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Postimperial Empire | Foreign Affairs

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History loves unintended consequences. The latest example is particularly ironic: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to restore the Russian empire by recolonizing Ukraine has opened the door to a postimperial Europe. A Europe, that is, that no longer has any empires dominated by a single people or nation, either on land or across the seas—a situation the continent has never seen before.

Paradoxically, however, to secure this postimperial future and stand up to Russian aggression, the EU must itself take on some of the characteristics of an empire. It must have a sufficient degree of unity, central authority, and effective decision-making to defend the shared interests and values of Europeans. If every single member state has a veto over vital decisions, the union will falter, internally and externally.

Europeans are unaccustomed to looking at themselves through the lens of empire, but doing so can offer an illuminating and disturbing perspective. In fact, the EU itself has a colonial past. As the Swedish scholars Peo Hansen and Stefan Jonsson have documented, in the 1950s the original architects of what would eventually become the EU regarded member states’ African colonies as an integral part of the European project. Even as European countries prosecuted often brutal wars to defend their colonies, officials spoke glowingly of “Eurafrica,” treating the overseas possessions of countries such as France as belonging to the new European Economic Community. Portugal fought to retain control of Angola and Mozambique into the early 1970s.

The lens of empire is even more revealing when one peers through it at the large part of Europe that, during the Cold War, was behind the Iron Curtain under Soviet or Yugoslav communist rule. The Soviet Union was a continuation of the Russian empire, even though many of its leaders were not ethnic Russians. During and after World War II, it incorporated countries and territories (including the Baltic states and western Ukraine) that had not been part of the Soviet Union before 1939. At the same time, it extended its effective empire to the very center of Europe, including much of what had historically been known as central Germany, restyled as East Germany.

There was, in other words, an inner and an outer Russian empire. The key to understanding both Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the 1980s was to recognize that this was indeed an empire—and an empire in decay. Decolonization of the outer empire followed in uniquely swift and peaceful fashion in 1989 and 1990, but then, even more remarkably, came the disintegration of the inner empire in 1991. This was prompted, as is often the case, by disorder in the imperial center. More unusually, the final blow was delivered by the core imperial nation: Russia. Today, however, Russia is straining to regain control over some of the lands it gave up, thrusting toward the new eastern borders of the West.

GHOSTS OF EMPIRES PAST

Anyone who has studied the history of empires should have known that the collapse of the Soviet Union would not be the end of the story. Empires usually do not give up without a struggle, as the British, French, Portuguese, and “Eurafricanists” demonstrated after 1945. In one small corner, the Russian empire struck back rather quickly. In 1992, General Alexander Lebed used Russia’s 14th Armed Guards to end a war between separatists from the region of the newly independent state of Moldova that lies east of the river Dniester and legitimate Moldovan forces. The result was what is still the illegal para-state of Transnistria at the eastern end of Moldova, critically located on the frontier to Ukraine. In the 1990s, Russia also fought two brutal wars to retain control of Chechnya, and it actively supported separatists in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia.

Yet as Moscow sought to claw back some of its lost colonial territories, the EU was preoccupied with two completions of Europe’s characteristic twentieth-century transition from empires to states. The violent disintegration of Yugoslavia and the peaceful divorce of the Czech and Slovak parts of Czechoslovakia drew renewed attention to the legacies of, respectively, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, which had been formally dissolved at the end of World War I. But there was nothing inevitable about the breakup of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Postimperial multinational states do not have to disintegrate into nation-states, and it is not necessarily the best thing for the people who live there if they do. Yet it is simply an empirical observation that this is the way recent European history has tended to go. Hence today’s intricate patchwork of 24 individual states in Europe east of what used to be the Iron Curtain (and north of Greece and Turkey), whereas in 1989, there were just nine.

