Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century


By Mark Leonard

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Those who believe Europe is weak, ineffectual and sclerotic are wrong. Europe might look frail and feeble against American military might, but that expression of power is shallow and narrow. Or so says Mark Leonard, one of Europe’s brightest new policy thinkers, in a book sure to stir and provoke his American contemporaries. America’s centralized, militarized supremacy, he argues, has become so overwhelming that it has defeated everything, including itself. It’s capable of imposing itself anywhere — but when its back is turned its potency wanes. Europe’s reach, by contrast, is broad and deep, spreading a value system from Albania to Zambia. It draws other countries into its orbit rather than seeking to define itself against them, and as they come under the influence of its laws and customs they are changed forever.

Europe, quietly, has rediscovered within its foundations a revolutionary model for the future and an alternative to American hard power. With little fanfare, Europe has pooled the resources and the sovereignty of its nations into a radical new interface — and a power that is discreetly but insistently shaping the path forward. The revolution they have unleashed, Leonard argues, will transform the world. Whether you are a neocon or a transatlantic traditionalist, a businessmen or financier, his argument is one you cannot afford to ignore.


The Power of Weakness and the Weakness of Power: Why Europe Will Run the Twenty-First Century

In the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington a middle-aged woman with a weather-beaten face and a brown wig sits on a milk crate. Surrounded by hand-painted placards calling for nuclear disarmament, Concepcion Picciotto hands out her cheaply produced leaflets to any passer-by who will stop to listen. This remarkable woman has been holding a vigil outside the White House day and night for twenty-one years – sleeping, in a sitting position, for just three hours a night, so as to avoid breaking the stringent DC vagrancy laws. It is impossible not to be moved by her conviction and moral rectitude; it is equally impossible not to be depressed by the futility of a cause that has robbed her of the best years of her life.

It does not take long for most Americans to figure out that Concepcion is European. Like Concepcion’s faith in world peace, they see Europe’s belief in international institutions and the rule of international law as weak and unworldly – a luxurious delusion which post-9/11 America can no longer afford. In fact for many, Concepcion represents the distilled essence of the European position: lazy, free-riding, idealistic, and weak. She lives on American handouts of money and food, and enjoys the protection of the Washington Police Department without contributing a cent to pay for its upkeep. And yet she has the temerity to sit at the gates of the White House and complain about the manner in which her providers and protectors choose to conduct themselves.

What is more, many Europeans would agree. The conventional wisdom is that Europe’s hour has come and gone. Its lack of vision, divisions, obsession with legal frameworks, unwillingness to project military power, and sclerotic economy are contrasted with a United States more dominant even than Rome at the height of the imperial republic, and not afraid to use force to get its way. We are told that if the American Empire is set to dominate the next fifty years, it is the Chinese and Indians who will take over the baton and dominate the second half of the century.

But the problem is not Europe – it is our outdated understanding of power.

The Weakness of Power

For all the talk of American Empire, the last two years have been above all else a demonstration of the limits of American power. America’s economic lead over the rest of the world has disappeared (in 1950 its GDP was twice the size of Western Europe’s and five times Japan’s; today its GDP is the same size as the EU’s and less than double that of Japan’s1); and its political power is waning (its failure to secure support from Europeans, and even from countries as economically dependent on the USA as Mexico and Chile, showed that the price for saying no to the United States has been going down). In fact American dominance is only clear-cut on two levels: the ability to fight and win intensive conventional wars, and the ubiquity of American popular culture.2 Joseph Nye has characterized these two kinds of power as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’: the ability to get your way by coercion and attraction.3 Both are declining currencies.

Terrorism and weapons of mass destruction allow the desperate and weak to neutralize the superpower’s military machine.4 And by constantly talking of countries as rogue states and threatening them with military attack, the Bush Administration actually encourages them to adopt these tactics. What is more, as the administration becomes obsessed with ‘Hard Power’, it further erodes American ‘Soft Power’ by replacing memories of America as saviour with fear of the instability its war on terror is causing. As David Calleo says: ‘Where promiscuous Europe sees a world where everybody is a potential friend, martial America lives in a world where every independent power is a potential enemy.’5 The paradox is that the more this Janus-faced empire flouts its strength, the less it is able to achieve its goals on the world stage.

