The most frightening periods in history have often been interregnums – moments between the death of one king and the rise of the next. Disorder, war, and even disease can flood into the vacuum when, as Antonio Gramsci put it in his Prison Notebooks, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” The dislocation and confusion of 2016 do not rival the turmoil of the interwar period, when Gramsci wrote, but they are certainly symptoms of a new interregnum.
After the end of the Cold War, the world was held together by an American-policed security order and a European-inspired legal order. Now, however, both are fraying, and no candidates to replace them have yet emerged. Indeed, unlike in 1989, this is not a crisis of a single type of system. Countries as different as Brazil, China, Russia, and Turkey are coming under heightened political and economic pressure.
Even if the nightmare of a President Donald Trump is avoided, as appears increasingly likely, the United States can no longer be the world’s policeman. Powers such as Russia, Iran, and China are probing US reactions in Ukraine, Syria, and the South China Sea. And US allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Poland, and Japan are forging independent and assertive foreign policies to make up for a US that cannot and will not carry its previous burdens.
Meanwhile, the European Union’s declining cohesion is undermining its moral authority on the world stage. Many of the global institutions that reflect European values and norms — from the World Trade Organization and the International Criminal Court to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — are gridlocked.
Regionally, the three strands of the European order are unraveling: the US is seeking to reduce its investment in NATO, the EU is de-emphasizing enlargement, and the chaos in the Middle East and Ukraine is making a mockery of the European Neighborhood Policy. The rise – and rapprochement – of illiberal forces in Russia and Turkey mean that the EU is no longer the only pole of attraction in the region.
Worse, EU integration has gone into reverse, with member states seeking to insulate themselves from the outside world, rather than trying to export their shared values. As a result, the biggest threats to free trade and the open society stem from domestic sources, not external enemies. Even in Germany, which had long seemed immune to such pressures, the interior minister talks of banning burkas (a policy that would affect 300 people), while the vice-chancellor has declared the death of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and the US even before the body is cold.
The EU proved over the last few decades that it could be a force for globalization – tearing down barriers between peoples and nations. But today its survival depends on showing that it can protect citizens from the very forces it has promoted.
Maintaining the four freedoms at the heart of the European project – the free movement of people, goods, capital, and services within Europe – will be possible only if EU governments have credible policies to protect the most vulnerable in their societies. That will mean improving protection of the EU’s external borders, compensating domestic losers from migration and free trade, and soothing public fears about terrorism.
The danger is that much of what the EU rightly pushed for during the good times could hasten its unraveling now, during the current interregnum. For example, given so much uncertainty about the future state of Europe and the world, debating enlargement or the TTIP seems pointless – or worse, because even opening such discussions is certain to play into the hands of Euroskeptics.
The EU needs to distinguish between core and peripheral priorities. For issues such as EU relations with Russia and Turkey (and these two countries’ relations with each other), member states need to agree on a policy that recognizes the interests of all. But much greater flexibility is advisable in other areas, including commitments to refugee re-allocation and eurozone rules, where excessive rigidity could cause European unity to buckle and snap.
In addition to preventing an alliance between Russia and Ankara, the EU should rethink its goals in its neighborhood. Although the Balkan countries that are outside the EU will remain there for many years, they are in the European security space already, and Europeans should be prepared to intervene militarily if outbreaks of violence recur. Moreover, EU leaders should pursue a broader definition of peace than the absence of war, including political and social stability and preventing radicalization in Bosnia and Kosovo.
For Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, the goal should be to promote stable and predictable governments. For the next few years, the EU should view them as independent buffer states rather than as member-states-in-waiting. It will be particularly important not to set red lines that the EU is not willing to defend.
In the troubled Middle East, the EU cannot hope to be the central actor. But EU countries cannot protect their populations from instability if they are only spectators. Particularly in Syria and Libya, the EU needs to playing a more concerted role with regional powers – as well as with the US and Russia – to advance political processes that could help reduce violence, provide humanitarian aid, and stem the flow of refugees.
One of the EU’s main challenges is to define success in a defensive era. During the heyday of enlargement, the goal was to deepen integration and broaden its reach across Europe. Now, however, success means preventing countries from leaving the EU or hollowing out its institutions.
History moves in cycles. The interregnum will eventually end and a new order will be born. What is certain is that the survivors and inheritors of the old order will write the rules of the new one. The EU’s goal, achievable only with flexibility and courage, must be to remain a viable project – and thus be one of the authors.
Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations