Nice location, shame about the neighbours

Commentary

Europe?s biggest challenge in coming decades is how it will get along with the Islamic world.

In ‘The Clash of Civilisations' Samuel Huntington described how in the aftermath of the Cold War civilisational identity was remaking the global order. It was widely praised, and widely criticised too - for such inconvenient truths as the fissure he traced between the Orthodox and Western worlds (in places where the European Union would prefer to detect cohesion), and in particular his assertion that ‘Islam has bloody borders'.

A dozen years on, we prefer to talk about a newly-globalised world, with power defined not by cultural or religious affinity but by connectedness. As Anne-Marie Slaughter (now Director of Policy Planning in the State Department) argued in an article in Foreign Affairs at the beginning of this year, "In a networked world, the United States has the potential to be the most connected country". She termed this 'America's edge'.

At the same time, international affairs analysts compete to broaden the traditional understanding of ‘security' to embrace almost every conceivable kind of human ill - from climate change to pandemics to energy and food shortages. Yet all humankind shares an interest in solving such problems as climate change - and even though the distribution of costs and effort will be fiercely disputed, such challenges demand international cooperation.

Much more intractable are the traditional security threats, those characterised by a malign human intent and by the desire of one group of people to dominate, coerce or damage another. Because, even in today's global village, it is other people who continue to pose the greatest risks, geography still matters, and security continues to depend on who your neighbours are and how you rub along with them. Thus it is that among Europeans, anxiety about the potential threat Russia could still represent declines with the distance from Russia's borders to the Atlantic. Anne-Marie Slaughter herself notes the benefit the Americas enjoy from ‘the protection of two wide oceans'.

Geography has dealt Europe a mixed hand. As globalisation redistributes power to the East and South, Europeans can congratulate themselves on being a relatively safe distance away from whatever ructions may accompany the rise of powers like India, Brazil and, especially, China. Happily, the prospect of major conflict in the straits of Taiwan seems less and less likely. But if ever this hope is belied, Europeans can - and will - keep their heads down.

Europe is, on the other hand, bordered to its south and east by two great regions - civilisations, indeed - which give cause for concern. Neither Russia nor the Islamic world is, thus far, adapting well to globalisation. The economies of both remain over-dependent on oil and gas exports - exacerbating the problem across the wider Middle East of how to find employment for ballooning populations of young adults. Russia, too, faces real demographic difficulties, though in the other direction as the Russian population is projected to shrink by as much as 10% over the next 15 or 20 years.

So not only will Europe's neighbours be under stress, but also there is a lot of history between us. In the case of Russia, this has been defined most recently and most powerfully by 40 years of Cold War. With the Muslim world, the record of religious conflict and of reciprocal invasion and occupation stretches back 1,300 years to the arrival of the first Islamic army in southern Spain.

Of these two relationships, the one with Russia - despite the understandable concerns of Finns, Poles and others who share a border with this difficult neighbour - should be easier to manage. The West's relations with Russia since the end of the Cold War have resembled the meeting of two tectonic plates, with one progressively forced beneath the other. The Georgia conflict of 2008 was the earth tremor which signalled that the eastward movement of the western plate had now encountered substantial resistance.

But the shifts that have already taken place have left Russia infinitely diminished in comparison with the old Soviet Union in terms both of sphere of influence (we would not so insistently denounce such a concept if it did not reflect an underlying reality) and of military might. As a conventional military power Russia remains, in the words of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, "a shadow of its Soviet predecessor". Putin's Russia is nationalistic, awkward and disposed to dangerous trouble-making. But it also faces acute social and public health problems and has 1.3bn Chinese on its eastern border. It shares, moreover, some important common interests with Europe, including the buying and selling of gas and oil and a shared preoccupation with Islamic extremism.

Handled with the right mix of forbearance and firmness, relations with Russia should remain difficult but manageable. The developments of the last year - with NATO backing off, and the European Union stepping in with its Eastern Partnership initiative to shift the inevitable continuing competition in the post-Soviet space onto a less antagonistic footing, complemented by President Barack Obama's demonstration of his willingness to put balm on Russia's damaged amour propre - all justify the hope that major confrontation can be avoided.

