Europe's transformative power

Bulletin article
Mark Leonard
01 February 2005

Type the words 'Europe' and 'crisis' into the internet search engine Google, and more than four million entries come up. The media use these two words so frequently that they have become interchangeable.

But historians detect an enduring success behind the journalists' superficial sense of failure. They describe a continent that in just 50 years has made war between its major powers unthinkable; that has moved from having a GDP half the size of America's to one the same size; and that has dragged successive waves of countries out of dictatorship and into democracy. However, it is journalists, rather than historians, who report the news. As a result, European power continues to be confused with weakness.

For all the talk of American empire, the last two years have been above all else a demonstration of the limits of American power. 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.

Joseph Nye has characterised these two kinds of power as 'hard' and 'soft': the ability to get your way by coercion and attraction. Both are declining currencies. Terrorism and weapons of mass destruction allow the desperate and weak to neutralise the superpower's military machine. The more the US administration resorts to employing hard power, the greater the damage to the country's soft power. These days many see the US as less of a saviour than a harbinger of war and instability. The more that America flaunts its strength, the less it is able to achieve its goals on the world stage.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, Europeans often by accident have been developing a new kind of power. This 'transformative power' works in the long term, and is about reshaping the world rather than winning short-term tussles. It cannot be measured in terms of military budgets or smart missile technology, but is captured in treaties, constitutions and laws. 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's power is easy to miss. 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 here, but they have all become agents of the European Union implementing European law. This is no accident. By creating common standards that are implemented through national institutions, Europe can take over countries without necessarily becoming a target for hostility. The same is true for the European troops who often serve away from home under a United Nations or NATO flag, rather than the European banner. While every American company, embassy, and military base is a terrorist target, Europe's invisibility allows it to spread its influence without provocation. Europe lacks one leader, being a network of centres of power that are united by common policies and goals. This enables Europe to accommodate ever-greater numbers of countries without compromising their independence. At the same time, Europe can provide its members with the benefits of being part of the largest market in the world.

Europe's obsession with legal frameworks means that it transforms the countries it comes into contact with, instead of just skimming the surface. The US 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. The lonely superpower can bribe, bully, or impose its will almost anywhere in the world, but when its back is turned, its potency wanes. In contrast, the strength of the EU is broad and deep: once sucked into its sphere, countries are changed forever.

Europe doesn't change countries by threatening to invade them: its biggest threat is to cut off contact with them. The prize of European Union membership has already transformed countries such as Spain, Greece, Poland and the Czech Republic and is starting to have a similar effect on Turkey. Beyond the 450 million citizens who are already in the European Union, there are a further 1.3 billion people in 80 countries umbilically linked to an EU that is their biggest trade partner and main source of credit, foreign investment and aid. Thus nearly 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.

Compare this with the US approach to its neighbourhood. The EU is deeply involved in Serbia's reconstruction and supports its desire to be 'rehabilitated' as a European state. The US offers Colombia no such hope of integration through multilateral institutions or structural funds, but rather the temporary assistance of American military training missions and aid.

Europe's transformative power is underpinned by a vast internal market which, according to some calculations, has become the biggest economy in the world. But it is the quality of Europe's economy that makes it a model. Europeans have shorter working hours and longer holidays than anyone else on the planet. European societies have lower levels of inequality and consequently a lower crime rate.

If America represents the freedom of the individual to consume, and Asia the importance of social stability, Europe allows its people the best of both. It combines the energy and freedom of liberalism with the stability and welfare of 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 increasingly attractive.

What is more, Europe's success is starting to change the nature of power beyond its borders. In every corner of the world, countries are drawing inspiration from the European model and nurturing their own neighbourhood clubs from Asean and Mercosur to the African Union and the Arab League. This 'regional domino effect' will redefine what power means for the 21st century. As this process continues, we will see the emergence of a 'New European Century'. Not because Europe will run the world as an empire, but because the European way of doing things will become the world's.

Mark Leonard was director of foreign policy & defence (2005-2007)

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