Russia’s larger neocolonial pushback began with Putin declaring a course of confrontation with the West at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, where he denounced the U.S.-led unipolar order. This was followed by his armed seizure of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia in 2008. It escalated with the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014, beginning a Russo-Ukrainian war that, as Ukrainians frequently remind the West, has been going on for nine years. To adapt a telling phrase of the historian A. J. P. Taylor, 2014 was the turning point at which the West failed to turn. One can never know what might have happened if the West had reacted more forcefully then, by reducing its energy dependence on Russia, stopping the flow of dirty Russian money swilling around the West, supplying more arms to Ukraine, and issuing a more forceful message to Moscow. But there is little doubt that such a course would have put both Ukraine and the West in a different and better position in 2022.

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Civilians watching a Russian military convoy, Zugdidi, Georgia, August 2008

Umit Bektas / Reuters

Even as Russia pushed back, the West faltered. The year 2008 marked the beginning of a pause in what had been a remarkable 35-year story of the enlargement of the geopolitical West. In 1972, the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the EU, had just six members, and NATO had only 15. By 2008, however, the EU had 27 member states, and NATO had 26. The territories of both organizations extended deep into central and eastern Europe, including the Baltic states, which had been part of the Soviet-Russian inner empire until 1991. Although Putin had reluctantly accepted this double enlargement of the West, he increasingly feared and resented it.

At NATO’s April 2008 summit in Bucharest, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush wanted to start serious preparations for Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO, but leading European states, including France and especially Germany, were resolutely opposed. As a compromise, the summit’s final communiqué declared that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO in the future” but without specifying concrete steps to make that happen. This was the worst of both worlds. It increased Putin’s sense of a U.S.-led threat to the remains of the Russian empire without guaranteeing the security of Ukraine or Georgia. Putin’s tanks rolled into Abkhazia and South Ossetia just four months later. Subsequent NATO enlargements took in the small southeast European countries of Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia, making today’s total of 30 NATO members, but these additions hardly changed the balance of power in eastern Europe.

At the same time, EU expansion stalled, not because of Russian pushback but because of “enlargement fatigue” after new central and eastern European members were admitted in 2004 and 2007, together with the impact of other major challenges to the EU. The global financial crisis of 2008 segued from 2010 onward into a long-running crisis of the eurozone, followed by the refugee crisis of 2015–16, Brexit and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016, the rise of antiliberal populist movements in such countries as France and Italy, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Croatia slipped into the EU in 2013, but North Macedonia, accepted as a candidate country in 2005, is still waiting today. The EU’s approach to the western Balkans over the last two decades recalls nothing so much as the New Yorker cartoon of a businessman saying to an obviously unwelcome caller on the telephone, “How about never? Is never good for you?”

EUROPE WHOLE AND FREE

Illustrating once again the truth of Heraclitus’s saying that “war is the father of all,” the largest war in Europe since 1945 has unblocked both these processes, opening the way to a further, large and consequential eastward enlargement of the West. As late as February 2022, on the eve of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron was still expressing reservations about enlarging the EU to include the western Balkans. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz supported the western Balkan enlargement but wanted to draw the line at that. Then, as Ukraine courageously and unexpectedly resisted Russia’s attempt to take over the entire country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky put the EU on the spot. Ukrainian opinion had evolved over the last three decades, through the catalytic events of the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Euromaidan protests in 2014, and his presidency already exhibited a strong European orientation. Accordingly, he repeatedly asked not just for weapons and sanctions but for EU membership, too. It is remarkable that this long-term aspiration should have been among the top three demands from a country facing the imminent prospect of a ruinous Russian occupation.

By June 2022, Macron and Scholz were standing with Zelensky in Kyiv, together with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi (who had endorsed the prospect of membership a month earlier and played a notable part in changing his fellow leaders’ minds) and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis. All four visitors declared that they supported the EU accepting Ukraine as a candidate for membership. That same month, the EU made this its formal position, also accepting Moldova as a candidate (subject to some preliminary conditions for both countries) and sending an encouraging signal to Georgia that the EU might in the future grant it the same status.

