This edition of the Green European Journal heads to the press in the days following COP26 in Glasgow. COPs expose both the divides and the diversity of global politics [Eckersley]. Small island states most vulnerable to climate impacts vie against rich nations whose power could not have been built without fossil fuels. Far from just a matter for nation-states, scientific assessments frame the conference, protestors set the mood music, and corporate lobbyists influence where they can. Even the structure of the conferences reflects the contrast between the reality of geopolitics and the promise of global governance, with an inner sanctum of actors allowed to speak and a much larger group left excluded.
Disappointment at Glasgow was prefigured by the ongoing experience of Covid-19. Like the climate crisis, the pandemic calls for international solidarity and cooperation. However, since its outbreak, it has been experienced as a geopolitical affair [Bialasiewicz]. Countries asserted control over territory and population in an attempt to contain and quash the virus. Soon afterwards, as disputes erupted over medical supplies, a geopolitical understanding of the virus began to emerge: the pandemic not as the result of an interdependent globalised society resting on a dangerously depleted natural world but as yet another front for competition between powers.
How is it that two global problems have been subsumed into an all- encompassing geopolitical game? They are not alone. As state-sponsored misinformation campaigns and the fate of refugees weaponised between borders depressingly show, issues from technology and media freedom [Geese and Schaake] to the right to asylum end up understood on the same terms. Clashing with once-dominant liberal understandings of the economy, concepts such as “geoeconomics” are reshaping debates on international trade and economic policy.
Underlying this shift is the decline of US hegemony, the rise of China [Kefferpütz], and the arrival of a multipolar world. Between the two superpowers lie economic competition, military rivalry, and ideology. While the confrontation in the Indo-Pacific region may resemble 19th-century gunboat diplomacy [Lieven], the tensions are intertwined with the realities of security today: digital technology, biosecurity, and the green transition.
Geopolitical uncertainty circles back to, and, in turn, interacts with the climate problem. Whether in the gas fields of central Asia [Armando] or the pipelines of eastern Europe [Laffitte], energy is a source of power in all senses of the word. To the extent that a “liberal international order” ever existed – for the benign notion obscures the brutal global history of the late 20th century [Bennett] – it depended on access to cheap and abundant energy. As the energy system changes, the international system changes with it.
This new picture is forcing a worldwide debate about independence and self-reliance in the context of globalisation. Much more than a narrow foreign policy matter, the consequences of the pandemic, the energy transition, and the climate crisis show how geopolitics determine the security, safety, and quality of lives everywhere. In Europe, the European institutions have seized upon proposals, spearheaded by France but that resonate much more broadly, for a more “autonomous” or even “sovereign” European Union. A progressive version of such a shift could bring a necessary correction to a form of globalisation that has stretched too far for people and planet. However, isolationism also risks undermining global solidarity and discussions of European sovereignty often overlook questions of democratic and social legitimacy [Akgüc].
This geopolitical moment has thrust many green proposals into the mainstream. From state support for expanding renewable energy production to reshoring certain critical industries, green economic policies would make Europe more secure and less dependent on other parts of the world, including on rival powers. For a Europe divided on defence policy, a more holistic understanding of security that spans environmental security, human rights and democracy, and digital rights and cybersecurity provides a better starting point for a response to the complexities of 21st-century geopolitics [Haavisto]. Opposition to authoritarian regimes also reflects how repression, censorship, and unfreedom anywhere ultimately undermine the integrity of freedom and democracy in Europe too [Ashdown].
The lack of international progress on climate action points to the need for a geopolitical approach that puts climate and ecology at the centre of European foreign policy. The European Green Deal, if truly realised as a project for social and industrial transformation, can be a tool to carry and drag other regions along in the green transition [Schmid]. Cajoling states around the world to bring forward climate action will require both leadership by example as well as trickier, more transactional endeavours [Newell]. In a world where, from the Amazon rainforest to the deserts of Western Sahara, green issues can be mapped onto the fault lines of domestic and international politics, such an approach is long overdue [Awuapila, Dias Da Mota Junior, Marcellesi, Momčilović, and Turan].
Adopting a geopolitical lens is not without its dangers. A world perceived to be full of threats and tensions tends towards walls and conflicts [Dalby] and different agendas compete and overlap in the debate over Europe’s geopolitical future. Autonomy and security are also used to argue for hard borders and an energy transition that does little more than redraw the frontiers of extraction [Diaz and Cabaña]. Faced with global issues of a scale that means “no one can lose, or everyone loses”, Europe cannot fence itself off from the world’s problems [Robinson].
As Europe slowly defines its geopolitical stance, green politics can make an essential progressive contribution to the debate. The Greens’ economic vision promises a more autonomous, sustainable, and just Europe and their broader worldview both integrates a global justice perspective while recognising that Europe should be prepared to wield its power and influence. As geopolitics is about who can do what where, about power and its limits, this lens might not always come naturally for green politics. But questions of energy, socio-economic model, and democracy and human rights are inseparable from geopolitics today. Far from clichés about peace, love, and harmony, the Greens have built, through values and experience, a coherent and credible geopolitical vision based on the world as it is [Neumann]. Rooted in principles of justice, it runs through overcoming division to deepen European cooperation, reconnecting societies with the materiality of the planet, and tempering the worst aspects of globalisation. The task at hand is to make it a reality.
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions