Europe's Power to Lead

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At last month's World Economic Forum in Davos, the buzz was about Asia's growing power. One Asian analyst argued that by 2050, there will be three world powers: the United States, China and India. He did not mention Europe, but underestimating Europe's power is a mistake.

Yes, Europe currently punches below its weight. It is fragmented, peaceful and normative in a world of hard power, but part of the world is not about military power. The use of force among advanced industrial democracies is virtually unthinkable. In their relations with each other, such countries are all from Venus, to paraphrase U.S. political commentator Robert Kagan, and here Europe's focus on law and institutions is an asset.

A recent Pew poll found that many Europeans would like Europe to play a larger role in other parts of the world. To balance U.S. military power, however, would require a doubling or tripling of defense spending, and few Europeans are interested in such an increase. Nevertheless, a smart strategy for Europe will require greater investments in hard power.

The picture for Europe, however, is not as bleak as pessimists assume. Power is the ability to get the outcomes one wants, and the resources that produce such behavior depend upon the context. In functional terms, power is distributed like a three-dimensional chess game. On the top board are military relations among states, with the United States the world's only superpower with global reach. Here the world is unipolar.

On the middle board are economic relations, where the world is already multipolar. Here, Europe acts as a union, and other countries like Japan and China play big roles. The United States cannot reach a trade agreement or settle antitrust cases without the approval of the European Union. Or, to take another example, Europe was able to lead the drive to remove Paul Wolfowitz from the World Bank.

The bottom chessboard includes transnational relations outside the control of governments -- everything from drugs to infectious diseases to climate change to terrorism. On this board, power is chaotically distributed among nonstate actors, and it makes no sense to call this world either unipolar or multipolar.

Here, close civilian cooperation is important, for which Europe is well endowed. European countries' success in overcoming centuries of animosity, and the development of a large internal market, has given them a great deal of soft power. At the Cold War's end, East European countries did not try to form local alliances, as they did in the 1920s, but looked toward Brussels to secure their future. Similarly, countries like Turkey and Ukraine have adjusted their policies in response to their attraction to Europe.

Recently, the U.S. National Intelligence Council published four widely different scenarios for the world in 2020: Davos World, in which economic globalization continues but with a more Asian face; Pax Americana, where the United States continues to dominate the global order; New Caliphate, where Islamic religious identity challenges the dominance of Western norms; and Cycle of Fear, in which nonstate forces create shocks to security that produce Orwellian societies. Like any exercise in futurology, such scenarios have their limits, but they help us ask which three or four major political factors will help shape the outcome.

The first is the rise of Asia. The big question will be China and its internal evolution. China has lifted 400 million people out of poverty since 1990, but another 400 million still live on less than $2 per day. Unlike India, China has not solved the problem of political participation. If China replaces its eroded communism with nationalism to ensure social cohesion, the result could be a more aggressive foreign policy and unwillingness to deal with issues like climate change. Or it may deal with its problems and become a "responsible stakeholder" in world politics.

Europe can contribute significantly to China's integration into global norms and institutions. In general, Europe and the United States have more to fear from a weak China than they do from a wealthy China.

Political Islam and how it develops will be the second factor. The struggle against extreme Islamist terrorism is not a "clash of civilizations" but a civil war within Islam. A radical minority is using violence to impose a simplified and ideological version on a mainstream with more diverse views.

While the largest number of Muslims live in Asia, they are influenced by the heart of this struggle in the Middle East, an area that has lagged behind the rest of the world in globalization, openness, institutions and democratization. Here, Europe's economic might and soft power have a lot to contribute. More open trade, economic growth, education, development of civil society institutions and gradual increases in political participation may help strengthen the mainstream over time, as could the way Muslims are treated in Europe and the United States. Equally important will be whether Western policies toward the Middle East satisfy mainstream Muslims or reinforce the radicals' narrative of a war against Islam.

The third major determinant of which scenario will prevail will be U.S. power and how it is used. The United States will remain the most powerful country in 2020, but, paradoxically, the strongest state since the days of Rome will be unable to protect its citizens acting alone.

U.S. military might is not adequate to deal with threats such as global pandemics, climate change, terrorism and international crime. These issues require cooperation in the provision of global public good and in the soft-power technique of attracting support. No part of the world shares more values or has a greater capacity to influence U.S. attitudes and power than Europe. This suggests that the fourth political determinant of the future will be the evolution of European policies and power.

Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard University and the author of "The Powers to Lead." © Project Syndicate.