Interdependence, Resilience and Narrative: European Geopolitics of the 21st Century
Arancha Gonzalez LayaFormer Minister of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation of Spain
Since the opening speech in 2019 of the Von der Leyen Commission, in which the president said she wanted to head a “geopolitical commission,” the term has become topical again in the field of international relations. Scholars often define geopolitics on the basis of three key notions: territory, power and narrative. However, I believe that in the 21st century, the territory as physical space, the concept of power and the current narrative do not fully respond to these elements as keys to international relations.
“Geopolitics is more than power politics, since it encompasses geography. It is about the strategic advantages or vulnerabilities of a country in relation to oceans and continents, to rivers, mountains, or deserts. The approach therefore requires a spatial self-image, the will to define a territory, and to develop a strategic lay of the land in relation to other actors” as Luuk van Middelaar defines in his article “Europe’s Geopolitical Awakening.” 1
Territory today, in the 21st century, is much more than a geographical space or in any case is not only a spatial delimitation. The great challenges of this century are global and ignore borders in an interconnected world. The pandemic has been an illustration of that, or even climate change; in the same way as with the Lehman Brothers crisis in which the failure of a bank in the USA almost brought down the economies of half of Europe. In an interconnected world like that of today, the idea of territory is not only a geographical construction, it is also a sum of interests and values which must adhere to a certain notion of territory which today is not only defined by the geographic boundaries of a country. Rivers, mountains, seas today demarcate maps, but little more. The territorial reality of countries is much more diffuse and linked to their interdependence. It is more the management of interdependencies between countries than that of the territory.
In these times when the responses attempting to triumph propose a return to the territory, to the border, to the wall, to the purely national response, it must be stated that what really protects are the supranational institutions, in Europe the European Union, and in the world the global multilateral organizations.
The pandemic cannot be used as an excuse to normalize the reductive ideas of the far-right. Strategies to confront the right to mobility, migrations or lockdowns should not generate electoral income. It is certainly disturbing that the defeat of Donald Trump in the midst of a wave of infections in the United States has left a feeling of mere temporary relief, as if this were the exception rather than the rule.
It is time to claim the ideas of interdependent progress because we have before us a smoke machine, which is very effective, which constantly repeats that what it protects is the return to the national border, the repatriation of powers, the return to the strong State. What will really protect French, Spanish, German or Dutch citizens in an increasingly complex world where everything is changing more and more quickly, is a European Union that is increasingly united and more and more European. This is where the answer lies.
That is to say: we must build our future on the basis of co-responsibility. Nothing sustainable can be built from dependence. The twenty-first century is already no longer the century of the North and the South; the North telling the South what to do, or the North buying from the South and the South selling itself to the North. This is the century of co-responsibility, where both parties understand that we play the future as soon as we are ready to work to give it a shared response. None of the common challenges we have can be approached from another angle: climate change, migrations, protecting biodiversity or protecting values, rights and freedoms.
My second point tackles the notion of power: power in the 20th century was power that revolved around the crudest sense of the word: it was the armed power of the military, defense, and security. In the 21st century, this conception of power has changed. Power is like energy: it cannot be created or destroyed, it is simply transformed and we must be able to adapt to these transformations.
Power today does not only reside in the expression of a State: it is also the expression of the corporation. Today we have large corporations, which in many sovereign spaces are much more powerful than the government or the State in the classic sense. And we can’t forget either, when we talk about power, the public opinions of the generation of informants and disinformers. Consequently, power is today also much more diffuse than this hard power which was used as one of the axes of the notion of geopolitics. Power is also today a concept that moves away from its classical definition to move towards more diffuse, more compound, more complex forms of power. In a world like today’s, it would be more accurate to talk about resilience.
And I come back again to the example of the pandemic. The power to respond to the pandemic today is the power that lies in the ability to innovate. It is the power of science. It is the power inherent in the individual’s inventiveness.
It is much more than an army. Today, the power to respond to a pandemic is a vaccine. And whoever lacks it loses the war. But it is no longer war in the classic sense of the term. It’s war on a pandemic. What is it today that allows us to win the fight against climate change – which is also a war because it leads us to the destruction of ecosystems, of biodiversity, of the only planet we have? To win this war, it’s not enough to have an army.
We must have the technological power that allows us to decarbonize our production processes. This power, about which we should be able to talk more, is a much more composite power. It is a more three-dimensional power. It is not a purely military power. It is a technological power, it is a normative power, it is a scientific power, it is also a power of conviction. We also need to be able to manage this complexity of power.
