The Empire Strikes Back

While Britain frets about EU expansion, Europe is overtaking its rivals to become the world’s most successful empire. US scholar Parag Khanna on the rise of the new Rome.

Kiev, Tbilisi and Baku neither look nor feel like the grand European capitals of London, Paris and Rome. Littered with the hulking architectural and mental debris of the Soviet Union, these cities – and the countries of which they are the capitals – are in serious need of an overhaul. The trouble is that this requires political stability, economic investment, and most of all a counterweight to Russia, which is still manipulating borders, pipelines and markets to pull them back into its orbit.
“It’s fairly simple: We hate Russia,” said an Estonian diplomat in Tallinn, bluntly capturing a problem that is at once emotional and strategic. Of course, this is not a new challenge for Europe’s east, where western Christendom, Slavic Orthodoxy and Turkic Islam have clashed for more than a thousand years. But the European empire is a new solution.


These days it is not fashionable to speak of empires. Empires are aggressive, mercantilist relics supposedly consigned to the dustbin of history with Britain, France and Portugal’s post-1945 retrenchment from the African and Asian colonies and the 1990s collapse of the Soviet Union. Rather than empires, many predicted that ethnic self-determination would drag the world into a new era of political fragmentation, with every minority getting its own state, currency, and seat in the United Nations.
But for thousands of years, empires have been the world’s most powerful political entities, their imperial yoke restraining subjugated nations from fighting each other and thereby filling people’s eternal desire for order. Empires may not be the most desirable form of governance, given the recurrence of hugely destructive wars between them, but humankind’s psychological limitations still prevent it from doing better. Big is back. It is inter-imperial relations that shape the world. Empires, not civilisations, give geography its meaning.
The mental journey of Europe’s imperial expansion begins on a map, as one traces a finger along the L-shaped path from the chilly Baltics downwards through Ukraine, Romania, the central European countries, the former Yugoslavia and the southern Balkans, then eastwards along the Black Sea through Bulgaria, Turkey, and the Caucasus to the oily shores of the Caspian Sea. This contested zone – the original “second world”- was, except for Turkey, once coloured red to signify the Warsaw Pact. Today the European Union is painting it blue, indicating the region is ready to ascend into the first world.
The actual journey through this new European east, however, is extremely bumpy and filled with unpredictable delays and all the anxieties of people liberated less than a generation ago from totalitarianism. For all the post-communist soul-searching afflicting the region in the 1990s, the EU has already won the easiest fights. Since the Soviet collapse, on average one country per year has been absorbed into the EU. On a single day – May 1 2004 – over 100 million citizens in 10 countries officially became European.
For over half a century, European nations have been pooling their power, eventually giving small and shattered post-second world war countries a new lease on life. Though EU members remain distinct nations, their greater meaning now comes from being part of the world’s only superstate. War between any two countries within the EU’s dense institutional nexus has become impossible, and the promise of greater security and wealth has largely succeeded in aligning the foreign policies of its members. “Our biggest logistical exercise since the second world war was not military,” an official in one of the EU’s shiny, postmodern edifices boasted, “but the circulation of the euro currency in 2002.”
Europe has its own vision of what world order should look like, which it increasingly pursues whether America likes it or not. The EU is now the most confident economic power in the world, regularly punishing the United States in trade disputes, while its superior commercial and environmental standards have assumed global leadership. Many Europeans view America’s way of life as deeply corrupt, built on borrowed money, risky and heartless in its lack of social protections, and ecologically catastrophic. The EU is a far larger humanitarian aid donor than the US, while South America, east Asia and other regions prefer to emulate the “European Dream” than the American variant.
The US and the EU increasingly differ about both the means and ends of power as well. For many Europeans, the US-led war in Iraq validated their view that war is not an instrument of policy but a sign of its failure. The al-Qaida attacks on European soil served to heighten this disdain. It is often said that America and Europe make a strong team because America breaks and Europe fixes, but this cliche has long begun to grate on Europeans, who would rather spread their version of stability before America destabilises countries on its periphery, particularly in the Arab world.
As the most highly evolved form of interstate governance, the EU aggregates countries in a manner more resembling a corporate merger than a political conquest, with net gains in both trade and territory from north Africa to the Caucasus. In Europe’s capital, Brussels, technocrats, strategists and legislators increasingly see their role as being the global balancer between America and China. Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, a German member of the European parliament, calls it “European patriotism”. The Europeans play both sides, and if they do it well, they profit handsomely.
