How the big pieces fit together: Europe’s place in the multipolar world

by Dr. John C. Hulsman

Introduction: The Lesson of the G7 train wreck

It’s official. After the calamitous G7 summit meeting in Canada, it is clear that an unbound Donald Trump is Europe’s worst nightmare. Although with typical unnecessary narcissism, he came late and left early, what Donald Trump did in his few short hours on Canadian soil will be commented on for years, as he emerged as a virtual caricature of everything Europeans hate about Americans.

Preternaturally over-confident and under-prepared, arrogant, and self-regarding, the president urged Russia be readmitted to the G7 club (despite its iron-clad control of Crimea and ruination of eastern Ukraine), doubled down on enraging European and Canadian allies alike over the brewing trade war (‘America is not a piggy bank’), and generally confirmed everyone’s worst fears that the White House actually prefers dealing with America’s authoritarian foes, such as China’s Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, rather than the vexing, well-meaning, but weak democratic pygmies who populate the standard multilateral meeting. Surely, after such an odious display the rest of the democratic world must rise up in righteous indignation and…

Well, the best I can come up with is snub Trump administration appointments at formal cocktail parties. For the bleak truth lying behind Donald Trump’s appalling, wrong-headed policies and behaviour in Canada is that the rest of the democratic world is pathetically weak and bereft of agency. As such, while they seethe with disgust at having to put up with the odious president, there is nothing practically they are prepared to do to stop him. This most transactional of presidents has inadvertently but graphically illustrated how practically irrelevant America’s western allies, particularly in Europe, truly are.

Be careful what you wish for

This is all so different from the dreams of a new multipolar world that so animated European thinkers during the long days of the bipolar Cold War. Then, European policy intellectuals—particularly in France—dreamed of living in a multipolar age that would follow victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, a time when Europe would finally achieve the strategic flexibility to have its own independent foreign and security policy, no longer shackled to (but still vaguely allied with) the US. But this long-term strategic goal amounted to little more than emotional wish-fulfilment, predicated as it was on two unremarked upon suppositions.

The first was that the relative diminution in American global power would be meekly accepted by a US long used to running things. In other words, a series of President Obamas would shepherd the US to accept its new central, but relatively more limited, structural position in the multipolar world. To put it mildly, a President Trump—whose very campaign slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ is an overly emotional refutation of America’s relative decline—was not reckoned on.

Second, it was blithely assumed by European thinkers that their continent would undoubtedly and effortlessly emerge as the principal new force in this new world of many powers. As China rose during the latter days of the Cold War, following Deng Xiaoping’s historic opening in December 1978, European thinkers did foresee a world where a rising Asia would join America, Europe, Japan, and a diminished Russia as the main players on the global strategic scene (India was little thought of). But the notion that Europe would be by a long way the weakest of these great powers—politically divided, economically sclerotic, and militarily puny—never entered their thoughts.

As a result, while European thinkers seemed to pine for a multipolar world, in reality it was a new era where their continent was rising—as America was falling and the Soviets were non-existent—that was their real dream. Donald Trump’s petulant performance (and Europe’s anaemic non-response) at the just concluded G7 meeting glaringly illustrates that today’s world is simply not the sort of multipolarity European thinkers ever had in mind.

What Europe Should Do

Most foreign policy articles (and I have written over 500 of them) are cries in the wilderness, futile exercises where the analyst proposes outcomes that they know will never come to pass. Nevertheless, it remains the duty of every political risk analyst to try, to posit what can be practically done to retrieve strategic situations, for irretrievable decline is a choice and not a preordained destiny.

In this spirit, what can Europe do to make itself relevant as a Great Power in the real multipolar era we actually now live in? First, psychologically accept that while Trump is an extreme case, American leaders in general are transactional in nature; they will only take European concerns on board if it is viewed as a serious power capable of going its own way in terms of genuine practical policy consequences. Global politics is not a debating society; what matters are the views of the great strategic players, and the power they bring to bear—political, economic, strategic, diplomatic, and social—to further their interests. Europe must stop passively watching the world, and either master history, or history will surely master it.

