The European World After 1989

8 august 2007

Timofey Bordachev - Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics, and Director of the Eurasian Program at the Valdai Club Foundation. He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

Resume: The regional and global consequences of the present “neighborly” miscommunications between Berlin, London, Paris, Warsaw and Moscow may eventually exceed any massacre, such as in Africa for example, or some other global catastrophe. An unbalanced and weak Europe will itself become a theater of military-political actions for countries and non-state actors, whose conduct is far from the one accepted in the Old World.

The revolutionary events of 1989-1991 in Central and Eastern Europe, crowned by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc, triggered a long and dramatic process in the history of the European states. The geopolitical change in Europe was set in motion, but the results are still unclear. This motion has affected all levels of European life: political systems, the state of relations between European countries, and the domestic “social pacts” in each of them.

Attempts to artificially halt the radical turn on the continent and achieve some sort of status quo have either yielded no result or their outcome is unclear. Such initiatives include the desire to impart a constitutional, rather than treaty-based, nature to European integration, democratize the enlarged NATO and turn it into a “global policeman,” and fix a specific political system for Russia and its relations with its neighbors.

All of these attempts invariably run up against the same problem: on the one hand, there is the desire to preserve the unique role of the sovereign European states. On the other hand, there is a need to limit that role in order to stabilize the institutional system and improve the economic efficiency of Europe as a whole, as well as in each European country. This would include, of course, Russia.


The history of modern Europe has already witnessed three painful periods of major upheavals that lasted for 25 to 30 years on average.

First, the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) ended in a treaty that created the principle of state sovereignty and noninterference in internal affairs. Later, the French Revolution (1789-1815) brought the people on to the political stage and, having suffered a crushing defeat, reaffirmed the primacy of the sovereign state. Finally, the tragedy of 1914-1945 produced a new balance of forces in Europe: a confrontation between two ideologically hostile alliances, each being under the dominant control of a sovereign power – the United States or the Soviet Union.

Fortunately, Europe’s ongoing radical revamping has proven less destructive than previous attempts, while its violent manifestations have affected only the periphery – the Western Balkans and part of the former Soviet space. Yet, although interstate conflicts within the European Union are of a relatively friendly nature, the Union does not resemble an island of stability.

The regional and global consequences of the present “neighborly” miscommunications between Berlin, London, Paris and Warsaw may eventually exceed any massacre, in Africa, for example, or some other global catastrophe. Furthermore, an unbalanced and weak Europe will itself become a theater of military-political actions for countries and non-state actors, whose conduct is far from the one accepted in the Old World.

It is not clear yet what will result from the changes that we have been witnessing in the past 18 years. Drawing historical analogies, we can compare the ‘end of the bipolar system’ in 1989-1991 to the beginning of the Thirty Years War, the fall of the absolutist regime in France (1789-1793) and, finally, to World War I (1914-1918). The latter destroyed three European empires, brought Soviet Russia on to the international stage (the logic of Soviet Russia’s conduct markedly differed from the logic of the Russian Empire), and made primitive nationalism one of the leading political forces in Western Europe.

In all of the above cases, the varying degrees of violent change of the established order of things were only the beginning of major changes. The crisis-prone expansion of European integration, the painful transformation of Russia’s identity and vague international prospects of Eastern Europe, the erosion of the political and military importance of NATO, and the rapid aggravation of transatlantic relationships are all manifestations of the latest turning point in European history.

All former similar periods ended in the continuation of the unique role of sovereign European states as the main actors in international relations. Each time a balance of forces was established, as well as zones of influence for countries or alliances, new social pacts were concluded with regard to political and economic organization inside countries. Today, the main questions remain the same: What is the role of the state? How should states implement their sovereignty and ensure a balance of forces? European political leaders from Moscow to Lisbon will have to find answers to these questions whether they realize it or not.


The European Union now poses as a major political actor (the aggregate population of its member countries in 2007 stands at about 500 million people), so it bears the main responsibility and burden of challenges of the transitional period. Maastricht-like integration of the EU has encountered three major challenges.

First, the strategic goal of the EU is extremely vague. Determining this goal could assist it in making difficult political decisions that go beyond the usual initiatives for maintaining and improving its socio-economic model.