NATO has not made any such formal promise to Ukraine, but given the extent of NATO member states’ support for the defense of Ukraine—dramatically symbolized by U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Kyiv earlier this year—it is now hard to imagine that the war could end without some sort of de facto, if not de jure, security commitments from the United States and other NATO members. Meanwhile, the war has prompted Sweden and Finland to join NATO (although Turkish objections have delayed that process). The war has also brought the EU and NATO into a more clearly articulated partnership as, so to speak, the two strong arms of the West. In the long run, NATO membership for Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine would be the logical complement to EU membership and those countries’ only durable guarantee against renewed Russian revanchism. Speaking at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting this year in Davos, no less a realpolitiker than former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger endorsed this perspective, noting that the war that Ukraine’s non-NATO neutrality was supposed to prevent had already broken out. At the Munich Security Conference in February, several Western leaders explicitly supported NATO membership for Ukraine.

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Iohannis, Zelensky, Draghi, Scholz, and Macron in Kyiv, June 2022

Ludovic Marin / Reuters

The project of taking the rest of eastern Europe, apart from Russia, in to the two key organizations of the geopolitical West is one that will require many years to implement. The first double eastward enlargement of the West took some 17 years, if one counts from January 1990 to January 2007, when Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU. Among many evident difficulties is that Russian forces currently occupy parts of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. For the EU, there is a precedent for admitting a country that has regions its legitimate government does not control: part of Cyprus, a member state, is effectively controlled by Turkey. But there is no such precedent for NATO. Ideally, future rounds of NATO enlargement would be done in the context of a larger dialogue about European security with Russia, as in fact happened during NATO’s 1999 and 2004 rounds of eastward enlargement, with the latter even securing the reluctant agreement of Putin. But that is hard to imagine happening again unless a very different leader is in the Kremlin.

It may take until the 2030s to achieve this double enlargement, but if it does occur, it will represent another giant step toward the goal identified in a 1989 speech by U.S. President George H. W. Bush: Europe whole and free. Europe does not end at any clear lines—although at the North Pole it ends at a point—but merely fades away across Eurasia, across the Mediterranean, and, in some significant sense, even across the Atlantic. (Canada would be a perfect member of the EU.) Yet with the completion of this eastward enlargement, more of geographical, historical, and cultural Europe than ever before would be gathered into a single interlinked set of political, economic, and security communities.

Beyond that, there is the question of a democratic, post-Lukashenko Belarus, if it can free itself from Russia’s grip. Another phase, also potentially embracing Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey (a NATO member since 1952 and an accepted candidate for EU membership since 1999), could eventually contribute to a further geostrategic strengthening of the West in an increasingly post-Western world. But the enormous scale of the task the EU has just assumed, combined with political circumstances inside those countries, makes this a prospect that is not on the current agenda of European politics.

THE EU TRANSFORMED

This long-term vision of an enlarged EU, in strategic partnership with NATO, immediately raises two large questions. What about Russia? And how can there be a sustainable European Union of 36, going on 40, member states? It is difficult to address the first question without knowing what a post-Putin Russia will look like, but a significant part of the answer will in any case depend on the external geopolitical environment created to the west and south of Russia. This environment is directly susceptible to shaping by Western policymakers in a way that the internal evolution of a declining but still nuclear-armed Russia is not.

Politically, the most important speech on this subject was delivered by Scholz in Prague last August. Reaffirming his new commitment to a large eastward expansion of the EU—including the western Balkans, Moldova, Ukraine, and, in the longer term, Georgia—he insisted that as with previous rounds of widening, this one would require further deepening of the union. Otherwise, an EU of 36 member states would cease to be a coherent, effective political community. Specifically, Scholz argued for more “qualified majority voting,” an EU decision-making procedure that requires the assent of 55 percent of member states, representing at least 65 percent of the bloc’s population. This process would ensure that a single member state, such as Viktor Orban’s Hungary, could no longer threaten to veto another round of sanctions on Russia or other measures that most member states regard as necessary. In short, the central authority of the EU needs to become stronger to hold together such a large and diverse political community, although always with democratic checks and balances and without a single national hegemon.