For this reason, the concept of “strategic autonomy,” which has become the capacity for resilience, which is constantly emerging, is an adequate concept. It’s not just about the number of warheads in one’s arsenal. And that is why we, in Europe, need to understand what this new version of power in the 21st century is. We must certainly be able to promote a Europe of defense, where we create and innovate much more in common and build more defense and security in common, but we must also be able to build technological power. Another co-enterprise. And we must also build a greater monetary power, since we have a currency very present on the financial markets, given that we represent more than a quarter of international trade.
It is this version of the power in the 21st century that we must promote from each of our capitals, by building this new European power in technological and monetary areas, but also security and defense.
As for the third point mentioned by Luuk van Middelaar, which is the narrative, the epic, this ability to mobilize a people behind an idea or an ideal; it is the great challenge for Europe to succeed in transforming a narrative based on the past into one anchored in the future. The epic of the past, the epic of Franco-German reconciliation after the Second World War is an epic which speaks much less and which mobilizes much less the citizens of the 21st century, the European of the 21st century who has never known this reality very far from him; the European more concerned about his place in the world of the post-pandemic future.
The pandemic has strengthened support for a social and employment model that protects Europeans, as the latest Eurobarometers indicate. Citizens want the development and the implementation of a social Europe; almost half of those consulted believe that the EU should play an active role in guaranteeing equal opportunities, access to the labor market, working conditions guaranteeing a decent life, as well as quality health care – which still reflects the damage caused by the pandemic. This is the story that must be constructed, that of a Europe that protects.
Interdependence instead of territory, resilience instead of power, and a narrative rooted in the future instead of the past as driving force: this is what we must define to bring about a more geopolitical European Union.
A European Union that must be valued for the way in which it has responded to this crisis. In merely a year and a half, Europe has made a qualitative leap in terms of economic integration, coordinating its response to the crisis – which did not happen in 2008, nor in 2009, nor in 2010, nor in 2011, when integration met brutal resistance. Taboos on fiscal expansion and pooled borrowing, which hampered the recovery a decade ago, have been broken. In 2020, we crossed this Rubicon. And it is a very important Rubicon for the part of the European construction which concerns a greater integration of the members of the European Union in terms of their economies, their finances and their commitment to reforms.
We must also underline the fact that in this short period of a year and a half, Europe has been able to invest massively to invent vaccines from which European citizens benefit massively. With the vaccine, the EU has regained ground. It has positioned itself among a very small group of players with the capacity for innovation, production and distribution of vaccines.
It is also the result of the European Union. I want to underline this, and I want to stress the importance of institutions in Europe. While it is true that leadership is needed, we also need institutions. In reality, it is the institutions that have the reflexes and the mechanics that succeed in translating a series of tools into immediate responses in times of crisis to support and protect citizens. I stress this because sometimes it is true that in view of the functioning of institutional processes, we forget the enormous qualitative leap they represent.
There is no real European strategic autonomy that is not built on alliances. That’s why I don’t like to talk about sovereignty very much. I like to talk about resilience more than anything else, a resilience that is open and built on other links. Because in reality it is about generating a critical mass that allows us to weave a set of standards, agreements and institutions that meet our interests and our values. And we won’t do it if we turn our backs on the world. We will only get there if we can generate real agreements.
We cannot afford a divided world. We need an international community which acts in co-responsibility in the search for solutions to global problems, because individualist struggle is vain in the face of the gravity of the challenges which threaten us, terribly inefficient economically – which we must also foresee – and foreign also in an ideological sense to the ideas of fraternity and solidarity shared by a large majority of people, even if this seems paradoxical.
We are building today the post-pandemic world of tomorrow. Citizens are aware of the generalized crisis in their societies, whether it is an economic crisis or undemocratic tendencies, which are increasingly present in different countries and require coordinated strategies. Europe must respond to these challenges by knowing how to combine growth and environmental sustainability, with objectives commensurate with the risks we face. We must leave a habitable world, ecologically and sanitarily, to future generations. This world must also be able to combine the necessary belonging to the community and respect for the diversity of the citizens who compose it, with particular emphasis on the fight against racism and xenophobia at a time when various crises have increased the migratory flows of those who fleeing wars, conflicts and misery. Reconciliation between technological innovation and professional integration; between the boom in telecommunication and public deliberation. And always with a firm commitment to equality between men and women.
Only a shared effort, which comes from work dynamics capable of integrating new challenges, will be able to undertake the major decisions, investments and innovations required for the well-being of tomorrow. Let’s not get lost.
- Luuk van Middelaar, “Europe’s Geopolitical Awakening”, Le Grand Continent, April 2021. Accessible here: https://geopolitique.eu/en/2021/04/15/europes-geopolitical-awakening/
To cite the article
Arancha Gonzalez Laya, Interdependence, Resilience and Narrative: European Geopolitics of the 21st Century, Dec 2021,
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