Second, the Europeans have to act in a far more unitary manner in terms of foreign and security policy. Russia, an economic basket case in comparison (its economy is smaller than that of Italy), is the relevant comparison. For all that it is a corrupt, demographically decaying one-trick economic pony, a decrepit gas station utterly dependent on the spot price of oil and natural gas, Moscow punches far above its actual weight on the global scene.

The reason? President Putin can make decisive, unitary, foreign policy decisions for his country that are quickly acted on. Russia—as the Crimea episode illustrated—is still prepared to spend blood and treasure, to make real sacrifices to further the country’s foreign policy goals and interests. At present, I am not sure many in Brussels would be prepared to sacrifice a week’s holiday to do much of anything. For once and for all, Europe and its leaders have to decide if their foreign policy amounts to merely virtue signalling, or whether they are prepared to make the sacrifices to actually matter in the world.  

 To do so, an inner core of the key western European states—Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and The Netherlands—must move ahead, and actually begin to craft such a common foreign policy. Failure to do so will inevitably lead the other great powers to cherry pick Europe, to keep dividing the place precisely because it is inherently divided. It is not the fault of the outside powers, as states since time immemorial have taken advantage of their rival’s weaknesses. Rather it is the fault of a Europe that simply can’t get its act together.

Finally, as the mediocre age of Merkel subsides, endemic problems must be solved, rather than merely managed. Across the continent, Europe must free up its animal spirits and find a way to increase average growth rates to around two percent, if horrendous rates of youth unemployment and endemic economic torpor are to be righted. President Macron’s courageous and largely successful labour market reforms are a start, by more needs to be done.

With France as a nucleus, and after decades of torturous (and maddening) inaction, the major European countries must commit themselves to some level of serious defence spending, as without an army their moralistic lectures are just that, and nothing more. Finally, and again Macron is onto something here, ‘A Certain Idea of Europe,’ the idea of a strong, distinct, unique and blessed Europe, a sacred place whose interests and values are worth fighting for on the global stage, must be advanced as a unifying clarion call to action.

It is not too late for Europe to emerge as its thinkers once dreamed it would, and Trump’s odious behaviour in Canada surely serves as a call to arms. But it is one minute to the midnight of Europe’s strategic irrelevance.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political-risk consulting firm. He is the author of To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk. He lives in Milan, Italy.

Dr. John C. Hulsman: The North Korean Summit Hiccup Belies the Greater Problem of the White House’s Failure to ‘Game Out Lunatics’

HulsmanLegend has it that at the height of the Third Crusade (1189-1192), Count Henry of Champagne spoke at length with the mysterious, charismatic “Old Man of the Mountain,” Rashid ad-Din Sinan. The story goes that the haughty Crusader claimed that he had the most powerful army in the Middle East, one that could at any moment defeat the Hashashin, the Old Man’s threadbare cohort of followers. Count Henry went on, pointing out that his force was at least ten times larger than that of Sinan’s.

Unimpressed, the Old Man calmly replied that the Count was mistaken, and that it was his unremarkable-looking rabble which constituted the greatest army in the field. To prove his point, he beckoned one of his men over to him and casually told him to jump off the top of the Masyaf mountaintop fortress in which they were holed up. Without hesitating, the man did so.

Through the many centuries that separate us from Count Henry, the myriad twists and turns on Western politics, culture, and life that come between us, there is absolutely no doubt at all that Westerners today would share his horrified reaction to what the Old Man of the Mountain had demonstrated to him.

“This guy is totally nuts.”

***

This telling historical vignette was eerily reenacted last week, in Donald Trump’s ‘break-up’ letter to Kim Jong-un, the far-out leader of seemingly indecipherable North Korea. Playing the part of Count Henry, the President not so subtlety hinted that America, as the greatest military force in the world, could wipe North Korea off the map at any moment it chose. Like Count Henry, Trump was making it clear to his rival that in essence their contest was so strategically lopsided that meek surrender—in this case with the policy end game of unilateral North Korean nuclear disarmament as the only possible outcome—really was the only possible option.

