Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Uncertain Europe: George Friedman's "Flashpoints"

In Flashpoints, George Friedman projects the next decade’s potential European conflicts using history as a guide. Friedman focuses on the history and demographics of “borderlands,” which he defines as ranging from the wide band of countries between Germany and Russia to the intermingled Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox of Bosnia. His work is a comprehensive and engaging look at the past and potential conflicts along European borderlands. Importantly, Friedman does not suggest that “conflict” is necessarily full-scale war, but allows that it can include economic competition, asymmetric fighting, and internal strife.

Flashpoints is organized in a logical region-by-region structure with each region and its borderlands discussed in their turn, but Friedman’s work is defined by a few key themes. He suggests that the return of nationalism to Europe is the greatest continental danger because it weakens EU supra-nationalist bodies and increases both internal violence against immigrants and international conflict between Russia and NATO. Secondly, he argues that the imbalanced economic situation between Northern and Southern Europe since the 2008 financial crisis is driving European disintegration. Over all of this, he draws parallels to European historical instability and posits that the continent is doomed to repeat the divisions of its past.

Friedman warns that the simmering violence in Ukraine could entangle Russia and NATO and discusses the explosive situation in the Caucasus. He also explores longstanding British resistance to the Continent, rising animosity in debt-ridden Southern European against German domination of the EU, and diverging German and French interests as threats to European integration. Because none of these are likely to result in all-out war, Friedman makes a strong case that non-military friction could play a larger role in shaping European’s future than any near-term armed conflagration.

Mr. Friedman channels Henry Kissinger, reminding readers of the differences between Russian and American views of one another’s actions along the NATO-Russian borderland. American and Western leaders at least outwardly explain support for Ukraine’s pro-Western government as simply furthering human rights and corruption-free (or less corrupt) democracy. Friedman lays out Russian thinking, focused on realpolitik and national preservation. He writes:

“If Ukraine were a member of NATO, and if NATO ever resurrected its military power, Russia would be wide open to invasion. Russia was not about to dismiss this possibility. When the United States began supporting political groups in Ukraine that were pro-democracy in the eyes of the Americans and Europeans, the Russians saw this as an attempt to seat an anti-Russian government in Kiev and pave the way for the breakup of the Russian Federation” (Friedman, 118).

Tension between Russia and NATO is magnified by each side’s inability to understand the other’s interests. Friedman continues, “Americans were oblivious to how the Russians saw this interference. The Russians, on the other hand, did not believe the Westerners were that naive” (Ibid., 175). However, it is also naive to assume that either party would change course even if it accepted the other’s interests. Friedman shows that conflicting NATO and Russian aims are based on fundamentally different interests and historical experience.

As Friedman declares, the battle for the Ukraine will decide whether the borderland between the EU and Russia lies on the border of Russia itself. He suggests, “Vladimir Putin is a man trained not only in the permanence of geopolitical realities, but also in the planning for the worst-case scenario,” and, “Russia is looking to secure itself, not expand” (Ibid., 178-179). Despite NATO protestations that it is a defensive organization, Putin must consider that Western goals might change, and must prepare Russia to defend itself with its time-tested strategy of defense in depth.

After the Cold War, Eastern Europe joined NATO and the EU seeking to benefit from NATO protection against Russia, join in EU prosperity, and secure constitutional liberalism at home (Ibid., 179). However, Friedman argues that with NATO unable to effectively project power into eastern Ukraine and the Georgian borderlands, a splitting EU, and the rise of pseudo-authoritarianism in parts of Eastern Europe, countries that previously sought Western protection may have to look elsewhere.

Outside the brewing conflicts of Eastern Europe, Friedman highlights economic issues that are breathing life into old nationalist conflicts on the European Peninsula. Friedman notes that Germany exports 35-40% of its GDP, half of which is sold in the EU (Ibid., 122). As a result, Germany needs the EU far more than the casual observer might realize.

Nonetheless, Friedman writes that Germans did not feel that they should bear the burden of Southern European (Greek, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese) overspending, and pushed these governments to deal with seemingly insurmountable debt through deep spending cuts and widespread austerity. Friedman cites the destruction of middle class and professional jobs as an unexpected negative effect of German-directed austerity. He continues that austerity broke the EU social contract that its members’ populations would have a shared fate and would enjoy a certain level of prosperity (Ibid., 125).

Friedman seems to discount the German perspective that a complete bail-out without austerity would (a) present a dangerous precedent to other EU members which sought to live outside their means and survive on handouts from larger nations (not unlike arguments against bailing out some major American corporations during the financial crisis) and (b) not fix structural issues in these countries responsible for the crushing debt. Should the EU decide to bail these countries out, it would not be able to effectively regulate their actions. The middle course taken by Germany of austerity combined with debt forgiveness seems a more reasonable track.

Friedman shares key insights on how Germany’s decision rekindled nationalist animosity between Northern and Southern Europe, and even between France and Germany. Friedman’s worst-case projection, that increasing nationalist anger in Southern Europe “will leave Germany stiffed on the debt, assert Germany and its German partners in their countries to be the guilty party, and seize and redistribute the assets” (Ibid., 158), has not yet materialized. If it does, one must take seriously Friedman’s warning that Germany might be forced to invest in its military and assert itself through hard power.

If Germany does not enforce its claims in Southern Europe, Friedman suggests that an alternative is to tie its economy to Russia. To do so, Germany would need to accept Russian interests in Belarus and Ukraine. Friedman writes that this would push Poland closer to the U.S. for protection (Ibid., 159). Since Friedman’s writing, the Ukrainian conflict has instead pushed Germany away from Russia, closer to the US and its Eastern European partners. Regardless of the resolution to the debt situation in Southern Europe, it seems that Germany has already closed the door to cooperation with Russia.

Friedman’s work is a well-organized and expert account of the troubles on the European continent. He clearly lays out the dangers to European integration and continued peace. However, Friedman’s overall warning of a coming split in Europe, which at worst will rekindle deadly nationalist rivalries and at best render the EU and NATO shells of themselves, seems overly pessimistic. He astutely summarizes German interests which no longer align with those of many other EU states and argues that a resurgent Russia will not back away from its goal of a more secure perimeter. But by discounting the possibility of a middle ground, Friedman also paints the European picture in black and white.

Many would argue that the European situation is actually an even gray. The Germans can forgive some debt and back meaningful stimulation in Southern Europe, as long as the Greeks, Spanish, and Portuguese are also willing to undergo a painful but measured amount of austerity. The British will likely (hopefully) remain a part of the EU. The conflict in Ukraine is unlikely to result in another government overthrow, though Russia will continue to control the Crimea and pro-Russian groups will operate across the eastern part of the country. The Baltic States are under pressure as the Russian military and NATO each posture to demonstrate their capabilities, but neither is likely to attack. Europe may not enjoy the widespread peace, growth and (in most cases) relative prosperity it did from 1993 to 2008, but it also is unlikely to devolve into a squabbling mess. Calls such as Friedman’s are an important alarm, but his dark predictions must be read with an attentive but respectful skepticism.

Check out the new blog at https://arrowsandolivebranchesblog.wordpress.com/. Same rambling articles, but a pretty new background!

--By Benjamin Spacapan

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