Europe as Middle Power

Georges-Henri Soutou

If we don’t want the continent to turn into a playground for foreign powers, Europe must develop ambitious alliances and become the  third world pole – but it will take patience.

A perspective by Georges-Henri Soutou.

As early as 2013, the European Council had adopted the concept of “strategic autonomy”, taken up by President Macron when he came to power, and which he even later extended to “European sovereignty”, during his speech at the École de Guerre on February 7, 2020: “Europe alone can ensure real sovereignty, that is to say our ability to exist in today’s world to defend our values and our interests”. There is a European sovereignty to build and there is the need to build it. And again, during the press conference on December 9, 2021: “A more sovereign Europe is a Europe of defense. Since 2017, considerable progress has been made. We must enter a more operational phase by defining European interests and a shared strategy”. In their Declaration of Versailles in March 2022, the Twenty-Seven affirmed their desire to build “European sovereignty” in the fields of defense, energy and the economy.

At the level of the speech in any case, it was a unanimous language, corresponding moreover to the program of the new German government, formed at the end of 2021: “A European Union strengthened on the democratic level, more capable of acting and strategically sovereign, will be the basis of our peace, prosperity and freedom”.

The declarations of the President of the Republic on April 9, according to which Europe had no interest in the aggravation of the crisis around Taiwan and should establish its “strategic autonomy” in order to become a “third pole” between the China and the United States, however, caused a transatlantic and intra-European outcry. However, Paris is not as isolated as one would like to say: Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, expressed the same opinion, moreover shared by many officials throughout the Union. The real problem is the meaning given to these notions of autonomy or sovereignty, and the objectives assigned to them.

A semantic-historical difficulty

It must be clearly understood that “strategic autonomy” or “European sovereignty” are nuances that escape our partners. For them it is not different, even if for the French autonomy seems to be a less demanding concept than that of sovereignty. On the other hand, this question is charged with a long history, which does not make things any easier.

On April 20, 2021, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, then Minister of Defense, said that the real problem was that France and Germany did not understand the notion of strategic autonomy in the same way. This remark goes to the heart of things, since the beginning of the Fifth Republic, that is to say since the meeting between Adenauer and de Gaulle in Rambouillet in July 1960 and the project of a “political Union” of the Six in 1962. In the mind of the General, it would have been allied to the United States, but independent of them. Chancellor Adenauer, worried about a possible American-Soviet negotiation over the heads of the Europeans and the FRG, rallied to this conception and Bonn supported, until its failure in April 1962, the project of an Interstate Political Union, with a foreign policy and defense component, commonly known as the “Fouchet Plan”.

But Bonn, like the other partners, had taken great care to ensure that the Fouchet Plan did mention the Atlantic Alliance. It was the modification on this point of the initial project, by General de Gaulle very personally, on January 17, 1962, which in the final analysis led to its failure in April 1962. The FRG could not allow itself to call into question the integration within NATO, while the General made this questioning one of the major goals of his policy of national and European independence.

Admittedly, the Elysée Treaty of January 22, 1963, with its important strategic component, seemed to take up the 1962 Six-Countries Project, but limited now to Germany and France. But many German officials suspected French ulterior motives and the Bundestag added a preamble to the treaty which emptied it of its strategic meaning by mentioning the Atlantic Alliance. For the Germans, in fact, only European autonomy within the Alliance is possible, certainly not outside it, because how can we risk weakening the Atlantic Alliance? Knowing also that autonomy is a concept more familiar to the Germans, with a confederal or federal history, than to the French, who have always been centralizers. As soon as the Germans suspect French ulterior motives, they still prefer Bonn to return to Atlantic integration pure and simple. And the Germans have always remained suspicious, even if the French rhetoric has shifted from independence to autonomy. The other European partners are generally on the same position, or even more Atlanticist. For them too, the legacy of this history weighs heavily. In the politico-strategic field, the French would do well to draw inspiration from the well-known German formula: “to be, more than to appear”.

The strategic problems of the European Union

However, a priori positions do not replace strategic analysis. The European Union is currently experiencing two major problems at the same time: Russian aggression in Ukraine and the worsening of the rivalry between Washington and Beijing. The first sees the return of war to Europe for the first time since 1945, with considerable potential for escalation; the second compromises European interests and positions in the Asia-Pacific zone. While Europe finds itself in a weak position, due to its economic problems and the cost of its various transitions – climatic, demographic, etc. — and the lack of a real politico-strategic decision-making body and the corresponding means of power. It notably lost access to Russian energy sources — in 2018, on all energy imports to the countries of the Union, 40.4% of gas, 29.8% of oil and 42.4% of solid fuels were of Russian origin — and it is now being asked to risk compromising its trade with China: in 2022 China was Germany’s largest supplier, for 191 billion euros, and its fourth customer, for 107 billion.