To understand the shape of the twenty-first century, we need a revolution in the way we think about power. The overblown rhetoric directed at the ‘American Empire’ misses the fact that the US reach – militarily and diplomatically – is shallow and narrow. The lonely superpower can bribe, bully, or impose its will almost anywhere in the world, but when its back is turned, its potency wanes. The strength of the EU, conversely, is broad and deep: once sucked into its sphere of influence, countries are changed forever. For fifty years, under the cover of an American security blanket, Europe has been creating a ‘community of democracy’ and using its market size and the promise of engagement to reshape societies from the inside. As India, Brazil, South Africa, and even China develop economically and express themselves politically, the European model will represent an irresistibly attractive way of enhancing their prosperity whilst protecting their security. They will join with the EU in building ‘a New European Century’.

The Power of Weakness

If you put the words ‘Europe’ and ‘crisis’ into the internet search engine Google, over four million entries come up. Newspapers have used them together so often that they are almost interchangeable: on any day over the last fifty years there have been stories of divisions, failure to meet targets, diplomatic wrangles, a perpetual sense of failure. But historians tell a different story from journalists. They describe a continent with one of the most successful foreign policies in history. They tell us that, in just fifty years, war between European powers has become unthinkable; that European economies have caught up with America; and that Europe has brought successive waves of countries out of dictatorship and into democracy.

When they look at a map of the world, they will describe a zone of peace spreading like a blue oil slick – from the west coast of Ireland to the east of the Mediterranean; from the Arctic Circle to the Straits of Gibraltar – sucking in new members in its wake. And around this blue map of the European Union (covering over 450 million citizens) they will describe another zone of 385 million people who share land and sea borders with the EU. Surrounding them another 900 million people are umbilically linked to a European Union that is their biggest trade partner and their biggest source of credit, foreign investment, and aid. These 2 billion people (one third of the world’s population) live in the ‘Eurosphere’: Europe’s zone of influence, which is gradually being transformed by the European project and adopting European ways of doing things.6

Because news is told by journalists rather than historians, European power is often confused with weakness. But when a country like Russia signs the Kyoto Protocol on green-house gas emissions in order to smooth relations with the European Union; when Poland reverses decades of practice to introduce constitutional protection for ethnic minorities to be allowed to join the EU; when an Islamist government in Turkey abandons its own party’s proposals for a penal code that makes adultery a crime punishable by law so as not to attract the ire of Brussels; or a right-wing Republican administration swallows hard and asks the UN for help over Iraq – then we need to question our definitions of power and weakness.

We can see that a new kind of power has evolved that cannot be measured in terms of military budgets or smart missile technology. It works in the long term, and is about reshaping the world rather than winning short-term tussles. Europe’s power is a ‘transformative power’.7 And when we stop looking at the world through American eyes, we can see that each element of European ‘weakness’ is in fact a facet of its extraordinary ‘transformative power’.

Europe doesn’t flaunt its strength or talk about a ‘single sustainable model of progress’. Instead, like an ‘invisible hand’, it operates through the shell of traditional political structures. The British House of Commons, British law courts, and British civil servants are still there, but they have all become agents of the European Union. This is no accident. By creating common standards that are implemented through national institutions, Europe can spread its influence without becoming a target for hostility. While every US company, embassy, and military base is a terrorist target, Europe’s relative invisibility allows it to extend its global reach without the same provocation. The fact that Europe does not have one leader, but rather a network of centres of power united by common policies and goals, means that it can expand to accommodate ever-greater numbers of countries without collapsing, and continue to provide its members with the benefits of being the largest market in the world.

Europeans are not interested in classic geo-politics when they talk to other countries. They start from the other end of the spectrum: What values underpin the State? What are its constitutional and regulatory frameworks? Europe’s obsession with legal frameworks means that it can completely transform the countries it comes into contact with, instead of just skimming the surface. The USA may have changed the regime in Afghanistan, but Europe is changing all of Polish society, from its economic policies and property laws to its treatment of minorities and what gets served on the nation’s tables.

Europe doesn’t change countries by threatening to invade them: its biggest threat is having nothing to do with them at all. While the EU is deeply involved in Serbia’s reconstruction and supports its desire to be ‘rehabilitated’ as a European state, the USA offers Colombia no such hope of integration through multilateral institutions or structural funds, only the temporary ‘assistance’ of American military training missions and aid, and the raw freedom of the US market.

