David Miliband says ‘no’ to a European superpower

When a friend sent me a link to this article in The Guardian yesterday morning, I must confess that I got very excited. The newspaper reported that David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, was to present a speech at the College of Europe in Bruges, outlining the need for the European Union to develop the full spectrum of military capabilities to intervene in foreign conflicts as and when necessity dictated. Speaking of Mr. Miliband’s proposed arguments, The Guardian put it like this:

In a speech setting out the direction of Europe over the next two decades, he will warn the EU faces “a fork in the road”, and risks falling back into an age of disorder if it makes the wrong choices, including rejecting the use of hard military power…He will also make a strong case in favour of the EU retaining support for the principle of hard power, through the use of economic influence and military intervention abroad.

For anyone not yet aware, ‘hard power’ is the capacity to coerce and threaten, literally to impose one’s will on others. It is the opposite of ‘soft power’, which is the ability to attract other societies or people to one’s cause without needing to force anyone into doing anything. For example, ‘hard power’ can include airstrikes, military intervention, economic sanctions and diplomatic coercion, whereas ‘soft power’ includes the ability to woo people with culture, financial inducements and diplomatic recognition. Both concepts were developed by the American political scholar, Joseph Nye, in his books Bound to Lead, The Paradox of American Power and Soft Power. Unfortunately, many politicians and scholars—who should know better—often now use the terms altogether too frequently, sometimes in the wrong context, or simply inappropriately.

Having now read Mr. Miliband’s speech, this criticism cannot be applied to him; like Tony Blair, the former prime minister, the foreign secretary seems to have a good grasp of when either term should or can be applied. Other than getting the differences between the two alleged forms of power right, Mr. Miliband also made a number of timely and useful contributions to the ongoing debate over the shape of British and European Union foreign policy in the twenty-first century. As he put it:

My argument is this:

The prospects and potential for human progress have never been greater. But our prosperity and security are under threat. Protectionism seeks to stave off globalisation rather than manage it. Religious extremists peddle hatred and division. Energy insecurity and climate change threaten to create a scramble for resources. And rogue states and failing states risk sparking conflicts, the damage of which will spill over into Europe.


These threats provide a new raison d’être for the European Union. New because the unfinished business of internal reform to update our economic and social model is on its own not enough to engage with the big issues, nor the hopes and fears, of European citizens. For the EU because nation-states, for all their continuing strengths, are too small to deal on their own with these big problems, but global governance is too weak. So the EU can be a pioneer and a leader. Our single market and the standards we set for it, the attractions of membership, and the legitimacy, diversity and political clout of twenty-seven member states are big advantages. The EU will never be a superpower, but could be a model power of regional cooperation.

For success, the EU must be open to ideas, trade and people. It must build shared institutions and shared activities with its neighbours. It must be an Environmental Union as well as a European Union. And it must be able to deploy soft and hard power to promote democracy and tackle conflict beyond its borders. As Gordon Brown said on Monday there is no longer a distinction between ‘over there’ and ‘over here’.

So there we have it: The threats brought about by globalisation—that is, the compression of space and time, and at an increasing tempo—have introduced a new set of dynamics for all of us to deal with. Such dynamics include processes of migration, Islamist terrorism and organised crime, and so on. Others, which were alluded to in latter parts of his speech, included the rise of China and India, as well as the aggressiveness of a resurgent Russia, and the challenges these three countries might pose to we Europeans by 2030. In order to address such threats, the British foreign secretary argued that the European Union should take a far larger role in preventative intervention and the enhancement of our armed forces:

European Member States must improve their capabilities. It’s embarrassing that when European nations—with almost two million men and women under arms—are only able, at a stretch, to deploy around one-hundred thousand at any one time. EU countries have around 1,200 transport helicopters, yet only about thirty-five are deployed in Afghanistan. And EU Member States haven’t provided any helicopters in Darfur despite the desperate need there.

European nations need to identify the challenges we face; the capabilities we consequently need; then identify targets for national investment in equipment, research, development, and training necessary to make more of our armed forces; work together for efficiency; and back it up with political drive…

Perhaps conceding some of the mistakes made after the Iraq War, Mr. Miliband went on:

As the prime minister set out earlier this week, military forces should be deployed on peacekeeping duties with civilian crisis management experts as an integral part of the operation. There is limited value in securing a town if law and order breaks down as soon as the troops move on. There is limited gain in detaining terrorists and criminals if there is no courthouse to try them in or jailhouse to hold them in. Security without development will soon alienate local populations. Development without security is impossible. They are two sides of the same coin.

Finally, the foreign secretary said that we Europeans must not react to events, but actively seek to shape them:

We must use our power and influence, not just to resolve conflict, but prevent it. We must show we are prepared to take a lead and fulfil our responsibilities.

And yet, alongside the productive arguments made by Mr. Miliband, one stands out like the sharpest of thorns. This was his assertion that the European Union shall never become a superpower. This is surprising, for it actively moves against the statements of Tony Blair, who said that the European Union should become a superpower, if not a superstate. To some extent, it also contradicts the speeches made by the European Union’s foreign policy High Representative, Javier Solana, who has continued to argue—at times quite insistently—that the European Union has got to become a fully-fledged global power if it is to make real on its foreign policy desires and commitments. Many other European leaders have also stated that they want the European Union to be able to project power in order to defend and extend European values and interests. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, can certainly be counted among their ranks; he has already claimed that European military integration will be one of his most important priorities once France assumes the role of the presidency of the Council of the European Union next year. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that any single European Union Member State, even Britain or France, will have the aggregated weight and authority to deal as equals with the potential great powers of tomorrow—which Mr. Miliband alluded to himself.

Instead of a superpower in its own right, the foreign secretary seems to advocate that the European Union become some form of ‘model power of regional cooperation’. Perhaps this is just a bit of dumbed-down and unthreatening rhetoric, designed to placate the rabidly Eurosceptic media in the United Kingdom. Or perhaps there is something more to it. Indeed, if this were the case, the idea of Europe becoming a model for the rest of the world to follow chimes nicely with an ongoing academic debate, instigated in part by Professor Ian Manners, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies. He suggests that the European Union is a ‘normative power’, which uses the examples it sets for itself as a means to encourage other countries into accepting its ways. Prof. Manners looks specifically at Brussels’ numerous attempts to get capital punishment abolished in foreign lands, using diplomatic pressure and economic inducements. Of course, we should all applaud the spread of European values, for they are certainly more advanced and enlightened than practically anything else on offer. But it is simply insufficient for us to rely on our values to uphold our position of power and authority—let alone our security—in the wider world, particularly if potentially hostile regimes emerge on our borders, or even in other continents where we have extensive commercial and geopolitical interests.

So it is not possible for a political community the size of the European Union to remain only a ‘model’ or ‘normative’ power. As David Miliband himself argued, our interests are truly global in scope; events in the most far-away lands will eventually have some kind of impact at home, whether it be from chaos in certain provinces in Afghanistan, government corruption in Africa or South America, or the build-up of Chinese naval ambitions around South East Asia and the Strait of Malacca—through which one quarter of European maritime trade flows. This means that it is impractical for the European Union not to also evolve into a global power, for failure to do so will lead to our eclipse, and our reduction into a weak and divided power in the wider world. The corollary of this is that our values and normative desires will count for less, and we shall lose the ability to enforce them or to encourage their adoption. After all, there is nothing incompatible between ‘model’ or ‘normative’ and superpower status; indeed, it could be said that each depends on the other, in a fundamentally reciprocal relationship.

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