The latest military assault by Azerbaijan’s oil-rich dictator Ilham Aliyev on tiny, democratic Armenia places the European Union, once again, in an awkward position. On the one hand, as EU leaders never cease to remind us, the continental bloc stands for liberalism and democracy against the rising tide of Eurasian autocracy. On the other, European leaders such as Ursula von der Leyen, who signed an EU energy deal with the very same Aliyev just a few months ago, feel somehow compelled to place the continent’s fate in the hands of anti-democratic strongmen, whether bullied by autocrats like Erdogan or Lukashenko pumping migrants towards Europe’s borders, or dependent on dictators like Putin or Aliyev for Europe’s energy needs.

It is unnecessary to debate whether this situation derives from hypocrisy or bad diplomacy. It is both, and at the heart of it, lies the fundamental conundrum facing EU geopolitics: how to defend Europe’s liberal-democratic ideology in a hard world where it is too weak to enforce its will, and the continent’s nearest neighbours are emboldened towards swift, decisive action by their total rejection of Europe’s moral norms. What the self-proclaimed moral superpower lacks is a basic understanding of power: where it lies, and how to use it. But worse, Europe’s leaders lack the fundamental willingness to act strongly and decisively in defence of European interests.

In his 1951 masterwork The Forest Passage, the writer and philosopher Ernst Jünger observed of pre-war German society’s meek subjection to the Nazi regime he despised that “long periods of peace and quiet favour certain optical illusions. Among them is the assumption that the invulnerability of the home is founded upon the constitution and safeguarded by it. In reality, it rests upon the father of the family who, accompanied by his sons, appears with the axe on the threshold of his dwelling.” A naive and self-regarding faith in the smooth functioning of liberal institutions serves only to render you powerless when faced with a challenger who does not respect the rules of your game: ultimately, freedom and security depend on your willingness to wield power yourself, and to actively defend your liberty and way of life.

Nearly seven months into Putin’s war in Ukraine, we see this is the essential challenge facing Europe today. The US security umbrella has rendered Europe weak and powerless, believing that it could sway the rest of the world towards its governing philosophy through offering trade deals as carrots, relying on America’s offstage presence to wield the stick. Yet the continent now finds itself a geopolitical pygmy, bullied by autocrats like Putin, Erdogan and Lukashenko, structurally at the mercy of more assertive actors. This winter we shall endure the results: just as Covid finally revealed our continent’s structural dependency on Chinese manufacturing, so has Putin’s invasion of Ukraine revealed our dependence on Russian energy to sustain not just our industrial capacity but the very building blocks of modern, middle-class life.

Commentators who once lauded figures such as Merkel have suddenly perceived, too late, that there is nothing very liberal or admirable about subjecting your people to the whims of illiberal tyrants. Yet Merkel’s sudden fall from grace shows us only half of the equation: the nature of European institutions, built around myths of ever-expanding liberal progress, remains the same. History has moved on, but Europe’s governance has remained infantilised, stuck in a vanished past. Even after Merkel, Europe remains ruled by Merkelians and institutions expressly designed to stymie the swift and decisive action a world of crisis and competition demands.

In his 2019 book The Strongmen, the German political theorist Hans Kribbe distils his rare policy experience of having worked for both the European Commission and Putin’s government to claim that to survive an anarchic world, Europe will have to adopt many of the manners of the archetypal strongman. It was no more a call for an actual European strongman than Hobbe’s Leviathan was a demand for rule by monstrous giants: Kribbe uses the term more as a metaphor for comfort with executive power than as a political roadmap.

The strongman, as he notes, citing de Gaulle as an example, differs from the dictator or the classic totalitarians of the 20th century in that his transcendence of the ordinary rules is always limited in time. Born of crisis, the strongman’s brief but decisive display of executive power aims to unblock a congested system — a great reset if you will — allowing the ordinary functions of the state to return, reinvigorated, once the crisis of the day has been surpassed. Unlike the fascists or communists of the past, he is not ideological: ”the strongman lives in an embattled, chaotic and post-ideological present, not an idealised future”. The language of consensus and persuasion can only work so far in an illiberal world: “Europe should be fluent in its liberal values, but it should also be strong. It must become aware that it is but one community in a pluralistic world that is potentially hostile, and that may destroy it.”

