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'The Big View'- May 2011

 Challenging Times for Europe as a Global Actor: The Normative Assumptions and Applied Practices of the EU in a ‘Multi-polar’ World:

Our clichés for capturing the sense of the early 21st century global order are now well established—‘the decline of the USA’, ‘the end of US hegemony’, the ‘rise of Asia’, ‘the rise of China’, the ‘era of the BRICs’, ‘a Pacific Century’ and so on. None of these clichés refer to Europe unless, as in the style of some Asian and North American pundits it is to dismiss it or consign it to history. But in brut economic terms, economic decline and financial crises notwithstanding, Europe remains a major global economic actor. Yet not for the first time, Europe’s normative aspiration to consolidate and enhance its political position in the global order is confronted by a series of major challenges.

The seemingly inexorable ‘rise of Asia’ puts Europe’s desire to be the second pillar of a so-called multi-polar world into sharp relief. The EUs own current priority focus is on its internal economic problems—financial crisis, slow growth, declining productivity, structural unemployment and demographic decline. Its external policy is characterised by short-termist and piecemeal approaches to foreign economic policy (proliferating FTAs for example), incoherent and inconsistent attitudes towards immigration, the question Turkey and the major foreign policy issues of the day. When we add in the less than positive start to the activities of the External Action Service this all poses major questions for its normative aspirations to global actor status. A sense, and indeed reality, of economic crisis and policy incoherence has downgraded the aspirations to build a unified foreign policy that the launch of the EAS will not immediately counteract. In essence, Europe is, for the time being at least, pre-occupied with itself.

But now is not the time to take our eye off the bigger picture. ‘Normative power Europe’ might not currently hold the allure for other parts of world that certain sectors of the European policy and analytical community have perhaps too frequently and boldly asserted. The evolving features of the evolving order are increasingly polycentric—a preferable term to multi-polar for many analysts. But we should obsess less about multi-polarity and whether Europe is a pole. Europe’s future may not be, nor need not be one that identifies with either its earlier, rose tinted view of a benign liberal multilateral order on the one hand or a much more realist, and by extension, less benign, interpretation of a multi-polar order. These are structures to be analysed not futures to be asserted as in effect the EU Commission Framework 7 Programme did when in 2009 it issued a call for applications to undertake research on ‘Europe Facing a Multipolar World’. GR:EEN is the product of that call.

An Agenda for Research

A consortium of universities and research institutes led from Warwick University ’s Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation in the UK were the successful applicants in the quest to undertake this generously funded programme of research. The result, commencing in March 2011 is GR:EEN, a four year integrated research project that focuses on the challenges faced by the EU in establishing and enhancing its abilities to operate successfully as an actor in a multi-polar world. Every word in the last sentence is chosen deliberately. The sentence assumes nothing—especially not the assumption of multi-polarity; or more precisely the assumptions that accompany the concept of multi-polarity. The research that will be conducted in this project is aimed at testing assumptions, not promoting assertions. The Commission is to be commended at the outset for funding a project effectively sees its role as to challenge many of the assertions reflected in the FP7 call.

The project is underwritten by a judgment that there is a substantive distinction between what we might call the normative aspirations for a coherent EU foreign policy on the one hand and the constraints and practical limits mitigating those aspirations on the other. It is the ability to detach analytical judgment from normative aspiration that is the hallmark of good scholarship and it is this detachment that will drive the analytical endeavours of the GR:EEN project. To operate from such an assumption does not, however, imply that the scholarly analysis will not cast policy shadows. Indeed it can. The extent to which the analysis will or will not enhance the European foreign policy project is, however, not in the hands of the researchers rather than the policy makers who read the analysis, draw conclusions and apply prescriptions from the work that will emanate from GR:EEN over the next few years. A facet of this project will, therefore, be to interact with that community (both public and private) with a professional interest in Europe as an actor in global socio-political and economic affairs.

There are effectively four key assumptions that will be tested in this project:

(i) there is an inevitable shift towards a multi-polar world order;

(ii) that the EU will automatically be one of the major poles in this new order;

(iii) that multilateralism will be the principal modus operandi of that order;

(iv) that the trans-Atlantic relationship will be the key driver of this order.

While all four assumptions might be more or less plausible, they are not the only scenarios available to us and they are certainly not axiomatic. Rather they are stronger as exercises in international normative thought about the potential role of the EU than as an empirical analysis of the actual role of the EU as an actor in contemporary global politics. These assumptions need to be analysed in the context of a set of alternative and in many ways equally plausible judgments about the future direction of world order. A distinction needs to be drawn between the normative aspirations underpinning much EU foreign policy thinking on the one hand and the EU’s ability to successfully conduct foreign policy on the other. While multi-polarity, with Europe as a key driver is a possibility alternative scenarios, such as a shift from a trans-Atlantic to trans-Pacific locus of power, or the “depolarization” and fragmentation of authority as other actors establish positions, are likely to prove equally plausible. Moreover, alternatives could marginalize rather than enhance Europe’s influence. But they are processes to be observed and questions to be researched; not assertions to be made.

