Europe's troublesome neighbors

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

PARIS: Geography has dealt Europe a mixed hand. Europeans can congratulate themselves on being a relatively safe distance away from whatever tensions may accompany the rise of powers like India, Brazil, and, especially, China. But Europe is bordered to its south and east by two great regions that give cause for significant concern.

Neither Russia nor the Islamic world is, thus far, adapting well to globalization. The economies of both remain over-dependent on oil and gas exports. In the Middle East, this exacerbates the problem of creating jobs for ballooning populations of young adults. Russia, too, faces real demographic difficulties, though in the other direction as Russia’s population is projected to shrink by as much as 10 percent over the next 15 or 20 years.

Despite the understandable concerns of Finns, Poles, and others in Central and Eastern Europe, the relationship with Russia should be the easier of the two to manage. The West’s relations with Russia since the end of the Cold War have resembled the meeting of two tectonic plates, with one progressively forced beneath the other. The Georgia conflict of 2008 was the tremor that signaled substantial resistance to the western plate’s eastward movement.

But the shifts that have taken place left Russia much diminished in terms of its sphere of influence and military might. To be sure, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is nationalistic, awkward, and disposed to dangerous trouble-making. But it also faces acute social and public-health problems and has 1.3 billion Chinese on its eastern border, and it has important common interests with Europe, including trade in gas and oil and a shared preoccupation with Islamic extremism.

Handled with forbearance and firmness, relations with Russia should remain difficult but manageable. With NATO backing off, the European Union stepping in with its Eastern Partnership initiative to shift continuing competition in the post-Soviet space onto a less antagonistic footing, and President Barack Obama demonstrating his willingness to assuage Russia’s damaged pride, major confrontation should be avoidable.

Europe’s relations with the Islamic world are a lot trickier. First, although Russia’s resentments may be fresher, those of the Muslim world run deeper, and are born of more profound interactions, past and present.

Second, whether one thinks of Al-Qaeda’s terrorism or the presence of Western armies in Iraq and Afghanistan, Europe and the Islamic world have demonstrated a continuing willingness to deal violently with each other.

Third, even if Europeans are a disparate group, the Islamic world is infinitely more so. Islam is its identifying glue – but how much else do Indonesia and Yemen, for example, have in common? The Islamic world is driven by disputes between Arab and non-Arab, Sunni and Shia, and Salafi extremists and theological moderates. Al-Qaeda’s agenda is as much about the creation of a new Islamic caliphate as it is about waging jihad against the West.

Fourth, Europeans find it hard to stomach traditional Islamic attitudes towards, say, women or homosexuals. Muslims find it hard to understand how we can believe our society is civilized when pornography and drunkenness are openly displayed. To the extent that Europeans are Christian at all, we see religion as a matter of an individual’s relationship with his or her God; Muslims see it as an organizing social principle. Ours is a guilt culture; theirs a shame culture.

Israel is, of course, the single issue on which the Islamic sense of resentment focuses. It exemplifies Western hypocrisy – whether over nuclear non-proliferation, the refusal to deal with the elected Hamas, or readiness to criticize Russia for “disproportionate use of force in Georgia while remaining quiet over 1,300 deaths in Gaza.

Unlike his two predecessors, Obama has had the courage to target the Israel-Palestine problem, the intractable seat of the infection, from the beginning of his presidency. And he went to Cairo to address the Arab world with humility and respect, without shirking issues of human rights and individual freedom.

The risk in this American activism is that it will provide the excuse for Europeans to sit back and cheer while someone else does the heavy lifting. But passivity would be a historic mistake. America’s Middle East interests are not identical with those of Europe.

Protected behind its oceans, and applying its vast technological capacity to the goal of energy self-sufficiency, the United States is ultimately able to distance itself from the travails of the Middle East. Once out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the US may find itself increasingly tempted to do just that. For Europe, such distancing is impossible. European security is inextricably bound up with the need to find and maintain a modus vivendi with the Muslim world.

Europe is not without leverage. It has currently put on hold a deepened economic relationship with Israel: if Israel’s government continues to refuse to stop its colonization of the West Bank, Europeans should make clear that, as Israel’s most important export market, they have tougher options at hand. And, given the determination of both the Israeli and Iranian governments to use each other’s intransigence as an excuse for their own, Europe must also be prepared to use its economic muscle on Iran if and when the mullahs reject Obama’s extended hand.

European military forces will also be required to play a crucial role in policing and guaranteeing a two-state settlement. This makes it all the more important for Europe to wake up to where its real security interests lie, and to take responsibility for asserting them.

Nick Witney,a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, was formerly Chief Executive of the European Defense Agency. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (

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