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Securing the ‘middle spaces’: geography, strategy and the future of European power

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In this final articke in a five-part series on defence and the EU Global Strategy, Luis Simón argues that any European strategy must not neglect the geopolitically relevant spaces in between Europe and Asia.

This commentary was first published in European Geostrategy.

(Photo credit: rosario fiore, Flickr)


Securing the ‘middle spaces’: geography, strategy and the future of European power

Security has returned to the centre stage of European politics. Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and ongoing meddling in eastern Ukraine continues to cast a shadow upon the security of many eastern and central European countries. In turn, the ripple effects of instability in Syria, Libya, and Mali are hitting Europe, not only by way of successive waves of refugees and migrants, but also terrorism and mounting insecurity.

As NATO gears up for its July 2016 summit in Wales and the EU discusses a new global strategy document, most discussions on European strategy will be guided by the question of how to strike the right balance between east and south. That is a very important question indeed, but it should not prevent Europeans from engaging in a broader debate on global geostrategic dynamics. After all, the future of Europe’s immediate neighbourhood – and that of Europe itself – may be increasingly dependent on what happens beyond it. As I have argued elsewhere, of particular importance are the so-called middle spaces (the Indian Ocean, Central Asia and the Arctic), i.e. those regions that connect Europe and its immediate neighbourhood to the rest of the Eurasian landmass, all the way to the Asia Pacific.

In the context of the rise of Asia and America’s intention to reorient its geostrategic attention and resources towards that region, the prevailing sentiment is that Europeans should concentrate their strategic energies on Eastern Europe, (North) Africa and the Middle East (by which Europeans mean essentially the Levant). After all, the logic goes, resources are limited, and Europeans should be realistic about their capabilities and constraints.

When we talk about securing Europe’s immediate neighbourhood it is important to distinguish between the eastern flank and the so-called southern neighbourhood. When it comes to security in Eastern Europe, the EU can play a very important role by means of diplomacy, economic engagement and, for that matter, sanctions. But security is also associated with defence and deterrence, and that means it is associated with NATO.

On the other hand, security in the so-called southern neighbourhood is about low-to-medium-intensity crisis management operations, Security Sector Reform (SSR), and training endeavours in environments that are more ‘permissive’ geostrategically, given the absence of great power competitors. This presents an area of opportunity for the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Allegedly, the fact that the Ukraine crisis is likely to lead NATO to pay greater attention to defence and deterrence in Eastern Europe seems to underscore the idea that CSDP should concentrate on crisis management and SSR in the southern neighbourhood.

The logic of a division of labour presents two dimensions. The first is a transatlantic division of labour, whereby Europeans would concentrate on their immediate neighbourhood while Americans ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific. The second is an institutional division of labour, where a more Europeanised NATO would take the security lead in Eastern Europe and CSDP would focus on the southern neighbourhood.

Broadly speaking, those are the sort of geopolitical parameters that define most discussions on strategy in Europe today, including in an EU context. It is widely believed that the immediate neighbourhood comes first and that the rest of the world is not so much Europe’s business. Or rather, that it is a place where Europeans can do business, but not security.

Entering a discussion on geopolitical priorities is positive, because when it comes to strategy, prioritising is of the essence. And it might indeed make sense for Europeans to put their immediate neighbourhood first, given the proliferation of crises and instability alongside Europe’s eastern and southern peripheries. However, Europeans should be wary about confounding a neighbourhood-first strategy with a neighbourhood-only strategy.

One of the underlying premises informing current discussions on an EU global strategy is that the world is increasingly interconnected, both geopolitically and economically. Another important premise is the recognition that Europe’s global economic weight is declining in relation to that of other regions, especially the Asia-Pacific. To this, we should add the relative decline of military spending in Europe in comparison to other regions. Once more, the Asia Pacific stands out, in that the strategic rise of China is leading countries like Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore or Malaysia to devote greater resources to their own defence.

A world that is increasingly characterised by the multiplication of centres of economic activity across the globe, and, more particularly, by the economic and strategic rise of Asia, is a world that calls for a more global approach to security. Thus, Europeans should be careful not to establish too strict a distinction between the neighbourhood and what is beyond – call it ‘global’ or otherwise. Arguably, it is seemingly difficult to separate the two levels, because of the geography of Europe and the Eurasian landmass. This might be an easier thing to do for the US, given the geographical isolation of the Western Hemisphere.