However, the possibility of establishing a shared strategic vision and goal is limited as a new pan-European identity, gradually emerging in the Old World, cannot yet replace, even partially, the national, sovereign identity of the European states. It follows from election programs and public discussions in Europe that, despite statements about their allegiance to the EU, politicians and voters in EU member states remain within the frameworks of purely national agendas. Even such integration-minded countries as the Netherlands and France mostly focus on national policy toward the united Europe.

Second, Europe, faced with global competition from the United States, China, Japan and even India, cannot overcome its economic inefficiency. High social guarantees, which ensure the existence of the European public pact, are a heavy burden on the economies of the EU member states and impede their innovative development.

A technological breakthrough, cited as the main goal of the European Union for the immediate future, is impossible without a common policy in such sovereign areas as the funding of the social sphere or regulation of labor migration. Numerous difficulties with the implementation of the so-called ‘Lisbon strategy’ – an action plan that aims to make Europe the most competitive economy in the world by 2010 – show that national measures to attract investment in innovative industries are not enough, while member states are not ready yet to delegate their corresponding powers and distribution functions to the Union.

Third, the EU displays a low level of governability in that it is unable to reform pan-European institutions that are intended, in a manner that would suit everyone, to check and balance the national egoisms of the individual EU members. The existing EU institutions are not fit for taking into account and harmonizing the interests of the 27 EU member states. For example, the political life and debates in the European Union show that its major institutions, such as the European Commission, are now formed by member states according to the “leftover” principle.

All tasks that could be resolved without limiting the sovereign rights of integrating states were resolved within the framework of the 1957-1992 European projects. Switching to a federalist model, that is, by forming a European government and a full-scale European parliament, could galvanize the economy and society. However, such an idea is unrealistic today.

Apart from intra-European challenges, the EU is now faced with external threats that were hard to imagine in the past. The external factors include cross-border terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the increasingly noticeable decline in the stabilizing role of the United States in European politics, and the globalization and practical freedom of capital movement. These characteristics of the contemporary world challenge sovereign European states and their existence inside the frameworks of relatively close alliances.

The world is ceasing to be Eurocentric. Europe still remains a guiding light for the majority of countries and peoples in terms of culture and prosperity, but its role as a center for production of goods – and knowledge – is decreasing. Furthermore, values that are capable of ensuring competitiveness in the 21st century do not always coincide with Christian or generally accepted human values of the Old World.


The United States, which will continue to be the world’s strongest power militarily and economically, is drastically changing its role within the European system.

The disappearance of the Soviet center of power – which resulted in the creation of Russia, another large yet ordinary European country that is unable or unwilling to dramatically rebuild the world – reduced the practical need for the U.S. military presence on the European political and military stage.

Participation in European affairs lost any meaning for Washington after September 11, 2001. The military attack, which claimed thousands of lives in America, originated beyond Europe. Thus, the struggle against the militants was to be waged in other military theaters. A military horn sounded in America’s army barracks, calling for the military to abandon the quiet front and move to where the attack came from.

Washington’s renunciation of reliance on NATO signaled the reduction of U.S. expeditionary corps in Europe, thus causing a rapid erosion of the Euro-Atlantic’s main security institution. A statement by then U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that “the mission will determine the coalition” was a sentence to the Alliance. The devaluation of NATO in America’s eyes (which began even before September 2001) was graphically manifest in several events: the approval of NATO’s “childish” expansion of 1999-2004, which was senseless from a military point of view; the pragmatic disregard for NATO mechanisms when preparing for anti-Taliban operations in Afghanistan; and the de facto bilateral decision concerning the deployment of elements of a U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic in 2007.

The reduction of America’s historically stabilizing role is creating a power vacuum in Europe, which the European states, acting within the framework of their Westphalian sovereignties, have thus far been unable to fill. Actions by the British government as part of the George W. Bush administration’s Iraqi campaign were the most serious attempt in recent years to keep the United States within the European orbit, or at least to fasten Europe to the changed America.

