Since 1945, Western Europe enjoys peace, freedom, and increasing prosperity. This is a long time, in view of a violent history. Since 1990 large parts of Central and Eastern Europe also enjoy these values. The question is how this peaceful order can be preserved and perhaps be joined by other states in the future.
The task of statecraft is to preserve peace as long as possible, while encouraging liberty, justice, and wellbeing. A stable international rule-of-law system needs strong leadership with large resources and the conviction to maintain the values of the system. The leadership needs to guide the member states with persuasion in an acceptable fashion, allow much self-rule, and encourage the members to share fairly the tasks of maintaining security in the face of external threats.
Since 1945, much of Europe lives in the rather liberal North Atlantic political order. This bi-regional system is probably the best area to live in, compared to the global political system which is still rather violent, with many regions that suffer from oppression and poverty. The key to the North Atlantic order is the “Pax Americana”, the outcome of the Second World War. Till recently, reasonably good American leadership, with ups and downs, was taken for granted. But the US presidency is rapidly losing authority, at least in the short run. How long will the Pax Americana last? And what might come next? There is no certainty. We cannot count of the United Nations to guarantee peace and rule of law, even though it can sometimes be of help to contain conflicts inside and between smaller states, as long as veto-holding states do not block this.
Inside the North Atlantic order, West European states have woven a web of intensive cooperation in which national sovereignty is shared. This functionalist integration helped to create great freedom, justice and prosperity, but a number of East European leaders and nationalist parties in Western Europe refuse to understand the wisdom of functional integration.
The North Atlantic security community, which has greatly grown in size since 1945, is weakening at present. Its leader, the US, suffers from a deficit in leadership and also in resources to lead (mainly due to increasing financial deficits and a faulty federal tax system). Most European allies run rather different deficits, particularly in their contributions to common security. Some Eastern members and Turkey have increasing deficits in rule of law. Still, the North Atlantic order is on average the best place to live, in terms of freedom, well-being and security. This also applies to some countries outside the North Atlantic area, like Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. They are politically connected to the North Atlantic order. An indicator that the North Atlantic order offers its citizens a fairly decent life and future is the road which most refugees and migrants travel. All over the world, people try to vote, at least with their feet. How many want to flee to Russia, China or Nigeria?
This North Atlantic order is worth preserving, but is badly in need of repair. The prime weakness is the present political situation of the leading state: the US. Increasing inequality of income and property among its citizens worsen this, as happens also in many European countries. Tax aversion, consumerism, demoralization of democratic citizenship, short term electoral gains and group conflicts are among the factors sapping the cohesion of the members. There is domestic disgruntlement over rapid globalization, which has many losers who feel threatened by loss of social position, work, and property. Another problem is the return of Moscow, since 1998, to confrontation against the Western liberal system, and the Kremlin stirring regional wars elsewhere, as well as its efforts to sow dissent with disinformation and hybrid war. The rapid rise of China as a very productive non-liberal empire, based on state capitalism and digital control over its citizens, forms another challenge. If present trends continue, the North Atlantic community will lose cohesion, act meekly and slowly against aggression, and eventually lose global leadership to China.
Good and bad measures are being advocated in the West against possible decline. New populist nationalism is worsening the decay, as it would break down the North Atlantic order from the inside. Encouragement of rapid economic growth and unrestrained economic globalization to satisfy consumers and producers in the short run will further undermine the natural environment and increase economic inequality. Reducing development cooperation will increase the massive unemployment outside the region, which can be expected from ongoing population growth, and will increase migration. Tampering with representative democracy by referenda or illiberal democracy may worsen good governance and increase the divisions among various groupings.
Then what? There is some hope that the present lack of American leadership will encourage the EU to become a stronger world player. It is wise to be hopeful but not to expect too much. Brexit will take much political attention. The EU will benefit from German-French cooperation, but there are many in the EU who focus on short-term national interest. The Netherlands government, for one, does not like grand visions and a stronger EU, even though it would benefit greatly from more European cohesion.
The EU lacks a clear leadership structure and has no political will to deter Moscow’s increasing military power. The challenge of migration from Africa and the Near East seriously divides the EU.
What Europe needs is not yet available: stronger political cooperation in the North-Atlantic region. We should not give up on a return of political decency in US leadership. This may take a few years – and depends heavily on the leadership in the Democratic and Republican parties, or an independent political movement in the US. Strong legal institutions, free media, educational institutions, churches and corporate leaders have a role to play. Till now, American democratic institutions have not yet crumbled under the ills of Trumpism. There will be new US leadership in not more than a few years.
The world political system seems to develop towards a mixed tripolar/multilateral order: China, India, the US as main actors, in the near future also Russia (but it lacks the economic strength to remain a super power), as well as many regional middle powers. The EU still lacks the cohesion needed to be a prime actor.
Will the world see new great-power wars? The development by an increasing number of states of highly destructive new weapons, cyber and hybrid war, arms in outer space, nuclear arms and automated weapons might sooner or later cause a disaster by intent or accident. The political and economic competition among the giants, such as China, the US, Russia and India will continue, and may get even more intense in the quest for scarce resources. But there is no law of nature that forces them to make war, other than the irresponsibility and serious misperceptions which have plagued mankind throughout history.
In this situation I know of no better policy than to patiently improve the North Atlantic order, and the European Union as a still weak but important corner stone.
Professor of International Organizations at Universiteit Leiden
Former Minister of Defence of the Netherlands