Contrary to the expectations of many, including Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has not divided Europeans. Instead, Putin’s aggression has forged a remarkable consensus. It has also given rise to an unusual, almost uncharacteristic feistiness at the highest levels of power in Europe, as well as a popular solidarity with refugees not seen since the World Wars. No doubt, national differences will eventually resurface and this solidarity will dwindle, but the tectonic shift in Europeans’ worldview caused by the long-feared “war in the east” will have a major impact on security strategy and military investments. It will also have long-lasting consequences, including for Europe’s relations with the Middle East.
The most fundamental change in Europe is taking place in the continent’s economic powerhouse, Germany. Its Zeitenwende (“turning-point”) has rewritten the country’s post-World War II security philosophy nearly overnight, and will have a massive impact on both its defense posture and its diplomatic behavior. Berlin has announced a €100 billion investment in the (terribly underfunded) German armed forces and a permanent increase in its defense spending, to more than 2% of GDP. Others in Europe are set to follow suit and this “revolution in military affairs” is providing the necessary glue to repair many of the cracks former U.S. President Donald Trump left in the transatlantic relationship.
Developments in Georgia and Crimea and growing suspicion of Chinese interference in domestic and international affairs had already prompted Europe to question its tunnel vision on counter-terrorism, non-state actors, and the promotion of the rule of law abroad, including in the Middle East. However, while consideration of state-based threats and great power competition initially stopped at notions of “strategic competition” and “hybrid war,” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has cut through the red tape. Convoluted language has been scrapped as Europeans can no longer beat around the bush. The hastily written foreword and introduction to the E.U.’s Strategic Compass, adopted on March 21, is a case in point.
This new “language of power” is finding its way into two narratives, two “strategic lenses” that the Europeans (just like their U.S. counterparts) seem to lay over current geopolitics: a realist view of great power competition and an idealist lens of democracy versus autocracy. While these lenses have been largely shaped by previous confrontations with Russia, and have now been reinforced by the conflict in Ukraine, they will also affect the approach to developments in the Middle East, complicating relations in ways that are not necessarily favorable to any side.
Just as so many times before, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region will be an arena for the great powers to vie for influence. While the terrorist threat emanating from the region will remain relevant, it is great power competition that will take center stage. This is clear in the E.U.’s new Strategic Compass, which touches on terrorism and Iran’s nuclear threat, but focuses primarily on Russia’s projection in theaters such as Libya, Syria, Central African Republic, and Mali, as well as its use of disinformation and mercenaries, all of which are seen as a direct threat to European security.
As a result, the West will have to step up its game to halt or roll back further encroachment of Russian and Chinese power in the Middle East — be it economic, technological, or military. For MENA governments, this means it will become harder to hedge their bets. There will be clearer trade-offs involved when dealing with one great power or another, especially when it involves military equipment, technology transfer, or vital infrastructure. At the same time, a similar trade-off exists for Western engagement in the Middle East: If the U.S. and Europe want to keep countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on their side, they must make a stronger commitment to their security, especially when it comes to Iranian regional interference and Houthi aggression.
Such commitments are increasingly difficult for the West to make due to the second overarching lens it is applying to the world — an idealistic view of international politics as a battle between democracy and autocracy. This moralistic framing has partly been a reflection of some European countries’ shift toward a more value-driven foreign policy. Germany is a notable example here as well, with the new Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock being praised for joining the growing ranks of countries proclaiming a so-called “feminist foreign policy.” Rather than a foreign policy driven by feminists, this approach emphasizes human security and human rights, which often translates into bans on arms exports to authoritarian regimes and openly calling out rights abuses.
But U.S. President Joe Biden has been perhaps the most vocal proponent of this idea of values-driven foreign policy, and the binary distinction between democracies and autocracies, on the global stage. While the “Summit for Democracy” in December 2021 was somewhat theoretical, the war in Ukraine has provided Biden with a tangible example. This framing works well for domestic purposes and resonates with allies that consider themselves defenders of the free and democratic world. However, such posturing has been detrimental to the West’s relations with the Middle East and other less democratically-minded allies.
War often brings allies closer together, as is happening now between Europe and the U.S. and within Europe itself, but the West’s view of great power competition, combined with its emphasis on democratic values, may have the opposite long-term effect on its allies in the MENA region. These relationships will need to be carefully managed (and will probably require lots of backroom diplomacy). While business remains business, Middle Eastern allies are likely to be pressured to choose between the West, Russia, and China more often going forward — and face the consequences. At the same time, the West will once again need to decide just how important its “values” really are and when to make difficult compromises, as well as devise convincing ways to explain any ambiguities to the opposition and electorates at home, as the dangers of letting autocracy have its way are all too clear right now.
Saskia M. van Genugten is a non-resident senior fellow at MEI, a research fellow at the Netherlands Defence Academy, and an associate director at MacroScope Strategies. The opinions expressed in this piece are her own.
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