We can obviously imagine a reorganization of the trade currents concerned, but for the moment only two things are certain: it will be more expensive, and the United States will fare much better, even increasing Europe’s dependence on them.

On the other hand, the crisis is here to stay: a defeat for Russia is far from certain, its victory on the ground cannot be ruled out, and in any case the arrival in Moscow of a power more open to dialogue with the West is, for the time being, a dream. The Europeans must therefore prepare for a major and long-term confrontation.

New Cold War or New Atlanticism?

A first response would be — and for many of our partners this is already the case — a strengthened or renewed Atlanticism. This could respond to the fashionable slogan of “uniting Western democracies against autocracies”. Some consider that we must assume this new Cold War, and plead for the rapid accession of Ukraine and Georgia, and for the transformation of the Black Sea into a NATO lake. Some even imagine bringing about the fall of Putin, or even the break-up of the Russian Federation. After all, NATO is in a state of near co-belligerence with Ukraine, with significant arms deliveries and even with Western special forces present on the ground.

To be sure, there are aspects of the current situation that are reminiscent of the Cold War – although in a sense the situation is much worse. The USSR was more predictable, its policy, inspired both by a clearly proclaimed ideology and by geopolitical considerations that the contemplation of a map made it possible to imagine, could not reserve strategic surprises, at most tactical. On the other hand, despite dangerous adventures – blockade of Berlin, Korean War, installation of missiles in Cuba – it always kept a way out: since the ultimate victory of communism was “scientifically” certain, why run the risk of a disaster? However, because of the disappearance of revolutionary eschatology and the transformation of Russia into a less predictable “classic” dictatorship, the current situation carries considerable risks of escalation – geographically or in the choice of military means used. Especially since Westerners often know less about the functioning of present-day Russia than about that of the USSR, at least from the 1970s.

Let us add an essential point of difference with the Cold War: Russia only intervened directly militarily in the countries of the Warsaw Pact, in its “zone of influence” recognized in fact since 1945, and being able to cover itself with so-called “appeals” from the leaders of the countries concerned—East Berlin in 1953, Budapest in 1956, Prague in 1968. Elsewhere, it certainly relied on allies—North Koreans, Chinese, etc. — but did not engage directly, at least officially. The war in Afghanistan was an exception here. For their part, the Westerners did not intervene directly against the Soviets either, the American guarantee was firm only for the countries of the Atlantic Pact, elsewhere it was circumstantial —  such as Vietnam — and their intervention or threat of intervention stemmed directly from their major interests, as was the case during the Cuban crisis in 1962.

Direct military confrontation was therefore avoided: in Afghanistan the West helped the Afghans against the Red Army, but in a clandestine manner. With the Ukrainian case, we have both the invasion of a country that did not have a security link with Russia, and proclaimed Western aid, on the verge of de facto co-belligerence. We have never been so close to the risk of direct military confrontation since the Cuban crisis in 1962. Here too, the situation can be considered more serious, or at least more unstable than during the Cold War. Especially since after the serious crises of the Berlin Wall (1961) and Cuba, Americans and Soviets, aware of the speed and seriousness of the risk of nuclear escalation, had set up a system of rapid and a whole grammar of confrontation management, which no longer exists today.

On the other hand, China has become a tougher problem in recent years. Since the revolution introduced by President Deng Xiaoping in 1978, she had sought her insertion into the world economy, which helped to launch a new phase of liberal globalization from the 1980s. In 2001 she joined the World Organization trade (WTO). At the same time, it adopted a generally cooperative policy towards the United States.

Things have completely changed since then. President Xi Jinping has decided on a general reorientation of Chinese policy, whose economy should be made less dependent on the world economy. At the same time, he called for an alternative model to the Western model, while steadily increasing cooperation with Moscow in all areas. The war in Ukraine has considerably reinforced this orientation towards the affirmation of a counter-model, in the two capitals.

It will be recalled that the United States, from the 1970s, had devoted a lot of effort to separating Beijing from Moscow – starting with President Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972, they had even succeeded in doing so. But today, it is the opposite: their policy pushes Moscow and Beijing to get closer, while China has become powerful, and even indispensable to the world economy. At the same time, the West is relatively less powerful and obviously less dominant—one might even say: less indispensable in the new world.