Europe's relations with the Islamic world will be a lot trickier, however, for a number of reasons. First, although Russia's resentments may be fresher, those of the Muslim world run much deeper, and are born of more profound interactions across history as well as in the present day. Nine crusades were book-ended by the penetration of Muslim armies as far as Tours, and twice to the gates of Vienna. And centuries of Western colonisation, culminating with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, generated both antagonisms and a degree of interconnectedness evidenced by today's large Muslim populations in so many European countries.

Second, whether one thinks of Al Qaeda's terrorism or the continuing presence of Western armies in Iraq and Afghanistan, Europe and the Islamic world have demonstrated a continuing willingness to deal violently with each other. And third, even if we Europeans are a pretty disparate bunch, the Islamic world is infinitely more so. Islam is its identifying glue - but how much else do Indonesia and the Yemen, for example, have in common? The Islamic world is riven by disputes between Arab and non-Arab, Sunni and Shi'a, between Salafi extremists and their moderate co-religionists. Al Qaeda's agenda is as much about the creation of a new Islamic caliphate as it is about waging jihad against the West.

Fourth, there are fundamental differences as civilisations between Europeans and Muslims. Europeans find it hard to stomach traditional Islamic attitudes towards, say, women or homosexuals. Muslims find it hard to understand how we can believe our society is civilised when pornography and drunkenness are so openly on display. To the extent that Europeans are Christian at all, we see religion as fundamentally a matter of an individual's relationship with his or her God; Muslims see it as an organising social principle. Ours is a guilt culture, theirs a shame culture.

Fifth, even if Muslims have difficulty in developing a shared identity which goes beyond their religion, they are united in their understanding that the ‘colonialist, imperialist, Zionist conspiracy' is still at the root of most of their misfortunes.

Israel is, of course, the single issue on which the Islamic sense of resentment most readily focuses. It exemplifies Western hypocrisy - whether over nuclear non-proliferation, or the West's refusal to deal with the elected Hamas, or its readiness to criticise Russia for ‘disproportionate' use of force in Georgia while staying quiet over 1,300 deaths in Gaza. Whether it is the late Saddam Hussain posing in front of images of the Dome of the Rock, or Iranian President Ahmadinejad's rantings, the plight of the Palestinians provides cheap cover for other malign agendas and is a recruiting sergeant for extremism. It is a political talisman of irresistible power.

As with so much else about today's world, President Obama seems to have grasped all this almost intuitively. Unlike his two predecessors he has had the courage to target the Israel/Palestinian problem, the intractable seat of the infection, from the beginning of his Presidency. And he has gone to Cairo to address the Arab world with humility and respect, without shirking the issues of human rights and individual freedoms which represent real problems between us.

The risk in this otherwise very welcome U.S. activism is that it will provide the excuse for Europeans to do what they do best - to sit back and to cheer whilst someone else does the heavy lifting, salving their sense of self-importance with a ride-along role in the lethargic Quartet and Road Map processes, meanwhile easing their consciences by pouring half a billion euros a year into the Palestinian territories.

But passivity at this juncture would be a mistake of historic proportions. Like any U.S. president, Obama operates under severe domestic constraints. By June of this year, he had received AIPAC-inspired letters from more than three-quarters of all senators and congressmen demanding that the U.S. should show itself a ‘devoted friend' to Israel.

Nor are American interests identical to those of Europeans. Protected behind its oceans and applying its vast technological capacity to the goal of energy self-sufficiency, the U.S. is ultimately able to distance itself from the travails of the Middle East - and once out of both Iraq and Afghanistan may find itself increasingly tempted to do just that. For Europe, such distancing is impossible - European security is inextricably bound up with the need to find and maintain a modus vivendi with the Muslim world.

Europe has nevertheless had its moments. The EU's 1980 Venice declaration first put the two-state solution on the table. And it is not without its levers. It has currently put on hold a deepened economic relationship with Israel: if the Israeli government continues to refuse to stop its colonisation of the West Bank Europeans should reflect that, as Israel's most important export market, they have tougher options to hand. And given the determination of both the Israeli and Iranian governments to use each other's intransigence as an excuse for their own, Europe must also be prepared to use its economic muscle on Iran if and when the mullahs reject Obama's extended hand. European military forces will also be required to play a crucial role in policing and guaranteeing a two-state settlement - and it was a welcome sign that France's President Nicolas Sarkozy and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown discussed just this at their July summit at Evian. In short, it is time for Europe to wake up to where its real security interests lie, and to take responsibility for asserting them.

This piece first appeared in the Autumn 2009 edition of Europe's World.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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