A European Union flag at an anti-war rally in Prague.Eva Korinkova/Reuters
Accustomed to peace
Europe’s assertive response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has presented a possibility that was hard to imagine a month ago: the European Union as a superpower that can alter the global order, promoting liberal democratic values worldwide.
Before the war, the E.U. focused largely on economic growth. It resisted calls, particularly from the U.S., to increase its military spending and become more self-sufficient at defending Europe.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion drove European countries to be more aggressive. They imposed tough sanctions, helping to cripple Russia’s economy, and are working to cut off trade from Russia. They have sent weapons and other aid to Ukraine. Several moved to increase military spending, and E.U. leaders met in France over the past few days to coordinate their efforts. The leaders of France and Germany pressed Putin yesterday in a phone call to agree to a cease-fire.
Europe’s new commitments could help counter the global democratic backslide of the past 15 or so years. Democracies’ failure to stand up for themselves partly enabled that shift. But a tougher Europe, as well as other countries’ fierce response to Russia’s invasion, shows that democracies are still willing to wield power to counter autocratic governments.
“Democratic nations and people are sending a united message to Putin that democracy matters, and authoritarians cannot act with impunity, and that’s powerful,” said Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, which tracks the state of democracy around the world.
The E.U. is often fractious, made up of nations and ethnic groups that warred with each other for centuries and have different, sometimes competing interests and values. Britain’s vote in 2016 to leave the union shows how far such divisions can go.
But the E.U. has moved in a more united direction over time. Though it is not a single country, in many ways it acts like one. What began as a loose organization of six nations now includes most of the continent’s population, with 27 countries as members. Most share a currency and open their borders to each other, and they all send representatives to legislative, executive and judicial branches with powers across all aspects of European life.
The E.U.’s response to Russia’s invasion was another unifying step — one that could push Europe from its passive role to an influential democratic force around the world.
A sleeping Europe
Europe’s previous inaction is rooted in World War II. After the atrocities of war and the Holocaust, Germany leaned toward pacifism, refusing to build up its military or ship its weapons to conflict zones. As the E.U.’s most populous and wealthiest member, its approach had a large impact on the continent.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine suddenly forced the continent’s leaders to confront the prospect that their stance was failing one of the foundational goals of the E.U.: to prevent war in Europe. In what sounds like a paradox, the E.U. might need greater military power to deter more war.
“Peace was taken for granted,” Jana Puglierin, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me. That’s no longer the case, she added.
Germany moved within days of the invasion to spend more to rebuild its military. Others made similar commitments, including Austria, Denmark and Sweden this past week. More E.U. and NATO members are likely to follow, experts said.
British Marines training.Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images
Over the longer run, a revitalized Europe could help renew a wounded global order led by a democratic West.
One way this could play out is through Europe more aggressively protecting itself. That could help free up American resources now devoted to European security, which would in turn allow the U.S. to embark on a long-promised refocus on Asia to help counter China. (White House officials say the war has already persuaded some Asian governments to work more closely with the West to defend democracy, my colleagues Michael Crowley and Edward Wong reported.)
As the world’s second-largest economy, Europe could also leverage its wealth to counter threats to itself or to democracy abroad — with sanctions, financial investments and trade policy.
The E.U. has played a role in expanding a global democratic order before. After the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991, the E.U.’s embrace of Eastern European countries empowered new democracies, from Bulgaria to Lithuania. That “was one of the biggest democracy-promotion projects in recent history,” Timothy Garton Ash, a historian at the University of Oxford, told me.
The future is not as simple as a new Cold War between democracies and autocracies. India, the world’s most populous democracy, is friendly with Russia and has refused to condemn Putin’s war in Ukraine. The U.S. is dealing with its own illiberal movement. Inside Europe, democratic institutions have deteriorated in Poland and more severely in Hungary. “There are serious internal problems within Europe,” said Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst at the Eurasia Group.
A big unanswered question remains: Will Europe’s new assertiveness last? Europeans are facing a refugee crisis and rising food and gas prices as a result of the war and the sanctions imposed on Russia. That could fuel a backlash against politicians who have aggressively backed Ukraine — and cut short the path that Europe is on now.