By George Friedman
Discussions about Europe currently are focused on the Greek financial crisis and its potential effect on the future of the European Union. Discussions these days involving military matters and Europe appear insignificant and even anachronistic. Certainly, we would agree that the future of the European Union towers over all other considerations at the moment, but we would argue that scenarios for the future of the European Union exist in which military matters are far from archaic.
Russia and the Polish Patriots
For example, the Polish government recently announced that the United States would deploy a battery of Patriot missiles to Poland. The missiles arrived this week. When the United States canceled its land-based ballistic missile defense system under intense Russian pressure, the Obama administration appeared surprised at Poland’s intense displeasure with the decision. Washington responded by promising the Patriots instead, the technology the Poles had wanted all along. While the Patriot does not enhance America’s ability to protect itself against long-range ballistic missiles from, for example, Iran, it does give Poland some defense against shorter-ranged ballistic missiles and substantial defense against conventional air attack.
Russia is the only country capable of such attacks on Poland with even the most distant potential interest in doing so, and at this point, this is truly an abstract threat. In removing a system that was really not a threat to Russian interests — U.S. ballistic missile defense at most can handle only a score of missiles, meaning it would have a negligible impact on the Russian nuclear deterrent — the United States ironically has installed a system that could affect Russia. Under the current circumstances, this is not really significant. While much is being made of having a few U.S. boots on the ground east of Germany within 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) of the Russian Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, a few hundred technicians and guards are simply not an offensive threat.
Still, the Russians — with a long history of seeing improbable threats turning into very real ones — tend to take hypothetical limits on their power seriously. They also tend to take gestures seriously, knowing that gestures often germinate into strategic intent. The Russians obviously oppose this deployment, as the Patriots would allow Poland in league with NATO — and perhaps even by itself — to achieve local air superiority. There are many crosscurrents in Russian policy, however.
For the moment, the Russians are interested in encouraging better economic relations with the West, as they could use technology and investment that would make them more than a commodity exporter. Moreover, with the Europeans preoccupied with their economic crisis and the United States still bogged down in the Middle East and needing Russian support on Iran, Moscow has found little outside resistance to its efforts to increase its influence in the former Soviet Union. Moscow is not unhappy about the European crisis and wouldn’t want to do anything that might engender greater European solidarity. After all, a solid economic bloc turning into an increasingly powerful and integrated state would pose challenges to Russia in the long run that Moscow is happy to do without. The Patriot deployment is a current irritation and a hypothetical military problem, but the Russians are not inclined to create a crisis with Europe over it — though this doesn’t mean Moscow won’t make countermoves on the margins when it senses opportunities.
For its part, the Obama administration is not focused on Poland at present. It is obsessed with internal matters, South Asia and the Middle East. The Patriots were shipped based on a promise made months ago to calm Central European nerves over the Obama administration’s perceived lack of commitment to the region. In the U.S. State and Defense department sections charged with shipping Patriots to Poland, the delivery process was almost an afterthought; repeated delays in deploying the system highlighted Washington’s lack of strategic intent.
It is therefore tempting to dismiss the Patriots as of little importance, as merely the combination of a hangover from a Cold War mentality and a minor Obama administration misstep. Indeed, even a sophisticated observer of the international system might barely note it. But we would argue that it is more important than it appears precisely because of everything else going on.
Existential Crisis in the EU
The European Union is experiencing an existential crisis. This crisis is not about Greece, but rather, what it is that members of the European Union owe each other and what controls the European Union has over its members. The European Union did well during a generation of prosperity. As financial crisis struck, better-off members were called on to help worse-off members. Again, this is not just about Greece — the 2008 credit crisis in Central Europe was about the same thing. The wealthier countries, Germany in particular, are not happy at the prospect of spending taxpayer money to assist countries dealing with popped credit bubbles.
They really don’t want to do that, and if they do, they really want to have controls over the ways these other countries spend their money so this circumstance doesn’t arise again. Needless to say, Greece — and countries that might wind up like Greece — do not want foreign control over their finances.
If there are no mutual obligations among EU member nations, and the German and Greek publics don’t want to bail out or submit, respectively, then the profound question is raised of what Europe is going to be — beyond a mere free trade zone — after this crisis. This is not simply a question of the euro surviving, although that is no trivial matter.
The euro and the European Union will probably survive this crisis — although their mutual failure is not nearly as unthinkable as the Europeans would have thought even a few months ago — but this is not the only crisis Europe will experience. Something always will be going wrong, and Europe does not have institutions that could handle these problems. Events in the past few weeks indicate that European countries are not inclined to create such institutions, and that public opinion will limit European governments’ ability to create or participate in these institutions. Remember, building a super state requires one of two things: a war to determine who is in charge or political unanimity to forge a treaty. Europe is — vividly — demonstrating the limitations on the second strategy.
Whatever happens in the short run, it is difficult to envision any further integration of European institutions. And it is very easy to see how the European Union will devolve from its ambitious vision into an alliance of convenience built around economic benefits negotiated and renegotiated among the partners. It would thus devolve from a union to a treaty, with no interest beyond self-interest.
