Friday, January 07, 2005

Europe, the minor global player

Not my headline – this one was taken from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and I really could not put it better. In today’s editorial it writes:

Europe is not painting a very convincing picture of itself in the days that have followed the devastating tsunamis on Dec. 26. The compassion is certainly there, reflected in the mountains of donations made by the public and governments.

But that has not helped the victims in the Asian coastal regions one bit so far. They are receiving their first foreign relief from others: the Australians, the Indians and, particularly, the Americans.

That also has something to do with distances and capabilities. Hercules transport planes that take off from Sydney or Singapore land in Sumatra, Indonesia's largest island, faster than airplanes from Europe. The same applies to ships. And the governments and military staff in the region are much better networked than their partners in far away Europe.

For a while, such arguments may have been worth repeating. But, 12 days after the tsunamis hit, they have lost their power of persuasion. In places where German lives were endangered, Berlin was quick to react. But its commitment in the most devastated area, in Indonesia, was strikingly meager. When the week began, the federal government finally announced that a crisis-reaction team's medical service would send an advance party to Indonesia. The supply ship Berlin has set sail as well - but it will not reach the coast of Sumatra until the beginning of next week at the earliest.

While U.S. service members were busy dropping supplies over Indonesia and Australian doctors were treating people immediately after the disaster, the Europeans were debating - or, even worse, looking for a date to debate on. The French health minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, finally said Europe was acting badly.

That is a telling comment. One widely known fact of European life is that its well-intentioned fixation on concerted action - preferably in tandem with the United Nations - does not always produce quick and consensual results. But now Europe is revealing a weakness where it always considered itself to have a strength: in humanitarian aid.

The unexpected slip raises questions. The guiding idea of the union's foundation was to create a region of cooperation and stability after two devastating world wars. This idea has paid off in many ways. But it also produced a rejection of geo-strategic ambitions and a provincial - from today's point of view - focus on its own region. Instead of conducting politics independently, multilateralism was chosen.

Instead of defining European interests in a shrinking world, a commitment was made to do good everywhere. The price - the inability to steer global politics anymore - was accepted as long as one was respected as a generous helper. This world view has now become blurred.

Europe lacks the strength, the presence and the matériel to make a major logistical contribution to the greatest international relief mission of all times. Efficient aid is not given by the nice, but by the strong.

The kick-off for the large scale operation was not made in Brussels or Berlin, but in Washington. President George W. Bush announced that the ”core group” of the relief mission consisted of the United States, India, Japan and Australia - Europe was not on the list. Shortly afterward, 6,000 U.S. service members reached the coast of Aceh in Indonesia. By that time, India had already sent warships to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and Australia had ordered aircraft to Sumatra.

By Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was flying over the crisis area in Aceh and promising an additional 44 helicopters. The EU commissioner for development and humanitarian aid, Louis Michel, was there, too. But he could only announce that money would arrive at some point.

This will not be the last time that Europe experiences a creeping loss of significance. The restraints it put on itself for reasons that once made sense have evolved into a form of self-righteousness that is blind to external changes. Outside the Old World, the European example is still lauded in Sunday political sermons. But during the week, the laws of balance and power are back in force as they have been for a long time. Respect and a free hand are earned by those who can make quick decisions and have the resources to carry them out.

Asia looks like a massive disaster area today. But it will triumph in the long run as a winner of globalization. Leaders in the area are learning day by day that the former colonial powers are losing ground. When this great natural disaster can be mastered almost without help from the Europeans, then they will be dispensable in other areas as well.
And, as they say, you won't get that on the BBC.

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