Scholz’s analysis is evidently correct, and it is doubly important because it comes from the leader of Europe’s central power. But is this not itself a version of empire? A new kind of empire, that is, based on voluntary membership and democratic consent. Most Europeans recoil from the term “empire,” regarding it as something belonging to a dark past, intrinsically bad, undemocratic, and illiberal. Indeed, one reason Europeans have been talking more about empire recently is the rise of protest movements that call on former European colonial powers to recognize, acknowledge, and make reparation for the evils done by their colonial empires. So Europeans prefer the language of integration, union, or multilevel governance. In The Road to Unfreedom, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder characterizes the contest between the EU and Putin’s Russia as “integration or empire.” But the word “integration” describes a process, not an end state. To counterpose the two concepts is rather like speaking of “rail travel versus city”; the method of transportation does not describe the destination.

Clearly, if one means by “empire” direct control over other people’s territory by a single colonial state, the EU is not an empire. But as another Yale historian, Arne Westad, has argued, this is too narrow a definition of the word. If one of the defining features of empire is supranational authority, law, and power, then the EU already has some important characteristics of empire. Indeed, in many policy areas, European law takes precedence over national law, which is what so infuriates British Euroskeptics. On trade, the EU negotiates on behalf of all member states. The legal scholar Anu Bradford has documented the global reach of the EU’s “unilateral regulatory power” on everything from product standards, data privacy, and online hate speech to consumer health and safety and environmental protection. Her book is revealingly, if a touch hyperbolically, subtitled How the European Union Rules the World.

Moreover, the longest-running empire in European history, the Holy Roman Empire, was itself an example of a complex, multilevel system of governance, with no single nation or state as hegemon. The comparison with the Holy Roman Empire was made already in 2006 by the political scientist Jan Zielonka, who explored a “neo-medieval paradigm” to describe the enlarged EU.

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Scholz inspecting weapons in Bergen, Germany, October 2022

Fabian Bimmer / Reuters

Support for thinking about the EU in this way comes from an especially pertinent source. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, has described the European Union as “the first ever attempt to build a liberal empire,” contrasting it with Putin’s attempt to restore Russia’s colonial empire by military conquest. When he and I spoke in the heavily sandbagged Ukrainian Foreign Ministry in Kyiv in February, he explained that a liberal empire’s key characteristic is keeping together very different nations and ethnic groups “not by force but by the rule of law.” Seen from Kyiv, a liberal, democratic empire is needed to defeat an illiberal, antidemocratic one.

Several of the obstacles to achieving this goal are also connected with Europe’s imperial history. The German political scientist Gwendolyn Sasse has argued that Germany must “decolonize” its view of eastern Europe. This is an unusual version of decolonization. When people speak of the United Kingdom or France needing to decolonize their view of Africa, they mean that these countries should stop seeing it (consciously or unconsciously) through the lens of their own former colonial history. What Sasse suggests is that Germany, with its long historical fascination with Russia, needs to stop seeing countries like Ukraine and Moldova through somebody else’s colonial lens: Russia’s.

The imperial legacies and memories of former western European colonial powers also impede European collective action in other ways. The United Kingdom is an obvious example. Its departure from the EU had many causes, but among them was an obsession with strictly legal sovereignty that goes all the way back to a 1532 law that enacted King Henry VIII’s break from the Roman Catholic Church, resonantly claiming that “this realm of England is an empire.” The word “empire” was here used in an older sense, meaning supreme sovereign authority. The memory of the overseas British Empire “on which the sun never set” also played into a mistaken belief that the United Kingdom would be just fine going it alone. “We used to run the biggest empire the world has ever seen, and with a much smaller domestic population and a relatively tiny civil service,” wrote Boris Johnson, the most influential leader of the Leave campaign, in the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum. “Are we really unable to do trade deals?” In the French case, memories of past imperial grandeur translate into a different distortion: not rejection of the EU but a tendency to treat Europe as France writ large.

