Logically it's a direct line: as the US turns towards the Asia-Pacific, Europe will have to pick up the resulting slack in its defense, and will increasingly rely on its own devices to do so as the traditional English brake on any development of an European Army disappears. Is this theory borne out by the results of the recent summit season, clouded as it was by heavy smoke from nationalist rabble-rousing?
Obama’s last Asia-Pacific trip of his presidency focused on the G20 Summit in China and the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane. It was intended to both close chapters of painful history, including the long-unacknowledged carpet-bombing of Laos, and open new ones by offering economic partnership and support against Chinese expansionism.The results were mixed at best.
Real progress in tackling global environmental problems (thanks to a joint effort from the two top global polluters) was overshadowed by what appeared to be a petty display of Chinese nationalism when Obama arrived in China for the summit. Then Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the thuggish former mayor from a provincial town in the ‘Wild South’ of the Philippines and now leader of a major US ally, grabbed the headlines before and during the ASEAN Summit with personal insults and anti-imperialist antics, both aimed at Obama. A return to the ‘Yankee-go-home’ policies of the Philippines's populist past appears now possible.
With the ASEAN Summit coming so soon after the Philippines won a decisive victory (with the Hague ruling that concluded there were no legal grounds for Beijing’s claims in the South Chinese Sea), no wonder the Chinese were delighted by Duterte’s about-face, Instead of working toward an ASEAN resolution with some teeth, the Philippine president said he wanted to take a ‘soft-landing strategy and talk peace with China'. If ASEAN countries do shift to a more accommodating line towards China, it would make it difficult for any Western power (such as the US, but also Australia) to provide explicit or implicit security support against Beijing.
Of course, Washington isn't helping its case, with the fate of the US pivot to Asia's economic pillar, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) appearing precarious. As its name suggests, the TPP would have been more than a trade deal, but as both US presidential candidates now oppose the deal it appears dead in the water. The first strategic blunder of what will hopefully be a Clinton presidency is thus already in train.
The historic achievement of the ‘Great Convergence’ (the narrowing of the economic gap between emerging and mature markets) since around the time China joined the World Trade Organisation suggests most emerging countries in the Asia-Pacific could have reasonably expected to profit from free trade measures advanced by the TPP, as Beijing has benefited over the last 25 years. Compared to such relatively easy gains, engaging in co-operative efforts with the US and thus antagonising China must appear far more difficult and complicated for most ASEAN capitals; hence their reluctance to take this route without tangible and certain economic sweeteners.
Not that the Western counterpart to the TPP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (the TTIP or T-Tip) is doing any better. A recent declaration of European will to finish and pass it was signed by only a few, mainly Northern EU members; Germany and France were not among them.
The previously mentioned nationalist smoke around the just-ended special EU Summit in Bratislava on the consequences of Brexit resembled a fog of war. Faced with a wave of imagined or real (for Italy, Germany and Sweden at least) problems with integrating the recent flood of migrants, the mostly middle-of-the road governments in the traditional pro-EU mold are fighting for survival all over Europe. In the Visegrad Four (Hungary, Poland, the Czech and the Slovak Republics), nationalist governments are already in power, flaunting EU solidarity while still milking the ‘Brussels’ cow.
The Italian PM Matteo Renzi (who faces his own potentially career-ending referendum) openly challenged what he called ‘sugarcoating of real problems’ in Bratislava.He, like others in the so-called ‘Club Med’ group of Southern EU members, want new financial rules from the EU that fulfill their need for support and funds from Brussels to prove to their voters that any move towards exits from the Euro, let alone from the EU, would mean disaster. The fault for opening this particular Pandora’s box lies, of course, at the feet of those who former United Kingdom Deputy PM Nick Clegg has called ‘this motley crew of mindless men’: the Brexiteers.
However, Renzi’s wish is Merkel’s anathema. Her party has lost ground to the nationalist and rightist opposition, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), in two regional elections, and she is fighting for her own survival within her party and coalition. To win these battles and next year's national elections, she must demonstrate she can rein in the ‘Southern spendthrifts’ in the EU.As probably the most steadfast European among the present crop of national leaders, she fights as well for a modicum of common sense regarding longer-term advantages for Europe.
Fortunately one such topic was high up on the Bratislava agenda: security. In the summit statement, ‘The Bratislava Declaration and Road Map’, the reinforcement of Europe’s external borders and internal security featured prominently. The success or otherwise of the determination to ‘never allow a return to uncontrolled flows of migration’ will serve as an early indication whether the EU is serious.
Building a real European army, capable of intervening with depth and structure in a future ‘Libya case’ (unlike the improvised coalition sent in by Cameron and Sarkozy in 2011) would be a long, uncertain and expensive exercise. When Merkel and François Hollande appeared at a bilateral press conference at the summit (as they do with increasing frequency) they seemed to indicate it is their intention to make a start. This process could be helped by Eastern Europeans who, in regard to security, have vowed to be model Europeans. With the possible exception of Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán, these national leaders' willingness to do more for security can probably be taken at face value, given European history in the second part of last century.
It has long been an article of faith that the UK was a leading European security agent and could thus impose direction and direct the pace of European defense. Brexit has curtailed this influence (perhaps for the better, as the British Armed Forces appears to have been substantially weakened by budget cuts). The beginnings of a European army could be one of the many unforeseen consequences of the UK's vote to leave.
Photo: Getty Images/Sean Gallup