The European World After 1989
No. 3 2007 July/September
Timofei V. Bordachev

Doctor of Political Science
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies
Academic Supervisor;
Valdai Discussion Club, Moscow, Russia
Program Director


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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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.