The last month or so has really driven home the major shifts underway in the global balance of power that we would be wise to get in front of. Simply put we are seeing global power move, fairly quickly, from the western side of the World Island (Europe) to the eastern half (China, Japan, Russia, and India). Despite this we are still wedded to the institutions and alliances of the old Euro-centric world. This is a very new world for anyone who has lived in the last half millennium so of course it will take some getting used to, but we can’t take too much time.
Of the several European states, only two try to aspire to great powerdom and an active role in international affairs, France and the UK. There are other potentially active European states, most notably Germany and Italy, but Spain, the Netherlands, and Poland also to lesser extents but none comes close to the UK or France. France and Britain are perhaps now more equal in power than at any time in their history. Both have just over 60 million people, economies of a bit over $2 trillion, roughly 200,000 soldiers with around $55 billion in military spending, nuclear forces of about 200 warheads, permanent UN Security Council seats, etc. However, both have been in the news of late having to come to grips with the fact that they aren’t great powers anymore.
First up are the French. The AP has a story about the melancholic funk the French are in as they approach their upcoming election. As anyone who has paid attention to France or the French for the last 200 years knows, they’ve always thought they were still the land of Napoleon, a giant on the international stage who bows to no one (except perfidious Albion but they’re perfidious after all, oh and the Germans but I’m not sure how Frenchies rationalize that one). Apparently they are just now realizing that isn’t the case anymore. While this is understandably depressing for the French, it is always better to be realistic about your actual power and capabilities. The story says some of the causes of the gloomy atmosphere in France are:
1) Large national debt and deficit limiting fiscal options and causing future problems.
2) Average economic growth of only 1.5%, well below Britain, China, America, and below even slow-growth Germany (not mentioned but that would also mean France’s per capita income growth is 1.1% which is even further below Britain, America, and Germany’s PCI growth).
3) Stubbornly high unemployment rate of 8.7% with youth unemployment over 20%.
4) Ethnic riots by the large and growing underclass of immigrants that France neither wants nor can get rid of.
French people have begun leaving in ever larger numbers as a result of these problems. According to a Times story, 2.2 million French have left so far, the rate has increased 40% in the last decade, and is dominated by young educated people with no intention of returning.
Aside from the pride of having the world’s fastest train (wow, am I ashamed of my slower train America), the one point of influence France has had that the French people are proud of is opposing the invasion of Iraq. Yet even that is hollow, the invasion still happened despite French opposition. Indeed if the French goal was to stop the invasion, and not to simply cause as many problems for the US as possible, their opposition was counter-productive. All it did was convince Saddam that his French buddies would prevent the invasion in the UN so he need not comply with UN/US demands thus causing the invasion. This highlights why the French coming to terms with their loss of power will be good. With Iraq the French were presented with three options, 1) stay out of it, 2) join the US, or 3) oppose the US consequences be damned. A great power cannot stay out of the major international issue of its day and still be considered a great power so 1 was out. Joining the US would have necessarily required being second fiddle to the US and losing potential allies who may have problems with the US which is something France as a fiercely independent and proud great power could never countenance. That left France with option 3, opposition for the sake of opposition regardless of its effect on others. Until we finally end, or start ignoring, the old Euro-centric global institutions like the UN we are giving France the ability to cause problems out of all proportion to their global power which makes option 3 very enticing to a power that hasn’t accepted its true place in the world. Since we show no signs of doing either of those things, it will be just as good if the French wake up and understand they aren’t a great power and don’t need to be sticking their noses in everything (I’m assuming actually working with the US will still be a bridge too far for them).
Britain is an altogether different case than France. Whereas France has the will of a superpower with the resources of a middle power, Britain has been more realistic about her position. Britain has been faced with the same three options as France and chose option 2, using her power in convergence with America’s. However, it’s becoming more questionable if the British have the will to keep up with the US anymore. The recent hostage crisis showcased a British military, government, and people not psychologically up to the challenges of even a second fiddle middle power. In addition to the hostage crisis, the British have also retreated before the Taliban in southern Afghanistan and the militia/terrorists in southern Iraq. EU Referendum Blog covers all this in far more detail than I ever could so I’ll defer to them and just summarize it here. The main problem is that the British government is not properly funding its military while sending it on missions the military doesn’t want and its people don’t support. There’s not much that can be done about the people but that’s not as important, leaders are called leaders for a reason after all. The other two military related issued could be corrected with the proper will. The funding shortfalls are perhaps the easier of the two, an extra $5-10 billion a year would suffice. That’s roughly what gets spent on national health care every week or two and pales in comparison to the amount Gordon Brown has showered on health care, education, and social programs in recent years (to no effect but anyways). Seeing as it’s easier and more popular to continue dropping money into the black holes of health care and education I wouldn’t expect military spending to increase significantly anytime soon. The other option would be to have the British military prioritize its current resources better. The Royal Air Force and Navy seem to be stuck in 1989, desiring expensive new toys that would be great at battling the Soviet Union but serve little purpose today. The British Army on the other hand wants expensive hi-tech peacekeeping vehicles that would only be useful where there was no fighting to begin with. I wrote about this problem in more detail before here (again though primarily with links to EU Referendum). The British will always have a welcome place by our side if they are willing to do their part, but it isn’t a major problem if they don’t since they can’t contribute much (and will be able to contribute even less as the years go by) and they haven’t had a policy of rank oppositionalism of the French.
The rest of Europe is dealing with the same declining power and influence that Britain and France are although it’s somewhat masked since the rest of Europe doesn’t have the same history of international influence. The reason is simple enough, Europe has had an extremely low birth rate for over 30 years. With ever shrinking numbers of young people to enter the work force and serve in the military both European economic and military power are diminishing. Though the effects are only recently beginning to show the process itself is easy to recognize and is something I’ve written about frequently. The rapid drop off in births can be seen by looking at the number of males aged 18-49 in 1991 and 2006 (from CIA World Factbook 1992 and 2007). I use the number of males simply because it’s easy to find but also it has a more direct impact on military power but also on economic output to some extent. The trend is revealed by looking at the average number of men at each age and how many are being born each year, it’s not sophisticated but it works. The following table shows how the biggest Western European nations compare to the US in those categories (males in millions, Births in thousands):
From the other side of the World Island comes this story about the new space race amongst Asian powers and America. This shows that national pride still means something to some countries and that Asian nations now have the resources to use for unnecessary pride pursuits. Combined with the rapidly growing military budgets of China, Russia, and India along with their acquisition of the newest and most advanced weapons systems and their vying for influence around the globe and it becomes apparent where the future of great power politics rests (I wrote about China and Russia here). The game is a bit muted at the moment since the Asians nations are still getting their feet wet. Nevertheless, in the coming years and decades China, Japan, India, and Russia will all matter more to us and the world than Germany, France, Britain, and Italy. Unless we start taking more steps to adapt to this new world we’ll quickly find our self on the wrong side of the equation.