In fact, the United States is hesitant: Donald Trump’s policy, both with regard to Moscow and Beijing, was very different from the current one, and a return to power of the Republicans could lead to new orientations. Washington is caught between multiple commitments and priorities that are difficult to prioritize, while the “bipartisanship” that characterized American policy during the Cold War is well and truly over. Indeed, in June 1948, the Republican Senator Vandenberg had passed a resolution, which bears his name, authorizing the Democratic President Truman to conclude military alliances to fight against Soviet Communism. From then on, foreign policy had been supported for the most part by both parties, despite their deep divisions in domestic policy. Today, we are far from bipartisanship. And he will not return, because of the deep divisions of American society, very different from the one of the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s. The major interest of the West would appear to be not to further solidify the Russia-China relationship and not to let them attract to them countries like India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, South Africa. It should be noted that in recent weeks, both Brazil and Saudi Arabia have agreed to denominate their trade with China in yuan, and no longer in dollars.

A “coalition of the motivated”?

Some are aware of this danger but would like to respond to it in an offensive way. Hence a variant of Atlanticism, which moreover existed at different times after 1945: the Europeans would contain the USSR, with more or less distant support from Washington, which would focus primarily on Asia. This tendency was evident during the Korean War, during the Vietnam War, and even at times under the Reagan presidency. It was rediscovered after 2001, but this time actually achieved, when the United States, faced with the reluctance of many Europeans, proposed a “coalition of the willing”, outside of NATO, to confront Saddam Hussein.

However, this variant came back in force during the war in Ukraine: some imagined a regional pact uniting in particular the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania, with the support of Great Britain and the United States3. This pact It would obviously be a more rigorous casus foederis than Article 5 of the Atlantic Pact, and would be a guarantee against the obvious hesitations of the countries of Western Europe. The European countries most opposed to Russia and the most Atlanticist would hold the front against Moscow, while the United States would “pivot” towards China.

This formula is obviously full of meaning for the countries concerned, Ukraine’s strongest supporters, because it corresponds to very obvious current trends and it is not new: already in the 1930s many Polish officials proposed this agreement regional to counter the USSR, an alliance then called “Intermarium”, which also recalls the greatest extension of the Polish state in the 17th century, from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Historical evocation that would probably do nothing to calm Moscow… But this second formula suits Europeans even less than the first, that of classical Atlanticism, because it divides them between the East and the West of the Continent. And it does not respond any more than Atlantic orthodoxy to the problems of our time, which are not solely linked to Russian policy: the American uncertainties, now structural, the problems of economic restructuring that we must face, and the evolution of our public opinions, for which, in many countries, the consensus around the liberal and Western model of the 1990s is strongly questioned. On the other hand, if we want to save Western ties in the long term, it cannot be in dependence and clientelism.

A return of the neutralist temptation?

The danger is precisely to see the rebirth, in reaction, of “neutralist” tendencies. These trends are not really new in Europe. Some recommended this or that form of neutralism as early as the 1950s. At the time of the so-called « European Defense Community Quarrel », French public opinion wished the convening of a last-chance conference with the

 USSR before definitively ratifying the European Defense Community negotiated since 1951 and the German rearmament that it entailed. It hoped that an agreement with Moscow on Germany and security in Europe would make it possible to avoid this. In “progressive” circles, which were situated between the Communists and the Socialists, they went so far as to evoke the setting up of a new European security system bringing together all the countries of the continent and guaranteed jointly by the United States and the USSR, a system which would of course have ruled out the prospect of German rearmament but which would also have dealt a mortal blow to the Atlantic Alliance4.

Another theme of the 1950s: “disengagement”. In May 1957, in a series of lectures at the BBC which had a great echo, George Kennan, despite the fact that in 1946 he had invented the doctrine of “containment” against Moscow, declared himself in favor of the creation of a denuclearized zone in Central Europe, which would be the first step towards a military disengagement of the great powers in this region and towards its neutralization. This, he said, would have made German reunification possible, with the balance maintained by the joint guarantee that the United States and the USSR would bring to the process. Finally, this, according to Kennan, should have allowed Eastern Europe, thanks to the easing of East-West tensions, to regain greater freedom5. In 1957 Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labor Party, proposed a plan very similar to that of Kennan6. We will also recall, if not the Ostpolitik launched by Willy Brandt in 1969, at least certainly its neutralist drift at the time of  the “Euromissile quarrel” in 1978-19827.

But it should be noted that these illusory conceptions have always been overtaken by events — crises in Berlin, Cuba, Prague in 1968, the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979… — and that it is not these tendencies, and in particular the various agreements linked to Ostpolitik, which brought about the end of the Cold War, but rather the systemic crisis of the Soviet bloc and renewed Western firmness from the 1980s onwards — firmness based on Western superiority in all areas, which is no longer the case today. Without forgetting an intelligent Western policy towards the Soviet world.

A two-pillar alliance or Europe as a third pole?

A more demanding but more effective solution would consist in organizing a real European pillar within the Atlantic Alliance, or even in making Europe a third world pole. This would give it a real international role, to increase the overall deterrent force of the West with the help of the United States but at the same time not to stay mired in  a series of confrontations that the West could well lose, from the Middle East to Africa and not to miss an opportunity to create a real European personality. In particular, Europe has no interest in being confronted by both Russia and China, nor in holding the fort against Russia while the United States concentrates its energies against China.

