President Obama asks Turkish Prime minister Erdogan to calm the Arab region,
while Russian President Putin obstructs international actions designed to get rid of
the Syrian President, and angry Chinese smash windows of Japanese companies
because of a dispute over a few islands. What connects these recent news headlines?
Inspired by an imperial past, China, Turkey and Russia return to the world stage as
American professor Dov Zakheim, former security advisor of Republican ministers,
recently signalled this occurrence in an article in The National Interest, titled 'Old
empires rise again'. He claims that in particular Russia, China and Turkey present
themselves as major powers. Their influence extends far beyond their own borders.
Putin creates a Russia that is a mixture of elements from the Tsarist days and the
Soviet Union, while Turkey builds on its experiences from the days of the Ottoman
Empire when exerting its influence in the Arab world, and China positions itself as
the central empire in Asia. The assertiveness of these states has consequences for the
position of power of the US, which under Obama limited itself to 'leading from the
back'. And for Europe too, of course.
Zakheim's claim is accurate. The question is what the source of internal cohesion of
these resurrected imperial powers is. In Moscow there is no Tsar and the communist
ideology went down along with the Soviet Union. Turkey is no multiethnic entity
like the Ottoman Empire, while Chinese communism produces unprecedented
wealth differences. Russia, China and Turkey use nationalism as cement. This is
rather bewildering for Europeans, because Europe tries very hard to dismantle the
nation state as much as possible in its integration process. Brussels dreams of a 'post-
national' Europe. Nationalism is a ghost from the past to European federalists. For
Moscow, Ankara and Beijing it is the driving force of the future. On the 12th of
September, while in Krasnodar, Putin stated: 'We must build our future on a solid
foundation, and this foundation is patriotism'. The attacks of Chinese on Japanese
companies are the result of carefully cultivated nationalism. Not communism.
The return to old glory is most manifest in Russia. The Russians never got over the
fact that with the fall of the Soviet Union, the global reach of Russia was also lost.
Putin is trying to restore the historical zone of influence of Moscow. Ukraine is part
of this Russian zone and so is the territory from the Caucasus up to and including
Kazakhstan. He is creating a 'United Economic Area' with Moscow at the centre.
Putin is strengthening ties with China, while he could not care less about the West.
That is why Russia used its veto in the UN Security Council in the case of Syria. The
fact that about 20,000 Syrian citizens died already does not interest him. That is a side
issue. The main issue is that Moscow gets to play power politics at the highest level.
The same goes for China, though less noticeable, because it is more dependent
on markets and the import of raw materials. In the UN, Beijing prefers to hide
behind Moscow. China's main goal is accelerated economical development as a
foundation for political and military power. In 1900 German Emperor Wilhelm II
told the German expedition force sent to strike down the Boxer rebellion: 'Carry your
weapons in a way so that even in a thousand years not a single Chinese would ever
dare to squint at a German. In 2012, self-conscious Chinese leaders visited Europe
and refused to participate in a press conference after a high level meeting. They do
not want to adjust to 'European habits'. Also, a room full of foreign journalists is
terrifying. The EU subsequently cancelled the press conference because of 'lack of
time'. This China will never be humiliated again.
How should Europe move forward? Turkey looks the most promising, though
more as a regional power than as an EU Member State. The Turks already have a
common market for goods with the EU and free movement of people will never
be realised anyway. The Turkish economy is doing well, thanks to liberalisation
and a cheap currency. Turkey succeeded where Greece has failed. It plays a crucial
role in conflict zones in the Middle East: Syria, Iran, Iraq and Israel. On top of that,
Turkey has millions of its citizens living in Europe; in Germany they are an important
constituency. The relationship with China is mostly economic in nature, a relationship
in which China has an interest in a united Europe as a counterweight to its conflict-
prone relation with the US. Beijing is a big fan of the Euro and the regency-style of
government is familiar to them. Russia will be the hardest case. The KGB was the
only Soviet institution which survived the fall of the Soviet Union. In Moscow, power
is concentrated in an opaque network centred on one person. Putin holds a grudge
against Europe: Gazprom is his weapon, unpredictability the result.
The trump card Europe should use is to create a single market with North America
within the next five years. This will offer enormous growth potential in economy of
scale, trade volumes, production and innovation. It is a global leap forward which will
put the might of reawakening powers in perspective.