The German Question Revisited
We return to the question that has defined Europe since 1871, namely, the status of Germany in Europe. As we have seen during the current crisis, Germany is clearly the economic center of gravity in Europe, and this crisis has shown that the economic and the political issues are very much one and the same. Unless Germany agrees, nothing can be done, and if Germany so wishes, something will be done. Germany has tremendous power in Europe, even if it is confined largely to economic matters. But just as Germany is the blocker and enabler of Europe, over time that makes Germany the central problem of Europe.
If Germany is the key decision maker in Europe, then Germany defines whatever policies Europe as a whole undertakes. If Europe fragments, then Germany is the only country in Europe with the ability to create alternative coalitions that are both powerful and cohesive. That means that if the European Union weakens, Germany will have the greatest say in what Europe will become. Right now, the Germans are working assiduously to reformulate the European Union and the eurozone in a manner more to their liking. But as this requires many partners to offer sovereignty to German control — sovereignty they have jealously guarded throughout the European project — it is worth exploring alternatives to Germany in the European Union.
For that we first must understand Germany’s limits. The German problem is the same problem it has had since unification: It is enormously powerful, but it is far from omnipotent. Its very power makes it the focus of other powers, and together, these other powers can cripple Germany. Thus, Germany is indispensable for any decision within the European Union at present, and it will be the single center of power in Europe in the future — but Germany can’t just go it alone. Germany needs a coalition, meaning the long-term question is this: If the EU were to weaken or even fail, what alternative coalition would Germany seek?
The casual answer is France, as the two economies are somewhat similar and the countries are next-door neighbors. But historically, this similarity in structure and location has been a source not of collaboration and fondness but of competition and friction. Within the European Union, with its broad diversity, Germany and France have been able to put aside their frictions, finding a common interest in managing Europe to their mutual advantage. That co-management, of course, helped bring us to this current crisis. Moreover, the biggest thing that France has that Germany wants is its market; an ideal partner for Germany would offer more. By itself at least, France is not a foundation for long-term German economic strategy. The historic alternative for Germany has been Russia.
The Russian Option
A great deal of potential synergy exists between the German and Russian economies. Germany imports large amounts of energy and other resources from Russia. As mentioned, Russia needs sources of technology and capital to move it beyond its current position of mere resource exporter. Germany has a shrinking population and needs a source of labor — preferably a source that doesn’t actually want to move to Germany. Russia’s Soviet-era economy continues to de-industrialize, and while that has a plethora of negative impacts, there is one often-overlooked positive: Russia now has more labor than it can effectively metabolize in its economy given its capital structure. Germany doesn’t want more immigrants but needs access to labor. Russia wants factories in Russia to employ its surplus work force, and it wants technology. The logic of the German-Russian economic relationship is more obvious than the German-Greek or German-Spanish relationship. As for France, it can participate or not (and incidentally, the French are joining in on a number of ongoing German-Russian projects).
Therefore, if we simply focus on economics, and we assume that the European Union cannot survive as an integrated system (a logical but not yet proven outcome), and we further assume that Germany is both the leading power of Europe and incapable of operating outside of a coalition, then we would argue that a German coalition with Russia is the most logical outcome of an EU decline.
This would leave many countries extremely uneasy. The first is Poland, caught as it is between Russia and Germany. The second is the United States, since Washington would see a Russo-German economic bloc as a more significant challenger than the European Union ever was for two reasons. First, it would be a more coherent relationship — forging common policies among two states with broadly parallel interests is far simpler and faster than doing so among 27. Second, and more important, where the European Union could not develop a military dimension due to internal dissensions, the emergence of a politico-military dimension to a Russo-German economic bloc is far less difficult to imagine. It would be built around the fact that both Germans and Russians resent and fear American power and assertiveness, and that the Americans have for years been courting allies who lie between the two powers. Germany and Russia would both view themselves defending against American pressure.
And this brings us back to the Patriot missiles. Regardless of the bureaucratic backwater this transfer might have emerged out of, or the political disinterest that generated the plan, the Patriot stationing fits neatly into a slowly maturing military relationship between Poland and the United States. A few months ago, the Poles and Americans conducted military exercises in the Baltic states, an incredibly sensitive region for the Russians. The Polish air force now flies some of the most modern U.S.-built F-16s in the world; this, plus Patriots, could seriously challenge the Russians. A Polish general commands a sector in Afghanistan, something not lost upon the Russians. By a host of processes, a close U.S.-Polish relationship is emerging.
The current economic problems may lead to a fundamental weakening of the European Union. Germany is economically powerful but needs economic coalition partners that contribute to German well-being rather than merely draw on it. A Russian-German relationship could logically emerge from this. If it did, the Americans and Poles would logically have their own relationship. The former would begin as economic and edge toward military. The latter begins as military, and with the weakening of the European Union, edges toward economics. The Russian-German bloc would attempt to bring others into its coalition, as would the Polish-U.S. bloc. Both would compete in Central Europe — and for France. During this process, the politics of NATO would shift from humdrum to absolutely riveting.
And thus, the Greek crisis and the Patriots might intersect, or in our view, will certainly in due course intersect. Though neither is of lasting importance in and of themselves, the two together point to a new logic in Europe. What appears impossible now in Europe might not be unthinkable in a few years. With Greece symbolizing the weakening of the European Union and the Patriots representing the remilitarization of at least part of Europe, ostensibly unconnected tendencies might well intersect.