“How Friends Become Enemies”  

Article by Alina Bârgăoanu

Central and Eastern Europe was once described by George Friedman as a “very sensitive geopolitical seismograph”. This description is all the more relevant in the context of the current East-West divide in the European Union, a divide which has finally commanded European and American attention.

This is no ordinary divide in the European Union. It takes place in a period when the world is “in disarray” (Richard Haas). There are changes in the global economy, with the balance tilting towards the new economic powerhouses China, but increasingly India, too (a situation for which Robert Kaplan uses the metaphor “the return of the Marco Polo world”). Trade imbalances dominate both the European Union and the world at large, with Germany and China as the biggest export-oriented economies. One goal of the current US administration is to rebalance these trade relationships, hopefully premised on the understanding that seeking to balance both at the same time is unrealistic. There are changes in the balance of power on the European continent in the aftermath of Brexit, which leaves Germany with no counterpart to pull it closer to the transatlantic world, to the US. Russia is more geopolitically assertive, and the prospects of a Russia-China alliance, though far from a fully-blown geopolitical alliance, are not to be easily discarded. Let’s not forget that all these trends have not been put into motion by the current US administration, but rather accelerated by it. Without overemphasizing the importance of Central and Eastern Europe, we could notice that it appears, as a flash, a hinge, a shock absorber, a separating corridor – you name it – in all these tectonic shifts involving China, Russia and the (continental) core of the European Union.

Second, it benefits from a build-up of previous divides, North/ South, creditors/ debtors, euro/ non-euro, pro-anti refugees. But, differently from all the previous ones, it has a strong territorial component, it is a geographical divide that is manifest on the Eastern frontier of both NATO and the EU. Thus, its disruptive potential is higher, for the EU and for the transatlantic world alike. Carnegie Europe director Tomáš Valášek is right to emphasize that “the EU is split between East and West in ways that it hasn’t been in a long time”. The factors feeding the divide are, according to T. Valášek “migration, further integration within the EU, the right of workers working abroad, and, of course money”.

These days, we are witnessing the emergence of a new divisive factor, the mother of all factors, if you allow me. Namely, the relationship with the United States and the shape of the transatlantic alliance.

There is a build-up here, too. In a purely descriptive manner, here is how the (rhetorical) build-up has evolved. In May, 2017, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that “we, Europeans, truly have to take our fate in our hands”. In February 2018, during the Munich Security Conference, Sigmar Gabriel, then German foreign minister, came up with the famous catchphrase “geopolitical vegetarians in a world of carnivors”, a metaphor that he reiterated during a recent lecture at Center for European Studies at Harvard University. During an interview with Ian Bremmer for G0 Media (Tuesday, November 12), the same German politician stated that “what Moscow, Berlin and Beijing have in common is the fact that they do not respect Europe”. In August 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron said in Paris that “Europe can no longer place its security in the United States’ hands alone”. During the same month, the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas published an editorial stating that “the US and Europe have been drifting apart for years”. On November 6, Emmanuel Macron called for a “stronger European army” in order “to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America”. And, this Tuesday (November 12), the German chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the MEPs in Strasbourg with the following statements: “What is really important, if we look at the developments of the past year, is that we have to work on a vision of one day creating a real, true European army”.

In a quick reaction to Emmanuel Macron’s calls for a “stronger European army to defend Europeans against the United States”, the US President tweeted and characterized the idea as “insulting”. Strong eyebrows were raised by NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, who, during a Berlin forum on Monday warned that “two World Wars and a Cold War taught us the importance of doing things together”. And Judy Dempsey, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, finally hit the nail on the head: “while the Kremlin flouts the INF treaty – with little criticism from the Europeans, unlike their harsh response to Trump’s decision to withdraw from it – Moscow can relish Macron’s accusations against the United States. Weakening and dividing NATO has always been Russia’s goal. Weakening and dividing the EU has been another one of its aims. Western leaders are unwittingly helping Putin”. No matter how biased we may all be, I hope that nobody can come up with the crazy idea of dismissing Jude Dempsey’s insight as “Trump-leaning” or “Putin-leaning”.

As I have said, there is a build up explicitly starting in May 2017 (but with a longer history, which exceeds the scope of this article) and moving fast forward these past two weeks. A period for whose description I could paraphrase the title of Charles Kupchan’s book published in 2010, “How enemies become friends. The source of stable peace”. Of course, the timely way to paraphrase it would be “how friends become enemies”.

Final thoughts from somebody coming from Central and Eastern Europe, the “highly sensitive geopolitical seismograph”. Identifying the United States of America as a possible actor against which “we, Europeans, must protect ourselves” amplifies the geopolitical anxiety of Central and Eastern European member states for whom, until recently, the West has represented a homogeneous concept. A strong driver explaining the genuine enthusiasm with which these states sought European integration is the fact that, at the time of EU pre-accession negotiations, they found their security interests perfectly aligned with a homogenous, “perfectly aligned West”. Now, Central and Eastern Europeans, long identified as “lesser Europeans” by some of their Western counterparts, are witnessing the dismantintling, in rhetorical terms for the time being, of the “homogeneous West”.

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Photo: wikimedia.org

About the Author

Alina Bârgăoanu

Alina Bârgăoanu, profesor universitar Jean Monnet la SNSPA, decan al Facultăţii de Comunicare şi Relaţii Publice; Președinte al Consiliului de Administrație al Institutului European din România; cele mai recente lucrări: „Why Europe? Narratives and Counter-Narratives of European Integration” (2017, Peter Lang), „United by or Against Euroscepticism. An Assessment of Public Attitudes Towards the EU in the Context of the Crisis (2015, Cambridge Scholars); bursier Fulbright (2001- 2002).