Crisis in the Eurozone is brewing up security problems for years ahead

James W. Davis
IN HIS speech on Britain’s relationship with the EU, David Cameron reminded us that European politics is still characterised by a competition for influence in pursuit of the national interest. There is, of course, no longer a military dimension to that contest. A common European market and common institutions have weakened the link between economics, military power and political influence. The problem is that the rest of the world looks quite different.

The troublesome link between economics and international security endures across the world. And there are two trends that currently give rise to concern: economic weakness in the West, and the rise of the rest.

With all the focus on saving the euro, little analysis has been directed at the long-term security implications of the Eurozone debt crisis. But recent developments betray disturbing deficiencies. Although Europeans were quick to assert a leadership role in the Libyan crisis, for instance, it soon became clear that they lacked essential capabilities, or even the munitions, to sustain their mission. Perhaps the best, or most distressing, example was provided by the Italians. They were forced to withdraw the aircraft carrier Garibaldi from the campaign because they could no longer afford the fuel needed to keep it at sea.

For many, the solution to maintaining military effectiveness in an era of shrinking resources is pooling and sharing. But this presumes there is something left to pool and share. Take tanker aircraft, for example. Europeans have discussed the need to build an independent aerial refuelling capability for years. The results are now on display in Mali. French officials were forced to ask the US for tankers for the operation. As one unnamed French official put it, “our commanders feel much more comfortable, when things are not going to plan, to have support from the Americans very quickly”.

But the Americans are now retrenching. The Pentagon may have been spared draconian cuts, as the US government narrowly avoided the “fiscal cliff”, but Barack Obama still intends to bring America’s global commitments into line with its fiscal capabilities. This means sizeable reductions in defence spending, and a redirecting of resources to parts of the world that seem less stable than Europe. It also means asking weakened allies to do more. At least for the remainder of Obama’s presidency, the desire to draw down US debt will diminish America’s willingness to take on new commitments.

Of course, it wasn’t long ago that American weakness prompted observers to herald the dawn of a new multi-polar order – that, as the US and Europe ended their roles as guardians of global security, others would stand up to the task. But the assumption behind this view – that BRIC countries would continue to rise rapidly, and US would fall into relative decline – seems out of date. Today smart observers note that growth rates in many BRIC nations are declining, while the prospect of energy independence in the US is likely to fuel a new period of sustained economic growth. Moreover, it appears that China will grow old before it grows rich. Will an ageing society, with low per capita income, have the stomach to challenge the US and its allies in pursuit of political dominance?

In this unstable context, understanding the links between the uncertain economic fortunes and political ambitions of aspiring regional players is key to devising a strategy for preserving global peace and security.

But if understanding the goals of these states, and reconciling them with the existing institutions of the international system, is essential to avoiding conflict, the task is made difficult by a lack of transparency in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran. We do not know enough about how the Chinese, Russian or Iranian leadership see the world, and their place within in it. In any event, integrating aspiring powers to the liberal economic order presupposes that this order holds the promise of prosperity for all. It will also require the continued leadership of the West, with the US at the fore.

In his speech on the EU, Cameron suggested that the goal was no longer “to win peace, but to secure prosperity.” In a globalised economy, it is hard to see how we can enjoy one without the other.

James W Davis is professor of political science and director of the Institute of Political Science at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland.