When, in the second half of the 19th century, Otto von Bismarck dreamed of an economic empire stretching from western Europe to the eastern Mediterranean, he surveyed a world in which great powers flexed their muscles in something like concentric circles of diminishing influence. It was an age of empire and regional rivalries, in which the further you got from these powers’ capitals, the less you felt of their force.
The second half of the 20th century followed a different model. Empires collapsed, leaving dictators, blood and geographic scars everywhere – and just two main superpowers with competing ideologies: the US and the Soviet Union. Though there were countless smaller conflicts, the governing pattern of world affairs was geopolitical bipolarity.
It’s early days in this, the 21st century, and the challenges facing policymakers are diverse, from Islamist terrorism to energy security. It seems clear to me, however, that we are returning to something like the pattern Bismarck faced. You see it, for instance, in the terrifying stand-off between China and Japan over a few islands in the East China Sea; in EU expansion to include the Balkans; in Russia’s brazen annexation of Crimea. And I think it also helps to understand what is happening to Greece.
This week, the crisis talks between Greece and the rest of the eurozone failed – again. The rhetoric was hotter than ever, with the Greeks accusing the IMF of “criminal irresponsibility” and Chancellor Angela Merkel – who has come close to realising Bismarck’s dream – returning the anger with interest. There is a real chance of Greece becoming bankrupt, leaving the euro, and causing an almighty continental crash.
And who should Alexis Tsipras, the embattled Greek Prime Minister, be cavorting with this weekend? That’s right, President Vladimir Putin, a nationalist who regrets the collapse of the Soviet Union and wants to extend the reach of Moscow if he can.
If you have two minutes this weekend, you might get a compass and a map of Europe. Draw concentric circles around Berlin – the real seat of European power, rather than Brussels – until one of them touches Athens. Now do the same around Moscow. What do you notice? Yes, Athens is closer to Berlin than Moscow. But what you’ve drawn is a handy starter kit for international relations in our time. It conveys the expansionary ambitions of both the EU and Moscow – and shows that eventually they collide.
I haven’t always found it easy to follow the Greek crisis. But this week it struck me that we might be about to not only experience a full-blown economic crisis in Europe, but lose the country that gave us democracy to a resurgent and expansionary Russia with little regard for the concept.Reuse content