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A new geography of European power?

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The naval historian and geostrategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, understood theutility of military power perhaps better than anyone before or since. In an articlecalled The Place of Force in International Relations – penned two years beforehis death in 1914 – he claimed: ‘Force is never more operative then when it is known to exist but is not brandished’ (1912: p. 31).1 If Mahan’s point was valid then, it is perhaps even more pertinent now. The rise of new powers around the world has contributed to the emergence of an increasingly unpredictable and multipolar international system. Making the use of force progressively more dangerous and politically challenging, this phenomenon is merging with a new phase in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, many European governments are increasingly reluctant – perhaps even unable – to intervene militarily in foreign lands. The operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that when armed force is used actively in support of foreign policy, it can go awry; far from re-affirming strength and determination on the part of its beholder, it can actually reveal weakness and a lack of resolve. Half-hearted military operations – of the kind frequently undertaken by democratic European states – tend not to go particularly well, especially when there is little by way of a political strategy or the financial resources needed to support them. A political community’s accumulation of a military reputation, which can take decades, if not centuries, can then be rapidly squandered through a series of unsuccessful combat operations, which dent its confidence and give encouragement to its opponents or enemies.2 Nevertheless, since the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession in the 1990s, there has been a strong belief that Europeans need to be more willing and able to use armed force. Indeed, the constitution and development of the Common Security and Defence Policy was in many respects a reaction to the Yugoslav bloodbath (Rogers, 2009a; Shepherd, 2009). To this end, the European Security Strategy asserts that the European Union needs a ‘strategic culture’, which fosters ‘early, rapid and when necessary, robust intervention’ (European Council, 2003: p. 11).3 Brussels has subsequently conducted a series of small and seemingly experimental ‘crisis management’ operations in a range of countries, whose crowning glory has been the anti-piracy naval operation in the Gulf of Aden, Atalanta. Yet, excepting those in the Western Balkans, almost all of these operations share a common theme: they have been heavily reactive and/or lack geopolitical focus. For example, while Europeans were militarily engaged in distant Sub-Saharan Africa during August 2008, a war broke out in the European Neighbourhood in a potential transit corridor for the planned Nabucco gas pipeline – which aims to bypass Russian territory and reduce European gas dependency. Likewise, it took almost two years of rising pirate infestation around Somalia – on the main European-Asian maritime communication line – before Europeans got directly involved. This lack of geopolitical focus is a consequence of an outmoded European geostrategy, which fails to integrate the maritime with the continental component (Rogers, 2009b; Rogers and Simón, 2009). Equally, it is driven by a dearth of European grand strategy, the hardeningof which would draw together the European Union’s means and wherewithal to overcome foreign threats and challenges, while simultaneously working for the pursuit of common objectives (Biscop, 2009; Biscop, et al., 2009; Venusberg Group, 2007). The aim of this paper is to offer an analysis of the geography of European powerin the early twenty-first century. It will begin by looking at the sub-components of grand strategy: geopolitics, geostrategy and forward presence. This will be followed by an analysis of the European Union’s geopolitical situation, something that is frequently overlooked in contemporary European politics. The improvement and further integration of the European homeland will bolster the European Union as a base of power, which itself could then be exploited á la Mahan to diffuse awe into foreign governments and make them more respectful of European preferences. Most importantly of all, though, the paper will show why and how the European Union should focus less on disjointed ‘crisis management’ operations and more on the quiet and covert expansion of its political and economic power into geographic locations of particular significance (see Figure 1). The paper will identify these locations as the proximal belt of surrounding countries, buttressed by overseas maritime zones that are of specific importance to the European economy. Acquiring influence in such regions will necessitate the final completion of the ‘comprehensive approach’ through the creation of a European ‘forward presence’: firstly, to deter foreign powers from meddling in countries in the wider European Neighbourhood and secondly, to dissuade obstinacy and misbehaviour on the part of local rulers.4 In other words, a truly comprehensive European grand strategy should be inculcated with a grand design: the constitution of an extended ‘Grand Area’, a zone where European power would be progressively institutionalized by the dislocation of existing divisions and their reintegration into a new liberal order. By reducing the likelihood of having to use military force reactively, it would better connect with the conception of preventative engagement as outlined in the European Security Strategy (European Council, 2003: p. 11). And by filling political vacuums with the gradual expansion of European power, conflicts could actually be prevented from breaking out before they start or spiral out of control – and thus stifling the potential for dangerous ‘vacuum wars’.
(Photo credit: rockcogen, Flickr )