Indeed, America’s emergence as a global geostrategic power was a pretty linear phenomenon. First came continental expansion (i.e. manifest destiny); then the consolidation of US strategic primacy in the Western Hemisphere (i.e. the Monroe Doctrine); and, more recently, a process of global geostrategic outreach underpinned by two world wars. Those were rather linear motions, in that the expansion of US power in time and space went hand in hand.

It might be tempting to embrace that sort of linear thinking when reflecting upon the link between geography and strategy in a European context. One manifestation of this sentiment is that deepening should come before widening, i.e. that greater political integration should precede future waves of EU enlargement. Another is that Europeans have to secure their own backyard before thinking about projecting security elsewhere. While there may be something to be said about this, this logic is complicated for at least two reasons. The first is the geography of the European peninsula, and its contiguity with the rest of the great Eurasian landmass. The second is the fact that economic globalisation and advances in military technology have led to greater global geopolitical and strategic interconnectivity.

What does this all mean in the context of European or EU strategy? It means Europeans should think harder about the so-called ‘middle spaces’ of the Indian Ocean, Central Asia and the Arctic. These middle spaces are increasingly relevant geopolitically, especially in the context of the rise of Asia. Countries like China, India, Japan, or South Korea are reaching westwards, all the way to the Middle East, Africa and even Europe in order to satisfy their need for energy, other resources and export markets. And they are doing that through these middle spaces, mainly the Indian Ocean and Central Asia – but perhaps also increasingly the Arctic in the future.

Asia’s outreach is primarily economic and diplomatic in nature, but it is already having geopolitical and strategic ramifications in the middle spaces and in the European neighbourhood itself. In this regard, Europeans should pay greater attention to the geopolitical implications of China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, as well as to the proliferation of so-called Anti Access Area Denial (A2/AD) bubbles in the Indian Ocean region. The bottom line is that it is increasingly unclear how it is exactly Europeans would be able to secure their interests in their immediate neighbourhood while ignoring adjacent regions whose economic, political and strategic developments will have a growing impact upon that very neighbourhood. Presumably, the very same logic that leads Europeans to conclude that developments in their neighbourhood affect the security and prosperity of Europe should lead them to think that developments beyond their immediate neighbourhood affect the stability of their own neighbourhood – and of Europe.

To link back to the initial question about the appropriate geopolitical level of ambition for European strategy, it seems that Europe’s ambition should be global. Europeans should think harder about how security dynamics in Europe, the middle spaces and the Asia Pacific relate to each other in the context of EU strategy. This having been said, they need to be realistic about their limitations, given the need to attend to current crises in their immediate backyard. Against this backdrop, a few final observations can be offered.

First, Europeans should be ambitious in their immediate neighbourhood. In terms of ends, that means primacy: the primacy of European power and values. That goes for eastern and southeastern Europe as much as it goes for the Mediterranean basin. In this sense, the notion of different spheres of influence in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood – let alone in Europe itself – should be frontally rejected.

Second, Europeans need to step up their contribution to Western primacy in the so-called global commons – and that goes for the air and maritime domains (the famous sea lines of communication) as much as it goes for space and cyber space. It goes without saying that, when it comes to the security of the global commons, the lion’s share of the burden will (continue to) befall upon the US.

However, Europeans can and should make an important contribution to the security of the air- and sea-spaces of Europe’s extended neighbourhood, including the Gulf of Guinea, the Red Sea and western Indian Ocean. They should also step up their efforts in terms of military-technological innovation and contribute, alongside the US and other ‘western’ countries, to the security of outer space and cyber-space. ‘Western’ should be understood here in a broad, i.e. ‘liberal’ sense of the word, to include ‘like-minded’ partners like Japan, Australia, and India.

Third, Europeans should aim to contribute to the preservation of a balance of power in the ‘middle spaces’ and in the Asia-Pacific. And that requires being in geostrategic sync with the United States as well as other regional partners.

These three geographical levels of analysis are very much intertwined, in that preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon in the Asia Pacific or the Persian Gulf, one that reaches outwards, is directly linked to the preservation of Western strategic primacy over the global commons. That, in turn, is the key to preserving a balance of power in the world’s key regions (i.e. Europe, East Asia and the Persian Gulf), as well as a global liberal order.

Vol. 8, No. 11 (2016)