Having ceased to play the role of stability in Europe, Washington – voluntarily or not – is beginning to act destructively. When making the serious decision to deploy a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, the White House seems to have taken into account all motives except the strengthening of stability in international relations in Europe, including ties within the European Union. Therefore, it is not surprising that Britain and some new EU members described the heightened rhetoric between Moscow and Washington, especially since February 2007, as an aggravation of Russia-West relations in general.

Finally, the departure of the stabilizing force of the United States – the only leader holding a dominant position on the European arena after the collapse of the Soviet Union – ushered in a ‘parade of sovereignties’ by the European states, which was one of the factors that thwarted efforts to solve the problem of the EU’s institutional and economic inefficiency. Deprived of its friendly tutelage from U.S.-dominated NATO, the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy suddenly found itself on “the firing line.” In late 2002-early 2003, when there emerged a need to formulate the EU’s position toward Washington’s Iraqi plans, the EU members immediately showed that they either viewed common initiatives as a continuation of their national foreign policy, or simply did not take them seriously. In both cases, there was nothing remotely ‘European’ in those initiatives.

Europe’s situation has been aggravated by the behavior of some of its leaders, which, to paraphrase a French scholar, has been one of the continent’s more unfortunate problems. They tried to prove that a new geopolitical reality had come into being on the ruins of the bipolar balance of forces of the Cold War times. The most serious attempt of this kind was made through the massive enlargement of the European Union, together with referendums on a Constitution for Europe in 2004. The failure of both projects only confirmed that this half-cooked soup of European changes was impossible to swallow and digest.

The admission of ten new members to the European Union, as well as the initiative to build a neighborhood on the ‘sharing-all-but-institutions’ principle (as formulated by Romano Prodi), were aimed at creating a ring of satellite states along the EU perimeter. This move was expected to herald in a new ‘center of power’ in Europe, with a modernized ‘Concert of powers’ of Old Europe playing a dominant role there.

To this end, the candidate countries, mostly former members of the Communist bloc, had for a long time been simmering as they attempted to meet the Copenhagen criteria. Yet even the best implementation of these framework requirements could not solve the main problem – that of stripping the new EU members of their sovereign rights. And the new member states were not slow to demonstrate these rights, which in the first half of 2007 seriously complicated attempts to reach a compromise on a renewed constitutional setup and make progress in the EU’s external relations.

However, to prevent any sort of destructive behavior on the part of Warsaw, Prague and some other European capitals in the course of debates over a European Constitution was impossible in principle. The Copenhagen criteria, successfully implemented by the candidate countries, were laid down in accordance with the norms and rules for interaction between the previous 15 EU member states. Although the inviolability of state sovereignty in the EU-15 was covered by numerous coordination mechanisms at the EU level, it remained the main principle of relations among the member states. In 1991, it received additional protection in the form of subsidiarity rule.

Furthermore, the EU’s enlargement, together with the proclamation of the European Neighborhood Policy, forced the Union to exceed the boundaries of the postmodernist EU-15. Thus, its new neighbors and partners were reluctant to reckon with the tradition, accepted in this community, to settle conflicts through patient and multi-level dialog.

And in general, by starting to address security issues (a highly sovereign sphere even in the EU-15) at the level of European integration institutions, the EU members actually used trade policy and other instruments of the Union to forward their own national interests. As a result, institutions common to all EU members have either lost a significant part of their powers, or begun to engage in activities that are not common for them. By way of example, one can cite the bustling activity of EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson in politics.

Another political mega-initiative, which provides for placing the integration project on a constitutional rather than treaty-based foundation in the future, was to help mold a new sovereignty in the person of the European Union.

Formerly, however strong was cooperation within the EU (up to the lifting of all restrictions on the movement of goods and the introduction of uniform technical standards), it always rested on treaty-based relations between sovereign European states. A European Constitution was expected to provide for and symbolize a transition to a new, proto-federation entity, rather than a deeper union of states.

Subsequent developments confirmed that the European leaders, strong enough to initiate both projects, lacked the resolve to successfully implement them by convincing the population and even themselves that a European Constitution had true value per se. The Constitution for Europe broke to pieces as it hit the wall of national sovereignties during the course of discussions over political and economic issues. Meanwhile, the EU’s enlargement further damaged the Union’s institutions and decision-making mechanisms. As a result, a new European ‘center of force,’ the emergence of which could theoretically balance out the world order after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the United States’ departure, must now be forgotten.


