by George Pagoulatos
Thirty years ago, in February 1992, in an idyllic city in the Netherlands, 12 leaders signed the Treaty on European Union. The Maastricht Treaty is considered the most important EU treaty because it paved the way for the euro. However, its as yet incomplete 2nd pillar, that of a common foreign and security policy, could not be more relevant today.
The world may have been turned on its head, but the aspiration of European unity in the face of external challenges is more urgent than ever.
Europe’s leap toward the EU and the euro would not have taken place if it hadn’t been preceded by the breakup of the Soviet bloc and the reunification of Germany. By letting nationalism and war loose in the immediate vicinity of the former Yugoslavia, the first imposed the need for a common European foreign policy. The latter upset the balance between Germany and France, forcing then-chancellor Helmut Kohl to commit to the monetary (and political) unification of Europe, sacrificing the Deutschmark.
European leaders had accepted a Political and Defense Community as far back as 1952, but the memory of World War II was still fresh and the treaty was not ratified by the French National Assembly. Forty years on, WWII had receded into the distance and the Cold War was over, with the West having emerged the victor.
In 1992, Russia was well into its decline and had a decade of humiliating economic, social and political crises ahead of it (providing an important lesson: that building a democracy requires not just an open economy, but also robust public institutions and the rule of law; otherwise, it simply ends up an arena for oligarchs and kleptocrats). America, on the other hand, with an experienced Atlanticist president and war veteran at the helm and having triumphed abroad, was facing the new unipolar era of American world dominance. The US had a decade of economic expansion and self-confidence ahead of it – the roaring 90s, which a young charismatic president from the impoverished state of Arkansas would come to embody.
In Asia, a dynamic exporting country seemed to be at the height of its postwar success, but Japan had just entered a stagnation trap from which it has never emerged. Alongside it, a vast communist country was already experimenting with market institutions but had violently suppressed its own liberal revolution in 1989, choosing (unlike Russia) a single transition to capitalism but not to democracy. In the decades to come, Western governments and corporations would view China as a land of economic opportunity – and China would exploit its opening up to the West to gradually amass the economic and technological power it wields today.
Fast-forward 30 years. Today’s Russia has metabolized the humiliating experience of the 1990s into the restoration of an authoritarian model of strong leadership, making up for the lack of economic dynamism with an over-reliance on natural resources and maintaining an overblown militaristic machine driven by the nostalgia for the lost empire it longs to revive. America has an experienced Atlanticist president in charge once more, but after four years of Donald Trump, it is a different country in a different world. The Republican Party (expected winner of the November 2022 midterm elections) is on a downward slide of embracing anti-democratic practices. Post-Trump America is no longer the shining city on a hill, nor the only superpower. The American “liberal” gamble that China would, if incorporated into globalization, tend toward Western democracy has failed doubly. China is now the rival superpower and America’s paramount strategic concern.
Fifty years ago, Richard Nixon’s America made the historic opening to China, so it could focus its strength on the Soviet Union. Confronted by their Russian neighbor, several Central-Eastern European states fear America may now do the “reverse Nixon,” normalizing its relations with Russia in order to focus all available resources on reining in China. Russia’s saber-rattling on the Ukrainian border has sidelined this possibility for the time being. But America’s strategic focus on Europe is on a long-term secular decline.
Thirty years on from Maastricht, the West persists as a geopolitical actor, but its cohesion and power have been fractured. Events have elevated the EU’s 2nd pillar of a truly common foreign and defense policy, which would also strengthen NATO’s European pillar, into a first-order priority. The world may have been turned on its head, but the aspiration of European unity in the face of external challenges is more urgent than ever.
George Pagoulatos is a professor at the Athens University of Economics and Business and director general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).