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EU Geopolitical Muse Explains The Biggest Threat To The West And Democracy


In 2019, Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky, Germany's Angela Merkel, and France's Emmanuel Macron meet with Russia's Vladimir Putin. Analyst Olivier Schmitt talked to RFE/RL about how Europe's leaders now face a changing world order.
In 2019, Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky, Germany's Angela Merkel, and France's Emmanuel Macron meet with Russia's Vladimir Putin. Analyst Olivier Schmitt talked to RFE/RL about how Europe's leaders now face a changing world order.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell issued a stinging critique this week of European foreign policy in a world of "radical uncertainty" as unimaginable events "are happening one after the other."

In an annual speech to EU diplomats reportedly intended to "shake up the house," Borrell singled out some of Europe's most urgent democratic and diplomatic vulnerabilities. He also explicitly praised Olivier Schmitt, a professor at the Center for War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU), for identifying a European dependency on Russia and China for prosperity and the United States for security as part of the problem.

Olivier Schmitt
Olivier Schmitt

In his only interview since the surprise EU shout-out, Schmitt, author of books including Allies That Count: Junior Partners In Coalition Warfare, talked to RFE/RL correspondent Andy Heil via e-mail about an eroding international order, threats emanating from Russia and China, and threats to democracy from inside Europe.

RFE/RL: In one of his bluntest public assessments of the state of European and global affairs, Borrell on October 10 described a "process...in which we have decoupled the sources of our prosperity from the sources of our security" and said you had best articulated this trend. For those who aren't familiar with your writings, can you describe your central arguments in simple terms?

Olivier Schmitt: It is mainly an empirical observation: If I paint the picture with a broad brush, European prosperity has been based since the end of the Cold War on benefiting from American protection, Russian oil and gas, and trade with China.

This is a difference from the Cold War era, when the U.S. was both the security provider and the main trade partner for Western Europe (while energy sources were always diverse).

The decoupling of the sources of security and the sources of prosperity, and making prosperity depend upon actors with (potentially) hostile political agendas, has contributed to Europe's geopolitical vulnerabilities.

RFE/RL: Has the course you're talking about contributed to the likelihood of events like Russia's invasion of Ukraine?

Schmitt: To some degree. I believe that Mr. Putin has learnt from his interactions with Western leaders that once he used force, they would rush for a settlement, and that it was comparatively easy to influence former high-level policymakers (such as German chancellors or French prime ministers) through lucrative positions. He also certainly believed that Europe's dependence upon Russian oil and gas would lead European leaders to abandon Ukraine (and he probably still believes that it will happen at some point this winter).

It is, of course, far from being the only explanation for Russia's invasion, which also has a lot to do with its neo-imperial ideology, but it certainly led Mr. Putin to believe that he had a strong strategic hand.

RFE/RL: Could the Western responses to Russia's war in Ukraine and a renewed push to counter Chinese influence accelerate or otherwise influence what you're talking about, for instance reversing it in any way? Just when the postwar order looked irrevocably frayed, arguably, here are these impulses for Western unity and, for lack of a better term, U.S. protection.

Schmitt: I do believe that the war in Ukraine and a gradual acknowledgement that trade with China is not benign and has geopolitical consequences could alter this process. But it has created deeply vested business interests which will resist it as much as they can.

RFE/RL: Borrell warned that "more and more, the rest of the world is not ready to follow our...model." Staying in Europe, are there regions where this is obviously happening -- for instance, Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban? Or where effects are mitigated by lesser degrees of integration with Western structures to begin with -- say, the Balkans or the Caucasus? Are those regions at equal risk of the effects of what you're talking about?

Schmitt: Hungary is a clear case of a country opposing the EU on ideological grounds (and compromising with Russia and China), while being more than happy to benefit from European money to fund its crony system. The [center-right European People's Party group in the European Parliament] (and German conservatives in particular) have been more than happy to tolerate such behaviors since it benefitted German industry.

It is a clear example of business interests overriding security interests, in this case the liberal foundations of the European order. Generally, the tension between security and prosperity is heightened by the process of globalization, so many countries experience it to various degrees.

RFE/RL: What's the great danger if this "decoupling" continues, to the West and to the world? You warned in your piece The Recomposition of Alliances in the 21st Century of the "erosion" of opportunities for alliance and "interaction and arbitrariness of political leaders between security and autonomy." What kind of international architecture do you expect to emerge for the 21st century?

Schmitt: The greatest danger is obviously that this decoupling grants external, and potentially hostile, actors many opportunities to shape and influence the security and political life of European countries. It allows them to get their interests promoted by specific lobbies, it provides them with opportunities for economic coercion, etc.

Overall, there is a need to reconcile the mindset of the business community and of the security specialists; these two communities are too distant from each other.

RFE/RL: This week, Russia declared Facebook owner Meta an "extremist" organization while Tesla, SpaceX, and Starlink's Elon Musk weighed in considerably and controversially on the Ukraine war and the China-Taiwan dispute. Meta's influence is obvious, and Musk is a visionary but with clear business interests. What role do business and industry play in your equation, bridging or widening the "decoupling" that you're talking about?

Schmitt: Clearly widening the decoupling. Business is, understandably, led by profit: Politics always gets in the way, from their perspective. But this is the responsibility of political leaders to balance the needs of prosperity and the needs of security for their political communities, sometimes reining in business interests when it is necessary.

RFE/RL: Did you have any idea Borrell was so familiar with your work and planned to cite it explicitly to EU ambassadors, and what would you hope it accomplishes?

Schmitt: I had absolutely no idea, since I have not been in touch with Borrell or his team, but I am certainly flattered.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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