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Review of Mark Leonard on Why Europe Will Run the 21st. Century

This book, published by Fourth Estate in 2005, is focused on the regionalizing aspect of ‘global influence’ and argues for the continued rise of European economic power and political influence and the relative decline of that of the United States. What is its thesis? How ought we to evaluate Leonard’s arguments?

The conventional view, according to Leonard, is that American power will hold good for another fifty years and then Asia will predominate, with India, and more especially China being the engines of world trade and the new superpowers. Leonard’s thesis is that American power has already shown serious signs of slipping. Its arsenal is huge; its willingness to threaten and to bully is based on this ‘hard power’ but its faith in the exercise of such power is over-confident, even misplaced. Branding states as rogue states and threatening them with military action is counter-productive. Such threats merely encourage them, as in the case of North Korea, in the very behavior that the United States is wishing to prevent. The more that the United States in its ‘war on terror’ attempts to exercise its military option, the more its ‘soft power’ (influence; diplomacy) is eroded. Indeed, the limits of American power are perfectly illustrated by the debacle in Iraq and by the fact that authoritative regimes in the Middle East have been reinforced rather than encouraged to change.

The power of the world’s most successful economic union, the EU, is of a different kind, according to Leonard. Whereas American power is ‘shallow and narrow’, that of the EU is ‘broad and deep’: ‘once sucked into its sphere of influence, countries are changed for ever’. Where America sees only ‘potential enemies’, Europe prefers to see ‘potential friends’. Leonard argues that it is the lack of a significant military option that has encouraged Europe to think of new ways of engaging the wider world. European power as experienced by and through the European Union is ‘transformative power’ accomplishing though negotiation and trade, democratic change in historically undemocratic nations. By operating through the existing ‘shell of political structures’ Europe has achieved a relatively silent political revolution within itself. The structures within the initial members remain the same but the key political process is that of a continuous engagement with other states within the European Union, a kind of ‘Network Europe’ (similar in function to the network that supports ‘Visa’). New states wishing to join participate in the process long before admission and are transformed as a result. Poland and Turkey and changes made in these countries are cited as part of the evidence for the existence of this ‘transformative power’. Key ideas are related to the development of European law: stable democratic institutions; the rule of law; human rights and a market economy. These changes are undertaken voluntary as a result of negotiation and diplomacy, whereas the changes in Iraq (such as they are) are imposed by force. At the same time, international companies are also regulated through changes in EU law, giving Europe a role in setting global regulatory standards. The model for further global developments, according to Leonard, is not that of the United States but rather regional groupings associated with Europe and constructed in similar ways.

China is on the rise and is starting to look at its own regional spheres of influence, aware of its need for sources of raw materials to further its industrial development. India is growing rapidly. The world cannot simply be run, Leonard argues, with out-of-date international institutions. The EU provides an effective model for increased regionalization. This has influenced the development of the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) between Canada, the United States and Mexico. This is not, however, a politically popular agreement, as far as I can judge, and has little scope for further development. Demands for protectionism are likely to be on the rise in the United States, especially given the recent changes in the composition of the Congress. Newly elected Democrats are not necessarily trade friendly. Leonard sees a ‘post-America world’ to which America can chose to adapt by becoming more interested in international law and institutions, world opinion and the soft power options of negotiations and alliances or to which it can turn its back. Leonard sees the European way as becoming by adoption, and adaptation, the world way, with or without the United States.

This book paints with a large brush and on a very large canvas so it does not give as much attention to China as may be required or to any backsliding in EU members or potential members who were once in the Soviet bloc. It does not pay much attention to the reform process within Europe (agricultural policy; export subsidies; the drive for increased competitiveness though it is true that this process is underway) nor does it give enough attention to the confusion in Russia and the growing leverage Russia has over trade in gas and oil with respect to Western Europe and elsewhere. Nor does it look at cooperation and competition in Central Asia between Russia, China, the United States and Europe. A significant theme is on trade and on the next stages of globalization i.e. on the rise of regionalism leading, in Leonard’s view, to a world of regional units modeled, more or less, on the EU. Such a world looks more and more like a possible world, in my view, especially given the collapse of the Doha Round. These are no doubt weaknesses in the coverage. However, the strength of the book is found in contrasting the steady progress of EU ‘transformative power’ with the problems in the recent policy of the United States, including the erosion of both ‘hard’ and ‘soft power’ by the demands of the ‘war on terror’ as recently constructed. Leonard may overplay his hand but the book is an interesting read even if it is short on detail.