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What's In A Pole?

Two Poles: President Nicolas Sarkozy (center), his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Deauville, France

Two Poles: President Nicolas Sarkozy (center), his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Deauville, France

In today's "Financial Times," Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard of the European Council of Foreign Relations demand "new rules for a multipolar Europe."

Saying this week's Franco-German-Russian summit at Deauville had "the right agenda, but the wrong participants," the authors call for direct security-political talks involving the three "poles" dominating the continent today -- Russia, Turkey, as well as the EU.

The trouble with this line of thought is that in a balance-of-power scheme of things, the EU does not rank as a pole. Its total displacement of hard power is equal to that of NATO minus the United States (minus, in turn, the continual suspicion that the United States could actually be working against the emancipation of Europe).

The EU is unable to stand for anything else (or more) than "stability," i. e. the status quo. That is the line currently being taken vis-a-vis one of the EU's largest neighbors Ukraine, involved in a precarious balancing act between Russia and the West.

On October 20, the EU's enlargement and neighborhood commissioner, Stefan Fuele, made a speech at the European Parliament (originally prepared for the EU high representative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, who had more pressing business) which rated restoring "political stability" as President Viktor Yanukovych's primary achievement.

In other words, the EU is not a pole, but more akin to a horn of plenty fallen upon hard times. It still has deliverables, as far as the outside world is concerned -- free trade, visa-free travel, aid -- but no ability to convert these into power, i.e. real change, soft or hard. The EU is a qualitatively different order of phenomenon than a pole.

Krastev and Leonard themselves list the crises the EU has been unable to prevent -- Kosovo, the Georgian war, Russian-Ukrainian energy wars, Kyrgyzstan. What this seems to indicate is that as the EU's powers dwindle, member states step into the breach. They may well feel they have a choice. Thus the Deauville meeting could be seen as a symptom, a sign of the times, as unavoidable as a kneejerk reaction.

The question now is how the EU could harness the fission created by a Germany and a France increasingly disposed to go it alone.

Krastev and Leonard are doubtless correct when they warn that "European leaders, by defending an illusion of order, risk making disorder a reality." But substituting Catherine Ashton -- as they suggest -- for Merkel and/or Sarkozy seems a cure worse than the disease. It is in the nature of poles to be sovereign.

Krastev and Leonard rightly dismiss thinkers who "during the 1990s...believed that that Europe was becoming a 'postmodern' continent which no longer relied on a balance of power." But by positing the EU as a player in its own right in a balance-of-power situation, the authors risk perpetuating the very beliefs they argue against.

Could that be because Mark Leonard himself published a book in 2005 called "Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century" positing as a fact a 2 billion-strong "Eurosphere" and EU "zone of influence, which is gradually being transformed by the European project and adopting European ways of doing things"? The book contains less than a dozen one-sentence references to Russia, while Turkey is only discussed as an example of Europe's transforming power.

-- Ahto Lobjakas

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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