By Invitation

Europe in turmoil, and what that means for Asia


Peter Frankopan's excellent book The Silk Roads: A New History Of The World reminds us that through much of history, Europe was a relatively backward region on the western periphery of the Eurasian continent. Most of the "action" - economic, political, cultural, scientific, military, etc - occurred in major centres of "Asia". By Asia, I mean the huge eastern chunk of the Eurasian continent: Mongolia, China, South Asia, Central Asia, Persia, the Arab world.

Things began to change quite radically with the rise of the European seaborne empires : Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Britain and France, and the immense profits made from the conquest of the "New World", from the transatlantic slave trade, and the colonisation, subjugation and exploitation of most of Asia. Great advantages also accrued in north-western Europe from the Industrial Revolution. Europeans, in the words of the title of the opus of the late Victor Kiernan, became The Lords Of Humankind.

Following two world wars, revolutions and civil wars in the first half of the 20th century, Europe was exhausted and forced to relinquish its role as global hegemon to the United States, to which it attached itself as part of the "West". As a western European (of French nationality) born in 1945 at the end of World War II, I can testify to the fact that over the decades we have witnessed immense progress on all fronts - economic prosperity, political stability and social improvement.

The second half of the 20th century in Europe stands in the starkest possible contrasts to the first half.


This was so much so that while Europe no longer held geopolitical power, Europeans were somehow imbued with a sense of moral, civilisational superiority. We Europeans were captivated by our own myths, those of European/Western "values". This included, remarkably, the perception that somehow "democracy" is ingrained in the European/Western DNA. Ask the proverbial European in the street and unless he or she is a recent immigrant or refugee, he or she will tell you we became prosperous because we had democracy.

In fact, nothing could be further from the historical truth. Reality is that we became democracies after we had achieved prosperity; and prosperity was achieved at the expense of exploiting and, in some cases, exterminating, others. Ask the Incas or the Mayas what was the positive sum game of "la conquista". Indeed, Frankopan informs us that when Adolf Hitler was contemplating the extermination of Jews, he drew inspiration from the genocides committed against native Indians by American settlers.


Thus European moralisers, often in the form of policymakers, browbeat Asians about the imperative of the superiority of "Western democracy", but never extended democracy to their erstwhile Asian colonies. The Chinese government is lambasted about its treatment of dissidents and abuse of human rights, yet, one may ask, how often were Indian independence leaders Gandhi and Nehru, to cite two among many, imprisoned for peacefully advocating independence from the British colonial yoke?

Be all that as it may, it is true that in the course of the postwar decades Europe did improve dramatically, especially following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, though it would have been more impressive without the holier-than-thou moralising.


Whereas Europe caused global havoc and imposed harsh imperialism in previous centuries, it became towards the end of the 20th century far more of a global haven of peace and stability. As it did so, it also became more inward- looking and self-contented, and its role as a geopolitical actor in the global arena diminished. Then British Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to join US President George W. Bush in the illegal - and ultimately catastrophic - invasion of Iraq was an aberration for which he was heavily criticised by, among others, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac. Since then he has been in the British and European public-opinion doghouse.

In West Asia, for reasons of geographic and historical proximity - and of course more recently the refugee crisis - Europe remains an actor. I am struck, even if not surprised, however, by how increasingly irrelevant Europe has become in the media, forums and indeed horizons in the Asia-Pacific and South Asia. In a quite ironic historical reversal of fortune, Europe, especially for the rising middle classes of East and South Asia, is seen above all as a destination for tourists, a source of luxury goods and a market for Asian manufacturers.

For the understandable reasons of their major preoccupations being elsewhere - in the powerful Asian geopolitical dynamics and since November with the election of Mr Donald Trump as US President - Asians may not be aware that there are trends in Europe that deserve to set alarm bells ringing, even if in still relatively muted mode. Of course, Brexit has had a global attention impact. But even beyond and indeed before Brexit there have been trends that the former highly respected German foreign minister and vice-chancellor Joschka Fischer has termed the "unravelling of Europe". The fact that in stark contrast to the past, Europe espoused peace rather than war is not so much due to Europeans suddenly metamorphosing from tribal warriors to Euro-peaceniks, but to the institutions that were put in place, both at global and at European levels. I felt that the European Union winning the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize was justified, though I also recognised it may be its epitaph.

What we are witnessing across Europe (east and west) is the precipitous decline in the credibility and legitimacy of its institutions, driven, among other things, by the weakness of leadership, the revival of populist nationalistic tribalism and the erosion of democracy. Those in Singapore or elsewhere in South and East Asia who have cast a glance at the current pathetic state of the French presidential elections will see how deplorable things have become: The French Republic is becoming a banana republic, riddled with corruption and abuse of privileges by its irresponsible elites.

While some commentators fear that Europe will revert to the 1930s, I do not at the moment think so. The haranguing populists notwithstanding, I do not think we will see the return of a Hitler, or even a Mussolini. But what I do think is that the erstwhile rock of stability and peace that was Europe has cracked and it is, in the words of Mr Fischer, in the process of unravelling and hence its state is becoming increasingly that of unstable turmoil and uncertainty.

What are some of the implications for policymakers and thought leaders in South and East Asia? First, they should not take for granted European peace and stability.

Second, they must put far more creative energy into building solid regional and global institutions.

Third, they must study modern European history to avoid the pitfalls that could plunge Asia into a European-style cauldron of the first half of the 20th century.

Fourth, they must be prepared - to quote the title of a report by Nik Gowing - to Think The Unthinkable.

•The writer is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD business school, with campuses in Lausanne and Singapore, and visiting professor at Hong Kong University.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2017, with the headline Europe in turmoil, and what that means for Asia. Subscribe