Twenty Years On in Berlin: One Europe in the Making?

Last night at the Brandenburg Gate I attended the commemorative ceremony organized to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, the re-unification of Germany and Europe,  and the end of the Cold War.

That is a lot to celebrate, but to call the event historic does not quite convey the emotion, the excitement, and the sheer exhilaration that was palpable in the streets. If the rain dampened the numbers, it could not douse the spirit of the evening.

Not even close.

Gorbachev and Genscher. Medvedev and Merkel. Sarkozy. Brown.  Walesa. Secretary Clinton introducing a videogram from President Obama.

Imagine. As a symbol of the new Europe, this was a breathtaking sight to behold.

Amidst the speeches, music, fireworks and mulled wine, I found myself thinking, what does all of this mean, and where might it be going?

For the past few hundred years, European statesmanship has been concerned mainly with balancing power, first on a multi-polar continent, then in a bipolar world. In the days of Metternich and Castlereagh, the then vectors of national power – armies, navies, economies, populations, territories – were carefully calculated and then balanced. Alliances were made and treaties entered into for purposes of expressing that balance, and so was world order fashioned.

When imbalances occurred, negotiations usually resumed. If they failed, more often than not it was conflict which decided the new order.

After the Cold War began, the balancing act continued, but this time it was predicated upon the possibility of the apocalypse, and the major players were the USA and the Soviet Union. The thinking was thermo-nuclear, and it was deterrence, containment, and the certainty of mutually assured destruction which resulted in a very heavily armed peace. This was a terrifying kind of stability, but still, the underlying dynamic was the same – because the sources of power were comparable and measureable, they could be balanced.

And so they were.

In the 21st century, none of this kind of thinking really works very well any more. The brief period of American uni-polarity flamed out in a violent starburst of shock and awe over Baghdad in 2004. But that did not, in my view, signal the much-heralded return to some kind of multipolarity. Why not? Because in the era of globalization, the principal vectors of power and influence are now both highly dispersed geographically, and, among and between themselves, fundamentally different in kind.

Unlike in the previous eras, the heterogenous nature of the competing poles renders them very difficult to compare, and even more difficult to balance.

The USA, for instance, will for the forseeable future be the world’s leading military power. Yet its economic and industrial hegemony is fading fast, a trend accelerated by the continuing financial crisis. Within a decade or two the mantle of economic leadership will have passed to the Asia-Pacific region generally, and to China in particular – with India not that far behind. Russia will be an energy and resource pole, a status complicated by its residual capacities as a former superpower. Brazil may also emerge as a pole, the exact nature of which remains unclear. So, too, with other countries and regions.

And Europe?

With its peace, prosperity, safe and liveable cities, social safety net,  excellent public infrastructure, rich historical heritage and thriving artistic and cultural life, Europa is very likely destined to lead the world in soft power, the power of attraction. In practice, then, the source of Europe’s strength and the basis of its comparative advantage will be in the demonstration effect, in the ability to project its success internationally.

The emergence of a hetero-polar world order will call for nuanced, and highly complex balancing between dynamic poles, and knowledge-driven problem solving to address common threats and challenges. Many of these, such as climate change, resource scarcity and pandemic disease, will be rooted in science and driven by technology.

Defence departments, although they have been allocated the lion’s share of resources, are, as instruments of international policy, both too sharp, and too dull to provide these kinds of services.

Diplomats, on the other hand, with their specialized cross-cultural, linguistic and political communications skills can, and indeed must connect.

So… As I was standing last night by the Brandenburg Gate, it occured to me that the translation Europe’s immense success into tangible, progressive influence vis-a-vis the other poles will depend, perhaps more than anything else, on the quality, agility and acuity of its diplomacy. If that idea catches on at the level of decision-makers and opinion-leaders within the European Union, it just might help to re-capture the public imagination – which lately appears to have been flagging as regards the integration project –  and in so doing assist in taking the entire process to a higher level.

In the face of such an outcome. we would all be more secure.