By creating the largest single internal market in the world, Europe has become an economic giant that, according to some calculations, is already the biggest in the world.8 But it is the quality of Europe’s economy that makes it a model: its low levels of inequality allow countries to save on crime and prisons; its energy-efficient economies will protect them from the hike in oil prices; its social model gives people leisure and time with their families. Europe represents a synthesis of the energy and freedom that come from liberalism with the stability and welfare that come from social democracy. As the world becomes richer and moves beyond satisfying basic needs such as hunger and health, the European way of life will become irresistible.

In every corner of the world countries are drawing inspiration from the European model and nurturing their own neighbourhood clubs. This ‘regional domino effect’ will change our ideas of politics, economics and redefine what power means for the twenty-first century.

The Project for a New European Century

Imagine a world of peace, prosperity, and democracy. A world where small countries are as sovereign as large ones. A world where what matters is that you obey the law – rather than whether you are with us or against us; where your democratic values are more important than what you have done in the war on terror this week; where you can have a population of just 400,000 and be part of the biggest economy in the world. What I am asking you to imagine is the ‘New European Century’.

This book is not an attempt to excuse all of Europe’s faults. It has plenty: from the absurdity of its common agricultural policy to the meanness of its immigration policies; from its lack of assertiveness on the world stage to its over-assertiveness in devising standards. However, it is an attempt to defend the European Union from its enemies: both those who seek to hide its extraordinary achievements by blaming it – often unfairly – for all manner of evils, and those who, in the name of the European cause, want to turn it into something else: a federal state on the American model. Both these groups have succeeded in filling Europeans with gloom. My aim is to help cast off the oppressive yoke of pessimism that has enveloped our continent before it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Europe’s Invisible Hand

In the beginning there was no future, only the recent past. Blood-drenched, genocidal, and everywhere. The bodies had piled up with each new vision of European unity: 184,000 in the Franco-Prussian War, 8 million in the First World War, 40 million in the Second World War.1 Grand plans and charisma had almost extinguished a continent. It needed a miracle to recover, but Europe could not bring itself to believe in romantic leadership again. With six words the French poet Paul Valéry captured the European condition in 1945: ‘We hope vaguely, we dread precisely.’2

That is why Europe’s epic escape from history was guided not by the larger-than-life heroes of the war – people like Churchill or De Gaulle, who inspired a generation to fight – but by a group of almost anonymous technocrats who were dedicated to taking the gun out of Europe’s future. The key figure was Jean Monnet, a small, unprepossessing, stocky French official, who reminded the journalist Anthony Sampson unavoidably of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.

Monnet’s contribution was a vision of how not to have a vision. He took Valéry’s observation and turned it into a dictum for the organization of Europe. He let the fear of conflict drive European unity and left its goal vague, allowing everyone to feel that Europe was going their way. To this day, Europe is a journey with no final destination, a political system that shies away from the grand plans and concrete certainties that define American politics. Its lack of vision is the key to its strength.

Monnet’s first principle was to avoid blueprints. The ‘Schuman Declaration’, which the French and the Germans signed to launch the European project in 1950, makes the lack of plans a cardinal principle: ‘Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single general plan. It will be built through concrete achievements, which first create a de facto solidarity.’3 Monnet had worked in the disastrous League of Nations after the First World War and understood the need to start with concrete forms of co-operation rather than an illusory idea of the international community. He tried to bind France and Germany together by uniting the production of coal and steel: the industries that had built the weapons of war would now provide the foundations for peace. Monnet’s tactic was always to focus on technical details rather than the big political questions that attract headlines. He tried to tackle contentious issues by breaking them down into component parts – it is a lot easier to get agreement on coal and steel tariffs than war and peace. And once the governments of France and Germany were sucked into endless negotiations, they were less likely to go to war.

The best way to change the facts on the ground was through gradual change – what Monnet called engrenage. Each agreement to co-operate at a European level would lead inexorably to another agreement that deepened European integration. Once Europe’s leaders had agreed to remove tariffs, they focused on non-tariff barriers such as regulations, health and safety standards, and qualifications. When many of the non-tariff barriers had been addressed by the creation of a single market, Europe’s leaders focused on the single currency. Wider and wider groups of politicians and civil servants now had a stake in European integration. Thousands of meetings took place between officials from different governments, which meant, quite simply, that they got to know each other very well. They would therefore think spontaneously of other things they could do together.

Monnet’s bizarre working practices set a pattern that the European Union’s workings would follow. Stanley Cleveland, one of Monnet’s disciples, describes his method:

Whenever Monnet attacked a new problem he would gather a bunch of people around him…He would begin a sort of non-stop Kaffeeklatsch. It could go on sometimes for a period of one or two weeks – hours and hours a day…Monnet would remain silent, occasionally provoking reaction, but not saying much…Then gradually, as the conversation developed – and it often took several days or even a week before this happened – he began venturing a little statement of his own.4

Monnet would start with a very simple statement, almost a slogan, to see how his companions reacted. He would then expose a little more of his thinking, turning the slogan into a few sentences and then a couple of paragraphs. As his companions objected and told him what was wrong with what he said, he would reformulate his ideas until they were acceptable to everyone in the discussion. Monnet would produce up to thirty drafts of a memorandum, speech, or proposal. The purpose of this constant iteration is identical with the purpose of the EU’s current never-ending process of policy formulation, negotiation, and review: to remove any and all conflicts or obstacles around an issue. The product would be an outward simplicity for a complex idea.

What Monnet created was a machine of political alchemy. Each country would follow its national interest, but once the different national interests were put into the black box of European integration, a European project would emerge at the other end. For the Benelux countries, the Second World War had drastically exposed their vulnerability to the big powers in Europe, so they needed to find a way of reining in France and Germany; but also, as small European powers, their only real prospect of exercising influence was through some kind of unified inter-state system. For Germany, and also to an extent Italy, the major goal was political rehabilitation from their position as pariah states. Membership of a European community also represented a buttress against the threat from the East, and an opportunity to get rid of the allied market restrictions that prevented the necessary access to markets for Germany to rebuild. For France, German containment was the key goal, backed up by the prospects for economic growth which access to German markets and productive capacity offered – what Jacques Delors described as the marriage contract on which the EEC was founded.5

All of these were calculations of national interest, and yet the outcome of their filtering through Monnet’s European institutions was a solution to the problem of European conflict.6 In Europe today, war is not simply undesirable – it is inconceivable. The founder of liberal economics, Adam Smith, developed the evocative idea of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market to explain how a system of perfect liberty, operating under the drives and constraint of human nature and intelligently designed institutions, would give rise to an orderly society rather than a ‘war of all against all’.7 In many ways, Monnet’s genius was to develop a ‘European invisible hand’ that allows an orderly European society to emerge from each country’s national interest. 8 And that is possibly the most powerful element of Monnet’s vision: he did not try to abolish the nation-state or nationalism – simply to change its nature by pooling sovereignty.

Europe has been able to extend itself into the lives of Europeans largely unchallenged by seeping into the existing structure of national life, leaving national institutions outwardly intact but inwardly transformed. The ‘Europeanization’ of national political life has largely gone on behind the scenes, but its very invisibility has seen the triumph of a unique political experiment.

The Invisible Political System

The Palace of Westminster, London. It is 11.30 a.m. on a Thursday and the Secretary of State for Agriculture, Margaret Beckett, is preparing to take questions – just as her predecessors have done for three hundred years. The daily prayers have been said and MPs are settling down on their green benches – behind the sword-lines that were originally introduced to stop the opposing front benches from stabbing each other while they spoke. The MPs are tired and anxious to get off to their constituencies so the chorus of ‘Hear, Hear’ and the waving of order papers is even louder than usual.

Although the trappings of ‘Question Time’ have not changed in centuries, this façade of continuity hides the fact that over half of British agricultural legislation is made to implement decisions taken by our ministers in Brussels.9 Although the House of Commons can hold Margaret Beckett to account, the key decisions are not made by her alone. Instead they are made in negotiations with her counterparts in gatherings of European agriculture ministers and the various technical committees that meet between three and four hundred times a year.10 But for a visitor to the House of Commons, or even a British farmer, nothing has changed because the policies are not implemented or ratified at a European level. The farmer will continue to deal with the national Ministry of Agriculture, the national customs and excise authorities, the national vets and health and safety executives who have become the custodians of European policy.


On Sale
Aug 8, 2006
Page Count
192 pages

Mark Leonard

About the Author

Mark Leonard is Executive Director of the Open Society Institute for Europe. He is formerly Director of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform and the director of the Foreign Policy Centre. A regular commentator in the world’s leading newspapers and journals, he lives in London.

Learn more about this author