Constructive cynicism goes a long way in Asia-Europe relations

Gerald Segal, for Asia Times, 6th June 1997

Asians rightly complain that cynical European observers dwell too much on those parts of Asia where the "glass is half empty" instead of noting the impressive half-full glass. So how does it look if the Asians were to return the favor and cynically assess where Europe stands? Now is a good time for such Asian reflections, as in the coming weeks NATO will agree to terms for its expansion and the European Union will take new steps toward an ever closer union. 

Truly cynical Asians can see Europe as merely a "theme park", combining first class "museums" of old industrial practices, magnificent alpine playgrounds and fine shopping in London, Paris and Rome. They will find an infuriating and fatal European mixture of hubris and self-absorption in talks about how to build an ever-closer European Union. Asians will fume when Europeans lecture them about how to learn from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe about security, the EU about economic cooperation and the European Enlightenment about building a civil society. 

Even moderate Asians will find it easy to regard these Europeans as obsessive and narrow-minded. Consider the contrasts between European and Asian security. What are Asians to think when they see Europeans engaged in intricate and arcane discussions over whether the likes of Slovenia should be incorporated into NATO - an alliance designed to deter invasion by the Soviet Union during the Cold War? 

Don't those Europeans know that the Cold War is over and the Soviet Union is dead? One must feel pity for these once-great managers of far-flung empires who now bumble their way through a crisis in Bosnia. Who are they to lecture us about the risks of conflict in Asia, when war crimes go unpunished in the former Yugoslavia and the guns are not silent in the Caucasus and Ireland? 

To make matters worse, the pathetic state of thinking about European security is nothing compared to the poverty of thinking about economic challenges. How much more out of touch with the challenges of global competitiveness can one get than an EU that haggles about how to deepen its social legislation precisely when it needs to find ways to do the opposite? Should we pity or just deride Europeans who find ever-grander ways to create larger bureaucracies of union instead of freeing their companies to compete and allowing natural economic complementarities to emerge. 

Perhaps the saddest manifestation of Europe's decline is its handling of basic features of civil society. European educational systems are consistently unable to produce a trained work force. As crime, divorce, unemployment and drug addiction rates soar, European societies are crumbling before our eyes. They try to build barriers against migration and suffer the deprivations of multiculturalism gone wild. It is no wonder that these people have lost the will or even the knowledge of how to work hard, save for the future and restrain corrosive individualism. 

If European readers have been wincing through the previous paragraphs, then they have received the message about how differently they are seen by Asians. But if Asians have been nodding in assent they might now pause to reflect again. 

To be sure, Europe, like Asia, has many problems, but nearly all of the ones noted above can be seen in a very different light. Just as the challenges of Asia are of great importance to Europeans, so the challenges of modern Europe matter for Asians. 

Let us reconsider the cynicism about NATO and European security. Of course the Cold War is over - that is why Russia has just signed a framework agreement with NATO and its officials will now sit in NATO headquarters. New members are being brought into NATO not so much because there is perceived to be a problem with European security, but rather because Europeans feel they need to be better organized to contribute to global security. There is a coming revolution in military affairs that requires all developed countries to have strategic defense reviews. 

Unlike many Asians, Europeans see a virtue in supporting United Nations peacekeeping or expelling Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Europeans know that if North Korea threatens South Korea, Europeans are more likely than Southeast Asians to be on the battlefield defending South Korean freedoms. If China should threaten Taiwan or free passage in the South China Sea, it will be troops trained in NATO standards that will defend international order while most East Asians stand idly by. In short, the redefinition of NATO is about how to defend global security - a task that should be as much of interest to Asians as it is to Europeans. 

Let us also reconsider what is happening when Europeans talk about building a closer economic union. The current obsession with creating a single European currency has provided a superb excuse to deliver painful economic medicine to European economies that had grown bloated and incapable of deep reform. 

The reforms that Margaret Thatcher's Britain accomplished over a decade, continental Europeans are attempting in two years. Cutting welfare systems, privatizing services and industries and opening markets to foreign investment are all painful but being achieved. Britain's sharp climb back up the rankings of international competitiveness and the economic success of the Netherlands, Ireland and a raft of Anglo-Saxon economies outside Europe is evidence of how quickly the people of the Atlantic system can meet the challenges of reform. 

Given the scale of the challenges Europeans are facing, it would be surprising if the likes of backward-looking socialists such as in France did not strike a chord with those Europeans who suffer the most in the transition. But compare Lionel Jospin to Tony Blair and one sees that European socialists can learn how to be competitive in a global economy. 

It is also worth reflecting on the past decade of an ever closer European union that has produced a coherence in trade policy. In cooperation with the United States, the EU has set the pace for creating the World Trade Organization and pushing its agenda in telecommunications and the wider services industry. 

Asians benefit when the Atlantic world drives globalization into newer areas, but stand to suffer when a single European currency is created. The recent travails of the Thai baht are a picnic in comparison to what will face Asian central bankers when speculative funds move out of European markets. 

Asians are correct to see France's rejection of Daewoo's bid for Thomson Multimedia as archaic economic chauvinism, but by-and-large, Europeans have far more multinational cross-ownership of major enterprises than Asia or North America. 

Lest this argument slip into yet another European example of Asia-skepticism, Europeans need to recognize that they are far from being free from worries about the future. Without cynical and critical Asians to keep them honestly committed to reform, Europeans may well slip more easily into complacency. 

It is Asian economic competition that ensures Europeans think globally and act competitively. It is the uncertainty about Asian prosperity that might be put at risk by political and military insecurity that keeps Europeans interested in thinking globally about security. Europeans are reconsidering their welfare systems and the values of their civil society in part because they hear Asians trumpet their own supposed model of success. 

The fact that Asians keep Europeans on their toes also helps ensure that Europeans see the need to work more closely together. As European foreign policy grows ever more coordinated (and despite the bumps along the way, it certainly does), Asians are challenged to think about their own regional structure. 

One of the immediate results of the Asia-Europe Summit Meeting (ASEM) process is that a Europe that speaks as a region is forcing Asians to find their own collective voice. The ad-hoc Asian arrangement of one Northeast Asian and one Southeast Asian coordinator in the ASEM dialogue with the EU may not be sustained in the long term as Chinese power grows, but the reality remains that Europeans have done more to empower an Asian voice in world affairs than anything done in the trans-Pacific dialogue. 

It is Europeans, not Americans, who will help Asians gain greater international status and power. Without Europeans to beat back the US tendency to unilateralism, as exhibited in the Helms-Burton act, Asians would be left at the mercy of a mercurial US. Clearly there is a great deal that constructively cynical Europeans and Asians can do to enhance each other's roles in the world.