This would of course entail considerable efforts: Europe must have an armaments policy, its own intelligence and assessment means, sufficient energy, technical and economic independence — without going so far as to seek an illusory autarky8 — and autonomous strategic thinking bodies. An autonomous strategic Europe would obviously remain closely allied with the United States, Great Britain and Canada within the Atlantic Alliance. But it should have the capacity for autonomous strategic decision-making, with its own intelligence resources, its own arms industry, its forces, its own chain of command. The so-called “Berlin plus” agreements concluded at the Alliance summit in Washington in 1999 to regulate relations between NATO and the defense aspect of the European Union are a starting point, but their application has been regularly blocked by Turkey. We must get out of this impasse: we cannot ask Europeans to contribute more to their defense – rightly so – and at the same time refuse the European Union to develop its defense personality, in accordance with the Treaty of Lisbon. This would be the only way to allow the Union to really weigh in on the very dangerous crisis triangle that has formed between Moscow, Beijing and Washington and to favor as far as possible, as a “power in the middle”, reasonable solutions. Otherwise, it is the Europeans who will ultimately bear the brunt of this situation.

At the same time, we must think about the long term, and lay the foundations for the reintegration of Russia and the complete insertion of China into the international system. After all, this is what happened during the Cold War with the “Helsinki process”, initiated from 1973, marked by the Declaration of Helsinki in 1975, the creation of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe the same year, the CSCE becoming a permanent body in 1990 (OSCE). All of this bringing together the countries of NATO — and therefore also the United States and Canada — and those of the Warsaw Pact, and therefore not posing the same problems for our partners as European security systems that do not include the North America like General de Gaulle, or François Mitterrand in 1990, had thought about it at times. At the start, the United States were not very enthusiastic: they ended up following the Europeans and we now recognize that this process facilitated the exit from the Cold War9.

The OSCE has certainly been dormant since the invasion of Ukraine, but it could have a role to play at some point, when emerging from the current crisis. It is a forum that exists, and from which the Russians have made it known that they do not want to be excluded. Perhaps they will one day wish not to become more and more dependent on China, and to reopen a channel of negotiation towards the West? Conversely, forums like the G 20 on an enlarged G 7 could help reestablish between China and the West a dialogue, by leading China  not to limit itself to “Indo-Pacific” regional agreements, which is its current tendency. Of course it will take patience, but in the long run this seems the best way possible. Otherwise, there is a risk that in the future European leaders and their opinions will become even more divided, and that some will take refuge in the forms of isolationism or neutralism that have often surfaced since the 1950s. Europe would then run the risk of becoming a playground for all kinds of Russian, Chinese or Middle Eastern interference – political, economic, financial.


  1. Liveblog de la Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung du 12 avril 2023. Serge Sur, « Belligérance et cobelligérance », Revue de Défense nationale, février 2023.
  2. Cf. le Cahier n° 134 (mars 2021) de la Fondation Res Publica, « États-Unis : crise de la démocratie et avenir du leadership américain ».
  3. Andrew A. Michta, « UkraineWar Is A GameChanger : America Must Support The ‘Intermarium’ Region », 2 février 2023, 19FortyFive.
  4. Cf. par exemple des articles de Claude Bourdet en février 1954 dans le Nouvel Observateur, hebdomadaire fondé en 1950 pour défendre les idées neutralistes. Cf. Georges-Henri Soutou, La Guerre froide de la France, Texto, 2023.
  5. Walter L. Hixson, George F. Kennan Cold War Iconoclast, Columbia UP, 1989, pp. 144 ss.
  6. Georges-Henri Soutou, La Guerre froide 1943-1990, Pluriel, 2011.
  7. Pour comprendre à quel point ces orientations des années 1970-1980 pèsent en Allemagne aujourd’hui, cf. Reinhard Bingener, Markus Wehner , Die Moskau-Connection. Das Schröder-Netzwerk und Deutschlands Weg in die Abhängigkeit, C.H.Beck, 2023.
  8. Yves Bertoncini, Relocaliser en France avec l’Europe, Fondation pour l’innovation politique, 2020.
  9. Veronika Heyde, Frankreich im KSZE Prozess. Diplomatie im Namen der europäischen Sicherheit 1969-1983, Oldenbourg, De Gruyter, 2016. Voir aussi : Nicolas Badalassi, En finir avec la guerre froide. La France, l’Europe et le processus d’Helsinki, 1965-1975, Rennes, PUR, 2014.


© David Row, Navigator, 2018 © Two Palms Gallery NY et David Row