Kribbe likens 21st-century Europe to 19th-century China, which even as European powers seized its territory and imposed humiliating terms on the Middle Kingdom, retreated to a smug and self-defeating certainty in the superiority of its values and political system. “Only after suffering humiliation after humiliation did China conclude that its cultural sophistication would not protect its freedom,” Kribbe notes, adding that: “Today, if Europe clings to the notion that the world just wishes to emulate its model, be taught by it, it risks making the same mistake. It will tell strongmen like Putin and Erdogan to behave or go home, and they will only laugh and go about their business as before.” Indeed, Kribbe observes darkly: “if Europe’s position is that the truthfulness of its liberal values suffices to secure its sovereignty, it may need its own century of humiliation to discover that only the strong can be free.” As a vision of a better world, Europe’s idealism and commitment to persuasion and consensus may be admirable, but it is no roadmap to navigating an anarchic world of competing states.

There are echoes of Kribbe’s analysis in Macron’s landmark speech to the conference of French ambassadors earlier this month, in which he observed that for things to stay the same for Europe, everything must change. “The economic order, open, liberal capitalism… has gone out of order,” he said. “The reality is that the pandemic has fractured production lines. It has re-regionalised, sometimes re-nationalised, certain production chains. And I think it has permanently de-globalised a large part of world production.”

Similarly, in the political sphere, Macron observed, “we are living in the beginning of an illiberal moment”. Indeed, “geopolitics is gradually being structured around a competition between the United States and China”, in which China “can legitimately challenge” the American-led order and “redefine the rules of the international game”. The result, for Macron, is that “we will also have to rearm ourselves morally”. Like Jünger, Macron understands that true liberty ultimately depends on strength and the capacity for self-defence. As he declared: “We must be a strong nation which, as I said, knows what the price of freedom is.”

What would a sovereign Europe, able to defend its customs and way of life against autocratic challengers look like? For Macron as for Kribbe, to avoid its looming fate as a helpless vassal of one great power or another, Europe must reclaim the language of power — and finally accept the reality that it is a sovereign polity among others, with its own interests to defend. Yet as Kribbe notes, for the ruling generation of EU politicians, the language and worldview of sovereign power is seen as somehow immoral, a fundamentally indecent relic of a less enlightened age. But delegating our security to America is no more moral or stable in the long run than delegating our industrial capacity to China, or our energy security to Russia: it leaves us at the mercy of non-European actors, whose interests are not identical to ours, and whose actions will always subordinate our security and prosperity to their own. As Kribbe warns, “Those who farm out their protection to the strong, also farm out their freedom. They can never eliminate the possibility of extortion.”

Adopting a Schmittian frame, Kribbe observes that it is only in the state of exception that sovereign power reveals itself. Yet, he warns, “given that they are designed as a bureaucratic and technocratic escape pod from the world of geopolitics and power, the EU’s institutions are not fitted out to project strength”. Citing Europe’s difficult and so far subordinate relationship with the strongmen of Eurasia as the necessary harbinger of a new age of European sovereignty, Kribbe terms the continent’s current predicament as “the age of encounter” — the encounter being with sovereign power itself, raw and vital. But we can take the Schmittian framing further: we still live in an age of exception, a period of ever-spreading, accumulating crisis, in which only those actors capable of bold and decisive action will survive. As Kribbe warns, Europe must decide just one great dilemma: “choosing strength. Is it a vassal or sovereign? … In a world dominated by power, no question is more important.”

What the assumption of sovereignty would look like is hard to determine: it need not, and probably ought not, as Kribbe emphasises, mean the consolidation of supreme power in one person, but is better interpreted as an understanding of what sovereignty means, and a willingness to use it. In any case, Kribbe’s portrayal of the former EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as the continent’s chosen interlocutor with autocratic rivals appears misguided. Meanwhile, the longest-serving European leader, Viktor Orbán, though well-versed in the language of power, shows himself in practice more an accomplice to Europe’s autocratic rivals than their challenger. Perhaps Macron himself, one of the few theorists of statecraft and no stranger to a certain Gaullist temperament, would seem a better avatar — though the perennially hostile Central European response to his attempted geopolitical balancing act mitigates against his chances.

Arguably Poland’s decisive policy choices in Ukraine, and its rapid programme of rearmament is itself just such a form of swift, decisive action, which may soon make Poland the sovereign land power on the European continent — indeed, without the vital rearmament aspect, a similar case could be made for the UK. Yet what is certain is this: we live in an anarchic world of hard power, and the European Union’s current structure and idealistic worldview leaves the continent weak and almost powerless. Far from the nascent superpower it hovers indecisively on the edge of becoming, Europe, similarly wedged between rival empires, is as helpless at determining its own fate as tiny, luckless Armenia. The coming winter, and the years that will follow, will be harder than they needed to be. We must ensure at the end of this period of trial that we Europeans are never left this vulnerable again: Europe cannot survive another Merkel, nor prolong the vanished order of willed powerlessness she presided over.

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