Then there is the perception of Europe in places that were once European colonies or, like China, felt the negative impact of European imperialism. Chinese schoolchildren are taught to contemplate and resent a “century of humiliation” at the hands of Western imperialists. At the same time, President Xi Jinping proudly refers to continuities, from China’s own earlier civilizational empires to today’s “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation.

If Europe is to make its case more effectively to major postcolonial countries such as India and South Africa, it needs to be more conscious of this colonial past. (It might also help to point out that a large and growing number of EU member states in eastern Europe were themselves the objects of European colonialism, not its perpetrators.) When European leaders trot around the globe today, presenting the EU as the sublime incarnation of postcolonial values of democracy, human rights, peace, and human dignity, they often seem to have forgotten Europe’s long and quite recent colonial history—but the rest of the world has not. That is one reason why postcolonial countries such as India and South Africa have not lined up with the West over the war in Ukraine. Polling conducted in late 2022 and early 2023 in China, India, and Turkey for the European Council on Foreign Relations—in partnership with Oxford University’s Europe in a Changing World research project, which I co-direct—shows just how far they are from understanding what is happening in Ukraine as an independence struggle against Russia’s war of attempted recolonization.

OVERLAPPING EMPIRES

Beyond this is the fact that, as the war in Ukraine has once again made clear, Europe still ultimately relies for its security on the United States. Macron and Scholz talk often of the need for “European sovereignty,” yet when it comes to military support for Ukraine, Scholz has not been ready to send a single class of major weapons (armored fighting vehicles, tanks) unless the United States does so, too. It is a strange version of sovereignty. The war has certainly galvanized European thinking, and action, on defense. Scholz has given the English language a new German word, Zeitenwende (roughly, historic turning point), and committed to a sustained increase in German defense spending and military readiness. Germany taking the military dimension of power seriously again would be no small fact in modern European history.

Poland plans to build up the biggest army inside the EU, and a victorious Ukraine would have the largest and most combat-hardened armed forces in Europe outside Russia. The EU has a European Peace Facility, which during the first year of the war in Ukraine spent some $3.8 billion to co-fund member states’ arms supplies to Ukraine. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is now proposing that the European Peace Facility should directly order ammunition and weapons for Ukraine, comparing this to the EU’s procurement of vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic. The EU thus also has the very modest beginnings of the military dimension that traditionally belongs to imperial power. If all this happens, the European pillar of the transatlantic alliance should grow significantly stronger, thus also potentially freeing up more U.S. military resources to confront the threat from China in the Indo-Pacific. But Europe is still unlikely to be able to defend itself alone against any major external threat.

Although the United States’ own foundational identity is that of an anticolonial power, it has in NATO an “empire by invitation,” in the historian Geir Lundestad’s phrase. Explaining his use of the word “empire,” Lundestad quotes former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s argument that “empire” can be a descriptive rather than a normative term. This American anti-imperial empire is more hegemonic than the European one but less so than it was in the past. As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly demonstrated, and Scholz also in his way, the United States can’t simply tell other NATO member states what to do. This alliance, therefore, also has a credible claim to be an empire by consent.

One can push the language of empire too far. Comparing the EU and NATO with past empires reveals differences that are as interesting as the similarities. Politically, neither the European Union nor the United States will ever present themselves as an empire, nor would they be well advised to do so. Analytically, however, it is worth reflecting that whereas the twentieth century saw most of Europe transitioning from empires to states, the world of the twenty-first century still has empires—and it needs new kinds of empire to stand up to them. Whether Europe actually manages to create a liberal empire strong enough to defend the interests and values of Europeans will, as always in human history, depend on conjuncture, luck, collective will, and individual leadership.

Here, then, is the surprising prospect that the war in Ukraine reveals: the EU as a postimperial empire, in strategic partnership with an American postimperial empire, to prevent the comeback of a declining Russian empire and constrain a rising Chinese one.