A focus on other actors, especially the rising or re-emerging powers, might at times be excessive and hyperbolic, but the increased influence on global affairs of China, Russia, India, Brazil and others is real, and cannot be ignored. Similarly, emerging trends, such as extremist ‘Islamist’ violence, constructed as the antithesis of those European liberal values that accompanied the end of the Cold War, are also increasing forces in global affairs. Liberal economic values are under challenge; as are the values and norms of international interactions promoted by western liberal democracies. The world is changing. So is Europe’s place in it. And having made so much progress in establishing itself at the core of the global system, Europe has much to lose if it does not manage its role in this changing system with care, skill and innovation. Hence, the overarching objective of this project is to interrogate the place of Europe in a rapidly changing global order.

This transformation may result in a new multi-polar world. One in which Europe occupies one of the key poles of power and influence; but neither the nature of that world evolving order, nor Europe’s place within it can be guaranteed. Not only is the evolution of alternative constellations of global authority entirely possible, but these alternatives typically suggest a much less central role for Europe and a much less influential voice for European values, norms and interests. Indeed, perhaps the greatest obstacle to Europe attaining (retaining) power and influence in this evolving world order is an overly simple assumption that Europe’s future role is given and/or guaranteed without active intervention, and/or without understanding the interests, motivations and values of other potential (rising) powers.

The GR:EEN project will embed its analysis of the emergence of the EU as an international actor within the context of the evolving structures of global governance in addition to a more traditional analysis of the interaction among and between state actors. Analysis will focus on those extant state actors from the second half of the 20th century and the rising powers of the 21st century. However, the research project will also look at the role of those increasingly influential non-state actors (from both civil society and the private sector) and the new transnational regulatory networks of both public and private policy makers and regional agencies and actors. It will do so in a range of specific policy and issue areas discussed in the brief introductions to the individual work packages of this project in this edition of the Newsletter.

GR:EEN also recognises the challenge inherent in the search for a new global political equilibrium that accommodates the interests of both the existing and new actors at the same time as it makes institutional provision for collective action in the domain of seemingly intractable trans-sovereign problem solving. The problem in all policy areas is one of diverging national interests leading to competing diagnoses and prescriptions. Difficult under conditions of either bi-polarity or hegemony, we do not know yet whether problems of divergence will be surmountable under conditions of an emerging multi-polarity. Hence a further objective of this project will be to offer both theoretical and empirical insight into how we might secure reform and innovation in the global order and the role that European insights into governmental innovation might play in that reform process.

The project’s comparative advantage will be found in state of the art analysis that combines different theoretical approaches and disciplinary views, and indeed, methodologies, and practical policy understanding of the manner in which the global order is evolving. In particular, it will consider how new actors, especially transnational policy (and regulatory) networks are emerging as important elements of trans-state policymaking in the 21st century. Within Europe such networks have fostered forms of mutual learning, deliberation, monitoring, and benchmarking that can be broadly understood under the concept of ‘experimentalist governance’. These European governance techniques have enhanced a kind of ‘internal multilateralism’ among states and non-state actors that has permitted a reordering of European governance, business, and security. It is as yet unknown whether these same governance networks can help Europe to encourage global reordering in ways that suits its interests and values.

Although a scholarly project, the applied policy implications of the work are clear. It will need to reflect on the role of Europe in what is a contemporary global disequilibrium. The US and the EU may be constrained actors in the 21st century. Other powers may be ‘rising’ to use the rather limited language of the scholar policy analyst but how this disequilibrium is addressed remains and open and shifting question. The emergence of a new, equilibrating form of global order is not assured. Problem solving at both global and the regional levels is inadequate even when not contested. Within this larger analytical context, the project would also wish to provide meaningful analytical insight into European policy limitations that constrain its abilities to act decisively; specifically how does it adapt to the emerging environment and actors and can it do so in a coherent way. This may entail Europe ‘unlearning; old habits and assumptions as much as inculcating new ones. It will require a balancing of its normative assumptions, especially about Europe’s sense of what it is in international affairs on the one hand and a calibration of the European ‘interest’ on the other. Its model is of value but its priorities might not always reflect that model’s liberal internationalist values. These, of course, are not new questions, in many ways they are questions as old as politics itself, and the scholars in the GR:EEN project are not the only ones working on them. But the GR:EEN community brings together a range of interests and expertise that might just have something in combination that is novel to say.

Richard Higgott

The University of Warwick

GR:EEN Coordinator  

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