Beyond the Arab Awakening, the financial crisis has also undermined Europe’s embryonic attempt to develop so-called "strategic partnerships" with the world’s great powers. Realist powers such as China and Russia have long attempted to play Europeans off against each other. But in the last few years, member states had gradually begun to realize that they have a European interest in agreeing to a common position before negotiating with the Chinese or Russians. In particular, 2011 was supposed to be the year in which the European Union implemented a new approach to China based on unity and reciprocity. Rather than maintaining separate approaches to Beijing, member states were supposed to present a united front in order to increase their leverage. For example, they were aiming at opening Chinese public procurement markets (for projects like road- and dam-building) that are currently closed, while Chinese firms can bid for European markets.
Instead, Europe’s crisis turned into China’s opportunity. Cash-strapped member states sought to secure investment rather than open Chinese markets and, more importantly, independently petitioned Beijing to buy their sovereign bonds. As a result, while the European Commission made valuable efforts to open up China’s public procurement markets and ensure access to rare-earth minerals, Brussels often fought alone on these issues while member states individually sweet-talked Beijing and prioritized their bilateral ties. Europeans did have some collective successes with China — on Libya and climate change, for example — but these pale in comparison with the shift in the balance of power that took place in 2011. In late October, in between a European Council meeting and the G-20 summit he was about to host, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, to see whether China would contribute to an enlarged eurozone bailout fund (the answer was no). It is hard to rebalance a relationship or insist on a revaluation of the yuan when you come begging. It’s no surprise, then, that an EU-China summit and a high-level economic dialogue were canceled in November.
A new world order that doesnâ€™t include Europe seems not only possible but probable. Especially when Europe as a concept doesnâ€™t seem to exist as it once did.
The euro crisis thus seems to have encouraged the reassertion of national reflexes among EU countries, including the ones that matter most. The Libya operation will be remembered as a success for Europeans, but as a disaster for the European Union, which cannot exist when major powers are not aligned. A ray of hope might be coming from some smaller member states that are increasingly punching above their weight and showing leadership on specific issues. This is particularly the case with Poland and Sweden — two countries, not coincidentally, outside the eurozone that have not been badly affected by the economic crisis. Their relative success and the mediocre performance of the European Union as a whole in 2011 suggest that if Europe still hopes to retain its influence in the world in the future, it must first solve the euro crisis as a prerequisite for pursuing a coherent and effective foreign policy. Otherwise, the United States might one day confront the specter of a world without Europe — a world where its most reliable international ally is weakened, where the evolution toward competitive multipolarity is accelerated, and where the values of integration and multilateral cooperation have lost their champion.