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Recess is over  

Published 30/01-2012 by

If economic crisis translates into a systemic crisis...

It now seems
 apparent that the economic crisis that started in 2008 is both deeper and more lasting than first thought. All over the continent political leaders and central bankers fret that 2012 may be the year when the crisis finally burst into the real economy. But this specter is manageable compared with the dangers that will confront western leaders if the economic crisis turns into a full-blown systemic crisis. 

The journalist Robert
 D. Kaplan was among the first who realized that the financial crisis would have political consequences. A poorer U.S. will not be able to maintain its technological edge. The U.S. spends less and the emerging great powers spend more on defense. Kaplan believes this «will not necessarily lead to a security dilemma for the U.S., but it will lead to a multipolar world, and the end of American dominance.» Those who will feel it are those who have outsourced their security to the U.S., which includes most of its allies in Europe. 

The world is facing
 a power vacuum that will likely last for decades. The gap arises because Europe and the U.S. is in a phase of relative decline, while China, India and Russia seeks great power status without being overly interested in the system maintenance chores that come with such a status. 

This is significant
 because - as the historian EH Carr stipulates - three factors must be present to create a systemic crisis: the existence of powerful and resentful powers on the fringes of the international system, a deep and persistent crisis in the global economy and a lack of will, slash capacity at the leading power to guarantee the international order. Without such guarantees strong states will be able to force weaker states and get away with it. 

While the
 new powers emerge political authority is transferred to new venues. The 1990s enthusiasm for institutionalized supranational regimes has been replaced by a shift towards informal forums, such as G-20. The UN is weakened by its inability to reflect shifting political realities. India and Brazil are still outside the Security Council. As the League of Nations before it, the UN is undermined by weak leadership and an inefficient and costly bureaucracy. The UN is running out of donors. 

China leads
 the posse of emerging powers. But just as important as the question of who the new great powers are, is who they are not. It now seems clear that the European Union will not be one of the poles in a multipolar world order. The reasons for this are many. Perhaps most important is the lack of a decision procedure that makes it possible to make decisions when one or more of the 27 member states are not in agreement. Although the economic aspects of the EU will likely survive, the political integration may well be a casualty of the ongoing Euro-crisis.

The startling
 is that some institutions are struggling, but that all of them struggle at the same time. The wasting disease that has afflicted the UN and the EU also gnawing at the roots of the other institutional grand oaks that were planted in the ashes of World War II. Free trade is under pressure. World Trade Organization, ‘one size fits all’ is being replaced by a giant ‘spaghetti bowl’ of bilateral accords. This shift is accompanied by a surge in protectionism, if not in theory then in practice. 

A similar
 'bilateralisation' seems to be underway in the realm of security. For NATO, Afghanistan has sucked up political and military resources throughout the 2010's. When the alliance pulls out in 2014, it will probably do so with little to show for its efforts. A divided alliance failed to act as one during the Libyan war. NATO is transforming from a military defense alliance into a political-military consultation forum, a staging ground for coalitions of willing. 

European countries'
 minimal defense budgets force the burden onto the United States. Key voices in Washington now question whether it is in the country's interest to guarantee the security of countries that are inconsistent in their support of U.S. geopolitical goals?  Merely voicing such thoughts create insecurity in Europe. Were the U.S. to abstain, NATO has very little capacity to defend its members' territory in the case of war. It is therefore likely that the militarily weak European countries will seek to bolster bilateral ties with America. 

The peril is,
 as EH Carr pointed out in his post-mortem of the inter-war years, that the established powers (in our case the U.S.) is weakened in its resolve to act as policeman, janitor and social security in the international system - disappointed that the system has allowed rivals to emerge. The rivals on their side (we think of China) is not disposed to take on system-upholding tasks as they will claim (often rightly) that the international system is weighed to benefit the established powers. 

The foreign policy
 recess is thus over. For Europe, this represents a major challenge. European leaders may be equal to the situation on a rhetorical level- but in practice, Europe’s foreign resources are spent on yesterday's agenda - not on the areas that the changed incentives in the international system would suggest. This gives reason to question whether Europe's bloated foreign services, skilled in the recess activities of foreign policy, will be equal to the task now that geopolitics are back on the curriculum.


  Atlanticnetwork 31.01-2011