Most analysts of world politics would agree that the prevailing unipolar global order will give way to a multipolar, or a polycentric order by mid-century. The first challenge to the United States of America's current primacy is expected to come from an ascendant China; while Russia, the European Union, Japan and India are seen as other potential superpowers.
Among these possible superpowers, only the European Union already possesses an economic base equal to that of the US. The total population of the 25 countries constituting the European Union (EU-25) is 450 million, compared to the US's 300 million. The total gross domestic product of the EU-25 (calculated on the basis of purchasing power parity) amounted to $11,720 billion in 2004, slightly larger than the US's $11,190 billion. The EU's foreign trade is roughly equal in volume to that of the US. In global finance, the US dollar is still the world's preferred reserve currency but the euro is steadily gaining ground. In the World Trade Organization the EU plays as important a role as the US, and in the International Monetary Fund it is a close second.
Yet, the political and military role of the EU today is not even remotely comparable to that of the US. The explanation lies in the unique character of the EU. Alone among the potential superpowers, it is not a sovereign state. Sovereignty continues to reside in its member states; these have pooled their sovereignty ' as it were ' only in certain specified spheres. Thus, in trade matters, the EU adopts decisions on the basis of a weighted majority vote, functioning rather like a federal state. In contrast, on political and security issues, its decisions require a consensus among the member states. In these areas, it functions like a regional organization, not a sovereign state. It seeks to identify common elements in the national, foreign and security policies of its member states and to blend these into a policy acceptable to all its constituent members.
In EU parlance, the union has a 'single' policy in the sphere of trade and a 'common' policy in respect of foreign affairs and defence. There is a world of difference between the two. 'Single policy' decisions, adopted by a weighted majority vote, cover all issues of international trade and are binding upon all EU members, including those casting a negative vote. On the other hand, 'common foreign and security policy' decisions can only cover issues on which a consensus exists among EU members. Quite frequently, a consensus can be found only by couching decisions in general or non-specific terms. As we noted earlier, the EU functions rather like a federal state in trade-related issues and like a regional organization in political and security issues.
This asymmetry in the nature of the EU is reflected in the global balance of power. If one looks only at the economic dimension of the global power balance, the EU is an equal of the US. In the exclusively economic domain, where the EU increasingly acts like a federal union, the world is not unipolar. But when we look at the political and military dimension of power, where the EU functions not as a single entity but as a regional association of sovereign states, the picture is very different. On a comprehensive view, the US is today the only superpower.
The EU can become a superpower only if it evolves into some sort of a federal union. Europeans are deeply divided, however, on the question of pooling sovereignty in the core political areas of foreign affairs and defence. The great debate in the continent is between the champions of a Federal Europe and the defenders of a Europe of Nations.
The former see a united Europe emerging either as a rival of the US in a 'multipolar' world, or as an equal partner in the Atlantic Alliance. The latter prefer to preserve the distinct national identities and historical sovereignties of their own countries. Moreover, many Europeans are apprehensive that France and Germany might dominate a Federal Europe. Europe has overcome old animosities but has not yet forgotten old rivalries.
Many Europeans are prepared to accept American primacy in the continent as the price for insuring against possible domination by a Franco-German axis. In the words of a leading Polish journalist: 'We can't put up with a EU in which France and Germany have the last say. And we don't want an anti-American EU.' The advocates of a Europe of Nations are prepared to take measured steps towards further integration but they reject the goal of federation.
In the event, Europe has followed a one-step-at-a-time approach towards greater integration, without attempting to define its final goal. In 1992, when the European Community evolved into the European Union, it decided to formulate a common foreign and security policy, 'including the eventual framing of a common defence policy which might in time lead to a common defence'. In 1997, the EU took another step forward by creating the post of an EU high representative for CFSP. It also decided to bring peacekeeping and peace-making tasks under the purview of the CFSP, thus opening the door to a limited military role for the EU. Two years later, the EU decided to develop an 'autonomous' military capability, in order to respond to international crises.
This step was, however, less ambitious than might appear at first sight. It did not contemplate the creation of an EU army. The EU military capability is composed of national contingents earmarked for the EU by member states. Second, only limited military tasks ' related mainly to peacekeeping and peace-making ' were envisaged. The core area of territorial defence remains a Nato responsibility. Finally, at the insistence of the US, the 'autonomous' EU military capability has been effectively brought within the Nato framework. An EU military initiative must first be discussed in Nato and may be undertaken only with the approval of the alliance. The EU is, moreover, dependent on the use of certain vital Nato planning and military assets, which it has undertaken not to 'duplicate'. In short, the EU can exercise its so-called 'autonomous' military capability only with Nato ' and, therefore, US ' approval. Since 1992, the EU has gradually developed a CFSP covering such fields as international terrorism, organized crime, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and human rights. It holds regular summit meetings with the US, Canada, Russia, Japan, China and India. It is currently playing a leading role in the Iran issue at the IAEA. EU peacekeeping forces have successfully taken on challenging roles in the Balkans and Africa.
Yet, the EU's political role is subject to many limitations. The EU can act only on issues in which its members have identical, or very similar, positions. This limits both the range and depth of its CFSP. Its so-called 'autonomous' defence capability is, in effect, subject to an American veto. Territorial defence is, in any case, reserved for Nato. Not surprisingly, leading member states ' France, Germany and Britain ' play a bigger role in international political and security issues than the EU itself. It might be said of the EU that the whole is smaller than some of its parts.
The EU is 'work in progress'. It is possible, though not certain, that its continued evolution may eventually lead to a Federal Europe capable of playing the role of a superpower. Many Europeans hope for such an outcome; many others oppose it. The emergence of the EU as a superpower is at best a distant prospect.