Russia’s transformation into a European nation-state, albeit with extensive possessions in Asia, is a factor that will have a great impact on the future image of Europe in 10 to 15 years. A transformation like this represents a great historic challenge.

In 1618-1648, Russia was on the periphery of Europe’s tumultuous events and did not play any prominent role in them. The Westphalian “world” order, which laid down the fundamental principle of sovereignty of modern European states, developed without the participation of Russia, which was only incorporated into this system of political, military and partly economic relations to the extent it could and desired; participation in European politics did not always meet the interests of its domestic development.

Russia played a basically different role in the events of 1789-1815, when Russia’s autocratic sovereignty was able – largely due to its periphery status – to deliver a fatal blow to the forces of the European revolution led by France. Russia’s significance in the European sovereign ‘Concert’ increased essentially at the cost of its final transformation into a European country, and the need to respond to the same challenges that faced the sovereign West European states. The most important of these challenges included Russia’s involvement, since the mid-19th century, in an advanced socialist discourse, which involved the direct impact of transborder revolutionary processes. As regards interstate relations proper, Russia had to actively compete on a highly competitive field of European international politics.

In the course of the “Second Thirty Years War” (1914-1945), as Robert Cooper described that period, Russia itself became a seat and engine of revolutionary changes. The geopolitical results of that period were set down in Yalta and Potsdam. Unlike revolutionary France of the early 19th century, the Soviet Union (Russia) did not suffer a military defeat; it established a union of European states, and was seen as a consolidated external threat for the West.

Russia’s ability to influence the results of European transformations has experienced an obvious upward trend. This factor suggests at least two assumptions.

First, this trend may continue, and Russia will either become an independent pole in the European balance of forces, or it will join the West European core nations as an equal partner. A Strategic Union of Russia and the EU, as proposed by Sergei Karaganov, would be able to “softly” compete with the United States and other centers – perhaps even with China.

Second, one can assume that Russia passed the peak of its influence on the European stage in 1945, just as France did in 1815 after experiencing 150 years of growing might. Now Russia is transforming into a normal European nation-state, albeit the largest one geographically, which will no longer rank as an independent ‘center of power.’ This type of Russia will soon cease to claim a special role in the world, and perhaps will even join an organization that will evolve from the present European Union according to the ‘sharing-all-but-institutions’ principle.

Russia’s ultimate choice largely depends on the outcome of its own struggle in the transition period. The growth of the “Westphalian” understanding of sovereign rights and the scope of state interference in economic activities is inevitable in returning to a nation-state – especially as the need to develop a knowledge economy calls for the greater regulatory role of the state, which is already becoming a noticeable tendency. According to some outstanding economists (for example, ex-World Bank Vice President Jean-Francois Richard), the success of innovation in, for example, Finland is due to a state policy that concentrates investment flows into those industries where private business does not see immediate profits and therefore is not active.

At the same time, challenges closely related to regional globalization processes in the Old World, and the expansion of economic and humanitarian ties between countries, are equally important for the young Russian sovereignty and the “older” sovereignties of the European Union members. Modernization of the bulk of the Russian economy and society as a whole – from improving minerals extraction methods to upgrading the quality of higher education – requires real limitations on national sovereignty rights, even though insignificant in each specific case.

It is in these framework conditions that political, economic and cultural relations between the two major actors of European politics – Russia and the EU – have been developing over the last 16 years. The practical content and results of these multi-level relations directly depend on the state and society’s response to the challenges of the historic transition, which began in 1989. This process still has a long way to go. Attempts to codify the status quo (“pragmatic” interests and mutual expectations of the parties) in a new political-legal document are doomed to failure in the medium term.

By force of historical circumstances, these interests and expectations are short-term. Therefore, they will either repeat the fate of a Constitution for Europe, or will prove impracticable. Future relations between Russia and what we now know as “the European Union” may take different forms, as well as the final result of another large transition period for the two foundations of the European system, which is made up by the sovereign state and a balance of forces.

Last updated 8 august 2007, 13:10

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