However the war in Ukraine ends, a new iron curtain will follow unless the EU lives up to its ‘geopolitical’ aspirations.
The first and second world wars have been considered by many intellectuals and politicians ‘European civil wars’. The process of European unification was based on a widespread sentiment: no more wars in Europe.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reopened those wounds. The Russo-Ukrainian war is becoming chronic and the spectre of a world war can be glimpsed on the horizon: the west against Russia, China and other allies. The Nobel Peace Prize recognition awarded to the European Union in 2012, for having transformed a continent of war into a continent of peace, seems unjustified today.
The historian David Armitage has investigated the concept of civil war, starting from the Roman empire. Civil war for him is an armed conflict between populations that share a heritage of common values, which suggests the possibility of peace and reunification. It is ‘an aberration from any normal course of politics or “civilisation”’, while the ‘idea of “global” civil war carries with it an idea of universal humanity’.
The Russo-Ukrainian war can end in a defeat for Ukraine, a defeat for Russia or a peace-like stalemate, as between North and South Korea. In all three cases, however, a new ‘iron curtain’ will be erected in the heart of Europe. This would be a clear defeat for the EU and its founding value—peace.
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‘Most fateful error’
It is necessary to recall the events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, because the current situation originated in those years. In 1987, in Prague and Warsaw, the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, proposed a ‘common European home’. Gorbachev was aware that the problem of European security could not be left unresolved, following his inconclusive Reykjavik summit on nuclear weapons with his United States counterpart, Ronald Reagan, the previous year. After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, Gorbachev asked the German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and the US government, as a condition of his consent to German unification, that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization not be extended eastwards to the countries of the Warsaw Pact—NATO’s Soviet-led, cold-war counterpart.
The last US ambassador to the USSR, Jack Matlock, was later to declare that ‘categorical assurances’ had been given by the Americans to Gorbachev that, if a united Germany were able to stay in NATO, ‘NATO would not be moved eastward’. In the debate which opened in the US on possible NATO enlargement to the east, George Kennan, father of the policy of ‘containment’ of the Soviet Union, stated that ‘pushing ahead with expansion would inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western, and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion, … have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy, and restore the atmosphere of Cold War to East-West relations’. It would, he said, ‘be the most fateful error of American foreign policy in the entire post-Cold War era’.
In 1992, in Maastricht, the member states of what was now to be called the European Union approved a treaty containing an article which provided for a European foreign and security policy, up to the creation of a European defence. After 30 years, however, little or nothing has been done to realise this.
The EU’s inertia is the real cause of the current crisis. The countries of the east asked for military security and they have obtained it from the US and NATO. They asked for economic aid and they obtained it by integrating into the EU. But the union fearfully avoided taking responsibility for foreign and security policy.
Today, a new European convention is in sight which could address these unresolved issues. In November 2021 the programme of the German Ampelkoalition said the Conference on the Future of Europe ‘should lead to a constitutional convention and the further development of a federal European state’ and the European Parliament called last June for a convention to permit treaty changes, notably to weaken national vetoes, necessary to implement the proposals from the conference. But voices are already being raised to avoid reforms that would transcend the acquired framework of economic-monetary integration.
There is discussion of ‘strategic autonomy’ in foreign policy but this hides the real problem from the citizens—European independence from the American protectorate. The transatlantic relationship should have become an equal partnership, as the former US president John F Kennedy hoped.
Partnership for Peace
To avoid the creation of a new iron curtain in Europe and to start a peace process between Russia and Ukraine, the EU must take an ‘autonomous’ initiative, for a continental peace plan which would allow all the parties to enjoy a future of peace and prosperity for their citizens. In 1994, NATO proposed a Partnership for Peace to Russia, to associate the new Russian state with discussions on European security. The continued extension of NATO to the east and the subordinate position of Russia in the discussions however put an end to this attempt.
A similar proposal could today have a different outcome if the EU were to assume the responsibility of proposing a conference along with the US, Russia and Ukraine to discuss, on an equal footing, a peace plan among all European countries. Citizens of the EU, while condemning the military invasion of Ukraine and the continuous bloodshed, including civilian casualties, consider Ukrainian citizens as European as Russian ones.
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How can we ignore a culture that has given Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to universal literature? And how can Russian citizens forget the contributions of western-European culture, from Peter the Great onwards, which manifest themselves in the architectural style of the palaces from St Petersburg to Odesa and the marvellous collection of renaissance works of art in the Hermitage museum?
If the model of Partnership for Peace proves insufficient to solve current problems, one could resort to that of the 1973 meeting in Helsinki of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Involving all European countries, the US and the USSR, this generated two years later the ‘Helsinki accords’ which provided the framework for the formation two decades on of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
The crucial problem is not however diplomatic, but political: US foreign policy, still based on the ‘America first’ goal, is at issue. In most of the world’s population, the military bloc of NATO, led by the US, is considered a form of global neo-imperialism. This perception is cleverly exploited by Russia and China to extend their economic and military influence, as evidenced by the South African government’s recent announcement of joint military drills with the two countries later this month—around the anniversary of the Russian invasion.
As long as the war in Europe continues, the world arms race will intensify, including in nuclear weapons. The consequences on the international economic front are disastrous. While the transition from polluting to sustainable energies is urgent, governments are increasing investments in armaments, skimping on funds for environmental damage for the poorest countries and introducing new barriers to international trade. The Economist observed last month: ‘As the logic of efficiency and comparative advantage gives way to a focus on security and economic nationalism, investments will be duplicated and costs will rise. The result will be higher bills for taxpayers and consumers and therefore diminished prosperity.’
Finally, the United Nations is going through a deep crisis. The Security Council is paralysed by vetoes among its permanent members. The World Trade Organization has meanwhile been effectively deprived by the US of its mechanism for settling international disputes, thus leaving the stronger countries free to prevail over the weaker.
Can Europe find the courage to reverse the return of nationalism in the world? A vacuum of power and action could be filled by an international military confrontation that would overwhelm the fragile European construction.
Guido Montani is professor of international political economy at the University of Pavia. He is a former president of the European Federalist Movement in Italy. His latest book is Antropocene, nazionalismo e cosmopolitismo: Prospettive per i cittadini del mondo (Mimesis, 2022).