But as was true for Count Henry, that assumes your enemy is playing by the same rules that you are, and makes the same calculations. If, to our horror, we found that they do not, it is far too easy to simply say our enemies are ‘crazy,’ meaning their motives simply cannot be fathomed, letting us off the hook far too easily.

Throughout history, both decision-makers as well as geopolitical analysts have always had a very hard time getting past the wholly understandable first reaction that those with very different belief systems from ours are simply unknowable. In the Old Man in the Mountain’s case, given his effective strategy for engaging in strategic assassinations, Westerners took to calling his followers Hashashin, or “users of hashish,” as drugs became the only possible (and incorrect) rationale the Crusaders could come up with to explain their intensity, morale, and absolute personal commitment to Sinan, rather than to the Western value of the sanctity of human life. It has always been all too easy for decision-makers to write off ‘lunatics,’ lazily saying to themselves that the different and the strange simply cannot be understood.

There has been a lot of this misdiagnosis going on regarding Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian hermit kingdom; former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster forthrightly said Kim Jong-un was ‘crazy,’ and is therefore unable to be deterred by the threat of a nuclear counter-strike, meaning that the nuclear deterrence which has kept the global peace for these past seventy-plus years does not apply to North Korea’s nuclear programme. But have Kim’s actions really proved so unknowable, just because North Korea’s politics and culture are so admittedly different from our own?

Far from it. While there is no doubt Kim Jong-un would serve as an excellent Bond villain—between very publicly poisoning his half-brother Kim Jong-nam with sarin and executing his pro-Chinese uncle and former mentor Jang Song-thaek by blowing him to pieces with artillery—there is surely method to his madness. 

While the North Korean dictator is certainly odious, he seems to have a very well-defined and rational sense of self-preservation; in fact, he killed his uncle and his brother precisely because he feared they might emerge as threats to his continued rule and also to his life. In not allowing any alternate sources of leadership to emerge within the famously closed-off North Korean regime, Kim is clearly enhancing his chances of survival in the political shark tank he calls home.

Nor is Kim’s single-minded pursuit of an advanced nuclear weapons program capable of striking the US lunacy; rather the dictator has read some recent history, as the recent spat over the Libya model—a point which led to the temporary postponement of the summit—makes eminently clear. A North Korea in possession of such weapons has a ‘get out of jail free’ card, being able to ward off the oft-stated US desire for regime change in Pyongyang. Kim would be able to definitively avoid the recent fate of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who relinquished their nuclear programs, only to be overthrown and brutally killed.

For National Security Adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence to bring this up, illustrates that it is they and not the ruthless North Korean dictator who are living in an illogical fantasy world. For the Libya model, given the horrendous outcome for Libyan dictator Gaddafi, would obviously seem to be the last framework of choice for Kim Jong-un to embrace, given his rational desire for survival. As ever, American hawks overrate the objective global power position of the United States, as we live in a world where America, for all that it remains the most powerful nation on earth, is simply no longer the only game in town.

By understanding neither the basic structure of the world we live in—that it is comprised of many powers—nor that Kim Jong-un might be put out by the Gaddafi comparison, senior figures in the Trump White House seem to have forgotten that any negotiation short of unconditional surrender usually involves give and take by both sides, in this case over the terms, time frame, and pace of North Korea disarmament, as well as over the security guarantees that are necessary for a surprisingly rational Kim to be given, in securing both his position and his life.

The Old Man of the Mountain must never be forgotten by modern-day decision-makers, as in the end his seemingly unfathomable against-the-odds strategy was crowned with an improbable victory in the Third Crusade. His successful career underlines the vital need to game out ‘lunatics’ such as Kim Jong-un. For not only is there almost always method to their madness. Sometimes they actually win.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political-risk consulting firm. His new book, To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk, was published by Princeton University Press in April and is available on Amazon. He lives in Milan, Italy.