: “We want them in”). On the other hand, Poland being strictly anti-Russian and pro-NATO, it will now be difficult to punish it by reducing the financial support it receives from the EU for what the European Court of Justice considers to be deficiencies in its “rule of law”. The same goes for Hungary, whose unwilling president has become increasingly anti-Russian. With the return of the US, the power to discipline EU member states has migrated from Brussels to Washington DC.
One thing Europeans in the EU, especially those of the Green variety, are learning these days is, on the one hand, that if you let the US take care of your protection, geopolitics sweeps away the rest of politics, and, on the other, that it is defined solely by Washington. This is how an empire works. Ukraine, a company divided among an incredible collection of oligarchs, will soon begin to receive increased support from “Europe”. This will, however, be but a fraction of what Ukrainian oligarchs regularly deposit in Swiss, British and, it is to be believed, American banks. (Who could forget Hunter Biden’s salary as a non-executive director of a Ukrainian gas company, whose principal owner was at the time under investigation for money laundering).
What remains a mystery, obviously not the only one in this context, is why the United States and their allies were for the most part happy to discount the possibility of Russia responding to continuing pressures for regime change – in the form of ‘Western’ denial of a security zone – by deepening an alliance with China. It is true that historically Russia has always wanted to be part of Europe and that something akin to a kind of asiaphobia is deeply embedded in its national identity. Moscow is for Russians the Third Rome, not the Second Peking. As late as 1969, Russia and China, both communist at the time, clashed over a common border at the Ussuri River. With Russia facing an indefinite rift with the West and China suffering from a shortage of raw materials, the latter may choose to step in and provide the former with modern technology of its own making. At a time when NATO is dividing the Eurasian continent into “Europe”, including Ukraine, against Russia, understood as a non-European enemy of Europe, Russian nationalism may, against its historical grain, feel forced to ally itself with China, as the strange photograph of Xi and Putin sitting side by side at the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics foreshadowed.
Will the Sino-Russian alliance be the unintended result of US incompetence or, on the contrary, the intended outcome of US global strategy? If Moscow were to join Beijing’s fate, there would be no prospect of a Russo-European agreement à la française. Western Europe, whatever political form it assumes, will function as never before as the transatlantic wing of the United States in a new cold, or perhaps hot, war fought between the two global power blocs, one declining, confident of turning the tide, the other confident of its rise.
Only a Europe at peace with Russia, respecting its security needs, could hope to free itself from the US embrace, so effectively renewed during the Ukrainian crisis. This, we can presume, is why Macron has insisted for so long on Russia being part of Europe and on the need for ‘Europe’, in accordance of course with his and France’s representation of it, to take steps to secure peace on its eastern flank. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has for a long period of time, if not definitively, put an end to this project. But then this was never a very promising start, given Germany’s felt dependence on US nuclear protection, compounded by German doubts about fanciful French global ambitions, redefined as European ambitions to be financed by German economic might. And Russia may, with some justification, have questioned whether, under these conditions, France will ever be able to oust the US from the European driver’s seat.
And so the winner is… America? The longer the war drags on, due to the successful resistance of the Ukrainian citizenry and its army, the more obvious it becomes that the leader of the West, who spoke for Europe when the war was being prepared, is not intervening militarily on behalf of Ukraine when it has broken out. The US has granted itself a special leave of absence, as Biden made clear from the outset. Looking at its track record, this is nothing new: when its mission becomes unmanageable, the Americans withdraw to their distant island. However, when Germans contemplate wonder where the United States stands, Germany may begin to have doubts about the US power’s commitment to proceeding with the country’s nuclear defence. This commitment, after all, underpins Germany’s NATO membership, its adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the fact that the country hosts around 30,000 US military personnel on its soil.
In this context the special budget of €100 billion, announced a few days into the war by the Scholz government and devoted to fulfilling the promise, going back to 2001, to spend 2 percent of Germany’s GDP on arms, looks like a ritual sacrifice to appease an angry God who one fears might abandon his less-than-true believers. No one thinks that if Germany had spent that 2 per cent of its GDP on armaments, thus fulfilling NATO’s demand, Russia would have refrained from invading Ukraine or that Germany would have been able and willing to rush to its aid. In any case, it will take years before the new weaponry, of course the latest on the market, is available to the troops. Moreover, it will consist of exactly the same type of weaponry that the United States, France and the United Kingdom already have in abundance.
On the other hand, the entire German army is under NATO, i.e. Pentagon, command, so the new firepower will be in addition to NATO’s, not Germany’s. Technologically, they will be designed for deployment around the globe, on ‘missions’ like Afghanistan – or, most likely, in the environs of China, to assist the US in its emerging confrontation in the South China Sea. There was no debate in the Bundestag on what kind of new military “capabilities” would be needed and what they would be used for. As has been the case in the past during Merkel’s term in office, this was left to be determined by ‘the allies’. One such item could be the Future Combat Air System, adored by the French, which combines fighter-bombers, drones and operationally equipped satellites with global reach. There is a faint hope that at some point there will be a strategic debate in Germany about what it means to defend one’s own territory rather than attacking someone else’s. Can the Ukrainian experience help trigger such a discussion? It is unlikely.
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