Robert Kagan famously said that America hails from Mars and Europe from Venus, but in reality, Europe is more like Mercury – carrying a big wallet. The EU’s market is the world’s largest, and European technologies more and more set the global standard. If America and China fight, the world’s money will be safely invested in European banks. Many Americans scoffed at the introduction of the euro, claiming it was an overreach that would bring the collapse of the European project. Yet today, Arabian Gulf oil exporters are diversifying their currency holdings into euros, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has proposed that Opec no longer price its oil in “worthless” dollars. With London taking over (again) as the world’s financial capital for stock listing, it’s no surprise that China’s new state investment fund is to locate its main western offices there instead of New York. Model Gisele Bundchen demands to be paid in euros, while rapper Jay-Z drowns in 500 euro notes in a recent video. American soft power seems on the wane even at home.
And Europe’s influence grows at America’s expense. While America fumbles at nation-building, Europe spends its money and political capital on locking peripheral countries into its orbit. Many of the foreign students shunned by the US after 9/11 are now in London and Berlin: twice as many Chinese study in Europe as in the US.
EU expansion is a gamble more expensive than America’s war in Iraq, but one that is actually paying off. “We purposely make the EU poorer each time we expand,” a Eurocrat from Lithuania explained in a Brussels pub crowded with multilingual Europhiles. “But the stability we spread can hardly be measured.” The EU spends over $10bn (£5.07bn) a year just to resurrect the physical infrastructure of its new east, accelerating its recovery from decades of communist negligence. This strategy, which lifted Ireland – the “sick man of Europe” a generation ago – and post-authoritarian Spain and Portugal, is now working its magic in the east. Rather than the decades many predicted it would take to catch up to the west, Hungary has already become the regional corporate off-shoring hub, with 80% of its production led by European multinationals and 80% of its exports going back to the EU.
EU expansion has become a virtuous circle of tapping new markets to decrease reliance on exports to the US – a crucial step in building an independent superpower. The fresh blood of the EU’s new members has generated a competitive federalism that boosts the European economy as a whole. The model of the Baltic countries – entrepreneurial freedom, open competition and flexible labour laws – has begun to seep back via central Europe into the laggards of western Europe.
The EU is easily the most popular and successful empire in history, for it does not dominate, it disciplines. The incentives of Europeanisation – subsidies from Brussels, unfettered mobility, and the adoption of the euro currency – are too great not to want. Brussels today rivals Washington with its swarms of lobbyists, including dozens of public relations outfits hired by Balkan and post-Soviet countries actively vying for EU admission. To qualify for accession, however, the still-ruined, post-communist countries must do more than just burnish their image. They have to follow concrete steps toward internalising EU laws and rules as called for in the New Neighbourhood Strategy, which locks together military, economic, and governance issues.
Europe’s growing diversity makes European-ness a gradually attainable ideal rather than a mythical Platonic form, transforming Europe’s identities from tribal to cosmopolitan. Even as some west Europeans fear the dilution of their elite brand, Europe’s evolution is giving the term European a positive meaning. Europe is already partially Islamic, with growing Muslim populations in Britain, France and Germany and almost 100 million Muslims from Albania, Bosnia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan in the European diplomatic and strategic space via the Council of Europe or Nato.
European has become an identity as strong (or as weak) as American or Chinese. As life imitates art, all countries participating in football’s European Championships and the Eurovision Song Contest consider themselves – and are increasingly considered – European. Most importantly, an entire post-cold war generation of students, called the Erasmus generation after the EU’s exchange programme, is transcending the national identities their elders fought to establish, all for the sake of European stability. These “post-national” European youth now travel virtually visa-free from Belfast to Baku, speak multiple languages, study in exchange programmes and vote in European parliamentary elections.
As with all empires, the EU rubber band will stretch until it no longer can, growing until it has fully replaced the dismantled Soviet Union across Europe’s east, creating a borderless and contiguous “Pax Europea” of about 35 countries, an imperial blanket covering close to 600 million people. But the Europeanisation of the L-shaped zone is far from complete. Balkan and Caucasus countries are still fragile post-conflict regions and have become a convenient crossroads for trafficking in weapons and women; Turkey has a mind of its own, and will not be easily subdued; and, of course, no country presents a bigger obstacle to Europe’s ambitions than Russia.